The Historical is Personal: Learning and Teaching Traumatic Histories

Andrea Eidinger

Learning and teaching history is hard work. The physical, mental, and emotional toll can be high, for both educators and learners. This is especially the case when it comes to traumatic histories. For educators, it is difficult to balance the desire to make an emotional impact on your students without inflicting (further) trauma. For learners, it is difficult to balance curiosity with respect. We are often implored to “never forget,” but we seldom take a moment to talk about what and how we are supposed to remember.

 All of us come to the field of history from different backgrounds, and the ways in which we interact with history as educators and learners are shaped by these early experiences. But, with certain exceptions, it remains rare for anyone to talk about this, especially when it comes to teaching. So in this blog post, I wanted to take the opportunity to talk about my personal experiences learning and teaching about traumatic histories and specifically how my experiences as a Jewish-Canadian woman who was taught about the Holocaust as a child shaped my approach to teaching first-year university students about residential schools. Continue reading

Trump, Trade, and Canada’s Special Relationship with the United States

Christo Aivalis

In mere days, Donald J. Trump will conclude his improbable rise to the highest office in world’s most powerful country. What this means has been explored from numerous perspectives, but one issue growing in coverage is how Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government will relate to this new Republican administration. In fact, many political analysts have suggested that Trudeau’s recent cabinet shuffle was undertaken in part to prepare for Trump’s regime.

All this would be important in any case, because relationships between Prime Ministers and their Presidential counterparts often play a role in diplomatic affairs. But Trump’s protectionist campaign rhetoric offers a special challenge to Canada’s leadership. Because when Trump calls for NAFTA to be renegotiated or scrapped, it could very well lead to the erosion of a close relationship with our southern neighbour that has help define the Canadian-American relationship for much of the postwar era. An example of this can be found in Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s dealings with U.S. President Richard Nixon.

Looking back a little bit further, we can see how Canada’s 20th century was determined in large part by the politics of traded with the United States. Canada’s 1911 federal election was fought on the issue of free trade with the USA, with the Liberals backing the concept and the Conservatives warning of how it would harm Canada’s imperial relationships. While the Conservatives won the1911 election, the following decades saw a decline in trade with Britain, along with a steady reliance upon American markets and capital. The result was that many Canadian industries became dependent upon the American economy or became owned by American capital in a branch-plant economy. Continue reading

DNA And The Quest For Identity

Stacey Devlin

“Genetic Testing,” xkcd. Licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC 2.5

Whether or not family history interests you, it’s hard to escape the recent surge in advertising for genealogy-driven DNA tests, particularly the service offered by genealogy giant Ancestry. Ancestry has been heavily promoting this service through both online ads and television commercials, and it represents a fascinating development for family historians who can now use genetic information to find distant or sparsely documented relatives. However, the main thrust of the ad campaigns has not been to advertise the research benefits of DNA, but to appeal to a search for identity and belonging through our connections to ethnic communities. This introduces a number of problematic ideas around the intersection of genetics, personal identity, and racism. Does DNA really help you find out who you are? And does finding “who you are” entitle you to belong to a community that has never embraced you as a member?

DNA testing services are nothing new, and they all follow the same basic formula: spit into a test tube, pay a processing fee, ship the sample and wait for your results to arrive. These results usually take the form of basic ethnicity and health indicators as well as genetic predispositions towards various diseases. The fresh appeal of genealogy-driven services like Ancestry DNA lies in their databases, which compare every test to all other users in order to identify relatives. This has the potential to reveal previously unknown ancestors or confirm relationships that may have only been guessed at. It’s an exciting new option for genealogists who want to supplement their existing research.

However, the advertising campaigns for these DNA tests appeals more to a quest for identity than to the potential research benefits. This shift in emphasis from documentary evidence to genetics represents a dramatic shift in Ancestry’s marketing. The cornerstone of Ancestry’s empire (and indeed a primary motivation for most genealogists and family historians) has been the concept that knowing who you are comes from your connection to the past and from finding the stories of your ancestors in archival documents. Recent advertising flips this on its head to suggest that knowing who you are comes not from painstaking research, but from discovering your genetic makeup. In other words, genetic information is a marker not only of biological identity, but of personal identity. Continue reading

The Chignecto Marine Transport Railway Company or, Thoughts on Failure in History

By Andrew Nurse

4 men and a steam shovel excavating for Chignecto Ship Railway : from elevated position/ J. F. O’R. – 1889. (UNB Archives Online)

The creation and failure of Chignecto Marine Transport Railway Company (CMTRC) — in effect, a “ship railway” — is usually presented as a unique episode in Maritime and Canadian history. In 2012, the Nova Scotia provincial government moved to commemorate the company (and, perhaps unintendedly, its failure) by purchasing the land on which the project was to be built in order to ensure its protection and preservation for the future. The brainchild of engineer Henry Ketchum, the Chignecto ship railway financially collapsed in 1890 and was never revived. For the provincial government and local outdoor enthusiasts, the land on which it sits is important in itself and has been incorporated into the Trans Canada Trail.[1] At the time the land was purchased, the then Minister of Natural Resources explained that his “Government was acting to preserve the historical, recreation, and natural value of this unique piece of land.”[2]

Exactly what, however, was being commemorated and why? The commemoration of the Ketchum’s ship railway affords an interesting opportunity to think about how we mark failure in history. However “innovative” (in Ketchum’s words) a ship railway may have been, it was never completed and, thus, never used. How do we think historically about failure and why might this be important to broader historical narratives? Continue reading

Unlearning history to combat racism?

By Rachel Hatcher

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

South Africans must, declared South African Human Rights Commissioner Dr. Danny Titus, unlearn the names of the Dutch ships that landed in South Africa in the 17th century. He made this declaration during the Free State’s provincial launch of the Anti-Racism Network of South Africa (ARNSA) in Bloemfontein on 6 April 2016. Titus also stated that there, while there was much to unlearn, there was also much to learn.

The ships-that-must-not-be-named were led by Jan van Riebeeck, who was charged with setting up a way-station for ships on their way to and from the Dutch colonies in the “East Indies.” Landing in what is now Cape Town on 6 April 1652, the arrival of the ships marks the beginning of permanent European settlement in what is now South Africa.

Titus’ comment about unlearning is problematic in the context of a still highly racist South Africa and campaigns against racism for a couple of reasons. First, it suggests a kind of a Whiggish understanding of history, but not one where the past is read as inevitably progressing toward greater liberty and democracy. Rather, insisting that the names of the ships be unlearned points to an understanding of the past characterized by an inevitable regression in terms of liberty and democracy, a continuous closing of spaces until 1948 when the National Party was elected and set about institutionalizing apartheid, there limiting liberty and democracy even further. Continue reading

Deconstructing Children’s History Books: Residential Schools

By Samantha Cutrara

cutrara1 Children’s historical books can serve many purposes. They can teach children about history, as well as develop emotion and empathy about figures from the past. In “Recreating the Past,” Evelyn Freeman and Linda Levstik argue that children’s historical fiction fosters ongoing process of historical interpretation in which the child is an active participant (pg. 331). From my own experience as a child reading historical fiction, fiction can also help the reader project into another world and develop a contextualized understanding about the past by thinking of one’s self as part of it. While we, as educators, historians, and theorists, recognize that historical fiction cannot be ingested uncritically, historical fiction still serves as an entry point into the past for many children in ways that are more colourful, creative, and emotional than traditional public history or curriculum.

But I question whether children’s history books cultivate an understanding of the past as distinct unconnected experiences, which then act as a barrier for understanding more contextualized history later in life. In particular, with books that present “other” or “difficult” parts of the Canadian past, are these books serving as narrative interventions or intersections into the traditional stories of the nation? Or, in our use and reading of children’s history books, do we unwittingly create and ratify the distinction between Canadian history and “other” histories in Canada?

In a series of three posts, I will explore a selection of children’s books on particular topics of “other” histories in Canada. My intention is not just to critique children’s books, but to deconstruct the semiotics of the historic spaces that get created through this medium. The series explores how these histories are positioned in the nation and how we can use this understanding to enhance our teaching of contextualized and problematized histories of the nation.

It was a CBC Indigenous post on children’s books about Residential Schools that first got me thinking about this topic, so I thought I would begin the series here. Continue reading

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


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