Ramsay Cook, 1931-2016: Scholar and Friend

By Don Wright


In Montreal’s Place des Arts to accept the 1985 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction, Ramsay Cook said that he was honoured to be recognized alongside poets, playwrights, and novelists, “which is where a historian should be.” Indeed, it was one of his firmest convictions that history was also an art and that historians had an obligation to write well: “Unscientific as it may sound, language and style are part of the very essence of the historian’s craft.” After reading the first draft of an article I had written about him, he gave me two pieces of advice from his days as a cub reporter on the sports beat in the late 1940s: avoid jargon and don’t use a five dollar word when a five cent word will do the trick.

From his inauspicious start at the Morden Times, he became a prolific writer, a brilliant essayist, and a tough but fair critic with a distinctive and recognizable style marked by clarity, generosity, erudition, and the careful use of the epigraph. He also became a respected public intellectual, someone who could draw on the past to deepen our understanding of the present. Continue reading

Beyond the Bulldozer: Rejected Postwar Development in Toronto

(adapted from an earlier post on torontoplanninghistorian.com)

Richard White

3 Map of Development Site CroppedAmong the most persistent myths – in the sense of widely-held but erroneous beliefs – about Toronto’s planning history, perhaps even about planning history generally, is that the modernist planners of the postwar generation wanted to “bulldoze” anything old and replace it with some lifeless, modern, tower-in-the-park sort of structure. Indeed, once sensitized to the pervasiveness of this mindset one begins to notice it in one form or other almost every day – as I did recently when questioned by a journalist. I even thought it myself, rather unthinkingly, until I began actually researching Toronto’s planning history.

It is simply not true. Admittedly, modernist planners often did want to replace aging structures with new high-rise apartment buildings, but only where and when they felt that doing so was warranted, that is to say where the condition of existing buildings, the land uses in adjacent areas, and the demographic and economic trends for the site made it for the best, not because they simply wanted the old to make way for the new. We value our existing urban fabric now more than most modernist planners of the 1950s did, intent as they were on renewing aging structures and increasing residential densities, so we are much less inclined to demolish and rebuild than they were, but the modernists were not the dogmatic ‘demolitionists’ they are often made out to be. They might have come to conclusions we no longer agree with, but they considered carefully before doing so. Continue reading

“Manna From Heaven” – A YMCA Physical Director at Valcartier and Salisbury Plain

By Robert Alldritt

Before he was a prisoner of war in Germany (a story explored in an earlier article), Sergeant William A. Alldritt served as a machine gunner with the 8th Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF). However, as documented in many of the letters he sent home and in letters written by his colleagues and fellow soldiers, he also used his experience as a pre-war YMCA Physical Director to contribute to the formation and training of his fellow soldiers at training camps in Valcartier and Salisbury Plain.

Alldritt 11 - YMCA Red Triangle

The symbol of the Young Men’s Christian Association, as it looked in the early 20th century. (This image is public domain. All other images in the post are from material in the author’s possession, unless otherwise credited.)

Since it was introduced to Canada in 1851, the goal of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) was to provide boys and young men with healthy activities and sport, intended to improve their spiritual and moral condition. This philosophy was represented by the three sides of its triangle logo, signifying spirit, mind and body.

In 1906, the YMCA began to establish offices in Western Canada in partnership with the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) to support the growing network of railway workers stationed in remote locations across the country. By 1909, Alldritt was employed in one of the first of these offices in Revelstoke, B.C. The partnership with the CPR was considered to be a success when a visiting railway official declared “the YMCA made lambs out of the wild men of Revelstoke.”[i]

Alldritt 9 - Wheeler_Selkirk Mountains_orig_p38

Notice of Alldritt’s ascent on the South Albert Peak.

While in Revelstoke, Alldritt joined the Alpine Club of Canada, an amateur athletic association focused on mountaineering. On September 7, 1909, he completed one of the first ascents of South Albert Peak, as documented by club President, Arthur O. Wheeler,[ii] one of the highest peaks in British Columbia.

Continue reading

Vimy Ridge and Canadian Nationalism

By Walter Klaassen

Several weeks ago the CBC National News offered a film clip of the President of France, Francois Hollande, and the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel standing together at the site commemorating the 1916 Battle of Verdun.  It has been called the biggest battle in history.  It lasted for 300 days and resulted in 300,000 French and German dead.  It was called a French victory because the Germans did not achieve the breakthrough they had intended to make.  The commemoration was not a celebration of victory.  As the modern representatives of the belligerents of a century ago met, Chancellor Merkel said that President Hollande’s invitation to the event was a great honour.  In his address the President said that now Verdun is a capital of peace, but also that “Verdun is a city that represents – at the same time – the worst, where Europe got lost.”  A French soldier wrote at the time: “People will read that the front line was Hell.  How can people begin to know what that one word – Hell – means?  Hell cannot be so terrible as this [battle].  Humanity is mad: it must be mad to do what it is doing.”  After a century the battle zone is still forbidden territory for housing and farming because of unexploded shells.  Available on the web are moving photographs of the two national leaders of those enemies of a century ago stretching their hands over a memorial wreath in sorrow and regret.  The visitors’ centre focuses on educating French and German youth about the horrors and consequences of war.

For several years now, in April, the media have been reminding us of the Battle of Vimy Ridge which, Prime Minister Trudeau said, “was the moment that defined our nation.”  In April of this year (2016) there was a commemoration event at Canada’s War Museum at which Canadian and French flags were flown.  There will be many more like it, culminating in a huge commemoration next April at the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in France, on the site of the battle.  The gathering is expected to be the largest since the monument was erected in 1936.  A recent poll suggested that the anniversary of the battle will be one of the most important celebrations during Canada’s 150th anniversary.  We are also promised a 20$ bill with a Vimy Ridge theme. Continue reading

Visualizing the Past: Mapping, GIS, and Teaching Historical Consciousness

By Sasha Mullally and Siobhan Hanratty

In defining the new field of spatial history, Richard White makes the case that mapping can be more than a corollary to a historical narrative, it “is a means of doing research; it generates questions that might otherwise go unasked, it reveals historical relations that might otherwise go unnoticed, and it undermines, or substantiates, stories upon which we build our own versions of the past.” Over the winter and spring of 2014, we taught a digital history course to honours and graduate history students at the University of New Brunswick that built upon these ideas. Designed from a theoretical perspective, the course traced the evolving relationship between digital history, mapping and map-making. In so doing, the course asked students to reconsider their own research in light of the “spatial turn,” and explore/evaluate the tools of historical geographic information systems (H-GIS). Continue reading

Join the Confederation Debate Today!

This is the second of two posts responding to “Debating the Confederation Debates of 1865” a two-week series we ran in partnership with Canada Watch.

By Daniel Heidt

As the countdown to our country’s 150th  anniversary begins, Canadians are hungry for information about their country’s past and contemplating its future. The Confederation Debates an online and largely crowd sourced initiative – will bring the records of the Numbered Treaties (1871-1921) as well as the colonial and federal legislative debates that preceded each province’s entry into Confederation between 1865 and 1949, into the public discussion while also making them accessible to future generations. Since it is a largely crowd sourced project, anyone can contribute to the work and discussion!

The Confederation Debates posted its first “Quote of the Day” to social media on 1 July 2016. We will continue posting content from all stakeholders in both official languages for the next year. Anyone can log onto our website, transcribe a page, and flag some text for these posts.

The Confederation Debates posted its first “Quote of the Day” to social media on 1 July 2016. We will continue posting content from all stakeholders in both official languages for the next year. Anyone can log onto our website (click the image to visit the site), transcribe a page, and flag some text for these posts.

As the past two weeks of Confederation-focused essays demonstrate, Canadians will bring diverse backgrounds and conflicting perspectives to what promises to be important, and at time heated, public and private discussions. Popular imagination, and Robert Harris’ group portrait of Canada’s ‘founders,’ limits Confederation to the1860s. Even if we expand the so-called ‘Confederation years’ to encompass the entry of BC, Manitoba, and PEI by 1873, we still ignore Alberta, Saskatchewan, Newfoundland and the territories. This latter date also misses nearly all of the Numbered Treaties between Indigenous Peoples and the Canadian state between 1871 and 1921. The records for a few of the provinces’ Confederation discussions are online, but they are often difficult to find, buried in thousands of pages of unrelated debates, or require a subscription to access. Other colonial debates are only accessible in archives. The Numbered Treaty records suffer from the same access issues. Continue reading

Looking at 1867 from 1967 and 2017

This is the first of two posts responding to “Debating the Confederation Debates of 1865” a two-week series we ran in partnership with Canada Watch.

By Christopher Moore

During the constitutional wrangles of the 1980s that became known as “Meech Lake,” one of the premiers supposedly remarked that the fathers of confederation were fine men for their time but didn’t know much about telecommunications or the environment. Whatever expertise the first ministers of the 1980s may have had about telco and enviro policy, however, they eventually proved themselves far less successful than the original confederation-makers in the more significant skill of actually drafting and getting ratified a constitution that might last a century and a half.

I have known and admired for years several of the authors whose essays I have been asked to comment on for this collection. All the authors have made valuable contributions to historical knowledge of Canada. But when I read these essays, I heard again that premier. Continue reading

The Robert Harris group portrait

This is the fourteenth post in a two week series in partnership with Canada Watch on the Confederation Debates

By Ged Martin

The founding, in 1880, of the Royal Canadian Academy of the Arts no doubt represented a landmark in recognition and encouragement of the visual arts in the Dominion. Unfortunately, it was not easy to advance its cultural agenda, especially the central aim of creating a National Gallery. A cramped room on Ottawa’s Bank Street was designated as the Gallery’s first home in May 1882, and it may be that the idea of acquiring a large picture of national import was attractive as a means of forcing the issue of a permanent location. In April 1883, the Academy’s president, Lucius R. O’Brien, submitted a wordy memorandum to the government calling for artistic commemoration of “the meeting of the Conference at which the foundation was laid for the Confederation of the Provinces constituting the Dominion of Canada.” O’Brien did not specify which conference he had in mind, and the project began as a tribute to the meeting in Charlottetown. However, wherever it happened, O’Brien argued that it was “an event of such importance in the annals of the country” that a monumental canvas was required to keep alive the memory of the participants. O’Brien added two further points. One was a hurry-up reminder that the delegates were already dying off. The other was that Robert Harris, “a Canadian artist of ability,” had recently returned from Europe and was “fully competent to paint such a picture.”[1]

Sir John A. Macdonald’s Cabinet was apparently uncertain about how to respond to O’Brien’s plea. Continue reading

Using history to justify Confederation

This is the thirteenth post in a two week series in partnership with Canada Watch on the Confederation Debates

By Marlene Shore

History was frequently invoked in the Confederation debates by both pro-confederates and anti-confederates to justify their positions. All parties realized that they were at a pivotal juncture, when a new set of constitutional arrangements would alter the destinies of the new country’s inhabitants, even though it was politically expedient for some to downplay the prospect of change. Speakers recognized that the American Civil War and the processes of state formation in Italy and Germany constituted part of the context, but in placing the Confederation process within a larger historical narrative, most politicians did not delve very far into the past. There might have been allusions to Shakespeare and the Bible, but members generally focused on how recent concerns — the clergy reserves or political deadlock — provided a justification for Confederation. Apart from George Brown, who articulated the Confederation pact as a key historic moment, the legislative debates reflect an attitude that Confederation would come about in a sequential process responsive to circumstances.

History As Progress

Members of the Legislative Council and Legislative Assembly held a typically 19th-century view of history as the unfolding of progress. Continue reading

Confederation comes at a cost: Indigenous peoples and the ongoing reality of colonialism in Canada

This is the twelfth post in a two week series in partnership with Canada Watch on the Confederation Debates

By Gabrielle Slowey

In 2015 Justice Murray Sinclair, chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, declared: “Reconciliation is about forging and maintaining respectful relationships.”[1] Why did he point this out? The reality remains that Canada and Canadians are not respectful of our relations with Indigenous peoples. As such, the relationship between Canada and Indigenous peoples (termed “Indians” in 1865 — but a relationship that would also extend to and include Inuit and Métis) at present remains “unreconciled.”

A Land of Many Sovereign Nations

Today Canadians are on a journey to reconciliation because in the 1860s the Fathers of Confederation had no regard for the rights or interests of Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island (what most of us call Canada). What is most striking, though not surprising, is the absence of Indigenous peoples (and perspectives) from the debates in the Canadian Parliament in 1865. At that time, Indigenous people comprised many sovereign nations, all of which had very different political, economic, and social structures. They were self-governing, with sophisticated land and resource management regimes. There were multiple Indigenous nations spread across the country, some having already negotiated “peace and friendship treaties.” In the 1860s, the Indigenous peoples in the Prairies, much of British Columbia, and the North still dominated the local economies, and maintained their access to buffalo, fish, and fur-bearing animals. This access would diminish after Confederation. Continue reading