Masculinities and the Culture of Parliament

By Matt Barrett

Drawing by Matt Barrett

Drawing by Matt Barrett

Without a hint of hyperbole, the House of Commons descended into a scene resembling a Blue Jays–Rangers dugout-clearing brawl on the afternoon of May 18th. According to Peter Mansbridge, “We’ve never seen anything like this in the House of Commons.” Prior to a vote on the assisted-dying bill, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau crossed the floor, entered a crowd of MPs and took the arm of Conservative Whip Gord Brown. During the jostling, NDP MP Ruth Ellen Brosseau stated she had been “elbowed in the chest by the prime minister.” When NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair subsequently confronted Trudeau in an intense exchange, several Liberals left their seats as well until tensions cooled.

An incredulous Peter Julian, NDP House Leader, declared, “There is not a parallel in contemporary Canadian history.” Calling Trudeau’s action “an extraordinary example of physical intimidation,” Conservative Peter Van Loan added, “I have read about this stuff in history books from the 19th century. I have never seen such a thing in my lifetime.” Ironically, four years ago, Van Loan himself  reportedly “stormed across the aisle” to yell and wave his finger at the NDP Opposition. Although for the most part attacks in the House of Commons are of the verbal variety, historically, physical confrontations between MPs are nothing new. Even a cursory look through the 149-year history of the Canadian Parliament reveals numerous incidents of insults, threats, intimidation, scuffles and even sporadic violence. Continue reading

History on TV: Political Drama in the 2010s

Alban Bargain-Villéger

Still from Borgen, 2010.

Still from Borgen, 2010.

In recent years, serial political dramas such as House of Cards and the Danish series Borgen have enjoyed quite a bit of success in North America. Although one might argue that the genre is more of a child of the 1990s, since the original House of Cards trilogy (set in a fictional post-Thatcher Britain) came out in 1991, and The West Wing ran from 1999 to 2006, the four series that I intend to examine in this post are all products of the 2010s. A comparison of Borgen (“The Castle,” Denmark, 2010-13), Les Hommes de l’ombre (“The Shadow Men,” France, 2012), House of Cards (USA, 2013-present), and Okkupert (“Occupied,” Norway, 2015) is not only useful in providing an overview of how western European and American politics are being imagined (even fantasized about) in our day and age, but also yields precious information of a historical nature. In their own way, each of these series tries to make sense of a different political history. Of course, it should be acknowledged that these four series reflect the views of the writers, directors, consultants and producers who created and shaped them. Nonetheless, the commercial and critical success that they have garnered as well as the themes they address raise several questions about the ways western democracies and their histories are perceived today.

SPOILER ALERT: be warned that plot points will be given away. Continue reading

The Big Hole of Black Oblivion

RHphoto1By Rachel Hatcher

[This is the second in a series of posts titled “Learning and unlearning history in South Africa’s public spaces”]

The Big Hole in Kimberley, in South Africa’s Northern Cape province, somehow manages to tower over the city in a way that is surprising for a big hole in the ground, which is precisely what the Big Hole is. Yet the Big Hole does just that. It towers. Part of this is certainly because the Big Hole, which is reputed to be the biggest hand-dug hole in the world, seems to be the only reason people visit Kimberley. Mention in nearby Bloemfontein that you went to Kimberley on the weekend, and you will be asked if you saw the Big Hole. Another reason the Big Hole towers over the city is because of its history. Kimberley exists because of the Big Hole and, more specifically, because of the millions of dollars of diamonds dug from the hole, many of which ended up with the DeBeers company, founded in Kimberley in 1888.

Today, the complete Big Hole experience begins with a short film, Diamonds and Destiny, which tells the “realistic” story of the mine’s early existence “through the eyes of two fictional characters of the time,” a white travel writer and a black labourer. The experience continues with a short tour of the underground mine; a visit to the viewing platform perched overlooking the Big Hole; and, finally, a visit to the mine museum and the heavily guarded diamond display. Visitors are also invited to take a trolley ride or walk around the restored old town with its blacksmith, garage, “High Class London Tailor,” milliners, and other shops. Continue reading

Justin Trudeau and Canada’s Colonial Baggage: Past and Present

by Christo Aivalis

‘(official denial) trade value in progress’ participatory art project responding to Harper's no history of colonialism statement. Photograph by Krista McCracken.

(official denial) trade value in progress’ participatory art project responding to Harper’s no history of colonialism statement. Photograph by Krista McCracken.

Justin Trudeau—since his October 2015 electoral victory that catapulted him to the office of Prime Minister, and his Liberal Party to a majority government—has not lost much of his sheen with the Canadian public. He still embodies for many youthfulness, respectable progressivism, and what the modern Canadian state and civil society should resemble.

Additionally, Trudeau on the international scene is seen as sexy, cosmopolitan, and as an embodiment of what Canada is stereotypically thought to be, even if it isn’t the reality. Trudeau’s actions, symbolic as they mostly have been, are nevertheless speaking loudly within and beyond Canada’s borders, giving him a highly publicized pulpit from which to evangelize his brand of Canadian l/Liberalism.

In this light, it was just a few days ago at New York University where Trudeau took questions from students. But one topic that went relatively unchallenged was Trudeau’s justification for what Canada can offer the United Nations:

it’s a capacity to engage in the world in difficult places without some of the baggage that so many other Western countries have, either colonial pasts or perceptions of American imperialism, as a critique that’s often out there.”

Some people, including NDP MP Niki Ashton, keyed in on Trudeau’s disavowance of Canada’s colonial and imperial baggage. Others have made the case that this sort of statement mirrors Stephen Harper’s claim that Canada has no history of colonialism. Continue reading

Merchants of Death: Canada’s History of Questionable Exports

By Stephanie Bangarth and Jon Weier



I must say that I feel the whole Canadian policy to be very hypocritical. We talk a good game but then proceed to act inconsistently by promoting trade with the countries whose policies we denounce.[1]

The year was 1974 and the issue of Canadian trade with South Africa was making the headlines, along with concerns over the sale of CANDU reactors to Argentina and India. It reflected the increasing awareness of and support for human rights in Canadian foreign policy during the late 1960s and the early 1970s. As David Forsyth notes, as a general historical trend, more attention is now paid toward humanitarianism in world affairs.[2] In part, this development was due to parliamentarians such as New Democrat Andrew Brewin, who were central in making the issue of human rights more than merely a domestic issue.

Brewin’s statement is as relevant today as it was in 1974. Since its election in October 2015, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s new Liberal government has been dogged by the continuing saga of the sale of armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia. This deal, initially pursued and approved by the previous Conservative government, would see General Dynamics Land Systems sell $15 billion worth of Light Armoured Vehicles (LAVs) to re-equip the Saudi National Guard. These LAVs are to be produced at the General Dynamics production facility in London, Ontario, and were a centrepiece of the previous Conservative government’s plan for bolstering the Canadian arms industry through increased exports. Continue reading

In Search of Digital Literacy in Canadian History Programs

By Stacey Devlin

For both students and practicing historians, a wealth of information is often just a few clicks away. Photo by Thomas Lefebvre via

For both students and practicing historians, a wealth of information is often just a few clicks away. Photo by Thomas Lefebvre via

During the second half of my MA, my colleagues and I were tasked with preparing an exhibit about early-twentieth-century medicine. Not having a background in medical history, I began by downloading archived medical periodicals from Early Canadiana Online. I reasoned that if I could identify important conversations of the profession during the period of interest, I would have clear leads for exhibit content. What were considered standard practices? What were the pressing issues or the latest controversies? Unfortunately, I wasn’t at liberty to read the thousands of pages I had downloaded, let alone to keep an ongoing record of topics or word usage. During the previous semester, however, I had taken courses on digital history and digital research methods. After using Voyant Tools to generate a list of frequently used words in my periodicals, I put together a program to extract instances of these key words and save them in new documents for review. My processing of the periodicals ended there, but even this simple operation gave me useful direction for continued research.

In the two years since then, I’ve continued to use a variety of technologies in my work. My university training in digital history (and the willingness to embrace new technologies in general) has been helpful in finding employment opportunities outside the academy. I incorporate digital tools into my workflow because they’re illuminating, time-saving, and even fun. However, digital literacy was not a priority during most of my university career. Similarly, I have few peers that would consider themselves digital historians, despite the fact that research is routinely conducted online and the digital humanities are a frequent topic of discussion within the discipline. Continue reading

Hamilton: A Belated Discussion

By Jonathan McQuarrie

It turns out rap is a perfect medium for history. Hamilton has become a touchstone musical, winning laurels from a range of audiences from musical aficionados to people (like me) who are never quite sure why everyone is singing. Its wide appeal has made it a notoriously difficult ticket to get—as of this writing, the tickets are “extremely limited” and ticket resale sites ask for $500 to $700. As the New York Times reviewer noted, “I am loath to tell people to mortgage their houses and lease their children to attend a hit Broadway show. Hamilton, directed by Thomas Kail and staring [Lin-Manuel] Miranda might just be worth it[.]” For those unwilling to resort to such extreme measures (including myself), the cast recording is widely available, and captures much of the energy and power of the work. It has the feel of being one of those generational musicals with the power to define how many people understand a historically significant figure, much as Les Misérables shaped understanding of the French revolutionary period.

Hamilton is a lasting success. So, we need to pay attention to this cultural moment. Here’s why.

  • One need not read a fully footnoted work to find some analytically rich and complex material. The creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, demonstrated an impressive commitment to historical accuracy. He drew rigorously on Ron Chernow’s popular, but extensive, biography of Alexander Hamilton, and Chernow contributed as a consultant to the production. Other historians have largely praised the work’s portrayal, noting only minor omissions or confusions. Indeed, the approximately three hour work is remarkable for how much detail it does include, from Hamilton’s efforts to form a new financial system to an intricate detailing of the rules of dueling. The “Cabinet Battles” are must-listens.

Continue reading

Who Teaches Digital History in Canada?

By Sean Kheraj

Digital history is coming to York University in Fall 2016. That is to say, I finally got around to organizing and preparing to teach digital history. As I get ready to teach this course, I am surveying the landscape of digital history teaching in Canada, looking for ideas. Readers of this article, I hope, will help by posting suggestions and links to resources in the comments below.

For many years now, I have integrated digital history skills, assignments, and exercises into my history courses. Continue reading

21st Century Terrorism: Nothing New?

Alban Bargain-Villéger

1980 Bologna Railway Bombing. Getty Images

1980 Bologna Railway Bombing. Getty Images

About a month after the November 13 shootings, I was lining up, along with hundreds of carefree visitors, in front of the Osiris exhibit at Paris’s Arab World Institute. The sun was out, children were playing on the steps of the building and, aside from the occasional military squad patrolling the area, it was hard to believe that this city had recently been hit by a series of brutal attacks. As I was waiting in the slowly advancing line, I began to wonder what I would do if a gang of masked gunmen were to show up. We were (according to Daesh) nothing but horrible miscreants on their way to admire Ancient Egyptian idols. Why was I suddenly feeling vulnerable? After all, the risk had always been there and, although the media had only recently begun to popularize the concept of “soft targets,” the use of violence on civilians in public places is nothing new. However, the media’s frequent recourse to World War Two as a benchmark in terms of violence has contributed to obscuring the various acts of terrorism that occurred during the Cold War era, the 1990s, and the 2000s.

Among the many approaches to the 2015 Paris attacks, few avoided the trap of Western exceptionalism – here I use “Western” for the sake of convenience, as that term does not describe a clearly defined reality. While the generally Eurocentric reactions to the January and November shootings have been pointed out on many occasions, the chronological nearsightedness of most of the media and of the powers-that-be has been largely ignored. The appearance of the French tricolour on the CN Tower, the Statue of Liberty, and other monuments in the wake of the shootings did not just reflect a geographical double standard, but also implied that some sort of world-historical event had occurred. Although the high death toll (130 victims) seemed to point to a return to a level of violence unseen since the Second World War, and although the terrorists’ recourse to suicide bombers signaled a change in the Jihadists’ tactics on the European continent, it would be premature to see that particular massacre as an epoch-making event. Continue reading

Golgotha?: D. Y. Cameron’s Flanders from Kemmel

By Laura Brandon

One of the aspects of war art that continues to surprise me is how personal it ultimately is. Any painting, however objectively representative of events it may purport to be, in it carries some measure of the artist’s subjective response to the incident, place, or person depicted. Furthermore, it is influenced by the artist’s personal circumstances and attitudes. David Young Cameron’s massive 1919 war landscape (physically and in terms of the scale of the view) Flanders from Kemmel is a case in point.[1] It is travelling across Canada at present after display in the exhibition Witness at the Canadian War Museum in the summer of 2014.[2]

CFWW Brandon 1

David Young Cameron, Flanders from Kemmel, 1919. (Oil on canvas, 197.5 x 336 cm, Beaverbrook Collection of War Art, Canadian War Museum 19710261-0117.)

At first glance, the painting presents a misty, Impressionist-like scene. A cloud-filled sky makes up the bulk of the composition. Centring the composition is a small village. An arrangement of trees and hillside frame the wider panorama. I have always appreciated the artist’s technical proficiency in holding this wide-ranging composition together. But I never looked at it particularly closely until Canadian War Museum librarian Lara Andrews mentioned that she saw figures moving through the middle ground near the village – soldiers or refugees – she wasn’t sure. This led me to scrutinize the painting anew as a work of art and, also, to explore more fully the history behind it. Continue reading