Not Learning, Unlearning, and Relearning to See Genocide: Part 2

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 Karen Bridget Murray

…they still kill us [and] take our children…

Audra Simpson (2016)


I moved to Fredericton in 2001 to take up my first tenure-track position. I was hired to teach courses on Canadian politics at the University of New Brunswick. I was an uninvited “guest” on Wolastoqiyik and Mi’kmaw territory covered by a 1725 peace and friendship treaty (such treaties do not cede land).

Shortly after, I was asked to join a research project on “urban Aboriginal policy.” The fieldwork for the study drew my attention to the Shubenacadie Residential School, which was built on Mi’kmaw lands at Sipekni’katik and operated from 1929 to 1967.

I thought that the newly digitized “School Series” records of the Department of Indian Affairs might hold information about the Dominion of Canada’s role at the school in relation to urban labour market training.

Violence against children at that school was, by then, no secret. Mi’kmaw elder Isabelle Knockwood had brought this violence into public consciousness in Out of the Depths: The Experiences of Mi’kmaw Children at the Indian Residential School at Shubenacadie, Nova Scotia (1994). The Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement (2007) had also been reached.

Why did I think, in this political context, that inquiring into urban employment dynamics was a reasonable question to pose with respect to the Shubenacadie Residential School?

Denial comes to mind.

Lee Maracle has said that “[t]o be a white Canadian is to be sunk in deep denial” (2017, location 283 in the digital edition). Denial might nurture in oneself a sense of innocence, as Maracle says, but it is by no means “innocent”.

This point has been driven home to me after reading Daniel Rück and Valerie Deacon’s Active History post on how denial is the “eighth stage of genocide.”

Indigenous scholars and survivors of the genocide of course know more than I could ever know.

I write this reflection to join the chorus of those challenging rampant genocide denial, including where it endures behind closed doors of settler-colonial classrooms in post-secondary education.

The Pan-Territorial Residential School System Ideal

It shouldn’t have taken me this long.

I broke through denial by reading Shubenacadie Residential School records, roughly fifteen years after first hearing about the existence of residential schools.

Pulsating with evidence of violence against children – abject cruelty, including sexual violence, murderous intents, and deaths – the records showed that officials of the Dominion of Canada were well aware of this violence, did nothing to stop it, and expressly sanctioned brute force against children, including the very young and the frailest.

To the office of the Prime Minister, officials were willfully complicit in this genocidal violence, violence that implicated and continues to implicate those who turn away or deny it.

I found myself contemplating the significance of the “pan-territorial residential school system ideal.”

For me, this term conveys the geopolitical purpose of the schools, which included militaristic dimensions.

A pan-territorial residential school system ideal began to be pursued over the last two decades of the nineteenth century.

It was first articulated in 1879 by Nicholas Flood Davin, who had been commissioned by John A. Macdonald to report on the use of residential schools in the United States. Davin favourably assessed their use as a “civilization” strategy, and lauded the “soon [to] be universal” system.

He recommended the immediate opening of four schools in the Dominion but noted that an “extensive application of the principle of boarding schools” would have been preferred if the Indigenous Peoples were not “so largely migratory” (Davin, 1879, pp. 2, 9-11; see also Murray, 2017, p. 753).

Davin proposed this plan in the context of the “disappearance of bison in the wild” that led to widespread famine among Indigenous Peoples’ communities. Continue reading

A Year of Inaction: Ontario Education and the TRC

      No Comments on A Year of Inaction: Ontario Education and the TRC

Evan Habkirk

When the Conservative government under Doug Ford came into power in June 2018, they immediately began rolling back curriculum revisions by the Ontario Ministry of Education. Two subject areas affected by these actions were the new sexual education curriculum and the addition of increased Indigenous content to the social studies, history, geography and civics curricula. Although parents, educators, and students alike rallied against the cancellation of the sex ed curriculum (which has, in part, been reinstated), there has been less sustained public outroar against the cancelling of consultation sessions with Indigenous people (see Christou and Crawley for notable exceptions).

“Carrying Knowledge Together.” Mural created by Iroquoian artist and scholar Kanatawakhon, University of Western Ontario. Author’s photograph

As a non-Indigenous allied scholar working in the field of Indigenous history, I found this lack of sustained criticism alarming as the cancellation of these sessions went against the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, undid the work of the Ontario Ministry of Education to establish respectful relationships with Indigenous communities, and hindered the ability of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous students to see themselves in the curriculum and understand their roles in the process of reconciliation.

Through an analysis of Ontario Ministry of Education programs and policies, this post will argue that while the Ministry has been learning from their previous initiatives, this decision curtailed their efforts at the cusp of the most forward and inclusive plan to create meaningful Indigenous education directives based on consultations with Indigenous people.

Continue reading

Tenth Anniversary Repost: A Proud Canadian or a Canadian too proud? Understanding Stompin’ Tom’s nationalism

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 2013, Active History celebrated five years! Some of our more timely posts from that year included Elites, Social Networks, and the Historical Profession, Time For a Change: Historical Perspective on the Washington Redskins Name and Logo Controversy“, New History Wars?: Avoiding the Fights of the Past,and In a Rush to Modernize, MySpace Destroyed More History

There were a lot of fantastic posts in 2013 and it was hard to pick just one to repost, but we have decided to share Kaitlin Wainwright’s “A Proud Canadian or a Canadian too proud? Understanding Stompin’ Tom’s nationalism.” 

Image from Kate Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant (

Image from Kate Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant (

Last Wednesday, Canada lost its “national troubadour”, an “icon”, and “one of [its] most prolific and well-known country and folk singers”; a man who ranked 13th in CBC’s The Greatest Canadian list. Stompin’ Tom Connors is credited with writing three hundred songs, many of which are loudly and proudly Canadian. Upon his death, online tributes poured in from the CBC, politicians of all stripes, and even Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s fake Twitter account. NDP Members of Parliament paid tribute to Stompin’ Tom outside the House of Commons with their rendition of “Bud the Spud”. The Globe and Mail suggested that the mainstream media “patronized him as a novelty singer” and questioned whether he was given enough attention during his life. Everyone seemed to have a different story of their experience with Stompin’ Tom, but they were all general positive and “pro-Canadian”.

Let me tell you my Stompin’ Tom story: I grew up in a non-musical family. My earliest experience of his music was when I was twenty, in a second-year Canadian history course, where Big Joe Mufferaw and the NFB’s Log Drivers’ Waltz were used as part of lessons on logging. The lens that I was given to look at him through was one of myth and memory, and the building of nationhood. I never made an emotional connection with his music, and in his death my recollection of his life’s work is maybe, therefore, more easily critical in nature. Continue reading

Countering White Disbelief with Historical Knowledge: Racism and Racial Profiling in Nova Scotia

Jill Campbell-Miller

Racial profiling has lately been in the news in Nova Scotia. In September, Dr. Lynn Jones, a well-known champion of civil rights and a labour leader, was stopped by police while out with friends watching deer. Someone had called the police to report “suspicious people” in the neighbourhood. To add insult to injury, Jones was stopped in a historically black community in the town of Truro known as “The Marsh,” the area in which she grew up. Following this experience, she put together a community meeting, leading town council to pass a motion that will work to improve relations between black residents and the municipal government.

Then, on October 21, the chief of the Halifax Regional Police announced that the force will formally apologize for the practice of “street checks,” which has disproportionately affected black people in the city and its suburbs. This followed a provincial ban on the practice in April, which itself followed a report by University of Toronto criminology professor, Scott Wortley. His report found that black people were six times more likely to be stopped in the so-called “random” checks than white people in Halifax. That prompted an independent legal review, which found that the checks were illegal.

African Nova Scotians had been agitating for a ban for many months. Derico Symonds, who organized a march to support a ban in the spring, said to CBC News that it was not lost on him that it took two reports from two white men to finally get the practice banned: “And so that it took this amount of effort is absolutely disappointing. If folks don’t get their driveway shovelled in Halifax it’s an uproar and there’s immediate action. But then when we have something such as this with a 180 page report that says that the practice is racist and we know that it is, it takes several efforts from several different people over several months to actually have the action that we were asking for.” Symonds and other advocates, Trayvone Clayton, Shevy Price, and Kate Macdonald, had earlier walked away from a working group formed following the release of the Wortley report after it refused to consider an outright ban on checks. Unfortunately, activists complain that checks have continued even after the ban.

As Symonds expressed, a great deal of frustration permeated the discussion around this issue, even after this apparent win for civil rights. When the report was released, Robert Wright, chair of the African Nova Scotia Decade for African Descent Coalition’s justice committee, The Coast said that he found it hard to hear about the supposed shock of leaders who expressed surprise at the findings of the Wortley report: “‘How do you get to be the head of the police commission and be horrified by the stories people tell about their racist interactions with the police?’ Wright asks. “Do you not know that people suffer daily indignity in their encounters with the police?’”­ These events, and the responses by activists to them, had me thinking about the nature of disbelief. Why do white people persist in disbelieving the experiences of racialized peoples in this province, or in Canada more generally?

It also made me think about the many consumer affairs stories that we hear, such as the work done by CBC’s “Go Public” series. When people complain about cars with persistent dangerous mechanical failures, or bad service from airlines, the average person is automatically sympathetic. In general, we do not doubt these events have happened. This is because when many people, all with something obvious in common, report the same experience, those experiences become credible. Yet a similar automatic belief in experiences of racism does not seem to exist among white people. Why is this? Perhaps it is because when someone reports that they were lied to by telecom customer service agents, we (I’m now using “we” to identify white people) can assign blame to a greedy, faraway, corporate elite. But when someone details their life with racism while shopping for groceries, working as a bus driver, furniture salesperson, firefighter, janitor, or in their interactions with police, then the culprits become us, and our neighbours, friends, and relatives. It is deeply uncomfortable to admit that while only a minority of us are actual white supremacists, white supremacy lives in all of us.[1] It becomes easier to question and doubt. After all, haven’t we all had a troublesome co-worker prone to lying and drama? What if the shopper did seem suspicious for credible reasons? Perhaps race had nothing to do with it, and how would we feel if we were being unfairly charged with racism? And suddenly, in our imaginations, we become the victims.

Yet as white people, we usually do not have to look very far to find our own culpability, or that of personal acquaintances. I was standing in line at the grocery store when I overheard the man behind me say to his friend, “well, some people might say that’s racist, but just because it’s racist, it doesn’t mean it’s not true,” followed by laughter. I was about to turn around and counter that by definition if something is racist it cannot be true (thus cementing my status as the most popular person in the grocery store), when my husband, who had not heard the previous exchange, said, “oh, hi [name]!” It was a close relative. I shut my mouth.

Fortunately, historians are in a good position to counteract this epidemic of disbelief even if they do not personally study histories of race and racism. Continue reading

The War-Time Elections Act and Women Voters in 1917

      2 Comments on The War-Time Elections Act and Women Voters in 1917

News Telegram, 27 November 1917

Editor’s Note: As a follow up to our special election series that ran before 21 October, this post is a focused reflection on elections, politics and gender.

Lyndsay Campbell 

We heard a lot about concerns and even scandals around voting and the manipulation of the electorate in the lead up to, and aftermath of, the 43rd federal election. As Colin Grittner noted here before the election, the question of who should be entitled to vote has long been a source of conflict, especially over the question of who should have a say in determining a polity’s future. Women have been central to these debates.

Women first voted federally in Canada in December 1917 under the provisions of the War-time Elections Act, which received royal assent the previous September. This statute and its companion, the Military Voters Act, 1917, are often framed as milestones on the road to universal suffrage. What is often forgotten or ignored in the process is that they were drafted to sculpt an electorate to produce an electoral outcome that the drafters framed as necessary for winning the war. The main goal was to neutralize Liberal support in western Canada, where women were believed entitled to, or indeed already had, the franchise, as did naturalized citizens with roots in places under the control of Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A combination of militarism and self-interest – the commitments of Robert Laird Borden, Arthur Meighen and others – pushed aside concerns about unfairness, discrimination, empirical evidence and the integrity of elections. Only thus did a select group of Canadian women vote federally for the first time.

This electoral manipulation hasn’t been exactly forgotten in scholarly circles (Carol Bacchi’s 1983 analysis in Liberation Deferred? is dead right), but it is generally omitted from popular narratives about women’s enfranchisement. Instead, we learn that the wives, sisters and daughters of the men who had gone overseas voted federally for the first time in 1917, one more way in which they fulfilled their patriotic duty. We may also learn of  the manipulation of the military vote. However, the rationalizing and the scale of these efforts, along with the almost wholesale disenfranchisement of women in the West and Ontario who expected to vote, generally escape note. Continue reading

Not Learning, Unlearning, and Relearning to See Genocide: Part 1

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 Karen Bridget Murray


A friend of mine introduced me to this German word, which refers to the collective process of grappling with problematic truths of the past. This is happening in Canada as awareness of the Indigenous genocide grows.


That is the finding of both the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada and the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Women and Girls in Canada.

Canada committed genocide. Canada commits genocide, as many others have also argued. I will return to this point in the second part of this two-part reflection.

I’m a university educator who, like many others, is trying to climb her way out of ignorance about how genocide has shaped Canada’s past and present. There is a lot to learn. I’m in the early days of this work, necessary work, if one is committed to unlearning and relearning for a post-genocidal world.

In this first part of my reflection, I share some of my personal history, including how members of my family, relative newcomers to Canada, were no strangers to state violence.

I’m not suggesting equivalencies with the Indigenous genocide. I situate myself in this way because it provides some context to my learning about residential schools and the Indigenous genocide of which they are a part.

This is, of course, a partial self-reflection, one that no doubt falls prey to the practice of narrating oneself into the best light possible. I’m not sure how one extricates oneself from this problem, other than beginning with where one is at. This my beginning. Continue reading

History Slam Episode 138 – Cheating Hitler: Surviving the Holocaust

By Sean Graham

Cheating Hitler: Surviving the Holocaust will be screened on Wednesday November 6 at the Bell TIFF Lightbox in Toronto, after which there will be a special talkback with the three Holocaust survivors featured in the film along with the director and producer. The world broadcast premiere will be on November 11 at 9pm on History Channel.

Survivor Rose Lipszyc visits Majdanek Concentration Camp where her father was last seen alive.

During the 75th anniversary of D-Day back in June, we were reminded that as we continue to move further away from the Second World War the number of living veterans continues to decrease and that we need to honour their service and do everything possible to preserve their stories. While veterans got all the press in June, there is another group of people who experienced the war whose stories also need to be heard while we still can: Holocaust survivors. Each year, the number of survivors of the horrors of the Nazi’s genocide decreases. While there are organizations dedicated to preserving their stories, the ability to hear about the violence, fear, and, in a lot cases, courage that embody their experiences first hand represents a powerful opportunity. For a lot of survivors, telling their stories is not only about teaching younger generations about what happened, but also about warning the world that, without vigilance, it could happen again.

In the powerful new documentary Cheating Hitler: Surviving the Holocaust, three survivors tell share stories of the Holocaust. All three were children in the 1940s, but their re-counting of the experience is as vivid as if it it happened yesterday. In following their stories, viewers also see researchers work to answer questions and resolve lingering mysteries that have stayed with them throughout their lives. Beautifully combining the lost innocence of their childhoods, the inexplicable violence that came with the murder of 6 million people, and the perseverance of survival, the film exquisitely brings a level of humanity to the inhumane.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with the film’s director Rebecca Snow and producer Steve Gamester. We talk about the process of finding the three survivors featured, the research process, and the emotion in telling these stories. We also talk about the film’s style, the survivor’s different reactions to the research, and the valuable lessons that we can learn from survivors.

Continue reading

A Short History of Reading Disability and Special Education

By Jason Ellis, University of British Columbia

When a child does not learn to read, what does the school do? The answer has varied over time, and the history of this topic tells us something about special education as well. In the nineteenth century, if not earlier than that, physicians described “word-blindness” and “alexia.” They considered these rare and peculiar conditions, occurring where a person who was otherwise quite intellectually normal (sometimes even very bright) suffered from a complete, or near-complete, inability to learn to read. [1] It was not until the 1920s that psychologists and remedial educators began to develop something more akin to the modern notion of reading disability and to develop techniques for addressing it in special education classrooms. It took until the 1930s for them to get their ideas onto the special education policy agenda. When they did succeed in placing them there, they were able to improve education for some children. Yet others were still left behind. Special education’s approach to reading disability teaches that special education is a riddle of contradictions, a fact that remains as true today as ever.

Continue reading

Tenth Anniversary Repost: Gin and Tonic: A Short History of a Stiff Drink

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. 

Founding editor Jay Young’s post on “Gin and Tonic: A Short History of A Stiff Drink” was one of our most popular pieces in 2012. Seven years later this piece continues to be frequently shared and discovered by new readers.

2012 also saw the launch of the History Slam podcast under the leadership and innovation of Sean Graham. Want to know more about what happened in 2012? Check out our 4 Years of post

Gin and Tonic. Image from Wikipedia.

The Gin and Tonic – what better a drink during the dog days of summer?  Put some ice in a glass, pour one part gin, add another part tonic water, finish with a slice of lime, and you have a refreshing drink to counter the heat.  But it is also steeped in the history of medicine, global commodity frontiers, and the expansion of the British Empire. 

Let’s start with the gin.  Although it is commonly known as the quintessential English spirit, the history of gin underlines the island’s connections to the outside world. The origin of gin – unlike the drink itself – is quite murky.  Sylvius de Bouve, a sixteenth-century Dutch physician, is the individual associated with the development of gin.  He created a highly-alcoholic medicinal concoction called Jenever.  It featured the essential oils of juniper berries, which the physician believed could improve circulation and cure other ailments.  The berry, deriving from a small coniferous plant, had long been treasured for its medicinal properties, including its use during the plague. Continue reading

Dyslexia Awareness Month Advocacy

      1 Comment on Dyslexia Awareness Month Advocacy

By Jim Clifford

I’ve spent the past month working with parents of dyslexic kids in Saskatoon to raise awareness about the ongoing struggles students face in the public school system. I’ve used my history with dyslexia to highlight what is possible when public schools provide the students with adequate support and accommodation. I was interviewed by the U of S, CBC and CTV and I gave a talk at a fundraiser event. I’ve included the text of my speech below. On Wednesday, we will publish a post by Dr. Jason Ellis on the history of special education in North America and its mixed success in supporting students who struggled with reading and writing.

Thanks a lot for coming out to this Dyslexia Awareness Month event. I would like to thank Crystal for coming up with the idea and doing all the work to make it happen. I have a very simple message tonight. If we support dyslexic students, they can do anything. They can thrive in university in any discipline, become authors and even become a professor in a history department, a field that focuses on reading and writing. I was very lucky. I was born in the right year, in the right school district with the right parents. I want to see a future where dyslexic kids don’t need my improbable luck.

I am dyslexic. When I sat down this morning to write some notes for this talk, I misspelt the word “dyslexic” and then the word “misspelt”. Quickly editing as I write with the help of Grammarly is a normal part of my day, as I write emails, articles, and a draft of my second book. I’ve been writing this way since the introduction of the red squiggly underline in Microsoft Word in 1998. This was one of many lucky developments in my educational career, as the technology arrived the year I left home to start university Bishop’s University in Lennoxville, Quebec. Throughout high school, writing remained a major struggle and I dictated my exams and essays to a fantastic teaching assistant and my parents. I finished high school with straight As, but I still could not write on my own.  Continue reading