The Evolution of a History: Examining Commemorative Markers at the Oro African Methodist Episcopal Church National Historic Site

Mark T. S. Currie

At the corner of Old Barrie Road West and Line 3 in the Township of Oro-Medonte, Ontario, Canada sits the Oro African Methodist Episcopal Church (OAMEC). Now open for tourists, special ceremonies, and celebrations, the church was originally built in 1849. Along with the plot of land on which it sits, it is a designated national historic site.

The site is surrounded mostly by farmland. But where there is a church, there is (or was) community. And with community comes history.

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Tenth Anniversary Repost: Baba Wore a Burqa, and Nona wore a Niqab

Active History is celebrating its tenth anniversary! As part of our anniversary celebrations we are sharing glimpses of how Active History developed and showcasing our favourite and most popular posts from the past ten years. 

In 2015 we celebrated seven years of Active History by hosting the New Directions in Active History: Institutions, Communication, and Technologies conference to further conversations about Active History and engaged historical practice. A set of reports and videos from this conference still live on our website.

Some highlights from the blog in 2015 included: Lazy Historians, Disengaged Academics, and Over Paid Professors?, Jenny Ellison’s series marking the 35th anniversary of Terry Fox’s Marathon of Hope, Canada’s Complicated History of Refugee Reception, and “Old Stock Canadians: Arab Settlers in Western Canada

Karen Dubinsky and Franca Iacovetta’s “Baba Wore a Burqa, and Nona wore a Niqab” is a post from 2015 that continues to spark conversation.

Doukhobor women are shown breaking the prairie sod by pulling a plough themselves, Thunder Hill Colony, Manitoba (Library and Archives Canada, Creative Commons)

Doukhobor women are shown breaking the prairie sod by pulling a plough themselves, Thunder Hill Colony, Manitoba (Library and Archives Canada, Creative Commons)

By Karen Dubinsky and Franca Iacovetta

Last week two high profile Canadian Muslim women, writer Sheema Khan and Zunera Ishaq (the woman at the centre of the niqab controversy) publically questioned the safety of Muslims here.   Khan lived here in the aftermath of 9/11; she says it’s worse now. These admissions amount to a tragic statement about the use of the niqab as an election issue. Yet as Canadian women’s historians, we have heard it before. Intolerant Canadians, from political elites to ordinary citizens, have long attempted to impose their notions of what it means to be a Canadian on the bodies of immigrant women. Today’s veiled Muslim woman joins a long line of immigrant women whom this country has feared or pitied, but always stereotyped, for at least a century.

Consider those Doukhobor women harnessed to a plough, breaking the tough Prairie. Their photos, faces almost hidden by their babushkas, have graced Canadian history textbooks for decades. The widely shared image – reproduced as a postcard inviting everyone to get a look – struck many Canadians as the personification of a backward European peasant culture that treated its women like downtrodden beasts of burden. These women posed a striking contrast to the prevailing middle-class ideal of the Victorian woman – that morally superior angel in the home.   Consider too the distinctive dress of the women who completed the portrait of Immigration Minister Clifford Sifton’s ideal Eastern European peasant “in a sheepskin coat” with “a stout wife and a half-dozen children” grudgingly welcomed to Canada. Someone needed to do the backbreaking labour to settle what was portrayed as an empty Prairie, the original First Nations inhabitants having been shoved aside to a number of reserves. Even Icelandic pioneer women, easily assimilated, one might expect, into the Nordic race, were castigated for their typical headdress: a dark knitted skullcap with tassel. Such women may now be considered Old Stock Canadians, but not so long ago, their Anglo neighbours viewed them as second-class. According to historian Sarah Carter, Anglo women’s organization in Alberta thought Ukrainian girls so deficient in the standards of proper womanhood that they too should be sent to residential schools. Continue reading

An Anniversary, An Election, and Resurgent Regionalism: The Canadian Nation-State in 2019

By Shannon Conway

To mark Newfoundland’s 35th anniversary of confederation in 1984, Newfoundland philosopher F.L. Jackson, published Newfoundland in Canada: A People in Search of a Polity, wherein he laid forth a polemic on the paltry development of Newfoundland society after Confederation. Building his core argument around culture, the book concluded that the province was “simply not making a go of it.”[1]

This year marks Newfoundland and Labrador’s 70th anniversary of union with Canada. Newfoundland in Canada still reads as if it were a recent publication.[2]

Jackson’s take is not just relevant for Newfoundland and Labrador today, but for any province concerned about regional identities and economies. Last month’s election and its aftermath, for example, witnessed a rise in regional alienation, from the West (notably Alberta and Saskatchewan) and Quebec.

This resurgent regionalism is ‘nothing new’ in Canada, more cyclical than an aberration.[3] Nevertheless, it raises concerns of national unity and how to handle the perennial issue of regionalism within Canada.

While Newfoundland has not been a focus of current challenges, Newfoundland and Labrador are no strangers to tense regional politics. Jackson’s work from the 1980s speaks to this directly when raising what he believed to be the only political issue in Newfoundland: can the province make a go if it on its own.[4] Continue reading

The Complex Truth: Intersections between Day Schools and the Shubenacadie Residential School

On October 24, 2019, Active History commenced a series on education “after” residential schools with an article written by Clinton Debogorski, Magdalena Milosz, Martha Walls and Karen Bridget Murray. The series is open-ended. Active History welcomes additional contributions on related themes.

By Martha Walls

I am an historian who has studied the impact of Government of Canada policies and actions on Mi’kmaw and Wolastoqiyik communities in the Maritimes, including with respect to the region’s only formally-designated residential school, the Shubenacadie Residential School, which opened in 1930 on Mi’kmaw land at Sipekne’katik. Seeking to understand the nature and effects of state authority on the Mi’kmaq and Wolastoqiyik, especially in relation to education, is a fraught undertaking for a settler-colonial scholar. That I teach at Mount Saint Vincent University, home to the Sisters of Charity who helped found and operate the Shubenacadie Residential School, is an important part of my personal reckoning with how I have derived – and continue to derive – benefit from an educational system insidiously marked by white supremacy, settler-colonialism, and genocide.

The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls has found that Canada committed genocide, which it defines as a series of ongoing interconnected legal and social truths about

state actions and inactions rooted in colonialism and colonial ideologies, built on the presumption of superiority [over Indigenous Peoples], and utilized to maintain power and control over the land and the people by oppression and, in many cases, by eliminating them.[1]

Today, my work is set in this context of the truth of genocide. It is also set against the backdrop of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) mandate to “reveal to Canadians the complex truth about the history and ongoing legacy of the church-run residential schools.”[2]

I have come to learn that my privilege has been built on genocide and the complex truth and legacy of residential schools, which hinged on the systemic exclusion of Indigenous and other marginalized peoples from educational systems, including academia. I understand my self-interrogation as obliging me to work with, and alongside, Indigenous Peoples to understand this “complex truth” of residential schools. This, it seems to me, must include critiquing and problematizing aspects of the TRC’s work. Continue reading

History Slam Episode 139: Canadians and the Chinese Labour Corps in the First World War

By Sean Graham

The outstanding Canada’s First World War series here at wrapped up on Friday after five years of producing exceptional content. As Jonathan Weier pointed out in one of the series’ post earlier this year, the historical focus on major narratives like Vimy that focus on nationalist mythology limits the discussion about the diverse experiences of Canadians during the war. Over the past few years, Remembrance Day has provided an opportunity for news outlets to produce stories on the people who have not been written about in a lot textbooks, but with 650,000 Canadians and Newfoundlanders serving, 66,000 of whom died, there is no shortage of stories that have been lost in the last 100 years.

One story that may not qualify as having been ‘forgotten’ is that of Canada and the Chinese Labour Corps. The only reason forgotten may not apply is because very few people knew about it at the time as the federal government kept its involvement secret. Needing labour for behind the front lines, Great Britain recruiting Chinese men to go to Europe to support British forces. The safest route between China and the western front was through Canada, however, so over 80,000 men landed at William Head Quarantine Station on Vancouver Island and traveled across the country. This largely unknown chapter in Canada’s war experience is the subject of Dan Black’s new book Harry Livingstone’s Forgotten Men: Canadians and the Chinese Labour Corps in the First World War.

Once on the east coast, the men boarded ships that took them to France. Canadian involvement in the program and the men’s experiences in Canada offer a unique perspective on the First World War and the way in which certain stories are prioritized. Even now, the men who died as they crossed the country are just starting to be recognized by name at the locations where they were buried.

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Stories of Bottomless Pond

      No Comments on Stories of Bottomless Pond

By Isabelle and Ian McCallum

Starting the summer vacation at the Simcoe County archives, museum and the Barrie library may seem as a different approach to welcoming the holidays. My 11 year old daughter, Isabelle, and I, however, were on a research mission to uncover the story about “Bottomless pond.” Having completed a ghost story project for her class, highlighting points of interest in Oro Township, in Ontario, we were eager to discover the connections with oral history, a local churchyard and the pond.

To set the context, Isabelle and I often stop at different points of interest, usually when coming back from school, volleyball practice or simple errands. These stops include historic buildings, churchyards and abandoned houses. I try to share what I know about our stops that has been shared with me. Naturally, two people who love a good story and history, we were often late for our destination!

I have had the opportunity to grow up associated with two rural Ontario communities, my Indigenous community of Munsee-Delaware First Nation (southwest of London, Ontario) and the farming community of Clowes/Dalston (northwest of Barrie, Ontario). Both communities are unique in terms of history,  however a common practice was visiting with the older generations. Most of what I have been able to share with Isabelle relates to a different time, when you would visit older members of the community, to check in on them and to listen to stories. This was a rich part of life.Growing up in a rural community, I was exposed to various stories that were passed down through generations. It is this practice of sharing stories that is an inherent part of how I share with my own children. Continue reading

Tenth Anniversary Repost: Love it or hate it: Stephen Harper’s Government is not Fascist

Active History is celebrating its tenth anniversary! As part of our anniversary celebrations we are sharing glimpses of how Active History developed and showcasing our favourite and most popular posts from the past ten years. 

In 2014 our longest running series, “Canada’s First World War: A Centennial Series on”, a multi-year series of regular posts about the history and centennial of the First World War launched. We also ran a number of shorter series in 2014 including The Home Archivist, and Anishinaabeg in the War of 1812.

One of the most discussed and read posts in 2014 was Valerie Deacon’s “Love it or hate it: Stephen Harper’s Government is not Fascist.”  

No matter which way you spin it, Stephen Harper’s government is not fascist and making comparisons between the current Canadian government and fascism in the 1930s is both disingenuous and dangerous. This Huffington Post article about the government’s decision to close major scientific and environmental libraries and destroy much of the data contained therein was weakened by the rather ludicrous claim that the Harper government might be akin to the fascist regimes of the 1930s. The article noted that:

“Many scientists have compared the war on environmental science to the rise of fascism in 1930s Europe. Hutchings muses, “you look at the rise of certain political parties in the 1930s and have to ask how could that happen and how did they adopt such extreme ideologies so quickly, and how could that happen in a democracy today?”

These questions are still very important to ask, because fascism most certainly is still a danger. And the decisions that Harper’s government are making – particularly with regard to science and the environment – are also dangerous. But the dangers are not the same. As I have written elsewhere on Active History, the overuse of the term “fascist” to identify our political enemies actually has the unintended effect of blinding us to the true dangers they represent. In our current political climate, the real danger comes when movements or political parties of the extreme right legitimize their ideology to the point where it seems anodyne to a large section of the population. This leads to electoral victories and then to the manipulation of civil society that has the potential to be irreparable. But perhaps that is a post for another day. Today I want to dig a little deeper into why the Canadian Conservatives are not fascists, as much as we might disagree with their ideology, actions, or governance. Continue reading

When Historical Time Meets Real Time: Mourning Harry Tanner

Harry Tanner, Macheteros/Sugar Cane Cutters, circa 1973

Karen Dubinsky

Harry Tanner died November 7 2019 at the age of 85. I’ve only known him a couple of years. However, I’ve known him his whole life. I knew his parents, his father a Bank of Nova Scotia manager stationed in Havana in the 1940s and 1950s, where Harry grew up. I know Harry’s excitement about life in 1960s Cuba, where he was involved from the very beginning with Cuba’s revolutionary new film world. Despite his middle class background, banker dad and Canadian passport, I knew he was inspired by the social changes and utopian possibilities of his time and place. I knew about his controversial decision to leave the Cuban film institute in 1970 to become an independent painter, something he had to go to court to win the right to do (Cuban authorities decided that without being affiliated with an institution he was a “vagrant.”) I know that Black Panther Huey Newton, in exile in Havana in the 1970s, spoke of Harry with a certain awe, as a rebel who fought for the right to be an independent artist in 1970s Cuba. I know the beauty of his extraordinary artistic productions:  his films are stories on celluloid, his paintings tell stories on canvas. I know some of his personal highs and lows. How he had to continually account for his decision to stay and participate in Cuban cultural life after most foreigners –including his parents of course – left after the 1959 revolution. I know how much that storied place and that fabled decade – Cuba in the 1960s – fuelled him, but I also know how frustrated he became with the institutionalization and bureaucratization of rebellion and creativity. I know how saddened he was by the end of his first marriage, to a Cuban actress with whom he shared a decade of cultural involvements, how thrilled he was when his beloved daughter was born.

Harry Tanner, 2016. Photographer, May Ann Kainola.

It is unusual indeed to know someone in historical time and in real time, simultaneously. Harry was my research subject who became, in a manner, a friend. Continue reading

Remembering what we forget: Memory, commemoration and the 1885 Resistance

Matthew McRae

Every 11 November, Canadians gather to remember those who served their country in times of war and conflict. But are these same Canadians also gathering to forget? Memory, especially collective memory, tends to be selective.

One particularly interesting case study of collective memory (and collective forgetting) is the Northwest Resistance of 1885. The conflict saw some 5,000 Canadian soldiers march into what is now Alberta and Saskatchewan to battle several hundred Métis and First Nations opponents. After three months of sporadic fighting, the Resistance ended. Its leaders were imprisoned and put on trial by the Canadian government.[1]

Nowadays, few Canadians pause to remember the soldiers who fought in 1885. But this was not always the case.

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In Conversation VI: Making Sense of the Centenary of Canada’s First World War

By Mary Chaktsiris, Sarah Glassford, Chris Schultz, Nathan Smith, and Jonathan Weier



During the first half of 2019, we the editors of’s long-running series “Canada’s First World War” stepped back and reflected on the editorial work we undertook over of the course of four and a half years of Great War centenary commemorations, 2014-2019. In response to a series of questions circulated over email, two parallel discussions ensued. The first, about precariously-employed scholars doing unpaid academic labour, and the origins of this series, was posted in October 2019. The second, which revolves around the highs and lows of the centenary commemorations in Canada and abroad, and of our own modest contribution to it through the “Canada’s First World War” series, is presented here.

At the time of writing, the editorial team consisted of:

  • Mary Chaktsiris, PhD (Queen’s, 2015) – Assistant Professor, Wilson Fellow, Wilson Institute for Canadian History, McMaster University
  • Sarah Glassford, PhD (York, 2007) – Archivist, Leddy Library, University of Windsor
  • Chris Schultz, PhD ABD (Western, withdrew 2016) – Open Government Team Lead, Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, Government of Canada
  • Nathan Smith, PhD (Toronto, 2012) – Professor, Seneca College, Historical Consultant,
  • Jonathan Weier, PhD ABD (Western) – Instructor, George Brown College; Broadbent Institute Research Fellow

The poster we made for our July 2016 post calling for more contributions to the series.


Our Conversation (More or Less)

Part I:  Best and Worst of the “Canada’s First World War” Series

Well gang, we’ve come to the end of our centenary series that explored lesser-known aspects of Canada’s Great War experience and reflected on the 100th anniversary commemorations unfolding around us. Looking back, what are we most proud of or happy about?

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