Nostalgia and the Politics of Selective Remembering

The statue of John A. Macdonald in Victoria Park (Regina) was covered in a white sheet and police tape on 28 August 2017. Photo credit: Britton Gray.

By Omeasoo Wahpasiw, Adele Perry and Sean Carleton

Timing is everything, and context and connections matter. A week after the US Capitol riot on January 6 sparked a reckoning with the growing threat of white supremacy and far-right extremism in North America, an open letter appeared as a full-page ad in the National Post celebrating the “remarkable” legacy of John A. Macdonald. A week later, as Donald Trump prepared to leave the White House, his administration released the 1776 Report arguing for a revival of nationalistic, patriotic history education. The differences in these documents are many and obvious. But there are also connections, ones that highlight how nostalgia, nationalism, and selective remembering are currently being used to serve white supremacy and protect the colonial status quo.

The “In Defense of Sir John A. Macdonald and his Legacy” letter was released by the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an Ottawa-based think tank established in 2010, and a group referred to as both the “Friends of Canadian history” and the “Friends of Sir. John A. Macdonald.” Beyond Ryerson Politics and Public Administration professor Patrice Dutil’s description of the “Friends” as “a loose association of colleagues and acquaintances” in Toronto, the organization is a mystery. As a text, the letter is homey and more hagiography than history. It was released on Macdonald’s birthday, and was intended to defend the former prime minister against his critics. The letter was published with 130 signatories and currently has over 200 names endorsing it.

The Macdonald letter makes the most sense when read within the wider context of colonial nostalgia for an imagined past when the relationship between history, nations, and empires was untroubled by critique. It presumes a divide between “those who see Canada’s history as little more than a shameful series of mistakes and failures” and those who pay Macdonald appropriate thanks.

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THE FREDERICTON GREYLINGS: Fredericton’s First Women’s Organized Hockey Team, 1903-1904

by Roger P Nason

In the 1890s, efforts by women to bring equality into Maritime sporting activities were met with mixed results. Most noticeable was the emergence of ladies’ hockey in Fredericton, New Brunswick.

Sheldon Gillis at Saint Mary’s University surveys the state of hockey within women’s sporting activities in his 1994 Master’s thesis with sources almost entirely focused on Nova Scotian university settings. Although prevailing attitudes among administration records reinforced the “frail Victorian woman” stereotype, progress was being made on campuses at the University of Toronto, Mount Allison, Dalhousie, and Acadia. By 1900, many colleges and universities included hockey in women’s competitive sports.

Although friendly games were held with Fredericton and Moncton, The Saint John Daily Sun reported that Saint John women “are very swift skaters and can dodge with the puck to equal some of the best of the gentleman players” in March 1895. By the next season, the newspaper cited the formation of a Ladies’ Hockey League in the city intent on having their first practice at Singer Rink.[1]

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History Slam 180: Gold Fever & Disaster in the Klondike

By Sean Graham

In 1897, as news that gold had been found in the Klondike spread, over 100,000 of people rushed into the region in search of fortune. Unfortunately for many of them, the press typically didn’t highlight the harsh winter conditions in the Klondike, meaning thousands arrived completely unprepared. As the population grew, the situation on the ground continued to deteriorate as violence, particularly against local Indigenous Peoples, led to lasting human and environmental damage.

Despite this, there is a romance in the popular imagination of the gold rush. There is an image of a poor prospector venturing north with nothing more than a gold pan and a dream and finding untold riches in the midst of a cartoonish environment filled with non-threatening frontier caricatures. The reality, of course, bore no resemblance to this.

That is made very clear in Brian Castner’s new book Stampede: Gold Fever and Disaster in the Klondike. Using a mix of archival and secondary sources, Castner brings the people to life. A veteran of the Iraq War who has published multiple outstanding volumes on his experiences, Castner’s ability to craft a captivating narrative is clear from the first page. Stampede reads like a novel, but is entirely based on real people and real experiences that challenge the existing mythology surrounding a remarkable moment where colonial, national, and local histories intersect.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Brian about the book. We talk about how his personal background influences his writing, his research process, and how his work differs from traditional histories. We also chat about the people included in the book, the colonial ramifications in the Klondike, and the lessons the gold rush that we can use today.

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Between Postwar & Present Day: The Possibilities and Perils of Contemporary History

Service, Office and Retail Workers Union of Canada (SORWUC), “Join Us” n.d, Rise Up Feminist Archive “Unions as Sites of Feminist Action”.

Kevin Brushett, Sarah Nickel and Nancy Janovicek

We live in polarized times. After preaching for years that “the world needed more Canada” because of our “exceptional” ability to politely navigate the politics of diversity, Canadians no longer seem immune to the forces of division and dissatisfaction that have led to Brexit, to Trumpism, or to a myriad of other worrying signs of incivility stalking the globe. The lines of division go beyond where one stands on issues of reproductive choice, gun control, vaccine safety, or climate change. Socioeconomic disparities have been increasing over the past twenty years and with this growing disparities in the access to levers of power across Canadian society. These inequities are exacerbated by Indigeneity, race, ethnicity, disability, and sexual and gender identity. Growing disenfranchisement driven by these inequalities has deepened social and political polarization between those who advocate for greater state intervention to address them and those who argue for smaller government and more personal responsibility for solving them. In short, the “Age of Fracture,” as Daniel Rodgers once called the late 20th century, seems even more so in the 21st century. Understanding the contemporary historical origins of these fault lines has never been more important.

The upcoming online conference “Between Postwar and Present Day” (May 6-8, 2021) seeks to do just that by bringing together more than 80 graduate students, public historians, and scholars across 25 sessions to explore both the emerging scholarship as well as the lacuna within the field of Canadian contemporary history. Continue reading

Take a Look Inside: What did we learn from a prison riot fifty years ago?

By Catherine Fogarty

In November 2019, Structured Intervention Units (SIUs) were implemented by the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) in all federal prisons to replace the old solitary confinement system. This new system was supposed to improve the lives of segregated prisoners who were often confined twenty-three and a half hours a day in small windowless cells with one hour of exercise and limited human contact. Inmates placed in the new structured intervention units would receive four hours out of their cells and at least two hours of meaningful human contact.

SIUs were introduced after the passing of Bill C-83 in June 2019. The bill was the government’s response to two lawsuits. The British Columbia Civil Liberties Association and the John Howard Society of Canada sued the federal government over the use of solitary confinement, arguing it was unconstitutional, increased inmates’ suffering, and discriminated against offenders who are Indigenous or have mental-health issues.

The primary legislative intent was to abolish solitary confinement as defined by the United Nations Mandela Rules (confining inmates for twenty-two hours or more a day without “meaningful human contact”). The new system was to impose an initial limit of no more than fifteen days of confinement and introduce judicial oversight or independent adjudication for any length of stay in segregation beyond that time.

But an independent report and investigation released a year later in October 2020 indicated that very little has changed with respect to the number of hours and days prisoners spend in solitary confinement in Canada’s sixteen federal prisons, and in fact Corrections Canada was unable to supply the correct data to a panel of academic experts reviewing the implementation of the new structured intervention units. It appears that SIUs are just a fancy new title for a barbaric practice that has been going on behind closed prison doors in Canada for a very long time.

The Warden and Inmates Negotiate (Photo provided by the author).

Fifty years ago, on April 14, 1971, inmates at Kingston Penitentiary, Canada’s oldest prison, overpowered unsuspecting guards and instigated one of the most violent and destructive prison riots in our country’s history. Prisoners were protesting against decrepit living conditions, overcrowding, inadequate rehabilitation programs, and harsh punishments. Step out of line and you went to the “hole” an escape-proof cellblock located in a concrete bunker. There were twenty metal doors and behind each door an inmate was confined twenty-three and a half hours a day, with one half-hour of exercise in a small, segregated yard. Sound familiar? Continue reading

Finding History on Wilberforce Street

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By Isabelle and Ian McCallum

In the middle of March 2020, education for students in Ontario became a different reality. Learning in a classroom with peers was replaced with online learning as precautionary measures countering COVID-19. Students participated in learning at home, attending “google meets.” The postponement of extra-curriculars such as after-school activities, clubs and teams meant that the “busyness” of the week was now “quiet.”

For my daughter, Isabelle, this change was marked by a sense of loss. “Online learning is much different than in-school learning” she reflects, “because you are looking at a computer screen at a google meet, zoom etc.. thus, creating an environment with less engagement because it isn’t face to face.”

Distance learning offered an exciting opportunity to explore and to engage with questions new and old with deeper consideration than time usually offers. At different times, Isabelle and I often visited different points of interest near our home. These stops included historic buildings, churchyards and abandoned houses.

She would have many questions about the context of these places: Who lived there? What did it look like? What happened?

For more than twenty years I lived in a small, rural central Ontario community. I did not grow up on a farm, I was, however encouraged to help out on the local farms that surrounded our property. This involved planting, harvesting, cleaning cattle pens, haying and taking care of animals. Our home was located on Line 1, Oro Township in the County of Simcoe. Of historical significance, line 1 or Wilberforce Street was the location of a British government sponsored settlement of veterans from the War of 1812, specifically veterans of Captain Runchey’s Corps of Coloured Men. Continue reading

Historia Nostra: Parks and Profit at Kejimkujik National Park

By Erin Isaac, Elisabeth Edwards

Kejimkujik National Park and National Historic Site is situated in Mi’km’aki, the traditional lands of the Mi’kmaq. Visitors to the park can learn about the region’s Mi’kmaw past by viewing the site’s many petroglyphs and burial grounds that attest to thousands of years of Mi’kmaw presence or by participating in programs led by Mi’kmaw crafts people such as Todd Labrador, who builds birch bark canoes in the park.

Yet, the history Parks Canada presents at the site is incomplete and obscures a darker truth about Kejimkujik’s past—the history of exploitation and dispossession that made the Park’s creation possible.

Commemorative monument at Kejimkujik National Park and National Historic site with Jean (Muin’iskw) Augustine McIsaac (who designed the monument). Courtesy of Dan McIsaac.

Parks Canada acquires Indigenous land, including at Kejimkujik, through means that many would deem illegitimate. Continue reading

CFP: Pandemic Methodologies Twitter Conference 2021


Sponsored by the Canadian Historical Association (CHA)

In the past year, archives and libraries have closed (either permanently or periodically), non-essential international travel has been heavily discouraged or impossible, and anyone who can has been encouraged to work from home. In these circumstances, historians have had to adapt how they do research, perhaps relying more heavily on digital methods or developing more collaborative projects. Because so many of these strategic decisions have been made in the midst of crisis and, at times, as temporary emergency measures, there has been little discussion of what the historian-at-work looks like right now. How have personal experiences of lockdown, ill health, family caretaking, and working from home influenced how we write history? How is research being shaped by contemporary constraints and creative solutions? How does it feel to do historical research in our historical moment? Continue reading

Bringing Black studies to Canadian universities is still an uphill battle

Dr. Afua Cooper. Photo: Historica Canada

Afua Cooper

Since my time as a graduate student to my present appointment as professor at Dalhousie University, I have been involved with championing and developing Black studies in universities and beyond.

Previously, within Canadian universities, not many scholars who work in creating knowledge about Black people called it Black studies. For many, “Black studies” was something that happened in the United States. In the 1990s, as a doctoral student conducting research in Black Canadian history, I developed and taught courses that consciously used the terms “Black” or “African Canadian.” Such courses included “African Canadian History,” “Black Ontario” and “Black Feminist history.”

As a result, I have come face-to-face in dealing with the resistance to implementing Black studies, and the pitfalls involved in the process.

Classroom encounters

I learned very early on that teaching Black and African Canadian history was dangerous. Continue reading

Life with Marcel Proust

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By James Cullingham

I began reading Proust as I launched into writing my dissertation in about 2006. I was on a beach in Cuba when I first opened Du côté de chez Swann the first of a seven-volume novel totaling some 3,000 pages. I finished the novel en français earlier this year. That’s correct, it took me 15 years to read À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time).

Proust has been my companion on airplanes, in the bath, on canoe trips and in libraries and cafés from Oaxaca, Mexico to Paris and points in between. As I taught journalism, history, and Indigenous Studies, completed my dissertation, made a number of documentary films and laboured over a book manuscript, I was under the spell of Marcel Proust.

Reading Proust in Silent Lake Park c. 2009. Photo by Li Robbins.

Proust (1871 – 1922) finished his masterwork on his deathbed. The last three volumes of the novel were published posthumously. A sensation during his lifetime, Proust won the prestigious Prix Goncourt in 1919 for À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs (In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower), the second volume, the novel that has been obsessed over by other authors of fiction, historians, filmmakers, philosophers and various savants for a century. Continue reading