The Idiosyncrasies of Memory: Marking the Life of Harold Geddes

Andrew Nurse, Mount Allison University

GeddesI never knew Harold Geddes, although I saw him now and then fifteen years ago when I first starting working at Mount Allison. Geddes died in 2004 after a long life that is now marked — literally — on the town of Sackville, New Brunswick. He was one of those characters that people in small towns love or wonder about, the kind of person who is described as quirky, eccentric, or weird depending on one’s perspective. He is best known for a singular (and long-standing) act: street cleaning, a point clearly made by the plaque that commemorates his life. In it, we see an aging but still vital man, hat tilted, who stares firmly, unapologetically, and directly at the observer. The effect is to present Geddes as a self-confident man who did not flinch from someone else’s gaze. To one side are the tools of his trade: a broom and shovel. The Geddes memorial is situated across the street from the Sackville, NB “art wall,” that commemorates better-known local and national figures, including the poet Douglas Lochhead. Exactly why Geddes became celebrated part of local history is telling. He represents, I want to suggest, an interesting alternative engagement with the past and what should be celebrated in it. Continue reading

Lowered Expectations and The Historical Origins of the ‘Great Decoupling’ in Canada

Pierre Elliot Trudeau,  fundraising meeting at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montréal, Québec, 1980.

Pierre Elliot Trudeau, fundraising meeting at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montréal, Québec, 1980.

by Christo Aivalis

Recently many economists have emphasized that since the 1970s in western nations like Canada and the United States, high profits and productivity have been accompanied by stagnating wages, especially for lower income workers. These commentators, including Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman, MIT professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfeeThe New York Times’ Steven Greenhouse, and UNIFOR economist Jim Stanford, have argued that in the 1970s, wages became decoupled from profits and productivity, ending a pattern of complementary increases existing since the end of the Second World War. But still, major politicians, including U.S. Presidential Candidate Jeb Bush, say Americans need to work harder before better wages materialize.

Bush’s remarks are not novel. Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau vocalized similar points in the 70s, arguing that prosperity would not come through better labour legislation or stronger unions. But through weaker labour unions and legislation, which would give job creators more space to create and trickle wealth down. In simple terms, Trudeau’s efforts during the inflationary crisis were primarily about lowering the wages and expectations of Canadians to help bolster corporate profitability and competitiveness, in part helping to initiate the current inequalities between wages and productivity. For example, Trudeau would cast inflation as a psychological malaise amongst the public, a social pathology to be cured, not simply through legislation, but through a public pedagogical effort to lower expectations:

People can only bring inflation down by lowering their expectations…because if we all adjust our incomes downward, then inflation will come down. But if we all think inflation is going up, then we all tend to adjust our incomes upwards and inflation will go up.[1]

With the above statement, and dozens like it, Trudeau stressed that Canadians needed to fight inflation by adjusting their mindsets. To let the status quo prevail was to enable a destructive “we want it all and we want it now…state of mind that can only lead to disaster.” For Trudeau, these unreasonable expectations were rooted in a postwar world where everything was deemed possible. Continue reading

The 2015 Election and the Trans Pacific Partnership: A View from 1988

By Jonathan McQuarrie


John Turner and Brian Mulroney during the 1988 election debate. Photo via

Intensive negotiations in Maui over the last few days of July failed to finalize the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). However, the discussions continue. The negotiations for this comprehensive framework, which would incorporate twelve national economies[1] into an agreement with harmonized standards on tariffs, labour and environmental regulations, are to continue over the Canadian election period. Regardless of whether or not one supports the free-trade ambitions of the TPP, it is imperative that this agreement become a major issue during the current election, as it has far-reaching implications. To give three examples, dairy supply management might be reduced or even eliminated, investor-state dispute resolution mechanisms will challenge national programs, and access to generic drugs could be limited. Proponents of the partnership, such as the recently dissolved Conservative government, point to the potential benefit of access to new markets for an economy that relies heavily on exports.

In 1988, free trade was a relatively new concept, and one endorsed only by the Progressive Conservatives. The Free Trade Agreement between Canada and the United States, signed by Ronald Reagan and Brian Mulroney on 2 January 1988, prompted fierce debate between the three major parties during the November election. Subsequent scholarship has largely cast the 1988 election as a referendum on the agreement, whose implementation had been stalled by the Liberal-dominated Senate. Liberal leader John Turner justified using the (then, as now) unpopular Senate to stall the bill by insisting that such an important issue demanded public input.

The 1988 election debate, particularly an exchange between Turner and Mulroney, is justifiably famous in Canadian politics. Turner and Mulroney hotly debated the implications of the agreement, with Turner accusing Mulroney of selling Canada out, of yielding Canada’s control of its energy and agriculture, and of reducing Canada to an American colony. Mulroney countered with his own nationalist rhetoric, contending that the deal made the Canadian economy stronger, and contributed to the Canadian national project. Ed Broadbent, the NDP leader, is conspicuously absent from the clip, but his party also opposed the FTA. According to political scientist Robert Malcolm Campbell, the dramatic debate refocused the entire election into a referendum on free trade.

Compared to current discussions of free trade, the nationalist tone of the 1988 debate is quite remarkable. While emphasizing the potential risk for national sovereignty was undoubtedly a strategic decision, it is noteworthy that both the Liberals and the NDP felt that the nationalist appeal would work. Post-debate polls indicate that the discussion did spark an increase in anti-FTA sentiment, though the PCs retained enough support for the agreement to secure their majority. Despite the fact that the election was reasonably close, with just under sixty percent of the vote going to anti-FTA parties, the FTA became a fait accompli and a normalized feature of the Canadian economy. Most people in their twenties have lived their entire lives in a free trade Canada.

Political attention to the TPP reflects this normalization. In terms of the rhetoric about free trade and its implications for the nation-state, the 1988 election has more in common with the 1911 rejection of Laurier’s Liberals over the issue of reciprocity with the United States than it does with our current campaign. Aside from some comments on the need to protect farmers and the need for more transparency during the negotiations, the Liberal party supports the TPP. Likewise, the NDP have also come out in favour of the TPP, only criticizing the Conservative negotiators and likewise emphasising the need to defend farmers. Substantive criticism of the TPP has largely been confined to groups such as the Council of Canadians and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Given the magnitude of the deal, this is insufficient.
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The Biggest Oil Pipeline Spills in Canadian History

William H. Willis, Governor of Vermont State and Hon. C.D. Howe, Minister of Munitions and Supply at official ceremony for opening of Portland-Montreal Pipeline, 1941. Source: Library and Archives Canada, 3195990.

William H. Willis, Governor of Vermont State and Hon. C.D. Howe, Minister of Munitions and Supply at official ceremony for opening of Portland-Montreal Pipeline, 1941. Source: Library and Archives Canada, 3195990.

By Sean Kheraj

In March 1950, four Alberta “pipeline walkers” spoke with a reporter from Canadian Press about their tireless work. Each worker walked twelve to fifteen miles per day, checking on pipeline facilities in the Edmonton district and looking for leaks, a consistent problem for Alberta’s booming oil industry in the mid-twentieth century. A day’s work was long, exhausting, and ultimately fruitless. The reporter noted that 18 separate leaks occurred in the district in 1949 with one substantial oil spill near Leduc where “several thousand barrels of oil escaped before the leak was discovered.” Considering the number of leaks to occur in the district in spite of the walking inspections, the report captured the futility of the men’s labour: “Resembling northern trappers walking their trap lines, the men walk miles over their designated routes the year around. It’s a monotonous job — few leaks are found.” After walking more than 800 miles on the job, Dick Caws, one of the “pipeline walkers,” confessed, “The funny thing about my job is that I’m supposed to be looking for oil leaks, but since I started last October 1 I haven’t found one.”[1] Sixty-five years later, a contractor discovered one of the largest leaks on an oil pipeline in Canadian history, using the same method of detection.

Following Imperial Oil’s discoveries of substantial oil and gas resources in Leduc and Redwater in the late 1940s, oil companies and their pipeline subsidiaries began to build the province’s modern oil and gas pipeline systems, an extensive transportation network that now consists of nearly 400,000 km of energy pipelines.[2] Those companies also built Canada’s first long-distance pipelines for the delivery of Alberta crude and natural gas to urban industrial markets in Vancouver, central Canada, and parts of the US. These conduits for the movement of oil and natural gas unlocked Canada’s transition to a new energy regime in the second half of the twentieth century that saw the country become one of the world’s highest per capita consumers of high-energy fossil fuels. According to Richard Unger and John Thistle, “Canada and Canadians have long used relatively large quantities of energy and that total energy consumption in the country has risen dramatically over what is historically, and compared to many other countries, a short period of time.”[3] This would not have been possible without the development of large-scale pipeline infrastructure. Continue reading

Film Friday: British Columbia’s Contact Zone Classrooms, 1849–1925

Film Fridays give active historians a chance to share their work in a new format. If you would like to submit a film about history, get in touch!

By Sean Carleton


Indigenous and settler children outside a public school in Prince George, Lheidli T’enneh Territory, BC, 1911. Royal BC Museum, BC Archives

Canada’s sordid history of colonial education has yet again become a topic of controversy and debate. While the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is coming to an end, new layers are still being added to Canada’s history of colonial schooling, including the horrific findings of abuse and torture and nutritional experiments in residential schools. The overall picture, of course, is disturbing. This is why many historians were confused and dismayed by Ken Coates’ recent suggestion that now is the time to move beyond this difficult past. In response, Crystal Fraser and Ian Mosby rightly reject such an assertion and argue that there is still much to learn about the complexities of colonialism and schooling in Canada, past and present.

My own research confirms this position, and, though I am still writing my PhD dissertation, I wanted to contribute to this important dialogue. Inspired by recent words of encouragement from award-winning filmmakers Alanis Obomsawin and Peter Raymont about the importance of history, activism, and film, I decided to make a short film to share part of my research that supports calls for the need to continue to critically examine Canada’s history of colonial schooling. Continue reading

Indebted to History

By Jonathan McQuarrie



Personal and household debt has become a defining issue of the post-2008 world. In a series on debt, The Globe and Mail proposes to “[Explore] our dependence on debt—from the average household to global institutions—and the looming risks for a nation addicted to cheap money.” The “addiction” stems in part from the lengthy period of low interest rates set by the Bank of Canada, which currently sits at 0.75%. According to the Bank of Canada, these low rates, below the thirty-year average of approximately 5.5%, have contributed to increased mortgage debts. Debt from consumer spending has also been trending upwards, with consumer credit constituting nearly 45% of disposable income for Canadian households in 2011. Warnings about Canada’s high debt to income ratios have sounded since the 2008 recession, and continue to concern both policymakers and people trying to stretch budgets. Anxiety over high debt extends well beyond the household, shaping government fiscal policy orientated around balanced budgets—to the point of proposals for balanced budget legislation. According to the Canadian Centre of Policy Alternatives, focus on balanced budgets have had the effect of further burdening households, which have to make up for the reduced government spending.

History has much to tell us about debt. The most obvious and frequent use of history is through historical statistics. Many of the reports noted above tended to draw on data sets on interest rates and household debts of thirty years or so. However, reliance on such data is imperfect. As a 2012 C.D. Howe Institute report on household debt noted, the U.S. mortgage crisis emerged in part because of overconfidence in the lack of a fall in nationwide average housing prices since World War II. Data works best when placed in social and cultural context, which is where historians come in.

Here are two ways in which history nuances and sharpens our understanding of debt. There are, of course, many others—these just happen to be two of my favourite lessons.
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The Abortion Caravan and RCMP Surveillance

 York University Libraries, Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections, Toronto Telegram fonds, ASC04612.

York University Libraries, Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections, Toronto Telegram fonds, ASC04612.

By Christabelle Sethna

Very few Canadians know that the RCMP conducted surveillance of the Vancouver Women’s Caucus (VWC) and its Abortion Caravan.[1] This discovery is just one outcome of research undertaken with Dr. Steve Hewitt. We worked with hundreds of pages of declassified RCMP files, using surveillance reports (many of which are redacted) as well as appended open source material. The 1969 Criminal Code reforms coincided with the emergence of women’s liberation groups like the VWC. These groups, made up mainly of young, white women, were part of the 1960s New Left ferment that included opposition to the Vietnam War and support for women’s rights, the student movement, Black Power and Red Power and anti-imperialism.[2] Continue reading

The Second Battle of Ypres and the Creation of a YMCA Hero

By Jonathan Weier

Weier, Second Ypres and YMCA Hero - image 1Among the approximately 2000 members of the Canadian Expeditionary Force killed at the Second Battle of Ypres in late April and early May 1915 was the only Canadian YMCA worker killed in combat during the First World War. YMCA Honourary Captain Oscar Irwin, attached to the 10th Battalion of the CEF, was killed when he joined the battalion as it set out to retake St. Julien from the Germans in the early morning of April 23rd.[1] Irwin appears frequently in the YMCA’s commemoration of its First World War service, as the heroic embodiment of the YMCA’s masculine ideals, its message of service, and as a symbol of Christian sacrifice. Irwin’s example, both in life and in death, provided a venue by which the YMCA and its workers could address the tensions and challenges faced by many men involved in non-combatant service during the First World War. Continue reading

“On ‘The Road to 2017’: Reflecting on Canada’s First World War Commemoration Plans”

By Jonathan Weier

Last year on I wrote about the lack of federal government funding for First World War commemoration. Despite the fact that the First World War centennial period has started, the federal government continues to offer little support for First World War commemorative activities. The coming federal election, the recent decline in oil prices, as well as the demands of market orthodoxy make it unlikely that this situation will change.

This is in contrast to the commitments Ottawa is making to commemorate the sesquicentennial of Confederation in 2017. Called The Road to 2017, this program has included events around the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of Sir John A. MacDonald among other milestones. According to the official narrative and the opinions of prominent Conservative cabinet ministers, John A. has been portrayed as the sole force behind Confederation and as a statesmanlike, if slightly flawed, father of our country. Most recently, in its 2015 Budget the government announced a $210 million fund spread out over four years to “support local community events such as festivals and concerts, enhanced Canada Day celebrations in the National Capital Region and other major Canadian cities and other national initiatives, such as Rendezvous Naval 2017, that will unite Canadians from coast to coast to coast.”[1]

What The Road to 2017 lacks, however, is an inclusive building and commemoration process designed to leave Canadians with a useful and forward-looking legacy, as was the case for the programs that were initiated for the 1967 centennial.[2] There has been little attempt to bring in a diversity of voices or discuss the years-long process and other milestones that were part of the evolution towards confederation.

The uninspiring and simplistic nature of government involvement in sesquicentennial commemoration would seem to suggest that I was right, that First World War commemoration will be better with minimal active government involvement. Continue reading

Literature and History: Michel Houellebecq’s Soumission and the Politics of Cultural Despair

By Alban BargainVilléger

864563Even today, literary fiction can still provide an ideal entry point into historical studies. Although this might seem like stating the obvious, one has to recognise that the increasing overspecialization of history as a discipline has hindered the ability and/or willingness of many historians to explore universes outside of their respective fields. Nonetheless, it is clear that some historians still consider themselves engaged intellectuals – Active History provides almost daily examples of such attempts to transcend the limits of historical study.

But in addition to reading and rereading classics (and non-classics), paying attention to present-day fiction can also help historicize the present. Now, for methodological and conceptual reasons, historians tend to let several decades pass before exploring a subject. These precautions stem from the unavailability of some archival materials and from the need for hindsight. That said, such precautions should not prevent historians thinking about our day and age, or engaging in intellectual exercises. In that regard, French author and contrarian intellectual Michel Houellebecq’s latest book, Soumission, constitutes an ideal guinea pig for an experiment of that type. Continue reading