“The water power of Niagara should be as free as the air:” The Past, Present, and Future, of Democratic Energy Control in Ontario

Christo Aivalis

Ontario power station below the falls, 1908. Public domain image.

Ontario power station below the falls, 1908. Public domain image.

The politics of energy are omnipresent in historical and contemporary Canadian society. Who owns energy, how it is produced, and who benefits from its production and distribution has been central to the rise and fall of governments. In some cases, as with Pierre Trudeau’s National Energy Program (NEP), the regional tensions it inflamed are still evident to this day.

Perhaps the most interesting and current debate around energy hails from Ontario, where the provincial Liberal government—without seeking a mandate in the 2014 election—has begun the process of privatizing Hydro One, which has been in public control for more than a century. And while the majority of opposition has come from the left and organized labour, the advent of a public energy system in Ontario predates nearly all of Canada’s major unions and leftist parties.

Surprisingly given our modern ideological landscape, a public hydro system in Ontario was created in 1906 by James P. Whitney’s Conservatives (the title quote is attributed to him), who fought successfully against Liberal George W. Ross’ rejection of public energy control, which was driven by a distrust of public ownership as well as Ross’ pecuniary conflicts—which included being an executive of a company involved with energy production, as well as bestowing energy contracts as political favours.

The rationale for a publically-controlled energy system from Whitney’s perspective was quite forward-thinking. Ontario in the early 1900s was on the verge of mass industrialization, and electrical power was the lifeblood of such a system. To have electricity owned privately—either by foreign interests, domineering monopolies, or a patchwork of petty capitalists—served neither the public interest nor the needs of an increasingly capitalized and urban province. Whether for the worker, farmer, consumer, municipality, or industrialist, affordable, accessible, and consistent power networks were imperative. Continue reading

Ten Books to Contextualize Reconciliation in Archives, Museums, and Public History

Krista McCracken

trc-coverIn June 2015 following the closing event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada I wrote an Active History post about “The Role of Canada’s Museums and Archives in Reconciliation.” Over a year has passed since the TRC concluded its work and much of what I wrote in that post is still true.

I still wholeheartedly agree with the TRC’s statement that “there is an urgent need in Canada to develop historically literate citizens who understand why and how the past is relevant to their own lives and the future of the country. Museums have an ethical responsibility to foster national reconciliation, and not simply tell one party’s version of the past. ” (Summary of the Final Report of the TRC, p. 308)  I also still think that archives have a similarly important role in preserving and teaching about Indigenous communities and the history of Canada.

This year, as September rolled around, I received a number of requests for reading recommendations and instruction suggestions around teaching about public history, museums, archives, and reconciliation.  In light of those requests I’ve created a list of ten books and articles that contextualize and explore the role cultural heritage organizations have in reconciliation and responding to the work of the TRC in Canada.

This list is merely a starting point and there are many other sources where students and scholars can learn about residential schools and reconciliation.  Additionally, in all cases I would suggest that listening to the voices of survivors and Indigenous communities is a crucial part of learning about the history of residential schools and that heritage professionals need to be thinking about what it means to be an ally.  Conversations about privilege, reconciliation, and decolonial practices can be challenging but they are something that need to happen. Continue reading

Gun Rights: Hoping History Won’t Matter


R. Blake Brown

In September 2016 the Aspen Institute, a non-partisan American think-tank, held a symposium entitled “Firearms and the Common Law Tradition” at the Institute’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.  The conveners of the symposium, historian Jennifer Tucker of Wesleyan University, curators Margaret Vining and Bart Hacker of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, and Ruth Katz of the Aspen Institute, hoped to create space to discuss constructively the changing meaning of firearms in American culture and to identify new areas of research that will allow historians and legal professionals to think creatively about the challenge of guns in American law and culture.

The conveners invited a broad spectrum of participants, including historians who take opposing views of what the Framers of the American constitution meant to enshrine in drafting the Second Amendment, which famously proclaims that “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”  Others in attendance included lawyers who have argued for and against the constitutionality of various American gun laws, British constitutional historians who have addressed the constitutional inheritance that informed American ideas concerning the right to bear arms, and scholars of American gun culture and violence.  In addition, curators of a number of firearm museums attended, including the curators from the Autry Museum of the American West, the National Firearms Centre of the British Royal Armouries, and the Cody Firearms Museum at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West.  The expertise of the participants was thus broad and deep, and, on paper, the symposium offered an excellent opportunity to move forward the debate over gun culture and gun rights. Continue reading

The Year of the Flood: Hurricane Matthew, Oral Narratives, and Climate History


Cabot Street, Sydney, N.S. – 10 October 2016. Photo by author

By Lachlan MacKinnon

The tail-end of Hurricane Matthew battered Nova Scotia and Newfoundland on Monday afternoon and through the evening. Although the damage does not approach the devastation wrought by the system in the Caribbean and other points south, for many in Cape Breton it will be remembered as the storm of a generation. As I drove around the streets of Sydney, scrambling to help check the basements of family and friends for flooding, it struck me that these sorts of extreme weather events promote an interesting form of collective storytelling. As common experiences, they provide the basis for casual small-talk but may also segue into meaningful discussions about climate change, politics, or environmental history. Surveying the flood-soaked South End, onlookers engaged each other with impromptu “oral histories” of past storms and personal experiences.

The October Gale of ’74 looms large in such discussions. While Hurricane Matthew is the worst storm that I remember experiencing, residents were quick to draw comparisons to another unpredicted weather system that pounded the island on October 20th, 1974. Ultimately, thirty-three families were left homeless and more than 1,500 homes were damaged in Sydney alone. According to many in the city, the ’74 Gale was far worse than the recent hurricane. One man – only a child at the time – described using his overcoat as a makeshift sail, jumping into the 145 km/h winds and being carried several feet – not realizing the apparent danger. A 2014 article in the local newspaper, published near the 40th anniversary of the Gale – includes fourteen comments describing local storm experiences. These contain descriptions of trailers being upended, roofs coming undone, and pedestrians narrowly escaping flying debris. Although I had not previously heard of the ’74 Gale, in the days since Hurricane Matthew, I have been confronted time and again by the memories of people who were directly affected. Continue reading

The building of which nation? Conflicting Narratives at the National Women’s Memorial and Anglo-Boer War Museum

By Rachel Hatcherphoto-5

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

The Garden of Remembrance, renamed the Garden of Misremembrance in the previous post, was explicitly oriented toward “reconciliation and nation building through shared suffering.”  For this reason, the Garden also commemorated the thousands of (unnamed) black South Africans who died in the concentration camps the British created to deprive the Boers of information and material support in the Anglo-Boer, or South African, War.  As problematic as the Garden of (Mis)Remembrance may be in its own right, the narrative of shared suffering, as well the goals of national unity and nation building, are undermined by other features of the larger National Women’s Memorial and Anglo-Boer War Museum site. This is to be expected in the Women’s Monument itself, erected in 1913, and in the War Museum, which openly focuses on and celebration of the former Boer Republics (i.e., the Orange Free State and Transvaal).photo-1 More surprising is the way a second newly erected monument, located across the lawn from the Garden (and in the shadow of the War Museum), that also remembers blacks who died in the camps contradicts the Garden’s focus on national unity and nation building, at least if the nation being referred to is South Africa and not the Afrikaner nation. Continue reading

Hippie Historiography: A Much Belated Historical Review of Neil Young’s Waging Heavy Peace

By Andrew Nurse

youngI don’t think anyone is going to claim that Neil Young is a philosopher. If he himself is to be believed, his turn to prose as a medium of expression is the result of dope. Or, more exactly, his decision to quit smoking dope which has, he says, had an effect on his ability to write music. And, like many aging — or, at times not aging — pop music icons, his subject is himself. Young’s Waging Heavy Peace (2012) came to me as a gift bought because it was so widely acclaimed. In short, if Young had turned to prose as a way to replace music, his transition had been successful. What interests me about the book, however, is not its snappy title, Canadian content (and Young is all about Canada), or the supposed insight into the rock-folk/country world he crafted over the span of fifty years. What interested me was how Young remembers the 1960s, what he does with those memories and what they might tell us about how the hippie generation has located itself in time. The text is, after all, subtitled “A Hippie Dream.” What was that dream about? And, where did it lead?  Continue reading

Unfit to Fight: The History of Rejecting First World War Volunteers – An Excerpt

By Nic Clarke

Nic Clarke is an historian at the Canadian War Museum who has researched Canadian Expeditionary Force policy concerning the physical fitness of recruits, and the implications of rejection for volunteers.  The following is an excerpt from his recent book on the topic, Unwanted Warriors: The Rejected Volunteers of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2015).  We publish it with the author’s blessing and the permission of the University of British Columbia Press.

Nic Clarke Cover

At the outset of the war in the summer of 1914, Canadian military authorities had, on paper at least, a black-and-white model of military fitness. An individual was either fit or unfit to serve. There was no middle ground. Moreover, the physical standards an individual had to meet to be deemed fit to serve were exceptionally high. By the end of the war, however, the military authorities’ definition of military fitness had changed radically. This transformation took the form of both a lowering of the minimum physical standards for service in many units and a wider reconceptualization of what it meant to be fit for military service.

Continue reading

The Polish Government, the Holocaust and Jan Grabowski

“‘Who controls the present, controls the past,’ wrote George Orwell, and the Polish authorities seem to have taken Orwell’s words to heart.”[1] On September 20th, University of Ottawa historian Jan Grabowski published an op-ed in Macleans highlighting the dangers of a new law working its way through Poland’s parliament that threatens historians and others with up to three years in jail if they “accuse the Polish nation, or the Polish state, [of being] responsible or complicit in Nazi crimes committed by the III German Reich.”[2] Grabowski continued:

…in the face of the new legislation, historians who argue that certain segments of Polish society were complicit in the extermination of their Jewish neighbours in the Second World War will now think twice before voicing their opinion. What about those who would like to study the phenomenon of blackmailing of the Jews, known in Polish asshmaltsovnitstvo? What about those who would like to talk about the role of the Polish “blue” police who collaborated with the Germans in the extermination of the Polish Jewry? What about those who want to shed light on the deadly actions of the Polish voluntary firefighters involved in the destruction of Jewish communities?[3]

Lukasz Weremiuk, the Chargé d’affaires at the Polish Embassy in Ottawa responded a week later arguing Grabowkski’s article “contains a list of strong, but often groundless opinions and accusations toward Poland.”[4] I highly recommend people read Grabowski’s full article on the Maclean’s website along with the response from the Polish Embassy and Grabowski’s further comments.

This recent controversy caused me to reflect on my 2015 visit to Kraków and Auschwitz-Birkenau. My dad and I drove from Munich to Poland and spent a couple days in Kraków before driving back via the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps. Continue reading

Tariffs and Taxes and Boredom, Oh My! Using a role playing game to teach about the debates over the tariff in Canadian history

By Mark Leier

1st122If there is anything more boring than the history of Canadian tariffs, I would chew my own leg off in an attempt to escape from it. Yet from Confederation to the National Policy to Prairie populism to the Maritimes Rights movement to the Auto Pact to NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, fights over tariffs have been at the centre of Canadian politics and economics. Is there a way to help students appreciate this part of Canadian history?

Probably not. But “The Great Canadian Tariff Game” can help them understand tariffs and why they have framed some of the most divisive moments in Canadian history. Continue reading

From Reel to Real: Using Film to teach Labour History

John-Henry Harter

society-of-the-spectacleDuring my undergraduate degree I had an epiphany in the only labour history class offered at my university. Here being taught in this class was my history, my own lived experience. More broadly, it was an acknowledgement and validation that the working class mattered. As a mature student, I had worked for years before entering post-secondary and had not really found a foothold. Labour history helped establish that foothold. It started to put words to experiences I had not been able to articulate: words like solidarity, alienation, class, and stratification.

Oddly enough film studies was another discipline that discussed ideas and issues that seemed more real and relevant to my life. Reification, commodification, and hegemony were all concepts that helped me understand the world around me.

It wasn’t until I started teaching at Simon Fraser University as a sessional instructor and later as a lecturer that I had the opportunity to bring labour history and film together. I was not the first to do this, but never-the-less it was exciting and held the promise of connecting with students like I had been so much earlier. This paper reflects on these experiences to explore the process of using film to approach and teach labour history.[1] Continue reading