Retiring from Royalty: The Duke and Duchess of Sussex Escape the Spotlight

@sussexroyal Instagram post, announcing Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s decision to “step back.” Screenshot.

Justin Vovk

On Wednesday, January 8, Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, and Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex, shocked the world—and their relatives—with an announcement made on their official Instagram account. They were going to “step back as ‘senior’ members of the Royal Family and work to become financially independent.” News agencies and social media picked up the story minutes after it broke, as shock gave way to a series of important questions: What do they define as “stepping back?” What will their new status be? What does this mean for the future of the British monarchy as an institution?

Before there can be any discussion of these questions, however, it is necessary to understand why the Sussexes’ announcement has caused such a stir and the historical precedents—or lack thereof—for this situation.

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Language Remediation at the WDM: Answering TRC Calls to Action #43 and #67

Kaiti Hannah

Museum exhibit construction

WDM Saskatoon location under construction, Feb 18, 1972. WDM George Shepherd Library 10-E(e)-8

Author Note: Portions of this blog post were originally published on They are reproduced with permission from the authors and the Western Development Museum (WDM). The WDM is the provincially mandated human history museum of Saskatchewan.

Language is important. The words we choose to use in our historical interpretation must be inclusive, accurate, respectful, current, and meaningful. Language also changes with time. What were acceptable narratives, framing, interpretations, and usages in the past are now often no longer acceptable. As new research is released, and public engagement and expectations evolve museums need to adapt their approaches to interpreting history. The findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada that were released in 2015 emphasized the power that words and language have over our perceptions and understandings of the world around us, and how words influence how we interact with and relate to other people.

Museums are perceived by many as places of historical authority, but museums aren’t neutral. Everyone involved in the development of exhibits, from funders to researchers to curators to exhibit designers, has their own biases and perspectives that seep into what they produce, no matter how neutral they try to be. Positionality is unavoidable but it needs to be acknowledged, and it can be mitigated through collaboration with diverse groups, recognizing and affirming a wide array of perspectives.

The recognition of the importance of language, as well as the importance of acknowledging how history-making changes over time, has led the WDM to complete a systematic evaluation of all the language used in its public spaces. Continue reading

Remembering Air India Flight 182

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By Laura Madokoro

Dear readers,

Sometimes the present appears in the history classroom. And so, this post is a reflection about being sad and being a historian more than anything else (though I have a few words to say about pedagogy), and so I thank you in advance for your indulgence.

Like many others, I was deeply saddened to learn about the many lives lost on Ukrainian Air Flight PS 752 when it was shot down on 8 January 2020. When news that a student and alumnus at the university where I teach had been aboard that plane, my sadness amplified. I imagine many others felt the same as they learned about the people who lost their lives on that flight, including many students and others who had connections to communities, businesses and schools that they know. Fifty-seven of the passengers were Canadians.

In the wake of the tragedy, I was struck by the deep outpouring of support and sympathy, captured in the words of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on 11 January 2020 when he recognized that “Canada and the world are in mourning.” He emphasized that the crash was a “national tragedy” and underscored “that all Canadians are shocked and appalled at this senseless loss of life.” At the memorial service held in Edmonton last week, Prime Minister Trudeau continued in this vein, describing a moment of “national pain”, emphasizing that your “entire country stands with you.”

The emphasis on the crash as a national tragedy is significant. As columnist Shree Paradkar noted in a recent Toronto Star column, in the wake of the 1985 Air India Bombing, in which 329 people lost their lives, including 268 Canadians, the federal government and Canadian society as a whole struggled to think of the Canadian victims as citizens. Continue reading

Half Oil and Half Green: The Southern Roots of the Prairie West’s Anti-Environmental Rhetoric

The marquee above a local prairie-themed shop in Saskatoon; note the association of prairie pride with a pumpjack. Author’s photo.

Louis Reed-Wood

This past autumn, Aatash Amir, a Vancouver man concerned about emissions caused by gas-powered leaf blowers, circulated an online petition to have them banned in his hometown of Saskatoon. Upon posting the petition to a local Facebook group, he quickly received a flood of hateful comments, ranging from racist remarks, threats of violence, and calls for Amir to commit suicide. Some people sent videos of themselves using leaf blowers on nothing, ridiculing his suggestion of banning the machines.

As a historian of nineteenth-century America who grew up and did much of my training in the Prairie West, I found the response Amir received disturbing but unfortunately unsurprising. In recent years I’ve observed Western Canada become increasingly hostile toward environmentalist criticism. In this realm, I’ve noticed growing parallels between pro-oil, anti-environmentalist rhetoric in Western Canada and the argumentative strategies of another group closer to my own area of research—pro-slavery and anti-abolitionist agitators of the antebellum American South.

It is not my intention to suggest similarity between the oil industry and the slaveholding South generally; doing so would serve to diminish the cruelty and violence that was part and parcel of the commodification and ownership of human beings. These systems are markedly different from one another, but their supporters do share one key similarity. In both cases, these groups faced or are facing criticism that a vital source of their region’s wealth, social structure, and sense of identity is immoral and must be phased out. In turn, the petroleum sector’s defenders have adopted a similar response to this criticism. Like antebellum defenders of slavery, many Westerners have adopted an uncompromising strategy of redoubling their defence of the oil industry and seeking to harshly censure any criticism of it from within and without. With this unwillingness to change, Westerners—like Southerners—have adopted three main rhetorical strategies: a positive defence of their industry, an intolerance of criticism, and threats of secession. Continue reading

History’s Reputation Problem

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By Thomas Peace

Historians are out of touch. So we are told.

This summer, in response to declining enrollments in university history courses, The Economist ran a piece critiquing Britain’s university-based historians as hibernating while the world changes. “Historians need to escape from their intellectual caves,” the Bagehot columnist announced. They need to “start paying more attention to big subjects such as the history of politics, power, and nation-states.”

Last week, TVO’s The Agenda picked up on the piece, asking the pointed question: why have university enrollments plummeted at a time when interest in history, and civic engagement with it, remains high?

Though the panelists on The Agenda mostly avoided critiques of the profession, others – like Bagehot – have framed the problem around the behaviour of professional historians and, specifically, our retreat from subjects that matter to society.

Remarks like these suggest that history – as a profession – has a reputation problem. When placed beside the sharp decline in undergraduate student enrollments, we must consider – given that interest in the past does not seem to have declined – perhaps, it is the public value of academic history, and – more specifically – the history professor, that has eroded. Continue reading

The Last Ten Years: Active History & the Teaching of Canadian History since 2008

Source: Yvette de Chavez

Editor’s Note: In 2019, Active History celebrated its 10th anniversary by posting some of our most popular pieces from each of the previous ten years. To reflect on ten years of Active History at the start of this new year, we asked Dr. Adele Perry, former president of the Canadian Historical Association (CHA), to share some of her thoughts. The post below also appears on the CHA’s Teaching – Learning blog.

Adele Perry

With thanks to Sarah Nickel and Laura Madokoro for their help.

How we teach Canada’s histories has changed in the decade that Active History and its counterpart Histoire engagée have been online. Active History went live the same year that Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established as part of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. Active History found its feet as Idle No More changed conversations in the winter of 2012-2013, as the TRC issued its final report in 2015, and as decades of activism around murdered and missing Indigenous women, girls and two-spirited people resulted in the federal government calling the National Inquiry on Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women, which began in 2016 and released its final report in 2019.

That Canada’s past looks radically different from an Indigenous perspective is hardly a new observation. In her contribution to an Active History series featuring the work of Indigenous scholars, Mary Jane Logan McCallum reminds us of the venerable “tradition of Indigenous engagement in and critique of education,” one that has observed, corrected, measured, and taken action, and will continue to do so.[1]

Significant changes to provincial elementary and secondary school curriculum speak to this advocacy, especially in the years following the TRC.[2] That these can be rolled back in the name of austerity is made clear by the sudden cancellation of Ontario’s planned curriculum revision in 2018.[3] This decade of change and advocacy has also shaped the teaching of Canadian history at a post-secondary level.  Some departments – and the University of Winnipeg is exemplary here — have developed a concerted and thoughtful process of decolonization, one that has gone beyond the particularities of Canadian scholarship.[4] Individual instructors like Carmen Nielson of Mount Royal University have rethought and revised their classroom practices .  The recent appearance of tenure-track positions designated for Indigenous historians in Canadian departments suggests that the long-standing gap between the presence of Indigenous history as a subject and the presence of Indigenous people as practitioners is beginning to be acknowledged. Much more needs to be done to meaningfully address the underrepresentation of Indigenous, Black and racialized scholars, and the heightened expectations and demands those scholars face in the academy. Continue reading

Canadian Spiritualism, Mary Melville and the Female Biographical Narrative

By Thomas Hodd

Mary Melville, The Psychic:
A Critical Edition

Mary Melville, The Psychic (1900) is an extraordinary Canadian cultural artifact. Written by first-wave feminist, psychical researcher, and suffrage leader Flora MacDonald (Merrill) Denison (1867-1921), this significant yet hitherto-undervalued text bears witness to a transformative and vibrant period in Canada’s social, literary and religious history. Based on the life of Denison’s older sister, Mary Merrill, Mary Melville is the story of an alternative New Woman figure, a gifted young scholar with psychical abilities from small-town Ontario, whose promising life is cut short by a world not yet ready for her message or her powers.

Scant historical information exists about Mary’s life. Born in 1858, Mary, like Flora, had an aptitude for intellectual pursuits. In 1876, she graduated from Alexandra College, the Ladies’ Wing of Belleville’s Albert College, with high honours in mathematics. She also appears to have worked as a teacher after graduation, although no published materials about Mary’s life discuss the four years between her graduation and death. In fact, little else is known about Mary, with the exception of two areas: her interest in spiritualism and the circumstances surrounding her death. Mary’s ties to spiritualism are not surprising, given Belleville’s long-standing history with the movement: the Fox Sisters, arguably the founders of modern spiritualism, were originally from the Belleville area. Furthermore, in the 1850s one of the sisters, Kate, introduced spiritualism to Susanna Moodie and her husband, who were residents of Belleville during this period; the trio also conducted séances together, although as Stan McMullin points out, to do so was at some social risk given the “rigid religious milieu” of the town at the time.1 Nor did the town’s penchant for spiritualism escape controversy: witness the infamous case of New York medium Dr. Henry Slade, who was invited to Belleville in the summer of 1882, then purportedly outed as a fraud by the town’s police chief.

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Stitching History: Using Embroidery to Examine the Past

Sherry Farrell Racette in Looking for Stories and Unbroken Threads notes, “Through the power of colour and design, the objects in museum collections not only speak a powerful aesthetic, they also reveal critical information about the worlds and circumstances in which they were created.” Textiles have a role in telling community and personal histories and can tell stories that aren’t evident in other historical records. In some cases, a piece of embroidery might be the only record of a life lived. 

How many of these women thought their embroidery would end up in a museum? As I have learned to embroider I have become interested in how historians and heritage professionals use embroidery to talk about the past. What can embroidery tell us about individual lives, communities, and history?

In this post I’m going to highlight a few of my favourite embroidery samplers that are held by museums, and talk about their connections to personal and larger histories. Created by young women as they learned to sew and embroider, samplers were used to demonstrate proficiency in needlework. They are particularly remarkable not only because they often include dates and the names of the maker, but are some of the only documents produced by young women from the nineteenth century. Samplers were also created for personal reference, almost like a ‘sample’ of stitches and patterns that could be recreated later in other projects. 

Tree of Knowledge embroidery sampler

Caption: Mary Lacasse Sampler, 1818. Textile Museum of Canada, T2011.10.1.

The above sampler is held by the Textile Museum of Canada and was stitched by Mary Lacasse at age 12 in Montreal. It is dated May 8, 1818. Other than Mary’s name on the sampler there is no other information in the catalogue record about Mary. However, the stitched date and name of Mary Lacasse suggest that this piece was likely an educational sampler, perhaps one that Mary completed in the course of her schooling. Embroidery was often taught to middle and upper class women as a way to emphasize feminie virtues such as patience, quietness, neatness, and conformity. This sampler showcases a range of patterns and stitches, with a floral and tree theme. The top of the sampler includes two angels and the apple tree with a Snake around it is referencing the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. These religious motifs connect Mary to the Catholic education that was prominent in Quebec in the 1800s. I still don’t know much about Mary, but by exploring her embroidery I’m pulling at the edges of her existence and connecting her work to larger social movements. Continue reading

Learning through Unlearning in Undergraduate History Education

This is part of an ongoing series of reflections from the Manitoulin Island Summer Historical Institute (MISHI)

By: Natalie Cross, Alyssa Kaminski, and Urvi Maheshwari

Beginning an undergraduate education can be uncomfortable. After several years of attending classes, however, the experience becomes common, perhaps banal. For the most part we attend three hours of classes per course each week. They are located on a relatively quotidian university campus and the lessons are anchored in readings, discussions, and lectures; all of our learning is structured around a fairly formal in-class meeting. Even the most radical of classes tend to stick to a relatively standard format.

This summer at the Manitoulin Island Summer Historical Institute (MISHI), we were introduced to a learning experience rooted in Anishinaabe pedagogies. With the majority of the programming centred at the Ojibwe Cultural Foundation (OCF), we had the opportunity to listen to Elders and knowledge keepers, learn from the Land and its people, and develop an understanding of Anishinaabe history and culture.

MISHI is the complete opposite of our typical university experience; we were uncomfortable, we were engaged, but more importantly we learned the ability to unlearn. Continue reading

Seventh Annual(?) Year in Review (100 Years Later)

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By Aaron Boyes and Sean Graham

We offer our two cents on the events of 1919. Let us know what you think was the most important event from a century ago in the comments.

You know what they say about decades – in like a lamb, out like a lion. 2019 has been, at times, a slog. From a remarkably contentious federal election campaign, to impeachment, to climate change, to violence, consuming news this year has rarely left us with an overwhelming feeling of optimism. That’s why stories like the $100,000 art banana have been so welcome for their seemingly random absurdity. Perhaps we are too invested in current events to see the forest for the trees, however, and with time maybe 2019 will look a lot better that it does as we reflect today. Only with time and distance can we truly assess a year.

It’s that idea that inspired the Year in Review (100 Years Later) posts when we started them back in 2013. Through the sober lens of time, we looked back and through a March Madness-style bracket determined the most important event of 1913. Despite some changes to the format, that model has stayed in place and this year will take us through 1919.

Even though the First World War (at least Canada’s participation) ended in 1918, our rule prohibiting First World War events from the bracket (because they were so well covered by the Canada’s First World War series) will apply to the Paris Peace Conference, Treaty of Versailles, and League of Nations. Our rule preventing repeat winners means that events related to suffrage around the world have also not been included. (Past brackets: 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018)

Even using that crutch to eliminate events, this year was extremely difficult to determine the 16 things that would be included. 1919 was so influential that paring the list down was just as hard as determining a winner. We were able to do it, though, and divided the 16 entries into 4 brackets: Conflict, Foundational, Diplomacy, and, of course, Potpourri. And while we recognize that not everyone will agree with our selections, we hope that you enjoy this year’s bracket in the lighthearted spirit in which it was written. Continue reading