Interview with Brent Scollie

photo of Brent Scollie

Brent Scollie, a graduate of Fort William Collegiate Institute, Queen’s University and the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Library Science, retired from the federal public service in 1997. His insights on the Victorian era in Thunder Bay are derived from many years of research. This has resulted in numerous publications about the period mostly focussed on Thunder Bay and Northwestern Ontario. He is the author of Thunder Bay Mayors and Councillors, 1873-1945; Biographical Dictionary and History of Victorian Thunder Bay (1850-1901); several biographies in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography and numerous articles in the Thunder Bay Historical Museum Society’s Papers & Records.

Shauna Kosoris: In university, you graduated from library science. Did you study history at university as well?

Brent Scollie: I did not. I concluded that I was too lazy to research and write papers for both History and English. I loved the French language and chose to study English and French literature at Queen’s University. But we were required to take a World History course in first year, and I ended up sharing the first year history prize with George Raudzens. Subsequently, after graduation in 1962, I taught English and French at Selkirk High School and the Fort William Collegiate Institute, latterly as head of the French department.

What then attracted you to writing historical biographies?

Many factors, but I can partly thank the Fort William Public Library, now the Brodie Street library, for its biography collection. Two history teachers at the Fort William Collegiate Institute sparked my interest in history – Mrs. May Gemmell McKay in Grade 11, and Dr. Elizabeth Arthur in Grades 12-13. I remember being blown away by Mrs McKay reciting by memory lines from Pericles’s funeral oration as recorded in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. She was a classics graduate of Queen’s University. Dr. Arthur brought to life all the great figures of nineteenth century Europe – Bismarck, Napoleon III, Cavour, Pius IX, Franz Joseph – the drive to unify Italy and create the German Reich. In the 1950s the public library still had most of the history books that Mary J.L. Black had purchased, and I devoured biography after biography, mainly royal biographies of the Romanovs, the Hohenzollerns, and Queen Victoria’s numerous progeny. Also books on the early origin of Christianity and the Oxford Movement. People, it seemed to me, were the drivers of history. 

Why do you specifically focus on the Victorian era?

I love the nineteenth century, its history, its poetry, its novels, its struggle to reconcile religion with science, its thirst for progress. I recall being very impressed by Dr. Elizabeth Arthur’s documentary history Thunder Bay District 1821-1892 that appeared in 1973. In 1977, the late Roy Piovesana succeeded Dr. Elizabeth Arthur as editor of the historical society’s Papers and Records. He asked me to assist him with editing the papers, and I made my first modest contribution that year. I did not consider myself in any way to be a historian. I began to do serious research in the old Port Arthur newspapers, the Sentinel and Herald, and entered a forgotten world which deserved to be brought back to life. In many ways, historical fiction is the best vehicle for doing that, but my strong point is researching and assessing historical documents to get as close to the truth as possible. At some point, Dr. Tronrud at the museum suggested me as an author for the Dictionary of Canadian Biography. My first biographies were men of the Victorian period, James Conmee, Joseph Goodwin King, George Thomas Marks. The editors at the University of Toronto are very demanding, and I soon learned how to craft a biography that meets their standards. 

How did your two books, Thunder Bay Mayors and Councillors, 1873-1945, and your more recent Biographical Dictionary and History of Victorian Thunder Bay (1850-1901), come about?

They were never planned. Before computers, I created index cards for people in the course of my research for articles and biographies, and before long, I had hundreds. To turn these cards into short or long biographies requires years of work. Once I retired from the federal public service in 1997, I had the time to improve them and fill in gaps. The advent of computers and the internet made this task so much easier. Between 2000 and 2020, the ease of research increased enormously because of the digitization of whole books and newspapers, and of genealogical sources like Ancestry and Familysearch. As for the Thunder Bay Mayors and Councillors book, I grew up in Fort William knowing of figures like Hubert Badanai and John Booth, but I did not know the Port Arthur councillors, and I became determined to make them better known.

There is a very limited market for biographical dictionaries, particularly of only one city or region. So, financing becomes crucial. In 2000 the city of Thunder Bay was prepared to contribute towards publishing the mayors and councillors book, so that accelerated the process. You may have noticed how much more appealing in its design and illustration the Biographical Dictionary and History of Victorian Thunder Bay is than the 2000 Thunder Bay Mayors and Councillors book. That is due to technological progress and the design skills of Dr. Tory Tronrud.

Who were the most interesting people you researched in your most recent book?

Chief J.B. Penassie of the Fort William First Nation who handled negotiations when the Dept. of Indian Affairs appropriated the land where the Jesuit mission stood and gave it to the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway. Alan Wade subsequently told me about the Smithsonian Museum publication Ojibwa Texts (1917) where Penassie, whose Ojibwa name was “Kagige pinasi” (Forever-Bird), of the Bull-head totem, was one of five contributors of these Ojibwa texts. Other interesting people were the Powley sisters of Port Arthur, and the Afro-Canadian from Virginia “Doc” Charles Baker. I would like to learn more about them.

Thunder Bay has some unique geography: as well as being an isolated city, it’s also rather spread out with multiple commercial areas. Has this geography had an impact on the people who historically settled here, or vice versa? 

Probably the geography has changed the settlers more than the settlers have changed the geography. The decisions of governments and corporations like the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Canadian Pacific Railway shaped where European and Anishnaabe settlement occurred – Westfort, in particular, has its origins in the failure of the Province of Canada to arrive at an agreement with the Hudson’s Bay Company in the 1850s. Simon Dawson and Lindsay Russell preferred to start the federal government’s road west from what became Prince Arthur’s Landing.

There was always an indigenous and mixed-race presence around the North-West Company fort from its establishment, but that population was also nomadic, hunting and fishing where the resources were to be found, be it inland or along the north shore of Lake Superior. The Fort William First Nation has been located where it is since the Robinson Superior Treaty of 1850 and the establishment of a mission by the Jesuits there the year before. Until recently, the importance to the history of Thunder Bay of indigenous and mixed-race people has been neglected.

But there was a swampy low-lying area between Port Arthur and Fort William that discouraged the towns’ growing together. Prior to amalgamation in 1970, when the cities were growing rapidly, Inter-city, as it was called, took off. Until then the two cities were compact and had not yet sprawled. Once the sprawl began, the two downtowns were doomed. Intercity killed the commercial downtowns, and much residential development took place in the former townships of Neebing and McIntyre, rather than within the historic limits of the two cities. When I left Fort William in 1973, both downtowns were intact with a variety of businesses and services.

But, it seems that many people of today are not seeking urban compactness, but the space of semi-rural living, so geography has triumphed. This, however, makes the provision of city services very expensive.

Finally, was there a book or author that inspired you to write?

Dr. Elizabeth Arthur, and later Elinor Barr whose books on Silver Islet and the Port Arthur, Duluth and Western Railway are beautifully written and researched.

cover of Biographical Dictionary and History of Victorian Thunder Bay (1850-1901)

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