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

History on TV: Political Drama in the 2010s

Alban Bargain-Villéger

Still from Borgen, 2010.

Still from Borgen, 2010.

In recent years, serial political dramas such as House of Cards and the Danish series Borgen have enjoyed quite a bit of success in North America. Although one might argue that the genre is more of a child of the 1990s, since the original House of Cards trilogy (set in a fictional post-Thatcher Britain) came out in 1991, and The West Wing ran from 1999 to 2006, the four series that I intend to examine in this post are all products of the 2010s. A comparison of Borgen (“The Castle,” Denmark, 2010-13), Les Hommes de l’ombre (“The Shadow Men,” France, 2012), House of Cards (USA, 2013-present), and Okkupert (“Occupied,” Norway, 2015) is not only useful in providing an overview of how western European and American politics are being imagined (even fantasized about) in our day and age, but also yields precious information of a historical nature. In their own way, each of these series tries to make sense of a different political history. Of course, it should be acknowledged that these four series reflect the views of the writers, directors, consultants and producers who created and shaped them. Nonetheless, the commercial and critical success that they have garnered as well as the themes they address raise several questions about the ways western democracies and their histories are perceived today.

SPOILER ALERT: be warned that plot points will be given away. Continue reading

Creating the Canadian Mosaic

Ryan McKenney and Benjamin Bryce

John Murray Gibbon’s image of a Czechoslovakian immigrant in his Canadian Mosaic

John Murray Gibbon’s image of a Czechoslovakian immigrant in his Canadian Mosaic

Canadians often describe their country as a “mosaic.” This idea is present on government websites and in many contemporary articles in the media (on outlets such as The Globe and Mail, Macleans, and the Huffington Post), and most importantly in the minds of people across the country. Though used in different contexts and with different goals, the mosaic almost always describes Canada as a multicultural landscape and symbolizes a national ideology of inclusion and diversity. Canadians hold great pride in this idea, placing it on the progressive end of a spectrum opposite to the American melting pot. Yet Canadians rarely question where the term comes from.

Many Canadians would likely be astonished to find that the first person to use the term “mosaic” to discuss the national character of Canada was in fact an American. Continue reading

Arab-Canadian Foodscapes and Authenticity

Michael Akladios

Tabbouleh is a Mezzeh (appetizer) made of cracked wheat with parsley, tomato, lemon, cucumbers, onion, and olive oil. Variations exist throughout the Levant

Tabbouleh is a Mezzeh (appetizer) made of cracked wheat with parsley, tomato, lemon, cucumbers, onion, and olive oil. Variations exist throughout the Levant. Wikimedia Commons

Visiting diverse Middle Eastern restaurants across the Greater Toronto Area, one quickly discovers that they all feature Tabbouleh on the menu. As an Egyptian, I had never eaten Tabbouleh until I started my undergraduate degree at York University in Toronto. It is not part of the Egyptian tradition. Interestingly, while Syrian and Lebanese emigrants found their way to Egypt in large numbers throughout the mid- to late-nineteenth century, this side-dish never made its way into mainstream Egyptian cuisine, and especially, the average family kitchen. However, in North America it has come to be defined as “authentically” Middle Eastern.

The first time I tried Tabbouleh, I was with a group of friends from various ethno-cultural backgrounds. When I asked what kind of salad that “green dish” was, I was met with confused expressions. The person across the table asked me: “I thought you were Egyptian?” Somehow, not knowing what Tabbouleh was, made my very claim to “Egyptian-ness” questionable. Continue reading

The Currency of Memory: #bankNOTEable Canadian Women

By Kaleigh Bradley

Twitter-Bank-Notable

Source: Bank of Canada.

Last month, on International Women’s Day, Trudeau announced that by 2018, “an iconic Canadian woman” would appear on the next issue of bank notes. Up until April 18th, 2016, the Bank of Canada issued an open call for nominations of #bankNOTEable women. In order to quality, the woman in question had to be a Canadian citizen (by birth or naturalization), deceased for at least twenty-five years, and had to have demonstrated “outstanding leadership, achievement or distinction in any field.”

After the initial call, the Bank of Canada’s Advisory Council will review the crowed-sourced list of candidates to create a list of 10-12. The Canadian public will then be able to vote from this list on the Bank’s website and these votes will be used to ensure the nominees are a representative sample of our country. The list will be narrowed down to a few names, experts will be consulted, and according to custom, the Minister of Finance will make the final decision. It’s clear that officials are trying to ensure that the selection process is inclusive and representative of all Canadians. The Advisory Committee is comprised of experts and representatives from different interest groups. Public input is welcome and the list of candidates will be crowd-sourced. Despite these efforts, the process of commemoration is polarizing and the initial call has led to some important public discussions about commemoration and Canadian history.

Popular choices included artist Emily Carr, War of 1812 “heroine” Laura Secord, author Lucy Maud Montgomery, civil rights icon Viola Desmond, Indigenous poet E. Pauline Johnson, and Harriet Tubman, who helped 300 slaves enter Canada through the underground railway.

Discussions about who should be selected has me thinking about the importance of history and memory in our everyday lives. History is on our money, in the street or place names we use, the architecture we see, in the song lyrics we enjoy, and within and outside of the boundaries of the landscapes we build. The history we experience around us might not reflect our own memories, histories, and identities. Acts of remembering, boundary-making, erasure, naming, and commemoration are often political, contested, divisive, and sometimes deeply personal.

As H.V. Nelles argues in The Art of Nation Building, commemoration and myth-making are performances, acts of self-invention on the part of the nation state and the cultural elite. Myth-making and commemorations tell us more about the agenda of the state and our priorities as a society today, than they do about the events and people we seek to commemorate.

Commemoration serves to validate particular national myths and historical narratives. In Canada, there are  so many conflilcting histories that it’s hard to tell one story about colonialism, our track record with immigration and multiculturalism, our relationship to the monarchy, our artistic history and cultural institutions, and Quebec nationalism, just to name a few. Is there really one history, or one woman who can be representative for all of us? Is there a history that we can all adhere to? And why does this even matter? What does it mean to elevate one individual to an iconic status? Continue reading

Creating the Historical Record in Literary and Personal Archives

by Krista McCracken

Part of the Brian Vallée fonds. Photograph taken by author.

Part of the Brian Vallée fonds. Photograph by author.

Archives document people, organizations, and communities from almost all walks of life and are most commonly referred to for their historical value and viewed as repositories of things of intrinsic and lasting historical value. This is also true in the case of literary archives and the personal archives of creative practitioners, but these archives have the added potential to be records of culture, provide insight into individual creative practices and elicit scholarly debate.

Until recently my exposure to literary archives had been very limited.  I knew they existed but in my case, coming to archives from a history background, literary and artistic archives were always on the periphery but were never the focus of my work.  For me archives were more about historical documentation, snapshots of time, and about telling community histories.  So, how do literary and artistic archives fit within the larger archival frameworks and how can these archives be useful to historians? Continue reading

Hamilton: A Belated Discussion

By Jonathan McQuarrie

It turns out rap is a perfect medium for history. Hamilton has become a touchstone musical, winning laurels from a range of audiences from musical aficionados to people (like me) who are never quite sure why everyone is singing. Its wide appeal has made it a notoriously difficult ticket to get—as of this writing, the tickets are “extremely limited” and ticket resale sites ask for $500 to $700. As the New York Times reviewer noted, “I am loath to tell people to mortgage their houses and lease their children to attend a hit Broadway show. Hamilton, directed by Thomas Kail and staring [Lin-Manuel] Miranda might just be worth it[.]” For those unwilling to resort to such extreme measures (including myself), the cast recording is widely available, and captures much of the energy and power of the work. It has the feel of being one of those generational musicals with the power to define how many people understand a historically significant figure, much as Les Misérables shaped understanding of the French revolutionary period.

Hamilton is a lasting success. So, we need to pay attention to this cultural moment. Here’s why.

  • One need not read a fully footnoted work to find some analytically rich and complex material. The creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, demonstrated an impressive commitment to historical accuracy. He drew rigorously on Ron Chernow’s popular, but extensive, biography of Alexander Hamilton, and Chernow contributed as a consultant to the production. Other historians have largely praised the work’s portrayal, noting only minor omissions or confusions. Indeed, the approximately three hour work is remarkable for how much detail it does include, from Hamilton’s efforts to form a new financial system to an intricate detailing of the rules of dueling. The “Cabinet Battles” are must-listens.

Continue reading

Canadian Medical Cannabis: The Long and Winding Road

On February 26th, Brent Zettl (CEO of CanniMed) delivered a free and public lecture at the University of Saskatchewan. In a sweeping and candid address, Zettl traces the recent history of the nascent medical cannabis industry and positions the company he founded in a highly complex regulatory climate. Until recently, Zettl was the sole supplier of medical cannabis to all Canadians. With the enactment of the Marihuana for Medical Purposes Regulations (MMPR), however, he became one of 30 or so Licensed Producers (LPs). His talk blends policy and politics, and environmentalism with future developments in marijuana R&D. It adds to the ongoing conversation and evolving history of marijuana regulation in Canada and beyond.

 

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