Shahid Bedis: Revisiting Revolutionary Moments through Public History

By Madhulagna Halder

I almost stumbled upon the account of the shahid bedis by accident in 2023, during an archival field trip. While working at the 114-year-old Rammohun Library, in Kolkata, India, I met Sunish Deb, a social worker and a former activist, who was a regular in the Library’s reading room. As we continued our chanced conversation about my doctoral research, Deb mentioned in a passing anecdote, how once, not long back, he, along with a few of his friends, went around the city, restoring dilapidated martyr memorials on a quest to breathe new life to the much overlooked history of the Naxalbari Movement and its “heroic martyrs.”

Further research led me to uncover that the story of the shahid bedis in Kolkata resurfaced in 2021.

A memorial stone celebrating the unsung martyrs, at the village of Naxalbari in West Bengal, India. This particular image is for a celebratory event marking 50 years of the movement in 2017, by the CPI (ML). Image sourced from the online archives of the CPI(ML).

The movement began when Supriyo Choudhury, a writer and a photographer, stumbled upon an almost faded out memorial stone in College Street (an arterial neighbourhood in the old part of the city) and made an appeal on Facebook for concerned friends, former activists and sympathizers to get together and start the work of restoration. Continue reading

Smoking – What’s Old is News

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By Sean Graham

This week I’m joined by Daniel Robinson, author of Cigarette Nation: Business, Health, and Canadian Smokers, 1930-1975. We discuss Daniel’s initial interest in studying smoking culture, the increase in smoking rates in the 1930s and 1940s, and the initial studies linking cigarettes to cancer in the 1950s. We also chat about the industry’s and government’s response, the social side of smoking, and the cultural significance cigarettes in Canada.

Historical Headline of the Week

Aurelia Foster, “What is the UK smoking ban, how will it work and when will it start?BBC, April 23, 2024.

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Fascism and Anti-Fascism in Italian Historical Consciousness

by Alessandro Tarsia

Having completed my PhD in Indigenous history, I recently returned to my birth nation of Italy. It had been seven years since I visited the villages in my home region of Calabria. While I’d always been aware of the debates over the place of fascism in Italian historical consciousness, I couldn’t help but feel that something was different now. The place of the fascist regime and the anti-fascist Resistance in the historical consciousness is the contested subject at the centre of the harsh Italian contemporary political debate. As one strolls along the main streets and squares of the 8000 Italian municipalities, the intense discussions held in newspapers, on television channels, and at several benches and cafeterias become palpable. Additionally, the restoration or abandonment of historical artifacts—such as defensive bunkers and the walls of public and private buildings adorned with numerous signs of the fascist regime—serves as a stark visual reminder of this ambiguous climate.

Nazi-Fascist Bunker – Capo Colonna (Italy). Alessandro Tarsia, May 29, 2024.

Walking through Italian historical centers, I noticed faded fascist-era propaganda slogans such as “To stop is to retreat” and “You cannot exalt yesterday’s sacrifice if you are not ready for tomorrow’s.” Their preservation is overseen by the Superintendencies of the Italian Ministry of Culture, which have conservative policies focused on “preserving the past as it is.” Some Superintendents occasionally allow explanatory panels and counter-history to accompany the graffiti, but most 1930s-1940s-era fascist graffiti remains prominent and unchallenged. In addition, hundreds of Nazi-fascist bunkers (part of the Italian portion of the Organisation Todt of fortified defences) sit uninterpreted on the landscape. Many are slowly becoming buried, and some are filled with garbage or used as public restrooms. But others painted with fresh graffiti by a new generation of neo-fascists seek to revive a history they have romanticized and scrubbed clean of its cruelty and hatred. But these remnants of history are increasingly potent mnemonic devices in contemporary historical consciousness. They are stark visual reminders of Italy’s ambiguous fascist climate.

“To stop is to retreat.” San Fili (Italy). Alessandro Tarsia. May 18, 2024.

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Fieldhouse of Dreams: Allen Ginsberg in Thunder Bay

Poster advertising Allen Ginsberg's reading at the Lakehead U Fieldhouse.

Poster for the Ginsberg reading, “Groove on Ginsberg,” Courtesy of the Ray Shankman Fonds, Jewish Public Library Archives, Montréal.

Gary Genosko

American poet Allen Ginsberg’s Canadian itinerary of readings throughout 1969 brought him to a number of major urban centres, including Montreal and Vancouver. For instance, at the end of October and beginning of November in Montréal, Ginsberg read at Sir George Williams University, where he was introduced by poet George Bowering; he then read at McGill University in an event sponsored by the Hillel Jewish Students Society and Debating Clubs. These readings and question and answer periods are archived online on The Allen Ginsberg Project, https://allenginsberg.org/.

However, this article concerns a visit Ginsberg made to a regional Ontario city earlier, in March of that year.  Ginsberg performed in Thunder Bay (then Port Arthur), Ontario on Friday, March, 14, 1969, singing Buddhist chants and reading from his soon to be published collection, The Fall of America, at Lakehead University (LU).  The leading idea here is to build up a small archive of materials related to this under-documented visit. This will not only assist Ginsberg scholars, but it will assist local cultural historians by filling out some elements of the event, while acknowledging Ginsberg’s own cultural and religious affiliations and the roles they played. Continue reading

School of Racism – What’s Old is News

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By Sean Graham

This week I’m joined by Catherine Larochelle, author of School of Racism: A Canadian History, 1830-1915, which is also available in French. Recorded live in Montreal, we discuss Catherine’s study of educational materials, the challenge of studying the history of schools, and the importance of exploring the history of both French and English language materials. We also chat about how colonialism influences curricula, how colonial ideas shape classroom programming, and the difficulty in confronting deeply engrained ideas.

Historical Headline of the Week

Sam Thompson and Daisy Woelk, “‘Shock and disbelief’ after Manitoba school trustee’s Indigenous comments,” Global News, April 25, 2024.

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The Late 1980s Crisis in Toronto Public Housing Part I – Disability and Danger

Aerial photograph of a city landscape.

Aerial photo of MTHA development Regent Park circa 1980-1998. Copyright City of Toronto.

David M. K. Sheinin

This is the first of four articles on Toronto public housing in the late 1980s. This first article introduces the series then focuses on disability and public housing. The second addresses a new social role for the Metropolitan Toronto Housing Authority (MTHA) that included providing breakfast for children in need and mounting after-school programs on MTHA properties. The third considers tenant advocacy and the final article explores problems in public housing in the Jane-Finch neighborhood. To protect their privacy, initials substitute for the names of residents who are or may still be alive. Language used on “disability” reflects terminology used in the 1980s.

On May 25, 1987, SMJ sent a handwritten letter to John Sewell, Metro Toronto Housing Authority (MTHA) chair and former mayor of Toronto. Like hundreds of letters Sewell received from public housing residents—most of which he answered or addressed personally—SMJ’s note was all at once smart, raw, and to the point. She approached Sewell as a potential ally. “I am not a delinquent in my rent payments,” SMJ wrote, “nor am I a trouble maker.” She itemized problems in her unit that included unchanged door locks since occupancy, a bathroom floor in need of retiling, and poor plastering. She told Sewell of the “standard rehearsed excuses” from MTHA employees that included “We don’t have the tools necessary” and “I don’t have a work order for that.” Continue reading

Passports – What’s Old is News

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By Sean Graham

This week I’m joined by Patrick Bixby, author of License to Travel: A Cultural History of the Passport. We talk about the origins of the modern passport, the reaction to its introduction, and how artists and writers responded. We also chat about the role of the nation state in immigration, the relative value of nations’ passports, and what the document tells us about its holder.

Historical Headline of the Week

Kanis Leung, “Hong Kong Invokes a New Law to Cancel Passports of 6 Overseas-Based Activists, Including Nathan Law,” Associated Press, 12 June 2024.

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Reproductive Justice, Teen Mothers, and Integration into Education

Holy Angels School Building, photo by author.

Mallory Davies

This is the seventh entry in a monthly series on Thinking Historically. See the Introduction here.

Coined by activist American women of colour in the 1990s, reproductive justice is an activist framework that provides an intersectional understanding of reproductive autonomy. Reproductive justice invokes the “sexual autonomy and gender freedom for every human being,” among the right to reproductive decision making.[1] Despite advancements, the last few years have witnessed a reduction in reproductive rights protections in the United States and Canada. In the United States, the overturning of Roe v Wade has led to a host of changes to medical care, often with the result that individuals are denied their reproductive rights.

In Canada, these conversations are being broached in the realm of education with the Alberta premier proposing anti-trans policies aimed at the sex education curriculum and switching to an opt-in approach for sex education, as was recently discussed in a blog post on this site by Karissa Patton and Nancy Janovicek. These contemporary conversations propose to limit reproductive decision-making for citizens and curtail the kinds of education available to students. Now more than ever, we need reproductive justice as a framework to be incorporated into the education system.  To understand how early efforts of reproductive justice were incorporated into educational systems, I focus on some very early findings from my study on the history of education for teen mothers in Calgary, Alberta.

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How Prime Ministers Influence Identity – What’s Old is News

By Sean Graham

This week, I’m joined by Raymond Blake, author of Canada’s Prime Ministers and the Shaping of National Identity. We discuss the role of the Prime Minister, how mass media changed the office, and the ways in which Prime Ministers have influenced national identity. We also chat about how international affairs shape domestic discussions, how the length of a government shapes public perceptions, and how retail politics influence conversations on identity.

Historical Headline of the Week

Erna Paris, “Canada’s Multiculturalism is our Identity,” Globe & Mail, April 27, 2018.

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Montreal Walking Tour: Towers of Grain

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Jim Clifford and Stéphane Castonguay will lead a walking tour on Sunday June 16 at 7pm starting at Victoria Square in Montreal.

Towers of Grain: Feeding Edwardian Britain

Silo number 1, built in 1902 in the Port of Montreal, linked the burgeoning wheat farms on the Prairies with the urban markets in the United Kingdom. New industrial-scale flour mills were built in Birkenhead near Liverpool and West Ham on the eastern edge of London between 1899 and 1905. On the Prairies, Ogilvie Milling Company, the British American Company, Grain Growers’ Grain Company and others built thousands of grain elevators to feed wheat into the railways. Railways and steamships linked these towers together. Settlers and farming in the Canadian Prairies required industrial technology from the start, and this provides an important reminder the Industrial Revolution did not stop at the city limits of Manchester, Glasgow, or Montreal. This walking tour will use digital materials to explore the transnational history of the grain silos in the Port of Montreal and Prairie wheat fields.

The tour will commence 7:00pm at the Art Nouveau entrance of the Square-Victoria–OACI metro station.

Please register for the free walking tour on Eventbrite.

Here is the current draft of the digital content developed to accompany the walking tour: