Canadian Historical Association: Open Letter to the Polish Prime Minister

Yesterday, Joan Sangster, the President of the Canadian Historical Association sent the following letter to Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo regarding recent legislation criminalizing historical interpretation. For broader context of this issue see Jim Clifford’s post The Polish Government, the Holocaust and Jan Grabowski and Thomas Peace’s Fake News, Global History Wars, and the Importance of Historical Thinking.

Ottawa, December 6, 2016

The Chancellery of the Prime Minister of the Republic of Poland
Prime Minister Beata Szydlo
00-583 Warsaw
Al. Ujazdowskie 1/3

Dear Prime Minister Szydlo,

In August 2016, the Polish cabinet approved legislation that introduces harsh legal punishment (up to three years’ imprisonment) for historians or members of the public referring to “Polish death camps” or “Polish concentration camps.” In attempting to regulate speech and thought, and by criminalizing historical interpretation it considers problematic, the Polish government is violating key principles of academic freedom which are fundamental civil liberties in democratic states. As historians, we are deeply concerned by the possibility that our Polish counterparts may face reprisal for their scholarship on Polish history during the period of Nazi occupation, the history of anti-Semitism in Poland, and the Jewish experience during the Holocaust in Poland.

The Polish government argues that it seeks through this legislation to set the historical record on concentration camps in Poland straight.  A law banning the use of terms such as “Polish concentration camps” aims to make it clear that these were a German Nazi policy, not instigated by the Polish government. Whatever the intent of the legislation, however, the proposed law is unlikely to result in improved historical awareness among Poles or internationally. Social understandings of a difficult and complex past cannot be legislated. Neither can history be written through the prism of state laws, or constituted through the suppression of counter-narratives or scholarly research that challenge the state’s current view of the past. Continue reading

Hyperbole, Hot Takes, and Hillary’s Qualifications

By Sean Graham

hyperboleBack in 2011, I wrote an article in the Ottawa Citizen arguing that hyperbole didn’t work in Canadian political life. In the midst of the Stop Harper movement, I felt that words like ‘dictator’ were counterproductive. If you want to challenge somebody’s politics, then do so in a rationale, reasonable way that focuses on the issues at hand. In the five years since, our social media dominated ‘hot take culture’ has continued to spread, with nuanced argument being replaced by name calling more akin to Dan Aykroyd on Weekend Update.

This year’s presidential election exacerbated the problem. Unsubstantiated declarative statements became the norm. Whenever something new came along or a policy was presented, it was either the best or the worst thing to have ever happened. Certainly, the President-Elect, given his Twitter persona, was a major factor in this. There has been a lot written about Donald Trump’s tenuous relationship with the truth and the damage these statements have done, but there were also statements on the left that were made without supporting evidence. Throughout the campaign there was one claim that I heard repeatedly from Hillary Clinton supporters, including the President, that I was really curious about: that she was the most qualified candidate to ever run for president.

There have been many people who have run for president of the United States – thousands if you count the Joe Exotic’s of the world. It’s possible that Clinton was the most qualified person to have ever run, but in the interest of cutting through the hyperbole, why not compare her credentials with some of the other highly qualified people who have campaigned for the presidency?

(Note that this is based on experience within government and sitting presidents running for re-election have not been included. Some of these individuals have run multiple times, but the year indicated is the one under examination here)

Hillary Clinton – 2016

Continue reading

Stewarding a Canadian Culture of Comity

By Elizabeth Mancke

Reception of the American Loyalists by Great Britain in the Year 1783. Engraving by H. Moses after Benjamin West.

Reception of the American Loyalists by Great Britain in the Year 1783. Engraving by H. Moses after Benjamin West.

The election of Donald Trump as US president raises concerns about the impact on Canada: on trade, energy policy, currency exchanges, pipelines, climate change. Most anxiety inducing is the toxic turn of civic discourse, as the US political process tolerated expressions of racism and sexism, as well as outright lies and intimidation.

The contaminating effects, we fear, may spread north. Although Canadians now have a cultural confidence about their differences from Americans, and believe that they should be protected, the task is complicated by the difficulty of identifying these differences.

At a very mundane level, Canadian “niceness” might be undermined. That niceness, however, is not from Canadians spending more time in Sunday school (lower than in the US) or table time with parents over supper.   It reflects a culture of comity, of courtesy and consideration in civic discourse, dating back to the Loyalists of the 18th century. As refugees from a war they opposed, these Americans moved north armed with words not weapons as the primary tools to rebuild shattered communities and forge deliberative governments. Continue reading

Lillian Piché Shirt, John Lennon and a Cree Grandmother’s Inspiration for the Song “Imagine”

By Lillian Shirt, Corinne George and Sarah Carter

Lillian Piché Shirt speaking at the University of Alberta in Sept. 1969 for the Native Peoples Defense Fund. The Gateway 29 Sept., 1969: 1

Lillian Piché Shirt speaking at the University of Alberta in Sept. 1969 for the Native Peoples Defense Fund. The Gateway 29 Sept., 1969: 1

It was the summer of ’69. Lillian Piché Shirt, a twenty-six year old Cree woman from the Saddle Lake Cree Nation, was living in a tipi with her four young children on Sir Winston Churchill Square outside Edmonton’s City Hall. She was protesting the lack of housing for Indigenous people in Edmonton. Lillian had been evicted from her apartment two months earlier when ownership changed hands, and had not found other accommodation since. Landlords refused to rent to her.

Interviewed in 2006 by Corinne George for her M.A. thesis on  Aboriginal women activists of Alberta in the 1950s – 1980s, Lillian explained: “I decided I was going to do something about it, it was in May, and I thought, well, how am I going to do this? I am not many in number, not too many people will risk anything, and I looked at it from all different directions… So I went and picked up my tipi at my grandma’s, cause I had decided what I was going to do. I was going to put up a tipi right smack dab in the middle of Churchill Square- right in front of city Hall, where the mayor could see me from his desk.” She declared “I won’t move until I’m forced out or I get a proper house to live in.”[1] Lillian said the protest was not just about housing, but about discrimination in education and welfare and a call to respect human rights. She was concerned that Indigenous children were not being taught their own history in school, that children were losing their identity, and she called for schools on reserves rather than young people having to go to the cities.[2] The tipi went up on May 30.

Edmonton’s police station, court house, and the public library also all looked out onto the square where Lillian was camped. City Hall would not give her a permit to live on the square.[3] But Mayor Ivor Dent was sympathetic, as was Joe Poss of the Edmonton Police who provided security. Lillian had friends and supporters who helped her raise the tipi, brought supplies and took the older children to and from school. By early July she was joined by others in three pup tents and one more tipi.[4] A Citizens Committee on Housing and Discrimination was formed. She intended to stay on the square until accommodation was found, and if the city forced her off she was going to move to the grounds of the legislative building.[5]

The protest received local, provincial and national attention, and Lillian’s protest was covered in newspapers, television and radio. On May 31 for example, an article was published in the Toronto Globe and Mail under the headline “Mother Confronts Edmonton Authority: Erects Teepee Outside City Hall.” That same day a photo of Lillian holding one of her children and one of her tipi appeared in the Toronto Daily Star with the headline “Crees Camp in Edmonton Square.”

Just at this time John Lennon and Yoko Ono were in Canada. Continue reading

Listening to History: Correcting the Toronto Metis Land Acknowledgement

By Jesse Thistle

Map ascribed to Louis Jolliet after 1673 showing ganatchakiagon and the rouge trail the eastern arm of the Toronto carrying place

Map ascribed to Louis Jolliet after 1673 showing ganatchakiagon and the rouge trail the eastern arm of the Toronto carrying place

One of my friends is a teacher for the Toronto District School Board (TDSB). She recently asked me for help regarding their traditional land acknowledgement recognizing the Anishinaabe, Haudenosaunee, Wendat, and the Metis. She told me that the board was facing considerable resistance from the community regarding the acknowledgment of the Metis. The blow back is understandable, and here’s why.

I’m sure we’ve all seen the Metis wars on Twitter raging amongst our scholarly friends. They rail on about who is and who is not Metis; where the historic Metis homeland is and where it is not. Well if you’re wondering, Toronto isn’t Metis, nor are its historic mixed-bloods. But beyond the contested lines drawn in the scholarly sandbox, here is some actual history to break down why Toronto sits outside of the western Metis homeland and thus should not be included in the TDSB Indigenous land acknowledgement. Continue reading

History and the Perils of Inevitability

By Jonathan McQuarrie

Image from Judge Magazine in 1917.

Image from Judge Magazine in 1917.

Not long after Donald Trump’s victory, Hillary Clinton sought to reassure her supporters, and perhaps herself. Echoing President Obama, who in turn drew on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., she said “the arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice.

This is a reasonable and comforting thing to assert, and it may well be right. But, as one European commentator noted, it’s just as likely wrong.

One major insight of history is to critique teleological thinking—the idea that events are moving towards some predetermined end. Analysis of events with set ends, while often useful for providing some manageable structure for courses and narratives, are limited. Alternative ends and paths need to be assessed and developed so that consequences and challenges can be managed.

Listing developments that point to current and future turmoil creates a sense of dread. Consider events that have taken place or that will turn towards a new period of instability, racism, and uneven scarcity. It’s foreseeable that racist discrimination, environmental problems, and social conflict won’t improve, and will indeed worsen. Let’s take recent reports of low ice cover as a sign of impending climate disaster, and also assume that reports that the worst case scenarios traced in the Club of Rome’s 1972 Limits to Growth are indeed happening. Let’s assume that President Trump’s administration follows through on many of its racist polices of registration and deportation (and indeed builds on deportation precedents set by Obama’s administration). In Europe, Brexit happens, Marine Le Pen (or François Fillon, who stretches definitions of ‘centre-right’ to meaninglessness) is elected president, and the EU begins to dissolve under nationalist strains. Let’s assume Assad retains control in what is left of Syria. Let’s assume Vladimir Putin continues to grow in influence and military force. Let’s assume North Korea remains agitated, Japan accelerates re-armament, and southeast Asia continues down the gradual movement towards geopolitical conflict (I could go on).

Continue reading

A luta continua: past, present, and future in South Africa’s Constitutional Court  

By Rachel Hatcher

[This is the sixth post in the Learning and unlearning history in South Africa’s public spaces series.]

Located in the heart of the larger Johannesburg metropolitan area, South Africa’s Constitutional Court is the ingenious and deeply moving physical manifestation of what post-apartheid South Africa was supposed to be like. As renewed student protests demanding that #FeesMustFall and the militarized response to them reveal more and more each day, however, it is not what post-apartheid South Africa actually is like.

The Constitutional Court as an institution was founded in 1994 by the 1993 interim Constitution, which was then superseded by the final Constitution in 1996. The building was officially inaugurated with much fanfare in 2004.

photo-15266

Photo 1

The Court is located on the site of what had been the notorious high security men’s prison, where Mahatma Gandhi, Albert Luthuli, Joe Slovo, Nelson Mandela, and many others were once interned. The prison closed in 1983. The equally notorious but far less known women’s prison, where Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Albertina Sisulu, and Fatima Meer were imprisoned, is located a stone’s throw away.

The men’s prison’s notoriety is certainly due to the names of those who passed through its gates, but also to the dehumanizing and torturous treatment political prisoners, especially, received there, as in other prisons in apartheid-era South Africa.

When the site was chosen to be the home of the new Constitutional Court, rather than raze the building and erase it from the cityscape entirely, it was decided to incorporate parts of the old prison into the new court building and so leave a very visible reminder of the past—its pain and injustices—in the present. Thus, the bases of several stairwells in the Awaiting Trial Block were left standing (photo 1).  The voices of former detainees can be heard narrating their experiences in great detail from loudspeakers attached to one of the stairwells. Continue reading

Quarrelsome cannabis in the UK: evidence from Canada and elsewhere

By Lucas Richert

screen-shot-2016-11-23-at-8-40-26-pmIn September the All Party Parliamentary Group on Drug Policy Reform in the UK stated there was “good evidence” cannabis could help alleviate the symptoms of several health conditions, including chronic pain and anxiety. According to Professor Mike Barnes, a leading consultant neurologist who contributed to the report, “We must legalise access to medical cannabis as a matter of urgency.”

The co-chair of the Group, Baroness Molly Meacher, stated:

“The evidence has been strong enough to persuade a growing number of countries and US states to legalise access to medical cannabis. Against this background, the UK scheduling of cannabis as a substance that has no medical value is irrational.”

The All Party Group obtained evidence from 623 patients, representatives of the medical professions and people with knowledge of how medical cannabis is regulated around the world. It reviewed over 20,000 reports and suggested cannabis could be used for multiple health problems.

By contrast, a Home Office spokesman noted: Continue reading

Queen’s Goes Viral

Scott Rutherford

unnamedEach year at Halloween my partner and I hand out candy to a couple of dozen neighbourhood kids. We live in a working/middle class neighbourhood in Kingston where most of the children are white, as are their parents. I’m always anxious before opening the door to that first trick-or-treater. Who’s going to be the first Osama Bin Laden or any number of other racialized caricatures? But it hasn’t happened, not once in four years. That doesn’t mean it won’t next year, but I’ve yet to have a “wtf” moment at my front door—save for the non-costumed twenty something year old who asked for candy this year.

So, I have a stock of WTFs in the bank. It’s a good thing, too, because I need them for when I go to my job as an adjunct instructor at Queen’s University–especially around Halloween. This year a bunch of what-appears-to-be-mostly-white students have made national headlines (yet again) for dressing up in various racist costumes. Once again, Queen’s administration is scrambling the PR department to spin away from the familiar tale of this university, to quote an old friend, being not a haven for the “best and the brightest, but the richest and whitest.” I remember that line well, it comes not from 2016, but from late 2005 in response to a young white Queen’s student who wore blackface and called herself “Miss Ethiopia.” Ten years at Queen’s provides some powerful entries (the “Cowboys and Indians Kegger,” for example)[1] into what some of us might call its race archive. My WTF moments are much fewer and much farther apart than for my colleagues who do not inhabit my same identities—straight, white, and male. But racist Halloween costumes have a way of not passing you by easily. For those of us who have been around this campus a while, this moment should not be “a shocker.”[2] Continue reading

Before Mifegymiso: A History of Rural Women’s Access to Abortion

Katrina Ackerman

Tourism PEI / John Silvester, CC 2.0 Attribution

Tourism PEI / John Silvester, CC 2.0 Attribution

Women in the Atlantic Provinces have long struggled to access reproductive health care services due to the rural nature of the region. Whereas Canada’s rural population declined from 24 percent in 1971 to 19 percent in 2011, the Atlantic region’s rural population only declined from 47 percent to 46 percent rural in the same period. Christabelle Sethna and Marion Doull’s research on Canadian women’s access to freestanding abortion clinics in the 2000s demonstrates that the Atlantic Provinces have the lowest access to abortion services in the country.[1] Many researchers argue that medical abortions would ensure access for women in the Atlantic, northern, and remote regions of Canada.

With the impending release of Mifegymiso in Canada—a prescription drug that can terminate a pregnancy in the first 49 days of gestational age—there is much debate over the requirement that women receive the drug under the supervision of a doctor. Physician-only dispensing would create an additional barrier to accessing Mifegymiso in rural areas, particularly in regions without surgical abortion services.[2] In defence of the criticism that the federal government is limiting rural women’s access to the drug, Health Canada argues in Mifegymiso: Myths vs. Facts that medical abortions require physician oversight because approximately 1 in 20 women will require surgery for unsuccessful terminations.

The urban-rural divide surrounding access to reproductive health care services is nothing new and the role of physicians in delivering services have often been at the center of these disputes. Continue reading