Historical Fiction as a Gateway Drug

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By Jeffers Lennox

I can trace my interest in the past to a single book: Jack Whyte’s The Skystone, a story set in the time of the legendary King Arthur.  First published in 1992, when I was 12, The Skystone had just about everything necessary to hook a young kid: historical imagination, magic, war, heroism, and enough “adult” subject matter to make this my childhood version of 50 Shades of Grey.  My dad gave me the book – a fact I desperately tried to forget while reading some of the more erotic passages – and he continued providing me with whatever Whyte wrote until I was sick of stories about King Arthur and the Knights.

Fast-forward twenty years, and I’m once again reading historical fiction.  Both my father and my father-in-law suggested Hilary Mantel’s Man Booker prize-winning Wolf Hall, the story of Tudor England told through the fictionalized life of Thomas Cromwell. I haven’t read fiction for years, but thought I’d give it a try; once again, I find myself hooked.  And I’m obviously not the only one.  The success of Wolf Hall has led me to wonder if this is someone else’s The Skystone, and what future academic work might be traced back to a few evenings spent with Thomas Cromwell?  I found myself particularly interested in Henry VIII and his court during a recent trip to England and France.  While I was wandering Versailles I was struck by the fact that Louis XIII’s hunting chateau (which served as the foundation for the great palace) was constructed over eighty years after Thomas Cromwell lost his head.  Continue reading

Exhibiting Race: The Power of Portraiture

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Is race something we wear on our faces? Does it lie our skin colour, place of origin, or ancestry? Is it tangible? Two online exhibits challenge these ideas.

The White Australia Policy began in 1901. Years of xenophobia and racial tensions, caused by increasing immigration, labour disputes, and competition in the Australian goldfields, fostered the passing of the Immigration Restriction Act in the newly formed Australian Parliament. Australia was to be a visibly ‘white’ place. The Act was only the beginning of the White Australia Policy, a series of  laws that encouraged and privileged ‘white’ British migrants. These systems discriminated against Indigenous Australians, Asians, and non-caucasian Europeans, making it difficult and almost impossible for them to integrate freely into Australian society. As a result of their skin colour, non-caucasian immigrants were monitored by the Australian government and part of this monitoring involved portraiture. Continue reading

‘Not a Matter of Statistics:’ The HPV Vaccine Controversy, Promiscuity, and the History of Women, Children and Youth

By Angela Rooke

For several years now, school boards across the country have been providing the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine to girls and young women. But it seems the debate is just getting fired up, especially in Calgary, where the top Catholic Bishop successfully urged many Catholic schools to refuse to administer the vaccine on the grounds that it leads to promiscuity.

In this post, I suggest that the past can shed light on the important question of how a vaccine that prevents cancer could spark a debate about girls’ sexuality, promiscuity and moral values. Continue reading

2012 London Olympic Park Through Time

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By Jim Clifford

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The 2012 Summer Olympic park is located in the Lower Lea River Valley in the east of London. The games were sold to the British public from the beginning as an opportunity to transform one of London’s most economically disadvantaged regions. Early promotional material on the London 2012 website in 2006 put the goal of revitalizing the “underdeveloped” valley as the main legacy of the games:

Currently one of the capital’s most underdeveloped areas, the Lea Valley is an area of outstanding potential which will be transformed by the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games… The natural river system of the valley will be restored, canals would be dredged and waterways widened. Birdwatchers and ecologists will be able to enjoy three hectares of new wetland habitat… The rehabilitation of the Lower Lea Valley lies at the heart of the Olympic legacy to east London, restoring an eco-system and revitalising an entire community.

Labeling one of the most important sites of Greater London’s industrial development as underdeveloped ignores the significance of the Lower Lea Valley’s  history. It might have been more accurate to borrow the phrase “rust belt” from the United States to label the river valley as a major location of deindustrialized brownfields, but even this would disregard the large number of surviving industrial jobs lost only after the expropriation of the Olympic site. Continue reading

Wearing Our Work on Our Sleeves: Transmitting History Through Clothing

by Mike Commito

This past May I attended the annual general meeting of the Canadian Historical Association (CHA) at the University of Waterloo and the EH+ 2.0 Graduate Writing Workshop at McMaster. At the CHA I attended a roundtable titled “Macro-Theories of Canadian History: A Round Table on the Staples, Metropolitan and Laurentian Theses.” The discussion during the panel largely focused around the limitations of grand theories in history in general and Canadian history in particular. Panelist Doug Owram made an interesting offshoot comment about current relevance: there was a time, he mentioned, when Canadian historians such as Ramsay Cook could write to the Prime Minister and expect a response that was not boilerplate. Given today’s current political climate, perhaps one would not want to lay claim to being the historian that has Stephen Harper’s ear – given his recent attacks on the environment, women, First Nations, and academics – but it’s clear that historians do not have the same clout in Canada as we once did.

The writing workshop run by Michael Egan and Claire Campbell in Hamilton discussed various issues, including the fact that many articles and books by historians do not reach a wide audience. Historians are professional storytellers but in recent years we’ve lost our voice.  Journalists and other writers have done a better job not only telling the stories but also reaching the general public. What can be done to shake things up? I’ve got a couple of ideas. Continue reading

Introducing the History Slam Podcast: First Episode

By Sean Graham

Subscribe to the podcast (iTunes coming soon).

As someone who studies the history of radio, it is a little embarrassing to admit that I spend just as much time listening to podcasts as I do the radio. For me, the ability to listen when I want, where I want, and on the platform I want, make podcasts a great option – granted I mostly listen to them while walking back and forth between my apartment and Library and Archives Canada. But that freedom and accessibility, while at the same time not being restricted by time constraints or commercials, are the major appeal of podcasts.

Given the overall purpose of this site, it seems natural that podcasting would represent a component of connecting “historians with the public, policy makers and the media.” To that end I am happy to introduce History Slam, a new podcast that will be featured on this very site. While the podcast section already features some great lectures and conference presentations, History Slam will be different in both form and content. Each edition will feature discussions and debates around various historical topics or issues relevant to the understanding of history. Whether we talk with a historian about their new book or a musician about including historical references in their songs, History Slam will focus on the stories of the past, how those stories influence us today, and their role in shaping our shared culture. Continue reading

The Warrior Nation on Canada Day: A View from East York

By Nathan Smith

Here in East York Canada Day celebrations began in the morning with a parade. I pulled my daughter in her wagon to the starting point a few blocks from our house.  As we hurried to meet neighbours I reflected on the nature of the event organizing itself just beyond a set of traffic lights ahead.

Historians of Canada are apt to do this kind of reflecting, the kind Tom Peace did in Quebec City recently. The fact that I was reading Ian McKay’s and Jamie Swift’s new book, Warrior Nation: Rebranding Canada in an Age of Anxiety made me additionally sensitive to “myth-symbols” and constructions of Canadian national identity.  Was a version of Canada as a Warrior Nation awaiting us?  We were almost there. Continue reading

Was the Past a Happy Place?

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As an example, taking Stephen Harper's 2012 Throne Speech, cutting it into 20 pieces, and plotting several emotions. Bad news (i.e. austerity) bookended between joy, hope.

By Ian Milligan

Was the past a happy place? Could we take a large array of information and learn whether there was an emotional content to it? I’ve been increasingly curious about how we can apply a host of tools that data miners are using on contemporary information to large repositories of historical information: could we learn something new from a distant emotional reading of the past? In this post, let’s briefly chat about sentiment analysis, or the extraction of the overall emotional state of an author. It’s all very new and introductory, but I hope to pique your interest and explore some of these ideas myself. Continue reading

Travelling by Story

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by Merle Massie

The Saskatchewan River Delta (insert: on the border between SK and MB). Image courtesy Ducks Unlimited, Canada.

A few weeks ago, I was privileged to visit with Solomon and Renée Carriere at their home: Big Eddy Camp, northern Saskatchewan. If that seems like a vague description, it is. Few people would be able to find Big Eddy on any map, unless you are a canoe racer, dogsled racer, or know the Saskatchewan River Delta.  But if you, like me, love the art and craft of storytelling, Big Eddy might be your next travel destination. Let me tell you why. Continue reading

The Canadian Auto Workers, Social Unionism and the Abortion Debate

By Mathieu Brûlé

While there have been a number of labour-related subjects in the news recently, from the Elliot Lake tragedy  to the Ontario Progressive Conservatives’ White Paper on unions, one article in particular caught my interest. It was about the recent efforts of the Canadian Auto Workers union (CAW) to organize a number of demonstrations in support of continued access to safe, legal and accessible abortion. That this has turned out to be a controversial campaign did not come as a surprise, but I was interested in some of the comments made by a number of readers of the article.  Aside from being surprised at the small number of comments, especially on the issue of abortion (14 comments at the time of writing this), I couldn’t help but notice the surprise in some of the comments that the CAW would show an interest in, let alone take a position on, the question of abortion. Continue reading