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Studying the Historical Context of Contemporary Canadian Issues

Find Background Information on Your Topic

If you are unsure of where to begin in identifying historical events that will help you contextualize the current issue you have chosen to study, consulting a tertiary or background source early on in your study may be helpful in identifying key events, dates, people and organizations. 

Recommended background sources for Canadian history:

*Note that these are tertiary sources, which can be useful launchpads to your research, though they are not peer-reviewed or based on original research.

Types of Primary Sources

Primary sources are texts or other artefacts created at the time a historical event occurred, by people or groups who participated in or observed the event. They can take many, many forms, including the following:

Hands On ⇒ Now think about your own essay topic - what sorts of primary sources might be relevant and helpful to your topic? If you have already identified some specific primary sources, what are they?

Take a minute to share you responses in this Jamboard.

Finding Primary Sources - Some Starting Points

Start with a relevant secondary source

Skim articles & book chapters for primary source leads: Examine the footnotes/references for titles of specific primary sources. Look carefully at the text for names of individual and organizations who are likely to have produced relevant primary sources. 

Example article: Public Vaccination in Lower Canada, 1815-1823.:

Once you have some leads, search for them using the following tools:

News media
  • Historical newspapers: Access to numerous historical newspapers, including some dating back to the mid-19th century (Toronto Star, Globe and Mail) and earlier.
  • Canadian Newsstream - Contemporary Canadian news outlets, includes weekly and major daily papers e.g., the Globe & Mail.
  • MRU LibrarySearch Newspapers: Searches major Canadian and Alberta dailies papers. 
Government Information & Legal Sources
Early Canadian Sources
  • ​Canadiana Online: Includes early government documents/legislation, some early newspapers, religious tracts and special interest group publications of various kinds. Best for topics up to the early 20th century. 

Other Primary Sources
  • For a more exhaustive list of Canadian historical primary source collections, visit the Primary Sources for Canadian History tab of this research guide. 

  • LibrarySearch: Add the term sources to other relevant search terms to find historical primary sources available via the MRU Library.
  • Google: Add "primary sources" or "primary documents" to a Google search.


⇒ Search Tip for Finding Primary Sources
  • When searching WITHIN electronic primary source collections (e.g., inside a newspaper database, inside Canadiana Online etc.), use terminology common to the historical period you are researching, rather than the modern terms. E.g “Great War” versus "World War I," or  “Dominion Day” versus “Canada Day.” This is particularly relevant when looking for sources relating to racialized groups.

Finding Secondary Sources for Canadian Studies

Your secondary sources should be scholarly in nature, written by academics for other academics, based on research with ample references/footnotes, and published by an academic press (so in a peer reviewed journal, or in a book published by an academic publisher/university press). 

Databases for Canadian Studies
  • MRU LibrarySearch - Use the side panels and advanced search to improve results. Log in to "pin" or save titles of interest to a Favourites list.
  • America History & Life - Excellent resources for Canadian history articles. Start with simple searches, use side panels and advanced search as needed to narrow results. 
  • CPIQ: Canadian academic journals, magazines and newspapers. Assess carefully for scholary vs. non-scholarly, and secondary vs. primary sources when using this database.
  • Canadian Business and Current Affairs Complete: Includes a broad range of Canadian publications (scholarly and non-scholarly) covering a wide range of topics.. 

Try searching inside a Canadian Studies journal

Follow the Citation Trail to Related Sources
  • Follow the citation trail backward:
    Examine the references of relevant books and articles you have in hand, note relevant titles cited there and check to see if MRU owns them.
  • Follow the citation trail forward:
    Take the relevant books and articles you have in hand and look them up in Google Scholar. Check the "cited by" option there to see who has referenced them. You can also add some keywords and "search with citing articles." 

     Google Scholar image




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Alice Swabey
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