After the Asylum/Après l’asile: Launching a History of Survival

afterBy Megan Davies & Erika Dyck

The shift from institutional to community mental health was among the most significant social changes of the late 20th century. Between 1965 and 1980 nearly 50,000 beds were closed in residential psychiatric facilities across Canada. De-institutionalization profoundly changed the lives of former patients and those who worked with them, impacting the larger economy, public health and social planning, and challenging ideas of individual rights and capabilities.

The first national project of its kind, After the Asylum/Après l’asile presents this complex and often difficult history, making clear its continuing relevance. We examine early mental health initiatives, we consider how therapeutic and professional contours of care were reshaped, and we explore new consumer / user networks and cultures that emerged. Many of the exhibits speak to the continuing social and economic marginalization of people deemed mentally ill, whose lives are often poignant testaments to the limits of a reconstituted mental health system. Continue reading

After the Wall: Nostalgia and Cynicism during the German “Honeymoon,” 1989-1992

Alban Bargain-Villéger


Ampelmännchen (Trail Life, Weltradreisen)

Twenty-seven years ago, on November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall collapsed. Twenty-seven is an odd number, so why write a post on this particular topic now, on the occasion of a not-so-symbolic anniversary? One reason is that I had always wanted to write something on the couple of years that followed the Fall of the Wall. But mainly, it was the realisation that the official reunification of the two Germanies actually occurred twenty-five and a half years ago that prompted me to reflect on that particular topic. Indeed, the storming of the Wall did not immediately result in the spontaneous stitching back together of the Germany of old – the question being, what Germany was to be resurrected? The prospect of seeing a strong Germany re-emerge on the world scene did not fail to upset members of the European political élite, many of whom had lived through World War Two. As a result, it took a year and a half for the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) and the German Democratic Republic (GDR) – both founded in 1949 – to negotiate and sign the Treaty on the Final Settlement With Respect to Germany.

This post focuses on the two-year honeymoon period that occurred in the wake of the November 1989 events, which the Germans refer to as die Wende (“the turn”). The Wall was built in 1961 as a solution to the growing numbers of East Germans making their way to the West through West Berlin. Until its fall, the “wall of shame” had symbolized the Cold War and the lengths to which a totalitarian regime could go in order to stifle freedom of movement. The immediate cause of the Fall was the opening, in August, of the Austro-Hungarian border, which triggered an outflow of East German citizens through Hungary. The authorities initially attempted to prevent East German citizens from leaving, but these measures backfired and provoked a series of demonstrations, which led to the resignation of Erich Honecker, who had been at the helm of the country since 1971. However, the situation did not improve, as the new government soon felt obligated to allow passage directly through the various border crossings between the Federal Republic and the GDR. Besides, the government’s spokesman mistakenly confirmed that the changes would take effect immediately, which took the border guards by surprise and resulted in thousands of East Berliners crossing into the western part of the city. This meant the beginning of the end for the Wall and for the regime. Continue reading

Indigenous Voices and Resistance in Oil Pipeline History: The Dene Tha’ and the Norman Wells Pipeline.

New York City rally in support of Standing Rock Water Protectors. Source: Joe Catron, Flickr.

New York City rally in support of Standing Rock Water Protectors. Source: Joe Catron, Flickr.

Sean Kheraj

The actions, protest, and resistance in Sioux Nation Territory among Indigenous people, ENGOs, and other allies in North Dakota in recent months echo what Paul Sabin once referred to as “voices from the hydrocarbon frontier.” Once again, Indigenous people stand on the front lines of opposition to the development of a major energy pipeline infrastructure project in North America. The conditions and issues, of course, are different from those expressed by Inuit, Dene, and Métis people during the Berger inquiry into the development of a gas pipeline in the Mackenzie Valley in the 1970s, but some of the sentiments still resonate today.

The emergence of the #NoDAPL movement and the prominent and leading role of Indigenous people is part of a now decades-long phenomenon of Indigenous people’s efforts to resist energy megaprojects in their traditional territories. In my own work on the history of long-distance oil pipelines in Canada, I’ve found that some of the adverse environmental consequences of oil pipelines (in the form of oil spills) likely disproportionately affected rural environments and the lives of rural Indigenous and settler populations. Given the historical geography of oil pipeline spills in Canada, it was no surprise to me to find Indigenous people among the most prominent voices to warn against the environmental risks of energy pipelines.

Those voices spoke out against the potential risks of constructing an oil pipeline in the southern Mackenzie Valley in the 1980s. In 1980, Interprovincial Pipelines Inc. or IPL (now Enbridge) submitted an application to the National Energy Board (NEB) for a certificate to construct an 868-kilometre small-diameter oil pipeline from Norman Wells, Northwest Territories to Zama, Alberta. The pipeline would carry increased production of crude oil from Norman Wells to a transfer point in Zama where it would then flow south in the Rainbow Pipeline to refineries in Edmonton and on to southern markets in Canada and the US. Continue reading

There’s a Historian Born Every Minute

Alan MacEachern

unnamedA while back I noticed that Active History had published a post citing a satirical political website as fact. It was an easy mistake to make: the site looked real enough, and its article only mildly ridiculous in the current news climate. I contacted the Active History contributor and editor, and the quote was quickly removed. Case closed. But it got me thinking about the challenge that historians face in recognizing fact from fiction, and how we respond when we are fooled.

It was a matter I had faced myself recently. One strand of my research into the Miramichi Fire, a forest fire that swept across Maine and New Brunswick on 7 October 1825, was finding evidence of the thick smoke that enveloped all of northeastern North America in the days that followed. So I was happy to come across the following from a published Toronto-area diary for that year:

October 9 — … Last evening there was to us a marvelous display of northern lights. When daylight faded pink clouds appeared in the sky mixed with long shooting rays of white light. The clouds changed shape continually, but the color was always a shade of red. At times the clouds filled the entire northeastern sky.

Nice! The fire had presumably affected the atmosphere as far away as Upper Canada, and in a manner I had not read elsewhere. The author was an Andrew Anderson, and his diary was included within the 1915 book The Narrative of Gordon Sellar Who Emigrated to Canada in 1825. I incorporated Anderson’s description into the text.

The only problem? You guessed it. The diary and the memoir that surrounded it weren’t real primary sources, they were “fictional history” Continue reading

Peacekeeping – Pax Canadiana?

By Ian McKay and Jamie Swift

“Canada is back.” Back on global climate change. Engaging China. Talking nice to all and sundry. And peacekeeping, where the Liberals have their eye on new missions — especially in Africa.

This year marks the 130th anniversary of Canadian peacekeeping in Africa. The first Canadian peacekeeper in Africa was the fair-haired William Grant Stairs. He was a Victorian celebrity—in part because he was associated with an even more famous American celebrity, H.M. Stanley. Many still remember his “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” as a key moment in European penetration of what Stanley called “Darkest Africa.”

Stairs remains a hero at Kingston’s the Royal Military College, where is name adorns two plaques. The official College history praises him as the winner of “bloodless battles.”


And a peacekeeper Stairs was – in his own eyes. He sailed on a steamer called Peace. He established a fort in central Africa called Peace. His remarkable diary describes how he brought peace to Africa.

But how “bloodless” were Stairs’s battles for peace? On his first expedition, over 40 percent of the African workers he enlisted in his first expedition died—of overwork, disease, starvation, and beatings – some of them at the hands of Stairs himself. Continue reading

“You want to put what, where?” Contesting Malpeque’s (Second) First World War Memorial

By Sarah Glassford

“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains.
-from “Ozymandias,” by Percy Bysshe Shelley

I cannot think about the politics of commemoration without remembering a famous poem I read in one of my undergraduate English courses.  In “Ozymandias,” Romantic poet Percy Shelley reflects upon the transience of memory and the futility of commemoration by describing a ruined statue celebrating a ruler whose works are forgotten, the grandiose text on the remaining plinth at odds with the demise of the memory it was meant to inspire.

As Robert Rutherdale’s Hometown Horizons and David Macfarlane’s Danger Tree have demonstrated in different ways, the impact of the First World War was perhaps most profoundly felt by individuals at the community and family levels.[i]  The intensity of this intimate impact carried over into post-war memorial efforts, as shown by a wide array of scholars including Jonathan Vance, Joy Damousi, and Jay Winter.[ii]  It mattered very much where war memorials were placed, whom they honoured, what form they took, and who stood where at the dedication ceremonies; the process of commemoration was sometimes long, painful, and divisive, as each faction battled to assert its particular vision over those of others.  Canadians avoided much of this animosity after subsequent conflicts by simply adding new dates and names (the Second World War, Korea, Afghanistan) to Great War memorials.  One might be forgiven for assuming that the impulse to commemorate the Great War – as represented by the weathered stone memorials found at village crossroads, in town cemeteries, and on the lawns of provincial capitals across Canada – have long-since lost their ability to stir up discord.

CFWW Glassford 2016 10 27 malpeque-map-1

Location of Malpeque, PEI.  (Courtesy of Google Maps.)

Continue reading

From Memorials to Instagram: Twenty-first Century Commemoration of the First World War

Claire L. Halstead

Author's Photo

Author’s Photo

This summer, on August 26, 2016, a new First World War memorial was unveiled in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Titled The Last Steps, the memorial takes the shape of an arch and stands on the city’s harbour front; a gangplank purposefully leads the observer’s eye up the pier, through the arch, and right out to sea. Footprints (cast from an authentic soldier’s boot) burnt into the wooden pier conjure up impressions of souls from long ago. In this, Nancy Keating, the Nova Scotia artist who designed the memorial, succeeds in imparting on the observer the haunting emotion the memorial is intended to convey. The memorial stands as a testament to the last steps soldiers took in Halifax before departing for the Great War.[1]

The Last Steps memorial is just one of thousands of local and national memorials and acts of remembrance happening around the world between 2014 and 2018 to mark the centenary of the First World War. Making a new addition to the Halifax boardwalk, the memorial provides an opportunity to ponder the creation of sites of memory and twenty-first century centenary commemoration of the First World War, as it happens. This is an opportunity to observe how centenary commemorations take place; not only their modes and the messages contained within them, but the spaces, both physical and virtual, where they are placed. Continue reading

(Re)naming and (De)colonizing the (I?)ndigenous People(s) of North America – Part II

By Kathryn Labelle, Brittany Luby, and Alison Norman

Editors note: This is the second in an two part series on the politics and practices of naming Indigenous peoples. [Click here to read part 1]

The term “Indigenous” is not new to Canadians. “Indigenous peoples” was used by anthropologists and ethnographers in the 19th century to describe a people united by culture, traditions, and kinship; who have a common language and beliefs; and generally are politically organized. By the 1970s and 80s, the term began to be used specifically to describe groups affected by colonization, and it was a self-descriptor. Indigenous peoples from around the world began working together to demand recognition at the United Nations, and in 1982, the Working Group on Indigenous Populations was established. They began drafting the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2007. UNDRIP sets out the collective and individual rights of Indigenous peoples around the world, as well as their rights to culture, language, health, and identity. Canada only recently committed to fully implementing UNDRIP, and exactly how it will do so remains to be seen. Nonetheless, it is clear that the use of the term by international activists has influenced activists and academics in Canada. The term “Indigenous” is trending in Canada right now. Continue reading

(Re)naming and (De)colonizing the (I?)ndigenous People(s) of North America – Part I

By Brittany Luby, Kathryn Labelle, and Alison Norman

Editors note: This is the first in a two part series on the politics and practice of naming Indigenous peoples.

Over the years, Canadians have attempted to find a better word for “Indian.” We’ve experimented with “Native American.” We settled with “Aboriginal.” And now we’re flirting with “Indigenous.” Will we find a match?

Imagine each word with its own online dating profile. Indian’s profile might read “historically inaccurate, but legal.” Indigenous might write “trying to change the world one word at a time.”

Colonialism has created a need for a group term for North Americans – a word that means “the people who occupied this continent before European displacement,” a word that means “the people who violently resist, adapt, and continue to survive under colonial regimes in North America. And yet, regular changes to Canadian lexicon suggest that there is an underlying problem – a problem that a new combination of vowels and consonants cannot fix. For generations, Canadian scholars have been seeking a politically-correct label, a sensitive label, for a people who exist in the colonial imagination.[1] Continue reading

“Colonization Road” and Challenging Settler Colonialism in Canada

By Anne Janhunen

static1-squarespace-comLast week I attended the world premiere of Colonization Road at the imagineNATIVE Film & Media Arts Festival. Directed by Michelle St. John, the film follows Anishinaabe comedian and activist Ryan McMahon as he delves into the history of Indigenous dispossession and settler colonialism in Canada. Examining physical markers of this history such as Colonization Road in Fort Frances, Ontario, McMahon asks, “what do we mean when we talk about colonization?” Drawing on the experiences and expertise of a wide range of Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars, activists, and community leaders, the film details the many facets of historical and ongoing colonization and the nature of settler colonialism as a structure. In this piece, I want to reflect on the ways in which I hope this film sparks further discussion among historians, educators, heritage organizations, and the wider public.

The majority of early twentieth century material – tourist pamphlets, school curricula, and local histories – I analyse in my dissertation reflect the colonial narrative in microcosm. This story usually starts with French explorers and fur traders and eventually centres on hardy settlers making seemingly unoccupied land productive. Indigenous people are usually peripheral to this story or entirely absent from it. How they ended up on reserves remains a mystery. How much of this narrative has changed in the past hundred years? Continue reading