The Hubris of Academe, or, “Students Suck”

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By Elise Chenier

There are few moments in life as self-defining as being awarded a PhD. I got mine in 2001 from Queen’s University, one of Canada’s “top” schools. The ceremony required me to kneel before the Chancellor who tapped me once on each shoulder with his mortarboard. It did its magic. When I stood up and crossed that stage, I felt I occupied more space—literally. For the next ten years or so (okay, fifteen) I would occasionally get agitated when people did not give way when I passed them. Such is the hubris of academe.

One of the most disappointing manifestations of such hubris is the lamentation about “students today,” a weed that re-seeds every fall when university professors decry the atrocious behaviour of the hordes of ignorant, lazy, impolite students they are burdened with the task of teaching.

Lynn Crosbie’s contribution to this genre in a 2015 issue of Macleans, which recently made the rounds again in celebration of September, is just one example. Written in the epistolary form, she exhorts her students to sit neither in the front nor the back of the classroom, to refrain from bringing “ham bones and pungent noodles” to lecture, and to “give a thought to arriving prepared, with the syllabus read, and the correct texts in hand.” Just in case students still don’t get just where they stand in relationship to the instructor, we are told:

During the student work, I sit in the back row, draw, mutter, and look irritated: How wonderfully frightened you all look from my place, at the head of a group of strangers I am pushing, slowly and cautiously, toward a unified, politicized and knowledgeable student body.

Her unconventional and erratic teaching style is defended on the grounds that she offers students “their first sweet taste of moving out of mom and dad’s orbit, and they are feeling all of the joy that being very young, poor and free entails.”

I get that the piece exaggerates to be provocative and strives to be funny, but I don’t find it to be either. Like every other “students suck” piece out there, it is mean, insulting, and arrogant, and it misrepresents the vast majority of professors and instructors I have encountered in my professional life.

I have spent most of my career in the History Department at Simon Fraser University. Students are largely from lower to middle-income families and attended a public school in the surrounding region. Many hold down one or more part-time jobs, and often are responsible for the care of family members, and sometimes have children of their own. Continue reading

The Use and Abuse of Boredom

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By David Tough

This is the final essay in a five part theme week marking the centenary of income tax in Canada.

It’s like clockwork. Every time I tell someone I’m writing a book on the history of income taxation, the conversation plays out with eerie consistency. First, they say that the topic sounds painfully dull, and chuckle. Then they say that they had heard that income taxation was introduced as a temporary tax – then another chuckle – to pay for the First World War.

If I explain that income taxation was introduced during the war, but had more to do with dulling opposition to conscription than paying for the war, and that income taxation was actually a popular measure the government was reluctant to introduce, and that popular demand for some sort of direct tax, one that would weigh more heavily on the rich and lighten the tax burden on the average citizen, had been loudly expressed in the election of 1911, they invariably ask why I decided to study such an obscure question.

Income taxation is a central fact of modern political life, Continue reading

The Family as Tax Dodge, Again

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By Shirley Tillotson

This is the fourth in a five part theme week marking the centenary of income tax in Canada.

Here we are again. If you’ve studied history or lived a decade or two after forty, you’ve noticed that some battles are fought over and over and over again. Those repetitive, “I can’t believe we’re still debating this!” struggles mark itchy, scratchy places in our society, the places where the imperatives of institutions and “common sense,” markets and human needs contradict each other. So “same old, same old” really means “this is hot stuff.” In the history of the income tax, much of the hot stuff shows up around family. And sure enough, family matters appear in the federal government’s current proposals to make income taxation more fair. One aspect of the Morneau proposals targets the use of the breadwinner / homemaker / children family as a tax dodge. Or, to be less provocative, one might say the proposals target the use of one kind of family as a means to minimize tax, perfectly legal. Opposition MP Michelle Rempel moans, how can a government “change the rules” and call the change “fair”? Is the finance minister calling people who follow the rules “crooks”?

Amid all this heat, a bit of tax history might be calming. The distinction between what is avoidance – legal – and what is evasion – illegal – has changed before, and will no doubt change again. Rempel presents herself as defending law-abiding folk who face the shutting down of ordinary good business practices, ways of saving and spending that are both legitimate and socially useful. But those practices are not natural rights. They are more like tactics in a sport. They are merely ways of using current law to the taxpayer’s best advantage: tax avoidance practices, also called tax planning. As the world changes, so may tax law, in the future as it has in the past. The boundary between avoidance and evasion is historical, driven by events and our responses to them. Continue reading

History Slam Episode 104: Taxation and Democracy

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By Sean Graham

In this episode of the History Slam, which is a special bonus episode as part of Activehistory.ca’s taxation week, I talk Shirley Tillotson of Dalhousie University. We chat about her new book Give and Take: The Citizen-Taxpayer and the Rise of Canadian Democracy, Elsbeth Heaman’s new book Tax, Order, and Good Government: A New Political History of Canada, 1867-1917, and the role of taxes in Canadian life. We also talk about how taxation has been written about by historians, the merits of a flat tax, and how people feel about government spending.

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Canada’s Controversial Income Tax

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By Shirley Tillotson

This is the third in a five part theme week marking the centenary of income tax in Canada.

Calm fiscal reasoning was hard to summon up amidst the intense emotions of 1917. Demands for taxes on profits, high incomes, and wealth were fuelled by anger that was about not only fair public finance,  but also broader patterns in the distribution of wealth. In 1917, Canadians got a federal tax on income – but wealth remained safe.

In fact, as Sir Thomas White’s political opponents would soon realize, in legislating the income tax at that particular moment, he had cannily helped big investors to an extra good return on some of their wealth, namely the large quantities of war bonds they would buy in the first Victory loan drive of November 1917. Income from those bonds would be tax-exempt. In the interwar debates about the future of the federal income tax, those tax-free bonds would play the role that “gold-plated government pensions” do today: a red flag of taxpayer resentment. Income tax controversies would continue to swirl and churn, in particularly Canadian ways. Continue reading

What does the coming of income tax tell us about “fairness” in 1917?

By E.A. Heaman

This is the second in a five part theme week marking the centenary of income tax in Canada.

Robert Borden’s government introduced income tax in 1917 because Canadians wanted a fairer system of taxation than they had. How unCanadian of them! According to Margaret Wente (writing about Thomas Piketty’s egalitarian economics), Canadians have never been interested in inequality. “They simply don’t perceive a problem… The obsession with inequality is overwhelmingly a concern of the liberal policy elites – the people who live in rich liberal coastal states, or Toronto’s Annex, or Ottawa’s Glebe.” Wente mocked “a bunch of experts,” the Toronto Star, and the CBC for weighing in on the data and suggested that the real social divide in Canada may not be rich versus poor but policy elites versus masses.[1]

So what happened in 1917? Was it an embarrassing moment when the wonks triumphed over common sense? Or is she wrong about Canadians and inequality? Wente’s skepticism is a salutary one: it encourages us to revisit those events and try to understand what was special about the relationship between policy, public opinion, and fairness in that exceptional year.

Certainly 1917 was exceptional. Continue reading

When Income Tax Was Like a Fire

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By David Tough

This is the first in a five part theme week marking the centenary of income tax in Canada.

This summer, on the 100th anniversary of the passing of Income War Tax, I’ve seen the same fable repeated half a dozen times. No, it wasn’t a temporary tax, and no, it wasn’t introduced to pay for the First World War. It was introduced to win over a particularly difficult section of the public, one whose opposition to the war and to the economic system it was being fought to protect was growing rapidly.

More to the point, income taxation wasn’t brought in by an overzealous government using the war as a pretext for a money grab. The people wanted income taxation, and welcomed it as better than consumption taxes. Organized farmers and workers in particular wanted it, and campaigned relentlessly for it in their newspapers. It was the government that was resistant, but they had no choice: their feet were to the fire. Continue reading

“More of the Same”: Senator Beyak & Canada’s Refusal to Learn History

By Mercedes Peters

For the second time in a matter of months, Conservative Senator Lynn Beyak has drawn ire for her comments on Indigenous people in Canada. Earlier this year, in March, Beyak was criticized for her defence of the Residential School System when she stated that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report let the “remarkable works, [and] good deeds” of those who ran the schools “go unacknowledged.” While this statement deserves comment for its praise of the mechanisms that caused long-lasting harm to hundreds of thousands of Indigenous children, not to mention the generations that followed, her most recent statement made in an open letter published on her website is where I want to place my focus. Beyak’s words raise questions about Canada’s repeated failure to acknowledge readily available histories that for at least the past four decades serve to justify recognition of Indigenous rights.

In the letter, entitled “More of the Same is Not the Answer,” Beyak states that

The mountains, rivers, and streams belong to all of us. None of us are leaving, so let’s stop the guilt and blame and find a way to live together and share. Trade your status card for a Canadian citizenship, with a fair and negotiated payout to each Indigenous man, woman and child in Canada, to settle all the outstanding land claims and treaties, and move forward together just like the leaders already do in Ottawa. All Canadians are then free to preserve their cultures in their own communities, on their own time, with their own dime.

The letter manages to accurately draw the conclusion that “what [Canada is] doing is simply not working.” At the same time, however, it demands that Indigenous people surrender their rights and identities, and submit to the ‘privilege’ of Canadian citizenship for their own good. Her suggestion is remarkably ironic; Beyak has identified what Canada has been attempting (and failing) to do to Indigenous people since before Confederation as “a real change.” Despite her attempts to diverge from the norm, Beyak is upholding that norm in a way nearly identical to her federal predecessors by challenging the existence of Aboriginal and Treaty rights, unique by virtue of a continuous, historical relationship between Indigenous people and settler governments.[1] And like those who came before her, Beyak’s comments demonstrate an active refusal to acknowledge the history that both explains and justifies ‘special status,’ as well as an unwillingness to take Indigenous voices seriously. Continue reading

Decolonization, Indigenization and the History Department in Canada

 [This article was first published in the Canadian Historical Association Bulletin, 43.2, 2017, p. 32-33]

By: Mary Jane Logan McCallum, Julie Nagam, James Hanley, Anne-Laurence Caudano and Delia Gavrus

Our aim in this article is to document some of the recent activities that we have engaged in as a History Department to think critically about colonization and decolonization as history teachers, scholars and faculty members in Canada in the early twenty-first century. A rigorous cadre of Indigenous scholars has offered substantial critiques of University efforts to respond to the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC) and to “Indigenize the Academy.”  These critiques tend to focus on the seemingly substantial gap between administrative goals and practical on the ground concerns and building alternative post-secondary philosophies of education.[1] Mandatory courses, such as the Indigenous Course Requirement (ICR) established at the University of Winnipeg in 2016, have been one example used in many of the critiques, with scholars identifying shortcomings of the model and indicating concern that they show only minimal efforts on the part of the university when much broader substantial change is needed.[2] Within this discussion, scholars argue that Universities need to undertake substantial hiring plans, and ensure that Indigenous faculty are directing these processes throughout.  They also argue that Native/Indigenous/First Nations Studies Departments should lead and inform this process at all Universities. History departments also have a role to play and in our department, this conversation has been led by Indigenous scholars and energetically backed by our colleagues.

In some ways our department is currently in a unique situation to undertake Indigenization/decolonization work. Our Department leadership is supportive of Indigenous history teaching and scholarship and many individual department members are interested in gaining a sense of literacy in Indigenous (particularly local) history. Our department has, at least since the 1980s, been a centre for fur trade and ethnohistory scholarship and has recently built a substantial, committed and diverse Indigenous history area staff (including three Indigenous faculty[3]) offering a thoughtful and responsive curriculum.[4]  Our department has a good working relationship with the Indigenous Studies department.  Moreover, the University of Winnipeg more broadly has prioritized Indigenous education and has been led by a significant activist body of Indigenous students critically invested in uncovering, revising and understanding the impacts of local, national and global histories of Indigeneity and colonialism.

Recent Department activity was conditioned in part by the University’s Strategic Directions, adopted in late 2015 after an extensive consultation process, which identified Indigenization as one of five key strategic priorities. At the same time, a student-led initiative around a mandatory requirement for course work in Indigenous studies was actively debated in Senate. Approval in principle of this requirement in Spring 2015 led to the creation of a university-wide advisory committee whose recommendation was passed by Senate in November 2015. In the midst of this, in June 2015, the TRC released its findings, broadcast to an overflowing audience of more than 700 people in Riddell Hall. The History Department had the expertise, commitment, and responsibility to respond to this moment.[5]

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The Value of History in the ‘Age of Fake News’

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Christo Aivalis

Protest group with man holding a "I Wish This Were Fake News" sign.

Photo by Kayla Velasquez on Unsplash

During the 2016 American presidential election, but especially after the victory of Donald J. Trump, the term fake news became part of the public lexicon. The confluence of social media, digital campaigns, and the monetization of internet ‘clicks’ led to numerous instances of groups outright fabricating news stories, either to serve ideological objectives, or even just to generate high web traffic and income. And while such falsifications were more likely to emanate from the Trump/Republican side of the equation, Clinton/Democratic partisans were not innocent from the use of—or belief in—fake news that confirmed their ideological biases. And in a time where Trump is president, Democratic Party partisans, according to some, have become increasingly vulnerable to recirculating fake news stories.

Clearly, the spectre of fake news being shared across Facebook and Twitter from less-than-reputable web domains is a concerning one and most of us are guilty of playing a role in this cycle. The prevalence of fake news has also been used by traditional news sources like The New York Times and Washington Post to highlight the social value that well-researched and vetted journalism provides, even if that journalism comes at a personal cost to the consumer. As former Prime Minister Kim Campbell has argued in The Globe and Mail, “preserving our sources of reliable information should be our mission as citizens and leaders.”

But as important as first-rate journalism is to the health of democratic society, so are multiple disciplines within the academy. Specifically, the work of historians offers much of value in terms of textual analysis, a critical eye to how sources are created, preserved, and hierarchized, and a wider context that tends to complicate societal ‘common senses’ that underwrite much of our current fake news climate. Indeed, since Trump’s win many have argued that history and related scholarly disciplines are core tools to preserve the sanctity of truth within education and mass media. And while historians need not pat themselves on the back too vigorously, the role we can play in providing viable information—even without definitive answers—is a vindication of the humanities in our times.

But perhaps the greater role historians can play in this moment revolves less in our ability to quash fake news through our supposed mastery of archival research, and more in the contextualization of the very idea of fake news. Continue reading