A Town Called Asbestos: a NiCHE EHTV series by Jessica van Horssen

Over the next few Fridays, ActiveHistory.ca is re-posting a five part series of YouTube videos created for the Network in Canadian Environment & History’s EHTV. This week EHTV presents the first part of a fascinating history of Quebec asbestos by Dr. Jessica Van Horssen.

For more than one hundred years, Quebecers have mined this unique and dangerous mineral from the northern region of the Appalachian mountain range. This episode examines the early origins of asbestos mining in Quebec and some of the early uses of the miraculous fire-proof material.

Viewers should also visit the website for Asbestos, QC: The Graphic Novel to further explore Dr. Van Horssen’s work on this topic.

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Room for Change: Anti-Slavery Rhetoric in Contemporary Literature, an Interview with Emma Donoghue

Ma’s grinning. “We can do anything now.”
“Why?”
“Because we’re free.”

– Emma Donoghue, Room (Toronto: HarperCollins, 2010).

Free of “Room” – a locked garden shed with a single skylight, the primary setting of Emma Donoghue’s award-winning fiction novel, Room.

In Room, Donoghue brings readers into Jack’s world, an eleven by eleven ‘cell,’ that he shares with Ma and a key cast of inanimate characters like Rug, Bed, Table, Tooth, and Door. While readers can sense within pages that Jack’s world is a little too small, he reminds readers that “We [Ma and Jack] have thousands of things to do every morning, like give Plant a cup of water in Sink.” It is through this eerily ‘safe’ space that Donoghue eases her readers into an alternate America: captive America. And, while Ma is never sold by her captor, it is through Ma’s story that Donoghue draws readers’ attention to a thriving 32 billion dollar minimum criminal industry: human bondage.

Donoghue wrote a book that I couldn’t put down. A suspense novel that had me Google-searching for spoilers. A book that made me want to learn more about Donoghue, how she recreated Ma’s world, and what she wanted to tell her audience about human bondage. What follows is a Q & A with Emma Donoghue and key passages from Room. Continue reading

Tangible History: Artifacts as Gateways to the Past

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Northern Plains Moccasins, 1890-1915. McCord Museum, M18421.1

When someone talks about undertaking serious historical research what comes to mind? Perhaps you conjure up an image of a dusty archives room and leaning towers of paper.  Census data, photographs, journals, correspondence, business records, and many other traditional archival materials may come to mind as potential sources.

Did the phrase historical research make you think of artifacts? No? Not surprising, artifacts are often overlooked when seeking primary sources and at times are written off as museum fodder.  However, a bounty of information can be gained from examining artifacts and material culture as primary sources.

“Artifacts are tangible incarnations of social relationships embodying the attitudes and behaviours of the past.” -Mary C. Beaudry, Lauren Cook, and Stephen A. Mrozowski, Artifacts and Active Voices<

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New Podcast: Richard Harris on the Making of a Toronto Suburb

Historical Geographer Richard Harris recently presented a talk entitled “The Making of Dufferin-St. Clair: 1900-1929” at a local library located in this Toronto neighbourhood.  Following his talk, a room full of community members shared their personal memories of the area’s social and physical development.  Harris’s talk comes from research for his book, Unplanned Suburbs: Toronto’s American Tragedy, 1900 to 1950 (1996), which examined the rise and fall of working-class home ownership in Toronto’s suburbsThe Dufferin-St. Clair neighbourhood, also known today as Corso Italia, is a key location in the book.

Harris’s talk is available here for audio download.

The presentation is the fourth talk of the 2011 History Matters lecture series.  Now in its second year, the series gives the public an opportunity to connect with working historians and discover some of the many and surprising ways in which the past shapes the present.  This year’s talks focus on two themes: labour and environmental history.

The next History Matters lecture takes place this Thursday, when Craig Heron will discuss the history of labour parades in Toronto.  Click here for more details.

Following the Freedom Trail through Boston

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Boston Map 1775

Around 1776, certain important people in the English colonies made a discovery that would prove enormously useful for the next two hundred years. They found that by creating a nation, a symbol, a legal unity called the United States, they could take over land, profits, and political power from favorites of the British Empire. In the process, they could hold back a number of potential rebellions and create a consensus of popular support for the rule of a new, privileged leadership. Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States.

This is not the history I learned last week as I walked with my family from the Boston Commons to the North Church along the “Freedom Trail” or while visiting the Minutemen Visitor Center on the road between Lexington and Concord. Instead I learned about the heroes of the American Revolution and the narrative of events that led up to and followed “the shot heard around the world.” As someone with limited training in American history, most of which focused on the history of slavery, my tendency is to dismiss this nationalistic historical narrative and perhaps side with Zinn’s perspective. It is clear enough that the fight for independence only achieved liberty for some people in the United States, while many other groups continued to struggle for the freedom for many years to come. Continue reading

From Pretoria to Winnipeg? The Potential for Transnational Histories of Reconciliation

In 1999, Nelson Mandela declared “the day should not be far off, when we shall have a people’s shrine, a Freedom Park, where we shall honour with all the dignity they deserve, those who endured pain so we should experience the joy of freedom.”

As you walk around the bustling streets of South Africa’s capital city, Pretoria, you would never know that just a few kilometers away, high above the city, there sits a 52 hectare park that is a direct product of Mandela’s vision. Freedom Park is dedicated to narrating the history of conflict in the country from pre-colonial to the post-apartheid period. More than a narrative however, Freedom Park is a physical experience; one which raises important questions about access to history and memory in a country that has made tremendous progress in reconciling its violent history but which still bears many scars from decades of apartheid rule. Continue reading

New Book Review: Faulkner on Carroll’s Pearson’s Peacekeepers

Pearson's Peacekeepers Cover We are pleased to publish a new book review, written by someone outside of academia on a history monograph. This month Liam A. Faulkner reviews Michael K. Carroll’s Pearson’s Peacekeepers: Canada and the United Nations Emergency Force, 1956-67.

In 1956, Britain and France shocked the world by launching a surprise invasion of Egypt. Ostensibly aimed at curtailing the recent outbreak of conflict along the Israeli border, the military action was in reality a cover for the Anglo-French occupation of the Suez Canal and threatened to destabilize the precarious status quo of the Cold War international community.

For Canada, the Suez Crisis presented a particularly worrying state of affairs as it jeopardized the relationship between its two most important allies. On one side of the Atlantic, Washington was enraged by what it viewed as reckless British aggression, whilst on the other side, London felt betrayed by the lack of support it received from the United States. Ottawa found itself stuck somewhere in the middle.

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Teacher-Students and Student-Historians: Discovering Constance Margaret Austin and the Value of Experiential Learning with Spadina Museum

Figure 1: Constance Margaret Austin, c. 1920

Who was Constance Margaret Austin (1894 – 1966)?  Her obituary doesn’t say: reporters emphasized her filial connection to James Austin (1813 – 1897), President of Dominion Bank.  Nor did she: Margaret left no diaries and the letters that she penned were lost.

But, Spadina Museum has charged visiting students with the task of finding out.  Their educational program on World War I teaches students how to utilize primary sources – photographs, report cards, newspaper articles and the like – and provides them with the skill-set to answer an “unanswered” question.

On 5 October 2011, a group of educators participated in Spadina Museum’s program as part of the quarterly Approaching the Past workshops, discovering both Margaret and an innovative teaching tool. Continue reading

Family Ties: The Successes and Challenges of Genealogical Research

Trees are a common symbol for genealogy.  Like lines of ancestry, trees contain many branches that are united through a common trunk but grow in their own direction.  And like family history, we often only see the complexity of their roots when we start digging.

In a previous post, I outlined strategies on conducting the research of one’s home, and offered some thoughts on why home history is one of the most common ways in which ordinary people are interested by, think about, and interact with the past.  These “resident histories” seem to have some commonalities with family history,  as both topics connect the past with very intimate aspects of the everyday lives of people in the present.  Like a home, a family is an emotional site that embodies the physical continuities with the past.  Family history also illustrates change over time at a microcosmic level and within wider historical contexts.

Over the past year, my father has begun to research the history of my family.  This weekend, I had an opportunity to sit down to ask some questions about his own experiences.  Continue reading

New Podcast: Lisa Rumiel Examines the Environmental Activism of Rosalie Bertell

Historian Lisa Rumiel recently presented a talk entitled “Three Mile Island to Bhopal: the Life and Work of Environmental Activist Rosalie Bertell” in front of an engaged audience at Toronto’s Parkdale library.  Bertell, who has a PhD in biometrics, has long spoken out about the environmental consequences of nuclear power.

Rumiel’s talk is available here for audio download.

The presentation is the second talk of the 2011 History Matters lecture series.  Now in its second year, the series gives the public an opportunity to connect with working historians and discover some of the many and surprising ways in which the past shapes the present.  This year’s talks focus on two themes: labour and environmental history.

The next History Matters lecture takes place tonight.  Jennifer Bonnell will discuss a timely topic: “Imagined Futures for the Lower Don: A History of Big Ideas for a Small River.” Click here for more details.