History and the Problem of Auto-referentiality

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by Jeremy Nathan Marksblackbird

Historical writing has long suffered from the problem of auto-referentiality. Auto-referentiality, as I define it, simply means historians are writing only in reference to human subjects and human problems. I don’t mean to say that historiography is populated only by human beings but we do not currently possess an extensive literature where humans are not the protagonists.

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Canadian Historians in the Newspaper

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Newspaper and TeaWhat if my supervisor disagrees with what I write? What if someone in the community sends me a nasty email? What if the editor ignores my article?

There are plenty of excuses young historians turn to when they convince themselves not to write opinion pieces for the newspaper. But, there are even more good reasons why they should: what if it makes government reconsider policy related to my research? What if I can convince Canadians to think differently about a topic for which I am passionate? What if my research makes a tangible difference because I put it where people would read it? Continue reading

Active History and learning from the early-Canadian past

Two weeks ago the  Telegraph in the United Kingdom ran a story announcing that due to government cutbacks the department of history at the University of Sussex has decided to end research and in-depth teaching on topics related to pre-1700 English social history and pre-1900 European history.  Under the new paradigm, topics such as the English Civil War, French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars would no longer be a focus of study.

Appropriately these changes were met with outcry from the academic community.  The Telegraph received a letter signed by 17 historians who called the program’s restricted emphasis short-sighted and risked skewing the public’s understanding of the past.

All of this got me thinking about the state of early-Canadian history and its relationship to Active History.  As the only member of our editorial board who does not study twentieth-century history, I must admit that I reflect on this often.  How important is early-Canadian history to current issues facing Canadian society?  And how does research on early-Canadian history compare with the study of later periods? Continue reading

CFP: Left History Theme Issue on Active History

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Left History is currently seeking submissions from new and established scholars for a special theme issue on the emerging field of Active History.

Working in collaboration with the editors of ActiveHistory.ca and drawing on the discussions that were initiated at the Active History: History for the Future Conference held at Glendon College in September 2008, Left History is looking for original articles, theoretical pieces, document analyses, and reviews that question and challenge the public responsibility of the historian. The issue will include a peer-reviewed article section, as well as a roundtable focusing on less conventional displays, examples, and short thought pieces. Continue reading

Promises, Prospects and Pitfalls of Digital Memory

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By Krista McCracken

People naturally forget things over time.  Details become vague, memories cloudy, and events are never recalled exactly as they occurred.  The act of recording history assists in preserving an authentic version of the past.  The way in which the past is remembered and recorded has drastically changed as technology and digital memory have improved.

Technology has created an abundance of new mediums.  Digital information is now cheaper and easier to store than ever before.  The cheapness of digital storage is a huge benefit for those interested in documenting the past.  Digital storage allows heritage institutions to preserve fragile and valuable information at a lower cost, while simultaneously saving space. Continue reading

Announcement: Words on the Wall

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Here is an announcement for ‘Words on the Wall,’ which is a fundraiser for plaques that will commemorate this 19th century patient-build wall in Toronto, Ontario.

Help us put Words on the Wall

The Psychiatric Survivor Archives of Toronto (PSAT) is giving out bricks to serve as the basis for a work of art.  Artists and groups are welcome to use the medium of their choice. Works will be displayed and sold as part of a silent auction to help raise funds for historic plaques to commemorate the history of the patient-built wall at the Queen Street Site of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

Words on the Wall will be held on April 21, 2010 at the Gladstone Hotel in conjunction with This is Not a Reading  Series. There will be a wall tour led by historian Geoffrey Reaume, followed by a relaunch of the 2 nd  edition of his book, Remembrance of Patients Past (University of Toronto Press). We will end the evening with a silent auction of the bricks donated by artists.

To request a brick or for more information, please email psychsurvivorarchives@gmail.com or phone 416-661-9975 or 416-809-1013.
For more information about PSAT visit www.psychatricsurvivorarchives.com
For more information about This Is Not A Reading Series visit www.tinars.ca

DEADLINE FOR SUBMISSIONS: APRIL 7, 2010

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