Atheists in the Trenches: Loss of Faith among Canadians in the Great War

By Elliot Hanowski

Did the horrors of the Great War cause Canadian soldiers to lose their faith? Or is it true that there were no atheists in the trenches? The war has generally been seen as a powerfully disillusioning experience. Books such as Paul Fussell’s widely influential The Great War and Modern Memory portray the war as the origins of modern skepticism and cynicism. The idea of a “lost generation” of disillusioned Anglo-American vets is a widely accepted one. The situation in Canada, however, is a little more ambiguous. In his study of the war’s impact on Canadian culture, Death So Noble, Jonathan Vance argued that most Canadians refused to accept a cynical interpretation of the war. Instead, he writes, they constructed a mythology of righteous valour and Christ-like self-sacrifice to justify their suffering and the deaths of their loved ones. Of course, Vance has not had the last word; the debate around the existence or non-existence of a “lost generation” in Canada is complex and ongoing. This post will focus strictly on religious doubt, with the goal of offering insight into this broader question.

This image of Canon Fred Scott appeared in his 1922 book, The Great War as I Saw it. It is from Wikipedia:

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Remember / Resist / Redraw #04: The 1837–1838 Rebellion

In January, the Graphic History Collective (GHC) launched Remember | Resist | Redraw: A Radical History Poster Project to intervene in the Canada 150 conversation.

We have released five posters. Poster #00 by Kara Sievewright and the GHC introduced and explained the goals of the project. Poster #01 by Lianne Charlie, kicked off the series with a critical examination of 150 years of colonialism in the Yukon. Poster #02 by Naomi Moyer and Funké Aladejebi looked at Chloe Cooley, Black history, and the legacy of slavery in Canada. Poster #03 by Kwentong Bayen Collective and Erin Tungohan outlined the 150+ years of care work performed by racialized women in Canada.

Earlier this month we released Poster #04 by Orion Keresztesi and Jarett Henderson, which examines the 1837-1838 Rebellion and the history of settler colonialism in Canada.

We hope that Remember | Resist | Redraw encourages people to critically examine history in ways that can fuel our radical imaginations and support struggles for radical change in 2017 and beyond. Learn more about how you can support the project on our website, and connect with us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.


The 1837–1838 Rebellion: Consolidating Settler Colonialism in Canada

Poster by Orion Keresztesi

Introduction by Jarett Henderson

In the 1830s, the struggle to abolish irresponsible colonial rule in Upper and Lower Canada, and replace it with a form of government controlled by local settlers rather than by imperial rulers or their appointed representatives, involved significant debate, public protest, threats of violence, and outright rebellion. While the 1837–1838 Rebellion is often celebrated as a defining moment in Canadian history when oppressed settlers fought for a voice in their own governance, it is important to remember that what resulted from this struggle was the imposition of the political framework necessary for settler colonialism to take hold in northern North America.

Wolfred Nelson, one of the leading advocates of political reform hinted at this in 1836 when he charged, “we cannot continue to be subjects if we will not be treated as such, but rather as slaves.” Nelson, along with Louis-Joseph Papineau in Lower Canada and William Lyon Mackenzie in Upper Canada, mobilized masses of settlers – men and women, francophone and anglophone, young and old, rural and urban, rich and poor – with their demands for political freedom and liberté. By the summer and fall of 1837 public meetings of thousands, many of whom were encouraged to attend by a rhetoric that drew on the language of American and French revolutionaries and British reformers, were being held across the countryside. These meetings culminated on 23 October 1837 with a 4,000-person rally at Saint-Charles, Lower Canada, where Nelson and Luc Côté delivered passionate speeches calling for open revolt. The first shots – in what is generally known as the 1837–1838 Rebellion – were fired a month later.

On 23 November 1837, the first contingent of 800 patriotes – as the rebels in Lower Canada were known – attacked imperial troops stationed at Saint-Denis-sur-Richelieu, northeast of Montréal. By December 1837, armed conflict erupted in London and Toronto in Upper Canada and Saint-Charles and Saint-Eustache in Lower Canada, leaving several hundred dead and wounded. Villages such as Saint-Benoît were torched and looted. In February 1838, patriote leader Robert Nelson proclaimed Lower Canada’s independence from a brutish British government that had “pillaged our treasury” and distributed “through the country a mercenary army…whose track is red with the blood of our people.” Nelson also declared the abolition of seigneurial tenure and the death penalty, the granting of civil rights to Indigenous peoples, and the use of French and English in all public affairs. But he also advocated for the prohibition of the douaire coutumier and the restriction of the right to vote to “every male person, of the age of twenty-one years and upwards.” Nelson’s republic, though, would prove to be a pipe dream as those who rebelled were quickly arrested and imprisoned. In Lower Canada, habeas corpus was suspended and those believed responsible were transported to British convict colonies in the Atlantic and Pacific. Samuel Lount and Peter Matthews were publically executed.

The impetus for rebellion was achieved with the eventual granting of settler self-government, more popularly known as responsible government, in the 1840s. But in practice this British right would be limited to select, property-owning, white men. In fact, as Australian historian Ann Curthoys reminds us, this form of responsible rule recommended by the radical Earl of Durham in his 1839 Report on the Affairs of British North America ought to be seen as a “manifesto for effective settler colonialism.” Durham’s Report recommended the consolidation of white settler power through the reunion of the Canadas (“assimilation” as Durham termed it) as well as an ambitious project to displace Indigenous peoples from their territories (“wastelands” as Durham called them) and replace them with British settlers.

By the 1850s it was clear that the Rebellion ushered in a form of colonial rule that allowed for a greater measure of local control that included primarily white wealthy settler men on the one hand, while on the other hand actively and systematically excluded most Indigenous peoples, marginalized the working classes, and confirmed the exclusion of women as voters. As such, the Rebellion reminds us of the necessity and constant struggle that was (and is) required for political freedom in northern North America. The redrawing of the boundaries of colonial rule in the 1830s and 1840s, then, not only illustrates that under self-government all selves were not equal, but also that these exclusions were pivotal to the consolidation of patriarchy and white supremacy in early-Canada. In short, they made the practice of settler colonialism a reality.

Orion Keresztesi is an artist and activist inspired by the history of working people’s struggles – how they have shaped the world we live in and how they can help us do the same today. He is a proud member and President of Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 1281.

Jarett Henderson is an Associate Professor of History at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Alberta. Jarett is interested in the history of colonial rule in nineteenth-century British North America/Canada, and he is currently working on a project that explores the relationship between sexuality and settler self-government in 1830s Upper Canada.

Further Reading

Curthoys, Ann. “The Dog that Didn’t Bark: The Durham Report, Indigenous Dispossession, and Self­-government for Britain’s Settler Colonies.” In Within and Without the Nation: Canadian History as Transnational History, edited by Karen Dubinsky, Adele Perry, and Henry Yu, 25–48. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015.

Ducharme, Michel. Le concept de liberté au Canada à l’époque des révolutions atlantiques, 1776-1838. Montréal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2010.

Greer, Allan. The Patriots and the People: The Rebellion of 1837 in Rural Lower Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993.

Henderson, Jarett. “Banishment to Bermuda: Gender, Race, Empire, Independence and the Struggle to Abolish Irresponsible Government in Lower Canada.” Histoire sociale/Social History 46, no. 92 (2013): 321–48.


The “A” Word: Intertwined Histories of Infertility, Adoption and Abortion

By Katrina Ackerman

I never anticipated that my research on abortion politics would collide with my recreational interest in CrossFit. I found the sport of CrossFit while trying to manage the stress of the PhD qualifying year, and it remained an important form of escapism for me throughout my doctoral studies. But there I was, sitting at home watching the much-anticipated CrossFit documentary Froning: The Fittest Man in History (2015), and my CrossFit hero was brought to tears after uttering the ‘A’ word. Rich Froning and his wife Hillary were sitting outside their home in Tennessee, telling the filmmakers about their fertility problems and the process through which they eventually adopted their daughter Lakelyn Ann. I was captivated when the CrossFit champion choked up while describing the birth mother’s initial plan to terminate her pregnancy and then requested that people “think twice” about having abortions. Froning then went on to say thank you to the birth mother, and those who were thinking about or had given babies up for adoption and “not done the other, other option….”[1] After watching this emotional scene, I began to revisit the letters to the Atlantic provincial governments that I had in my possession, as well as an interview that discussed a couples’ struggle to reproduce and adopt. The strong emotion displayed by Froning prompted me to explore the ways in which infertility and adoption fuelled anti-abortion sentiments. Continue reading

History Slam Episode Ninety-Eight: High School History Trips

By Sean Graham

The opportunity to study abroad is unique and has the potential to be extremely rewarding. For students, it’s a chance to experience foreign cultures and get a first-hand look at some of the places talked about during class. For teachers, it’s an opportunity to go beyond the classroom and use experiential teaching techniques. I’ve been lucky enough to be both a student and instructor in international settings. In both cases they were challenging, rewarding, and memorable.

While my experiences have all been at the post-secondary level, I know others who have been able to travel for educational purposes at the high school level. One of whom just got back from a European trip that included a visit to Vimy, where students had the unique experience of visiting during the 100th anniversary commemorations.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with high school teacher (and friend of the show) Ashley Baine. We talk about preparing students for international travel, incorporating experiential learning into the trips, and getting back into the classroom upon their return to Canada. We also talk about memorable teachers and incorporating new strategies into our own courses.

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Canada 150: What’s to Celebrate?

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Christopher Dummitt

In this year of Canada 150, it’s not uncommon on university campuses to hear a lot of scepticism about “celebrations” of confederation. This isn’t especially surprising. Scholars rarely celebrate anything (unless it is the end of marking season). But celebrations of the nation state often seem intrinsically troublesome – something we study rather than take part in.

Our scepticism is deeply rooted. Since Lytton Strachey, if not before, the main mode of historical writing has been irony. Just as Strachey showed the not-so-eminent underside to his Victorians, historians too expose the darker realities of what might otherwise seem to be historical respectability. We clarify and correct myths that omit unpleasant realities; we question the convenient silences in certain versions of the past. Years ago the great Canadian historian Arthur Lower claimed that the task of the historian was to chase around after those who create myths of the past, hectoring them with shouts of “That’s not how it really happened!” If this can sometimes seem pedantic (never go to historic films with historians) it also has a serious purpose – to correct false assumptions and to insist on complexity.

In the case of Canada 150, there is the added element of political earnestness. Over the last thirty years the moving force in the historical profession has been to replace an older history of the nation state with a people’s history of Canada. In these people’s histories, the Canadian nation has often been either irrelevant to the everyday realities of people’s lives or, when it has been relevant, historians show how the state has often been the enactor of discrimination, harsh treatment, or neglect. Who wants to celebrate that? Continue reading

French Elections 2017: Looking Past the Hype

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The five main candidates – François Fillon, Emmanuel Macron, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Marine Le Pen, Benoît Hamon -Editoweb

Alban Bargain-Villéger

On April 23 and May 7, 2017, French voters will be electing the eighth president of the Fifth Republic. In the last three months, much ink has been spilled over how decisive this year’s election will be. However, while this campaign has indeed been marked by several violent confrontations and scandalous revelations, its dynamics and the themes it addresses fall in line with previous political contests from 1958 onwards. Granted, some issues, like the environment, have gained in importance, and the apparent rise of a strong centre under Emmanuel Macron adds a new element. That being said, the media (in and outside of France) have overstated the uniqueness of the current campaign.

The following pages analyse three myths or half-truths that have been rife in the media ever since the first polls came out. First, this post puts in context the oft-repeated statement that the present campaign has been an exceptionally violent one. Second, I will address the red herring of the “return” of fascism and populism. The third section will focus on the supposed obsolescence of the Right-Left dichotomy championed by Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron – albeit for different reasons – and look at the widespread commonplace that Macron’s En marche! Movement would, if victorious, usher in a new era in French politics, which would henceforth be dominated by a strong “centre” party. Continue reading

HExD: Changing Centennial Commemorations of the Halifax Explosion

By Claire Halstead

It seems as though at every turn we are being reminded of Canada’s sesquicentennial: “Canada 150”. Not just reserved for commemorative events, the marketing of Canada’s anniversary has even been gobbled up by grocery stores. Atlantic Superstore, for instance, is cashing in by offering “Canada 150 deals” that advertise a variety of grocery goods for just $1.50. Yet while 2017 is being cast as a year of celebration and something worthy of being marketed to the Canadian public, the year also marks the much more somber centenary of the Halifax Explosion.

As the attention of the rest of Canada is pulled towards 150, Halifax is trying to prepare for both anniversaries. The question this begs is: will commemorations continue to frame the Halifax Explosion as simply a local tragedy? A century on, can historians and the heritage sector now use modern technology and digital methods to transform our view of the Explosion from that of a local disaster to a wartime military accident that caused not only great civilian loss but had national and international implications that extended well beyond the blast?

Atlantic Superstore Flyer, March 30-April 5, Nova Scotia.

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History Slam Episode Ninety-Seven: Using & Managing Water

By Sean Graham

In the search for life on other planets, the focus is always on water. If there is water, there is a chance that life, as we know it, could exist elsewhere. In all that excitement and speculation, though, we sometimes lose sight of the way we use and manage water on earth.

An essential commodity that is too often taken for granted, the way in which water is managed fundamentally shapes the way in which we live. From pipelines allowing the construction of new communities to canals altering the landscape, water is not only consumed, but managed to change social and economic structures around the world.

At the same time, however, the mismanagement of water has led to tragedies. From Flint to the crises in some Indigenous communities, the contemporary structures that shape water use have privileged certain groups over others. The roots of that structure are the subject of Jeremy Schmidt’s new book, Water: Abundance, Scarcity, and Security in the Age of Humanity.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Professor Schmidt about the book. We talk about the origins of western water management, the exportation of that structure around the world, and the ways in which water has become a commodity. We also talk about individual efforts to challenge that structure and ensuring access to clean water for everyone.

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National Disunity and the Meaning of Vimy Ridge

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By Matt Barrett

Attempting to identify the historical significance of Vimy Ridge for the general public, many historians, writers and politicians have often resorted to a nationalistic framework that depicts the battle as a vital step in the creation of an independent Canada. From April 9th to 12th 1917, the four Canadian Divisions fought together for the first time and achieved an impressive tactical victory, thereby symbolizing the emergence of national unity rooted in military sacrifice. This straightforward narrative neatly encapsulates the central importance Vimy is expected to hold for modern Canadians and validates the First World War as a necessary conflict because it resulted in the creation of the country we know today. The Veterans’ Affairs website for instance defines the legacy of Vimy as a battle in which, “regiments from coast to coast saw action together in a distinctly Canadian triumph, helping create a new and stronger sense of national identity in our country.”

Canadian guns at Vimy Ridge, LAC MIKAN 3397815

While many historians have effectively challenged the myth of Vimy Ridge as the “birth of a nation,” resisting the tendency to present the war within a nationalistic framework proves difficult because it seems to offer the most accessible point of entry for the public to engage with the past.[i] Reflecting on the immediate political reactions to Vimy Ridge is one way of offering alternative interpretations of the significance of the battle for Canadians today. Rather than demonstrating unity and shared celebration, politicians’ reactions after the battle exposed deep divisions in wartime Canada caused by debates over conscription, aggressive partisanship and accusations of disloyalty.

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Archives As Activism

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by Krista McCracken

Protest at the Baltimore Police Department Western District building, April 2015.

Last week was archives awareness week in Ontario, a week to raise awareness about what archivists do, what archives are, and just generally celebrate all of the good stuff associated with archives. In addition to general archives promotion this week also got me thinking about the connection between archives and activism.

Archives can connect to activism and activist movements in a number of ways, however this connection often falls into two main categories: 1) Archival material being used as evidence in activism campaigns and 2) Archives disrupting social norms by collecting and archiving the work of those outside of mainstream society.

The act of preserving the voices of oppressed groups, marginalized communities, and social movements can be a form of activism. For example, the community driven archival projects that were created in response to the Black Lives Matter movement such as the Baltimore Uprising 2015 Archive Project and Documenting Ferguson are examples of archives and communities working together to document a social activism movement.

The Baltimore Uprising initiative aims to create a digital repository of “content that was captured and created by individual community members, grassroots organizations, and witnesses to the protests that followed the death of Freddie Gray on April 19, 2015.”  The project is a collaboration between the Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore university faculty and community organizations. It is a purely digital initiative and is an example of documenting a community member, social protest, and creating archival records through community.

Similarly, the Documenting Ferguson project is a digital repository created by Washington University, St. Louis region universities and partners. It aims to preserve and make accessible “community- and media – generated, original content that was captured and created following the killing of 18-year-old Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9, 2014.”   Ferguson and Baltimore are both examples of community driven participatory archiving.  Yvonne Ng has argued that “participatory archive movements are especially valuable in communities that institutional archives have traditionally overlooked or misrepresented, and in communities where archives belonging to the state or other institutions have historically enabled discrimination and abuse.” Community archives projects have the potential to create more complete versions of the historical records and create counter narratives to mainstream accounts. Continue reading