AIDS on the Wall: Reflections on the Exhibit “Positive Sex” and the AIDS Activist History Project that Made it Happen

By Beth A. Robertson


Positive Sex Event Poster

Positive Sex Event Poster

Today if you walk into MacOdrum Library at Carleton University in Ottawa, you might be forgiven for taking a double-take. Up on the wall in the main foyer is a striking display that is intended to provide a deeper understanding of what AIDS activism in Canada has looked like since the 1980s. “Positive Sex: Eroticizing Safer Sex Practices in Canada in the 1980s and 1990s,” was curated by Janna Klostermann, Sarah Rodimon and Alexis Shotwell of Carleton University. Focusing on the people on the ground who struggled with inflexible bureaucracy and homophobic stereotypes to promote safer sex practices across Canada, the exhibit features a selection of materials, photographs and quotes that are challenging and provocative.

Continue reading

Justin Trudeau and Canada’s Colonial Baggage: Past and Present

by Christo Aivalis

‘(official denial) trade value in progress’ participatory art project responding to Harper's no history of colonialism statement. Photograph by Krista McCracken.

(official denial) trade value in progress’ participatory art project responding to Harper’s no history of colonialism statement. Photograph by Krista McCracken.

Justin Trudeau—since his October 2015 electoral victory that catapulted him to the office of Prime Minister, and his Liberal Party to a majority government—has not lost much of his sheen with the Canadian public. He still embodies for many youthfulness, respectable progressivism, and what the modern Canadian state and civil society should resemble.

Additionally, Trudeau on the international scene is seen as sexy, cosmopolitan, and as an embodiment of what Canada is stereotypically thought to be, even if it isn’t the reality. Trudeau’s actions, symbolic as they mostly have been, are nevertheless speaking loudly within and beyond Canada’s borders, giving him a highly publicized pulpit from which to evangelize his brand of Canadian l/Liberalism.

In this light, it was just a few days ago at New York University where Trudeau took questions from students. But one topic that went relatively unchallenged was Trudeau’s justification for what Canada can offer the United Nations:

it’s a capacity to engage in the world in difficult places without some of the baggage that so many other Western countries have, either colonial pasts or perceptions of American imperialism, as a critique that’s often out there.”

Some people, including NDP MP Niki Ashton, keyed in on Trudeau’s disavowance of Canada’s colonial and imperial baggage. Others have made the case that this sort of statement mirrors Stephen Harper’s claim that Canada has no history of colonialism. Continue reading

Reports from New Directions in Active History: Community-based Research and Student Learning

By Megan Hertner, Amy Bell and Nina Reid-Maroney

An interview the London Fugitive Slave Chapel Project.

An interview the London Fugitive Slave Chapel Project.

Our presentation at the 2015 Active History Conference was a co-written paper reflecting on our experiences as faculty and student in two community-based learning (CBL) projects in undergraduate History courses at Huron University College. As the student who participated in both projects, Megan presented the paper at the conference. To have a student writing and presenting on her own experiences of class projects, unlike other presentations in which student projects were mediated through presentation by the professor, reinforced the democratic and transformative learning process that characterized CBL projects at Huron. Continue reading

History Slam Episode Eighty-Three: Disaster Citizenship

By Sean Graham

Disaster CitizenshipIn June 1914, the town of Salem, Massachusetts was the site of a massive fire that destroyed over 1,300 buildings. Three and a half years later in Halifax, a fire aboard the SS Mont-Blanc caused an explosion that killed approximately 2,000 people and injured 9,000 others. These two events may seem completely separate in both time and location, but comparing the responses to the disasters sheds an interesting light on the nature of relief efforts and the connections between people living in the United States and Canada.

In the case of Salem, which was home to a sizable francophone community, there wasn’t much coverage of the fire in Quebec. The Halifax explosion, on the other hand, received plenty of attention in Boston, where residents had significant ties to Nova Scotia. The way in which each disaster was met, both locally and abroad, presents not only a unique opportunity for transnational history, but also serves as a fascinating comparison of how citizens respond to disasters.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Jacob Remes about his new book Disaster Citizenship: Survivors, Solidarity, and Power in the Progressive Era. We talk about doing trans-national research, North America diaspora, and responses to disasters.

Continue reading

(Re)Occupied: #OccupyINAC and British Columbia’s 1975 Militant May

By Sarah Nickel

Cover from The Trail of Broken Treaties: B.I.A. I'm Not Your Indian Any More (Akwesasne: Akwesasne Notes, 1973)

Cover from The Trail of Broken Treaties: B.I.A. I’m Not Your Indian Any More (Akwesasne: Akwesasne Notes, 1973)

When approximately thirty members of the Idle No More and Black Lives Matter movements entered the Indigenous and Northern Affairs (INAC) office in Toronto on April 13, 2016 to protest government inaction on the suicide crisis in Attawapiskat, the group, calling itself #OccupyINAC was drawing on long established political strategies. Indigenous peoples have occupied Indian Affairs offices before. Perhaps the most well-known was the 1972 American Indian Movement (AIM) occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) headquarters in Washington, DC. The BIA takeover concluded the Trail of Broken Treaties—a cross-country march organized to protest broken treaty promises and the poor living conditions of Native American peoples across the country. When the caravan reached Washington, 500 American Indians took over the BIA office, destroyed records, and began a seven-day occupation, during which they presented AIM’s “Twenty Point” position paper to President Nixon, listing their demands. Less well known are the occupations that occurred in British Columbia three years later. Continue reading

Lab Partners: Experimenting with Active Learning

(Editor’s note: this post first appeared in the American Historical Association’s Perspectives in April 2016)

By Gabriel Pizzorno and Heidi Tworek


Credit: Jonathan Palmer

One truism about World War I is the incompetence of German propaganda in the United States. The classic stories feature German officials forgetting briefcases with secret documents on the New York subway and ham-fistedly delivering speeches about German culture. But what if we look beyond urban centers to examine the thousands of news items from a German news agency printed in American newspapers during the war? And what if we integrate students into this research adventure?

Over the past few years, the history department at Harvard University, where one of us teaches and the other has taught, has implemented an independent-study course, History Lab, that uses active learning to offer students hands-on experience in historical research and digital methods. Conceived by Dan Smail in 2013, the course addressed a long-standing desire among undergraduates to get involved in research. It also reflected growing faculty interest in applying digital methods and teaching these skills to history majors. Participating faculty propose research projects. Students register for a project and meet weekly with the faculty member; they receive ordinary course credit and must produce a final product (for example, an online exhibition or a visualization) comparable to a major term paper. They also consult regularly with the department’s digital historian, Gabe Pizzorno, who coordinates the methodological aspects common to all the projects.

Research papers and senior theses allow students to stumble on their own; History Lab uses the collaborative nature of digital scholarship to foster collective rather than individual learning. Continue reading

History on Trial in Daniels vs. Canada

By William Wicken

Congress of Aboriginal Peoples press conference following the verdict. CAP photo

Congress of Aboriginal Peoples press conference following the verdict. CAP photo

Last week the Supreme Court of Canada released its decision in the Daniels vs. Canada case. Writing for the court, Justice Abella declared that ‘Métis and non-status Indians are “Indians” under section 91(24).’ Much has already been written about the decision and its possible implications. Less well known are the historical arguments which were the foundation of the trial judge’s decision, and which the Supreme Court upheld. In this post, I discuss my involvement as an historian, and the questions of law, power, and intent that were at the heart of the case.

Two principal witnesses presented the historical evidence on behalf of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, the main plaintiff in the case. These witnesses were Gwynneth Jones and me. Both of us did original archival research and submitted written reports to the Court. My report was 171 pages, and Gwynneth’s report was similarly lengthy. Each of us also testified at trial before Justice Phelan of the Federal Court of Canada in May of 2011 and we were both cross-examined by federal lawyers. Afterward, the federal government presented their evidence, most of which was given by Professors Stephen Patterson and Alexander Von Gernet.

History as evidence

Why was this historical evidence important? The plaintiff sought to make the federal government recognize that they had a legal responsibility for Métis and non-status Indians. This would mean “that the Government of Canada can no longer disclaim responsibility and continue playing a game of political hot potato with the provinces over jurisdiction.”  In making this argument, the Congress’s lawyers focused their attention on section 91 of the 1867 British North America Act. Continue reading

Episodes in Canada’s arms trade: 1946 and 2016

dionBy David Webster

Foreign minister Stephane Dion is taking flak for approving the sale of military light armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia despite that country’s human rights record. Dion’s response implies that Canadian restrictions on arms exports are tough, with an emphasis on ensuring that weapons made in Canada are not be used against civilian populations, and links it to what he calls the guiding principle of his foreign policy: “responsible conviction.”

The debates are evocative of the year that Canada entered the arms export business, 70 years ago. Restrictions on arms exports are not tougher today than they were at the creation of an arms export business. Reflecting on debates over military sales in 1946 and 2016 suggests that human rights are not necessarily becoming more central in policy making over time. If anything, policy makers in 1946 seem to have been more scrupulous on avoiding sales on human rights grounds, and more restrictive about selling arms that might be used, than the policy makers of today.

So how did Canada get into the arms export business, anyway? The tale goes back to the aftermath of the Second World War. Prime Minister Mackenzie King’s government was prepared to allow surplus military equipment to remain with allied governments in Europe, and to provide military goods to the United States and Great Britain. But when it came to selling to less reliable governments, and those who might actually use the weapons, King’s cabinet was more scrupulous. Cabinet approval was needed for any military sale, no matter how small, to any country other than the United States and Great Britain. The minutes of cabinet meetings are full of discussion about possible sales, and always included a question as to whether the arms were likely to be used. Cabinet held to a policy spelled out by Prime Minister Mackenzie King that “great care should be taken with respect to all sales of weapons and supplies of war to foreign governments.” If a country was at war, if it intended to use the weapons for anything other than re-equipping its defensive forces, or if there were questions about human rights, sales tended to be refused or not even submitted for cabinet consideration. Continue reading

The Currency of Memory: #bankNOTEable Canadian Women

By Kaleigh Bradley


Source: Bank of Canada.

Last month, on International Women’s Day, Trudeau announced that by 2018, “an iconic Canadian woman” would appear on the next issue of bank notes. Up until April 18th, 2016, the Bank of Canada issued an open call for nominations of #bankNOTEable women. In order to quality, the woman in question had to be a Canadian citizen (by birth or naturalization), deceased for at least twenty-five years, and had to have demonstrated “outstanding leadership, achievement or distinction in any field.”

After the initial call, the Bank of Canada’s Advisory Council will review the crowed-sourced list of candidates to create a list of 10-12. The Canadian public will then be able to vote from this list on the Bank’s website and these votes will be used to ensure the nominees are a representative sample of our country. The list will be narrowed down to a few names, experts will be consulted, and according to custom, the Minister of Finance will make the final decision. It’s clear that officials are trying to ensure that the selection process is inclusive and representative of all Canadians. The Advisory Committee is comprised of experts and representatives from different interest groups. Public input is welcome and the list of candidates will be crowd-sourced. Despite these efforts, the process of commemoration is polarizing and the initial call has led to some important public discussions about commemoration and Canadian history.

Popular choices included artist Emily Carr, War of 1812 “heroine” Laura Secord, author Lucy Maud Montgomery, civil rights icon Viola Desmond, Indigenous poet E. Pauline Johnson, and Harriet Tubman, who helped 300 slaves enter Canada through the underground railway.

Discussions about who should be selected has me thinking about the importance of history and memory in our everyday lives. History is on our money, in the street or place names we use, the architecture we see, in the song lyrics we enjoy, and within and outside of the boundaries of the landscapes we build. The history we experience around us might not reflect our own memories, histories, and identities. Acts of remembering, boundary-making, erasure, naming, and commemoration are often political, contested, divisive, and sometimes deeply personal.

As H.V. Nelles argues in The Art of Nation Building, commemoration and myth-making are performances, acts of self-invention on the part of the nation state and the cultural elite. Myth-making and commemorations tell us more about the agenda of the state and our priorities as a society today, than they do about the events and people we seek to commemorate.

Commemoration serves to validate particular national myths and historical narratives. In Canada, there are  so many conflilcting histories that it’s hard to tell one story about colonialism, our track record with immigration and multiculturalism, our relationship to the monarchy, our artistic history and cultural institutions, and Quebec nationalism, just to name a few. Is there really one history, or one woman who can be representative for all of us? Is there a history that we can all adhere to? And why does this even matter? What does it mean to elevate one individual to an iconic status? Continue reading

Merchants of Death: Canada’s History of Questionable Exports

By Stephanie Bangarth and Jon Weier



I must say that I feel the whole Canadian policy to be very hypocritical. We talk a good game but then proceed to act inconsistently by promoting trade with the countries whose policies we denounce.[1]

The year was 1974 and the issue of Canadian trade with South Africa was making the headlines, along with concerns over the sale of CANDU reactors to Argentina and India. It reflected the increasing awareness of and support for human rights in Canadian foreign policy during the late 1960s and the early 1970s. As David Forsyth notes, as a general historical trend, more attention is now paid toward humanitarianism in world affairs.[2] In part, this development was due to parliamentarians such as New Democrat Andrew Brewin, who were central in making the issue of human rights more than merely a domestic issue.

Brewin’s statement is as relevant today as it was in 1974. Since its election in October 2015, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s new Liberal government has been dogged by the continuing saga of the sale of armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia. This deal, initially pursued and approved by the previous Conservative government, would see General Dynamics Land Systems sell $15 billion worth of Light Armoured Vehicles (LAVs) to re-equip the Saudi National Guard. These LAVs are to be produced at the General Dynamics production facility in London, Ontario, and were a centrepiece of the previous Conservative government’s plan for bolstering the Canadian arms industry through increased exports. Continue reading