“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


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.]


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


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

The Distance We Have Traveled: Practicing History in the Twenty-First Century

By Andrew Nurse

Practicing History in the 21st Century. Image designed by Tom Peace.

Practicing History in the 21st Century.      (Image designed by Tom Peace)

To argue that there have been improvements in the practice of history is almost a-historical, at least heuristically. After all, claims of progress are a sign of Whig historiography and something we are supposed to avoid. And, yet, after leaving the Practicing History in the 21st Century Symposium, the idea that progress had actually been made was hard – for me at least – to shake.

There are several reasons I felt this way, but I should begin by saying that Practicing History in the Twenty-First Century was a symposium organized to honour John Reid, the noted Saint Mary’s University historians. I should also say “mea culpa” because I was one of the organizers, along with Tom Peace, Peter Twohig, Elizabeth Mancke, Jeffers Lennox, and Jerry Bannister.  As organizers we wanted to do more than honour John. We wanted to craft an event that took up the ideas with which he had worked and looked forward, building on ideas that have emerged in regional, colonialism, and Canadian history over the last generation.

The symposium featured panels that looked at public history, the shifting (or, not shifting) spatial organization of Atlantic regional history, relationships between historians and other communities, historical collaboration, and the audiences to which historians speak. Continue reading

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