The Historical is Personal: Learning and Teaching Traumatic Histories

Andrea Eidinger

Learning and teaching history is hard work. The physical, mental, and emotional toll can be high, for both educators and learners. This is especially the case when it comes to traumatic histories. For educators, it is difficult to balance the desire to make an emotional impact on your students without inflicting (further) trauma. For learners, it is difficult to balance curiosity with respect. We are often implored to “never forget,” but we seldom take a moment to talk about what and how we are supposed to remember.

 All of us come to the field of history from different backgrounds, and the ways in which we interact with history as educators and learners are shaped by these early experiences. But, with certain exceptions, it remains rare for anyone to talk about this, especially when it comes to teaching. So in this blog post, I wanted to take the opportunity to talk about my personal experiences learning and teaching about traumatic histories and specifically how my experiences as a Jewish-Canadian woman who was taught about the Holocaust as a child shaped my approach to teaching first-year university students about residential schools. Continue reading

There’s a Historian Born Every Minute

Alan MacEachern

unnamedA while back I noticed that Active History had published a post citing a satirical political website as fact. It was an easy mistake to make: the site looked real enough, and its article only mildly ridiculous in the current news climate. I contacted the Active History contributor and editor, and the quote was quickly removed. Case closed. But it got me thinking about the challenge that historians face in recognizing fact from fiction, and how we respond when we are fooled.

It was a matter I had faced myself recently. One strand of my research into the Miramichi Fire, a forest fire that swept across Maine and New Brunswick on 7 October 1825, was finding evidence of the thick smoke that enveloped all of northeastern North America in the days that followed. So I was happy to come across the following from a published Toronto-area diary for that year:

October 9 — … Last evening there was to us a marvelous display of northern lights. When daylight faded pink clouds appeared in the sky mixed with long shooting rays of white light. The clouds changed shape continually, but the color was always a shade of red. At times the clouds filled the entire northeastern sky.

Nice! The fire had presumably affected the atmosphere as far away as Upper Canada, and in a manner I had not read elsewhere. The author was an Andrew Anderson, and his diary was included within the 1915 book The Narrative of Gordon Sellar Who Emigrated to Canada in 1825. I incorporated Anderson’s description into the text.

The only problem? You guessed it. The diary and the memoir that surrounded it weren’t real primary sources, they were “fictional history” Continue reading

Video in the Classroom: Exploring the CBC Digital Archives

Andrea Eidinger

Anyone who has searched the internet for videos to use while teaching Canadian history has run into one big problem: the overwhelming dominance of American media online. Adding “Canadian” or “Canada” to your Google search doesn’t necessarily solve this problem. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t great Canadian videos, soundbites, and films available. You just have to know where to look for them! This post is going to focus on my favourite place for Canadian audio-visual material: the CBC.

What is It?

All of the images in this post are screnncaptures used with permission from the CBC.

All of the images in this post are screenshots used with permission from the CBC.

Whether you love it or hate it, the CBC is one of Canada’s most prominent national institutions. Founded officially in 1936, it is the oldest network of broadcasting stations in Canada. When most of us think about the CBC, we think about Peter Mansbridge and The National, Rick Mercer and the Mercer Report, and This Hour Has 22 Minutes. But it has also stood witness to the history of Canada for more than 70 years.While many broadcasting corporations keep their archives private, the CBC has gone the opposite route by opening up select portions of its archives to the public and to educators.

The public version of the CBC Television and Radio Archives is called the CBC Digital Archives.[1] According to their Facebook page, the archive contains more than 6,500 clips (video and audio) dating back to 1927. These clips cover just about every topic you could possibly imagine. Don’t discount the use of these websites for Pre-Confederation classes! CBC Digital Archives can be great for teaching students about historical perceptions of past events. It is completely free to use, though you will have to sit through ads to watch your selected clip. The website also contains coordinating lesson plans for many of these clips.

How Does it Work?

CBC Digital Archives is an absolute treasure-trove of information. However, like treasure-troves, it is often difficult to find exactly what you need. So how do you find the clip you want?  Continue reading

A Historian’s Year with a Chromebook


by Sean Kheraj

Could a Chromebook satisfy the computing needs of a historian? Over the past twelve months, I’ve been using one to find out.

Google’s low-cost, Web-based operating system, ChromeOS, is one of the most unique developments in computing in recent years. It is a lean computer operating system based almost entirely around the use of Web applications and cloud storage. Recognizing that most ordinary computer use takes place in a Web browser, Google decided to make a computer centred exclusively on the Web. With ChromeOS, computing takes place on the internet and the Chromebook is just an access terminal.

First announced in 2010 and then released to consumers in 2011, ChromeOS originally appeared on just two consumer laptop models, one by Acer and another by Samsung. By 2015, at least twelve manufacturers produced dozens of different models of Chromebooks. And by the third quarter of last year, Chromebooks accounted for more than half the sales of notebook devices in the K-12 education market in the US. Recently, David Pierce advised college students, “you should seriously consider buying a Chromebook for this school year.” Part of the reason Chromebooks have become so popular in the education market is that they are some of the most low cost computers available to students.

Given the growing popularity of the Chromebook in education and its low cost for students, I wanted to know what it was like to use a Chromebook for my own daily computing needs as a historian. Is this a device I would recommend for another historian or a history student? Continue reading

Join the Confederation Debate Today!

This is the second of two posts responding to “Debating the Confederation Debates of 1865” a two-week series we ran in partnership with Canada Watch.

By Daniel Heidt

As the countdown to our country’s 150th  anniversary begins, Canadians are hungry for information about their country’s past and contemplating its future. The Confederation Debates an online and largely crowd sourced initiative – will bring the records of the Numbered Treaties (1871-1921) as well as the colonial and federal legislative debates that preceded each province’s entry into Confederation between 1865 and 1949, into the public discussion while also making them accessible to future generations. Since it is a largely crowd sourced project, anyone can contribute to the work and discussion!

The Confederation Debates posted its first “Quote of the Day” to social media on 1 July 2016. We will continue posting content from all stakeholders in both official languages for the next year. Anyone can log onto our website, transcribe a page, and flag some text for these posts.

The Confederation Debates posted its first “Quote of the Day” to social media on 1 July 2016. We will continue posting content from all stakeholders in both official languages for the next year. Anyone can log onto our website (click the image to visit the site), transcribe a page, and flag some text for these posts.

As the past two weeks of Confederation-focused essays demonstrate, Canadians will bring diverse backgrounds and conflicting perspectives to what promises to be important, and at time heated, public and private discussions. Popular imagination, and Robert Harris’ group portrait of Canada’s ‘founders,’ limits Confederation to the1860s. Even if we expand the so-called ‘Confederation years’ to encompass the entry of BC, Manitoba, and PEI by 1873, we still ignore Alberta, Saskatchewan, Newfoundland and the territories. This latter date also misses nearly all of the Numbered Treaties between Indigenous Peoples and the Canadian state between 1871 and 1921. The records for a few of the provinces’ Confederation discussions are online, but they are often difficult to find, buried in thousands of pages of unrelated debates, or require a subscription to access. Other colonial debates are only accessible in archives. The Numbered Treaty records suffer from the same access issues. Continue reading

Digital Outreach and Wikipedia in the GLAM Sector

by Krista McCracken

Wikipedia-logo-en-bigDiscussion around the value of contributing to Wikipedia and its use as a resource has been occurring since the establishment of the collaboratively written encyclopedia in 2001. You don’t have to look very far to find someone decrying the crowdsourced material as rubbish or others proclaiming it as the best thing since sliced bread.  In between these two extremes thoughtful discussions have provoked questions about the academic implications of editing Wikipedia and historical narratives as presented via Wikipedia as truths.

A number of Active History posts have been written about how historians engage with Wikipedia as editors, academics, and public scholars.  In 2010 A.J. Rowley’s “Is Wikipedia Worth the Trouble?” evaluated Wikipedia as a user generated resource and in 2011 Jim Clifford wrote  about editing Wikipedia, challenges of academics engaging with Wikipedia, and problems around citing original research. In 2012 Ian Milligan explored the history of Canada as represented on Wikipedia and in 2013 Jonathan McQuarrie reflected on his experience editing William Beverly Murphy’s Wikipedia entry.

All of these posts bring up the issue of accuracy on Wikipedia, the potential value of contributing to public knowledge, and perceptions of history online. Trained as a public historian and as someone working outside of academia I came at Wikipedia from a different angle.  My interest developed from the perspective of someone employed in the Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums (GLAM) sector wishing to increase the profile of a heritage institution and highlight the material held in an archival collection. Continue reading

In Search of Digital Literacy in Canadian History Programs

By Stacey Devlin

For both students and practicing historians, a wealth of information is often just a few clicks away. Photo by Thomas Lefebvre via

For both students and practicing historians, a wealth of information is often just a few clicks away. Photo by Thomas Lefebvre via

During the second half of my MA, my colleagues and I were tasked with preparing an exhibit about early-twentieth-century medicine. Not having a background in medical history, I began by downloading archived medical periodicals from Early Canadiana Online. I reasoned that if I could identify important conversations of the profession during the period of interest, I would have clear leads for exhibit content. What were considered standard practices? What were the pressing issues or the latest controversies? Unfortunately, I wasn’t at liberty to read the thousands of pages I had downloaded, let alone to keep an ongoing record of topics or word usage. During the previous semester, however, I had taken courses on digital history and digital research methods. After using Voyant Tools to generate a list of frequently used words in my periodicals, I put together a program to extract instances of these key words and save them in new documents for review. My processing of the periodicals ended there, but even this simple operation gave me useful direction for continued research.

In the two years since then, I’ve continued to use a variety of technologies in my work. My university training in digital history (and the willingness to embrace new technologies in general) has been helpful in finding employment opportunities outside the academy. I incorporate digital tools into my workflow because they’re illuminating, time-saving, and even fun. However, digital literacy was not a priority during most of my university career. Similarly, I have few peers that would consider themselves digital historians, despite the fact that research is routinely conducted online and the digital humanities are a frequent topic of discussion within the discipline. Continue reading

Who Teaches Digital History in Canada?

By Sean Kheraj

Digital history is coming to York University in Fall 2016. That is to say, I finally got around to organizing and preparing to teach digital history. As I get ready to teach this course, I am surveying the landscape of digital history teaching in Canada, looking for ideas. Readers of this article, I hope, will help by posting suggestions and links to resources in the comments below.

For many years now, I have integrated digital history skills, assignments, and exercises into my history courses. Continue reading

Assessing the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation

by Sean Carleton, Crystal Fraser, and John Milloy

National Centre For Truth and Reconciliation logo

Earlier this month, the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) opened its physical and digital doors to the public. The Centre is located in Chancellor’s Hall at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg and its online archive contains “Terabytes of Testimony,” including 35,000 photos, five million government, church, and school documents, 7000 survivor statements, and a host of other materials (art, poems, music, and physical items) collected by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC). It is an impressive and important collection. The NCTR’s mandate is to “preserve the memory of Canada’s Residential School system and legacy. Not just for a few years, but forever.”

It is hard to believe that less than twenty years ago, the Indian Residential School (IRS) system was still operating and the vast majority of Canadians were in the dark about the history and ongoing effects of the schools. In contrast, the volume of traffic to the NCTR’s digital archive was initially so high that the site crashed on multiple occasions in its first week. People’s interest in the history of residential schools “broke” the internet, so to speak. Given the long and hard-fought battles by former students, survivors, advocates, and academics to bring Canada’s residential school system to the public’s attention to facilitate redress, the opening of the NCTR and the public’s positive response so far, is a significant step towards reconciliation and healing.

As emerging and established scholars of Canada’s IRS system, we are heartened to witness the opening of the NCTR, and we are optimistic about the Centre’s potential as a powerful resource to ensure these varied and complex histories are not forgotten. Yet, we approach the NCTR cautiously and not uncritically. Much work remains. The archive is still incomplete and it is limited in significant ways. Given the Centre’s importance, we offer an assessment of the NCTR by way of briefly tracing its background and outlining our initial thoughts on its many strengths and limitations. Our aim is to spark a conversation about how historians might critically engage with this new resource to help shape the future of residential school research and to aid meaningful reconciliation. Continue reading

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