History Slam Episode 119: Pierre Trudeau, the Constant Liberal

By Sean Graham

The 2015 election of Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party, along with the 50th anniversary of his father’s election as Liberal leader, has generated plenty of renewed interest in the life and career of Pierre Elliot Trudeau. The popular conception of the elder Trudeau has been that he is very much a leftist figure, a sentiment that is, partly, the product of his social policies. In economic and business, matters, however, the situation is more vague. This is where Christo Aivalis’ new book The Constant Liberal: Pierre Trudeau, Organized Labour, the Canadian Social Democratic Left comes in. Avalis argues that Trudeau was much less a left wing figure that is typically believed and, in fact, he was at odds with leftist economic beliefs.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Christo about the book. We talk about the renewed interest in Pierre Trudeau, the difference between Liberal and liberal in Canadian political parlance, and Pierre’s social policies. We also talk about Canada’s economic structure, Pierre’s policies, and whether the electorate supports leftist reforms. Continue reading

Top Tips for Research Trips: Making the Most of Your Visit to the Archives

Stacey N. Gilkinson

Classes have finished, exams are over and it’s finally summer, which means it is now time for many researchers to embark on trips to the archives! To the novice academic or researcher, archival institutions can be uncharted territory. You might be wondering how you should approach an institution, what to bring with you or how to navigate a sea of files in a limited amount of time. As an archivist, I am not just a ‘gatekeeper’ to the collection. A large part of my job is to act as a facilitator, bridging the gap between you, the researcher, and the materials for which you are looking.  It is through an extension of that role that I offer these tips to help you make the most of your time in the archives.

Choose an institution early

Archives are extremely diverse. Take the time to consider the kind of archives you need to visit. They can be large, publicly funded national institutions with hundreds of staff or small, volunteer-run community spaces that rely on donations. Factors like these will inevitably affect the research experience. Continue reading

The Babylon of Interwar Berlin

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Gereon Rath and Charlotte Ritter. Still from babylon Berlin.

Alban Bargain-Villéger

When I first set eyes on the Netflix ad for Babylon Berlin, I could not help but feel skeptical. I had indeed seen my fair share of mediocre, sensationalist, sloppy fictions and documentaries on Weimar Germany. Nonetheless, the trailer was enticing enough to prompt me to fall down that rabbit hole. A mix of historical fiction, political drama, spy story, and crime thriller, the series takes place in the spring of 1929, on the eve of a series of crises that eventually led to the fall of the republican regime and the advent of the Nazis in January-March 1933. The story follows Gereon Rath, a vice detective recently transferred from the Cologne homicide squad, and Charlotte Ritter, a young woman from the city’s working-class district of Wedding juggling a night job as a prostitute at a cabaret and her precarious stenographer position at police headquarters. The detective, who initially investigates the blackmail of an important Cologne politician by means of compromising pornographic pictures and films, soon ends up picking up the scent of a highly coveted wagon loaded with gold ingots. In the meantime, Ritter, who has made inquiries of her own, soon discovers that the bounty was originally stolen from the Sorokins, a Russian aristocratic family liquidated during the October 1917 Revolution. Originally in the possession of the Red Fortress, a Trotskyist organisation, the wagon attracts the attention of the Soviet secret service, a gang of Armenian mobsters, and a underground paramilitary group of far-right war veterans and ex-military personnel known as the Black Reichswehr.[1] Occurring in the context of the Blutmai (Bloody May Day) riots, the Sorokin gold story appears more as an excuse to walk the uninitiated audience through the unstable political climate of the Weimar Republic than as a plot in its own right. This series is a success, offering a strikingly subtle kaleidoscope of late-1920s German society.

Based on Volker Kutscher’s Gereon Rath Series, which comprises six books and an illustrated prequel (2017), the first and second seasons of Babylon Berlin follows rather faithfully the plot of the first novel, entitled Der nasse Fisch (The Wet Fish)[2], published in 2008. Continue reading

“Government Mail Free of Postage”: Scholars’ letters to Parliament Hill

Johannes Vermeer, Lady Writing a Letter with Her Maid (detail), c. 1670. Wikimedia Commons.

Erin Corber

In the introduction to his 1993 Reith lectures, Edward Said reflects on the role and representations of the intellectual. Taking Gramsci’s inclusive vision of a broad and expansive intellectual class populated increasingly not only by producers but also by distributors of knowledge, Said argues that the intellectual’s role in society “cannot be reduced simply to being a faceless profession,” but rather, that they possess the tools and training to present ideas, messages, and truths to a public. This role is risky, he points out. An intellectual must be prepared not only to confront? fortified barriers, but also to make personal enemies when they stand up publicly. Yet the task is an important one, as the intellectual’s public role is motivated, Said argues, by a commitment to truth. There are universal standards and principles that protect human beings’ rights to “decent standards of behavior concerning freedom and justice from worldly powers or nations,” he points out, violations against which “need to be fought against courageously.”[1]

In an era in which “fake” and “alternative” revisionist truths and falsehoods proliferate in public discourse, Said’s argument is more relevant than ever. As scholars, and intellectuals, the responsibility for representing truths may seem like a no-brainer to historians. Yet public history and what John Tosh has labeled “practical historicism,” or “applied history” in policy-making still largely remains in a category separate from the academy.[2] We teach our students to be critical thinkers and engaged citizens, but are in danger of failing to engage effectively in public conversations.

We face danger from multiple fronts. First, from persistent assumptions held within the academy that somehow critical distance and objectivity are anathema to engagement and politics: that historians somehow stand “outside” of history, and that “relevance” means “bending one’s research to the fickle fashions of the day and by extension the dereliction of one’s primary obligation to scholarly objectivity.”[3] Aside from this are the practical professional concerns: junior scholars’ vulnerability on an uncertain academic job market, faculty’s increasing helplessness in universities where tenure revocation has become more than anecdotal, and a creeping general climate of distrust of specialists and academics that makes public voices – especially those most marginal and marginalized – easy targets for both cyber and real-life violence. Standing up and speaking out can have real consequences for an intellectual’s career and life. Yet, as Said reminds us, this has, to an extent, always been the case.

Scholars’ voices can be made to be heard in a number of ways. Continue reading

Colonialism, Maple Syrup, and Ways of Knowing

Four bottles of maple syrup.

Maple Syrup.

Krista McCracken [1]

Visit any Canadian tourist shop and you will likely find shelves filled with maple syrup, often branded with red maple leaves in an attempt to invoke feelings of national pride. Canada makes over 71% of the world’s maple syrup and there are more than 8,600 producers of maple syrup across the country. Given these stats it is hardly surprising that Canadians have latched onto maple syrup as something uniquely Canadian. It draws up images of plaid, snow, and pancake breakfasts.

Something we rarely talk about is the role of colonialism and commercialization in maple syrup production. Maple syrup is not uniquely Canadian. The earliest settler references relating to maple syrup were by André Thevet in 1557 and by Marc Lescarbot in 1606. In both cases these accounts of maple syrup were connected to knowledge shared by Indigenous communities. Maple syrup knowledge existed long before settlers arrived in the land we currently call Canada. Haudenosaunee traditional knowledge includes descriptions of piercing maple trees for ‘sweet water’ and many Anishinaabe communities have traditions of collecting sap during the “sugaring off” period. (For additional context, see Nanaboozhoo and the Maple Trees).

Today, many Indigenous communities continue to hold knowledge about the location of the best trees to tap, when to start tapping, and other crucial parts of the maple syrup making process. Additionally, maple syrup harvest is still deeply connected to ceremonies and the culture within many Indigenous communities.

How can we talk about Indigenous knowledge in relation to maple syrup? Continue reading

Art as Prescience: Reflections on Sarah Beck’s 2001 ÖDE

By Laura Brandon

Editors’ Preface

Two new exhibits were recently opened at the University of Calgary’s Founders’ Gallery in The Military Museums. Gassed Redux is a live recreation of John Singer Sargent’s oil painting Gassed, which depicts victims of a 1918 gas attack on the Western Front.[1] The exhibit was mounted this past June 14th by artist Adad Hannah, and captured for visitors to see at the gallery until this September. This “tableau vivant,” in the words of Curator Lindsey Sharman,[2] is a clear example of art’s capacity to engage the public with the past, and might even be considered a version of active history.

The second exhibit is ÖDE, by artist Sarah Beck, and is the subject of this post by Laura Brandon, historian and former curator at the Canadian War Museum. (ÖDE is pictured here.)

ÖDE (2001), by Sarah Beck. Image courtesy of the artist.

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History Slam Episode 118: Preserving the Civil War’s Legacy

By Sean Graham

Happy Independence Day to our American friends! In thinking about American historiography, one of my favourite things is to joke about how a new book on the Civil War seems to come out every ten minutes. And while that may be a little hyperbolic, it can be difficult to find new ground when reading up on the CIvil War. That’s why Paul Kahan’s new book The Presidency of Ulysses S. Grant: Preserving the Civil War’s Legacy is so unique. While plenty is known about Grant’s military role during the Civil War, far less is known about his presidency, other than him being widely considered a poor president. In his farewell address to Congress, Grant went so far as to downplay his own administration’s accomplishments, thus starting a nearly 150 year trend of his presidency not receiving extensive attention by historians.

In this episode of the History Slam, Paul Kahan returns to the show to discuss the book. We talk about Grant the politician v. Grant the military man, Reconstruction in the South, and the racial divide in post-Civil War America. We also talk about the importance of foreign policy in the late 19th century, Grant’s attitude towards Native Americans, and how economics can derail political priorities.

Historian, Meet Archivist: Researching the History of Complex Organizations

Today’s post is cross-posted in partnership with Aidhistory.ca

Wartime found Government employees working in poorly-lit, crowded offices such as the Records and Files Department of the Experimental Farm. Source: Library and Archives Canada/National Film Board of Canada fonds/a144872

Jill Campbell-Miller, PhD and Ryan Kirkby, PhD, MLIS

In general, historiography and historical methods courses do a good job in teaching students to be skeptical of their sources. As undergraduate and graduate students, we learn to scrutinize what we read, hear, or see. Yet while historians may be familiar with how to critique the sources themselves, rarely do we look up from a given document and examine the place where it is located, or think about how the document arrived in the archives. This is particularly true of written documents that emerge from government. Historians do not always critically engage with the organizational structure of the files, or think about how a certain structure came into being. This might seem somewhat “inside baseball” to historians, who usually leave such concerns in the hands of archivists. Exploring organizational descriptions on archival websites is not for the faint of heart, and rarely make much sense to the untrained observer. But considering these issues is important, because the history of how government departments change over time influences how documents come to be organized, influencing the history that emerges from this research.

The history of Canadian Official Development Assistance (ODA) in Canada provides an excellent example of how this is true. Cranford Pratt, David Morrison, and more recently, Stephen Brown, have all written about the historical and current difficulties in maintaining policy coherence regarding Canadian ODA policies.[1] Political self-interest and/or ideology have often dictated the focus of Canada’s aid programs, and changes in government have naturally affected their policy priorities related to aid. Changing policy priorities have affected government’s organizational approaches as well. When Canada’s first major aid program, the Colombo Plan for Co-operative Economic Development in South and Southeast Asia, began in 1951, aid was managed by the department of trade and commerce, with significant policy direction from the department of external affairs and the department of finance. There were other departments involved in the technical assistance aspect of aid as well, including the departments of agriculture and national health and welfare. In 1960, the External Aid Office, located in the department of external affairs under a Director General, replaced this loose organizational structure. In 1968, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s government founded the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). Of course, most recently, the Harper government did away with CIDA entirely, and integrated international development programming back into the much re-named foreign affairs portfolio, currently called Global Affairs.

Every researcher expects a learning curve when approaching a subject, but complicated organizational histories provide a unique challenge to researchers. Continue reading

Debating the Holocaust? The Role of Debate in History

By Andrew Nurse

Should one “debate” the Holocaust? The answer, according to failed PC London West candidate Andrew Lawton, is yes.

In an interview that surfaced shortly before the recent Ontario provincial election, Lawton said that he fully understood why Jewish people would find this idea of debating the Holocaust revolting and he would, too, if he were Jewish. But, he continued, he sure hoped that students would be encouraged to engage in this debate.

Lawton’s perspective is connected to the broader cultural transformation of conservatism — a political movement with which he self-identifies —  and that is important. My goal, however, is not to address that ideological perspective. Instead, I want to focus more narrowly on the historical educational issue Lawton raised: should we debate the Holocaust? What does it even mean to debate the Holocaust? What are the merits or demerits of his position?

The point I want to make is this: whatever Lawton’s political and social views, what is at stake in his comment is an educational matter related to history. What is at stake is how we approach the past, education, teaching and learning. And, on this level, Lawton is 100% wrong. The burden of this post is to explain why. Continue reading

Thinking about History Curriculum in Canada (while also recognizing the informal curricula we carry)

By the end of this week, students across Canada will be out of school. During their school year, students in Canada would have learnt from the provincially mandated curricula as well as professional attempts at engaging in work of truth and reconciliation. However, while we can talk about the curriculum in our schools, any formal education young people have gained have been augmented, challenged, reinforced, and/or solidified by the many points of informal curriculum that will have students received outside or adjacent to the formal curricula. In other words, along with the formal curriculum, students in Canadian school would have also learnt from each other, their teachers, their community members, their parents and guardians, the media, and their political leaders. And, without a doubt, the current events, or even just the air around current events, that are leaving so many of us, adults and children, with more questions than answers.

“Turban, Eh? Edmonton,” from the Sikh National Archives of Canada (July 17, 2017)

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