Snapshots of Canada-Timor solidarity

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Solidarity groups meeting, Geneva, 1989. Members from the Commission for the Rights of the Maubere People, Portugal; Free East Timor! Campaign, Japan, and Australian solidarity groups. ETAN/Canada collection, Timor International Solidarity Archive.

David Webster

Pictures are powerful. They can tell strong stories.

This post accompanies a new e-dossier that tells the history of a Canadian campaign for international human rights through images ( While the full photo history looks at a range of groups that worked for human rights in Timor-Leste (East Timor) when it was under Indonesian military rule in 1975-99, this post zeroes in on one, the East Timor Alert Network (ETAN). Full disclosure: I am telling a history that I was also involved in, as an ETAN member from 1986 to 1996.

East Timor is not well known, but it matters for the study of transnational history. The international solidarity movement for East Timor may be the single most successful such movement in the late twentieth century. It was a transnational movement with a high degree of women’s leadership, and it proved highly effective.

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Could Covid Cure Classical Music?

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Playhouse Theatre, Vancouver, Canada, Photo by Jessi Gilchrist

By Jessi Gilchrist

With the onset of COVID-19, we have seen orchestras, operas, and small ensembles retreat from the concert stage and disperse into their lonely practice rooms. There is no doubt that COVID-19 is not being kind to Canada’s musicians or music institutions. Yet this time away from the spotlight also provides an opportunity for critical reflection on the issues that have plagued the classical music community long before the pandemic hit. It is well known that financial insecurity and the struggle to fill seats has challenged Canada’s orchestras and operas for decades.

The impending death of classical music has sparked heated debate among music critics over the past several decades. For more than a century, critics have claimed that classical music has lost its relevance in modern-day life. While cynics declare classical music’s “time of death,” enthusiasts point to sold-out concert halls to resurrect the significance of classical music in the public eye. Shockingly, concert pianists, orchestras, and chamber ensembles, clad in their pristine concert attire, continue to take the stage in front of awe-struck crowds. Even in our pandemic era there has been no shortage of interest in virtual performances, as operas and symphonies are among the first cultural institutions to reopen. Classical music is alive and well.

But should it be?

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From Crisis to Clean-Up

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Left: Halifax Herald, 24 June 1942. Right: Dr. Ahmed Rabea via @DrLeanaWen, 20 March 2020.

By Shirley Tillotson

Imagine a 500% increase in business and a steady loss of your best staff, snaffled up by competing firms who double their salaries. It’s 1944. You’re the federal income tax department. Tens of thousands of unassessed returns pile up. By 1949, the backlog reaches 1.9 million.

The Canadian Emergency Relief Program (CERB) is today’s explosively expanded program. And, just as there was with the postwar income tax system, there will be a clean-up. In this post, I’ll sketch some parallels between the two cases and dive into some details about successes, failures, and lessons.

The creation of a mass income tax as an emergency measure during the Second World War was a remarkable accomplishment. In a few years, and especially during a few months in 1942, income taxation went from affecting 300,000 Canadians to more than 2 million. By 1951, income taxpayers numbered almost 3 million (about two-thirds of the labour force).[1] Organizing citizens to pay tax on that scale was a massive undertaking. Measures taken hastily during the crisis required clean-up, however, both quickly and later, as part of post-war changes.

Those circumstances should remind us of the conditions in March 2020, when again the federal government, under withering pressure of time, needed to devise a system that would involve millions of Canadians and their money. The various emergency programs that have been rolled out over the last few months – and especially the Canadian Emergency Relief Program (CERB) – have been by now a subject of worries and criticisms and hopes. Are they fair? Will they create problems after the crisis? Do they foreshadow good things or bad in some new normal? As I watch current events around COVID-19 unfold, I have been thinking that, as difficult as our current situation is, we are not yet anywhere near the kind of mess in public finance that unfolded after the new tax measures of the 1942 budget and during the early years of reconstruction. Among the similar problems, worries, and solutions, there are a few examples that might help us anticipate what comes next.

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Missing Pieces: The Romanticisation of the RCMP in CBC’s “When Calls the Heart”

By Erin Isaac

With rising awareness and concern about police violence against people of colour in Canada and the United States, and following several recent instances of Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) violence against Indigenous persons — including the killing Rodney Levi of the Metepenagiag First Nation in New Brunswick, the RCMP attack on Chief Adam Allan of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation in Alberta, and an RCMP officer using the door of a truck to run down an Inuit man in Kinngait, Nunavut, not to mention the continued presence of RCMP on Wet’suwet’en land amid pipeline protests and the militarized raids on multiple camps therein earlier this year —  some Canadians are questioning the role of the RCMP and its relationship with Indigenous communities.[1]

For many Canadians, this pattern of RCMP violence is surprising and, though increasingly evident as protests about police aggression draw our attention to the systematic oppression that underlies these encounters, this image does not fit with the Mountie’s national image.

At first glance, the RCMP appear as red-coated peacekeepers with broad brimmed hats. It is an image that is hugely influenced by popular media. From U.S. classics, such as Dudley Do-Right, to Canadian television shows, like Due South and Murdoch Mysteries, a specific image of policing—and the Mounties, in particular — serve as a character type in our national psyche.

These are not the most recent offenders, however. That title goes to the hit CBC and Hallmark Channel program When Calls the Heart, which just wrapped its 7th season on April 26, 2020.

The early seasons of the show, set in the 1910s, centre around a romance between Elizabeth Thatcher, a teacher from the big city (Hamilton, ON) who chases new adventures in a small mining town in the west, and Jack Thornton, a Royal North-West Mounted Police (NWMP, later RCMP) constable who is also new in town. While Elizabeth embarks upon storylines leading her to new revelations of self-discovery, often upon reflection after helping a struggling friend or neighbour, Jack investigates minor crimes or chases outlaws who stir up trouble in their quaint frontier town. The show is, taken as a whole, cute in its neat single-episode story arcs and shamelessly romantic presentation of life on the western frontier of Euro-Canadian colonisation.

There is, however, a major problem in the way the show represents the RCMP’s purpose. Continue reading

Cuban Serenade: Exploring the History of Cuban Music in Canada

Cuban Serenade (logo).

Karen Dubinsky & Freddy Monasterio

“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Origin debatable.

In the face of this indisputable cliché, we created a documentary podcast series. The first episode of Cuban Serenade premieres today (July 2), the birthdate of our first protagonist, Chicho Valle (1924-1984). Chicho was, we believe, the first professional Cuban musician in Canada. He arrived in Toronto in 1946 to host a CBC radio program Latin American Serenade. He spent the next four decades popularizing Cuban and Latin American music in Canada: on TV and radio, as well as on the dancefloors of swanky Toronto and area hotels and lounges. He produced three albums, he was musical director for the Four Seasons Hotel chain in Canada, and later in his career, he ran a successful booking agency. He endured patronizing attempts at humour about his accent and his fast-paced (for the time) musical stylings but got his own back singing in Spanish (occasionally with what would have been considered, if anyone understood them, risqué lyrics), on the national airwaves. Like another Caribbean CBC personality of the same era, Trinidadian Calypso singer Rufus Callender (“Lord Caresser”), Chicho Valle’s presence raises important questions about Canadian musical tastes and trends in the mid twentieth century, and the racial hierarchies that shaped them. For all its past and present popularity, Cuban or Latin American music has not been subject of much attention by historians or other scholars in Canada. Continue reading

Miners’ Houses: Lawren Harris in Glace Bay

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David Frank

I think I first learned about this remarkable painting when my friend Allen Seager sent me a postcard from the Art Gallery of Ontario. Eventually I used it as the cover illustration for my biography of the union leader J.B. McLachlan. More recently, it was featured in an exhibition at the AGO and in a documentary film. It is in the public eye again with the release this spring of stamps to mark the centennial of the first public show by the Group of Seven. Among the seven stamps, Lawren Harris is represented by Miners’ Houses, Glace Bay (1926).

This was not the most obvious choice. Only a few years ago, one of Harris’s iconic images of the north, Mountain Forms (1926), broke the record for Canadian art prices when it sold at auction for $11.2 million. But the lesser known Miners’ Houses was a very good choice. Within its limits, this is a “labour stamp” that acknowledges the often-overlooked working-class presence in Canadian history. It also opens up interesting questions about Harris’s social and political engagement and his evolution as an artist.

Miners’ Houses has been read variously, as an expression of the artist’s personal struggle with depression over his brother’s death in the Great War and as an example of his longstanding interest in depicting working-class housing. It has also been described as an important and eloquent statement on social justice. The most explicit origins for this painting, however, are found in Harris’s visit to Glace Bay in April 1925, at a time when the Nova Scotia coal country was convulsed by a long and bitter strike. Continue reading

The Festival Express 50th Anniversary 1970 – 2020

By James Cullingham

It was a psychotropic June evening half a century ago. The superb British band Traffic led by Stevie Winwood played Nina Simone’s ‘Feeling Good.’ The sound of Chris Wood’s flute mingled with a marijuana haze as thousands sat or danced entranced on what was usually the Toronto Argonauts’s home field at CNE Stadium in Toronto.

The Festival Express got underway on June 27 & 28 1970 when the vision of ace promoter Ken Walker to hire acts including Eric Andersen, The Band, Delaney & Bonnie & Friends, Robert Charlebois, The Grateful Dead, Ian & Sylvia and The Great Speckled Bird, Janis Joplin, Mashmakan, Mountain and Buddy Guy had come to fruition. The tour started in Toronto and then went on by special CN train festooned with FESTIVAL EXPRESS to shows in Winnipeg and Calgary.

I was 16 years old and it was an unforgettable experience that unbeknownst to me at the time would go on and on for the next 30 years. Let me be clear about one thing: I bought a ticket – $14 to see some of my favourite musicians in the world play over two days in glorious sunny weather.

The Festival was famously the subject of protests in Toronto. Thousands stormed the CNE gates demanding that the music be free. Hippie politics and anti-Vietnam War sentiment were rife in Toronto. It was less than two months after student protesters were shot dead at Kent State University in Ohio. Activists centered around Rochdale, Toronto’s alternative experimental cooperative college, targeted the music industry demanding that the shows go on for free. Continue reading

Remembering Emma Goldman: Pandemics, Prisons, and Mutual Aid

Emma Goldman seated, photo by T. Kajiwara, 1911 July 15. Library of Congress

Franca Iacovetta & Cynthia Wright

When the pandemic came, Emma Goldman was in a state penitentiary in Jefferson City, Missouri. Goldman and her life-long comrade and fellow revolutionary anarchist, Alexander Berkman, had been arrested under the Selective Service Act of 1917 for conspiring to oppose the draft. Goldman had been reaching audiences of thousands all over the US with her anti-war speeches and organizing. Now, after decades of ceaseless touring advocating anarchist ideas – including in Canadian cities – Goldman was imprisoned and Mother Earth, the journal she founded in 1906 and in whose office she was arrested, was banned along with other periodicals opposed to the First World War and conscription.

Goldman was not isolated in her imprisonment, although she ardently hoped that prison would end what she describes in her classic two-volume memoir, Living My Life (1931), as the “emotional bondage” of her passionate love affair with the politically and sexually mercurial doctor-to-Chicago’s hobos, Ben Reitman. Her friends, family, and admirers supported her with letters, visits, food, and reading material. They remembered her birthday, celebrated tomorrow on June 27. Among Goldman’s admirers while she was in prison was a man she calls Leon Bass in Living My Life; years later, while in exile in Toronto, Goldman would pursue a frustrating affair with the Albany, New York-based anarchist whose real name was Leon Malmed (1881-1956). And many years after that liaison, our research led us to the Toronto home of one of Malmed’s generous descendants and a treasure trove of letters in Yiddish and English that testified to the complex intimacies that bound scattered anarchist outposts to each other. The letters revealed that Malmed was clearly enamored of Goldman well before they began their short-lived affair, but his wife was just as clearly not impressed.  

We were on the trail of Malmed as part of our research into Emma Goldman’s exile in Toronto, using her sojourns in the city as a case study for investigating how Goldman has been remembered inter-generationally in the city’s official and popular memory. Continue reading

History Slam Episode 152: When Days Are Long

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By Sean Graham

In 1949, Amy Wilson accepted a nursing job that took her from her Edmonton home to northern British Columbia and Yukon. In the position, she was responsible for covering over 500,000 sqaure kilometres and serving around 3,000 Indigenous Peoples in the North. Upon her arrival, she was confronted with a diphtheria epidemic and pushed for the immediate transportation of supplies and medications for the communities.

This was the start of her career, which saw her serve as not only a health professional, but also an advocate, partner, and friend. In her letters and reports, she would write of the challenges faced by northern communities and the damage of colonization. She would use her position to advocate and fight for those who had been deliberately ignored by colonial structures. At the same time, her travels across the North were deeply personal journeys. A closeted woman who was not accepted at home, her time in the North provided her space and time to feel more comfortable with herself and establish a social system in which she could find support.

In 1965, her memoir No Man Stands Alone was published, shedding more light on conditions in the North and the consequences of the government’s actions. Over 50 years later, the book is being re-published under the title When Days Are Long: Nurse in the North. In a time when the importance of quality medical professionals has, again, been highlighted, the book offers a unique insight into life in the North during the mid-20th century while also serving as a reminder of the damage done by colonial systems and how little has changed. To help foster change, all residuals from the book will be donated to the Canadian Indigenous Nurses Association’s Jean Goodwill Scholarship.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Amy Wilson’s niece Laurel Deedrick-Mayne, who wrote the foreword to the new edition. We talk about the family’s memory of Amy, her motivation for going north, and the desire to re-issue the book. We also talk about the challenges of nursing, Amy’s relationships with northern communities, and her legacy.

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Defund the police

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Graffiti in Montreal, Quebec. Photograph courtesy of the author.

Tamara Gene Myers

Amidst the call to “Defund the police,” it bears thinking about removing police from our schools as well.

“Defund the police” has become the rallying cry of anti-Black racism protests following the public murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. Relentless police violence has generated heated discussion about how decades of policies intended to “reform” police operations have failed to eradicate racist and criminal actions against people of colour. For some, defund the police is a slogan that invokes tearing down a hypocritical public service – an armed and dangerous part of the state that targets Black, brown and Indigenous people. At its base, the movement to defund the police recognizes that police forces come at huge public expense, especially with the militarization of police practice, often to the detriment of social, educational, and medical services, those things that are actually needed most in oppressed and precarious communities across North America. The ‘one bad apple’ argument – that rogue individuals are responsible for police violence – is indefensible, ignoring as it does the systemic racism endemic to modern policing. Continue reading