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]

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Pork Cuts: The Sharp Edges of Nativism in Southern Europe

By Aitana Guia

NoKebabToo many political leaders are banking on politicizing migration today. Culture has become a fertile battlefield. Food represents familiarity and safety. Eating is a daily activity that connects parents to their children, to their schools, and to their extended families. Social life in Southern Europe revolves around food and food rituals.

Donna Gabbacia, a historian of the American immigrant experience, explains that the “choices people make about eating are rarely trivial or accidental. Food is a central concern of human beings in all times and in all places.”[1]

Marine Le Pen’s Front National (FN) knows it. Continue reading

Monica, Bill, History, and Sex

By Marc Stein

Twenty years ago this month, U.S. Democratic President Bill Clinton began having sex with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. More than two years later, during testimony in a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by Paula Jones, Clinton denied that he was having a sexual relationship with Lewinsky. Several months later, Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr reported to the U.S. Congress that Clinton had committed perjury and obstruction of justice in his testimony about Lewinsky and related actions in the Jones litigation. The U.S. House of Representatives, controlled by the Republican Party, impeached Clinton in December 1998. In January and February 1999, the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate tried Clinton, but the president was acquitted when the Senate failed to meet the constitutional requirement of a two-thirds vote for conviction.

This essay was originally written in 2000 for “Historians and Their Audiences: Mobilizing History for the Millenium,” a conference sponsored by the York University History Department. My goal was to address the privileging of traditional political historians over historians of sexuality in mainstream public discussions about the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, but I also wanted to use my presentation to consider the place of humor, satire, and parody in the work of historians. If the opening parody of both The McLaughlin Group (a long-running public affairs television program) and historical scholarship in sexuality studies seems excessively reliant on inside jokes that only historians of sexuality of a certain generation might understand, my hope was (and is) that this, too, might contribute to new ways of thinking about historians and their audiences.

For the most part, I have avoided editing or revising the essay, wanting it to stand as a reflection of my thinking about these issues in 2000, but some of the parodied names have been changed to protect the innocent and prevent further litigation.


Welcome to this edition of the McLaughlinstein Group, hosted by me, Marc McLaughlinstein. Today’s topic: Monica, Bill, Sex, and History. Our regular guests, Doris Kearns Johnson, Michael Wilentz, and Sean Beschloss, were unable to join us today, so instead our program will feature widely acclaimed historians Mary Contrary Daly, Carroll Rosen-Smithberg, John-Boy Howard, George Chancy, Lilliana Faderwoman, and Steve Edgwick.

Question: Continue reading

Vicarious Trauma: Collecting the Herd

By Jesse Thistle

Author’s Preface

“Vicarious Trauma: Collecting the Herd” is written in a first-person narrative style in line with Indigenous ways of knowing and disseminating knowledge, as seen in the works of Campbell (1974), Koebel (2007), and Devine (2010), among other Métis scholars, writers, and activists.

This piece opens with oral testimony from a Cree-Métis Elder Rose (pseudonym) recording during the SSHRC project “Tracing Métis History through Archives, Artefacts, Oral Histories, and Landscapes: Bison Brigades, Farming Families, and Road Allowance People,” and is one among hundreds of oral testimonies collected by me, Dr. Carolyn Podruchny, Yvonne Richer-Morrissette, and Blanche Morrissette during the summer of 2013. The tone and content of the interview has been kept in its original form, with some adjustments in style to make it readable in narrative form. Using a writing technique similar to anthropologist Paul Farmer’s article, “On Suffering and Structural Violence: A View from Below,” (2009) wherein he shares personal stories from Haitians who suffered trauma from state violence and grinding poverty, “Vicarious Trauma” similarly centers on impactful biography to reveal a deeper understanding of Indigenous history and research on historical trauma. This work demonstrates how researching historical trauma can adversely affect Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars alike.

The title “Collecting the Herd,” speaks to the decolonizing of Indigenous history implicit in the hearing of, documenting, making sense of, and healing of historical trauma within Indigenous populations. The listening of such traumatic narratives has been called the “hearing of the truth,” as it is known within the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Residential School Survivor testimonies, but it certainly extends to unrecorded Indigenous histories, forgotten by orthodox Canadian history (Weiss, 2015). Moreover, the work of collecting oral history and attempting to heal through cultural reclamation (burning of sage, ceremony with ancestors—the bison skull, and the “re-righting” of history, referred in this piece as “collecting of the bison herd”), is a reversal of the Christianization of Indigenous peoples, deployed by church and state over the last four hundred years. This process was known historically as “collecting the [sheep] flock.” In reabsorbing Indigenous “souls” into the bison herd away from Christianity, the decolonization of history can take place.

Marcee for reading

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Everybody Can Play: Avoiding Soft Constructionism when Teaching History

By Mark Abraham

Swift accepts her award.

Swift accepts her Video of the Year award during the 2015 MVAs.

Accepting her Video of the Year award at the 2015 VMAs, pop singer Taylor Swift, surrounded by the women who appear as weapon-toting warriors in her victorious video “Bad Blood,” said she was grateful that “we live in a world where boys can play princesses and girls can play soldiers.” That same night, writer Adam Fleischer posted a review of the awards titled, “Taylor Swift said F—k Gender Norms with Her Video of the Year Speech” to

But did she? Twenty-five years after Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble and the queer turn, and smack dab in the middle of a rapid cultural reassessment of gender as trans celebrities become more visible, Swift’s post-essentialist but not-quite-unessential lip service that girls can do “boy” things and vice versa seems fairly quaint. It’s what many constructionists would call “modified essentialism”: the “girl” and “boy” things we can play at are socially constructed, but the majority of bodies—even the potentially subversive ones Swift is valorizing—still belong to “girls” and “boys.”

Serendipitously, Swift’s speech was followed by a performance by pop singer Miley Cyrus, who was surrounded by thirty drag, burlesque, and trans performers. This was, in a way, a constructionist response to Swift’s soft constructionism: that the lines between “girl” and “boy” things are especially porous, and so girls and boys and everybody can play, period. Cyrus’s performance suggested that there are girls, boys, and individuals who reject that binary in part or in whole, but bodies don’t define an identity, and the things that we can play at are a wide range of activities that aren’t rooted in much beyond historically-changing ideas about how “girls” and “boys” should act. Intentionally or not, Cyrus took Swift’s identity politics and threw them down a constructionist rabbit hole. Continue reading

On Guard for Canadian Parochialism, Part Two

By Gilberto Fernandes

Who killed spawned Canadian citizenship?

Wikipedia Commons.

Wikipedia Commons.

Like Gillian Frank and Jamie Duong, who challenged the Elections Act rule limiting the external voting rights of Canadian expats to five years living abroad, I too am an emigrant. I moved to Canada from Portugal over ten years ago through spousal sponsorship. I became a Canadian citizen as soon as I was eligible, mostly because I wanted to be able to vote. I am also a citizen of Portugal, a country that has long encouraged dual citizenship, provided various kinds of aid to its emigrants, and used its diaspora to generate international exchanges with various host countries – something that Canadian governments, businesses, and cultural institutions have welcomed. Like Frank and Duong, I keep well informed about political debates and current events in my home country, which I visit often and may return to one day. I also intend to vote in my homeland’s upcoming national elections.

But unlike Canadian expats, I will be able to vote for my own member of parliament in Lisbon representing my “Outside of Europe” riding. Everyone who knows me knows that I follow Canadian politics avidly and like to express my views on it – case in point. Even before coming to Canada, I educated myself about this country’s history and political system, and can safely say that I know more about these than most Canadians. I have also contributed to disseminating historical knowledge among Canadians and helped preserve their collective memory, to which I have dedicated an unhealthy amount of volunteer hours. Finally, I will soon be the father of a Canadian-born child, to whom I will be sure to bequeath my Portuguese citizenship. In the eyes of some leading historians and public intellectuals, this makes me an uncommitted, compromised, and even ungrateful Canadian. How come? Continue reading

History for Children? Watching “Once Upon a Time… Man” as an Adult in the 21st Century

By Alban Bargain-Villéger

On a hot July night, while in the throes of insomnia, I found myself waxing nostalgic and decided to revisit my favourite childhood animated series. After watching a few episodes of Cobra and The Mysterious Cities of Gold (also fascinating animation series in their own right) I realized that Once Upon a Time… Man (Il était une fois… L’Homme) was available online. Over the next two weeks, as I kept working my way through the remaining episodes, I realized that not only was the series a product of its time (it was first released in 1978), but also not exclusively designed for children. Indeed, the analysis of the subjects covered and the narrative style might seem pedagogically incorrect in our day and age.

In twenty-six episodes, this French series covers world history from the prehistory to the 1970s and beyond, as the final installment ventures into predictions on the near and distant future (to 2150). Continue reading