Historians in Public

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[This post was originally published in the “Word from the President” column in Intersections 1.3.]

By Adele Perry

The CHA|SHC is one of the organizations involved with The|La Collaborative, a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council [SSHRC] of Canada-funded network dedicated to fostering Social Sciences and Humanities knowledge and skills in society at large.[1]  In part, this involves discussing and promoting a range of different ways of being a social science or humanities scholar outside of the formal academy: in elementary and secondary classrooms, in media both new and old, and wherever we might find opportunity and cause to demonstrate the capacity of scholarly practice.

What historians can contribute to this is a long and I think notable history of practicing our scholarship in public. In 2010, Joy Parr explained that historical practice “attentive to contemporary concerns, engaged in policy and with an engaged citizenry has existed as long as historical scholarship has existed in Canada.”[2]  The causes, communities, and issues that historians engage with have changed, as have the tools and technologies that historians use to engage and communicate.  But the basic fact of historians’ willingness to connect their research to the present and to speak to communities beyond the archive and classroom is longstanding.

In the last decade, Canada’s historical community have seen a number of new initiatives that mobilize historical knowledge and expertise to contribute to wider discussions.  These are notable and worth discussing in a forum like Intersections unto themselves.  That these initiatives are significantly organized and maintained by junior scholars, many of whom who have done so without the resources of tenure-track or tenured appointments, should give us all additional pause.  As a profession, our capacity to engage robustly with wider conversations and publics is not threatened by scholarly disinterest as much as it is by a precarious condition that a generation of historians are compelled to navigate. Continue reading

Queen’s Park Looks to the North: Mining, Treaties & Transportation

Thomas Blampied

In the run up to the 2018 Ontario provincial election, Progressive Conservative leader Doug Ford spoke about his party’s plans for the Ring of Fire mining development in Northern Ontario. The project, which experts claimed could be worth billions of dollars, was stalled as the federal and provincial governments negotiated with mining companies over who would pay for the necessary access roads and other infrastructure. In his largely unsuccessful attempt to win votes in Northern Ontario, Ford had an answer.  Speaking three months before the election, he explained that the Ring of Fire would “benefit everyone in Ontario” and that he would see it built, even “If I have to hop on that bulldozer myself … we’re going to start building the roads to get to the mining.”[1]

His promise echoes one made by Liberal Premier George Ross at the start of the 20thcentury as Queen’s Park sought to open New Ontario (as Northeastern Ontario was then known) to settlement and resource extraction. In Ross’s case, however, the mining road was the provincially-owned Temiskaming & Northern Ontario Railway (T&NO, renamed the Ontario Northland in 1946), one of the Ontario government’s first transportation projects.[2] The means of legally extending the government’s reach across this land was through treaty.

View on the T. & N. O. Railway (Canadian Mining Review, vol. 24, no. 5 (May 1905), p. 95

Ross’s fixation on building a provincially-owned railway was an attempt to prove to the electorate that his government was committed to the economy by opening up the Temiskaming district, which had no railways at the turn of the 20thcentury. At the time, the closest railway to the region was the Canadian Pacific at North Bay, and Ross feared it would siphon off trade as its mainline ran to Montreal and bypassed Toronto altogether. To prevent this, Ross sent ten survey parties to examine possible routes for a new railway stretching as far north as James Bay.[3] The initial survey area was covered by the 1850 Robinson-Huron Treaty between the Crown and local Anishinaabe communities. By 1905, both Toronto and Ottawa were pushing Treaty 9 to ensure clear title for all the land to Hudson Bay – land that would be needed for mining, timber and the T&NO. In their separate work on this treaty, John Long and Alanis Obomsawin have shown how the federal and provincial governments’ deliberate distortion of the treaty process in the early 20th century was a way of accessing these resources by displacing and containing Indigenous inhabitants while also claiming title over the North.[4]

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History Slam Episode 126: Christmas Toy Fads

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By Sean Graham

It’s that time of year again where people yell about Christmas being under attack while others scream about how the festive season is too long. Oh, and sometimes people buy each other gifts. The commercialization that surrounds Christmas is a big reason why retailers immediately replace Halloween costumes with Christmas decorations – if they even wait that long.

Selling to kids is a major part of this effort. If Hollywood is to be believed, Christmas is a time where youthful innocence and optimism solves all our problems and is rewarded with a smile, a wink, and a sleighful of presents. And to ensure their children have a magical Christmas that preserves that sense of wonder, some parents have taken to punching others in order to secure the perfect gift.

For as much as people may lament the current state of commercialization that dominates the year’s final two months, it is not a completely new phenomenon. Back in the 1930s, the Shirley Temple doll was all the rage as kids across North America wrote to Santa asking for this prized toy. And in the 90 years since, each year has had its ‘hot’ toy that has been marketed as ‘must have’ by both the manufacturer and the media.

In this episode of the History Slam, I am joined by Aaron Boyes and Megan Reilly-Boyes to talk about some of the biggest Christmas toy fads of the 20th century. We talk about some from our respective childhoods as well as some from the early part of the century as we break down what makes certain toys qualify as a ‘toy of the year,’ before we are joined by a special guest.

Be sure to check Activehistory.ca on December 21 as Aaron and I will be back with our Sixth (Annual?) Year in Review (100 Years Later) Bracket. In the interim you can check out our entries from past years. (2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017)

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Connecting Through Cake: The Story of My Fall Fair Mocha Cake

Kesia Kvill

An earlier version of this post appeared on Potatoes, Rhubarb, and Ox.

This summer I came across the information booklet for the Fergus Fall Fair. After flipping through it I decided that I would like to enter some items into the handicraft and culinary arts categories. I figured it would give me a good reason to finish some planned sewing projects and to showcase some recently finished ones. I also decided I would like to test the definition of lemon bars by submitting my mom’s recipe for graham lemon squares. However, I spent the bulk of my pre-fair prep-time practicing cakes for the “Robin Hood Flour Special Category: Family Favourites: Cake.”

Cake category description

I love cake, so this seemed like an ideal category for me. It was easy to decide that I would make my grandma Myrtle’s chocolate cake for the base of this cake,as its not only a family favourite, but I was able to find it in her old recipe box! In her box it was titled “Rose’s Chocolate Cake.”

The original recipe for my grandma Myrtle’s cake and my recipe from my mom.

The original recipe for the author’s grandma Myrtle’s cake and the author’s recipe from her mom.

Recipe boxes, unlike published cookbooks, are curated selections of recipes collected over a lifetime from magazines, cookbooks, friends and family. Recipe boxes more accurately reflect the personal tastes of a home cook and their family and, as Diane Tye explores in her book Baking as Biography,recipes “represent a site where women are able to tell some of their life stories in their own words.”[1]

My grandma Myrtle’s box and cooking style is filled with items particular to a wife in post-war Calgary who was involved in community organizations and the lives of her children. The box also reflects different periods of my grandmother’s life and the evolution of popular culinary influences and the changes in her family life. The presence of“Rose’s Chocolate Cake” in my grandmother’s recipe box reflects the intersection of women’s friendships with their everyday kitchen labour. By attributing the origin of the recipe to Rose we know its provenance and also receive a personal endorsement for the quality of the recipe.[2]  

The different names attributed to recipes in the box demonstrate that my grandmother’s cooking evolved with the time (though I know her techniques and practices remained firmly grounded in the period in which she learned to cook based on antidotal evidence from my mother). For example, the presence of my uncle’s wife’s lasagna recipe and my own mother’s cheesecake recipe in Myrtle’s box shows that her adult children became important culinary influences in her life.

Cookbooks and recipe boxes passed from generation to generation are what Tye calls “a tangible connection to a female past.”[3] Exploring my grandmother’s recipe box and finding the origin of my family’s favourite chocolate cake connects me not only to my long-passed grandma, but also to a larger network of women and their shared skills and experiences.

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The Dark Side of Disarmament: Ocean Pollution, Peace, and the World Wars

Alex Souchen

On 11 November 2018 the world paused for a moment of silence to commemorate the end of the First World War. The solemn occasion offered people around the world an opportunity to honour the dead and pay homage to peace, freedom, and reconciliation. The theme of peace will likely continue as a prominent feature at future Remembrance Day ceremonies, as 2019 will mark the Paris Peace Conference’s centenary and 2020 will be the 75th anniversary of the Second World War’s conclusion. With that in mind, it is important to deconstruct the concept of peace and explore the often overlooked “dark side” of disarmament.

Scholars have long recognized that peace is more than just the absence of war. Rather, peace is a process that means many things to different people and societies. Peace does not simply come into existence when wars end, nor is it some default condition or preprogrammed setting innate to all humanity. Instead, peace is a set of choices, actions, and strategies taken over time which are shaped by prevailing political, economic, and social factors.[1] As a result, peace always comes at a cost, though usually its price is measured by the intensity of combat or by the number of casualties sacrificed in achieving it. However, the costs of peace can also manifest in other ways and carry disastrous ramifications for the environment.

A loaded Landing Craft Tank (LCT) on its way to the ammunition dumping ground (Beaufort’s Dyke) off Cairnryan, near Stranraer, Wigtonshire, Scotland. Source: Imperial War Museum (IWM), H 42204

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Calling for Exemplary Active History Projects

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Over the past year and a half, ActiveHistory.ca has been soliciting donations to support our work. As part of our donations policy, we want to ensure that any surplus in our accounts is repurposed to support active history projects. As such, we are pleased to announce this morning two programs to promote the work of active historians. The first are small grants to support emerging active history projects; the second is an awards program to recognize exemplary practices of active history.


The purpose of the small grants program is to provide up to $250 to support the development or promotion of a new active history project. These projects can be part of a plan to launch something entirely new or to support a new direction within an existing project.

Applications should include:

  • 250-word description of the project relating it to our mandate
  • 100-word biography of the applicant(s) justifying their role in the project
  • budgetary statement outlining how our funds relate to other funding for the project

Successful projects will be asked to keep the Active History community up-to-date about their work through our blog as well as filing a short final report outlining how the money was used.


The purpose of the awards program is to highlight and recognize exemplary practices in active history. We will be accepting nominations for awards (which include a small cash prize) in any one of the following three categories:

  • Active history in the press: Journalism as active history
  • Notable contributions to ActiveHistory.ca
  • Putting active history into practice (model active historians or active history projects)

To nominate an individual or project for an award, submit a letter of nomination clearly outlining the award category, a justification for why the nominee should receive the award, and how the committee can contact the nominee. Except for category #2, nominees need not be associated with ActiveHistory.ca.

The deadline for submissions for both funding programs is 31 December 2018. Queries and submissions can be sent to Thomas Peace at tpeace@uwo.ca.

These support programs are made possible through generous donations from our community. ActiveHistory.ca is entirely run and managed on a volunteer basis with support from Huron University College and the University of Saskatchewan. Donations to our project support the ongoing digital maintenance costs for the project, off-set incidental costs related to the project, and support for our small projects and awards program. Please consider donating to our project.

Open Letter Re: The Closing of the Saskatoon Office of the Provincial Archives at the University of Saskatchewan

November 29, 2018

It has recently been brought to our attention that the Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan (PAS) has made the decision to consolidate its holdings and close its office in Saskatoon at the University of Saskatchewan. The Saskatoon office has existed as an important part of the University’s research network since the archive board was created in 1945.

The mandate of the provincial archives is to act as a repository of “both in-person and distance research into family history, government policy and accountability, educational history, past eras, business and social organizations, land settlement, local history, geographic places, cultural developments, human rights, community events and provincial celebrations.”

In performing this vital role, the archives allow both researchers, students, and everyday citizens to inquire into the province’s past, in order to examine the “documentary heritage of the province.” Archivists are expertly tasked with the important work of organizing these invaluable documents and making them accessible to the general public. Given the numerous restrictions that exist around existing catalogued material, the closure of the Saskatoon office will make it even more difficult for researchers to access necessary records.

The closure of the Saskatoon location comes on top of the dramatically scaled back hours that the archive has been offering for the past several years. In fact, the reductions in staffing and now the closure of the Saskatoon branch of the archives will have dire consequences for people attempting to access records, which could mean even longer delays in cataloguing new material while also extending the wait times for researchers to access existing records.

Even if this closure allows the Regina office to expand its collection or to hire new staff, students, faculty, and researchers coming to Saskatoon will run into a never-ending series of issues trying to access essential information. Moreover, with the closure of the Saskatchewan Transportation Company, it will be increasingly difficult for researchers to travel to Regina to access essential records.

We urge the PAS to reconsider this decision. The archives are essential for citizens to access necessary public information. Such a closure will be a loss for students, faculty and the general public at the University of Saskatchewan.


Charles Smith, Associate Professor of Political Science, St. Thomas More College, University of Saskatchewan Continue reading

When to Speak, When to Act: Reflections on the Recent MS St. Louis Apology

Screenshot of Trudeau Apology for MS St. Louis.

Andrea Eidinger and Laura Madokoro

On November 7th, 2018, Justin Trudeau stood up in the House of Commons and issued a formal apology to the families of passengers of the MS St. Louis as well as the entire Jewish Canadian community for the Canadian government’s decision to refuse to allow the ship to dock in 1939. As historians with expertise in these areas, both of us paid close attention to the apology. While we were pleased that to see the Prime Minister drew attention to this shameful event in our history and acknowledged the long history of antisemitism in this country, we felt that it ultimately rang hollow.

While the Prime Minister vowed to fight antisemitism and to learn from the past, the speech was short on specific details. As Trudeau noted in his apology, even today, Canadian Jews are the most frequent target of hate crimes in this country, at seventeen percent. In the wake of the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting, Christine Chevalier-Caron and Philippe Néméh-Nombré published a piece on Histoire Engagée, demonstrating how antisemitism is normalized in Quebec and Canada, as well as the prevailing belief that Canada was (and is) a place of refuge for those in need.

In our minds the contradiction is striking and not easily dismissed. How is it that antisemitism can be a quotidian part of life in Canada while the country is also associated with being a place of refuge? How did this fundamental contradiction come to be and what are the implications for the present and future? Part of the answer lies in the ease with which politicians can speak in morally righteous terms when apologizing for historical wrongs and the gulf that often exists between the symbolism of their words, their actions, and the lived experience of those most affected by the subject and substance of their apologies.

We have seen the power of words and actions before, both domestically and on the international stage. While today Canada likes to think of itself as a bastion of human rights, this is not reflective of historical or contemporary reality. Continue reading

History Slam Episode 125: The Trans Generation

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By Sean Graham

During its convention earlier this month, the Ontario PC Party passed a resolution calling gender identity “a highly controversial, unscientific ‘liberal ideology'” and pledged to remove all references to gender identity theory from the provincial curriculum. Premier Doug Ford later backed away from the resolution, claiming that it would not become official government policy. but for many the damage was already done. Similar policies have been enacted elsewhere, with plenty of attention on bathroom legislation.

There are plenty of reasons why these bills continue to be tabled, one of which is ignorance of the issues associated with trans rights. That’s why books like Ann Travers’ The Trans Generation: How Trans Kids (And Their Parents) Are Creating a Gender Revolution can be so important. A sociologist at SFU, Travers spent five years interviewing trans kids and their parents in researching the book. The result is a unique insight into the realities of trans youth that is both informative and engaging. At the same time, it looks at the disparities in representation within the trans community and sheds light on how to build more inclusive environments.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Professor Travers about the book. We talk about conducting interviews with kids and their parents, the trans rights movement, and the social markers associated with gender. We also talk about biology and gender, opposition to the trans community, and the importance of treating everybody with dignity and respect.

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Difficult History, Monuments, and Pedagogy: A Response to Levesque

By Gabriel A. Reich

In his two part series, posted on Active History earlier this month, Stéphane Lévesque puts forward a “new approach” to considering the role of historical monuments as an object of study in history education. That approach frames the pedagogy of historical monuments as a historiographical problem that can be best approached using the tools of historical thinking.

Following Jörn Rüsen, Levesque described the role of education as helping students become more sophisticated thinkers by drawing together the knowledge of history, and the knowledge of how history is produced and contested. In that framework, the ultimate goal of history education is to move students towards a genetic historical consciousness, marked by a dispassionate understanding of change over time, and a reflective self-awareness of one’s own perceptions of that change.

I agree that goal is a worthy one, and that it is at times a good basis from which to design inquiry into public monuments that represent difficult histories.In a time when deeply divisive politics have reduced truth to an expression of identification, the educational goal of moving towards greater care for truth, dispassionate analysis, and critical self-awareness is very appealing, and at times necessary. Moreover, school is, perhaps, the only institution in which the young can apprentice into disciplinary modes of thought that may encourage more empathetic dispositions towards others.

Monument to Confederate General Robert E. Lee, Richmond, Virginia. Photo by Melanie Buffington.

I will argue here, however, that in the case of controversial monuments, pedagogical goals should equally consider how democratic politics work, the affective dimension of history education, and the social, cultural, and political context in which one is teaching.

Ultimately, the reason we teach history in our public schools is to prepare the young to engage with their communities as citizens. That aim presents us with a paradox, however. Continue reading