From Ignorance Towards Reconciliation

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By Jean-Pierre Morin

Editor’s note: This post is an abridged version of the February 7th, 2017 Ottawa Historical Association talk “Relationships for Reconciliation: Historical Relationships in the Process of Reconciliation”.

Treaty Medal, presented to commemorate Treaty Numbers 3, 4, 5, 6, 7. (Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1986-79-1638).

In December 2000, as a still new public servant, I was part of a group of representatives from Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) sent to discuss the historic relationship stemming from Treaty 6 with the Chiefs and councils of the Ermineskin and Louis Bull First Nations in the Maskwachis region, the heart of Treaty 6 Territory in Alberta. As the only historian and non-Indigenous person in the INAC group, I wanted to be well prepared. As the meeting approached, I began to review all the materials I had relating to the treaty, the communities and the government’s position on treaties. I was sure that I knew everything that was relevant and was ready to argue my “well researched facts”.

Arriving at Louis Bull First Nation on a bitterly cold morning, we filed into the band council office where my departmental colleagues were greeted as old friends. When I walked through the door, someone called out: “Hey, look! The Indian agent has arrived!” to a round of chuckles. To say that I was shocked at the comment is an understatement. Immediately, my back was up as I resented being saddled with such that pejorative label. For me, the rest of it was downhill from there. Any comment I made about the history of the treaty by referring to historical research, archival records or the reports of the treaty commissioners was mocked with the words: “I guess the Indian agent knows us better than we do…” Finally, one of my colleagues took pity on me recommending that I simply stay quiet and that I skip the next day’s meeting.

As a significant part of my work was to discuss the history of treaty making in Canada with Indigenous partners, this was not to be my only “difficult” experience during such meetings. Over the course of several years, it occurred multiple times. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why this kept happening and I felt growing anxiety about every upcoming meeting. I took me several more years to realize that I was part of the problem as these “difficult meetings” were being aggravated by my personal perspectives and my understandings of Indigenous-Crown relationships. Continue reading

Map the History of Redlining, It Works

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The history of redlining matters. For decades, the government sponsored Home Owners’ Loan Corporation created maps that defined African American neighbourhoods as high risk, which resulted in people not having access to a Federal Housing Administration insured mortgage in these districts. Ta-Nehisi Coates used the research in Kenneth Jackson’s Crabgrass Frontier, Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, Robert Conot’s American Odyssey, Thomas Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crisis and Arnold Hirsch’s Making the Second Ghetto to develop the case for reparations in his 2014 cover story in the Atlantic.[1] He convincingly argued that long after the end of Slavery, government policy actively limited economic opportunities for African Americans, created segregated cities and the significant gap in wealth between white and black Americans: “From the 1930s through the 1960s, black people across the country were largely cut out of the legitimate home-mortgage market“.

A year earlier, Dustin A. Cable, at the University of Virginia, created the interactive Racial Dot Map based on data from the 2010 census. The map shows the stark racial divides in many major cities. The impressive level of detail, with a single dot for every person in the United States census, creates visually and analytically powerful maps. The divided racial geography of a cities like Detroit, Chicago, and Milwaukee is startling and prompts a historical question: how did this happen? Coates brought together decades of urban social history and historical demography, along with his own journalism, to help answer this question for Chicago.

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Guinea Pig Mea Culpa

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White & brown guinea pig,

Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of posts from contributors to Animal Metropolis: Histories of Human-Animal Relations in Urban Canada (University of Calgary Press, 2017). In each entry, the contributors use their own chapters as the basis for wider discussions about contemporary developments that highlight the complex interactions between humans and animals. The editors of are pleased to publish these pieces that originally appeared in late February in The Otter, the blog of the Network in Canadian History & the Environment. The first post in the series by Darcy Ingram spoke to strategies in the animal rights movement.  Christabelle Sethna then followed, commenting upon the animalization and racialization of humans and nonhuman animals. Today, Joanna Dean speaks to the use of guinea pigs in medical experiments.


The Voges Holder for Guinea Pigs, from A.C. Abbott, M.D., The Principles of Bacteriology: A Practical Matter for Students and Physicians. 8th ed. (1909). Accessible via

As yet another charismatic creature escapes from a zoo (Sunny the red panda is still at large in Virginia at the time of writing), as my students elect to write essays about elephants, and I am invited to an animal documentary series populated by eagles, dogs, whales, and primates, I reflect on our decisions to write and teach about certain animal species and not others.  Why is my chapter in Animal Metropolis focused on the horse?  How could I have overlooked the guinea pig?

It is, after all, the guinea pig that carries the weight of our misgivings about modern science and our shared animality. To be a “guinea pig” is no longer even to be an animal; it is to be the subject of an experiment.  So, a mea culpa, in the form of a blog on the guinea pig.  Continue reading

Improving career prospects for history graduates beyond academia

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A CHA Proposal to History Department Chairs by Robert Talbot and the CHA Executive 

To many outside our profession, the connection between a degree in History and a non-academic job related to history can seem far from obvious. As instructors of History who benefit materially and intellectually from the thousands of students who attend and participate in our courses every year, it is incumbent upon us to make the link between a History degree and history-related jobs more obvious for students, employers and the wider community.

The study and practice of History must be defended on their own merits. Developing a more nuanced and critical understanding of the past is fundamental to the fostering of an informed public, the encouragement of critical engagement with society, and for speaking truth to power. Increasingly, however, our discipline operates in an ideological context that tends to emphasise business and economic outcomes before all others. Historians are being called upon by administrators, students, and even parents to address concerns surrounding career outcomes for recent graduates in History.

These concerns are understandable. According to the 2013 national survey of 2009-2010 college and university graduates conducted by Statistics Canada, among employed grads, “At both the bachelor and master levels, ‘humanities’ and ‘visual, performing arts and communication technologies’ had the highest proportions of graduates who reported their job being unrelated to their education.”[1] More specifically, in the humanities, 30% of employed Bachelor’s graduates had found work that was closely related to their degree, 59% of employed Master’s graduates, and 78% of employed PhD graduates.

While the historian’s skillset can be applied in a variety of ways in the modern economy, many parents, prospective students, and potential employers don’t always realize it. This lack of awareness has doubtless contributed to challenges in enrolment, and it may also be contributing to some history graduates’ difficulties in securing work that relates to their skillset. If students are not informed by their professors about the different types of skills that they have developed, and about how those skills relate to different types of employment, then they might not think to seek out those jobs – they won’t necessarily know how to promote themselves to prospective employers. If employers are not aware that history students have the skills they are looking for, then they won’t seek to hire those students. Continue reading

History Slam Episode Ninety-Five: Project of Heart

By Sean Graham

Teaching history in high school is a tough job. Teaching the history of Canada’s residential school system is a tough job. To combat this challenge, for years high schools simply did not talk about residential schools in history courses. Looking back on my own education in Ontario, the issue never came up. Part of this was a failure of the curriculum, but another part was the apathy me and my classmates had about learning anything outside the textbook. In high school, history was rote and dull, so there was never a motivation to go beyond the basic requirements – which we know now were not nearly as comprehensive as they should have been.

Fortunately, there are high school students who are more curious than I was. In Sylvia Smith’s class at the Elizabeth Wyn Wood Alternative School in Ottawa, a student who had read about residential schools on her own time asked why they weren’t covered in the class textbook. That desire to learn more spread through the class, culminating in a major group project to commemorate the legacy of the residential school system. With that, Project of Heart was born and has since spread across the country, bringing with it awareness in the spirit of reconciliation. Adaptable for classes anywhere between a five-year-old’s first day through high school graduation, Project of Heart has started to fill a major gap in history courses across the country.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Sylvia Smith, one of Project of Heart’s coordinators. We talk about the project’s origins, the learning process, and the different steps classes go through. We also talk about reconciliation in the classroom and the challenges of presenting difficult material to students.

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More than a Few Acres of Snow

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By Elizabeth Jewett and Andrew Nurse

This past weekend, Mount Allison University hosted Quelques Arpents de Neige for the first time. Arpents is a conference that takes a workshop-like feel. Its goal is to bring people together to discuss different trends in Canadian environmental history. And, in so doing, it provides an opportunity to think about the development and direction of Canadian environmental history on a regional, national and transnational level. Environmental history is one of those rapidly developing subfields of Canadian history that has done a great deal to challenge the ways in which we think about Canada’s past and, because of this, Arpents also raises broader questions about the character and nature of Canadian history and how we conceptualize it.

Some of the questions Arpents raises are almost stereotypically “big” questions: how do we narrate the nation? How do we periodize the storyline? What is the boundary between national and transnational history? How, and should, historians work together to advance scholarship about Canada’s past? One might even pause to ask an almost whiggish question: does historical scholarship become better with time? Said differently, does the integration of ecological and environmental perspectives make history more accurate?

It is impossible to answer these big questions in a short space, but the work presented at Arpents suggests that environmental perspectives have indeed done a great deal to challenge established conceptions of the past and to raise questions about what stories can — and should — be told. Several themes that emerge out of Arpents are important in this regard. Continue reading

Être Chocolat

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Foottit et Padilla (“Chocolat”). Source:

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of posts from contributors to Animal Metropolis: Histories of Human-Animal Relations in Urban Canada (University of Calgary Press, 2017). In each entry, the contributors use their own chapters as the basis for wider discussions about contemporary developments that highlight the complex interactions between humans and animals. The editors of are pleased to publish these pieces that originally appeared in late February on The Otter, the blog of the Network in Canadian History & the Environment. The first post by Darcy Ingram spoke to strategies in the animal rights movement, and today, Christabelle Sethna speaks to the animalization and racialization of humans and nonhuman animals.

My contribution to this edited volume, “The Memory of an Elephant: Savagery, Civilization, Spectacle,” deals with Jumbo, an African bull elephant. Born circa 1860, in what is now Sudan, he was captured by hunters and transported across Africa and the Middle East and thereupon to Europe, England and the United States, to become a major zoo and circus attraction. Continue reading

Where have all the Suffragists gone? Deconstructing Children’s History Books

Samantha Cutrara

As a scholar interested in teaching and learning Canadian history, I am embarking on a series of blog posts for Active History about the representation of the post-confederation period (1867-1920) in picture books for children ages 4 to 10. In my last post, I looked at the history of residential schools and used a list published by the CBC as a starting place for finding children’s books that explored these stories.

In this post, coinciding with International Women’s Day today, I want to look at a topic that I thought would be far easier: women’s suffrage. (For a historical overview of women’s suffrage in Canada, see the Canadian Encyclopedia entry “Women’s Suffrage in Canada” written by Veronica Strong-Boag).

I was interested in the representation of Canadian women’s activism throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries and question if these books, like the textbooks Rose Fine-Meyer explored for her CHEA paper “’A reward for working in the fields and factories’: Canadian women’s suffrage movement as portrayed in Ontario texts,” would be written with the narrative that women were “given” the vote as an corollary to war or, more accurately, if the fight for women’s suffrage was shown as being decades in the making by the time the Great War started?

Would all the books tell the same story or would authors present the histories as coming from different points of view? Would issues related to race and class be presented or would these ‘messy’ parts of the past be glossed over for young audiences? And, like my findings for the residential schools books, would these histories present disenfranchisement as being the result of individual actions or would the nation be shown as continuously supressing women’s activism and voting rights?

My expectation was that there would be a plenty of picture books on women’s suffrage and, while telling a very similar narrative of fight and success, these books would end with reference to the unequal nature of early activism.

I was wrong. Continue reading

Canada’s Third Largest (and most forgotten) Centennial Event: “Second Century Week” at the University of Alberta, March 1967

By Sarah Carter

The Front Page of The Gateway, 10 March 1967. Richard Price (U of A Students’ Union President) and Daniel LaTouche (spokesperson for Union Genérale des Etudiants du Québec) are pictured.

“Second Century Week” (SCW) took place fifty years ago, from March 6 – 11, 1967 at the University of Alberta.[1] It was Canada’s third largest centennial event, ranked only below Expo ’67 and the Pan-American Games. Involving students from more than 50 universities, colleges and technical schools, it was “the most ambitious inter-university program ever undertaken in Canada,” designed to bring together students from across Canada, the future leaders of the nation, and to establish a dialogue, particularly among French and English speaking students. In the fall of 1966 organizer and University of Alberta law student David Estrin said that the event was to be the “largest and most representative gathering of Canadian University students ever.” [2] Another goal was to showcase the “activities, thoughts, aspirations and potential of her youth.” Canada’s leading artists and intellectuals would share their work and discuss the future of the country with students. SCW also included a “mammoth sporting event” with more than 700 student athletes. SCW was to unite “town and gown” and appeal to the general public.

Estrin had big plans and dreams for the event. There was to be art, poetry, photography, music, films and plays from across Canada by established artists and students. But the main goal according to Estrin was to “discuss issues which divide the nation.” Continue reading

Gun Rights in Canada: An Exchange

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(Sometimes differences on historical issues cannot be contained in the comments section. This exchange follows up on an earlier post by R. Blake Brown on gun rights in Canada. A response to that post by John Robson, and Brown’s reply, follow. We would like to thank our two authors for their willingness to participate in this sort of exchange.)

John Robson, left, and R. Blake Brown

John Robson’s response:

It is flattering that R. Blake Brown responded on Activehistory to my recent article “The Right to Bear Arms” published in the Autumn/Winter 2016 Dorchester Review, to which I am a contributing editor. His Arming and Disarming is a scrupulously researched book I found helpful in the documentary from which my article was drawn. But I must protest that he misrepresents my argument in several important ways.

He expends considerable energy demolishing the claim that Canadians today enjoy a constitutionally protected right to bear arms enforceable through the courts. But I never made any such assertion. In the documentary we show the opposite, in part citing the case involving Donna and Bruce Montague that he also mentions. And I make it plain throughout the Dorchester Review piece that such a claim is now met with derision and bafflement particularly within the Canadian government. (Which, it seems necessary to stress in the face of frequent media references to “the government” losing a court case, is expressly declared in the Constitution Act 1867 to consist of three branches, the executive, legislative and judiciary.)

What I do say, and here Brown misrepresents my argument largely by omission, is that we did long enjoy this right as part of a robust protection of individual rights inherited from Britain that was the foundation of our success as a nation. If we have recently discarded that inheritance, on matters from free speech to property to self-defence, we ought at least to acknowledge that doing so represents a dramatic change of course even if we support that change. Continue reading