The Return of the Narrative?

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The history curriculum in UK schools is to be overhauled with the help of Simon Schama, an announcement made five months after the controversy sparked by the alleged invitation extended to Niall Ferguson.  The concerns remain the same: that history is disappearing through falling demand, at least in state schools; that where it is taught, the topic-based approach of the national curriculum develops no sense of a coherent narrative of British history and necessarily omits important episodes and figures (such as Churchill).  ‘The trashing of our past has to stop,’ Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, insisted, echoing Ferguson’s call for a ‘campaign against junk history’ following recent, successful campaigns to improve school meals.

Geoffrey Alderman agreed.  He argued that pupils lack a grasp of the broad sweep of British history, as teaching has moved away from a survey approach to one focused on skills.  Proponents of the latter regard history’s major importance as lying in the discipline’s development of critical and evaluative faculties and the ability to construct a sound argument.  History does indeed develop these skills, Alderman argues, but that is not its purpose: ‘History is the collective memory of society. It is that memory which informs society’s attitude to itself and to the world around it.’ Continue reading

Telling the stories of a Toronto street through transit shelter panels

Torontonians go to the polls today to vote in the city’s municipal election.  Transportation, and plans for transit in particular, has been a prominent theme during the long election race.  Much of the debate has focused on whether the city should stick with Transit City (a plan already started that will criss-cross the metropolis with numerous light rail lines) or substitute the scheme with more subways.

A streetcar shelter on St. Clair West Avenue

One of the more controversial transit infrastructure projects of the last decade is the St. Clair Avenue West Transit Improvement Project, which has replaced an already existing but physically-deteriorating streetcar line with a rebuilt line traveling along its own lane.  Members of the local community, especially businesses, complained that the project would hurt the area, and even unsuccessfully tried to stop it in court.  Perhaps because of the controversy of the line, another interesting part of the project has been relatively overlooked.  The streetcar shelters for the new right-of-way include a series of interpretive panels: a fascinating example of one city using community involvement to collect and tell stories about a locality. Continue reading

Third History Matters series lecture uncovers Toronto’s subway past

Jay Young, a PhD student in history and ActiveHistory.ca steering committee member, recently gave a talk called “A Public Technology: Building Toronto’s Yonge Street Subway”.  The lecture is part of the Toronto Public Library’s History Matters series.

The lecture discussed various episodes surrounding the building of Toronto’s original Yonge Street subway line during the late 1940s and early 1950s, with particular attention paid to the impacts of construction on local merchants and residents, and the immediate reactions of Torontonians towards the subway after it opened in 1954.

Young’s talk is available here for audio download.

The next History Matters lecture take place Thursday, October 21st, when Susana Miranda delivers a talk titled “Keeping the City Clean: Portuguese Women in Toronto’s Cleaning Industry, 1970-1990”. Click here for more details.

“Come On Over”: Call-In Collaborative History in Northeastern Ontario

The 'Come on Over' Website

When up in the Sudbury and Manitoulin areas for a quick research trip in mid-September, driving several hundred kilometres, I became well-acquainted with CBC Sudbury. On Morning North, there was a regular program by two Laurentian University professors conducting research for their upcoming book Come on Over: Northeastern Ontario A-Z. In what sounds like a cross between an encyclopedia and a guidebook, the community really seemed engaged in its production. Continue reading

A Forgotten Story: The Race Against Time to Unearth the Holocaust by Bullets – 1941-1944

When you think of the Holocaust, what images immediately come to mind?  Perhaps you see the infamous Arbeit Macht Frei sign above the gated entry to Auschwitz I, emaciated bodies, crowded conditions, barracks in concentrations camps, yellow stars, victims forced to board trains, or tattoos that branded prisoners and slave labourers. For most people, images of gas chambers and of emaciated bodies of Jews, Poles, Gypsies, homosexuals and others in concentration camps like Auschwitz first come to mind when the Holocaust is mentioned.  The systematic murder of 2.25 million Jews during the “Holocaust by bullets” in present day Ukraine and Bella Russia between 1941 and 1944 is often forgotten, or simply overlooked.

These images reflect that more personal form of killing (editors note: some of these images are graphic): Continue reading

Is Wikipedia Worth the Trouble?

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Formally launched by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger in 2001, Wikipedia — the “free encyclopedia that anyone can edit” — has become the first (and often only) stop in Internet fact-finding.

With well over ten million articles to date, Wikipedia has evaded overt corporate influence through a non-profit structure and currently ranks among the top ten most visited sites on all of the web.  Or so it would seem.

Of course, all of that sounds about right; but, since the above information is entirely derived from Wikipedia itself we can’t really be too sure, can we? Continue reading

Craig Heron distills Toronto’s booze-soaked past at second History Matters series lecture

"Fermenting Room", 1916. Image from City of Toronto Archives

Canadian historian Craig Heron recently presented an entertaining talk at the second event of the History Matters lecture series, sponsored by the Toronto Public Library.

Heron discussed a number of aspects in the social history of alcohol in Toronto, from the public importance of nineteenth-century taverns to the imposition of prohibition in the early twentieth century.  The Annette Street library was an appropriate locale for the talk, since the Junction neighbourhood in which the library is located was the last remaining dry district in Toronto.

Heron’s talk is available here for audio download.

The next History Matters lectures take place Thursday, October 14th, when Jennifer Bonnell talks about prisons, pollution and homelessness in Toronto’s Don Valley, while Jay Young analyzes the building of Canada’s first subway under Yonge Street.  Click here for more details.

Kill the “Indian” and Save the “Wild”: Vocabularies with Political Consequences in Indigenous Studies

How is it that we know the importance of words in shaping our perceptions, but forget to examine our naming practices beyond the naming of Indigenous peoples?

Photo by Carl G. Linde, provided by Lake of the Woods District Museum, Kenora, Ontario

How is it that we perceive images like this as Indians hunting among or in the “wild” rice?  What exactly presents us from reading the visual as “Crop Maitenance” or “Pest Control”?

As Indigenous historians, we debate the use of “Indian” in reference to law or colonial parlance.  We know it is a misnomer, a combination of geographical error and personal folly.  We suggest “First Nations” is best because it implies sovereignty and long-term presence.  Specific Tribal names like Migmaq, Haundenosaunee, Nehilawe, and Anishinaabe, wow us because we think that they represent a people as they would represent themselves.

We write books about representation.  We have a field called “Identity Studies.”  We know what it means to be labelled and how a label, in shaping lives, becomes real.  We write to create awareness and to challenge stereotypes.

And yet, we focus on the names of peoples.  We neglect renaming the very things that sustain Indigenous populations.  I ask you, what assumption do the names for material things, tangible things carry?  I believe we need to revisit our most basic assumptions in Indigenous studies, in identity studies.  We cannot create a positive image of Indigenous populations unless we create positive images for the objects that they encounter, consume, and create. Continue reading

Learning new lessons from old lessons learned: why Canadian immigration policy should heed caution to Australia’s precedents

by Laura Madokoro

Recently, the Canadian Immigration Minister travelled around the world to consult with foreign governments on global migration issues. Jason Kenney’s meetings with his Australian counterparts drew special media interest given Australia’s well-known “tough stance” on would-be asylum seekers. Kenney made it clear that Canada and Australia would be working together on human smuggling issues in particular. He declared, “Canada intends to work domestically and internationally to combat the crime and fraud associated with the treacherous journey some immigrants make to Canada. At the same time, we need to ensure that those in need of protection have access to it, and we look forward to working with partners such as Australia.” Continue reading

South Yorkshire and the Nickel Belt: Parallels to Avoid

Lake in Canada's Nickel Belt near Sudbury

David Zylberberg

From at least 1929, the Nickel Belt region around Sudbury was the main operation of two large and generally successful mining companies, INCO and Falconbridge. Although there were a number of labour disputes, periodic layoffs and major expansions, the situation largely continued until the commodity boom of the mid 2000s. There was a spate of acquisitions and mergers in the international mining sector and the world’s second and third largest nickel companies received global interest. In 2006, Falconbridge was acquired by a Swiss Company, XSTRATA, while INCO became part of Brazilian VALE in a $19 billion dollar sale. Since these both involved the sale of Canadian companies to foreign investors, they fell under the regulation of the Investment Canada Act, which states that such takeovers must be a net benefit to Canada. The recently elected Harper government agreed to both sales with a list of conditions that have never been made public, although it is widely understood that both companies promised not to layoff any Canadian employees for 3 years.

Continue reading