Documentary Spotlight

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– Documentaries in History Education –
The Life of Mary Coyne Rowell Jackman:
A Person in Her Own Right (1904-1994)

Unit Overview and Lesson Plan Ideas







Note: This work is dedicated to the public domain and is free of known restrictions under copyright law.


Section A: Understanding and Analyzing the Documentary

Lesson 1: Introducing the Documentary Form

 What is a documentary? [Brainstorm]

  • Have students create a mind map of what they consider a documentary to be
  • Have students list documentaries they have seen before
    • Vote on one “popular” documentary to view as a class or
    • Have 10-15-minute clips from documentaries played in class with the goal of having students jot down/record what they see are the common elements of a documentary
      • Examples: interviews, storytelling, including facts, multiple voices/perspectives, images and visuals
    • Have students re-evaluate their mind maps in light of the new information about how documentaries are structured; consolidate by having students share their findings either as a class or in small groups
      • consider redoing the collaborative mind map and posting images on a platform accessible to students to return to throughout the unit


Lesson 2: The Documentary as Source: Historical Perspectives 

Documentaries in History [Brainstorm]

  • How do Documentary filmmakers help us better understand the past? About particular events or people
  • How is a Documentary different than other forms of films? Why might a historian use a documentary to inform people about the past? List your reasons. You might include:
    • Use of First Voice
    • Use of original images and documents

Explore other Documentaries in Canada:

Complicating the Documentary-as-truth Narrative

  • Have a class discussion about filmmaking ethics:
    • What responsibilities do filmmakers have to their film’s subjects?
    • What are the ethics that should govern films about particular individuals?
    • Can you research examples of the legal issues governing Documentaries in Canada?


Lesson 3: Mary Coyne Rowell Jackman Documentary Screening

View the Documentary – Mary Coyne Rowell Jackman: A Person in her Own Right (1904-1994)

Post-film discussion:

  • How can the film be used as a historical source?
  • What are the limitations (consider historical thinking concepts here, especially cause and consequence, historical perspective)?
  • Making connections: have students consider the challenges Mary may have faced.
    • How were the challenges Mary faced similar or different to challenges other women faced during this time period?
    • Consider how an intersectional approach to this period may affect a response.


Lesson 4: Mary Coyne Rowell Jackman and Social Justice

What is social justice? [Brainstorm]

  • How do we see issues of social justice manifesting in our lives, our communities, our world?
    • Curriculum connection: how have issues of social justice manifested over the course of Canadian history?
    • This could easily be adapted to specific strands in the Grade 10 Canadian history curriculum
  • How did Mary engage with social justice issues (e.g. through her independence, through activism)?
    • Was this typical for many women? Why/why not?
    • How did the nature of social justice movements change over the course of Mary’s life?
    • How does this connect to the present day? (continuity and change)
    • How might you commit to social justice? What can you do as an individual, as a student, as a community member, as a Canadian, as a global citizen?


  • Make a photo collage of how Mary’s activist activities interact with each other;
  • Answer the question: How did Mary Coyne Rowell Jackman’s commitment to social justice impact Canadian society?
  • In your photo collage include images from Mary’s activities, some statements that reflect her commitment to social justice, and some challenges Mary faced in achieving her social justice goals.


Lesson 5: Post-film Activities: Using Interviews in Historical Narrative Construction

Interviews as Historical Source [Brainstorm]

  • Why do we do interviews?
  • What insights can be gained through them?
  • What are the limitations?
    • Possible extension: consider resources on how interview questions are structured; evaluate some famous interviews to determine how balanced the questions are/were

Extending the documentary, Mary Coyne Rowell Jackman: A Person in her Own Right (1904-1994)

  • You are a journalist; create an interview with Mary Coyne Rowell Jackman, and/or other individuals, both family, friends and community members that were part of her life.
    • Write 5-8 questions you would like to ask Mary if you were a journalist
      • What might be some of the answers? How do you know?
      • Focus more on the justification for your answers; do you need evidence from the film to support your reasoning? Do you need to conduct any external research? Why/why not?
    • Conduct additional research on the life of Mary Coyne Rowell Jackman
      • Research the Archives of dominant Toronto and Canadian newspapers such as the Toronto Star which has an online archive to find newspaper articles about Mary.
        • How does this additional information enhance your knowledge?
        • Consider comparing and contrasting the information you have found outside of the documentary with the information contained within it
        • Can you gain any insight into how or why the film was constructed in the way it was?
          • What questions might you have for the filmmaker?
        • Perform/share your interviews with the class, either as a presentation or by uploading documents to a shared website or Google folder
          • Consider each other’s’ work with particular attention to which stories were told in the documentary and which were not – emphasis should be on considering historical perspective and historical significance

Post Activity Reflection:

  • How does taking part in an interview help you connect more closely to an individual’s life?
  • Why might this be an important or useful thing to do?


Lesson 6: Connections to Indigenous Ways of Knowing/Introducing Oral History

 Oral History as Historical Source [Brainstorm]

Oral History and the Interview:

When historians perform interviews, it is part of oral history.

  • Why is oral history an essential part of helping us understand the past?
    • You can find some answers at the Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling in Ottawa at Carleton University.
    • The Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling Archives contain thousands of oral history interviews recorded by their affiliated researchers and partners.
      • Can you find an interview with someone that you know?
      • Can you find an interview with someone in your family? In particular a woman in your family?
      • Create some questions and interview your family members about their past. Consider interview questions like:
        • In what ways were you actively involved with women’s issues or women’s organizations?

Section B: Canadian Women’s Rights Movements

Lesson 7: Exploring History Through Timelines

Timelines in History [Brainstorm]

  • What is a timeline?
  • What are timelines used for?
  • What are their strengths? What are their limitations?
  • Consider how bias fits into explorations of historical timelines


  • Create a timeline of Mary Coyne Rowell Jackman’s life and link it to the challenges or restrictions facing Canadian women. Consider these broad parts of the context that Mary was embedded in:
    • Mary was born in 1904
    • At that time women were restricted to specific careers of teaching and nursing
    • Many women were domestic servants
    • Some women joined religious orders
    • Many women married
    • Under the Dominion Elections Act (1867) women were not allowed to vote provincially/federally
  • Consider exploring life for Canadian women in the first two decades of the 20th century with these resources and others:

Timeline Activity Extension: A 1967 Dinner Party

Mary is holding a dinner party to celebrate 1967, Canada’s centennial year, and she has opened her house for a special Centennial Party. At this dinner party, Mary has many guests. She has members of her family including her children and her husband. As well she has invited some members of her Church community and many Canadians artists.

You are helping Mary plan this party. You must do some research about Canada in 1967, the centennial year, and you must do some research about Mary’s life at that time.

Decide who will sit where at the table, what will be served, what would be the entertainment and what speeches various people would be making. There are many advantages of creating a Historical Moment in Time. It allows you to connect directly with people in the past and, based on evidence found in the Documentary, recreate their conversations. Good luck!


Lesson 8: Canadian Women’s Activism in the Early Twentieth Century

Despite the restrictions, in the early 20th century, women’s groups were active in Canada fighting to obtain rights:

  1. The right to vote in provincial and federal elections,
  2. The right to hold public office,
  3. The right to run their own businesses,
  4. The right to purchase property,
  5. The right to higher education
  6. The right to…
    1. Find out other facts about Canadian women’s activism in the first two decades of the 20th century and add to the list! Consider which activist successes you’d like to include
    2. Record your thoughts on why you selected the facts that you did – what sort of history are you emphasizing or constructing?

Women’s Activism and Intersectionality

Not all women received the same rights at the same time. For example, Asian women did not get the vote until 1948, and Indigenous women did not have the right to vote until 1960. Why were there differences? What was this reflective of at that time? Consider these resources:


Lesson 9: The Legal Rights of Women

Over her lifetime, Mary Coyne Rowell Jackman saw legal changes to the rights of women. Here is a list of some of the changes. Find out how each one changed women’s lives.

  1. 1914 Alice Jamieson is appointed the judge of the juvenile court in Calgary in 1914. She becomes the first woman in Canada and the British Empire appointed to a court
  2. 1916 Women in Manitoba are the first in Canada to gain the right to vote and run for office in Provincial Elections when the Manitoba Legislative Assembly. For Mary, living in Ontario, that date would be 1917 1918 Women gain the right to vote in federal elections (24 May) through An Act to Confer Electoral Franchise Upon Women.
    1. Eligibility: age 21 or older, not alien-born, met property requirements in provinces where they lived
  3. The Federal Electoral law is amended, and women can now stand for the House of Commons.
  4. 1925 The federal divorce law is changed allowing women for the first time to obtain a divorce on the same grounds as men.
  5. 1929 “Persons” case and recognizes Canadian women as persons under the law. As a result, women are “eligible to be summoned to and become members of the Senate of Canada” (October 18).
  6. 1951 Two new laws are passed in Ontario: The Fair Employment Practices Act and the Female Employees’ Fair Remuneration Act.
  7. 1962 Ontario enacts The Human Rights Code. It prohibits discrimination on the grounds of race, creed, colour, nationality, ancestry or place of origin – but not sex.
  8. 1982 The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is enacted as part of the Constitution Act.
  9. 1989 The Supreme Court of Canada decides that sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination.


  • Find out about other changes to women’s legal status in Canada
  • Explore Mary’s life and see how these changes affected her actions and which changes she was involved in advocating to change?
  • Consider how these changes in women’s legal status affected Mary’s life decisions

Resources on Canadian Women’s Changing Legal Status:

 Section C: Inspirational Canadians

Lesson 10.1: Unpacking Inspiration

The Oxford Dictionary defines inspiring as follows:  to fill (someone) with the urge or ability to do or feel something; to create a feeling (especially a positive one) in a person.

Defining “Inspiration” Criteria [Brainstorm]

  • What criteria makes an individual inspirational to others?
    • Make a list of what defines an inspirational person
    • Consider historical significance here, especially regarding short/long-term impacts
  • What made Mary Coyne Rowell Jackman an “inspiring woman” in Canada?
    • Find specific examples/evidence from the documentary and other sources
    • Consider the following information/prompts:
      • Mary was a Dame Commander of the Order of St Lazarus;
      • In the 1980s she received an honorary degree of sacred letters from Victoria University;
      • In 1990 she was nominated for a Persons Award and received a special award with Nancy Ruth as a mother-daughter team;
      • In June 1992, she received an honorary LLD from the University of Toronto;
      • In 1993 she was nominated for the Order of Canada;
        • Mary Coyne Rowell Jackman advocated for social changes so that Canada would be a more equitable society. She did this by…
        • Mary contributed significantly to support Canadian artists. She did this by…
        • Mary was dedicated to her church and community, supporting women by…
        • Think of another woman in Mary’s life that may have inspired her…


Lesson 10.2: Inspiration and Impacts – Exploring the Link

One factor that makes an individual inspirational to others is their work with particular communities. Mary Coyne Rowell Jackman supported many communities; her partnership and support of the arts were essential for a wide range of communities.

  • Consider/list how the arts help to support communities and society
    • Find examples in your communities
  • Consider/list how Mary supported the arts

Teacher reference:

  • Mary received an honorary Doctorate from the University of Toronto
  • As a benefactor, she was able to support artists and their work and create partnerships through art festivals and gatherings to expose the arts to a wide range of people
  • She also helped artists by providing a beautiful place for them to work, giving them support so they could sustain themselves as artists
    • Her support of the arts came at a critical time when people were examining the value of culture and art in defining a nation


  • Have students select a particular type of art or artists that contribute to Canadian culture
  • Have students identify how their work helps Canadians create and sustain Canadian culture
  • Explore how the government, communities, and individuals can support the arts

Class Extension:

Lesson 10.3: Art and War


The cottage bought by Mary and Harry featured many murals painted by members of the Group of Seven during the First World War, and one of these murals, “The Picnic,” a panel by Arthur Lismer, contains a figure that, some suggest, is a portrait of Mary. The murals were later donated to the Canadian people. In June 1967, the National Gallery photographed the murals for Canada’s one-hundredth birthday and then removed them to be installed in the National Gallery.


  • Explore the World War One paintings by members of the Group of Seven
    • Why were their paintings so crucial for Canadian history?
    • How do they help Canadians understand the events of the war?

Check out these websites for more information:


Lesson 11: Conversations about Commemoration

Commemoration [Brainstorm]


  • Explore monuments in Canada:
  • Create a memorial, monument, statue, commemorative plaque etc. of commemoration for Mary
    • What format would you choose for your monument and why? Be able to explain your reasoning!
    • What should this monument say about Mary?
      • Consider some of these words: Methodist Church, Peace, Philanthropist, Canadian artists, Group of Seven, Community workers, Women, Mother…
        • Consider that Mary was raised with a keen interest in global issues and was active with the World Student Christian Federation (WSCF) and with Women’s Missionary Society for many years;
        • Her Methodist upbringing was reflected in her interest in advancing the common good of all people and for being part of a global society;
        • Her desire to join the Canadian Institute for International Affairs (CIIA) was halted because meetings, held at Hart House (Toronto), did not admit women until 1972.
          • She founded a women’s branch of the CIIA in response.
          • Perhaps a plaque could be placed in Hart House? How might Canadians advocate for that?

Extension: Scholarships as Commemoration

  • The Mary Coyne Rowell Jackman Graduate Scholarship is awarded to a woman graduate of Victoria College for postgraduate study in Art, Literature or Religion
  • Scholarships provided another way to honour the legacy of individuals; can you think of other ways?
    • Design a way to honour Mary in your class and then send your submission to the Canadian government. Remember to explain why you feel Mary Coyne Rowell Jackman should be honoured for her lifetime work.


Lesson 12: Mary Coyne Rowell Jackman – Life and Impact on Others

 Childhood Experiences and Travel [Brainstorm]

Travel and Mary Jackman

  • In her youth, Mary travelled to Britain and saw/visited the suffragettes (including seeing some of them arrested)
    • Consider the differences/similarities between Britain and Canada’s suffragette movements
    • How might this experience have shaped Mary’s commitment to women’s rights activism and organizations?
  • After World War One, Mary went to Europe (1922) and stayed with her friend Newton, visiting Paris, Salzburg, Munich, Strasbourg, Brussels, and Amsterdam, exploring cathedrals, museums, art galleries
    • How might this have influenced her attitudes towards the arts? Are there other aspects of her past that may have shaped her attitudes?
  • Mary studied economics, psychology and leadership at various points in her life
    • What impact might this have had on her activism? Why?
  • Mary was actively involved in the Protestant Student Christian Movement (SCM) throughout the 1920s especially.
    • Research Protestantism
    • How might her beliefs and experiences with the SCM have affected her activism and philanthropy?


  • Create a concept map of the different influential experiences and people in Mary’s life
  • How might you link different experiences, events, and people together?

 Lesson 13: Exploring History Through Push/Pull Factors

Push and Pull Factors [Brainstorm]

  • What are push and pull factors?
  • What are some push and pull factors in your own life?


  • Consider the many push and pull factors that Mary Coyne Rowell Jackman experienced which affected her life decisions
  • Choose four individuals or groups who influenced her life
    • You might consider unconventional options like author Virginia Woolf; Mary’s mother gave her Woolf’s book “A Room of One’s Own” as part of her wedding gift
    • Why might she have done this? Why was the book so significant to Mary?
    • Consider that Mary collected one of the most extensive private collections of Woolf’s work
      • What connections can be made between Woolf’s life and Mary’s?
      • What messages were both trying to spread as early twentieth century women?
    • Write about how they had an impact through push or pull
    • Present on your thinking and findings
      • Consider creative ways to express your thoughts, e.g. a tableau, a gallery walk


Lesson 14: Legacies of Inspiration – Mary Coyne Rowell Jackman’s daughter Senator Nancy Ruth

With her daughter Nancy Ruth, Mary Coyne Rowell Jackman supported and promoted women’s and feminist causes and groups such as LEAF (the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund) and the Canadian Women’s Foundation, for which Mary provided the initial endowment finding ($500,000 each). The Women’s studies library at York University, the Nellie Langford Rowell Library, was also established with funding provided through Mary from the Jackman Foundation. You can find information about the work of Senator Nancy Ruth at this Government of Canada website:

How do you think Mary Coyne Rowell Jackman influenced her daughter to become involved in politics and represent the Canadian people? Watch the Documentary to see if Senator Nancy Ruth provides some answers.

Senator Nancy Ruth’s autobiography states this:

  • I’m a United Church Minister by training!
  • I’m an activist! I’m an outspoken critic of poverty.
  • I’m a defender of peace, women’s and girl’s rights, water and the environment!
  • I’m an advocate of Canada’s constitutional equality rights in public policy and institutions!
  • I’m a supporter of organizations devoted to civil, legal, economic, political and cultural rights for women and girls in all their diversity, and…
  • I am a woman who loves to dance, go to the theatre, kayak, and clown around!

They say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree…


Lesson 15: Participating in the Construction of Historical Meaning by Making a Documentary

Canadian Identity [Brainstorm]

  • What does it mean to be Canadian? How is this term tied in with Colonial narratives?
  • Has this changed over time?
  • Are there any groups (historically or in the present day) that have been excluded from the “Canadian” label?

This filmmaker decided to create documentaries about what it means to be Canadian:

Here are some other documentaries made by and about Canadian and Indigenous Women:

Mary Coyne Rowell Jackman’s documentary focuses on the personal and public life of an important Canadian woman.

Activity: Have your class create documentaries about women in their community

  • You can go to various websites to learn how to write a script, film your documentary, edit and release your film
  • Feature the documentaries about Canadian women in your communities to your school.
  • Hold a film screening in October during Canadian Women’s History Month and thereby honour the support of women by individuals such as Mary Coyne Rowell Jackman and her daughter, former Senator the Hon. Nancy Ruth at the same time