“Setting Canadian History Right?: A Response to Ken Coates’ ‘Second Thoughts about Residential Schools’”

By Crystal Fraser and Ian Mosby

As two young historians of Canada’s notorious Indian Residential School System – one finishing her PhD, the other currently in his second postdoctoral fellowship – we were wary when we saw Ken Coates’ recent opinion piece in the Dorchester Review.[1] At a first glance, the title, in particular, had us worried: “Second Thoughts about Residential Schools” brought to mind Thomas Flanagan’s misguided monograph First Nations? Second ThoughtsThough deeply concerned at what lay ahead, Coates is an historian we both respect a great deal, so, from our computers in Alberta and Ontario, we read on.

The commentary itself was clearly written to spark a debate. Like many of the editorials that fill Canadian newspapers, it is written in a conversational style without footnotes or references and – more importantly – it attempts to challenge what Coates’ sees as hegemonic narratives characterizing the study of Indian residential schools. And given that the online version of the article (like every page on the Dorchester Review website) is flanked by quotes from David Frum proclaiming that the journal is “Setting Canadian history right,” the essay’s ambition to upend the sacred cows of the Canadian historical profession, itself, are immediately apparent.

Coates stresses that he has “struggled over the last thirty years to make sense of the impact of residential schools on Aboriginal people” and the essay is presented as a culmination of that “struggle.” To be sure, his is a piece about how academics might struggle with their own politics under the veil of objectivity and how that relates to the kinds of historical research we undertake. Another historian, one specializing in Indian residential schooling, might have more deeply probed, for instance, how Indigenous people have struggled with the long legacy and effects of Indian residential schools. Coates, though, begins in a decidedly personal place located well outside of Indigenous experiences: namely, memories of attending an Anglican summer camp located near the Carcross Residential School and spending a week in Inuvik, Northwest Territories, as “the guest of a Catholic research school” where “the rules and regulations almost turned [him] into a twelve-year-old Che Guevera by the time [he] left.”

This leads us to the two most problematic elements of Coates’ essay that, together, constitute the crux of his argument. [Read More]


ActiveHistory.ca is pleased to publish Crystal Fraser and Ian Mosby’s response to Ken Coates’s ‘Second Thoughts about Residential Schools’ as part of our Papers Section. ActiveHistory.ca strives to provide timely, well-written and thoroughly researched papers on a variety of history-related topics.  Expanded conference papers or short essays that introduce an upcoming book project or respond to current affairs are great starting points for the type of paper we publish. For more information visit our Papers Section or contact papers@activehistory.ca

The Sugar Monster Feeds on the Navajo Nation

Former Active History editor, Brittany Luby, an assistant professor of history at Laurentian University, was unable to attend this week’s annual meeting of the American Society for Environmental History (ASEH) in Washington, D.C. and asked if we could host a video of her presentation: “The Sugar Monster Feeds on the Navajo Nation: An Analysis of the Bodily and External Environment in Artistic and Medical Accounts of the Navajo (Diné) Diabetes Crisis”. Click here for more information about the conference. You can follow the proceedings on twitter through the #ASEH2015.

New Paper: Memory Politics: Ottawa’s Monument to the Victims of Communism

ActiveHistory.ca is pleased to announce the publication of Gregor Kranjc’s new paper: “Memory Politics: Ottawa’s Monument to the Victims of Communism.”


Know that evil comes in many forms and seems to reinvent itself – Nazism, Marxist-Leninism, today, terrorism – they all have one thing in common: The destruction, the end, of human liberty.

Ideologies that promise utopias lead to the opposite, hell on earth. That’s why […] this monument […] reminds us of the names the stories of those lost to one of the deadliest ideological plagues ever spread, to communism.

The year is 2014, not 1954, and the speaker is the Conservative Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, not Senator Joseph McCarthy. These phrases denouncing Communism and celebrating Canada’s commitment to freedom, democracy and justice were extolled in a 20-minute speech at a 250$-per plate fundraising event in Toronto for the building of the Memorial to the Victims of Communism on 30 May 2014. Harper’s speech had in fact very little to do with the actual monument proposed for Ottawa or the historical record of communism, beyond denouncing it as an abomination alongside fascism that “snuffed out the lights and lives of freedom, democracy and justice”. It did have a lot to say about conservatives winning the Cold War (and standing on the shoulders of the “giants” U.S. President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Thatcher), about the apologetic and weak-kneed stance towards Communist regimes by successive Liberal governments (although he never mentioned the party by name), and about the large numbers of Canadians (approximately one-quarter in Harper’s estimates) who trace their origins to current or former Communist countries. [Read More]

Editors Note: In addition to our group blog, ActiveHistory.ca strives to provide timely, well-written and thoroughly researched papers on a variety of history-related topics.  Expanded conference papers or short essays that introduce an upcoming book project are great starting points for the type of paper we publish. With a current readership of more than 20,000 visits per month we can assure that you will find an interested audience through our site. For more information visit our Papers Section or contact papers@activehistory.ca. All of our papers are peer reviewed to ensure that they are accurate and up-to-date. 


Turmoil and Meddling at the Foundation for Canadian Studies in the UK

Since the new year began, just six-and-a-half weeks ago, considerable changes have been made to the direction of the Foundation for Canadian Studies in the UK. Earlier in the month, the High Commission, which collaborates with this UK charity, added four new members to the board, signalling that problems were afoot. Last week, another four members of the board resigned as a faction of the board (bolstered by the new members) motioned (successfully) towards the removal of Rachel Killick, an emeritus professor of Canadian and French studies. These board members are well known to Canadian academics: historian Margaret MacMillan, Canada 2020 advisor Diana Carney, and UK-based Canadian Studies professors Steve Hewitt and Susan Hodgett. The details of the trouble at the Foundation for Canadian Studies can be found on The Globe and MailThe National Post, and Christopher Moore’s History NewsIn an effort to better understand this situation, below we repost the notice that Steve Hewitt distributed on Facebook explaining his decision to leave the board:

Dear friends (especially those working on Canada in the UK.)

Last June I became a trustee on the board for the Foundation for Canadian Studies in the UK. Continue reading

Epilogue: Critical Indigenous Reflections on Sir John A. Macdonald

Last month Karen Dubinsky published a post with us on Kingston’s preparations for commemorating the 200th anniversary of Sir John A. Macdonald’s birth. In that post she mentioned a symposium on “Critical Indigenous Reflections on Sir John A. Macdonald” that was held in November at Queen’s University. Much of that symposium was recorded and has now been placed on YouTube. The full line up includes a talk by artist David Garneau (who will be in Kingston today) and a book launch of Glen Coulthard’s  Red Skin, White Masks as well as panels on Metis relations, artistic interventions, government policy and re-imagining Canada. As an epilogue to our series on Canada’s first prime minister, we’ve embedded the first of these videos (Garneau’s talk) as an entry point into this useful resource. Continue reading

New Directions in Active History: Institutions, Communication, and Technologies

Members of the editorial team are excited to announce that we’re organizing a conference. This three day conference will create a forum similar to our 2008 founding symposium “Active History: A History for the Future,” where historians interested in the practice of Active History can share their research, methods, and projects with each other. Second, as a primarily web-based and volunteer-run project, we also intend to use this conference to explore new directions for ActiveHistory.ca. With 20,000 unique visitors a month, ActiveHistory.ca is one of the best known history-related websites in Canada. Over the past five years, we’ve published nearly 1,000 blog posts, peer reviewed papers, book reviews, and podcasts. It is time to revisit the project’s goals and look towards what the next five years will bring.

Continue reading

New paper: Campus Campaigns against Reproductive Autonomy

ActiveHistory.ca is pleased to announce the publication of Carol Williams’s new paper: “Campus Campaigns against Reproductive Autonomy: The Canadian Centre for Bioethical Reform Campus Genocide Awareness Project as Propaganda for Fetal Rights“:

In October of 2013 and 2014, the University of Lethbridge campus community was subjected to a visual spectacle staged by the Centre for Canadian Bioethical Reform or CCBR. CCBR is a subsidiary, or branch plant, of the California-based Centre for Bio Ethical Reform or CBR. These organizations are pyramid-like businesses who present themselves as concerned civil rights advocates working on behalf of fetal autonomy and other “traditional values.” Employing a range of carefully-crafted campaign strategies, and citing civil rights precedent, their political conservatism is not entirely transparent. Yet, political endorsements to “reform” civil society and policy are evident on their respective websites. For example, Mark Penninga, of the Lethbridge based Association of Reformed Political Action writes:

. . .we need a visionary strategy to open the eyes of Canadians to the evil that is being hidden behind the language of “choice.” CCBR’s efforts are an important component of that strategy. For the political arm of the pro-life movement to be effective, Canada needs these educational efforts.

The organization’s social conservatism contends that “liberal” values and perspectives including tolerance for same-sex relations and marriage, and “abortion, sexual liberation, pornography, new reproductive technologies and euthanasia . . . endanger the status of the traditional family” (Snow 2014, 154). As online endorsements clarify, CCBR strives for formal political change. The graphic display campaigns as witnessed at the University of Lethbridge signify a move by social conservatives to strategically rebrand themselves as advocates of human and reproductive rights.

Figure 1 Genocide Awareness Project, University of Lethbridge. Photograph by Don Gill. October 2014.

Figure 1 Genocide Awareness Project, University of Lethbridge. Photograph by Don Gill. October 2014.

While the CCBR displays and websites simplify the rivalry between liberal and socially conservative concepts of the individual, family, and public order, both liberals and social conservatives have, in fact, utilized litigation as a means to mobilize public opinion on moral issues (Snow cites Lessard 2002, 237 in Snow 2014, 156). Following the 1982 introduction of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, litigation was adopted by “interest groups” because political leadership tends to avoid decisive action on “morally sensitive issues.” The courts’ importance has therefore risen in tandem with political preference towards “judicial mediation” regarding “moral disputes” (Snow 2014, 154; 160). As Petchesky observed in 1987, the “anti-abortion movement made a conscious strategic shift from religious discourse and authorities to medicotechnical ones [to conceptually frame arguments for fetal viability and autonomy], in its efforts to win over the courts, the legislatures, and popular hearts and minds.” Paternal-medical “experts” like Bernard Nathanson— impresario and anti-abortion crusader—were recruited to legitimate a visual and moral text that granted the fetus a “public presence.” Nathanson’s visual exposition, popularized in the broadcast of the video, The Silent Scream (1985), explained how the “science of fetology” allowed spectators to “witness an abortion—“from the victim’s vantage point.”” Thus mass culture became “the vehicle for this [tactical] shift” rather than the medical profession although medical discourse served as authority (Petchesky 1987, 264-265). And so, as Petchesky convincingly argued, The Silent Scream resided in the “realm of cultural representation rather than of medical evidence” with the film’s moral and political imperative being “to induce individual women to abstain from having abortions and to persuade officials and judges to force them to do so” (267). [Continue Reading…]

New paper – Victory in the Kitchen: Food Control in the Lakehead during the Great War by Beverly Soloway

Image 1: newspaper ad Production & Thrift – Caption: Local newspaper advertising encouraged food thriftiness, Port Arthur Daily News Chronicle, 3 May 1916.

Local newspaper advertising encouraged food thriftiness, Port Arthur Daily News Chronicle, 3 May 1916.

By Beverly Soloway

In the summer of 1914, the twin cities of Fort William and Port Arthur, similar to the rest of Canada, thought the “European war” would be a short one.[1] When Christmas came and went without any sign of peace, most Canadians just redefined their idea of “short.” Nonetheless, by spring 1915, Lakehead households were becoming concerned about food for the upcoming winter should the conflict continue. Families in Fort William and Port Arthur contributed to the war effort by accepting a government-mandated system of food control certain that victory in the kitchen would lead to triumph on the European front. [read more]

ActiveHistory.ca  is featuring the following paper 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.  It was first published by Papers & Records, Thunder Bay Historical Museum Society, 2014. 


Podcast – Robert Rutherdale on the Local Responses of WWI


ActiveHistory.ca is happy to feature the inaugural talk of the Fall 2014 History Matters lecture series: historian Robert Rutherdale’s “Hometown Horizons: Local Responses to Canada’s Great War.”

Rutherdale delivered the talk at the Toronto Public Library’s North York Central Branch. He explores issues such as the demonization of enemy aliens, wartime philanthropy, and state authority and citizenship – all while asking what the study of the “local” can add to our understanding of the First World War and historical research in general.

ActiveHistory.ca is featuring this podcast 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.


Video – Eroding Democracy: Canada’s Public Science Policy in a New Regime of Governance

On Tuesday May 27, 2014 as part of Congress 2014, a panel discussed the current government’s science policy, access to information, the ability of government scientists to communicate freely with each other, the public, and the media. This cross-disciplinary panel was jointly hosted by the Canadian Association of Professional Academic Librarians, Canadian Population Society, Canadian Society for the History and Philosophy of Science, Canadian Society for the Study of Education, and the Canadian Sociological Association.

Panelists included Dr. Janet Friskney, Past-President of the Bibliographical Society of Canada, Dr. James Turk, Executive Director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, and author and artist Franke James.

Activehistory.ca is pleased to present a video of the session.