A Field Trip Along Canada’s Literary Trail


Fieldtrips—excitement for your students, but for you as a teacher, these trips can mean headaches: collecting money and parental permission forms, ordering buses, and worrying about losing a student. I have another idea.

Bookmark for The Cat and the Wizard by Dennis Lee

Your only preparation is to make sure your students have access to the Internet. With the click of a mouse they can discover Canada’s literary trail (projectbookmarkcanada.ca). On their virtual field trip, they will visit the exact Canadian settings that writers imagined as they wrote a poem or a work of fiction. These locations are marked with physical Bookmarks—plaques with passages from these poems and works of fiction.

Over a decade ago, writer Miranda Hill came up with the idea of a literary trail. Her idea was that travellers (or locals) encountering the plaques would step right into the stories, experiencing the authors’ visions and the real locales simultaneously. She imagined that someday we would be able to read our way across Canada.

On this trip, your students will step into Canadian stories from Newfoundland to British Columbia, but this will be a virtual trip. They do not have to stick together; they can have “free rein” exploring the trail wherever they want.

Some may stop at the first Bookmark. Located on the Bloor Street Viaduct in Toronto, it has an excerpt from Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion. At this stop, they can hear the author reading the dramatic excerpt: “Then there was no longer any fear on the bridge. The worst, the incredible had happened. A nun had fallen off the Prince Edward Viaduct before it was even finished…” Students can even listen to an interview with Ondaatje.

Others may head to Halifax to visit the Barometer Rising Bookmark. At the top of Citadel Hill, they will be with character Dr. Angus Murray as he looks over Halifax and the harbour the day after the great explosion. Writer Hugh McLennan was a ten-year-old boy when that explosion occurred in 1917; his Bookmark commemorates the 100th anniversary of that event. Students may wander “off the trail” to learn more about the largest man-made disaster before Hiroshima.

Bookmark for The Jade Peony by Wayson Choy

Those heading west will find a Bookmark with a passage from Wayson Choy’s The Jade Peony in Vancouver’s Chinatown. Reading this excerpt, either in English or Mandarin, your students will be with twelve-year-old Jung, one of the children of an immigrant Chinese family living there in the 30s and 40s. Jung has just handed his coat to tailor Gee Sook who puts it onto a massive steam-pressing machine. The pressing done, Sook drapes the coat over Jung who feels a transformation: “I felt intense heat embrace my shoulders… I felt like a young warrior receiving the gift of his bright armour, a steely-grey coat born from fire and steam.”

On a virtual trip, students can visit the trail at their own pace. Some may linger at one spot as they become immersed in the background of a novel. The story behind Merilyn Simonds’ novel The Convict Lover will fascinate them. In 1987, she found a cache of letters, albums, and clippings in the attic of her house in Kingston, Ontario. Among these was a collection of letters written by a prisoner in the Kingston Penitentiary to a young girl who lived near the prison quarry where convicts did hard labour. From this correspondence, Simonds imagined her novel about the real convict, Joe Cleroux, and the real girl, Phyllis Halliday.

Bookmark for The Convict Lover by Merilyn Simonds

Students can watch a short film in which Simonds’ teenage granddaughter, filmmaker Astrid Mohr, captured the unveiling of the Bookmark for her grandmother’s novel. youtube.com/watch?v=KhG5kyNUZZY.

Students discovering the Bookmark on Hamilton’s waterfront will learn another backstory. When writer Rachael Preston was walking this trail, she noticed a plaque commemorating the city’s lost boathouse community. In her research, Preston learned that a shantytown existed there in the 1920s and 1930s. Wanting to beautify Hamilton, city councillors voted to abolish this community. No trace of the community remains, but Preston makes this lost community come alive in The Fishers of Paradise, her novel about the fictional Fisher family living there.

Be prepared. Inevitably one student will shout out, “There are no Bookmarks in our part of Canada.” You might encourage students to find out what literature has a local setting. Their search could involve the school and community librarians.

If your class is inspired to blaze the literary trail in their part of Canada, they could form a reading circle to make Bookmark suggestions. This could be a class, school or community circle, either local or online.

I can imagine a cross-Canada youth reading circle with members deciding which children’s books should be bookmarked. So far, only one children’s book has a Bookmark— Dennis Lee’s The Cat and the Wizard.

Selecting a passage, your students will use critical thinking skills. The excerpt from fiction or poetry (up to 500 words) must meet certain criteria. It must be set in an actual and identified location. Is this criteria met by the words your students have chosen? Does the passage make the reader wonder what came before and what comes next? Will the passage make people want to read the whole book? Once a suggestion for a Bookmark is made, students fill out the form on the Project Bookmark website. This experience will foster an interest in Canadian Literature. Your students might even select one of the “Bookmarked” works as a topic for a class assignment.

Although you will avoid the usual problems on this virtual trip, you might lose a student or two. Maybe your daydreamers will get lost in thought, imagining ideas for their own poems, short stories or novels.

Decades later, one of your daydreamers is present at the unveiling of a Bookmark inscribed with their own writing. During the ceremony, this student recognizes you in the audience and remarks, “I would like to thank my teacher who, decades ago, took my class on a virtual field trip along Canada’s Bookmark Trail. Because of that teacher, my writing is now part of Canada’s literary trail.”


Hughena Matheson
Hughena Matheson, OCT, is President of the Board of Directors of Project Bookmark Canada. She is a retired high school English teacher who does occasional teaching for the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board in Ontario. She was presented with a Prime Minister’s Award for Teaching Excellence (Certificate of Achievement) for 2001- 2002. Hughena has worked for Rubicon Publishing where she edited several books in “The 10” series and wrote two in the same series, The 10 Greatest Canadian Political Leaders and The 10 Most Influential Speeches in World History. She also has written many opinion pieces for The Hamilton Spectator.

This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Winter 2020 issue.

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