The Historical Memory of Louis Riel: A Long-Standing Canadian Debate

Louis_RielA controversy has erupted over the past week surrounding how Canadians should remember Louis Riel, a 19th century Métis who not only led the 1869 Red River and 1885 Northwest Rebellions, but also negotiated the terms for Manitoba’s entry into Confederation in 1870 before his execution in 1885 for high treason.

In a pamphlet posted online last December, Edmonton East Conservative MP Peter Goldring argued that Canadians should think of Riel as a “villain” and hold him responsible for the deaths that occurred during the Red River and Northwest uprisings.  Goldring’s statements responded to a recent private members bill, introduced by Winnipeg NDP MP Pat Martin, that seeks to overturn Riel’s treason conviction and officially recognize him as a Father of Confederation. Continue reading

Acts of Contrition: Rethinking the Purpose and Effect of Government Apologies

By Teresa Iacobelli

In March 2010 the Qikiqtani Truth Commission (QTC) will draw to a close with the release of a final report and recommendations for the future.  While the QTC has been ongoing since 2007 most Canadians remain unaware of its existence, and of the historical and social issues that it addresses.  The QTC was created with a mandate to research and report on the facts surrounding the alleged dog slaughters, relocations and other government policies that affected Inuit communities in the Eastern Arctic between the period of 1950 and 1980.  As part of completing this mandate archival research has been conducted, witnesses have been interviewed and oral histories have been collected in several northern communities.  In addition to uncovering the facts, the QTC website (http://www.qtcommission.com/) also indicates that the purpose of this commission is to ultimately promote healing and reconciliation between Inuit communities and the Government of Canada.

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The Relevancy of Historical Topics

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When we first set up this website, one of the major complaints from some of the members of the steering committee was that in the coverage over the economic meltdown in late 2008/2009 there was little historical context given. There was almost this sense of wonder that the ‘business cycle’ still existed, that outside of the oft-cited Great Depression and a few other issues, that this was unprecedented and a surprise. Labour and economic historians, however, often speak of the business cycle in their work and lectures, but this was largely lost in the coverage which was dominated by economists.
All fine and good, and I think it gave us some inspiration to get this site up and running. But then we decided that we wanted to post a paper on these issues, and here is when we ran into some trouble.
There simply aren’t many historians who study these topics anymore. This was put fairly starkly to me in a conversation with a senior historian at York University, as we went through the list of faculty that Active History might contact. There certainly were a few, but you could almost count them on one hand. We’ve been in touch with some of them (and if you’re reading this and feel like you could contribute on this angle, please e-mail us). So this, I think, leads us to the bigger question. Do the topics that we, as historians or aspiring historians, choose help accentuate the gap between the public and the academic?
Certainly it’s a critique that’s been levied, both in the infamous ‘History Wars’ of the 1990s here in Canada (what was it, nursemaids knees or something), but certainly down in the States as well. In the most recent Atlantic Monthly, actually, David Frum introduced his article on the 19th century Mugwumps (if you’re curious, you can read his article here):
They say history is written by the winners, but in the United States, at least, that is not true. Losers like the Confederacy, the 1930s Communists, and the 1960s New Left have received good press. Winners like the great industrialists of the 19th century and the American conservative movement of the 1970s? Not so much. (http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/201001/mugwump)
I’d argue with the specific merits and examples used in his statement, mainly because I study the New Left and have studied early Canadian socialists as well, but it speaks to this broader issue. Even in the Sixties literature, for example, we normally think of the New Left, student radicalism, counter-cultural hippies, free love, etc.; even if this directly affected only a small minority of even young Canadians at the time. It’s worth noting, for example, that 88% of Canadian youth in the 1960s were NOT attending universities, but were mostly working for wages. When we think of the Sixties (with a capital S), we rarely think of the Medicare Care Act (1966) even though that continues to dominate political, economic and social questions down to this very day! Are we not speaking to enough issues, and is this inhibiting historians broader relationship with the media/public?
Personally, I don’t think historians should have to change their topics. But I’m largely indicting myself here in this post, as the process I study in my own work is perhaps not going to stir the attention of the mass-Chapters market. So what do you think? Are our topics relevant? Do we have more of an obligation to cast our historical nets wider?

When we first set up this website, one of the major complaints from some of the members of the steering committee was that there was little historical context given in the coverage of the late 2008/2009 economic meltdown. There was almost this sense of wonder that the ‘business cycle’ still existed, that outside of the oft-cited Great Depression and a few other incidents, that this was unprecedented and a surprise. Labour and economic historians, however, often speak of the business cycle in their work and lectures, but this was largely lost in the coverage which was dominated by economists.

All fine and good, because I think it gave us some inspiration to get this site up and running. But then we decided that we wanted to post a paper on these issues, and this is where we ran into some trouble.

There simply aren’t many Canadian historians who study the economy anymore. This was put fairly starkly to me in a conversation with a senior historian at York University, as we went through the list of faculty that Active History might contact. There certainly were a few – and many of them are very accomplished (and busy) scholars – but you could almost count them on one hand. We’ve been in touch with many of them (and if you’re reading this and feel like you could submit a paper on this angle, please consider contributing). So this, I think, leads us to the bigger question. Do the topics that we choose, as historians or aspiring historians, help accentuate the gap between the public and the academic?

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International Development Week: Canadian aid at sea

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by David Webster

Canadians care about global poverty and development. Four out of five people surveyed in 1987 agreed that one of the best things about Canada was its global generosity. A recent poll of Alberta residents carried out by Angus Reid found no less than 89% ranking global poverty as priority.

Working against this is what Richard Nimijean has called a “rhetoric-reality gap” in Canadian foreign relations. In plain language: there’s no shortage of high-minded words from Ottawa, but the reality is a far cry from the rhetoric.

The rhetoric gap isn’t new to Canadian development aid. It was foundational to the project. Louis St Laurent’s Liberal government was keen to provide big postwar reconstruction loans to Europe, but dragged its feet when invited to take a leading role in the Colombo Plan for aid to Asia. As Commonwealth foreign ministers created that plan in 1950, Canada’s Lester Pearson cabled home that “it would cause no surprise to any of the Governments more directly concerned if we were to decline on the grounds that we have heavy commitments in other areas.” Eventually Canada signed on, but the majority of early Canadian aid funds went to buy Canadian wheat for shipment to Asia, with Canada far behind the 0.7% of GDP target reached in the 1960s (if not today) by the United States, Britain and France. All donor countries, meanwhile, made sure their aid was directed to staving off communism, rebuilding multilateral trade, and promoting their image in the recipient country.

Images of Canada as a humanitarian aid donor have found their way into the country’s diplomatic self-image, but there’s a substantial gap between those images and the fact of Canada’s development aid, which peaked in 1978 at 0.53% of GDP. Canada scores poorly in absolute and comparative aid rankings.

It’s fair to ask, then, where Canadian development aid policy is heading as the government and non-governmental organizations mark International Development Week, an event the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) touts as “a unique opportunity” to “publicize progress achieved and lessons learned in international development.” Decisions in Ottawa starting in 2009 show that CIDA may be ignoring the lessons learned in six decades of development work. Continue reading

History Podcasts

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I was interviewed last week for an environmental history podcast. I was pretty excited as I listen of all kinds of podcasts including a number of history podcasts. While there are not nearly enough high quality history podcasts, there are some really good general podcasts that deal with history on a regular basis. Two of my favorite are BBC Radio 4 shows that are re-posted online: In Our Time (iTunes) (Website) and Thinking Allowed (iTunes) (Website). In Our Time records discussions of round tables on a wide range of interesting topics. These include history, the history of science, the history of literature and the history of philosophy. They normally attracted some of the top academics in the field and the host, Melvyn Bragg, is adept at keeping his guest on track. Thinking Allowed tends to focus on sociology research, but it regularly features social and cultural history. This show interviews the authors of recently published academic papers. The host, Laurie Taylor, is skilled at picking apart these academic papers and presenting them in a highly accessible manner. The show really highlights the interesting and important research published by social scientists and would be a great model for public broadcasters or independent podcasters in North America. The BBC also posts a History Magazine podcast that I discovered when researching this blog post, but have not listened to (iTunes)(Website).

Nature's Past

Here in Canada there is a lot less to choose from. CBC’s ideas (iTunes) occasionally deals with history or the history of ideas and our popular history magazine, Canadian History (formerly the Beaver) posts some short interviews (iTunes). The Network of Canadian Environment and History produces a great podcast that I will address further below.

Two history buffs, who are not academic historians, produce interesting independent podcasts in the United States. Bruce Carlson’s My History Can Beat Your Politics (iTunes)(Website) examines many of this same political issues address by pundits on Sunday talk shows and cable news networks from a historical perceptive. It is largely the kind of “Great Men” political history rarely found in university departments now a days, but nonetheless it is often much more informative and thoughtful than the talking points and spin found in mainstream American news analysis. I believe it challenges us to think about what kind of “applied history” is useful to inform our politics and whether we can present social, cultural or environmental history in such an engaging way. A second podcast, which I’ve only listened to one episode, called Hardcore History (iTunes)(Website), was both well produced and thought provoking. Dan Carlin openly admits that he is not a historian, but he reads widely on a topic and presents a well developed argument. I plan on listening to more episodes in the future. Continue reading

Storytelling Matters: Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling at Concordia University

By Christine McLaughlin

Storytelling has long been an important aspect of the historian’s craft.  The move beyond exploring traditional archival material, which privileges the voices of the literate and often the powerful, towards the collection of oral history, has been an exciting development in historical scholarship.
On the other hand, the use of oral history has been ripe with paradoxes.  Historians conduct oral interviews, which they then transcribe to written word.  From here, they pick a few, hopefully representative, quotes from multiple interviews to integrate into their work.  The completed academic project may or may not be accessible to the interviewees.
Furthermore, a significant power imbalance exists between researcher and interviewee; the historian holds ultimate authority over the story that eventually emerges from their research.  Traditionally, then, the historian, as mediator between interview material and the information that reaches the public, has been the predominant storyteller in narratives of history.
An innovative project at Concordia University seeks to revolutionize the way that oral history is collected, archived and accessed.  The Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling (http://storytelling.concordia.ca/oralhistory/index.html), co-directed by two history professors, Steven High and Elana Razlogova, has been built around the idea that the stories people tell matter.  The Centre not only facilitates the collection of oral histories for researchers, but privileges storytelling in the words and voices of those who lived through historical events by digitising video and audio recordings (http://storytelling.concordia.ca/oralhistory/projects/projects.html), and by seeking alternate ways of presenting research findings that move beyond the written word.
One example of an important project the Centre is engaged in is the Life Stories of Montrealers Displaced by War, Genocide, and Other Human Rights Violations (http://www.lifestoriesmontreal.ca/).  University and community-based researchers are in the process of recording “the experiences and memories of mass violence and displacement” of over 500 migrants to Montreal.  This material is posted on the web, so that anyone with access to an internet connection can hear stories of the experiences of refugees from Cambodia, Haiti, and Europe, to name but a few, in their own voices.
Committed to the idea of “sharing authority,” the site also contains resources for oral history researchers (http://storytelling.concordia.ca/oralhistory/resources/resources.html), including ethical guidelines and training material for the interview process.  Such materials include a list of sample interview questions (http://storytelling.concordia.ca/oralhistory/resources/tips/Documents/Sample_Questions.pdf).  While questions posed by an interviewer can signficantly impact the content of the life stories recorded, the transparency of this process as it is featured on the site is admirable.   Affiliates are also welcome to use the Centre’s state of the art facilities, which provide access to technologies and equipment that aid in the collection and digitisation of life stories.
The Centre has also developed Stories Matter (http://storytelling.concordia.ca/storiesmatter/), free software that allows for “the archiving of digital video and audio materials, enabling users to annotate, analyze, evaluate and export materials, as well as tag, index, search, and browse within interviews, sessions, and clips or across entire collections.”  Currently in its second phase, they are developing “an online platform for the software, which will allow multiple users to collaborate on the creation of a single database through an online server.”
The site also includes blog updates, access to articles and databases of oral histories, among many other features.
The Centre has done an incredible amount of work since the doors were first opened by Steven High on 10 September 2007.  Those interested in oral history would do well to monitor its future developments as it continues to probe how digital technologies can highlight the power of the spoken word.  It is also an excellent resource for educators and interested community members.  In “breaching the divide between the ivory tower and the street,” as Steven High aptly puts it, this massive project serves as an excellent example of how technology can be harnessed to make history more accessible and relevant to a public audience.

Storytelling has long been an important aspect of the historian’s craft.  The move beyond exploring traditional archival material, which privileges the voices of the literate and often the powerful, towards the collection of oral history, has been an exciting development in historical scholarship.

On the other hand, the use of oral history has been ripe with paradoxes.  Historians conduct oral interviews, which they then transcribe to written word.  From here, they pick a few, hopefully representative, quotes from multiple interviews to integrate into their work.  The completed academic project may or may not be accessible to the interviewees.

Furthermore, a significant power imbalance exists between researcher and interviewee; the historian holds ultimate authority over the story that eventually emerges from their research.  Traditionally, then, the historian, as mediator between interview material and the information that reaches the public, has been the predominant storyteller in narratives of history.

An innovative project at Concordia University seeks to revolutionize the way that oral history is collected, archived and accessed.  The Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling, co-directed by two history professors, Steven High and Elana Razlogova, has been built around the idea that the stories people tell matter.  The Centre not only facilitates the collection of oral histories for researchers, but privileges storytelling in the words and voices of those who lived through historical events by digitising video and audio recordings, and by seeking alternate ways of presenting research findings that move beyond the written word.

Continue reading

CFP – “We Demand”: History/Sex/Activism In Canada

Vancouver, British Columbia
August 25-28, 2011

On August 28, 1971 over two hundred lesbian and gay activists gathered on Parliament Hill to demand the federal government bring an end to laws and practices that criminalized, marginalized, and stigmatized lesbians and gays. Acting in solidarity with their central Canadian allies, Vancouver activists staged the same action on the steps of
their city’s Court House. It was the first recorded national political action undertaken by gay liberationists and lesbian feminist activists in Canada.

”We Demand” marks the fortieth anniversary of the 1971 action. The conference seeks to showcase current work on all aspects of the history of sexuality in Canada, from pre-contact to present times.

Keynote speaker: Ann Cvetkovich, author of An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures

Other confirmed speakers include Mary Louise Adams, Karen Dubinsky, Gary Kinsman, and Steven Maynard.

We are currently accepting proposals for panels, individual papers, roundtable discussions, poster sessions, and other means of communicating ideas and generating discussion. Continue reading

A Model Primary Source Blog: Paleo-Future

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By Adam Crymble

Photo of burglars robbing a house from a hovering airplaneEver since burglars learned to perform effective aerial assaults, society has been in a downward spiral (see photo). It’s unsettling to know that someone can fly in, sneak down the chimney and make off with all your hard-earned space credits. Good thing at 122 years old, you’re now considered middle aged and have some time to recoup your losses before retiring to the moon.

Historians often study what people in the past were like, but few stop to look at what they thought we’d be like. Stepping in to fill that role is St. Paul, Minnesota based writer, Matt Novak, who has kept a blog, Paleo-Future: a look into the future that never was since 2007.

With each entry, Novak guides readers onto a brief sojourn into the past where they can look forward at what our own society might have been. Inspired by a childhood trip to Disney’s out-dated “Tomorrowland” exhibit, Paleo-Future uses copies of primary sources and brief commentary to engage readers, many of whom may have grown up during the 50s, 60s and 70s, when the majority of the predictions showcased on the blog were first made.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Novak says his most popular posts are those that are “wildly inaccurate.” This no doubt includes entries such as the 1949 article in the San Antonio Light newspaper, which predicted we’d soon see the city of New York entirely roofed over. The would-be development was touted as an ingenious way for scientists to provide “climate to order.”

Even stranger is a 1960 Chicago Tribune prediction that forecast we would soon have “Man-made balls of fire” in the sky that provided 24-hour sunlight. Novak rightly placed this entry in the “why the hell would you do that?” file. Continue reading

Translated Paper: “Why is Vietnam Recovering, while Cuba is Sinking?”

Today we published a translated English version of the first paper ActiveHistory.ca “Why is Vietnam Recovering, while Cuba is Sinking?” written by Yves Montenay, and translated by Michael Poplyansky.  Here is the abstract:

Abstract

Before going their separate ways, Vietnam and Cuba followed similar political and economic paths, making the impact of economic freedom on each country’s development very clear, both directly and comparatively. This paper will not discuss full employment, because in Communist Vietnam, as in today’s Cuba, everyone theoretically had an assigned job—even if it was not the job that one hoped for, or at the location that one preferred, much less at the salary that one wanted. Nor will I evaluate the progress of “liberalism”, since the term implies political freedom; I will simply examine the consequences of legalizing formerly banned economic activities.  Click here to read full paper. Click here to read the original French version.

History for Haiti

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Today Foreign Ministers from the ‘Friends of Haiti Group’ are meeting with Jean-Max Bellerive, Haiti’s Prime Minister, and UN officials in Montreal to discuss both the current situation in Haiti and longer term plans for the country’s stabilization and reconstruction. As they discuss Haiti’s future, it is important for them to also consider Haiti’s past.

Over the past two weeks, some aspects of Haitian history have been addressed in the media. With the exception of Pat Robertson’s attempt to evangelize through fire and brimstone, many of these explanations of how Haiti came to be mired in poverty had merit. They range from harsh reparations to former French slaveholders after the successful Haitian Revolution, rampant deforestation, US occupation during the middle of the twentieth century, to the brutal dictatorships of Papa and Baby Doc Duvalier.

This history has been used to explain Haiti’s poverty and why it is important to help as the nation is rebuilt. Within these snapshots of history, however, Haiti is typically envisioned as heading in a downward direction; its exercises in self government depicted as failures.

Although some discussions of Haiti’s history have delved into the deeper roots of the country’s troubles, many have primarily focused on its governance. Both the BBC‘s and CBC’s web histories of Haiti, for example, devote half of their discussion to the Duvaliers and the ousting of Jean-Bertrand Aristide. With the exception of a much better contextualized article in the Guardian, few of these reports emphasize the role that the predecessors of the leaders meeting today played in bringing about Haitian instability and poverty (France and the United States are two principal ‘friends’).

If Haiti is going to change for the better after this disaster, international leaders need to pay attention to the role that foreign involvement in Haiti has played in bringing about the current situation, and work together with Haitians towards a sustainable form of involvement that does not replicate the mistakes or deliberate interventions of the past.

One way to do this is by focusing on histories of the past that actually discuss the Haitian people, and not just how they were affected by outside forces. There have been a handful of discussions since the earthquake that have balanced the challenges that Haitians have faced with their resilience in dealing with them. TV Ontario’s The Agenda featured a rich discussion which both contextualizes the current situation in Haiti and lays out a framework for reconstruction. Last Tuesday, CBC’s The Current interviewed Rebecca Solnit. Her recent book A Paradise Built in Hell profiles five disasters during the 20th century and how the people affected responded to them. Her argument, that when faced with disasters, people tend to work together for the common good while elites tend to work towards maintaining their own control, provides a critical lesson for Haiti’s leadership if that society is going to be built differently in the coming years. Karen Dubinsky, a historian at Queen’s University, was also interviewed by The Current. She uses her research on Operation Peter Pan, which removed children from Cuba in the early 1960s, to caution foreign governments and individuals from the temptation to adopt children out of disaster zones like Haiti. Most directly, Allen Wells, a historian of the Caribbean, has argued for a reshaping of Haiti’s history in order to focus more on the resilience of the people. Continue reading