“Trustees of the Future” and the Echoes of History

By Calyssa Erb

Prime Minister Robert Borden speaking in 1915 – from Wikicommons

Prime Minister Robert Borden speaking in 1915 – from Wikicommons

On 23 October 1916, two years into the Great War, Prime Minister Robert Borden spoke to Canadians with the goal of inspiring more citizens to get involved in the war effort. Nearly a century later on 22 October 2014, following the shooting at Canada’s National War Memorial in Ottawa and fears of another attack on Canadian soil, Prime Minister Stephen Harper addressed the nation to encourage unity and resilience in the Canadian people by drawing upon the previous century’s rhetoric of dedication and Canadian spirit. The proximity of the dates on which each speech was made – although ninety-eight years apart – draws them closer together temporally to emphasize the parallels in prime ministerial discourse during times of heightened national anxiety. The similarities in context and rhetoric bridge the temporal distance between the speeches, connecting the past and present. In very different eras these two Conservative Prime Ministers saw fit to assert narratives of a unified Canadian identity and of Canada’s place on the global stage, when faced with moments of national crisis. The similarities are made all the more significant by Harper’s clear determination to reshape Canada’s image from its late-20th century “peacekeeping” ideal to a “warrior nation” one instead. Continue reading

Assessing the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation

by Sean Carleton, Crystal Fraser, and John Milloy

National Centre For Truth and Reconciliation logo

Earlier this month, the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) opened its physical and digital doors to the public. The Centre is located in Chancellor’s Hall at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg and its online archive contains “Terabytes of Testimony,” including 35,000 photos, five million government, church, and school documents, 7000 survivor statements, and a host of other materials (art, poems, music, and physical items) collected by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC). It is an impressive and important collection. The NCTR’s mandate is to “preserve the memory of Canada’s Residential School system and legacy. Not just for a few years, but forever.”

It is hard to believe that less than twenty years ago, the Indian Residential School (IRS) system was still operating and the vast majority of Canadians were in the dark about the history and ongoing effects of the schools. In contrast, the volume of traffic to the NCTR’s digital archive was initially so high that the site crashed on multiple occasions in its first week. People’s interest in the history of residential schools “broke” the internet, so to speak. Given the long and hard-fought battles by former students, survivors, advocates, and academics to bring Canada’s residential school system to the public’s attention to facilitate redress, the opening of the NCTR and the public’s positive response so far, is a significant step towards reconciliation and healing.

As emerging and established scholars of Canada’s IRS system, we are heartened to witness the opening of the NCTR, and we are optimistic about the Centre’s potential as a powerful resource to ensure these varied and complex histories are not forgotten. Yet, we approach the NCTR cautiously and not uncritically. Much work remains. The archive is still incomplete and it is limited in significant ways. Given the Centre’s importance, we offer an assessment of the NCTR by way of briefly tracing its background and outlining our initial thoughts on its many strengths and limitations. Our aim is to spark a conversation about how historians might critically engage with this new resource to help shape the future of residential school research and to aid meaningful reconciliation. Continue reading

Who Was the Queen of the Hurricanes? The Story of Elsie Gregory MacGill (1905-1980)

By Dr. Crystal Sissons

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Who was the Queen of the Hurricanes? It sounds like a rather simple question doesn’t it? — and in a sense it is. The simple answer is: Elsie Gregory MacGill. But what does that really tell us about the title or the woman? Biographical research is the key to fleshing out the different facets of Elsie’s life. [1]

To begin with, Elsie Gregory MacGill was the first woman aeronautical engineer. After having earned a degree in electrical engineering at the University of Toronto in 1927, she went on to obtain a Masters degree in aeronautical engineering at the University of Michigan in 1929. With her educational credentials well in hand, she should have been able to jump right into the fast-paced evolution of the aeronautical field, and she probably would have, had it not been for a sudden battle with polio just as she finished her coursework.[2] Instead of celebrating her educational and professional achievement, Elsie was struggling simply to get back on her feet. Continue reading

Trans-border Data Flow and the TPP: Haven’t we been here before?

By Scott Campbell


In the final weeks of the 2015 Canadian federal election, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) became a hot political issue. After seven years of virtually secret negotiations, the 12 Pacific Rim countries–including Canada–involved in the trade agreement announced on October 5 that a deal had been reached, but gave few details. The final document was not available publicly until November 5, several weeks after the Liberal government was elected.

Most of the election-related discussion in October spoke to the potential impact of the TPP on the dairy and automotive industries in Canada, but the effect on other aspects of Canadian life are worth considering. Jim Balsillie, former co-CEO of RIM, apparently feels that the TPP “is the worst thing that the Harper government has done for Canada,” as it would impose structural disadvantages on Canadian innovators, limiting growth and opportunities.

The TPP also appears to remove restrictions on trans-border data flow. Consider Article 14.11 Paragraph 2 of the released document (link to PDF): Continue reading

Enlightening Technologies: Sunlamps, Medical Science and Popular Concepts of Health

By Dorotea Gucciardo


“Capture the vitality of sunny summer!”

General Electric Advertisement, c.1950

General Electric Advertisement, c.1950

So read the headline of a 1931 General Electric (GE) ad, which encouraged Canadians to bring into their homes “the health-giving rays of the sun any hour of the day […] every day of the year.” Appearing in the November edition of Chatelaine, the advertisement enticed readers facing the start of a long, cold winter to bring in the sunshine by purchasing a GE sunlamp. The company insisted that its product would provide “resistance to colds and other seasonal ills [while] children grow sturdier and adults feel the vitalizing effect of the ultra-violet rays.”[1] With the ad promising that the GE Sunlamp was “as safe as the sun,” Canadians today, well-versed in the relationship between exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation and skin cancers, would be forgiven for viewing such a product with skepticism; but many in the 1930s embraced the gospel of sunshine, and sun-kissed skin was a hallmark of healthfulness. Continue reading

The People’s Telephone and the Internet Today

By Robert MacDougall


It may be the networks I belong to and the feeds I follow, but—as a guy whose main interests are 19th-century pseudoscience, the history of the telephone, and WKRP in Cincinnati—I am often surprised by how much of the social media in my streams is devoted to tech industry news and speculation. Will consumers embrace the iWatch? Will they give up cable for Netflix? Is Twitter dying? And what, pray tell, does Elon Musk have to say?

As a historian of communication, I often say that changes in media turn us all into historians of communication, if only briefly. Until the novelty of a new tool fades, we are all Marshall McLuhans, conscious of the media we use and curious about its impact. But despite all the tweets about Twitter, the blog posts about blogging, the books about the decline of books, there is something lacking in all this conversation, and it has to do with a refusal to see the real forces at work. We valorize consumer agency and ignore the extent to which our communications world is constructed by politics and regulation. Continue reading

Lorsque Madame Voyage: Women and Air Travel at Trans Canada Airlines

“LORSQUE MADAME VOYAGE” 1962 TCA travel brochure. Source: Air Canada Collection, CASM

“LORSQUE MADAME VOYAGE” 1962 TCA travel brochure. Source: Air Canada Collection, CASM

By Blair Stein


Upon his retirement, former Air Canada President Gordon McGregor wrote that “certainly no 20 years in the history of aviation, and probably no 20 years in the future, will show such a succession of basic changes…as did the period of 1948-1968.”[1] He was not exaggerating. During this time period, airlines moved from propeller-powered aircraft to jets, but the rapid changes encompassed more than just machines. There’s a reason, after all, that McGregor titled his memoirs The Adolescence of an Airline. Like all teenagers, TCA grew in fits and starts through the 1950s and 1960s, had draining conflicts with its guardians as a Crown Corporation, and, most importantly for this series, learned how to communicate with women. In the first two postwar decades, women navigated technological air travel networks through leisure and labour; in both roles, mid-century Canadian women appeared as savvy, technology-minded users of air travel.  Continue reading

Excitement, Suspicion, Protest: A Brief History of Military Science in Canada

By Matthew S. Wiseman

The bombings in Paris and Beirut this past week are a powerful illustration of how civilians are too often caught in the violent crossfire unleashed by global unrest. How does one prepare a civilian populace for such potential devastation? Is it even possible?

Between 1948 and 1954, officials in Ottawa attempted to design and implement a self-help civil defence (CD) model to prepare citizens for the escalating nuclear threat. Their plans altered quickly in 1952 when the United States successfully detonated a hydrogen bomb, at which point the radioactive severity of a potential nuclear attack forced a major critique of Canada’s CD policy. Officials replaced the self-help model with a calculated evacuation policy, in which specific cities would receive food provisions, shelter, and care for nuclear refuges in the event of an attack. In 1959 CD plans were adjusted for a third time, when officials realized that nuclear fallout would not be geographically confined. Since it no longer made sense for CD planners to target select locations for potential aid, planning in Ottawa turned toward developing a comprehensive strategy of national survival. Continue reading

Unrest, Violence, and the Search for Social Order in British North America and Canada, 1749-1876

As part of our partnership with the new early Canadian history blog Borealia, we’ll be posting highlights from that website here every Saturday in November.

By Elizabeth Mancke

Mancke 1

Benjamin Sulte, Histoire de Jos. Montferrand, L’athlète de Canadien (Montreal: Beauchemin et Fils), 73; detail (Public Domain).

From the mid-eighteenth century to the early Confederation era, British North Americans and then Canadians confronted a wide range of phenomena that could engender disorder: imperial wars, rebellions, the arrival of immigrants, epidemics, political unrest, and relations with First Nations. All, directly or indirectly, presented challenges to maintaining social and political order. In response, British North Americans and then Canadians engaged in protracted discussions about the definition of order and experimented with strategies to confront and limit disorder when it broke out. These discussions and processes reinforced the pervasive belief, held by both Canadians and outsiders, that Canada developed historically distinct relations shaped by notions of “peace, order, and good government,” or, in the terms of this project, themes such as unrest, violence, and the search for order. Processes of negotiating order and disorder, however, varied dramatically across British North America. But despite distinct political, social, and cultural dynamics, the colonies shared enough practices and temperaments that something recognizably Canadian emerged as part of the national identity. Yet very little inter-colonial analysis has been done to comprehend what British North Americans understood by “peace, order, and good government.” Rather, scholars who study incidents of unrest and violence in Canadian history more often employ comparisons to events in Europe or the United States, often with the effect of highlighting the distinctiveness of British North American developments.

A group of approximately 25 historians is undertaking a SSHRC-funded project to re-examine “Unrest, Violence, and the Search for Social Order in British North America and Canada, 1749-1876.” Explicitly designed to encourage inter-colonial comparisons, this project attempts to analyze how unrest varied across colonial societies, and how provincial leaders sought accommodations to maintain or regain control when discord threatened. In this endeavour, we have set ourselves a challenge: to think critically about the ways in which political and social order were defined and refined in British North America and into the early years of Confederation. The provinces were not monolithic in ethnic, religious, or social composition, and British North Americans disagreed on what constituted political and social order. The current understanding of those processes has been overwhelmingly couched in evolutionist values of a positive and logical progression to achieve superior forms of political and social order. The positivist and nationalistic ideals that have dominated the historical scholarship of this period – often expressed as “colony-to-nation” – merit re-examination. [Continue Reading]

Monica, Bill, History, and Sex

By Marc Stein

Twenty years ago this month, U.S. Democratic President Bill Clinton began having sex with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. More than two years later, during testimony in a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by Paula Jones, Clinton denied that he was having a sexual relationship with Lewinsky. Several months later, Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr reported to the U.S. Congress that Clinton had committed perjury and obstruction of justice in his testimony about Lewinsky and related actions in the Jones litigation. The U.S. House of Representatives, controlled by the Republican Party, impeached Clinton in December 1998. In January and February 1999, the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate tried Clinton, but the president was acquitted when the Senate failed to meet the constitutional requirement of a two-thirds vote for conviction.

This essay was originally written in 2000 for “Historians and Their Audiences: Mobilizing History for the Millenium,” a conference sponsored by the York University History Department. My goal was to address the privileging of traditional political historians over historians of sexuality in mainstream public discussions about the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, but I also wanted to use my presentation to consider the place of humor, satire, and parody in the work of historians. If the opening parody of both The McLaughlin Group (a long-running public affairs television program) and historical scholarship in sexuality studies seems excessively reliant on inside jokes that only historians of sexuality of a certain generation might understand, my hope was (and is) that this, too, might contribute to new ways of thinking about historians and their audiences.

For the most part, I have avoided editing or revising the essay, wanting it to stand as a reflection of my thinking about these issues in 2000, but some of the parodied names have been changed to protect the innocent and prevent further litigation.


Welcome to this edition of the McLaughlinstein Group, hosted by me, Marc McLaughlinstein. Today’s topic: Monica, Bill, Sex, and History. Our regular guests, Doris Kearns Johnson, Michael Wilentz, and Sean Beschloss, were unable to join us today, so instead our program will feature widely acclaimed historians Mary Contrary Daly, Carroll Rosen-Smithberg, John-Boy Howard, George Chancy, Lilliana Faderwoman, and Steve Edgwick.

Question: Continue reading