History in Turbulent Times

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Recently, I found myself wondering about the possibility of a healing history when so often, it is the burden of personal and institutional histories that seem to be at the root of tremendous grief and pain. Rather than alleviating present circumstances, the weight of personal experiences and histories can actually overwhelm.

I am not the first person to wonder about the ability of history as a discipline to alleviate or improve present circumstances. A few years ago now Timothy J. Stanley made a marvelous call for an anti-racist approach to history that would fundamentally alter social relations and norms that we often accept and take for granted when in fact, they can be extremely damaging to a marginalized individual’s self of sense and worth.

Just as many historians believe that exposing past injustices and the manner in which they continue to be perpetuated is potentially transformative, the many campaigns for redress and the work of truth and reconciliation commissions around the world are founded in the belief of the tremendous cathartic impact of being able to vocalize hurt and wrongdoing. But after redress, and after the truth has been shared, then what? Do historians have a responsibility to think further about the impact of such revelations on a community and actively engage with the heavy weight that exposing buried wounds and hurts may result in? I think we do.

In search of answers, I picked up a copy of Unsettling the Settler Within: Indian Residential Schools, Truth Telling, and Reconciliation in Canada by Paulette Regan (UBC Press, 2010). Paulette Regan is the Director of Research for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada and has born witness to the accounts of hundreds of residential school survivors and who makes an absolutely powerful and compelling argument about the possibility of engaging with history in a meaningful and cathartic manner. The key, Regan explains, is that it is not only victims who must come to terms with past harms but everyone, including non-Indigenous Canadians, must engage in the process of healing and reconciliation in an active and committed manner. Regan calls for a decolonizing of the self, an active self-awareness, a cognizant turn within and a probing and fundamentally destabilizing interrogation of assumed truths.

Regan offers a truly remarkable opportunity to fundamentally alter relations between “settler Canadians” (Regan’s terminology) and Indigenous peoples and also how we think about ourselves as members of a national community. What is so important about Regan’s arguments is that for once, Indigenous people alone are not being asked to bear the burden of assessing their positions in Canadian society and the impact of contemporary and historical legacies of injustice. Rather, Regan calls on all Canadians to participate in a decolonization process by looking hard at themselves and their circumstances and considering the manner in which the colonial legacy manifests and perpetuates itself on a daily basis. Regan writes, “as Canadian citizens, we are ultimately responsible for the past and present actions of our government. Regan argues that the federal government’s 2008 apology to victims of residential schools was not an end, but rather “an opening for all Canadians to fundamentally rethink our past and its implications for our present and future relations.”

Regan’s work offers the possibility of a transformation born of reflection and processing by all parties rather than a situation in which Indigenous peoples are held responsible for coming to terms with what has happened to them. Regan insists that Canadians cannot simply be a passive audience, left to feel guilt-ridden and hopeless at the trauma created by the residential school experience or worst, removed and unaffected. Rather, Regan insists on a transformation based on the shared possibility of critical hope “to plant the seeds of a more authentic, ethical, and just reconciliation.” Critical hope is born of injustice and rooted in struggles for freedom but it has the potential to help us remember “though we cannot change the past, neither are we held prisoner by it.”

According to Regan, who notes the experience of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in particular, transformative justice requires that all parties transform. Testifying to wrongdoing and harm is undoubtedly cathartic but it is potentially destructive if wider societal attitudes do not change as a result. Here, all Canadians have a responsibility to live their daily lives in a manner that creates space for different historical legacies from grand national narratives of Canada the Good and Canada the Peacemaker. In Regan’s own words, if settler Canadians can bear “ethical witness” to the testimonies of residential school survivors, “the unsettling questions we then ask ourselves are ripe with potentially transformative possibilities.” Bearing ethical witness is an enormous challenge for it requires an extraordinary capacity to listen without judging and to see without labeling. We must learn to see beyond “Indigenous victim” to see the whole life story and acknowledge authentic differences in personal and community histories, traditions, values and spiritual beliefs.

The story of residential schools in Canada has a history. And it is one that we all share in. There are many ways of communicating that history: in-depth media coverage, such as that pursued by the Globe and Mail in the spring of 2010 is one. The work at activehistory.ca is another. But beyond communicating history, what we really need is the courage and the candor to acknowledge what we don’t want to hear or see of ourselves in that history.

*My thanks to Chelsea Horton, PhD Candidate, University of British Columbia for introducing me to Paulette Regan’s work.

**This article was revised in August 2013 in response to comments made by the family members of an individual mentioned in the original version.

New Papers: So What Is the Story? Exploring Fragmentation and Synthesis in Current Canadian Historiography

The editors of ActiveHistory.ca are proud to present a round table on the current state of Canadian History writing and teaching by Ruth Sandwell, Lyle Dick, Peter Baskerville and Adele Perry. The round table includes an introduction by Sandwell and Dick and four short papers from the authors.

The idea for this forum arose from a discussion between Ruth Sandwell and Lyle Dick during the Canadian Historical Association Annual General Meeting in 2009, at which time we observed that historians tended to attend conference sessions relating only to their own sub-specialties, with the result (we complained) that environmental historians often only talked to environmental historians, gender historians to gender historians, military historians to military historians, and so on. We hatched a plan to bring Canadian historians of different kinds together in a single roundtable session in the next 2010 CHA meeting, inviting them to discuss the relations, if any, amongst their various kinds of historical work. After some discussion, we decided that we would follow along with the CHA conference theme of Storytelling and ask panelists to approach this question by focusing their comments in a session entitled “So What IS the Story? Exploring Fragmentation and Synthesis in Current Canadian Historiography.”

Session organizers Lyle Dick (speaking about critical studies in history) and Ruth Sandwell (history as taught to undergraduates) succeeded in persuading four other Canadian historians to participate: Peter Baskerville speaking on quantitative history, Steven High on oral history, Alan MacEachern on environmental history, and Adele Perry on gender and colonial history. The Roundtable proposal we submitted was accepted for the 2010 CHA conference. After what turned out to be the lively and well attended session in Montreal, four panellists agreed to publish contribute their comments with Active History, and Steven High’s paper appeared separately on the Active History website.What follows is a short introduction, followed by four panellists’ essays, only slightly revised in most cases from the presentations they gave at our CHA roundtable.

Lyle Dick and Ruth Sandwell, “Introduction: So What Is the Story? Exploring Fragmentation and Synthesis in Current Canadian Historiography.”
Peter Baskerville, “Undetermined by Borders: The Commonality of Counting.”
Lyle Dick, “Fragmentation and Synthesis from the Standpoint of Critical History.”
Adele Perry, “Synthesizing or Fragmenting What? Nation, Race, and the Writing of Canadian History in English.”
Ruth Sandwell, “Synthesis and Fragmentation: the Case of Historians as Undergraduate Teachers.”

Catastrophic Flooding: Manitoba’s Perennial Challenge

Library and Archives Canada

This originally appeared on the Network in Canadian History and Environment [NiCHE] group blog, Nature’s Chroniclers. Shannon Stunden Bower’s given us permission to repost it here.

Southern Manitoba has flooded. Again. Given the large number of notable floods that have occurred in the past few years, this must be a surprise to precisely no one, environmental historian or otherwise. Traversed by both the Red and the Assiniboine, two large prairie rivers that come together at the heart of the city of Winnipeg, the region has a long and well-publicized history of high water.

Some of the earliest stories of the region tell of the devastation wrought by flooding. Indeed, the departure of a substantial number of early settlers is linked to a particularly devastating flood along the Red River. [1] There are also stories about deliberate efforts to ignore the flood risk. The transcontinental railway was built through flood-prone Winnipeg, despite expert advice to select a higher and drier alternate route. [2] Today, there’s a federal penitentiary at Stony Mountain, an area once employed as a refuge in times of high water. [3]

The thing about flooding in Manitoba is that sometimes it doesn’t happen, or doesn’t happen with sufficient severity to attract much notice. Sometimes the flooding is minor for years, even decades, at a time. It can be tempting to think that any period of diminished flooding is indicative of a trend that will certainly continue, effectively extinguishing the risk of severe flooding. So prisons and railways are built in ways that make sense in relation to other considerations. And then any subsequent flood can seem like water out of place, rather than the inevitable consequence of people on a floodplain. So check the ring dykes. Start up the sandbag-making machines. [4] And cue the nervous waiting by evacuated residents.
Continue reading

Eating Animals: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

Over the past few years, books like Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food and documentaries like Food Inc. have increasingly challenged us to ask: How much do we really know about the “food” we buy and consume on a daily basis?

In his recent book, Eating Animals, an exposé on fishing and factory farming, Jonathan Safran Foer finds George Orwell’s famous words written in Animal Farm to be particularly apt: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” Continue reading

New Paper: Geoffrey Reaume on Psychiatric Patient Built Wall Tours at Toronto’s CAMH

Professor Geoffrey Reaume of York University’s piece on the successful wall tours he has been running at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) appears on ActiveHistory.ca today. Professor Reaume’s piece previously appeared in the Active History theme issue of Left History and we are very happy to cross-publish it here.

The purpose of the wall tours described in this article is to remember the men and women asylum patients who built, lived, worked and died behind the last remaining structures that still exist on the grounds of the former Asylum for the Insane, Toronto. The tours first started with a conversation. In spring 2000, Heinz Klein, one of the organizers for the Psychiatric Survivor Pride Week events, and an activist whom I have known since 1993, asked me to give a talk about the history of people who lived in the Toronto Asylum for the upcoming annual event organized to celebrate the contributions of psychiatric survivors/consumers in our community.1 I was skeptical and said a lot of people had recently seen a play based on my research which did a better job than I could of speaking about patients’ lives. Heinz then suggested I could give a talk outside by the 19th century patient built wall at the present day Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), not far from where the play had been performed in April, 2000. As we continued to talk the idea of a wall tour came up, though I can’t remember who suggested it first. Instead of a stationary talk by the wall, the idea was to give talks all along the wall about patients’ lives where they lived. The wall would be the central site of multiple talks woven together by the common theme of describing a history of patients’ life and labour on this site. And so began the wall tours with the first one held on July 14, 2000, Mad Pride Day as it is now called. To my amazement and delight, about fifty people showed up for the first wall tour, a harbinger of things to come in the following years. [READ MORE]

Canadian Political Leaders, the Campaign Trail, and the “Ordinary Joe”

As another federal election enters high gear, television screens and newspaper pages are filled with images of party leaders trying to show that they connect with ordinary Canadians.  Whether it be Stephen Harper riding an All-Terrain Vehicle or playing hockey with children, or Michael Ignatieff enjoying a hot dog at a popular Winnipeg restaurant, a key element of the campaign trail involves photo-ops of leaders doing things Canadians apparently do all the time.

The recent coverage reminded me of an article on Michael Ignatieff in the November 2009 issue of Toronto Life. “The Man Who Would Be PM” noted the Conservative Party strategy of negatively depicting the Liberal leader with the epithet “cosmopolitan”, a frame that the Conservatives have continued in election ads that imply Ignatieff’s years outside the country signal a lack of pride in Canada.  The article’s author questioned why Ignatieff was “trying to play the ordinary Joe card”, and argued Iggy would be a more successful politician if he underlined his exceptionalism rather than his similarities to Canadians.  The article then asked: when did Canadian politicians begin to depict themselves as ordinary Canadians, not elite members of society? The question made me think of three moments in Canada’s political past. Continue reading

Modern slavery, environmental stress, and lingering international imperialism – unwinding the connections between intimately linked problems

By Sali El-Sadig and Joel Krupa

There is a tendency in the social sciences to compartmentalize issues. In particular, the modern academic atmosphere in the social sciences and humanities has sliced and diced nearly every conceivable economic, social, cultural, and environmental topic into specialized categories, allocated it (or them) to the ostensibly ideal discipline, and subsequently dissected the topic at length. Too often, this lack of interdisciplinary focus has resulted in a lack of intellectual inquiry into the causative factors and intimate links behind various problems. In an increasingly seamlessly connected and globalized world, we continue to do this to our own peril – especially when analyzing interconnections between the important contemporary human rights issues of forced bondage/slavery, globalization, and environmental stress. Continue reading

The Toronto Star’s Lackluster Coverage of the American Civil War Anniversary

By Matthew Furrow

Let me tell you about a newspaper article I just read and what it taught me about history.

Apparently, this week marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the American Civil War. (The war started because southern forces fired the first shot, although it’s not clear why). This is a “Big Deal,” at least to certain major American newspapers. The Washington Post has set up Twitter accounts so I can follow the words of Abraham Lincoln and an obscure military leader named Anderson. (Apparently, 150 years ago, someone was shooting mortars at him, or near him, anyway.) The New York Times has created a Facebook page for the Civil War, as has the state of Virginia.

History is being brought alive to those who care about it: geeky couch-potatoes (people who watch “reruns of Ken Burns’ documentary”) and weird people who like to dress up in costume (performing “battle re-enactments”). For the rest of us, these projects should be seen as kind of interesting, but also kind of silly (what if General Lee, gleeful traitor to his country, tweeted about it? LOL!). Continue reading

Stories of Exile: Movie Review of “The Queen and I”

Sarvestani (left) and Pahlavi (right) both live in exile following the Iranian Revolution

The Queen and I (2008), directed and produced by Swedish-Iranian filmmaker Nahid Persson Sarvestani, follows the former Empress of Iran, Farah Pahlavi and Sarvestani as they discuss their life stories following the 1979 Iranian Revolution. These two women are unlikely confidants; Sarvestani is a former communist who participated in the Revolution in her youth; Pahlavi is the widow of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last Shah of Iran. The documentary draws you in right from the beginning.

In 1979, the Iranian monarchy (the Pahlavi dynasty) was overthrown and was replaced by an Islamic Republic led by Ayattolah Ruholla Khomeini. The royal family chose to flee Iran and Farah Pahlavi lives in exile to this day. Following the revolution, Khomeini was quick to silence those who did not support his regime. Like the royal family, Sarvestani and her family struggled following the revolution. They were targeted as communists and escaped the country in order to survive. They eventually made it to Sweden after living underground for several years. Continue reading

New Paper: Matthew Hayday on “The History of the Recent”

Professor Matthew Hayday of the University of Guelph has written an evocative piece on some of the joys and potential pitfalls of engaging living activists in historical research. His piece, “The History of the Recent: Reflections on Social Movement History, Research Methods and the Rapid Passage of Time,” is a useful read for anybody interested in the connections between oral history, professional historians, social movements, and activists.

In mid-March, I learned that ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) in New York, Spiers was a key figure in a number of Toronto’s gay liberation organizations in the 1970s, including The Body Politic collective and Toronto Gay Action. I had been trying to track Spiers down because he was one of the principal authors of “We Demand!,” arguably one of the first major political manifestos of the Canadian gay liberation movement, which was presented at the first Pride rally on Parliament Hill in 1971. A conference honouring the 40th anniversary of this event is being held this summer at Simon Fraser University. I was trying to secure permission to reprint this document in a module on gay and lesbian history that I was developing for Nelson’s Visions Canadian history reader. Spiers did grant permission to reprint the manifesto, which will (hopefully) soon be part of a number of Canadian students’ history undergraduate education. [READ MORE]