Learning about the history of Ontario doesn’t need to mean a day spent peering into glass display cases at a musty museum. If you’d like a more interactive, engaging way to experience the provincial past, there are plenty of family friendly options.
Sainte-Marie Among the Hurons
Some of Ontario’s oldest settlements (both First Nations and European) are found on the shores of Georgian Bay. Learn about the proud history of settlement in this area at this fantastic historic site.
Sainte-Marie is an accurate reconstruction of the seventeenth-century Jesuit mission that was Ontario’s first European community. Staff members in period costume reenact daily routines, playing the parts of the “black robes” and the Native Christian converts. These mini-dramas occur throughout the village, in the smith and barns, at the long tables in the dining room, and near the birchbark cross in the Church of St. Joseph. Guests are invited to bake cornbread, weave baskets, tend fires, and chop firewood.
Summer afternoon canoe trips turn a day at Sainte-Marie into an outdoor adventure. These 90-minute excursions, in 7-metre canoes like those used by the missionaries, transport visitors through the marsh for an explorer’s view of Sainte-Marie. Candlelight tours take place on summer evenings, and there are daily and weekly kids’ summer camps.
Unlike many sites that close or reduce activities in the winter, this Sainte-Marie Among the Hurons has a great slate of special events, including a Thanksgiving Harvest Festival and the magical First Light evenings in November and December. Throughout the year there is a restaurant on site.
Nearby you’ll find the Huron Indian Village and Huronia Museum. Though not offering as many interactive activities, this outdoor exhibit allows kids to explore the palisaded village that recreates the Huron way of life a thousand year ago.
Visitors to Discovery Harbour in Penetanguishene had better come prepared to join in the work of a shipshape naval depot. Swab the deck! Hoist the sails! Pull the oars! The orders and salt-dog insults are offered by good-natured staff in full costume who help – or cojole – visitors into everyday chores at this working frontier settlement.
The British chose this site as a supply depot because of its protected and easily defended harbor. By 1820, the base had 20 vessels, 30 buildings, and supported about 70 sailors, civilians, and their families. The village of today comprises several carefully constructed and very believable replicas of buildings typical of the period.
The three-hour sails are offered morning and afternoon, as well as at sunset, and the crews – in navy felt jackets, straw hats, and neckerchiefs – enlist passengers to hoist the sails (no mean feat considering the Tecumseth has over 500 square metres of canvas) and to sweep (row) the sip to the dock. The sails are suitable for kids over 10.
Fresh sea breezes quicken any appetite, so after a sail, head to Captain Roberts Table for seafood chowder, roast beef, and syllabub. Evenings, enjoy comedies and musicals at the King’s Landing Warehouse, or on Wednesdays take in a conducted lantern tour. Summer events include fiddle orchestra concerts, art shows, and children’s craft clubs.
When Hallowe’en rolls around, don’t miss out on Pumpkinferno, when hundreds of pumpkins are carved into spooky displays around the site.
Great Spirit Circle Trail
Any historical tour of Ontario wouldn’t be complete without learning about the First Nations cultures found here. The Great Spirit Circle Trail is a fantastic organisation on Manitoulin Island offering a wide range of guided activities – both day and overnight options – lead by members of the local First Nations community. Forage and sample local foods, take a guided hike or trail ride, or take a glamping canoe trip, all of which offer a glimpse into local history and culture.
There are also special events open to the public, including Aundeck Omni Kaning Pow Wow in June.
Fort William Historical Park
Fur trading was an essential part of why Europeans colonised Ontario. Find out more about the hard realities and adventure of this way of life at this Thunder Bay attraction. Over 40 historic buildings spread over 250 acres of beautiful northern scenery, makes this one of North America’s largest historic attractions.
Meet costumed voyageurs, farmers, First Nations Ojibwa, and more to find out about their day-to-day lives. You’ll participate in singing songs while paddling your own voyageur canoe on the Kaministiquia River, try your hand at traditional art, climb the observatory tower, and taste some bannock bread.
Samuel de Champlain Provincial Park
While many provincial parks have guided activities for kids, this one brings in interactive history like no other. Along with the typical spirit nights, campfire sing-alongs, and guided hikes, Samuel de Champlain allows visitors to paddle their own replica Voyageur canoe. Experience – for an afternoon – the rigourous life of a fur trader in the late eighteenth century as you take on the beautiful Mattawa River in an 11 metre canoe.
Upper Canada Village
Upper Canada Village, found along the St. Lawrence, has long set the standard for hands-on, immersive learning for families. More than your typical pioneer village, this site brings to life 1860s rural Ontario. From dressing up as pioneers complete with hoop skirts sand button-flap pants to learning to write with a quill pen to playing skittles, there are plenty of activities for kids of all ages.
Hallowe’en is a particularly good time to visit if you’d like to see 6,000 carved and illuminated creations during Pumpkinferno. However, there are special events every month, from sheep shearing to haunted walks to a Medieval festival.
Mica Mine at Murphy’s Point
Over a century ago, Eastern Ontario boasted one of the most productive mica mining industries in the world. The Silver Queen Mine in what is now Murphy’s Point Provincial Park was one of the stars of that industry. The Park regularly schedules tours that take you into the heart of the mine. See first-hand the dangers and hardships of this type of work, as you don your hardhat and clamber down 20 m into the old mine. Bring your camera to get some great photos of the ‘open pit,’ a hole in the ground where sunlight comes into the mine, allowing moss and ferns to grow along the rock walls. In addition, the mine shaft, visitors can see the preserved sleeping quarters of the miners.
Halton Radial Train Museum
Railway buffs from around the world come to visit this museum, but you don’t need to be choo-choo head to have a great day at this Milton attraction. Enjoy unlimited historic streetcar rides on a 2-km scenic track, including a stop at their ice cream shop. Stop by the display barns (with interurban cards, subway trains, and streetcars) and historic Rockwood Station. Kids will love the experience, while adults will appreciate the 100+ years of mechanical history on display. Helpful staff love to share their knowledge of their trains, so be sure to bring your questions.