The Sentimentalists by Johanna Skibsrud

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book coverI don’t normally rush out to buy the Giller Prize winner.  I’m regrettably not a big follower of recent Canadian literature.  In fact, during the past year I’ve had little time to read fiction more generally.  However, when a small press won the prize for the first time and the interviews with the author suggested the book might be very compelling, I downloaded a copy of Johanna Skibsrud’s The Sentimentalists.  ActiveHistory.ca is not really the place for fiction reviews and I’ve got few credentials as a literary reviewer, but as a historian, I found the book fascinating. Continue reading

You Are Here: Not A Year-In-Review Post

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It’s the middle of December and we’re not only two short weeks away from the new year, we’re quietly tip-toing our way into a new decade.

While many writers will be surrendering their soapboxes to reflection and summation — perhaps as the basis for trying to predict where it seems we’re headed — I’d like to offer a different sort of historically-minded meditation: a brief you are here assessment informed by two somewhat interconnected statements that recently caught my attention. Continue reading

On Light and Dark: the historicity of colour and non-colour photographs

What makes photography a strange invention is that its primary raw materials are light and time. – John Berger

Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii. Peasant Girls, 1909. Digital color rendering. Prints and Photographs Division (LC-DIG-ppmsc-03984) (4)

A few months ago, one of my contacts on Facebook shared a link to the Prokudin-Gorskii Digital Photographic Collection, which is available online through the Library of Congress. What struck me the about the collection was that the photographs, appearing in beautiful  vibrant colours, were taken prior to the First World War. That’s right: these photos are over 100 years old. The introductory text provided by the Library of Congress tells me that I’m looking at images that “offer a vivid portrait of a lost world – the Russian Empire on the eve of World War I and the coming Revolution.” Continue reading

Strengthening Community through Digitized Local History

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The most common question I get when people ask where I live is: “Why are you still living there?” I live near Jane-Finch and York University in Toronto, a neighbourhood better known for its crime and distance from key services than its rich cultural and community life. Over the past five-and-a-half years, however, I have learned that my neighbourhood’s bark is worse than its bite. I like where I live and a recent Toronto Public Library history project does a really great job at demonstrating some of the reasons why.

Over this past summer and fall the York Woods branch of the Toronto Public Library has been engaging with seniors and high school students to create the Black Creek Living History project. Continue reading

Summary of Teaching History in Diverse Venues

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By Jennifer Bonnell, THEN/HiER Program Coordinator

Thirty-six historians, educators, museum professionals and graduate students from across the country attended the first of what we hope will be an annual workshop offered by THEN/HiER in partnership with ActiveHistory.ca.  This year’s workshop was realized in conjunction with the Association for Canadian Studies and the Ontario History and Social Sciences Teachers’ Association joint conference, “Canada’s Diverse Histories,” held at the same venue November 5th and 6th. Continue reading

New ActiveHistory.ca Paper – Cancun Summit: The True Reasons for the ‘Failure’ of the Green Movement by Jean-François Mouhot

As the 2010 UN Climate summit in Cancun seems unlikely to make any significant advances, the green movement has been blamed for failing to convince the public that action on climate change is both urgent and necessary, in particular because of its refusal of technologies such as nuclear energy and geo-engineering. However, looking at a previous period of “boom and bust” in environmental awareness in the late 1980s, the paper shows that the recent decline in concern over global warming in the West is due both to the economic recession and to people’s reluctance to accept self-restraint. Then, it argues that our reticence to act on climate change is best understood by way of an analogy with slavery, an analogy further developed in an article published in the journal Climatic Change. Finally, it reminds technology enthusiasts that the solutions of the past have often been the problems of the future: CFCs, for example, were considered a great invention until their ozone-depleting effect was discovered.

Link to the full paper

The “War on the Car” has a long history

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Looking north on Toronto's Bay Street in 1924. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 1116

Last week, newly-elected Toronto Mayor Rob Ford continued his campaign rhetoric by proclaiming that “the war on the car is over.” On the first day of his mayoralty, Ford announced he intends to halt construction of a light rail transit line on Sheppard Avenue.  The mayor says a subway under Sheppard Avenue should be built instead of the surface light rail line running in its own right of way on the suburban thoroughfare.  Placing transit along Sheppard Avenue underground, with its massive cost increases and unsure future, falls in line with Ford’s conception of streets as primarily conduits for car and truck traffic.

The Sheppard light rail project is the first line under construction to build Transit City, a plan introduced in 2007 to crisscross under-serviced areas with light rapid transit.  Ford’s announcement puts the Transit City plan in limbo.  The province, who is paying for the project, has suggested it will look at Ford’s emphasis on subways, but its final decision is unclear.  Queen’s Park has indicated the city would be forced to cover the millions of dollars in contract cancellation penalties and construction costs, which runs counter to Ford’s mantra against “wasteful spending” and “respect for the taxpayer.”

If the “war on the car” in Toronto is apparently now over, when exactly did it begin? Continue reading

Memento Mori On the Web: What Happens When Photos are Digitized?

Does anything about this photo seem unusual? It looks like a typical family photo from the Victorian era. What if I told you the woman in the middle was dead when the photo was taken? Did that change your reaction to the photo? I came across post-mortem photography a few years ago and became fascinated with it.  As I began searching for images and histories of these photos, I was led to several websites and digital collections dedicated to the display of these photographs. It was during my research that I noticed a pattern; many of the same photos were being used on different websites.

I remember my first reaction to these photographs. Such images made me very uncomfortable. Yet, how we view and deal with death and deceased bodies today is much different from the Victorian era. Today, death for the most part is a private affair and is not something we are exposed to on a regular basis. Post-mortem photography was common in the Victorian era after the invention of the daguerreotype in 1839. It was an affordable and suitable method for middle-class families to commemorate a loved one.  Bodies were usually staged as though the deceased were still alive or in a deep sleep and it is rare to see the deceased displayed in a coffin or funerary setting. Continue reading

Step-by-Step: Looking Up an Ancestor’s First World War Record

This is part of a new series, ‘Step-by-Step,’ which aims to guide users through on-line research tools. If you want to suggest further guides, please contact us or put it in the comments section.

I suppose I shouldn’t have been so surprised that an off-the-cuff reference to looking up an ancestor’s military record spurred such a gaggle after my undergraduate tutorial last week. I’d repeated an observation that I’d read on H-Canada a few years ago about being prepared to learn about an ancestor’s sexual misadventures (our class was on sex education). The reaction was astounding – they wanted to learn about their family history, or that of a partner, or friend, or expressed general genealogical interest.

Simply pointing them to Library and Archives Canada website might not be enough, however. A few students had already been to the website, actually, but didn’t find it terribly intuitive or straight forward. This year, I’ve been captivated with helping students navigate the technological options available to them (Zotero, DeeperWeb, WorldCat, Google Scholar/Books, etc.), and have realized that we need to think more about how we teach this. In one of my classes, I adapted Bill Turkel’s work in quickly going digital into a screen-by-screen discussion. This post provides a screen-by-screen dissection of how you can find military records from the First World War at Library and Archives Canada. Continue reading

Canadian Folk Music Heritage

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When someone says folk music what comes to mind? Gordon Lightfoot? Mariposa? Natalie McMaster? A sense of confusion as to what is actually classified as folk? Traditional folk music has existed in Canada since the 16th century.  Canadian folk music is rooted in oral tradition, Canadian heritage, and the struggles of the common people.  Today, Canadian folk music is still strongly linked to a uniquely Canadian past.  Anglo-Canadian folk songs often relate stories about the sea, fishing, lumbering, mining, and other activities which Canada was built upon.  Additionally, folk music often reflects the diversity of the original settlers of Canada.  The various sub genres of folk are frequently linked to a particular culture such as Franco-Canadian, Gaelic, Ukrainian,  and many others. Folk music often acts as a form of oral tradition and is directly linked to Canada’s past. Continue reading