The Die-In: A Short History

By Daniel Ross

Cycle Toronto Die-in, June 2015. Jesse Milns

Cycle Toronto Die-in, June 2015. Jesse Milns

On June 19th, City of Toronto officials on their way to work had to step over the bodies of hundreds of cyclists lying in front of the entrance to City Hall. A week later, the busy intersection in front of the Bank of England in central London was shut down by a similar spectacle. And in January, business on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. was briefly interrupted by several dozen people of various religious backgrounds spontaneously dying in line for lunch.

Thankfully, the people involved in these incidents didn’t stay dead for long. Just a few minutes, in fact, long enough to create some visually arresting photo-ops, and to make their point. In London and Toronto, it was that cyclists are being killed by cars; in Washington, that young black men are targets for police violence. Different places, different causes, but the same tactic: the die-in. When did playing dead become a way of speaking out? Continue reading

The .tp country domain name, 1997-2015: In memoriam

By David Webster

The internet deleted its first virtual country this month. It wasn’t that bad: Timor-Leste is now a real country, and doesn’t need its original internet domain name any longer. But the .tp top-level country domain name (ccTLD, in the lingo) has a story to tell as it ends its 18-year history.

In 1997, the former Portuguese colony of Timor-Leste (East Timor) was nearing the final years of its struggle for independence from a brutal Indonesian military occupation that had started in 1975. Using a hosting service in Ireland, a contact address for the most famous Timorese political prisoner, and a clever tactic to squat on an unclaimed county code, activists launched the top-level domain .tp and its first site,

It was a period when all countries and territories had recently been assigned two-letter codes, alongside the .com and .org domain suffixes. Most of these are familiar – .ca for Canada, .id for Indonesia, .ie for Ireland, and so on. In 1997, many country domain names were unclaimed. Among them was .tp, reserved for Portuguese Timor (Timor Português).

Portuguese Timor had long ceased to be. The 1974 Carnation revolution in Portugal set the last European world empire’s colonies on the road to independence. That included Portuguese Timor, the eastern half of an island off the north coast of Australia, sharing its other half with an Indonesian province. The leading Timorese political party declared the country’s independence on November 28, 1975. On December 10, the Indonesian army invaded. The next 24 years spelled famine, death, and near-genocide as pro-independence fighters resisted Indonesian annexation. Continue reading

Film Friday: Tilco Striker

Active History is pleased to present our first Film Friday. If you have created a film about history and are interested in screening it on our site, drop us a line.

By Matthew Hayes

Inimage the middle of winter in 1965, women workers at a plastics factory in Peterborough, Ontario went on strike. The Tilco strikers were fighting against unacceptable treatment – harassment and pitifully low wages – from management. I originally made this short film as an entry to OPSEU Local 365’s contest celebrating Trent University’s 50th anniversary. The contest called for creative entries that highlighted the role of organized labour. The film is based on Joan Sangster’s 2004 article “”We No Longer Respect the Law”: The Tilco Strike, Labour Injunctions, and the State”, from Labour/Le Travail. Continue reading

Five Things You Might Not Have Known About Canadian Environmental History

"Dynamic Serenity" by Andrew E. Larsen

“Dynamic Serenity” by Andrew E. Larsen

By  Sean Kheraj

Canadian environmental history is a burgeoning sub-field of Canadian history, but it is not very well known outside of academia. This is my own research speciality. On many occasions, I have had to answer the question: what is environmental history? Periodically, this is a question that environmental historians ask themselves. There have been several reflective articles about Canadian environmental history, including a recently published forum in Canadian Historical Review, edited by Alan MacEachern. You can actually read MacEachern’s full introduction to that forum here.

In short, environmental history is the historical study of the changing relationships between people and the rest of nature. It is an alternative way of thinking about the past that can offer new insights into understanding Canadian history. To help illustrate this point, I thought I would share five open-access journal articles that reveal things about Canadian environmental history that you might not have known about. Continue reading

A Toast to Jay Young


Jay’s exit is our loss, but the Archives’ gain is on a hiatus for the winter break, with a return to daily posts in early January. We’d like to leave you with an oldie but a goodie by Jay Young, Toronto’s subway historian and one of the founding members of the site.

This winter Jay left for a new job doing public outreach with the Archives of Ontario. Those who have contributed or worked with our site know that Jay played a critical role: greeting new contributors, working with them, and essentially making the site possible. His absence will be keenly felt by all of us, who had our days enlivened by the ability to work with Jay on a daily basis.

We’d like to publicly give Jay a toast (with a historically-informed Gin and Tonic, perhaps) – for the years with us, and to the exciting work that lies ahead at the Archives of Ontario. You’ll be missed, Jay! Continue reading

Hashtag Heritage: Social Media, Advertising and Remembrance Day

By Angela Duffett

A rather curious promoted tweet from the Bank of Montreal appeared recently on my Twitter feed: “Join Canadians for a #DayofSocialSilence to honour those in service.” Not really grasping the connection between BMO, Remembrance Day, and staying off of social media for the day, I clicked the tweet to see what kind of response it was attracting. I continued to check in on #dayofsocialsilence occasionally in the days leading up to Remembrance Day and the hashtag didn’t really take off, nor did the original promoted tweets garner much of a response. On facebook, there was a bit more activity around the promotion, some of which was pretty hostile. Being asked by a bank to stay away from social media for twenty-four hours is not going over too well with many people.

The relationship between social media and Remembrance Day is an interesting one. Many people use social media to share stories of remembrance: photos of family members who served in various conflicts, photos from visits to memorials and battlefield sites, and opinions on war and its legacies. Given the utility of social media in sharing stories about war, it seems particularly odd that BMO would encourage us to stay away from it for an entire day in the service of remembrance. By trying to invent a new tradition that circumvents the way many people have already chosen to mark Remembrance Day, BMO’s #dayofsocialsilence comes off as particularly bizarre.

Despite the unpopularity of this particular example, BMO’s campaign reminded me that there is a long history of brands using Remembrance Day to capitalize on public sentiment surrounding war and memory. Continue reading

Accessing Treasure Troves of Data: Empowering your own Research

By Ian Milligan

This post is a bit technical. My goal is to explain technical concepts related to digital history so people can save time and not have to rely on experts. The worst thing that could happen to digital history is for knowledge to consolidate among a handful of experts.

From the holdings of Library and Archives Canada, to the Internet Archive, or smaller repositories like digitized presidential diaries, or Roman Empire transcriptions, there are a lot of digitized primary sources out there on the Web. You don’t need to be a “digital historian” to realize that sometimes there is a benefit to having copies of these sources on your own computer. You can add them to your own research database, make them into Word Clouds (I know, they’re not perfect), or find ways to manipulate them with tools such as Voyant-Tools, a spreadsheet software, or many other tools that are available. If you can download sources, you may not have to physically travel to an archive, which to me suggests a more democratic access to sources.

Digital historians have been working on teaching users how to access the databases that run online archival collections and how to harness this information for your own research. In this post, I want to give readers a quick overview of some of the resources out there that you can use to build your own repositories of information. If you ever find yourself clicking at your computer, hitting ‘right click’ and then ‘save page as,’ or downloading PDF after PDF after PDF… this post will help you better utilize your computer’s tools, making the digital research process a bit quicker.

Continue reading

Crowdsourcing Old Maps Online

"The Hudson's Bay Territories and Vancouver's Island; with an exposition of the chartered rights, conduct and policy of the Hudson's Bay Corporation"

“The Hudson’s Bay Territories and Vancouver’s Island; with an exposition of the chartered rights, conduct and policy of the Hudson’s Bay Corporation”

A little under a year ago the British Library released over a million images on Flickr Commons “for anyone to use, remix and repurpose”. This huge collection of historical images was “plucked from the pages” of digitized 17th, 18th and 19th century books automatically using the “Mechanical Curator,” created by the British Library Labs project. The library hoped that people on the internet would help them sort through the images and cluster them into useful categories and that is exactly what has been happening. At this point volunteers have identified more than 3000 maps in amongst the million images: “Maps, found by the community from the Mechanical Curator Collection“. With these maps identified, the British Library then fed them into another of their crowdsourced projects, where members of the community used an online tool to georeference historical maps. If you find a number of points on a historical map and on a modern map, the computer can then “pin” the maps over a modern digital map or a Google Earth digital globe. Depending on the quality of the original surveying and cartography and the care taken by the georeferencers, some maps lineup better than others and most suffer from some level of distortion when flat maps are stretched over a digital globe. Even with these problems, it is a really powerful tool to see historical maps layered over modern maps. In recent months people have worked to georeference most of the 3000 maps, adding to the existing collection crowd georeferenced maps shared by the British Library in recent years. Continue reading

Best Practices for Writing History on the Web

Tablet Reading. Source: Pabak Sarkar, Flickr Commons

Tablet Reading. Source: Pabak Sarkar, Flickr Commons

By Sean Kheraj

As more of our reading moves from print to screens, learning how to write on the Web will become an increasingly important part of history writing skills. Just as we teach fundamental research and writing skills for print essays, we will likely begin to teach digital writing skills for the Web. Writing for the Web will also become an important component of teaching public history (as it has already).

These are some of the assumptions that have informed my current course on the history of Toronto at York University. I have asked students to write a Web essay for their Fall semester assignment, using WordPress on a course site that I set up at This is not a unique or revolutionary idea. I have known several colleagues who have had students write Web essays and I have had students write optional Web assignments in the past. This is the first time that I will be asking all students in the class to write Web essays. As such, it is an opportunity to think about how to teach specific Web-based history writing skills.

I chose WordPress for a number of technical reasons, but mainly because I have been writing and editing history on the Web in WordPress for several years now at,, and In my experience, I have identified a number of key skills for history writing on the Web. However, I am still looking for more ideas to generate a good list of best practices (please post in the comments). Here are some best practices that I have developed over the course of my own experience writing history on the Web: Continue reading

Graphic Environmentalism: An Interview with Comic Writer-Artist Steph Hill

Hill comicPrevious Active History posts (see here, here, and here) have examined the use of comics in telling – and interpreting – stories about the past. In this post, Ryan O’Connor (RO) interviews Steph Hill (SH), the writer-artist behind A Brief, Accurate Graphic History of the Environmental Movement (Mostly in Canada).

RO: This is a really interesting project. What is it that drew you to creating a graphic history of the environmental movement?

SH: I had the idea when I started canvassing for an activist group here in Vancouver. We were going door to door around the BC election, and I was surprised at how often the people I was walking with knew pieces of environmental history, but not the general story. I thought it would be neat if you could give someone a short summary of what environmental activists had started off doing, where they had succeeded and where they had failed. Actually, that was my second thought. My first thought was an in-depth series of case studies of environmental campaigns that succeeded and failed, but that’s more of a book than a booklet.

RO: What are the advantages of telling this sort of story in this medium?

SH: Since my goal (assuming people actually read the thing) was to give both a brief and accurate primer to environmental history, the comic format made it possible to take in a topic more or less at a glance. One page per decade or issue. If I’d really been thinking I would have put taglines on each page, too. “The eighties: Eco goes corporate!” And, at the risk of sounding flippant, I find it easier to make jokes in comics than in writing. Continue reading