What does Canadian History Look Like? The CHA in 2015

By Tom Peace

For the past two years I’ve written blog posts for the opening day of the Canadian Historical Association’s annual meeting (click here for 2013 and here for 2014). In those posts I created word clouds from the relevant paper and session titles in order to get a sense of what the field of Canadian history actually looks like. As historians gather today in Ottawa for three days of meetings (join us today at 5 pm for the Active History CHA group’s annual meeting), we have an ideal opportunity to take the pulse of Canadian history in order to get a broad sense of where the field is headed.

Today’s post is similar to those in the past. It is an overview (rather than a rigorous study) of the conference program (available here). Importantly, though, today’s post draws some slightly different conclusions than my earlier posts that are perhaps indicative of broader transitions in the field. This year’s program has some interesting things to say, I think, in terms of the place of Indigenous people, situating Canada in a global context, and the place of women in the past.[1] Continue reading

Review of Bruno Ramirez’s Inside the Historical Film

By C.S. Ogden

What stake does historical research have in fictionalized cinematic productions? Does film offer another medium to convey this research effectively to new audiences? What role can the academic historian take within such endeavours? In his latest book Inside the Historical Film, Bruno Ramirez, a history professor and screenwriter at Université de Montréal, considers these issues by investigating the relationship between historical research and cinematic narratives.


McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2014
238 pages, Paperback $29.95.

Acknowledging both the attraction to and the scepticism of historical film by historians, Ramirez traces the study of historical film. He does not focus solely on how various films have portrayed historical events. He also asks how fiction has been employed for these kinds of narrations: is it used primarily to increase a film’s commercial viability or does it have the potential to augment an audience’s understanding of the past? The manner in which historians and filmmakers engage with these notions inform the book’s chapters.

Ramirez explores the development and professionalization of the scholarly study of history and film during the twentieth century. He acknowledges the importance of film’s visual and technical components and more could be added here about the visuality of film but he is careful not to stray from the book’s major theme. He notes that the appeal and challenge of film is through its combination of the visual and the dramaturgical. The result is that the “filmic image, in other words, speaks through its own language” (33). Continue reading

Toronto vs. Montréal: A Short History

By Daniel Ross

Toronto Sun

Tory and Coderre, Toronto Sun

Last month, the mayors of Canada’s two largest cities met in Toronto, and the mood was positive. After discussing business partnerships, security, the upcoming federal election and—inevitably—hockey, Denis Coderre and John Tory announced a new era for relations between Montréal and Toronto. “The two solitudes are over,” stated the charismatic Coderre, who last made the news in Toronto for snubbing then-Mayor Rob Ford at the 2014 Big Cities Summit in Ottawa. Instead, he and Tory evoked a “strategic alliance” between the two metropolises, to be formalized with sister-city status sometime in the next few months.

What this new partnership will amount to is anyone’s guess. Both cities could use some good news, after four years of Rob Ford’s drug-addled behaviour and the revelations of corruption made by the Charbonneau Commission. The big issues that Tory and Coderre hope to raise together in the upcoming election—infrastructure, housing, transportation—are crucial ones; but Ottawa has proved very able in ignoring similar campaigns in the past. Rather than predicting where this mayoral love-in will lead, I’d like to use the occasion to look back at nearly two centuries of real (and imagined) rivalry. Continue reading

Starbucks: Welfare Capitalism, Public Education, and the History and Possibility of American Social Democracy

By Jason Ellis

starbucks college


Welfare capitalism is back in vogue. Earlier this month Starbucks announced that it will expand an existing company benefit program that offers university tuition coverage to Starbucks workers. The expansion of the program, a plan to extend these benefits to 23,000 workers over the next decade at a cost of $250 million, will target “opportunity youth,” i.e. unemployed 16- to 24-year olds. While this is an innovative move on Starbucks’ part, it is also a move that brings to mind and joins together interesting historical precedents in American working-class, corporate, welfare, and education histories. This small announcement by a big corporation is the spindle from which I will unravel threads of a discussion of the history and possibility of social democracy in the United States. My argument is that historic American commitments to welfare capitalism and to public education spending, and the revival of both in the Starbucks’ announcement, may hint at a dormant social democracy in US society and politics today. Continue reading

Literature and History: Michel Houellebecq’s Soumission and the Politics of Cultural Despair

By Alban BargainVilléger

864563Even today, literary fiction can still provide an ideal entry point into historical studies. Although this might seem like stating the obvious, one has to recognise that the increasing overspecialization of history as a discipline has hindered the ability and/or willingness of many historians to explore universes outside of their respective fields. Nonetheless, it is clear that some historians still consider themselves engaged intellectuals – Active History provides almost daily examples of such attempts to transcend the limits of historical study.

But in addition to reading and rereading classics (and non-classics), paying attention to present-day fiction can also help historicize the present. Now, for methodological and conceptual reasons, historians tend to let several decades pass before exploring a subject. These precautions stem from the unavailability of some archival materials and from the need for hindsight. That said, such precautions should not prevent historians thinking about our day and age, or engaging in intellectual exercises. In that regard, French author and contrarian intellectual Michel Houellebecq’s latest book, Soumission, constitutes an ideal guinea pig for an experiment of that type. Continue reading

Terry Fox Was a Rock Star

This is the third of four posts marking the 35th anniversary of the Marathon of Hope.

By Jenny Ellison

Scrivener and Fox, 1980. Toronto Star

Journalist Leslie Scrivener and Fox, 1980. Toronto Star

Terry Fox had character, and Canadians picked up on this right away. He was courageous, perseverant, pure at heart and youthful. Fox’s decision to run across Canada was a sign, as MP Stanley Knowles said in a 1981 speech in the House of Commons, that “our land is in good hands” and that, far from being the “me generation…our young people really have got something.” During the Greatest Canadian television series in 2004 Fox was described as “the best of who we are, or at least who we hope we might become.” Newspaper editorialists also praised Fox as a “doer,” who was “in a very special class,” who set a “new pace for the human spirit” and showed “that there is in young Canadians the same grit that enabled their forebears to tackle and tame this land.”

For many of his admirers, Fox also seemed to embody a particularly attractive vision of Canada. Leslie Scrivener, a Toronto Star journalist who befriended Fox, described him as “better looking that most with a well-scrubbed, intelligent face, straight teeth, and an Adonis-like profile…” Scrivener observed that “young women were intensely attracted” to Terry. Scrivener alludes to some romances with women who “might join the Marathon of Hope for a day or two along the road,” but reports that Terry said “he never fell in love.” Perhaps contributing to his appeal – for some – was Fox’s Christianity. Fox began attending a Baptist church with his (former) girlfriend Rika Noda prior to the run. Apparently his family wasn’t thrilled with this path but he continued during the run, where Fox read the bible to reflect on the meaning of life. Whether it was his articulateness, his looks, his values, or a combination of the three, Fox achieved “rock star” status as he ran across Canada. Continue reading

A Useless Import? European Niqab Politics in Canada

By Aitana Guia

In 2012, the Canadian Government led by Conservative Stephen Harper approved a policy banning full veiling from citizenship ceremonies. Zunera Ishaq, who wears a niqab and was about to become Canadian citizen, decided to postpone her ceremony in order to ask the Federal Court whether the government policy was legal. In 2015, the Federal Court found the policy illegal and ordered the government to strike it down. Harper’s government has decided to appeal the decision instead.

Mr. Harper justified his position in a parliamentary debate on March 9, 2015: “We do not allow people to cover their faces during citizenship ceremonies. Why would Canadians, contrary to our own values, embrace a practice at that time that is not transparent, that is not open and frankly is rooted in a culture that is anti-women?” (You can watch it here)

While many women have made fun of the Prime Minister for telling them what they can or cannot wear in citizenship ceremonies (#DressCodePM) and arrogating for himself the power to decide what is anti-women, both the 2012 policy and the 2015 court challenge seem to be rather well thought out political positions.

John Ralston Saul articulately argued in A Fair Country: Telling Truths about Canada against dysfunctional and cowardly Canadian elites who continue to follow a broken European legacy and refuse to embrace the social and cultural complexity that colonial history and immigration have given Canada. Continue reading

Saskatchewan Farmland: A Bargain?

Summer.Fall 2013 221By Merle Massie

Last week, the Saskatchewan government (led by Brad Wall and the Saskatchewan Party) reset a course direction that had veered off target. That course redirection affects who – along with what – is allowed to purchase Saskatchewan farmland. A Canadian citizen? Come on down. A Canadian-owned corporation engaged in the business of farming? Saskatchewan agriculture is open for business.

A pension fund? A complicated company structure with significant offshore investors? Hmm, maybe not.

The new direction, which moves to once again restrict investment firms and pension funds from buying Saskatchewan farmland, has enormous effects on the agriculture industry. Saskatchewan land prices, by world standards, are extraordinarily cheap, yet production value remains high. When combined with future world population forecasts, large-scale investment firms and private investors are betting that farmland will remain a safe place to hold and grow their money. A cash crop, so to speak. And they want in.

Saskatchewan farmland prices roses astronomically between 2001 and 2014. In 2013 alone, Saskatchewan farmland value grew 28.5%. But under Saskatchewan’s farm land laws, foreign nationals can only own a maximum of 10 acres – unless they seek and obtain approval from the three-member Farm Land Security Board.

That same board approved the sale of 115,000 acres to Canada Pension Plan Investment Board (CPPIB) in 2013. Immediately, their decision raised hackles. When Skyline Agriculture Financial Corp, a foreign-backed player allegedly looking to finance as much as $1 billion in farmland purchases over the next decade came knocking, the Farm Land Security Board obviously had second thoughts. Skyland’s bid was denied at the end of January 2015.

Not everyone lauds this move. National Post writer Jesse Kline asks: Whither fiscal conservatism? Is Premier Brad Wall a meek liberal sheep, hiding in conservative wolf clothing? This protectionist stance, Kline argues, is ridiculous. Unchecked investment in a truly open market is a fiscal conservative hallmark. Farmers need to “deal with the same market forces as any other business.”

But as a historian, I’m deeply concerned with Kline’s assessment. Continue reading

What’s in a Name? Place Names, History, and Colonialism

By Kaleigh Bradley

But remember that words are signals, counters. They are not immortal. And it can happen – to use an image you’ll understand – it can happen that a civilization can be imprisoned in a linguistic contour which no longer matches the landscape…of fact. Brian Friel, Translations 

Source: Ogimaa Mikana Project.

Mikana Anishinaabe replaces the Indian Rd street sign in Toronto. Source: Ogimaa Mikana Project.

Brian Friel’s play Translations takes place in 1833, in the Irish-speaking village of Baile Beag. Translations is set during the early nineteenth century, a time when the Great Famine loomed over Baile Beag. The British were starting to survey and map Ireland, a process that followed the amalgamation of Ireland and the United Kingdom in 1801. Part of Britain’s renaming and remapping of Ireland was the anglicization of Gaelic place names. The main characters in Translations struggle with the erasure of traditional place names. In the play, the arrival of British cartographers signals the disappearance of Gaelic place names from the landscape – but not from the memories of confused villagers, who dont’t speak a word of English. Suddenly, Baile Beag “small town” becomes Ballybeg, Druim Dubh “black shoulder” turns into Dromduff, and Poll na gCaorach “hole of the sheep” is changed to Pollkerry. The British close all the hedge schools in Baile Beag and replace them with “national schools” where students are taught English. Translations explores the historical relationship between place, language, and power. I couldn’t help but notice a connection between the themes of cultural identity, language, and colonialism in nineteenth-century Ireland, and my own research on place names and colonialism here in Canada.

For Indigenous peoples, place names act as mnemonic devices, embodying histories, spiritual and environmental knowledge, and traditional teachings. Place names also serve as boundary markers between home and the world of outsiders. As Dominique Tungilik recounts, for the Inuit, “the names of places, of camps, and lakes, are all important to us; for that is the way we travel – with names.” Knowing one’s way around the land and bodies of water could mean the difference between life and death. Place names convey an array of information to the Inuit, from local knowledge about topographical features, to the presence of seasonal resources; sometimes they record information about the history of the landscape itself. Continue reading

The king in a car park: Digging up Richard III

By Daniel Ross

“Bloody thou art; bloody will be thy end.” Duchess of York, Act IV, Scene IV, Richard III

Not such a bad guy after all? Olivier as Richard III, 1955.

Not such a bad guy after all? Olivier as Richard III, 1955.

Shakespeare’s Richard III is one of fiction’s classic villains, a schemer who knocks off one family member after another on his way to the crown. Even his mother the Duchess would rather he was dead, and she gets her wish by the end of the play. King of England for just two years, Richard died at the battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, making him one of the last victims of the War of the Roses.

Opinions differ as to how nasty the historical Richard was, but it’s safe to say that, until recently, he hasn’t had a very positive cultural legacy (although he did make 82 of 100 in a 2002 poll of greatest Britons). That might be changing. In 2013 archaeologists digging under a parking lot in the English Midlands made international news when they claimed to have found the king’s remains. In this post, I take a look at Richard III´s extraordinary return to the public eye over the past two years: it’s a story about much more than archaeology and historical inquiry, as it turns out. Continue reading