Harry von Bommel—Earning “bread and butter” money in the Canada 150 project (Editing Goes Global, 2015)

In 2017, Canada will celebrate 150 years since confederation. In anticipation of this milestone, prolific author and personal historian Harry van Bommel founded the Canada 150 project, “the largest history-gathering project ever” to help Canadians record their memoirs and community histories for future generations. Also called Our Canada, Our Stories / Notre Canada, Nos Histoires, the project consists of a website that serves as a central portal through which Canadians can leave their legacy and also read the histories of others, made freely available through a Creative Commons licence.

Van Bommel encourages people to submit

  • personal stories
  • family stories and genealogies
  • neighbourhood and group histories (of a faith community, arts organization, sports league, etc.)
  • corporate histories

Many groups have already begun collecting stories, including the Federated Women’s Institutes of Ontario and the Canadian Science and Technology Museum.

Short stories, with or without photos, can be in English or French. Beginning in 2016, you’ll also be able to upload self-published or one-of-a-kind ebooks and scanned collections of letters, diaries, journals, photos, films, and scrapbooks. Van Bommel urges people to provide full captions and descriptions if they can, though van Bommel acknowledges that “a lot of that stuff will be lost.” Boomers and younger Canadians don’t have as much written history, because much of their communication was done by phone. Already-published books, films, songs, plays, websites, and multimedia can be submitted to Library and Archives Canada to be included in the Canada 150 series.

One of the books already in the collection is Finding My Voice, written by Donald Smith, with the help of Jane Field. Smith had severe cerebral palsy, and when his mother died when he was 40, his sister moved him from Prince Edward Island to Toronto to live with her. Using a special device and just his thumb, Smith wrote his story, which revealed how he truly felt about his disability, his mother, and his move to Toronto, which he previously had never been able to express. Through Canada 150 we’ll learn a lot about ourselves and other Canadians, and van Bommel hopes that the project will “enhance Canadian unity through a sense of national pride.”

When van Bommel launched Canada 150 in 1997, he anticipated that the project would generate business for writers, editors, documentarians, and videographers. Although some people will want to tell their stories on their own, others will need professional help. The key is to spread the word about the project and get people excited about telling their stories. “The hardest thing is to convince people their story is worth telling,” said van Bommel. “Many people couldn’t care less about someone else’s story but are fascinated by their own as long as someone else is interested in hearing it.” If you’d enjoy this kind personal history work, find opportunities to encourage people to talk about themselves. “If you have a dog, you will be stopped in your neighbourhood at some point,” said van Bommel. “Those are the people who will tell you stories. Your immediate response should be, ‘You should record that.’”

“You will become quite a pest,” he added, to laughter.

Clients will take you more seriously if you have posted your own story. Your contribution will also serve as a sample to show them what you’d be able to do for them.

Rather than sending people to the Canada 150 site, try to sit down with them and show it to them in person to get them engaged. Van Bommel audio-records clients or types up their stories as they tell them, and some of the Boomers who have hired him to record the histories of their parents appreciate that his regular visits keep their aging parents active and engaged. Another strategy that saves you transcription work is to do email interviews. The respondent types up their own responses, and all you have to do is put it together and edit. To give the story structure, start with a table of contents. “A lot of people do stream of consciousness writing, which is lovely, but it’s a hard read,” said van Bommel. Assign a main theme, event, or time period to each chapter.

Van Bommel gives clients complete editorial control, and he acknowledges that thorough fact checking is almost impossible. Major world events can be fact checked, of course, but not so much details that arise out of memories and anecdotes. If someone objects to the content of a story, encourage them to correct what they perceive as errors by writing their own stories. That said, don’t recreate feuds or force people to relive painful memories, advised van Bommel. “Those may seem interesting, but they’re not. What’s most important is what people did to overcome adversity.”

To market yourself, van Bommel suggests adding keywords such as Canada 150, ghostwriter, family history, community history, and storytelling to your website or online profiles. If you expect to be doing a lot of personal history work, van Bommel suggests getting marketing materials like brochures printed, because some people still prefer to get their information through printed documents. Try to find out how you might work collaboratively with your local library and community groups. Van Bommel uses a three-tiered fee scale to accommodate clients of all incomes.

Van Bommel has made an ebook about how to record people’s stories available for free. He sees this work as important for our country’s legacy, and he quoted a Dutch expression (which you may find helpful to use with potential clients): “Those who record exist forever.” He regrets that although Canadians did a lot of this kind of personal storytelling for the country’s centennial, none of it was preserved. There is no contribution too small: “Anything they do is more than what they would have done,” he said.


Van Bommel’s project seems perfect for members of the Association of Personal Historians. I’m not a member, but anyone who is may want to make their colleagues aware of Canada 150. I was particularly interested in van Bommel’s talk because I’ve been recording my parents’ personal histories since the beginning of this year and have been doing some micro-volunteering for museums and archives that are crowd-sourcing transcription of items in their collections that can’t be easily sent through optical character recognition (OCR) software. Transcribing old letters and journals has been a fascinating way to engage with history, and I’ve brought the Royal BC Museum’s Transcribe project to van Bommel’s attention in case he wants to do the same with Our Canada, Our Stories / Notre Canada, Nos Histories.

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