History and the Perils of Inevitability

By Jonathan McQuarrie

Image from Judge Magazine in 1917.

Image from Judge Magazine in 1917.

Not long after Donald Trump’s victory, Hillary Clinton sought to reassure her supporters, and perhaps herself. Echoing President Obama, who in turn drew on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., she said “the arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice.

This is a reasonable and comforting thing to assert, and it may well be right. But, as one European commentator noted, it’s just as likely wrong.

One major insight of history is to critique teleological thinking—the idea that events are moving towards some predetermined end. Analysis of events with set ends, while often useful for providing some manageable structure for courses and narratives, are limited. Alternative ends and paths need to be assessed and developed so that consequences and challenges can be managed.

Listing developments that point to current and future turmoil creates a sense of dread. Consider events that have taken place or that will turn towards a new period of instability, racism, and uneven scarcity. It’s foreseeable that racist discrimination, environmental problems, and social conflict won’t improve, and will indeed worsen. Let’s take recent reports of low ice cover as a sign of impending climate disaster, and also assume that reports that the worst case scenarios traced in the Club of Rome’s 1972 Limits to Growth are indeed happening. Let’s assume that President Trump’s administration follows through on many of its racist polices of registration and deportation (and indeed builds on deportation precedents set by Obama’s administration). In Europe, Brexit happens, Marine Le Pen (or François Fillon, who stretches definitions of ‘centre-right’ to meaninglessness) is elected president, and the EU begins to dissolve under nationalist strains. Let’s assume Assad retains control in what is left of Syria. Let’s assume Vladimir Putin continues to grow in influence and military force. Let’s assume North Korea remains agitated, Japan accelerates re-armament, and southeast Asia continues down the gradual movement towards geopolitical conflict (I could go on).

Continue reading

After the Asylum/Après l’asile: Launching a History of Survival

afterBy Megan Davies & Erika Dyck

The shift from institutional to community mental health was among the most significant social changes of the late 20th century. Between 1965 and 1980 nearly 50,000 beds were closed in residential psychiatric facilities across Canada. De-institutionalization profoundly changed the lives of former patients and those who worked with them, impacting the larger economy, public health and social planning, and challenging ideas of individual rights and capabilities.

The first national project of its kind, After the Asylum/Après l’asile presents this complex and often difficult history, making clear its continuing relevance. We examine early mental health initiatives, we consider how therapeutic and professional contours of care were reshaped, and we explore new consumer / user networks and cultures that emerged. Many of the exhibits speak to the continuing social and economic marginalization of people deemed mentally ill, whose lives are often poignant testaments to the limits of a reconstituted mental health system. Continue reading

After the Wall: Nostalgia and Cynicism during the German “Honeymoon,” 1989-1992

Alban Bargain-Villéger

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Ampelmännchen (Trail Life, Weltradreisen)

Twenty-seven years ago, on November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall collapsed. Twenty-seven is an odd number, so why write a post on this particular topic now, on the occasion of a not-so-symbolic anniversary? One reason is that I had always wanted to write something on the couple of years that followed the Fall of the Wall. But mainly, it was the realisation that the official reunification of the two Germanies actually occurred twenty-five and a half years ago that prompted me to reflect on that particular topic. Indeed, the storming of the Wall did not immediately result in the spontaneous stitching back together of the Germany of old – the question being, what Germany was to be resurrected? The prospect of seeing a strong Germany re-emerge on the world scene did not fail to upset members of the European political élite, many of whom had lived through World War Two. As a result, it took a year and a half for the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) and the German Democratic Republic (GDR) – both founded in 1949 – to negotiate and sign the Treaty on the Final Settlement With Respect to Germany.

This post focuses on the two-year honeymoon period that occurred in the wake of the November 1989 events, which the Germans refer to as die Wende (“the turn”). The Wall was built in 1961 as a solution to the growing numbers of East Germans making their way to the West through West Berlin. Until its fall, the “wall of shame” had symbolized the Cold War and the lengths to which a totalitarian regime could go in order to stifle freedom of movement. The immediate cause of the Fall was the opening, in August, of the Austro-Hungarian border, which triggered an outflow of East German citizens through Hungary. The authorities initially attempted to prevent East German citizens from leaving, but these measures backfired and provoked a series of demonstrations, which led to the resignation of Erich Honecker, who had been at the helm of the country since 1971. However, the situation did not improve, as the new government soon felt obligated to allow passage directly through the various border crossings between the Federal Republic and the GDR. Besides, the government’s spokesman mistakenly confirmed that the changes would take effect immediately, which took the border guards by surprise and resulted in thousands of East Berliners crossing into the western part of the city. This meant the beginning of the end for the Wall and for the regime. Continue reading

Video in the Classroom: Exploring the CBC Digital Archives

Andrea Eidinger

Anyone who has searched the internet for videos to use while teaching Canadian history has run into one big problem: the overwhelming dominance of American media online. Adding “Canadian” or “Canada” to your Google search doesn’t necessarily solve this problem. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t great Canadian videos, soundbites, and films available. You just have to know where to look for them! This post is going to focus on my favourite place for Canadian audio-visual material: the CBC.

What is It?

All of the images in this post are screnncaptures used with permission from the CBC.

All of the images in this post are screenshots used with permission from the CBC.

Whether you love it or hate it, the CBC is one of Canada’s most prominent national institutions. Founded officially in 1936, it is the oldest network of broadcasting stations in Canada. When most of us think about the CBC, we think about Peter Mansbridge and The National, Rick Mercer and the Mercer Report, and This Hour Has 22 Minutes. But it has also stood witness to the history of Canada for more than 70 years.While many broadcasting corporations keep their archives private, the CBC has gone the opposite route by opening up select portions of its archives to the public and to educators.

The public version of the CBC Television and Radio Archives is called the CBC Digital Archives.[1] According to their Facebook page, the archive contains more than 6,500 clips (video and audio) dating back to 1927. These clips cover just about every topic you could possibly imagine. Don’t discount the use of these websites for Pre-Confederation classes! CBC Digital Archives can be great for teaching students about historical perceptions of past events. It is completely free to use, though you will have to sit through ads to watch your selected clip. The website also contains coordinating lesson plans for many of these clips.

How Does it Work?

CBC Digital Archives is an absolute treasure-trove of information. However, like treasure-troves, it is often difficult to find exactly what you need. So how do you find the clip you want?  Continue reading

“The water power of Niagara should be as free as the air:” The Past, Present, and Future, of Democratic Energy Control in Ontario

Christo Aivalis

Ontario power station below the falls, 1908. Public domain image.

Ontario power station below the falls, 1908. Public domain image.

The politics of energy are omnipresent in historical and contemporary Canadian society. Who owns energy, how it is produced, and who benefits from its production and distribution has been central to the rise and fall of governments. In some cases, as with Pierre Trudeau’s National Energy Program (NEP), the regional tensions it inflamed are still evident to this day.

Perhaps the most interesting and current debate around energy hails from Ontario, where the provincial Liberal government—without seeking a mandate in the 2014 election—has begun the process of privatizing Hydro One, which has been in public control for more than a century. And while the majority of opposition has come from the left and organized labour, the advent of a public energy system in Ontario predates nearly all of Canada’s major unions and leftist parties.

Surprisingly given our modern ideological landscape, a public hydro system in Ontario was created in 1906 by James P. Whitney’s Conservatives (the title quote is attributed to him), who fought successfully against Liberal George W. Ross’ rejection of public energy control, which was driven by a distrust of public ownership as well as Ross’ pecuniary conflicts—which included being an executive of a company involved with energy production, as well as bestowing energy contracts as political favours.

The rationale for a publically-controlled energy system from Whitney’s perspective was quite forward-thinking. Ontario in the early 1900s was on the verge of mass industrialization, and electrical power was the lifeblood of such a system. To have electricity owned privately—either by foreign interests, domineering monopolies, or a patchwork of petty capitalists—served neither the public interest nor the needs of an increasingly capitalized and urban province. Whether for the worker, farmer, consumer, municipality, or industrialist, affordable, accessible, and consistent power networks were imperative. Continue reading

The Year of the Flood: Hurricane Matthew, Oral Narratives, and Climate History

cabotstreeta

Cabot Street, Sydney, N.S. – 10 October 2016. Photo by author

By Lachlan MacKinnon

The tail-end of Hurricane Matthew battered Nova Scotia and Newfoundland on Monday afternoon and through the evening. Although the damage does not approach the devastation wrought by the system in the Caribbean and other points south, for many in Cape Breton it will be remembered as the storm of a generation. As I drove around the streets of Sydney, scrambling to help check the basements of family and friends for flooding, it struck me that these sorts of extreme weather events promote an interesting form of collective storytelling. As common experiences, they provide the basis for casual small-talk but may also segue into meaningful discussions about climate change, politics, or environmental history. Surveying the flood-soaked South End, onlookers engaged each other with impromptu “oral histories” of past storms and personal experiences.

The October Gale of ’74 looms large in such discussions. While Hurricane Matthew is the worst storm that I remember experiencing, residents were quick to draw comparisons to another unpredicted weather system that pounded the island on October 20th, 1974. Ultimately, thirty-three families were left homeless and more than 1,500 homes were damaged in Sydney alone. According to many in the city, the ’74 Gale was far worse than the recent hurricane. One man – only a child at the time – described using his overcoat as a makeshift sail, jumping into the 145 km/h winds and being carried several feet – not realizing the apparent danger. A 2014 article in the local newspaper, published near the 40th anniversary of the Gale – includes fourteen comments describing local storm experiences. These contain descriptions of trailers being upended, roofs coming undone, and pedestrians narrowly escaping flying debris. Although I had not previously heard of the ’74 Gale, in the days since Hurricane Matthew, I have been confronted time and again by the memories of people who were directly affected. Continue reading

Hippie Historiography: A Much Belated Historical Review of Neil Young’s Waging Heavy Peace

By Andrew Nurse

youngI don’t think anyone is going to claim that Neil Young is a philosopher. If he himself is to be believed, his turn to prose as a medium of expression is the result of dope. Or, more exactly, his decision to quit smoking dope which has, he says, had an effect on his ability to write music. And, like many aging — or, at times not aging — pop music icons, his subject is himself. Young’s Waging Heavy Peace (2012) came to me as a gift bought because it was so widely acclaimed. In short, if Young had turned to prose as a way to replace music, his transition had been successful. What interests me about the book, however, is not its snappy title, Canadian content (and Young is all about Canada), or the supposed insight into the rock-folk/country world he crafted over the span of fifty years. What interested me was how Young remembers the 1960s, what he does with those memories and what they might tell us about how the hippie generation has located itself in time. The text is, after all, subtitled “A Hippie Dream.” What was that dream about? And, where did it lead?  Continue reading

Memorial Dissonance in the Garden of Remembrance

By Rachel Hatcher

[This is the fourth post in the Learning and unlearning history in South Africa’s public spaces series.]

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The Garden of Remembrance at the National Women’s Memorial and Anglo-Boer War Museum in Bloemfontein was inaugurated at the end of November 2015.  It is located in the the Free State (former independent Boer, now Afrikaner, republic of the Orange Free State). The Garden is dedicated to “the more than 51 927 black and white woman [sic] and children who died in the concentration camps during the South African War (Anglo-Boer War) 1899-1902.” The names of about 35,000 of the over 50,000 who died in the camps were collected and the list of names that forms the focus of the Garden.photo-2

The concentration camps were created by the British in their effort to defeat the Boers and incorporate the different regions and their populations into the South African Republic. Significantly, this included the Witswatersrand gold fields located near Johannesburg in the then Boer Republic of the Transvaal. Given the Boers’ decision to engage to guerrilla-style warfare, and their reliance on Boer farmers scattered across the countryside for information, food, and other supplies, the British rounded up white women, children, and the elderly and all blacks in rural areas and re-located them to what turned out to be deadly concentration camps. The Women’s Memorial, inaugurated in 1913, and now the Garden of Remembrance, commemorate those who died, more often than not of disease. Continue reading

A Historian’s Year with a Chromebook

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by Sean Kheraj

Could a Chromebook satisfy the computing needs of a historian? Over the past twelve months, I’ve been using one to find out.

Google’s low-cost, Web-based operating system, ChromeOS, is one of the most unique developments in computing in recent years. It is a lean computer operating system based almost entirely around the use of Web applications and cloud storage. Recognizing that most ordinary computer use takes place in a Web browser, Google decided to make a computer centred exclusively on the Web. With ChromeOS, computing takes place on the internet and the Chromebook is just an access terminal.

First announced in 2010 and then released to consumers in 2011, ChromeOS originally appeared on just two consumer laptop models, one by Acer and another by Samsung. By 2015, at least twelve manufacturers produced dozens of different models of Chromebooks. And by the third quarter of last year, Chromebooks accounted for more than half the sales of notebook devices in the K-12 education market in the US. Recently, David Pierce advised college students, “you should seriously consider buying a Chromebook for this school year.” Part of the reason Chromebooks have become so popular in the education market is that they are some of the most low cost computers available to students.

Given the growing popularity of the Chromebook in education and its low cost for students, I wanted to know what it was like to use a Chromebook for my own daily computing needs as a historian. Is this a device I would recommend for another historian or a history student? Continue reading

Intergenerational Solidary? The Postal Labour Dispute and the Historical Context of Young Workers

by Christo Aivalis

Canada Post delivery truck in Ontario. Public domain image.

Canada Post delivery truck in Ontario. Public domain image.

Over the past few weeks, people, organizations, and small businesses have been left unsettled over a looming Canada Post lockout of its unionized workers, which would leave the country without mail access. However much we live in a digital world, the public postal service continues to have a logistical and cultural prominence.

The dispute is based on Canada Post’s assertion that they need greater labour flexibility and cost efficiency to spur competitiveness in a world with more parcels, and less postage. As a result, Canada Post wants the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) to accept more part time labour, along with a two-tier pension model that would put new hires under a defined contributions plan as opposed to a more secure defined benefits plan.

As I’ve written recently, CUPW is resisting a two-tier model on behalf of future postal workers. If they simply represented existing members, it would be easy to concede the existing pension model for members-to-be. This is a strong application of solidarity between generations of workers, but it is also a recognition—which has played out many times historically—that alliances between young and old workers need to be actively nurtured for the good of the labour movement.

Most of the historically-relevant context has arisen in the postwar era. Historians like Ian Milligan have noted that, while their parents had direct experiences with the Great Depression and total war, young workers in the 1960s and 70s grew up in a time of relative peace and prosperity. This environment, combined with more pervasive media and higher levels of formal education, meant young workers had higher expectations, and were more apt to challenge societal preconceptions around order and respectability in order to achieve those expectations. Continue reading