Alternative Histories of Work and Labour: The Workers History Museum

Active History is proud to present a video each week from New Directions in Active History. The conference took place at Huron University College on October 2-4, 2015 and brought together scholars, students, professionals and community members to discuss a wide range of topics pertaining to active history.

In this week’s video we hear from David Dean, a Professor of History at Carleton University, as he discusses alternative histories of work and labour in the national capital region. He primarily discusses the Workers’ History Museum in Ottawa, and how it focuses on some of the lost stories of unionized and non-unionized workers. Nicknamed “The Museum without Walls”, Dean discusses how they manage to function as a museum without a physical location. Much of their work is articulated through a powerful website, in which they display exhibits and research, as well as hosting historical walking tours through Ottawa. Dean also discusses the museum’s travelling exhibits, of which they have three or four that they are able to bring to schools, universities, heritage fairs, labour conferences, and many other events. Through this museum and their work, one of the goals is to increase public knowledge of labour unions and their history, attempting to battle the negative stereotypes surrounding the idea of unions. The most recent project in which the museum is engaged their Bank Street Project, which is developed around the historical stories related to work and business along Bank Street in Ottawa.

Celebrating Graphic Herstory

The Graphic History Collective

It Ain't Me Babe, the first comic book produced entirely by women (1970).

It Ain’t Me Babe, the first comic book produced entirely by women (1970).

Historically, the comics industry has been male dominated, with male writers and male illustrators (working for companies owned by men) depicting women in stereotypically demeaning and derogatory ways. This is especially true of Golden Age comics in the 1940s and 1950s, with the possible exception of Wonder Woman in the United States and Nelvana of the Northern Lights in Canada.

By the 1970s, however, things had started to change. As second wave feminism emerged, writers in the U.S. like Sharon Rudahl and publications like Wimmen’s Comix and It Ain’t Me Babe challenged the exclusionary nature of the industry and created space for comics for women, by women, and about women. In Canada, a feminist group known as the Corrective Collective released their own project, a historical comic book: She Named It Canada Because That’s What It Was Called. When it was first published in 1971, She Named It Canada provided a critical – and quite radical – alternative feminist perspective on the establishment and development of colonial Canada. Continue reading

Nothing Sexist is Happening Here: The Ghomeshi Trial and the Historical Normalization of Gender-Based Violence

By Beth A. Robertson


In late January and early February, the trial of former CBC host Jian Ghomeshi officially began, well over a year since the allegations of sexual assault against Ghomeshi first surfaced. Although this case is considered extraordinary, the trial would seem to be fairly typical of other assault cases, at least in terms of the approach by defence lawyers and media scrutiny. Ghomeshi’s lawyer, Marie Henein, has been likened to Hannibal Lecter in her manner of cross-examination. Her questioning of Lucy DeCoutere and other witnesses during the trial was no exception. Ghomeshi seemed extremely well prepared for this case, in fact, compiling letters, emails and text messages over a thirteen-year period from women who would later accuse him. Ghomeshi’s lawyers effectively wielded these physical and “digital debris” to call into question the women’s credibility, highlighting once more “the gender of lying” as I’ve written on before. The fact that Ghomeshi knew that this strategy of painstaking collection would one day pay off is telling and deserves analysis on its own.

Historians have done their own collecting to reveal just how long this troubling pattern of discrediting women in such cases has been.[1] Laws against sexual and gender-based violence were laid out in Canada’s first Criminal Code of 1892, which  stipulated that only women proven to be “of previously chaste character” could receive protection from the justice system. And here was the long-standing qualification that made court cases much more about the female victims than those accused of committing the crime in the first place. Perhaps understandably, many women were deterred from stepping forward as a result, making unreported cases of assault the norm.[2] Continue reading

Film Friday: Suffrage Stories Without Class

Joan Sangster

Suffragette (2015)

Suffragette (2015)

A friend who teaches the history of feminism in Canada recently relayed her students’ responses to the British movie Suffragette. Many found the women heroic, the film “moving” and uplifting. They then described their image of Canadian suffragists: narrow-minded, “classist” and racist, not very radical, hardly inspiring role models.

Their negative image of early Canadian feminists does not necessarily reflect more popular, celebratory views of the suffrage movement, which has recently caught the media’s attention. Various centenaries are upon us, or approaching. A hundred years ago Manitoba enfranchised white women, followed by other provinces; the federal vote was extended in 1918. Quebec celebrations will have to wait until 2040. (I think they should be funded by the Catholic Church, as reparation for its role as a major misogynist stumbling block to women’s rights in that province.) These centenaries and the release of the British film Suffragette offer an opening for us to talk about popular portrayals of the suffrage movement – and why we need to challenge it. Continue reading

The Digital Historian Project

Active History is proud to present a video each week from New Directions in Active History. The conference took place at Huron University College on October 2-4, 2015 and brought together scholars, students, professionals and community members to discuss a wide range of topics pertaining to active history.

In this week’s video, Neil Orford, a history teacher in the Upper Grand District School Board, discusses a program he designed and implemented called the Digital Historian Project. The Digital Historian Project attempts to tie together history and math through a blended learning environment. In this video Neil outlines his motivations as well as the program’s core vision. He also discusses the challenges faced in running this program, and how integrating an “outside the box” historical and mathematical outlook creates a positive learning environment in which most of the participants will thrive. Using an online database, the program is taught at the local museum in Dufferin County, emphasizing the necessary relationship he has built with his municipality and local museum. This innovative approach to teaching history has garnered support from international organizations. His students were selected to be youth representatives at the 71st D-Day Memorial service in Normandy. Through this program, Neil has hoped to offer history and math in a richer and more involved environment in order to stimulate self-driven interest in history.

Why Non-Indigenous Canadians Need to Share the Burden of the Residential School System

An earlier version of this post was originally published on as part of a special series of essays and book recommendations called Talking History. Follow the link to see the rest of the series and to explore the more than 80,000 Canadian books listed on the site. The author would like to thank Crystal Fraser for her comments and feedback.

By Kaleigh Bradley


Cover photo of Bev Sellars’ Memoir.

In the nineteenth century, near present-day Sault Ste. Marie, Chief Shingwaukonse dreamt of a teaching wigwam where Anishinaabe children could learn vocational and academic skills. Chief Shingwaukonse wanted children to have these tools so that they could preserve Anishinaabemowin (Ojibwe language), and adapt to a modernizing economy and society. Indigenous peoples, with the help of church missionaries and government officials, sought the creation of schools for their children, but the schools later became an instrument for cultural genocide.

The Indian Residential School (IRS) system began in the early nineteenth century with the missionary work of different Christian groups across Canada. Government and churches designed the IRS system to assimilate and transform Indigenous children into self-reliant citizens by removing parental involvement in their intellectual, spiritual, and cultural development. Schools were perceived as an ideal solution to the late-nineteenth-century “problem” of incorporating Indigenous peoples into Euro-Canadian settler-society. In 1876, the federal government consolidated the IRS system with the passing of the Indian Act, and by the late 1880s, government-funded schools were operating across Canada, run by Anglican, Presbyterian, Catholic missionaries and volunteers. Did you know that Gordon IRS, the last residential school, closed less than twenty years ago in 1996?

Schools were often sites of emotional, physical, and psychological abuse, and the legacy of the schools—language loss, broken families, children alienated from their communities and culture, addictions and mental health issues, intergenerational trauma, health issues due to disease and neglect—continues to ripple throughout Indigenous communities. Institutional life was often traumatic for students, and the education received typically left them ill-equipped for capitalist ways of living. The schools did not lead to the assimilation of Indigenous peoples, although they caused irreparable suffering and damage to Indigenous communities and cultures. Indigenous cultures are no longer as vibrant today as they were prior to the creation of the IRS system.

It’s important to note that the history of residential schools is also a story of survival, resiliency, mobilization, and cultural revitalization. Students and communities often resisted assimilation and survivors acquired the tools for political resistance and mobilization.

In the fall of 2011, I was hired as a research consultant to research for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I had recently graduated from my Master’s program and in this economy, I was grateful to have a job. My project manager told me to show up at a church archive the following Monday, and I was sent detailed instructions along with a file that was over four hundred pages, which outlined the history of residential schools. I was never taught this history during elementary school, high school, and even as an undergraduate student in university. I was to uncover links between the schools and Indigenous communities and in particular, I was supposed to flag anything in the archives that suggested evidence of abuse, neglect, missing children, or unmarked cemeteries. Continue reading

Film Friday: The Revenant is Beautiful, Disappointing Art

Stacy Nation-Knapper

Stills courtesy of 20th Century Fox.

Stills courtesy of 20th Century Fox

The Revenant is not history. Yes, as the film trailers, posters, and advertisements boast, the film was “inspired by true events” and it represents an amalgam of multiple historic fur trade events during the years 1820-24, and fantasy. Most of the non-Indigenous characters in the film existed. Other writers, including Clay Landry for the Museum of the Mountain Man and Alex von Tunzelmann for The Guardian, have explored the general historical accuracy of the film and I will add little to such critiques here, though there is more to be said. In the tradition of fur trade reenactors, it is possible to fact-check each scene against the historical record. Few films hold up well under such scrutiny. The nineteenth-century Missouri River fur trade is represented fairly well in The Revenant as a dirty, dangerous, ethnically diverse arm of the global economy. The paucity of evidence about Glass’s life means stories of his life are more legend than history and the film is no exception. The story of Hugh Glass is an excellent seed for artistic filmmaking because evidence is sparse and lore is abundant. In the process of creating art from that seed, however, the filmmakers made disappointing choices of appropriation and sensationalistic excess.

Much has been made of the artistic beauty of The Revenant and for good reason. It is a beautiful film. Continue reading

Community Engaged History

Active history is proud to present a video each week from New Directions in Active History. The conference took place at Huron University College on October 2-4, 2015 and brought together scholars, students, professionals and community members to discuss a wide range of topics pertaining to active history.

Completing the opening presentations is Keith Carlson, professor of History and Research Chair in Aboriginal Community- engaged History at the University of Saskatchewan. In this video, Carlson explores the meaning of “community engaged history” by carefully probing each term. He begins by expanding upon Peter Sexias’ ten principals or benchmarks of history. Carlson stresses the negative impact that “bad history” has on people’s lives and asserts that historians have the power to give voice to the oppressed through community engaged scholarship and projects. He explains that successful community projects occur when the activity, community needs and involvement, and benefits all inform one and other. Lastly, he confronts critics who argue that community engagement of any kind is inherently colonial in nature because it is predicated on the process of “othering” a peoples. Carlson argues that humility and knowing that histories are always incomplete and can always be made better in the future is what allows for the historian and a community to build trust.



Political Depression in a Time of Reconciliation

By Billy-Ray Belcourt

It’s tough: knowing that you might not get the world you want and the world that wants you back, that your bones might never stop feeling achy and fragile from the wear and tear of mere existence, from the hard labour of getting through the day. Ours are bodies that have been depleted by time, that have been wrenched into a world they can’t properly bend or squirm into because our flesh is paradoxically both too much and not enough for it. In the wake of both eventful and slowed kinds of premature death, what does it mean that the state wants so eagerly to move Indigenous bodies, to touch them, so to speak?

Reconciliation is an affective mess: it throws together and condenses histories of trauma and their shaky bodies and feelings into a neatly bordered desire; a desire to let go, to move on, to turn to the future with open arms, as it were. Reconciliation is stubbornly ambivalent in its potentiality, an object of desire that we’re not entirely certain how to acquire or substantiate, but one that the state – reified through the bodies of politicians, Indigenous or otherwise – is telling us we need. In fact, Justice Murray Sinclair noted that the launch of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report on December 15, 2015, puts us at the “threshold of a new era in this country.”[1] I am interested in how life might be lived willfully and badly in the face of governmental forms of redress when many of us are stretched thin, how reconciliation, though instantiating a noticeable shift in the national affective atmosphere,[2] doesn’t actually remake the substance of the social or the political such that we’re still tethered to scenes of living that can’t sustain us. What I am trying to get at is: reconciliation works insofar as it is a way of looking forward to being in this world, at the expense of more radical projects like decolonization that want to experiment with different strategies for survival.[3]

This way of doing things isn’t working and, because of that, optimism is hard to come by. According to cultural theorist Ann Cvetkovich, political depression emerges from the realization “that customary forms of political response, including direct action and critical analysis, are no longer working either to change the world or to make us feel better.”[4] It is the pestering sense that whatever you do, it won’t be enough; that things will continue uninterrupted, teasing you because something different is all you’ve wanted from the start. To be politically depressed is to worry about the temporal reach of neoliberal projects like reconciliation, to question their orientation toward the future because the present requires all of your energy in order to feel like anything but dying. Political depression is of a piece with a dispossessory enterprise that remakes the topography of the ordinary such that the labour of maintaining one’s life becomes too hard to keep up. We have to wait for the then and there in the here and now; how do we preserve ourselves until then?


Prime Minister Justin Trudeau hugs residential school survivor Eugene Arcand during the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report in Ottawa, December 15, 2015. Source: CBC

As Leanne Simpson points out, reconciliation has been reparative for some survivors, encouraging them to tell their stories, to keep going, so to speak.[5] But, what of the gendered and racialized technologies of violence that created our scenes of living, scenes we’ve been forced to think are of our own choosing? Optimism for the work of reconciliation disappeared in the face of multiple crises: of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, of HIV infection rates, of mass incarceration, of diabetes, of suicide. Reconciliation, at once a heuristic and a form of statecraft, fakes a political that doesn’t actually exist as such, one that not only presupposes that we – Indigenous peoples, that is – are willing to stay attached to it, but that we are already folded into it, that we’ve already consented to it. What does it mean, for example, to consent to a nation-to-nation relationship if there are no other options to choose from? Continue reading

‘Tis the Season (for Social and Economic Change): Depression-Era Christian Socialism and an Alternative Meaning for Christmas

by Christo Aivalis

If one peruses their televisions, computers, and streetscapes, they can’t help but forget that we have been in the throes of the Christmas season since November. But this form of Christmas celebration, tied so deeply with capitalism, belies the transformative optimism Christmas provided working-class socialists in the Depression, and still today. Much as Pope Francis’ criticisms of capitalism and consumerist Christmas celebrations amidst war offer a call to change, so did the Christian Left seek a new social order in the Great Depression via the message of Christ and Christmas. For them, the egalitarian and socialist ideals of a 2000 year old Humble Nararane Carpenter spoke the society they wished to build.

While much has been written about Christianity socialism among ministers-turned-politicians like Tommy Douglas, J.S. Woodsworth, and Stanley Knowles, less has been said about Christian socialism among Canadian workers and trade unionists. Yet if we look back to Depression-era trade union newspapers, we see a movement utilizing Christian scripture and imagery in order to agitate for substantive political, economic, and social reforms. After all, numerous contributors argued that Christ was not only God reborn, but was God reborn as a humble Nazarene carpenter: a workingman sent to bring a gospel of justice and equality for the downtrodden. Christ came not as a king, but as a pauper, and in so doing showed his allegiances. This identification with Christ as a radical workingman led many to propose a Christian social order that struck at the core of social and economic inequality, private property:

A theology which teaches that God is Mammon’s silent partner would necessarily be suspect in an age of folk upheaval…. Property needs not God to protect it…Jesus announced “Good News”[:] namely, that Heaven is passionately on the side of the people against the despotic tendencies of property; and under that leadership a messianic passion for men is announcing itself. The trouble is the working people at large have not yet come to behold The Carpenter.[1]

Continue reading