Student sleuths will investigate Tom Thomson death on new Web site

Ninety years after Tom Thomson disappeared in Algonquin Park, a York University graduate student has created a new Web site to help students find out what happened to the man whose landscapes are among the most familiar and best-loved images of Canadian art.  

The Death on a Painted Lake: The Tom Thomson Tragedy educational mystery Web site will be launched Wednesday at the University of Toronto’s Hart House. Dr. Michael Pollanen, chief forensic pathologist of Ontario, will offer a new assessment of the artist’s death and Thomson site research director Gregory Klages (right), of York University’s Robarts Centre for Canadian Studies, will discuss the archival materials he and a team of researchers pulled together for the project.

The Web site is the latest phase of The Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History Web site project. The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education is a project sponsor. The official launch takes place tomorrow at 10:30am in the Debates Room, Hart House, 7 Hart House Circle, University of Toronto. 

A Canadian landscape painter, Thomson was closely associated with the artists who formed the Group of Seven following his death. Working in Ontario’s Algonquin Park, he ventured out on a fishing trip alone on July 8, 1917. His body was found eight days later, floating in Canoe Lake.

Left: Tom Thomson

"Thomson’s tragic death poses a compelling mystery that has inspired researchers for decades. ‘How did Tom Thomson die?’ is the type of question that will encourage students and members of the public to hone their historical sleuthing skills," says Klages.

Ontario’s chief forensic pathologist agrees the mysterious death raises questions. “Circumstantial evidence and a presumption that someone has drowned simply because the body is recovered from water is not a valid approach to determining the cause of death,” says Pollanen.

The Death on a Painted Lake: The Tom Thomson Tragedy Web site includes transcriptions of correspondence between Thomson and his friends, family, and patrons, newspaper reports about his trips, art reviews, images of Thomson’s paintings, information about logging and tourism in Algonquin Park, as well as a selection of other types of documents. These will all be freely accessible to the public. Teachers can also request comprehensive teaching plans developed around the site material, that connect the Thomson mystery to larger themes in junior high and high school curricula, as well as passwords that will allow them and their students to access observations and conclusions reached by experts.

Right: Thomson at Canoe Lake

Alex Sinclair, of the band Tamarack, will perform a new song dealing with the Thomson mystery, and Thomson’s painting, “The Pointers” (1916-1917) will be on display at the launch.

The project was made possible with the support of the Department of Canadian Heritage through the Canadian Culture Online Strategy.

For more on the mystery surrounding Thomson’s death and the development of the Web site, see the Aug. 31, 2007 issue of YFile.