New Directions in Public History

By Kaleigh Bradley

What is public history? I remember being asked this question on my first day in the “Intro to Public History” M.A. seminar at Carleton University. I knew why I wanted to study Public History (please give me a job in history?), but I found myself struggling to define it on the spot. I quickly learned that public history is not just doing history for the public outside of academia, although this is part of what it is.

Public history is about the ways in which history is created, contested, disseminated, and presented to us all. It’s a way of practicing history, but it’s also a field of study in itself. Public history forces us to think about notions of authority and power, identity, collective memory, audience(s), and narrative. Usually, public history is practiced in traditional sites like museums, archives, and memorials, but it can also be found in more subtle places in every day life; it’s the narrative in your grandmother’s carefully crafted photo album, the oral histories that we hear from elders, the nationalistic tone in a political ad, the historical video game we play, and the erasure and absence of histories in a quickly-gentrifying neighbourhood.

At last month’s Active History Conference, I attended a panel on the Future of Public History programs in Canada. In this panel were representatives from Public History (PH) programs and employers from government institutions. It was interesting to have employers, students, and representatives from programs all in the same room. What emerged was an interesting discussion about what students are being taught, what employers want, and what employers think about PH programs and their graduates.

Why do students need to specialize in public history? This post will explore this question and will discuss what history departments across Canada are up to, what employers want, and what public history programs offer. This might be helpful for undergraduate students thinking of specializing in public history, or for high school students who are thinking about post-secondary education in history.

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New Directions in Active History: A Retrospective

By Beth A. Robertson, Ph.D 

Created by Shawn Graham, Carleton University, through Voyant using #ActiveHist2015 twitter feed

Created by Shawn Graham, Carleton University, through Voyant using #ActiveHist2015 twitter feed

New Directions in Active History was not your ordinary academic conference. This weekend scholars, students, private and public sector workers, local community members, archivists and more conceived of new ways to communicate the complex issues of the past to larger audiences. Discussions weaved between public policy and public history programs, to the meaning of community-engaged research and the role of technology. We watched the pilot of Ronald Rudin’s Lost Stories that sought to uncover the forgotten legacy of Thomas Widd and how artist Lalie Douglas made his story come alive. Poster sessions featured the work of the Graphic History Collective and the web-based documentary project on the London Dominion Public Building. Moving performances by indigenous activist and radio-show host Mary Lou Smoke[1], as well as Staging Our Histories made the past few days at Huron University College truly unforgettable. The New Directions conference was a regenerative moment for not only the website, but for all those invested in active history as a practice. Indeed, the conference was a rich opportunity to gather, share, and make connections in order to re-envision the place of history within Canada and our broader world. Continue reading

Terry Fox Was an Activist

This month, Active History is pleased to present a series of posts by Jenny Ellison marking the 35th anniversary of Terry Fox’s Marathon of Hope.

By Jenny Ellison


Winnipeg Free Press

A few years ago, I made a visit to Library and Archives Canada to pull files about Terry Fox. In a folder labeled “Terry Fox Marathon of Hope Day” I found forty letters to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, Governor General Edward Schreyer and Minister of Sport Gerald Regan about the runner. Written during his lifetime and just after his death in June 1981, the letters were earnest, handwritten documentation of what most of us already know: many Canadians feel an emotional connection to Terry Fox.

I am a Terry Fox runner and have been, on and off, since I was a kid. Is there anything more Canadian than the annual fundraising runs for cancer research? Named one of the “greatest Canadians” in CBC’s 2004 TV show of the same name, and again in 2014, Fox is a go-to symbol in conversations about national heroes. But what else is there to say about him? What does studying his life add to our understanding of Canada today and in the past?
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New Directions in Active History: Institutions, Communication, and Technologies

Members of the editorial team are excited to announce that we’re organizing a conference. This three day conference will create a forum similar to our 2008 founding symposium “Active History: A History for the Future,” where historians interested in the practice of Active History can share their research, methods, and projects with each other. Second, as a primarily web-based and volunteer-run project, we also intend to use this conference to explore new directions for With 20,000 unique visitors a month, is one of the best known history-related websites in Canada. Over the past five years, we’ve published nearly 1,000 blog posts, peer reviewed papers, book reviews, and podcasts. It is time to revisit the project’s goals and look towards what the next five years will bring.

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Podcast – Robert Rutherdale on the Local Responses of WWI is happy to feature the inaugural talk of the Fall 2014 History Matters lecture series: historian Robert Rutherdale’s “Hometown Horizons: Local Responses to Canada’s Great War.”

Rutherdale delivered the talk at the Toronto Public Library’s North York Central Branch. He explores issues such as the demonization of enemy aliens, wartime philanthropy, and state authority and citizenship – all while asking what the study of the “local” can add to our understanding of the First World War and historical research in general. is featuring this podcast as part of  “Canada’s First World War: A Centennial Series on”, a multi-year series of regular posts about the history and centennial of the First World War.


Towards an Active History

By Thomas Peace

Over the past couple of weeks, the Active History editorial collective has begun the initial planning for a stand-alone conference to be held in late 2015 or 2016. Agreed that there was a need for a conference, we set about to determine the conference’s overall purpose and goals. What quickly became apparent was that we had slightly divergent views about the meaning and practice of Active History. As our conversation continued (and moved toward fruitful resolution), it occurred to me that these varied perspectives might be of interest to the broader readership of and, through the comments section, provide a good opportunity to hear about your thoughts: What is Active History? Continue reading

How Cuban Music Made Me a Better Historian

CV Cover UTPBy Karen Dubinsky

“If you want to learn anything about the history of this country, you have to start listening to Carlos Varela.” This advice, offered by a colleague who was helping me make my way through a Cuban film archive a decade ago, proved remarkably true. I arrived in Havana in 2004 to research child migration conflicts. But what I also gained was an appreciation for music as a form of social history. Cuba’s Carlos Varela, about whom I’ve just helped to edit a new anthology, has become not only a much-loved musician but also my favourite Cuban historian. He’s a testament to one of the many truths sung by Bruce Springsteen: “We learned more from a three minute record, baby, than we ever learned in school.”

Good musicians can be great historians because they take us places that only the poets can go. Continue reading

Over the Top: The Archives of Ontario’s WWI Onsite Exhibit

Exhibit 1By Timothy Humphries

Before 2009, the Archives of Ontario had been housed in five different locations. Remarkably, not one of them provided an exhibit space. This became a must-have when a sixth location was sought in 2006. Now onsite exhibits can be created regularly to showcase the Archives’ many rich and varied collections. This requires investing significant amounts of time and thought into the design of each new exhibit. Because when it comes to creating an exhibit, there are no instructions, no templates, no cheat sheets – nothing but a blank canvas awaiting an imprint from the myriad possibilities that the imagination can conceive. This was the case for the World War I exhibit, particularly since it was the first exhibit of archival materials to be curated in-house. Continue reading

Fall 2014 History Matters lecture series: Canada’s First World War

thought, Heritage Toronto and the Toronto Public Library are pleased to announce the Fall 2014 History Matters lecture series.

This season’s series focuses on the theme of “Canada’s First World War.” The talks pay specific attention to local responses and how we remember the conflict.

The series is also part of “Canada’s First World War: A Centennial Series on,” a multi-year series of regular posts about the history and centennial of the First World War.

“Hometown Horizons: Local Responses to Canada’s Great War”
Robert Rutherdale
Historian Robert Rutherdale (Algoma University) draws from his 2004 book to look at how people and communities experienced World War I at home, from farmers in Alberta and shopkeepers in Ontario, to civic workers in Quebec. Rutherdale looks at many of the big debates in social and cultural history, including demonization of enemy aliens, gendered fields of wartime philanthropy and state authority and citizenship.
Thursday October 30th, 2014
6:30 p.m. – 8:30 p.m.
North York Central Library Concourse

“Remembering For Peace: Canada’s Great War Centenary”
Jamie Swift
Canada’s famous war memorial at Vimy Ridge features the statue “Breaking of the Sword.” How has this dramatic message of peace been eclipsed by a glorious, birth-of-a-nation war story? How can we commemorate the tragedy of World War I by emphasizing peace? With Jamie Swift, journalist and co-author of Warrior Nation: Rebranding Canada in an Age of Anxiety.
Wednesday November 5th, 2014
6:30pm – 7:30pm
Bloor/Gladstone Branch

“The Toronto Anti-Greek Riot of 1918: War, Intolerance and Identity”
Chris Grafos
The August 1918 anti-Greek riot, led by returning war veterans, was one of the largest instances of violence in Toronto’s history. This presentation by Chris Grafos (York University) charts the lasting legacy and broader consequences of intolerance towards Canada’s immigrants.
Wednesday November 19th, 2014
6:30pm – 8:00pm
Danforth/Coxwell Branch

“1914-2014, Toronto Remembers the Great War”
Jonathan Vance
Author of Death So Noble: Memory, Meaning, and the First World War, Professor Jonathan Vance (University of Western Ontario), considers the challenges of remembering this catastrophic event, and how those challenges have changed as the centenary approaches. When we are encouraged to remember the First World War, what exactly are we being encouraged to remember?
Thursday November 27th, 2014
6:30pm – 8:00pm
Runnymede Branch Program Room

The History Matters lecture series, part of the TPL’s Thought Exchange programming, has been connecting the work of historians with the the public since the 2010. Recordings of previous History Matters lectures can be found on the YouTube channel.

Call for Blog Posts – Canada’s First World War: A Centennial Series on

Harold H. Piffard, His Constant Companion.  Originally appeared in Canada in Khaki, no. 2 (London: The Pictorial Newspaper Co. for the Canadian War Records Office, 1917).

Harold H. Piffard, His Constant Companion. Originally appeared in Canada in Khaki, no. 2 (London: The Pictorial Newspaper Co. for the Canadian War Records Office, 1917).

By Sarah Glassford, Christopher Schultz, Nathan Smith, and Jonathan Weier

August 4th is an important day in the centennial of the First World War. It was on this day a century ago that Britain declared war on Germany, committing Canada to the “Great War” as a British Dominion, confirming its alliance with imperial France and Tsarist Russia, and making enemies of imperial Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The decision was itself a link in the chain-reaction of responses to a conflict between Serbia and Austria-Hungary that began weeks earlier. The escalating conflict would later draw in the Ottoman Empire, Italy, Japan, China, and the United States, among others. August 4th was the crucial step towards global war.

The meaning and impact of the war that began in 1914 are still being contested in the media, at academic conferences, by official commemorative projects, and in many other sites. In Canada, we can expect to see the war presented as a foundational narrative of a nation in its infancy maturing and persevering through hardship, but nation-building is only one way to interpret the war’s meaning and impact. hereby invites blog posts that draw different conclusions about the war’s social and political effects on Canadian society, its legacy in culture, and how these mixed with the problems of demobilization and reconstruction after the war. We especially invite posts that recognize the transnational currents flowing through Canada, the significance of non-national contexts for war experience, and the war’s global dimensions, all of which can tell us important things about local communities, Canada, and the nature of our world.

Since wishes to contribute informed and engaging work on the war and the centennial, we seek blog-posts that expand perspectives, deepen insights, and challenge assumptions. Our project is Canadian-based, but its outlook is thematically and spatially broad. Our unifying theme of “Canada’s First World War” should be understood to include a multiplicity of experiences and stories, not limited to those having taken place in Canada or involving Canadian actors. Blog post contributors will help complicate, demystify and diversify the history Canada’s First World War. Continue reading