Theme Week Introduction: Women’s Social and Political Activism in the Canadian West

Introduction by Nanci Langford with Sarah Carter. Theme week edited by Sarah Carter, Erika Dyck and Nanci Langford. 

                         “If I didn’t do something, my spirit would die…”
Senator Thelma Chalifoux, 2006

This quote forms the title of Corinne George’s study of the history of Indigenous women activists of Alberta that she drew on for her presentation at the October 2016 conference on the History of Women’s Social and Political Activism in the Canadian West held at University of Alberta in Edmonton.[i] Corinne’s paper had a focus on Cree Elder, activist and conference participant Lillian Shirt, and was the topic of an Active History post in December, 2016.[ii] The six articles in this series showcase some of the other papers presented at this conference.

The centenary of the achievement of suffrage for (some) women in the prairie provinces prompted conference organizers Sarah Carter, Nanci Langford and Claire Thomson to provide a forum for recent research on prairie women’s activism in the last century.[iii] In particular we wanted to feature new scholarship being undertaken in diverse communities that reflect the struggles women have been engaged in during the last fifty years.

Prairie women have always been involved in community development and lobbied for public measures that would improve the lives of women and children. The challenges and conditions of the settlement years in the west demanded action from women and men in both settler and Indigenous communities to build secure lives for themselves and their children, and that action started at their front doors and extended to communities, districts and to provincial politics. Moving beyond those years, women of all backgrounds and cultures were and continue to be engaged in political activities to address personal and community needs, to confront unfair practices or unsafe conditions, to change the political agenda, or to demand equity. To carry out these activities they spoke out individually or formed organizations and committees, joined political parties and ran for political office. Continue reading

Trumpism, Fascism, and the Lessons of History

By Geoff Read, Cheryl Koos, and Samuel Kalman

The 45th President of the United States

Many articles have appeared in the past year debating whether or not Donald Trump is a fascist.[1] Although some of these pieces are mere exercises in name calling, others offer political, social, and historical analysis. Just prior to the US presidential election, for example, Kevin Passmore, an eminent scholar of the French far right, took up this question in the Manchester Guardian and reached similar conclusions as previous commentators: that fascism is a difficult concept to nail down, that so-called fascists were a diverse group, and that the label “fascist” may not be helpful for understanding Trump and the movement (let’s call it “Trumpism”) that he has inspired.

We don’t argue with the thrust of the first two conclusions. However, unlike Passmore and others, we do think that comparing historical forms of fascism to Trumpism can be a useful exercise. Moreover, the day of Trump’s inauguration is the right moment to revisit this question from a different angle. It strikes us that asking whether or not Trump is a fascist misses the point. The logic of the comparison is as follows: that the majority of rational people can agree that fascism was dangerous and thus if a political movement resembles it, it must be strongly opposed. Surely, therefore, the important question to focus on is what similarities Trumpism shares with the fascists of the past. Pursuing this line of inquiry allows us to see many disturbing points of convergence between Trumpism and fascism without falling into the trap of a semantic debate and does in fact help identify the danger that Trumpism represents. It is not necessary that Donald Trump or his movement be fascist for these similarities to alarm us.

Focusing on the fascists of western Europe between 1919 and 1945, then, what similarities did those movements and governments share with Donald Trump and his followers? Continue reading

The Historical is Personal: Learning and Teaching Traumatic Histories

Andrea Eidinger

Learning and teaching history is hard work. The physical, mental, and emotional toll can be high, for both educators and learners. This is especially the case when it comes to traumatic histories. For educators, it is difficult to balance the desire to make an emotional impact on your students without inflicting (further) trauma. For learners, it is difficult to balance curiosity with respect. We are often implored to “never forget,” but we seldom take a moment to talk about what and how we are supposed to remember.

 All of us come to the field of history from different backgrounds, and the ways in which we interact with history as educators and learners are shaped by these early experiences. But, with certain exceptions, it remains rare for anyone to talk about this, especially when it comes to teaching. So in this blog post, I wanted to take the opportunity to talk about my personal experiences learning and teaching about traumatic histories and specifically how my experiences as a Jewish-Canadian woman who was taught about the Holocaust as a child shaped my approach to teaching first-year university students about residential schools. Continue reading

History Slam Episode Ninety-Two: The Many Deaths of Tom Thomson

By Sean Graham

Conspiracy theories can be undeniably appealing and addictive to read. One of the reasons for this is that they are so hard to disprove. In fact, for the true conspiracy theory devotee, evidence that seemingly disproves the theory is turned around and used as part of the conspiracy. An internal CIA document confirming that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone for instance, is then understood as evidence of how far up the conspiracy goes. That logic (or lack thereof) ensures that the conspiracy will live on for future sleuths.

At their best, conspiracy theories are harmless entertainment, but at their worst, they cause real damage. I would contend that the flat-earthers qualify as the former, with Pizzagate most definitely as the latter. And somewhere in the middle of those lies Tom Thomson, famed Canadian artist and member of the Group of Seven.

Given my interest in conspiracies and wild theories, I was excited to read Gregory Klages’ new book The Many Deaths of Tom Thomson: Separating Fact from Fiction. Like many artists before him, Thomson was not a particularly well known figure during his life. In addition to painting, he held a series of jobs just to sustain himself. When his art did sell, it generally wasn’t for large sums of money and Thomson toiled in virtual anonymity producing pieces that would later become some of the most celebrated art ever produced by a Canadian.

There is a certain cruelty to the fact that it wasn’t until after he died that Thomson became a celebrated artist. Perhaps it’s confirmation bias, but that seems to be a somewhat regular thing in the art world – in fact, second to having no talent, it’s the main reason why I didn’t pursue art. The part that’s troubling isn’t the anonymity during life, but the economics that goes along with it. Struggling to survive on your art while you’re alive seems unfair when it is sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars when you’re dead. But what happens if the manner in which you died contributed to the value of your art?

Continue reading

Trump, Trade, and Canada’s Special Relationship with the United States

Christo Aivalis

In mere days, Donald J. Trump will conclude his improbable rise to the highest office in world’s most powerful country. What this means has been explored from numerous perspectives, but one issue growing in coverage is how Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government will relate to this new Republican administration. In fact, many political analysts have suggested that Trudeau’s recent cabinet shuffle was undertaken in part to prepare for Trump’s regime.

All this would be important in any case, because relationships between Prime Ministers and their Presidential counterparts often play a role in diplomatic affairs. But Trump’s protectionist campaign rhetoric offers a special challenge to Canada’s leadership. Because when Trump calls for NAFTA to be renegotiated or scrapped, it could very well lead to the erosion of a close relationship with our southern neighbour that has help define the Canadian-American relationship for much of the postwar era. An example of this can be found in Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s dealings with U.S. President Richard Nixon.

Looking back a little bit further, we can see how Canada’s 20th century was determined in large part by the politics of traded with the United States. Canada’s 1911 federal election was fought on the issue of free trade with the USA, with the Liberals backing the concept and the Conservatives warning of how it would harm Canada’s imperial relationships. While the Conservatives won the1911 election, the following decades saw a decline in trade with Britain, along with a steady reliance upon American markets and capital. The result was that many Canadian industries became dependent upon the American economy or became owned by American capital in a branch-plant economy. Continue reading

January Reflections on the Historical Problem of Women and Sexual Misconduct in Academia

By Beth A. Robertson

Alice Clark, Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century, 1919 edition title page

January is typically the month for reflecting on the year that has passed, and it is perhaps without a doubt that 2016 will be remembered for many, even unsavoury things, from the Zika virus, to Brexit, to the US presidential election. This is not to say that 2016 did not have some brighter notes. In September, a couple of friends and I had the pleasure of attending the launch of When We Are Bold: Women Who Turn Our Upsidedown World Right. Edited by Rachel M. Vincent, this collection featured a number of award-winning authors, including Madeleine Thien, who powerfully spoke that night on women’s place in the world and the challenges we still face.[1] Thien is notably a graduate from UBC’s Creative Writing Program, which brings me to another piece of her writing that also garnered some attention in 2016– a letter she wrote to UBC asking for her name to be removed “as member of the UBC Creative Writing community and as UBC alumni.”[2] Thien wrote the letter in response to the controversial investigation and firing of Dr. Steven Galloway, an award-winning novelist, as well as former professor and chair of UBC’s Creative Writing Program who was dismissed due to allegations of sexual misconduct with a student. Galloway’s case, although beginning in 2015, seems destined to continue capturing headlines, especially once his filed grievance with UBC is finally heard in March of this year.

I found myself thinking about the storm swirling around Galloway once again when I started teaching a course this January at Carleton University on women’s and gender history. I have taught this course before and one of my first lectures in part focuses on the challenges experienced by early women historians like Alice Clark and Mary Ritter Beard in academia. Although both have since been recognized as pivotal actors to the emergence of modern women’s history, they each struggled to be recognized for their research and writing, and neither were fully accepted in male-dominated university faculties.[3]

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Planned and Unplanned Urban Migrations

Richard White

Rush hour transit – a common downtown Toronto conundrum.
Source: Urban Toronto

As anyone who lives in or frequents Toronto’s inner-city can attest, the place is over-run with human activity. The word “congestion” is probably over-used in urban affairs, and it still feels tainted by its long association with slum clearances, but it is the word that comes to mind when travelling about the city’s lower downtown these days. Walking is usually the fastest way to get around – certainly faster than streetcar, taxi, or automobile travel, though perhaps not faster than bicycling for anyone willing to face the risks – though walking can be frustrating, and even dangerous, when the sidewalks fill up like rush-hour subway cars.

Congestion-related problems appear in the local news almost every day. Most recently is the alarming increase in motor vehicle accidents involving cyclists and pedestrians. But others crop up regularly: unreliable electricity supply, insufficient public libraries and schools, conflicts over land use (dogs vs children, residents vs clubs), and of course the endless problem of surface public transit which, in truth, barely functions. At times the situation seems perversely amusing, but at other times truly alarming – deleterious consequences multiply, and policy solutions are nowhere to be found.

Viewing this through the lens of history reveals an intriguing, and perhaps rather surprising, parallel between recent growth in the inner-city and postwar expansion of the suburbs. On the surface, of course, they reflect population migrations in opposite directions, but at the root of both is a conviction, pervasive in the popular mindset of the time, that these migrations would yield a better urban life. Continue reading

How Thunder Bay Was Made

Travis Hay

Thunder Bay from Animikii-waajiw (Mount McKay). P199/Wikipedia Commons

Thunder Bay, Ontario is a city well-known for a particularly explicit form of anti-Indigenous racism.[1] Unlike more southern and urban locales where anti-Indigeneity is predominantly expressed as erasure, the social structures of feeling that exist in Thunder Bay are informed by a close proximity to Fort William First Nation (FWFN) – a community located adjacently to the city. Recently, the news that FWFN has reached a $99 million land claim settlement with the federal government has stirred up racial tensions in Thunder Bay and across Canada more broadly. Predictably, complaints about ‘handouts’ and other well-worn racist tropes have frequented news media comment sections, social media debates, and the everyday conversations that make up public life in the city of Thunder Bay. In this article, I wanted to offer a brief review of the land claim settlement that situates it within its proper historical context of settler colonial dispossession. In writing this history, I am relying quite heavily on the work and research of FWFN Lands Director Ian Bannon and Chief Peter Collins. To supplement these materials (which FWFN has made widely available online) I use the scholarship of historians who have attempted to unpack the settler colonial constitution of Thunder Bay in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.[2]

The 1905 Forced Relocation

In 1905, the Fort William band was forcefully uprooted and relocated from their reserve site on the shores of the Kaministiquia River so that settlers could build a grain terminus for the Grand Trunk Pacific railway. Continue reading

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

By Aaron Boyes and Sean Graham

We offer our two cents on the most important events of 1916. Let us know what you think in the comments.

Over the past month I have had, and overheard, many conversations with friends, family members, and coworkers about the year 2016, and the overwhelming consensus is that this has been an unusually bad year. Numerous events occurred that shocked the public, such as the outbreak of the Zika virus; the Brexit vote and its result; the expansion of ISIS and unrest in the Middle East; the polarizing Presidential Election in the United States; and the slew of celebrity deaths – David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Prince, Muhammad Ali, Gordie Howe, and Leonard Cohen, just to name a few.

It may seem like 2016 was a particularly bad year, but this is largely because we are still dealing with the immediate impacts of such events. Perhaps, in the grand scheme of history, 2016 will go down as a mundane year, but until enough time has passed we simply cannot accurately judge how 2016 will be viewed.

Luckily, we’re back with the Fourth Annual (?) Year in Review (100 Years Later) Bracket – wait, does anyone still read this? – to provide some historical hindsight on the most important people and events from 1916. As in years past, we have omitted any event affiliated with the First World War – you can read our rationale from last years bracket. After exhaustive deliberation – be free to interpret “exhaustive” as you’d like – we have selected sixteen of what we believe to be the most important events of 1916 and have grouped them into four categories: the Progress Bracket, the Business Bracket, the International Bracket, and everyone’s favourite, the Potpourri Bracket. Of course, some events had to be eliminated from contention, but that does not mean that they were not important in their own right. Some notable mentions include the births of Jackie Gleason, Roald Dahl, and Walter Cronkite; the Chicago Cubs playing their first game in what became Wrigley Field; and Mary Pickford became the first female to receive a million-dollar contract.

We’ve listed our matchups below. As always, we’d love to hear what you think is the most important event of 1916 and you can leave us a comment at the bottom of the page. Or, send an e-mail to

Our thoughts, the second, third, and fourth round matchups, and the winner can be found here.

Thanks for checking back in and enjoy!

Potpourri Bracket

(1) Canadian Parliament Burns Down vs. (4) National Research Council Founded









Continue reading

DNA And The Quest For Identity

Stacey Devlin

“Genetic Testing,” xkcd. Licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC 2.5

Whether or not family history interests you, it’s hard to escape the recent surge in advertising for genealogy-driven DNA tests, particularly the service offered by genealogy giant Ancestry. Ancestry has been heavily promoting this service through both online ads and television commercials, and it represents a fascinating development for family historians who can now use genetic information to find distant or sparsely documented relatives. However, the main thrust of the ad campaigns has not been to advertise the research benefits of DNA, but to appeal to a search for identity and belonging through our connections to ethnic communities. This introduces a number of problematic ideas around the intersection of genetics, personal identity, and racism. Does DNA really help you find out who you are? And does finding “who you are” entitle you to belong to a community that has never embraced you as a member?

DNA testing services are nothing new, and they all follow the same basic formula: spit into a test tube, pay a processing fee, ship the sample and wait for your results to arrive. These results usually take the form of basic ethnicity and health indicators as well as genetic predispositions towards various diseases. The fresh appeal of genealogy-driven services like Ancestry DNA lies in their databases, which compare every test to all other users in order to identify relatives. This has the potential to reveal previously unknown ancestors or confirm relationships that may have only been guessed at. It’s an exciting new option for genealogists who want to supplement their existing research.

However, the advertising campaigns for these DNA tests appeals more to a quest for identity than to the potential research benefits. This shift in emphasis from documentary evidence to genetics represents a dramatic shift in Ancestry’s marketing. The cornerstone of Ancestry’s empire (and indeed a primary motivation for most genealogists and family historians) has been the concept that knowing who you are comes from your connection to the past and from finding the stories of your ancestors in archival documents. Recent advertising flips this on its head to suggest that knowing who you are comes not from painstaking research, but from discovering your genetic makeup. In other words, genetic information is a marker not only of biological identity, but of personal identity. Continue reading