Fake News, Global History Wars, and the Importance of Historical Thinking

By Thomas Peace

In the last week we’ve seen a strong desire to put an end to “Fake News”. With the rise of social media and increasingly savvy revenue generating fake news sites, this is an important intervention (the dangers of which Alan MacEachern addressed here last week). It is, however, misleading to assign blame for Donald Trump’s rise to the U.S. presidency solely on this blatant deception. Focus on the “fake news” distracts us from the very real way that some producers of the “real news” (editors, producers and pundits) and legitimately elected politicians (and especially governments) use the media to distort and distract in an effort to cultivate public opinion.

Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in the deliberate (mis)use of history to construct a specific polarized vision of the nation. Globally, politicians and opinion makers (some of whom are admittedly professional historians) have recently turned to un-contextualized facts about their nation’s past for their own political ends, often directly targeting university-based historians and their increasing emphasis on historical thinking over the reinforcement of a national narrative.  Though I am not in a position to argue cause and effect, in this post I would like to suggest that declining enrollments in history programs and classes are perhaps related to the fact that politicians deploying this tactic have recently found electoral success. “Fake news” may be part of the problem, but the problem’s roots go much deeper and relate more directly to established power structures. Continue reading

Acknowledging the Land and the People: A Practice for all Canadian Historians

By Thomas Peace

Pour assurer notre existence, il faut nous cramponner à la terre, et léguer à nos enfants la langue de nos ancetres et la propriété du sol [1]

Statue of George-Etienne Cartier in Parc Montmorency (Quebec City)

Statue of George-Etienne Cartier in Parc Montmorency (Quebec City)

These words captivated my attention a few months ago as I walked across Parc Montmorency, the site of the old parliament buildings in Quebec City. They are found on the footing of a statue of George-Etienne Cartier, one of the better known politicians involved in crafting the British North America Act. What a succinct summary of Confederation, I thought: “In order to assure our existence, we must grasp onto the Land and leave for our children the language of our ancestors and ownership of the soil.”

The words struck a chord, I think, because I was in the park to eat my lunch and read a bit of Thomas King’s The Truth about Stories, the book Huron has chosen for this year’s first year common reading program. Repeatedly, in returning to the phrase: “the truth about stories is that that’s all we are,” King challenges his audience to think about how we situate ourselves in the world and the stories we use to construct it. The story invoked by this inscription is one of a national beginning. It can be read in at least two ways that both help us understand our present moment as well as point us towards areas where our practice as historians may need to change. Continue reading

Shuttering Archives: A UNESCO Recognized Collection to Close its Doors to the Public

Thomas Peace

Le Séminaire du Québec

Le Séminaire du Québec

Last month I spent two weeks working in one of my favourite archives: Le Centre de référence de l’Amérique francophone. This archive – run by Quebec’s Museum of Civilization – is one of the oldest in the country, not only holding the records of the Quebec Seminary (which begin in 1623), but also many important documents related to New France and the early relationship between the diverse peoples of northeastern North America, the French Empire and the Catholic church. The archive holds unique Indigenous language documents and is critical for anyone interested in understanding Canada’s early history. With the Centre located in the seminary buildings themselves, the archive remains more or less in situ since the French regime (bearing in mind that the complex has expanded considerably over the intervening centuries). It is these qualities that led to the collection’s 2007 registration in UNESCO’s Memory of the World Program; a recognition closely linked to Quebec City’s own place on UNESCO’s World Heritage list.

Letters patents of the king for the establishment of the Séminaire de Québec, 1663

Letters patents of the king for the establishment of the Séminaire de Québec, 1663

It came as a shock then that upon my arrival at the Centre in early May I learned from the reference archivist that this might be my final visit to this important archival collection. On 23 June this archive is scheduled to close for an indefinite amount of time as the Museum of Civilization struggles to meet its budgetary needs. Continue reading

What does Canadian history look like? Active History at the 2016 CHA

Tom Peace & Daniel Ross

Keywords from the 2016 CHA Program

Keywords from the 2016 CHA Program

This weekend, historians from across the country will gather in Calgary for the annual meeting of the Canadian Historical Association (CHA). It’s one of the few opportunities for Canadian historians and historians of Canada to connect in person, share their most recent research, and discuss larger issues facing the profession. Many attendees also take advantage of the chance to learn firsthand about the history of an unfamiliar city or region and its communities.

Since 2013, we’ve been using a couple of metrics – mainly word counts and chronological markers in paper and panel titles – to provide an overview of what attendees are working on and talking about. There’s nothing particularly rigorous about our methods, but previous posts (20132014, 2015) have provided a starting point for discussions about what Canadian history looks like today, and how that profile has changed over time.

As always, this year’s line-up speaks to the breadth and creativity of historical work being done in Canada. Continue reading

Recognizing THEN/HiER

By Tom Peace

I first encountered the History Education Network (THEN/HiER) in late 2009, when Jennifer Bonnell, the graduate student coordinator at the time, approached Active History about the potential for coordinating a workshop series in Toronto focused on teaching history. Over the intervening months we worked together towards the first in a series of events that brought together teachers, curators, professors and civil servants known as Approaching the Past. This was the beginning of a six-year partnership between Active History and THEN/HiER. At the end of the month, THEN/HiER’s mandate will draw to a close. I want to use this post to draw attention to our collaboration, some of its key moments, and the influence that Anne Marie Goodfellow, Jennifer Bonnell, Penney Clark and many others have had on ActiveHistory.ca and the Active History project more generally.

Logos Continue reading

The Ninth Floor: Finding Black Power in Montreal

By Camille Robert
Translated by Thomas Peace

This review originally appeared in French on Artichaut magazine and HistoireEngagee.ca

Kennedy Frederick speaking at student assembly at Sir George Williams. (From NFB Interview with Welwyn Jacob, click for link)

Kennedy Frederick speaking at student assembly at Sir George Williams. (Photo from NFB interview with producer Selwyn Jacob, click for link)

In many way, the image of Montreal in the 1960s is defined by the 1967 World’s Fair. Often celebrated as one of the key moments in the Quiet Revolution, official imagery of the city situated it as a centre-point in a modernized and globalized world. This rosy summertime image, however, is snowed over when we consider Montreal’s immigrant population and their direct relationships to the colonial processes that underlay Expo ’67.

This is the subject of Mina Shum’s The Ninth Floor. Focusing on the key leaders in the “Sir George Williams Affair,” Shum’s film argues that while Expo ’67 might have been a pivotal moment warmly caressing the city’s official self-image, the occupation of the ninth floor of the Henry F. Hall building at Sir George Williams University (today Concordia University) exposed a colder reality, marking an important moment in the history of Montreal’s Black Power movement. Continue reading

Violence in Early Canada

We are crossposting this essay as part of our partnership with the new early Canadian history blog Borealia.

By Elizabeth Mancke & Scott See


Charles Beauclerk, Bataille de Saint-Eustache, 1840. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In the months since the 19 October election, Canadians – from Justin Trudeau to church groups preparing for Syrian refugees – are reasserting one of the most recognizable tropes about Canada, that the country is an international leader in humanitarian aid and an advocate for multilateral and conciliatory approaches to international challenges. In mid-November the Globe and Mail ran an editorial referencing the Geneva Convention of 1949 and urging Canadians to reaffirm the country’s commitment to international law and humanitarian traditions; “as a leading member of the international community, [Canada] must do its part to uphold the letter and spirit of humanitarian law,” including acting as a leader in calling for an independent commission to investigate the American bombing of a hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan in October. Unarticulated but central to the editorial’s argument was that ideological differences need to be set aside in the interests of international justice; the three authors were Joe Clark (former Progressive Conservative Prime Minister), Ed Broadbent (former NDP leader), and Irwin Cotler (former Liberal MP and Minister of Justice). The editorial also reaffirmed that Canadians and Americans have substantively different understandings about how to respond to violence both internationally and domestically, about when it is appropriate for a state to use violence, and what the boundaries to that violence should be. Indeed, the decision of the Liberal government to withdraw Canadian fighter jets from bombing ISIS contributed to the Minister of Defence Harjit Sajjan not receiving an invitation from the US Secretary of Defense, Ashton Carter, to a multilateral meeting to discuss coalition strategies to end the threats of ISIS.

As historians of pre-Confederation Canada and the United States, we have committed a great deal of our intellectual energies, individually and collaboratively, to understanding why the two countries have such profoundly different understandings about the role of violence in defining the character of social order, from localities to the international community. We know that the frequent contrast between Canada as peace-loving and the United States as more violent can too often mask episodes of violence in Canadian history. As well, we know that Canadian history is often dismissed as irrelevant to understanding the modern world because its historical narrative is not intensely shaped and punctuated by episodes of large-scale violence. Yet as Jerry Bannister reminds us, colonialism is intrinsically violent, involving at the very least the traumatic displacement of indigenous peoples. Involving Indigenous leaders in relocating their nations, as the British did with Thayendanegea (Joseph Brant) and the Mohawks after the American Revolution, does not assuage the suffering of the ordeal. And as the recent report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Residential Schools tells us, cultural genocide through education is a profoundly disruptive form of social violence that echoes down the generations in Indigenous communities, hampering if not handicapping their ability to build strong nations. [Read More…]

Indigenous Peoples: A Starting Place for the History of Higher Education in Canada

Is it time to rewrite the history of higher education in Canada? (Middlesex College, UWO, Wikicommons)

Is it time to rewrite the history of higher education in Canada? (Middlesex College, UWO, Wikicommons)

By Thomas Peace

“The Bishop of Huron… applied for a grant in aid of the fund being raised by him for the foundation of a university at London, to be called the Western University of London, and intended for the training of both Indian and white students for the ministry of the Church of England in Canada.”

These words about the founding of Western University were printed in an 1879 summary of New England Company activities in Canada and the West Indies (see this document also). They record the Bishop of Huron Isaac Hellmuth’s soliciting funds for a new non-denominational university in southwestern Ontario. The reason they attracted my attention – and should attract yours – was because of the school’s supposed mandate: “the training of both Indian and white students.” This mandate seldom appears in the popular narrative of Western’s founding story, nor those of many other Canadian universities.

In our present-day discussion about First Nations, schooling and education rarely do nineteenth-century mandates like this feature into the conversation. The history of colonial schooling and higher education in Canada hardly addresses Indigenous peoples directly. When the subject arises, Indigenous peoples in schools or colleges are often marginalized and treated as exceptions rather than symbols and signs of historical processes and contexts that can inform our understanding about Canada’s colonial and imperial past (and present). The assumption is that through the assimilationist and segregationist policies of the Canadian state during the mid-to-late nineteenth century, colonists and Indigenous students had fundamentally different and separate experiences. This assumption is certainly and overwhelmingly true and a point that I am not trying to overturn here or in my broader work. Yet this approach obscures as much as it reveals.

When we look at the subject of nineteenth-century higher education with a wider lens we see some important trends that should point us towards a more critical examination of this subject. Indigenous peoples are figuratively, if not physically, often present at the beginnings of many of Canada’s post-secondary institutions. Continue reading

Truth and Reconciliation while teaching Canadian History?

By Thomas Peace

TRC coverFollowing the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report six months ago, universities across the country are re-evaluating our practices. Both individually (as recently seen at the University of Winnipeg and Lakehead University) and collectively through Universities Canada’s broad response to the commission’s final report, campuses across the country seem to be making a more concerted effort to respond to this call for change. Perhaps most directly for readers of ActiveHistory.ca, it is the 62nd and 65th calls to action that most directly affect our work as historians and history teachers. Call to action 62 focuses on the importance of collaboration between survivors, Indigenous peoples, educators and governments to provide resources, research and funding to equip teachers with the knowledge and skills necessary to redevelop curriculum and integrate Indigenous knowledge and pedagogies into the classroom; while 65 calls on the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, in a similarly collaborative approach, to establish a national research program focused on reconciliation.

Alongside survivor and Elder testimony, history and its practice are central to this report. In a recent talk here at Western, J.R. Miller noted that both in the TRC’s final report and the Royal Commission Report on Aboriginal Peoples, the revisionist work of academic historians feature prominently. He’s right. In addition to Miller himself, scholars like James Axtell, John Borrows, Sarah Carter, Denys Delâge, Robin Fisher, Cornelius Jaenen, Mary-Ellen Kelm, Maureen Lux, John Milloy, Toby Morantz, Daniel Paul, John Reid, Georges Sioui and Bruce Trigger among others reshaped Canadian historiography over the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Their work laid the groundwork that – in part – has caused us to rethink and revise how Canada’s history is understood.

And yet, despite this historiographical shift, its influence on the broader structure of Canadian history seems minimal. The place of Indigenous peoples and perspectives flushed out in greater detail, perhaps, but still relegated to a few key moments and periods in Canada’s past. A cursory look at a handful of textbooks in the field, for example, makes the point most clearly.[1] Though textbooks have certainly improved their overall coverage of Indigenous peoples, few have made a substantial revision to their overall structure, only featuring Indigenous peoples as a prominent part of the discussion in a handful of places: European discovery, missionaries and the fur trade, and then interspersed throughout the pre-Confederation period; discussion peters out for the most part in the post-Confederation textbooks until the 1960s/70s (some as late as the 1990s), when Indigenous resistance and political action re-emerged. In today’s post I would like to build on these observations, which are also made in the TRC’s report (pages 234-239 and 246-258), by posing a simple question: How do the TRC’s findings and calls to action shape our teaching of the Canadian history survey course?

Continue reading

Let’s Stand Up and Be Counted: Gender and the Need for a Better Understanding of the Profession

By Thomas Peace

Since January I’ve developed a bad habit of becoming completely enveloped by the live concerts on the Apple TV Station Qello. I just can’t stop watching them. A couple of months ago my partner (who wisely goes to bed rather than getting sucked into hours of concert watching) decided to join me. After a few tunes she turned to me and asked if the channel ever played any women artists (they do, periodically). Then she said: “Come to think of it, the music industry is dominated by male artists. Can you think of a musical group where there is a gender balance?” I couldn’t and I still can’t.

Not long after that conversation, I found myself at this year’s annual meeting of the Canadian Historical Association where Lori Chambers, Elise Chenier and Anne Toews released some of the preliminary results from their analysis of the sex distribution in publications and prizes. The details of that study are really for them to share (though Active History would be happy to serve as a forum for this discussion). Suffice it to say, that their study demonstrates that publishing history in Canada continues to be a highly gendered practice. Since then I’ve been part of a number of conversations (with significantly different groups of people and without me directing the topic of discussion) where similar trends have been suggested in recent hires into tenure track jobs. The argument being that currently men are more likely to get hired than women.

Those of you who read Active History regularly will know that I like to reflect on the nature of the profession. So all of this talk about the gendered nature of the historical discipline got me counting. Over the last few nights I’ve gone through 47 departmental websites counting male and female faculty members in order to get a better understanding of the gendered dynamics of the profession. Like most of my posts written in this vein, this one is not so much a rigorous study as it is an initial impression. I offer it more to spark discussion and further study than as conclusive evidence about our professional culture. Continue reading