Archivists in Isolation

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Man at desk surrounded by papers

Stanton Friedman in his office, Fredericton, N.B. Stanton T. Friedman fonds, ca.1950s – 2019, PANB

Meredith J. Batt

Contrary to popular belief, archivists are not solitary, isolated, introverted creatures, hidden away from view in a basement surrounded by dusty books and papers. In fact, our work often requires us to be front facing and social. We help students, researchers, journalists, lawyers, and tourists find the information they are looking for. We sometimes give tours and our institutions host local events which bring the community together.

With the onset of Covid-19, archivists across Canada have retreated to their homes. This retreat to home has left me wondering how other archivists are doing in this situation and if they are feeling the way I am: upset that I have been unable to finish that finding aid; wishing that I had had more time to help a client before the lockdown, etc.

As archivists worked from home, I wondered, were any archivists missing a particular collection and if so, did they wish they could have taken it home with them to work on? I reached out to archivists across Canada to see what fonds or collection they are missing the most. This is what they wrote back: Continue reading

Who speaks? Who tells? Who listens? – Part 1

By Victoria Freeman

In 1960, my twenty-month-old sister Martha was admitted to the Rideau Regional Centre, an institution for people with developmental disabilities located on the outskirts of Smiths Falls, Ontario. For the next thirteen years she would live in this isolated and overcrowded complex of 50 buildings that at its peak housed 2,600 inmates.

I use the word ‘inmate’ deliberately to highlight the forms of incarceration and unfreedom that this form of institutionalization represented, though at the time my entire family believed it was the best available care for my sister. Only two years older than Martha, I was deeply traumatized by the stigma associated with her Down Syndrome as well as by her removal from our family and our infrequent visits to the frightening alternate reality we referred to as the “hospital-school.”

These experiences profoundly shaped my life as well as hers, including my ability to live confidently with my own difference, as a bisexual and gender-queer person.  As philosopher of science Ian Hacking has said, the word “normal” was “one of the most powerful ideological tools of the twentieth century.”[i]

Attitudes to disability and difference began to shift in the mid 1960s and early 1970s. My sister was discharged from the institution to live in an Approved Boarding Home in another city, and then in the caregiver’s family home, when the Boarding Home closed. Martha would flourish in the care of this loving woman for 29 years. Meanwhile, I lived with unacknowledged survivor’s guilt. Only through therapy and new connections forged decades later with people with intellectual disabilities did I begin to understand the ways I had been haunted by the injustices experienced by my sister. Continue reading

Western’s History Department and the Hilborn Student Awards

By Francine McKenzie

This letter is a response to Will Langford’s essay Congress 2020, Interrupted.

Ken Hilborn was a member of the History Department at Western from 1961-1997.  He died in 2013.  In his will, he left a bequest to the University of Western Ontario to reward academic achievement amongst history students.

While Hilborn was a faculty member, his controversial and objectionable views provoked critical responses from faculty and students.  Few current members of the History Department knew Ken Hilborn or were aware of his political and personal beliefs. After Asa McKercher’s essay appeared in ActiveHistory in September 2019, the department discussed the implications of having student awards created through his bequest and decided that the awards should stay.

Will Langford’s recent essay is a more direct criticism of the History Department’s ‘commemoration’ of Hilborn.  Lest outward silence be mistaken for indifference, I will explain why the department decided to maintain the Hilborn awards.  My explanation is short.  A longer explanation might be interpreted as an apology for Hilborn and that is not my intention.

The Hilborn awards do good, now and forever.  With the funds that Ken Hilborn donated, the History Department has created six undergraduate and graduate awards that support internships and other global opportunities, allow students to attend conferences and travel for research, and reward academic achievement.  Students are able to deepen their international perspectives, take advantage of opportunities that are personally and academically enriching, and produce excellent scholarship.  Some of the recipients of the Hilborn awards work on projects that are antithetical to Hilborn’s personal and political views.  That is also for the good.  While the Hilborn awards are on a much more modest scale than Rhodes scholarships, the comparison is useful: The Rhodes Trust does not endorse Cecil Rhodes’ views; the History Department doesn’t endorse Ken Hilborn’s views.

The Hilborn awards can and should be turned into an opportunity for reflection and improvement.  Issues of commemoration are dealt with explicitly in the undergraduate and graduate programs in Public History at Western.  As a department, and in consultation with our students, we will consider how we can better acknowledge Hilborn’s beliefs, career and activism so that the awards in his name advance our historical consciousness.

Perhaps this can be a learning opportunity for ActiveHistory, too.  As a site that combines academic and journalistic practices, it has a real impact on historical discussion in Canada. Neither the authors of the essays nor the editors of ActiveHistory asked the department for comment – a basic journalistic principle.  A dialogue might stimulate useful discussion about the challenges we face in telling our own histories.

Francine McKenzie
Professor & Chair
Department of History
Western University

History Slam Episode 145: Hamilton as Public History

By Sean Graham

In August 2015, a new musical opened at the Richard Rogers Theater in New York. With music, lyrics, and book by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who had previously won a Tony for In the Heights, the show was an adaptation of Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography of Alexander Hamilton.  Miranda had previewed some of the show, to laughter, at the White House in 2009, but when it opened on Broadway it became an international phenomenon. Even though it opened half way through the decade, it was the 4th highest grossing show of the 2010s in New York, a ranking which does not include its tours and run in the West End, San Francisco, and Chicago, where it was the city’s most profitable musical run ever. From its diverse cast to the variety of musical styles within the show, Hamilton has transcended generations to become, in a way, the soundtrack of modern America. In the same way that West Side Story and Les Miserables became cultural icons beyond the theatre, Hamilton has resonated with audiences not only within the Broadway community, but also with those who had never before seen a musical.

I had the opportunity to see the show in New York a couple years ago. As many of my colleagues know, despite the fact that I spend a majority of my day listening to Broadway soundtracks, I have a firm policy of not listening to a show’s music before seeing it on stage, so I went into the theatre expecting to see a great show without knowing too much about its style and structure. When I left the show and was asked what I thought, I said I it was good. Little did I know, that in the world of Hamilton fans, that counted as an insult.

While I loved the staging and choreography, the artistic licence taken with some of the story’s factual elements left me a little confused. I had heard so much about how the show was a great way to bring people to history, but there were some immediate red flags. At the same time, I found the finale underwhelming and couldn’t help but wonder if I was missing something. I was happy to learn that other historians have wrestled with similar questions and it occurred to me that the show presents a unique opportunity to discuss both the role of historical fiction in engaging people with the past and the role historians play in contextualizing the forms of popular culture.

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Year in Review (100 Years Later): The Incredible 1912

By Aaron Boyes and Sean Graham

We offer our two cents on the most influential events of 1912. Let us know what you think in the comments.

For the past 7 years, whenever we have convened for another installment of the Year in Review (100 Years Later)™, we have, for the most part, have enjoyed the process of selecting the top 16 items to include in the bracket. While most years have an easy top 10-12 things, there is always some debate surrounding the final few entries. In recent weeks as we put together the list from 1912, we were astonished at the magnitude of events that took place.

From influential international organizations to major legislation to technological innovations, 1912 has a depth that we haven’t seen before. The events included here touched the lives of millions of people and, for many of them, their ramifications can still be felt today. It came as no surprise to us that, when we had finished, that this was the most ‘thorough’ analysis we’ve done on any year, which we credit to the remarkable events of 1912.

As always, we have divided the events into 4 brackets. For 1912 they are AEROPLANES?!?!, Movin’ Movin’ Movin’, Eye Candy, and, of course, Potpourri. We welcome your thoughts on the matchups and hope that you enjoy these brackets in the lighthearted spirit with which they are written.


(1) First Successful Parachute Jump from Airplane


(4) First West to East U.S. Trans-Continental Flight 

Sean: It finally happened – after 7 years of waiting and endlessly advocating for aviation, we have a full bracket devoted to all things aeronautics. I want to tell you all, with a tear in my eye, this is the greatest moment of my life.

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Congress 2020, Interrupted: Racism and Commemoration in Western University’s Department of History

Will Langford

At the cancelled Congress 2020, Olivette Otele was scheduled to deliver the Canadian Historical Association’s keynote address. Otele was recently appointed the first History of Slavery professor at Bristol University. Her immediate research will examine Bristol University’s historical ties to the transatlantic slave trade.

A growing number of universities are detailing institutional links to slavery and showing why those ties continue to matter. At McGill, two postdoctoral fellows have been recruited to research institutional connections to slavery and colonialism. In Halifax, scholars conducted a slavery inquiry at University of King’s College. And the recently completed Lord Dalhousie report revealed that 30% of Dalhousie University’s original endowment came from taxes levied on slave-produced goods.

Our would-be Congress hosts might take inspiration and apply their attention to the late 20th century period my first two posts addressed.[i] Western University’s Department of History has its own institutional history problem. It has to do with racism and commemoration.

As Asa McKercher first noted on ActiveHistory, Western University’s Department of History received $750,000 from Kenneth Hilborn’s estate in 2016. A series of scholarships were named after the former University of Western Ontario (UWO) history professor, whose career stretched from 1961 to 1997.

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Making the Best of It, Then and Now

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Sarah Glassford and Amy Shaw

A week or two into our respective COVID-19 isolations at home in Alberta and Ontario, we (colleagues Amy and Sarah) each received, by mail, fresh from the printer, our copies of our new edited collection about female Canadians’ and Newfoundlanders’ experiences of the Second World War. The title – a last minute substitution at the press’s insistence, which seemed bland and unmemorable when we chose it six months ago – struck us, in the altered reality of a global pandemic, as entirely appropriate. [1] We are all, in these unsettling times, Making the Best of It.

Our book’s self-appointed task was to reassess and try to make sense of a persistent tension in the history and memory of how women and girls in Canada and Newfoundland experienced the Second World War. Scholars have amassed piles of compelling evidence showing the ways in which that era was one of anxiety, loss, strife, oppression, and hardship for women… but those who lived through it, even when they acknowledge those other elements, often remember it very differently. For them, it was also a time of new opportunities, fun and romance, challenges met and overcome, and communities pulling together in a common cause. 

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Profiteering in the War against Covid-19

Ryan Targa

“This Little Pig Stayed Home,” Toronto Star, 13 August 1917, 5.

The new year began with the threat of war after the Iranian general Qassem Soleimani was killed by a U.S. airstrike. The following month, fears about climate change were stoked by the massive fires in Australia and California. And while these events were alarming, it is strange to say that they have already fallen out of focus. Humanity has turned its attention to an even more urgent crisis – the war against Covid-19.

Although the enemy in this war lacks consciousness, its strategy to thrive at our demise has been most effective. By preying upon our need for physical interaction, the disease uses its highly infectious traits to spread. The initial surprise attack sent an ill-equipped world into panic, but having overcome this first blow, we have organized a robust war effort: hundreds of millions of people have sheltered themselves in their homes; governments and state institutions are deploying their resources; factories are being re-tooled; and healthcare workers and scientists are fighting the disease on the frontlines.

Similar to the world wars of the twentieth century, profiteering has reared its ugly head. Drawing upon my on-going research, which examines profiteering in Canada during the First World War, I would like to offer some insights into what profiteering means, how profiteering controversy unfolded in the past, and how it is re-emerging today. Continue reading

Why am I teaching about this? Historical significance in Canadian history

By Lindsay Gibson and Catherine Duquette

Historical significance raises one of the most fundamental and unavoidable questions for understanding history; which events, people, and developments from the past should be studied and remembered?[i]

The past is everything that ever happened to everyone everywhere, but it is impossible to study or remember everything that occurred. History is comprised of narratives about the past that are shaped by conditions and priorities in the present. No narrative can present all that is known—historians are selective about the topics they focus on and the details they include in their narratives.

Focusing on the Winnipeg General Strike instead of the Toronto Printers’ Strike of 1872, for example, places daily life over political events, marginalized people over well-known people.

Additionally, all historical narratives are framed from a particular perspective that influences what is included and excluded from a narrative, and how the event or person is described. Analogously, all history teachers, whether in K-12 or post-secondary, make decisions about historical significance when they create a course outline, design a lesson plan, or explain the causes of an event.

For the past three years we have been working on a project where we created sets of cards focused on significant events in Canadian history and designed pedagogical strategies to teach students to think historically about Canadian history. Continue reading

History Slam Episode 144: Finding Sally

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By Sean Graham

Finding Sally premieres tonight on CBC and GEM at 8:00pm (8:30 NT) and documentary Channel at 9 ET/PT

In September 1974, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie‘s government was overthrown following years of declining popularity. While he was popular with the country’s elite, the wider population was less inclined towards the nobility. He was replaced by the Derg, a group of low ranking military officials who established a military junta in the country. In order to maintain their power, the Derg took a hard stance against any dissent, going so far as to arm civilians with the instruction of eliminating those who opposed the government.

Groups that were targeted included the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party, whose members were regularly targeted as part of the Red Terror, in which 500,000 people were killed. Those who were not killed shifted their operations underground in an attempt to avoid detection. As a result, they were separated from families as any contact was risky. The result for families was years of not knowing what happened to their relatives.

That is the subject of the new documentary Finding Sally. Directed by Tamara Mariam Dawit, it follows her as she learns the story of her Aunt Sally. A charismatic young woman who fully embraced the nation’s political fever, Sally’s life had not been discussed by her family, leaving Dawit to wonder what happened to her. In the film, she discovers who Sally was and what she did during this period while at the same time situating her life within the wider context of Ethiopia’s political upheaval. The result is a powerful film in which a family represents the pain and suffering experienced by so many during an era marked by violence and insecurity.

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