135 Years Since the Last Spike: Colonialism and Resistance on Canada’s Railways

By Thomas Blampied

For those following the Canadian railway industry, 2020 was supposed to be a year of celebration. Canadian National Railway (CN), was continuing with its CN100 celebrations to commemorate the 100th anniversary of being bailed out and nationalized by the Canadian government in 1919 (it wasn’t privatized until 1995). The Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) was to mark the 135th anniversary of the driving of last spike at Craigellachie, BC, on November 7th. The last spike was considered so monumental to Canada’s heritage that the Harper government officially declared November 7th to be National Railway Day beginning in 2010.

Donald Smith, one of the directors of the CPR, drives home the last spike at Craigellachie, BC, on November 7, 1885.

Donald Smith, one of the directors of the CPR, drives home the last spike at Craigellachie, BC, on November 7, 1885. Smith actually bent the first spike and it needed to be replaced. This is the most iconic image in Canadian railway history. Pierre Berton considered it the most famous photograph in Canada. (Wikipedia/Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN 3194527).

It seems almost cliché to say that 2020 has not gone to plan. COVID-19 shuttered CN’s celebrations and nobody is thinking much about the last spike these days. Large portions of Canada’s railway network were paralyzed in February by actions in solidarity with Wet’suwet’en land defenders. In BC, the Wet’suwet’en were attempting to block pipeline development on their territory and militarized occupation by the RCMP. The most notable of these solidarity blockades was on Tyendinaga Mohawk territory near Belleville, Ontario, and caused CN freight and VIA passenger rail traffic between Toronto, Montreal, and Ottawa to be disrupted for several weeks.

The decision to block railway tracks is deeply rooted in the history of colonialism in Canada. But rather than trying to understand this history, governments and industry across Canada clamped down. Alberta ultimately passed the Critical Infrastructure Defence Act, which made protests or actions that disrupted infrastructure like railways illegal, despite existing trespassing statutes already covering this. This speaks to the long-standing relationship between the Canadian state, railways, and the seizure of Indigenous land.

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History Slam Episode 168: Moonless Oasis

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By Sean Graham

Howe Sound is a deep fjord north of Vancouver that has been described as the city’s “playground for sailing, diving, camping, hiking, and a host of other recreational activities.” It is also home to a reef that was thought to be extinct. Glass sponges, which build their skeletons out of silicon dioxide, exist around the world, but reef-forming glass sponge is only known to occur in British Columbia, with the reef in Howe Sound being the only known one in water shallower than 40 metres.

While that depth is challenging for divers, it is possible for humans to visit the reef as part of efforts to preserve this vital ecosystem. The reef is an important habitat for rockfish species that are under threat while also filtering millions of gallons of water on a daily basis. Because of its tremendous ecological value, Fisheries and Oceans Canada has established a marine refuge that, among other protection efforts, has eliminated commercial fishing that could damage the reef. These protections are the result of years of research and advocacy by citizen-scientists who have championed the reef’s conservation.

Those efforts are profiled in the new documentary Moonless Oasis, which is currently available on CBC Gem. Following Hamish Tweed and his team of divers and researchers, the film highlights their passion and commitment to better understand and preserve the reef. Taking the audience over 200 feet under the surface, the film offers spectacular images of this underwater ecosystem while also highlighting the threats to its survival.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with filmmakers Nate Slaco and Bryce Zimmerman about Moonless Oasis. We talk about the glass sponge reef, the challenges of shooting underwater, and importance of capturing the reef on film. We also discuss the efforts to preserve the reef, whether this is a nature or human story, and why the reef is an important national story.

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Teaching Canada–U.S. Relations in 2020

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Happier times in Canada-U.S. relations, when President Franklin Roosevelt and Prime Minister Mackenzie King inaugurated the Thousand Islands Bridge and sought to span the border in a more figurative way. Three years later, 90 percent of respondents in a U.S. survey supported American entry in the war if Canada were invaded by Axis powers. Ogden Standard-Examiner, Aug. 18, 1938; Salt Lake Tribune, Aug. 19, 1938; Oakland Tribune, May 11, 1941.

Patrick Lacroix

Didn’t you guys burn down the White House?

– Donald J. Trump

From television news programming to social media, a politically unaware visitor to Canada would easily believe that we are in the midst of a heated national election. We aren’t, of course, but we have had front-row seats—the mediatic splash zone—to unending American electioneering. Early reports suggest that the current presidential campaign may not end today, nor even this week. In that uncertainty, bruised relations and misperceptions between our two countries will also persist. I believe that history teachers have a special duty to counter those misperceptions as well as inflammatory media coverage.

Last winter, I had that very opportunity: for the first time in my career, I taught the history of Canada–U.S. relations. In light of my experience teaching both Canadian and American history courses, this seemed like the next logical step: I could now put two national surveys in conversation with one another. I would like to think that I offered my students at least a very small introduction to the subject. Here, however, I propose to ponder challenges of teaching Canada–U.S. relations and open a conversation about what lies in that history and how it is informed by our politics.

The nation in Canada–U.S. relations

The first challenge in this course was to cover 250 years of relations between the United States and its boreal neighbour(s) in thirteen weeks. Still, somehow, that sizeable issue was dwarfed by the prospect of teaching undergraduate students two national histories at once. Some of my students had not taken history since high school; to my knowledge, no more than one had taken an American history course. It sometimes seemed we were putting the cart before the mule.[1]

It is, in fact, difficult to approach Canada–U.S. relations without bowing to a national approach to history. Continue reading

Spooky Sources to Teach, and Challenge, Canadian history

By Samantha Cutrara

I like a good theme, and what better theme is there than Halloween?

With Halloween falling on a Saturday this year, I wanted to use it to have  “spooky” conversations for my Source Saturday video series on YouTube (also available as a podcast). Source Saturday is a new video & podcast series where I talk with historians, archivists, and creators about a primary source that can #ChallengeCdnHist as well as model how people can use primary sources to interpret the past. Continue reading

Remember/Resist/Redraw #25: “We won’t be quiet until we get the Special Diet!”

Earlier this month, the Graphic History Collective released Remember/Resist/Redraw #25. The poster looks at the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty’s successful 2009 struggle to increase access to the Special Diet benefit, an additional $250 for those living on social assistance to purchase food. With art by Rocky Dobey and an essay by John Clarke, the poster highlights the power of poor and racialized people using direct action to fight austerity and food insecurity in Canada’s biggest city.

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

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History Slam Episode 167: Halloween Costumes Through the 20th Century

By Sean Graham

This year, Halloween will look very different in communities across the country. Even though Trick or Treating may not be possible, there are still going to be opportunities to dress up in creative and fun costumes. For as much as getting candy made Halloween an exciting event when I was a kid, I remember the costumes I wore a lot more than any of the sugary sweets that found their way into lunch throughout November. As a kid of the ’90s, a lot of my costumes were reflective of ’90s culture. This was not surprising, if you go back through the 20th century, the most popular costumes in any given year can tell us a lot about the culture at the time. For every fad costume – think of Ken Bone in 2016 – there are many more costumes that stand the test of time.

In this very special Halloween episode of the History Slam, I’m joined by Aaron Boyes as we go through the 20th century to talk about the most popular Halloween costumes in each decade. We discuss some of the challenges of coming up with good costumes, some of the timeless costumes that come up throughout the century, and what we can learn from exploring themes in costumes.

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Blacked Out History: An Open Letter to Premier Ford

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The letter below was sent to Premier Doug Ford’s office earlier this week by Natasha Henry, President of the Ontario Black History Society, on behalf of the OBHS board.

Dear Premier Ford,

The Ontario Black History Society is writing to demand the Ministry of Education of Ontario take immediate action to improve and update the current Ontario Social Studies, History, and Geography curricula by formally including explicit mandated learning expectations on Black history and experiences from K – 12.

For 42 years, it has been a crucial part of the mandate of the OBHS to support the inclusion of Black history in classroom instruction. In fact, our organization was established by Dr. Daniel Hill, the first Director of the Ontario Human Rights Commission and father of author Lawrence Hill, and other Black educators and community members precisely because they were concerned about the systemic absence and misrepresentation of Black history in schools. The past seven months have highlighted what Black people in Canada and worldwide have known for generations, that Ontario and the nation of Canada have perpetuated and failed to address anti-Black racism in any systemic way.

The social uprising against police brutality and systemic racism along with the calls to remove monuments, street names, and other historical markers that celebrate colonization, enslavement, violence, and displacement have elucidated why it is essential to teach young people in Ontario about the contributions and achievements of Black Canadians. They also provide a rationale on the importance of educating them about the ways that Black Canadians have faced systemic racism by various levels of government and racial discrimination in white-majority society throughout our history. Continue reading

History Slam 166: Radical Housewives

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By Sean Graham

The connection between political identity and consumer habits has received plenty of attention in recent years. I’ve wondered how much the landmark 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision in the United States, which determined that limiting independent political spending from corporations and other groups violated the First Amendment, has renewed interest in how individuals can use their role as consumer to voice to their political views. In a world where “Your Vote Almost Certainly Won’t Matter” is a real headline in a national newspaper, it is understandable that more and more people are exploring the impact of voting with their wallet.

The idea of political consumerism is not new, of course, as there have always been individuals and groups who have decided where to spend their money based on political motivations. During the ‘Jazz Age’ of the 1920s, for instance, plenty of consumers focused their energy on supporting the public good with their purchases. Over a decade later, Canada saw the emergence of community-based organizations that advocated for policies like price control.

This is the subject of Julie Guard’s book Radical Housewives: Price Wars and Food Politics in Mid-Twentieth Century Canada. Guard describes the Housewives Consumer Association and its local off-shoots as they pressured the government to implement policies and programs that provided greater protection to consumers. Leveraging their social position as mothers, the women who participated in this movement worked to popularize socialist economic policies. In tracing the movement from the late 1930s through the early 1950s, Guard demonstrates how the group used political consumerism and politicized materialism to navigate the changing social, political, and economic landscape of the mid-20th century.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Professor Guard about the book. We talk about the creation of the Housewives Consumer Association, who its members were, and what types of pressure they put on the government. We also discuss how public perception of them changed across the decades, the efficacy of political consumerism, and how these women’s stories can inform contemporary political discussions.

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History Slam Episode 165: Capital Punishment, Murder, & Sexual Violence in Canada

By Sean Graham

In 1967, the federal government placed a moratorium on the death penalty in Canada. Nine years later, Bill C-64 officially abolished capital punishment. Over the previous century, 710 people were executed in Canada, but the public reaction to each of these varied. Some generated plenty of media attention, while others fell beyond the public gaze. The responses to these cases were heavily influenced by broader societal factors, including the cultural status of perpetrators and victims, the details of the crime, and how the case fit into wider trends within criminal justice.

Cases involving capital punishment would typically lead to a renewed debate over the death penalty’s place within Canada’s criminal justice system. In particular, murder cases that also included sexual violence generated more attention and conflicting opinions on executions. This is just one of the areas of focus for Carolyn Strange in the new book The Death Penalty and Sex Murder in Canadian HistoryIn the book, Strange discusses how these convictions were more likely to result in executions, while also analyzing the role of discretionary justice in these cases. By offering a deep dive into the case files, Strange provides a fascinating history while also exploring how the death penalty still looms over criminal justice in Canada.

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Did you hear the One about the Cardinal, the Rabbi, and the Minister? Spiritual Leaders and Big Social Problems in 1970s Toronto

Emmett Cardinal Carter faces the media on the release of his report on police-community relations, 1979. Toronto Star/TPL.

David M. K. Sheinin

People sometimes do a double take when they learn that longtime Toronto city councilor Joe Mihevc holds a doctorate in theology. “How did you go from theology to politics?” they ask in mock opprobrium for the latter. Mihevc smiles: “It was easy to make the jump.”

Though most active in post-1990 Toronto, Mihevc is a holdover from an earlier era when religion and politics often went hand in hand. As a Canadian Methodist missionary in China during the 1940s, for example, James Endicott backed communist revolutionaries. Silenced by the United Church of Canada in 1946, he resigned from the ministry. But he remained a powerful voice on the Canadian left for decades in the “Ban the Bomb” movement and additional progressive causes. Like others, however, who crossed from spiritual leadership to the political sphere he divided Canadians. His critics included Lester B. Pearson who called him a “Red Stooge.”

In the 1970s, for about fifteen years something changed in the Toronto of Mihevc’s young adulthood. Leaders from across the mainstream political spectrum (and the public) turned to well-known spiritual mentors to help solve big social problems. Unlike Endicott and others who had appealed to limited constituencies, a handful of 1970s spiritual leaders won adherents across religious and political divides. They played outsized roles in Toronto public life. Foremost among them were Gerald Emmett Carter (Archbishop of Toronto, 1978-90, Cardinal, 1979-90), W. Gunther Plaut (Rabbi, Holy Blossom Temple, 1961-77), and Lois Wilson (president, Canadian Council of Churches, 1976-79, Moderator, United Church of Canada, 1980-82).

By the mid-1980s, the era of these prodigious spiritual leaders as pervasive moral authorities had come to a close.

What ushered in the era, and why did it end? Continue reading