York students document Tom Thomson mystery

When Canadian artist Tom Thomson disappeared at Canoe Lake in Algonquin Park on July 8, 1917, he set in motion a whodunit that students and history buffs are still trying to solve. Ninety years later, York University graduate researchers are building an archive of documents to help student sleuths reach their own conclusions – both about the artist’s death, and the world he lived in.

Right: Tom Thomson at Canoe Lake. Photo courtesy of the National Archives of Canada.

York PhD candidate Gregory Klages (left), of the Robarts Centre for Canadian Studies, is research director on the project, "Death on a Painted Lake: The Tom Thomson Tragedy". It is one of three new case studies that will be funded through a grant of $450,000 from the Department of Canadian Heritage, and is part of the Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History project based at the University of Victoria.

Thomson was a Canadian landscape painter who was closely associated with the painters who formed the Group of Seven following his death. As Canada’s wilderness was inspiration for his paintings, he ventured out on a fishing trip alone in 1917 and eight days later searchers found his body in Canoe Lake.

There are questions still about how Thomson died – whether by suicide, accident or murder. The controversy also grew decades after Thomson’s death, when a group of investigators dug up a body where Thomson had been buried at Canoe Lake. The problem was that Thomson’s body had reportedly been exhumed shortly after his death and moved to a family plot.

"The Ontario Provincial Police concluded it was not Thomson’s body in the grave at Canoe Lake, so the question arises as to whose body this is," said Klages. "This is the type of question we are confident will encourage students and members of the public to hone their historical sleuthing skills."

Right: Inscription on the Tom Thomson cairn at Canoe Lake

Klages, and two York master’s students in the York/Ryerson Joint Graduate Program in Communication & Culture, are transcribing and archiving Thomson’s correspondence with friends, artists and patrons, newspaper reports about his trips, and information about logging and tourism in Algonquin Park at the time, along with other types of original documents. These will be available to students first, with the interpretations and opinions available only later – when their teachers allow – so students are compelled to try to solve the mysteries on their own. In addition to organizing a representative selection of documents, and supervising their digitization and incorporation into a book-length educational Web site, they will also be compiling teacher support material that connects the Tom Thomson mystery to larger themes in junior high, high school and university curricula.

The Tom Thomson mystery project is expected to be completed by early April 2008. Nine mystery projects completed through the Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History project can already be viewed at www.canadianmysteries.ca.