History Slam 196: Becoming Vancouver

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By Sean Graham

The first time I was fortunate enough to visit Vancouver, it was October and the weather was unseasonably cold. It was a damp cold – the type that feels like it sticks to you – so I spent 4 days struggling to get warm. Having lived in Regina since that initial visit to the west coast, I now tell people with great confidence that -40 on the Prairies is a walk in the park compared to 0 in Vancouver.

That seeming contradiction, of a temperate place whose location makes cold temperatures feel much worse, is but one source of tension that exists in Vancouver. The city boasts the highest housing prices in Canada but is also home to what has been called the lowest income postal code in the country. It features a diverse local population, but has a long history of racial strife. Its economic growth is tightly connected to resource extraction, but the environmental movement is closely associated with the region.

These, and many other, sources of tension in Vancouver are central in Daniel Francis‘ new book Becoming Vancouver: A History. While taking a chronological approach to the city’s past, Francis focuses on the points of tension that have come to shape the local culture, politics, and economics. Motivated by a desire to highlight the city’s past in an cultural environment where its history is not always front of mind, he manages to craft a local history that highlights key themes that influence civic life in communities across the country. From housing prices to opioids to discriminatory policies, Becoming Vancouver delves into national issues within a well-written local history.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Daniel Francis about the book. We discuss civic history, Indigenous communities in what is now Vancouver, and the city’s early development through natural resources. We also chat about housing prices, inequality, racism, 1960s protests, and the city’s cultural growth. Continue reading

History Slam 195: Why Reconciliation Fails Indigenous People & How to Fix It

By Sean Graham

During the election campaign this fall, the major political parties all included Reconciliation in their platforms. Yet in the past couple of weeks, the protests around the country in support of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs have served as another example of how far there is to go towards meaningful Reconciliation. As Bruce McIvor notes, this will be a multi-generational project that will take a genuine commitment to engage.

McIvor explores the failures of Reconciliation and how to resolve these issues in his new book Standoff: Why Reconciliation Fails Indigenous People and How to Fix It. The book features a series of short essays he has written throughout his career as a lawyer fighting for Indigenous rights. With a wide range of topics presented in a short, easily-readable format, Standoff is a deeply engaging book that challenges its readers to go beyond established narratives surrounding Reconciliation and consider what a meaningful Reconciliation process could look like.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Bruce McIvor about Reconciliation and the book. We chat about his background as a lawyer challenging colonial laws, the pervasiveness of colonialism, and treaty obligations. We also discuss the the current protests, what meaningful actions non-Indigenous Canadians can take, and the impact of colonialism on Indigenous youth across Canada. If you are interested in purchasing the book, head to Bruce’s website where you can find a list of independent, Indigenous-owned bookstores around the country.

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Visiting and Recognizing the Past: Toronto’s 1919-1920 Smallpox Outbreak

Sara Wilmshurst

A few years ago, on this very site, I published an article about combatting vaccine resistance with historical education. Surely, I thought, if people understood how devastating preventable diseases could be, everyone would be eager to roll up a sleeve and be jabbed.

Such is the pain of living through historic times. At least I learned something.

Like many of the historians who contributed to the recent series, cycling has been an outlet during the COVID-19 pandemic and a way to visit various pockets of my adopted city, Toronto, even as the weather cools and low points in the path become puddles.

When riding up the Don River trail, I always think about a place that no longer exists: the Swiss Cottage Hospital. The twenty-five-bed institution was part of the Riverdale Isolation Hospital complex; it specifically served patients with smallpox. The building was disused for several years when it burned in 1930. The nearby Riverdale Hospital (now Hennick Bridgepoint Health) has a Heritage Toronto plaque but the humbler smallpox hospital has no such marker.

Alt text: A black-and-white photograph of a brick building with two full storeys and a gable roof. There is a grassy lawn in front of the building and a stand of evergreen trees behind it.

“Smallpox Isolation Hospital,” City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 331. Public domain.

In the second winter of the COVID-19 pandemic I cannot help but think of Toronto’s 1919-1920 smallpox outbreak. It began in November 1919, when public health officials confirmed the outbreak of chickenpox in the city was, in fact, smallpox. Continue reading

I Will Ride

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This is the eleventh and final post in a series, “History En Vélo,” about cycling and thinking historically, shared with NiCHE.

By Peter Cox

I used to ride.

I used to ride, a lot.

I rode as a kid, cherishing the possibility of exploring on my own. I rode for fun, just because I could.

I rode as a teenager to escape the limits of my world. To become an autonomous person, making my own decisions, in charge of my own destinations. I used to ride for pleasure, just to be outside. I rode so I could meet friends in the dispersed rural community where few were in walking distance.

1993: Pete and Barbara setting off on a 6 week tour from London to the Vosges (and back). Bikes: 1964 and 1965 vintage Moultons acquired from yard sales.

I used to ride. I rode so I could hang out in the city where the music scene was. I toured to see the wider world, first day trips then multi-day tours.

I rode in my 20s. A series of bikes of dubious origins came and went, a constant round of thefts and acquisitions.

I used to ride. I rode to race, training for international amateur competitions. Listening to the pain as I pushed myself to my limits. Watching the data recorder to monitor the wattage, the heart rate, the speed. Building the bikes to race on, changing designs to maximise efficiency.

Gallery clockwise:
1998: On Meadowbank Velodrome (Glasgow) about to race with my first self-designed low racer (the Lune).
2002: My next design, the Wyre (two built: one for me one for my brother). Picture taken at the World Human Powered Vehicle Championships, Lelystad, NL, where we had ridden to race.
2008: Racing at the world championships.

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History Slam 194: Mining Country

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By Sean Graham

In April 1936, three workers at the Moose River Mine in Nova Scotia became trapped over 40 metres below the ground when the mine’s roof collapsed. On the sixth day following the collapse, rescuers were able to drill a borehole that allowed them to send food and water to the men. As the news spread, the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission, the predecessor to the CBC, sent J. Frank Willis to the scene to report on the rescue operations. For 56 consecutive hours, Willis sent live updates to over 650 stations around the world, as the story captivated a global audience. When the men finally emerged from the mine on the 11th day, Willis reported with great flare that they has escaped their underground graves.

The story of the Moose River Mine disaster is often looked at as one of heroism – of the trapped men surviving, of the rescuers persisting, and of Willis continuing to broadcast. What tends to be omitted in a lot of the retellings of the story, however, is how roof collapsed. Or the dangers associated with mining. Or, frankly, even what they were mining. For me, this is representative of a lot of the population imagination surrounding mining in Canada. The images of miners covered in dirt emerging at the end of a long day extracting the materials society needs without getting the proper recognition dominate representations of miners and mining. The larger economic systems at play, their role in the colonial project, or even the environmental or human cost of mining are conspicuously absent.

So when I sat down to read Mining Country: A History of Canada’s Mines and Miners, I was expecting a piece celebrating the workers and highlighting their economic contributions to Canada. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised to see a book that explored the costs of mining. From the impact on Indigenous communities to the environmental damage of abandoned mines, the book highlights five key themes in Canada’s mining history and explores them through an effective use of case studies. At the same time, however, the book is not dismissive of the miners themselves, those who worked in dangerous situations and built strong communities both inside and outside their workplaces. While today mining is industry that is often discussed in very polarized terms, the book is able to avoid the contemporary talking points to provide a nuanced examination of mining’s history in Canada.

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History Slam 193: The Bad Detective

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By Sean Graham

Popular culture is full of popular detectives and detective stories – from Sherlock Holmes to Jessica  Fletcher, we seem to love seeing good sleuth get to the bottom of a case. That fascination translates into real life cases, where everything from crime podcasts to live courts proceedings find big audiences, thrusting those who investigate crimes into the limelight. This has long been the case, and some in law enforcement have fallen prey to the allure of the bright lights and notoriety.

That was certainly the case for Nic Power, a Halifax-based detective in the 19th century and the subject of Bob Gordon’s new book The Bad Detective: The Incredible Cases of Nic Power. Coming into public view following claims of saving the young prince from a Fenian bomb, Power enjoyed his reputation as an influential detective and did anything he could to maintain that position, even if it meant bending and breaking the rules he was responsible for enforcing. A tale that reminds modern readers of the importance of holding those in power to account and the need for a free and independent press, The Bad Detective explores a larger than life figure who boasted his way to a lucrative career.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Bob Gordon about the book. We chat about uncovering the story of Nic Power, his ability to manipulate the press during his life, and his rise to power during tensions with the Fenians. We also discuss Power’s unscrupulous behaviour, how prejudices aided his malfeasance, and what lessons audience in 2021 can take from this story. Bob is also the author of Life After Covid-19, which we talk about at the end of the episode.

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Critical Cycling: Race and Memory On an Old Stagecoach Route

This is the tenth in a series, “History En Vélo,” about cycling and thinking historically, shared with NiCHE.

By Jacqueline Scott

It was one of the most important stagecoach routes in the early 1800s. Then, travelling the Toronto-Kingston-Montreal route took about a week. We had a weekend to cycle roughly 300 kilometres, covering the Toronto to Kingston portion of the trail.

Biking Prince Edward County.

James Mink and his daughter Mary Mink were the inspiration for the bike ride. He was one of the four livery stables keepers listed in Roswell’s 1850 City of Toronto Directory. James Mink was Black. He was a successful businessman, making his fortune from operating the Toronto to Kingston stagecoach, delivering mail and transporting passengers. We started the ride in downtown Toronto, close to where Mink’s hotel and stables once stood.

The search for Black history, and a love of outdoor recreation, drives my adventure trips. These journeys are not just play; they are a way of honouring and memoralising the long Black presence in Canada. Black people are typically erased from Canadian history texts, or are confined to the margins and footnotes (Mackey, 2010; Shadd, 2010). Our absented presence underlines the fiction that Black people are either recent immigrants, or arrived to find freedom here via the Underground Railroad in the 1800s (Walcott, 2003). This fiction disappears the 200 years of slavery from the Canadian historical memory (Cooper, 2007; Henry, 2010).

On our bike ride, we cycled along half-quiet and rolling country roads with farms on both sides. Acres of corn danced in the summer breeze. Continue reading

Historia Nostra: Myth, Memory, and Misconception at the Plains of Abraham

By Erin Isaac

The Battle on the Plains of Abraham, on 13 September 1759, is heavily commemorated on Québec’s physical landscape. From the streets, buildings, and shops named for the French and British military men who fought that day, to the monuments that dot the city’s historic neighbourhoods, and commemorative panels or plaques at the Plains of Abraham, it’s hard to wander around Old Québec without being reminded of this moment in the city’s history.

But this battle is a bit of a sore spot when it comes trying to commemorate Canadian history. Do we celebrate the British victory there in 1759 or lament the French loss? We celebrate the martyred (if I may be so bold!) French commander Montcalm, sure, but the British commander, Wolfe also has his share of monuments and mentions. Public works seem to believe we can have it both ways, treating history like it is politically benign or neutral territory.

Wolfe–Montcalm Monument, Québec City, Wikipedia

It might not be surprising, then, that most misconceptions about the Battle on the Plains of Abraham seem to diminish its importance, or place blame for the French loss away from the imperial regimes that sought to shore up claims on Indigenous lands during the Seven Years’ War. We treat this battle as a one-off, singular, or definitive moment. The mythology around that day is parsed out from what came before or after it. Continue reading

Bartleby By Bike

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By Michael Egan

This is the ninth in a series, “History En Vélo,” about cycling and thinking historically, shared with NiCHE.

Hang the anachronism: I liked the alliteration. The sentiment remains, however. I would prefer not to superimpose Herman Melville’s scrivener’s rejection of the world he inhabits while inhabiting that world as metaphor for the bicycle’s place in twenty-first-century petrocultured environments.

I would prefer not to consider the relationship between bicycles and history. I would prefer not to mention that the first roads were paved for bicycles and not automobiles. I would prefer not to posit the transformative qualities the bicycle imposed on the late-nineteenth-century cityscape. I would prefer not to talk about bloomers or the oft-quoted position, held by both Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, that women were riding to suffrage on a bicycle.

I would prefer not to shift toward environmental history tropes and evoke the ways in which topography and weather and seasons and the experience of physical work mediate my relationship with my surroundings. I would prefer not to describe the burning of lungs as I lean into steeper inclines, or how this attunes rider to landscape.

I would prefer not to touch on the materials of the bicycle’s construction—tubing made of steel, aluminum, carbon fibre, bamboo—or its manufacture. I would prefer not to assert the simplicity of its original design, its efficiency for capturing human power, or its ability to propel its rider at the optimal maximum speed across shared and populous spaces.

Umberto Boccioni, Dynamism of a Cyclist (Dinamismo di un ciclista) – Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Public Domain.

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Postscript: Cuts from “Pandemic Methodologies”

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By Erin Gallagher-Cohoon

PMTC Co-Organizer’s note: Unlike me, Erin has not yet had the opportunity to publish the initial piece of writing that inspired and was inspired by the Pandemic Methodologies Twitter Conference. We felt that this series was the right place to begin that process and ensure that her thoughts, writing, and emotions had a place. The unconventional, beautiful piece of writing that follows represents the state of mind and body that we, as co-organizers, colleagues, and friends, grappled with during the pandemic as we searched for ways to continue our work – while we continue to explore what that means.

 Author’s note: I wrote this in the kind of brain fog or fever dream that makes time blend together. Chronology seems unimportant when every day under lockdown under grief feels the same. The disregard I show for the most basic of historical tools, the timeline, is done with all due respect to the role of narrative and smooth editing in historical writing. Traditional historical narrative, however, does not capture my current experience of time. The mess and confusion I have decided not to edit out, as you will see below, are a closer approximation.

 I message a good friend and fellow PhD candidate over Facebook. He shares snippets of his annual review. I share snippets of this personal essay that I fatten and trim daily. Neither one of us talk about the other writing that hangs over us both besides to admit that the dissertations are coming along slowly, if at all. After writing myself into an existential crisis, my friend sends me an article about how historians can be vicariously traumatized by their research. Partway through reading it, Robert sees that I am online and FaceChats me from the hospital. He is bald and bloated and his conversation does not always make sense. He tells me that he met my Dad in 1920. At other times, he seems as rational as he ever was. He hangs up after saying “I love you.” I think about crying but don’t really feel like it.

Man with glasses and black shirt raising hand

Selfie Robert took in hospital and texted to author on February 21, 2020. He is raising a hand in hello or goodbye.

I go back to the article. I read: “every day, sometimes for decades, historians open themselves, if not willingly then by a sense of obligation, to the pain of the past. Often, the present intrudes, exacerbating the trauma.” My present intrudes. This present where I cannot hug my immunocompromised, end-of-life Robert because of a global pandemic, but where I can connect with him, however dissatisfyingly, via text message and Facebook. If my present is intruding, exacerbating the compassion fatigue if not outright trauma of my research, how does that shape the research itself? What types of histories are we writing shut away behind our computer screens, doom scrolling and desperately trying to keep ourselves, our families, and our communities from shattering? How do we write history during a pandemic? Continue reading