Views of Canada: Canada has a Right to Party at 150, but we Waste the Sesquicentennial Moment by Fixating on Feel-Good Myths

By Jon Weier

This essay is the introduction to a special issue of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives MonitorViews of Canada: Active History.” You can download the PDF using this link.

There is an important difference between celebration and commemoration. In considering Canada 150, the government tagline for this year’s sesquicentennial festivities, the contributors to this special issue of the Monitor argue too little of what we are seeing can, or is even intended to, lead the country to a fuller understanding of its history.

To truly commemorate – whether it is Canada’s Confederation or any other moment – we need to address those things we find distasteful and disappointing says Afua Cooper, as well as those things that make us proud. If you can’t do that on your country’s 150th birthday, she asks when is the right time. Continue reading

150 Acts of Reconciliation for the Last 150 Days of Canada’s 150

By Crystal Fraser and Sara Komarnisky

On August 4th, there are 150 days left in 2017 – the year of Canada’s 150th birthday. There have been robust discussions this year around reconciliation and we would like to contribute to the conversation. Together, we have written 150 Acts of Reconciliation for the last 150 days of 2017. Many of these are small, everyday acts that average Canadians can undertake, but others are more provocative that encourage people to think about Indigenous-settler relationships in new ways. We encourage you to use #150Acts to share your engagement with each item on the list. To download a printable .pdf version of this list, click here.

Poster #05 of the Graphic History Collective’s series Remember l Resists l Redraw: A Radical History Poster Project. Text: Erica Violet Lee. Artwork: Anonymous (by request).

  1. Learn the land acknowledgement in your region. Continue reading

The Ever Changing Nature of White Canada

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By Adam Coombs

“Canadians have learned how to be strong because of our differences,” states a new draft version of Discover Canada, the study guide for Canada’s citizenship exam. This vision of Canada as a diverse and multicultural society is one that most Canadians embrace. However, for many on Canada’s far-right this vision of Canadian society is simply one more attempt by the Liberals to undermine traditional Canadian and Western values in favour of moral relativism, cultural Marxism and Sharia Law. In response they forward their own distorted version of Canadian history that creates a false narrative of whiteness to justify their racist politics. This post will take a look at the claims of one of these groups, The Proud Boys, and demonstrate the profoundly ahistorical nature of their claims.

While previously relegated to the fringes of the internet, The Proud Boys, burst to national prominence this past Canada Day. By now the actions of five members of the Canadian Armed Forces in Halifax on Canada Day are well known. The men who disrupted an Indigenous mourning ceremony identified themselves as members of the Maritime Chapter of the Proud Boys, an all-male, right-wing group started in 2016 by Vice Media founder Gavin McInnis. While many commentators have rightly heaped ridicule on the group over the past three weeks for its violent induction rituals, rules regarding masturbation, and the fact that their name comes from a song in the Broadway adaption of Disney’s Aladdin, the most succinct description of the group comes from Globe and Mail columnist Tabatha Southey, who describes them as “a group of guys possessed of a seriously shaky grasp of history.”

Southey’s characterization of these men is certainly correct. While many Canadians of all political stripes have a tenuous understanding of the country’s past, what is particularly concerning about the Alt-Right’s historical ignorance, as exemplified by the Proud Boys, is that their flawed historical narratives are used to justify their overt racism and intimidation of other Canadians seeking to raise awareness of injustice, both historical and contemporary. Continue reading

Looking Forward, Looking Back: CBC News and The Revamped National

By Sean Graham

The new anchors of The National. L to R – Rosemary Barton, Andrew Chang, Adrienne Arsenault, Ian Hanomansing. Via CBC.ca

Since Peter Mansbridge announced last year that he was retiring from his post as anchor of The National, there has been plenty of speculation about how the show would use his departure as an opportunity to revamp. Criticisms of the show have ranged from political bias to being too centered around its anchor and many looked forward to a fresh start. As a result, yesterday’s announcement that the anchor position will be split among Rosemary Barton, Andrew Chang, Adrienne Arsenault, and Ian Hanomansing created quite a stir.

While The Beaverton may have won for the funniest story about the change, the announcement simultaneously harkens back to the CBC’s earliest days, when announcers were not expected to be household names, while also signalling a potentially dangerous shift in how the national broadcaster intends to deliver its news.

During the Moose River Mine Disaster in the spring of 1936, J. Frank Willis became a celebrity for his fiery and extravagant descriptions over Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission stations. When the CBC started later that fall, General Manager Gladstone Murray wanted to make sure that no personality was bigger than the Corporation, which contributed to his effort to standardize the accent and vocabulary heard on CBC programs.

Over time that policy was challenged by the likes of Matthew Halton, whose updates from Europe during the Second World War made him one of the best-known journalists of the period. Since then, the idea that journalists should remain largely anonymous has really virtually disappeared. One could argue that Knowlton Nash and Peter Mansbridge shattered that idea in Canada as both are inextricably linked with the CBC’s wider news service.

In an era where news outlets are routinely accused of partisan motives, returning to the days of less prominent individual journalists can help alleviate that problem. For the CBC, the news division will no longer be identified by a single person, whose personal beliefs can come to represent the entire organization. Additionally, four people, who have very different professional backgrounds, bring different perspectives and, with that, a layer of protection against claims of partisanship.

If the CBC had just announced the personnel change, that would have been fine. But the Corporation added something to its announcement that made yesterday feel like yet another step in the ever increasing shift towards American style news.

Continue reading

In Conversation II: Archiving and Accessing Canada’s First World War

By Sarah Glassford and Rose Morton

Preamble

This post is the product of several conversations and a more formal Q&A email exchange between two staff members at the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick (PANB) in Fredericton: Rose Morton is a Reference Archivist, and Sarah Glassford is a summer intern with a background in History. We draw no broad conclusions, but hope to spark further conversations about the role of archives in preserving and making accessible the history of Canada’s First World War.

The Provincial Archives of New Brunswick (PANB), located on the University of New Brunswick campus.  (Photo: S. Glassford)

Our Conversation (More or Less)           

Sarah:
When researchers want to investigate aspects of Canada’s First World War, they often think first of Library and Archives Canada, in Ottawa, because of the federal government’s role directing many aspects of the war effort, and the national significance of the conflict. And of course there is a lot of great material there for them to find. But here we are at the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick, surrounded by material documenting the history and people of this province – presumably that includes First World War items, too. What sorts of Great War-related materials might researchers find if they looked through our collections?

Rose:
In my experience, researchers who visit us tend to look at our private sector records. That might be collections that include wartime diaries or personal correspondence, both of which can be great sources of information. Photographs and local newspapers from the time are also very popular for historians tracing the progress of the war, specific events, or individuals. For example, newspapers might include casualty lists, obituaries, stories about local enlisted men, and so on. New Brunswickers’ military attestation papers and war-related articles from New Brunswick newspapers are searchable on our website through the ongoing New Brunswick Great War Project.

Sarah:
Those sorts of records can definitely help bring to life the names on an honour roll of men who served, and put them in a broader community context. As a researcher, I have also used the records of organizations like the Women’s Institutes, the IODE, and the Canadian Red Cross, as ways to find out how non-combatants, local communities, and particularly women and children, participated in the war effort. Do we have any government records that would be relevant to First World War researchers?

Rose:
Yes, researchers building biographical sketches of individuals or families often rely heavily on official government records such as vital statistics documents (births, deaths, marriages) and registry office records.

Sarah:
That makes sense. Those sorts of documents help add detail to the trajectories of individual lives.

Given that we’re in the midst of the centenary of the First World War, have you noticed any increase in the number of researchers studying the conflict?

Rose:
Yes, the Great War has been quite a popular topic in the last few years, as important one-hundredth anniversaries occur.

Visiting researchers consult archival materials in the PANB Research Room. (Photo: S. Glassford)

Sarah:
I know one initiative that has captured a certain amount of local media interest is the George Street Middle School soldier biography project. What is that and how is PANB involved?

Rose:
It is this great project spearheaded and still led by teacher James Rowinski at George Street Middle School in Fredericton. Brent Wilson at the University of New Brunswick’s Gregg Centre for the Study of War and Society has also been a collaborator.

Students at George Street Middle School each choose a soldier of the Great War from the Fredericton cenotaph to research and write a report on. Each class is brought to PANB for a session to do research and to experience what historical research involves.

Sarah:
Since the school is composed of Grades 6-8, that sounds like an excellent opportunity to expose younger students to history, and to archives, in a meaningful way. What roles do you and other PANB staff play, when the students come to the archives? 

Rose:
Their time here is limited, and part of what we want to do is show the students how interesting historical research can be, so we often do some work ahead of time to make sure they don’t experience too many dead ends. That helps maximize the thrill that comes with a successful search.  

A big part of our role is to make sure that the students’ visits to the archives are positive experiences… that they come away knowing what a valuable and accessible resource archives can be. Hopefully what is likely their first experience with archives and archival research opens doors for them to continue to be interested in investigating our history, and they will know where to come with their questions.

We have to balance all of this while modeling objectivity and a structured approach to research.

Sarah:
What sorts of materials might they use while they’re here? 

Rose:
We use multiple sources and formats, making sure to introduce different techniques and strategies. This works well in two ways: it introduces students to these methods, but also ensures that there is something to interest just about everyone. Some students might be thrilled to go through old newspapers on microfilm in small groups while others might be more interested in quietly reading through textual material, for example. 

Sarah:
As a researcher, I can’t ever recall seeing children using the archives. Do you find the students require different kinds of help than adult researchers?

Rose:
The students are in middle school, not young children, so it’s not very different from assisting most other researchers. Just like everyone else, some students have done more work ahead of time than others, some are more impatient for results than others, and each of them will have different expectations of their role and ours.

Sarah:
And how do you find the students respond to the project, or to the archives more broadly?

Rose:
The majority of students we see really begin to get interested, even excited, once we’ve started digging into the material a little bit. There is so much material here, in so many formats… once you find the thing that interests a particular student you can really tell that they begin to get into it.  

Sarah:
That sounds like adult researchers, too. Apparently age has little bearing on the archival research experience.

Once the students have created their soldier biographies, what happens to them? Do they come back to the archives in any form?

Rose:
They do. PANB has designed an online exhibit to host the finished product: Soldiers of the Great War; The Fredericton Soldier Biography History Initiative. It has already been a valuable resource for many other researchers.  

Sarah:
So the collaboration goes both ways between the archives and the student researchers. That’s neat. And there’s a long-term legacy for the work the students have done.

Interestingly, hosting the online exhibit also gives the archives a commemorative role, rather than simply one of preserving and providing access to information. What do you see as the role of archives (in general), when it comes to teaching and learning about events like the Great War?  Do archives have particular strengths to offer, in this regard?

Rose:
I think the archives’ main role is to present the primary material as-is. That includes helping students or researchers find the primary material and decode it (literally, as in reading script handwriting or explaining military acronyms), but letting them put the pieces together. Archives staff are always invaluable when it comes to finding relevant material and ensuring thoroughness when it comes to any topic. These are the people who work with the archives’ holdings every day, so connecting with them is the key to ensuring thorough research.

Inside the PANB repository containers of archival materials are stacked several storeys high. (Photo: S. Glassford)

Sarah:
The centenary of the First World War, combined with new digital technologies, has meant that in recent years a huge amount of material about Canada and the Great War has been digitized and made freely accessible online. Library & Archives Canada’s Canadian Expeditionary Force soldier service files, The Rooms’ Newfoundland Military Service Files, and the documents put online through the Canadian Letters and Images Project are three good examples.  Do you think these sorts of initiatives make physical archival holdings any more or less important?

Rose:
It makes physical archival holdings more important. If students have fewer and fewer opportunities to examine, to touch, to really experience primary material, than the experiences they do have can have a great impact. When we physically hold a piece of correspondence with many postage marks, and see that it took weeks (or months!) to reach its destination, it really deepens our understanding of the experience of the person who wrote it. The physical reality of it adds weight to the descriptions of being lonely at Christmastime, of missing loved ones, of how foreign and weird some of their experiences were. These experiences might be harder and harder to fully understand in the modern age, and so physical primary documents remain very important.

Sarah:
Since digitized documents made available online are accessible to people beyond the traditional users of physical archives, perhaps in time we will see new users coming to the archives in order to get the kind of hands-on access you’re referring to, or to dig more deeply into the stories hinted at by digitized records. Because you’re absolutely right: there’s nothing like holding a piece of the past in your hands to make the events of 100 years ago seem intensely real.

In light of that, and with my historian’s hat on, it feels appropriate to close this post by saying “thank you” to the collectors and packrats who held onto fragments of Canada’s First World War experiences, and especially to the past and present archivists and curators who have preserved those fragments and made them accessible to the rest of us.

– – – – – – – –

Rose Morton is a Reference Archivist at the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick. She has worked in libraries and archives since 1998. A passionate advocate of cultural literacy, she spent 9 years at the Calgary Public Library where she developed innovative literacy programs for children and families.

Dr. Sarah Glassford has taught Canadian history at four Canadian universities, and is the author of Mobilizing Mercy: A History of the Canadian Red Cross (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017). She is presently an intern at the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick, completing the co-op component of her Masters of Library and Information Science degree from Western University.

ActiveHistory.ca is featuring this post as part of  “Canada’s First World War: A Centennial Series on ActiveHistory.ca”, a multi-year series of regular posts about the history and centennial of the First World War.  We welcome new submissions.  Contact Nathan Smith at: nsmith241@gmail.com.

Defying Expectations: Exercise and Medical Surveillance during Pregnancy

Katrina Ackerman and Whitney Wood

Statue of Dutch athlete Fanny Blankers- Koen. Source: Ruud Zwart, CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons

High-level athletes who exercise or compete in a sport while pregnant constantly gain media attention. When Serena Williams recently announced that she was 20 weeks pregnant, people quickly crunched the numbers and discovered that she won the Australian Open while seven to eight weeks pregnant. Williams was celebrated for challenging the notion that the pregnant body is fragile and weak. At the same time, however, athletes in other sports and the fitness industry often confront the long-held belief that pregnant bodies should not exercise. CrossFit competitor Miranda Chivers Oldroyd faces a litany of unsolicited advice and criticism on Instagram because she posts images and videos of her doing CrossFit workouts while pregnant, such as a video of her doing muscle-ups at 16 weeks. Despite consulting with physicians about the safety of the movements as well as their individual abilities, athletic women like Oldroyd often experience public backlash for physically challenging their bodies when pregnant. In an effort to refute the negative association between competitive exercise and pregnancy, CrossFit released two videos earlier this year, Pregnant, Not Dead and A CrossFit Pregnancy: Healthy Mother, Healthy Child, which brought further awareness to the public shaming of athletic, pregnant bodies.

These modern anxieties surrounding women’s conduct during pregnancy have deep historical roots. Culturally-specific pregnancy taboos have existed throughout history. During the professionalization of obstetrics in nineteenth-century North America, however, a growing number of medical “experts” transformed these taboos into increasingly strict medical proscriptions against certain behaviours. Pregnant women increasingly came under the surveillance of medical professionals, and gradually, the public.[1] These prohibitions were readily and regularly entrenched in a growing body of medical advice literature that was directed at white, middle-class, young wives and expectant mothers in the Victorian years.

In the closing decades of the nineteenth century, Canadian physicians increasingly spoke out against what they saw as the unprecedented pressures of modern life and the negative effects these pressures had on the human body. “Modern” women, most often cast as urban-dwelling members of the white, middle, and upper classes, were described as living “unnatural” lives that contributed to ill health and a host of “female complaints” that reached new heights during pregnancy. Their bodies and birth experiences were readily contrasted with the more “natural” deliveries of Indigenous women, who were thought – due to what many Canadians described as a more “primitive” mode of living – to experience easier pregnancies and deliveries than their white counterparts. As these “New Women” and “modern girls” became increasingly mobile and partook in many of the technological changes and possibilities of the early twentieth century, physicians singled out new behaviours as causes for concern. In the face of these pressures, and aiming to promote healthful pregnancies and shore up birth rates among Anglo-Canadians in particular, Canadian doctors recommended what they saw as “appropriate” (but very limited) exercise for their white, well-to-do patients during pregnancy. Continue reading

The Great White Hype: Conor McGregor and the History of Race in Boxing

Conor McGregor & Floyd Mayweather at their Toronto press conference, July 12 2017. Image from Showtime.

By Angie Wong and Travis Hay

On the 12th of July, 2017, downtown Toronto was over-run with a sea of Irish flags and rowdy young white men.[1] More than 16,000 fans had flocked to the scene to witness the Mayweather-McGregor World Tour Press Conference, which promoted the upcoming boxing match between the undefeated African American champion Floyd Mayweather Jr. (widely regarded as the greatest boxer of all time) and the white Irish mixed martial artist Conor McGregor. Not long into the proceedings, the crowd—overwhelmingly in favour of McGregor—began to hurl taunts, boos, and insults at Mayweather. Enjoying and even encouraging these proceedings, McGregor tried his best to humiliate his opponent, going so far as to shout “dance for me, boy!” as the crowd sang ‘Olé.’[2] When it became Mayweather’s turn to take the microphone, he was drowned out by the crowd who shouted “pay your taxes” again and again (a reference to his recently reported financial troubles).[3] Though he was largely unphased by the Toronto crowd’s hostility, Mayweather failed in his attempt to garner much support from the Canadian crowd, despite having sported a baller cap and t-shirt that infused the Canadian flag into his signature logo.

As critical race feminists as well as fans of both boxing and mixed martial arts (MMA), we could not help but notice that McGregor’s Canadian fans conducted themselves in a fashion strikingly similar to their American counterparts at Trump rallies. We are also troubled by the extent to which McGregor’s sudden rise to celebrity has followed a particular cultural script of the ‘great white hope’—that is, the white, working-class fighter who brings with him a lunch-bucket mentality to the ring and compensates with work ethic what he lacks in natural athletic ability or talent, thereby allowing him to best a Black champion and restore racial pride to a white population that sees itself in crisis. In titling this piece ‘The Great White Hype’ (also the name of a 1996 film poking fun at this very issue), we want to argue that McGregor’s cultural success has more to do with a revival in white pride than in pugilistic prowess. In short, this issue has a history, and the Toronto press conference was evidence enough that we remain trapped within it.

The First Great White Hope

In 1908, Jack Johnson became the first Black man to capture the world heavyweight championship when he knocked out the white Canadian boxer Tommy Burns. Continue reading

Springtime for Big History: Part One

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By Owen Griffiths

This is the first part of a four part series, running quarterly, on Big History.

In 1989, on the eve of the Berlin Wall’s collapse, Soviet tanks retreating across the Friendship Bridge, and Chinese tanks facing off against students in Tiananmen Square, I received my first exposure to world history through a seminar course and a conference on the same theme organized by Ralph Crozier at the University of Victoria. With those world historical events prominent in the foreground, the course and conference introduced me to a new approach to history as well as to the many debates surrounding the efficacy of world history as a legitimate research field and pedagogy. “Too big,” its critics cried. “No one is qualified to teach the world.” “World history is like a stone skimming on the surface of the water,” still others opined. Fortunately, these voices, while still extant, have been stilled.

Today, world history programs from undergraduate to Ph.D. are taught at dozens of universities in North America and elsewhere. World history has its own international organization (founded in 1982) and journal (founded in 1990). Feeding all this are dramatic changes in North American high school curricula, which offer world history courses in various forms at most schools. Through these efforts, world history has become a legitimate and respected area of scholarship and teaching.

In that same year of 1989, worlds away from Berlin, Afghanistan, Beijing, and Victoria, David Christian of Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia began teaching his first course on big history, collaborating with colleagues from the sciences and the social sciences. Trained in Russian social history, Christian was also interested in origins and so structured his course to begin with the most widely accepted origin story for which we have testable evidence: the big bang 13.8 billion years ago. As far as we know, all human societies have stories about where they came from and how the world came to be. These may be the oldest stories we have and their existence reminds us of what humans share in common at the most fundamental level. Big history follows this tradition, locating all celestial and terrestrial activity in the context of the big bang. Continue reading

A fond farewell: Thank you Beth Robertson

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This month Beth Robertson will be leaving the editorial collective in order to focus on her teaching at Carleton University and her work as the digital editor for the Canadian Science and Technology Historical Association / Scientia Canadensis. In recognition of all the work she has put into the project over the past three years, we are reposting the introduction to a theme week Beth coordinated with Dorotea Gucciardo in November 2015: Technoscience in Canada. See the bottom for the list of fascinating posts solicited, curated and edited by Beth and Dorotea.

Thank you Beth for all the work you have done to keep ActiveHistory.ca up and running!

Telephone exchange, c.1950

Telephone exchange, c.1950

Climate scientist Simon Donner was quoted in Wired, lamenting the politicization of science under the recently felled Conservative government. Individuals like Donner hoped that the change in government would mean “a new beginning for science” in Canada. Important to this discussion is not only a conception of Canada’s future, but also its past. Embedded within such hopeful aspirations is the assumption that science in Canada, as well as the technological infrastructure accompanying it, was once largely unfettered by socio-political or philosophical bias, and therefore could be so once more. Yet, has science or technology ever been free from politics? This week’s theme week dedicated to “Technoscience in Canada” aims to probe just this question.

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The Politics of Reclaiming, Not Renaming

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By Elliot Worsfold

Debates over “renaming” Canadian buildings, universities, and other institutions have generated significant attention in the media over the past several weeks. On National Indigenous Peoples Day, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau declared that the Langevin Block on Parliament Hill would be renamed the more perfunctory Office of the Prime Minister and the Privy Council. Trudeau cited Sir Hector-Louis Langevin’s involvement in the residential schools system as the primary reason for the building’s name change. In early July, the Ryerson Students Union and Indigenous Students Association similarly gained attention for their proposal to change the name of Ryerson University. They also cited Egerton Ryerson’s complicity in the residential schools system as the motivation to change the university’s name. That same week, a hostile confrontation between the right-wing “Proud Boys” and Indigenous activists at Halifax’s Edward Cornwallis statue on Canada Day sparked renewed calls for the statue’s removal. All these events prompted pundits to try to explain just why Canadians seem to be obsessed with the “politics of renaming.”

The critics of renaming generally cite the same list of arguments. Renaming institutions or removing statues effectively erases history. The men (for it is almost always men) commemorated in these places must be understood in the context of their time. By removing their names, you are robbing future generations of learning about their past. Why, they may even be doomed to repeat it.

These criticisms have been addressed elsewhere. My contention is that referring to this process as “renaming” or “removal” indirectly supports the aforementioned criticisms. “Renaming” implies a loss. “Removal” implies that something is being destroyed to make room for something else. Describing this process as renaming, I think, is misleading. Continue reading