From Reel to Real: Using Film to teach Labour History

John-Henry Harter

society-of-the-spectacleDuring my undergraduate degree I had an epiphany in the only labour history class offered at my university. Here being taught in this class was my history, my own lived experience. More broadly, it was an acknowledgement and validation that the working class mattered. As a mature student, I had worked for years before entering post-secondary and had not really found a foothold. Labour history helped establish that foothold. It started to put words to experiences I had not been able to articulate: words like solidarity, alienation, class, and stratification.

Oddly enough film studies was another discipline that discussed ideas and issues that seemed more real and relevant to my life. Reification, commodification, and hegemony were all concepts that helped me understand the world around me.

It wasn’t until I started teaching at Simon Fraser University as a sessional instructor and later as a lecturer that I had the opportunity to bring labour history and film together. I was not the first to do this, but never-the-less it was exciting and held the promise of connecting with students like I had been so much earlier. This paper reflects on these experiences to explore the process of using film to approach and teach labour history.[1] Continue reading

Modern Treaties in Canada: A Call for Engaged, Collaborative Historical Research

By Andrew Stuhl, Bruce Uviluq, Anna Logie, and Derek Rasmussen

Modern treaties are reshaping Canada. Since 1975, the federal government and Indigenous communities have entered into 26 of these comprehensive land claim agreements, covering parts of all three territories and four provinces. Modern treaties have provided Indigenous ownership over 600,000 km2 of land and capital transfers of over $3.2 billion, but they are not just real estate or cash transactions. They also establish new relationships between signatories around resource development, wildlife and fisheries management, education, health services, and more. As some of the treaties currently in negotiation become finalized—as of August 2016, there are nearly 100 tables open across the country—the existing map of modern treaties will become a vestige in Canada’s evolution.

Map showing the modern treaty territories.

Modern Treaty Territories in Canada in 2009. Nearly half of Canada’s lands and waters are in some way impacted by these comprehensive land claim agreements. Reproduced with permission of the Land Claims Agreement Coalition.

We are not interested here in continuing the argument for why modern treaties deserve our attention. Scholars in and outside academia have already made the case. Rather, we use this post to invite historians to consider two other questions, both of which shape how we translate that attention into action. Who is the audience for research on modern treaties? What are the routes and roadblocks in the modern treaties archive? We hope our answers inspire more collaborative and engaged research on one of Canada’s most transformative, yet unfinished episodes. Continue reading

Without Words: Learning from Absences in the Wendat Language

By John Steckley

The Wendat (Huron), when first encountered by the French in the early 17th century, were living south of Georgian Bay in central Ontario. They spoke an Iroquoian language (one related to those of the Haudenosaunee or Iroquois), and grew corn, beans and squash for most of their food. The missionaries that worked with them were the Jesuits, who during the 17th and 18th centuries developed some of the most extensive dictionaries and grammars then recorded.

Through these texts, I have studied the Wendat language for about 40 years, and have written or edited six books on the subject. I often say that the language is my best teacher. It never stops instructing me about how the Wendat ancestors thought. It continues to suggest to me how the language-based teachings of the ancestors could prove useful for mainstream North American society in the early 21st century. One way it can teach is through concepts the ancestors did not express with their language, concepts not necessary in their lives. At the very least the language can be seen as presenting an alternative viewpoint that challenges our mainstream Western sense of the universal.

The Wendat language has no way of saying best. Continue reading

Travels with Caroline

Alban Bargain-Villéger

Caroline de?me?nage (1987)

Caroline déménage (1987)

Unlike my previous contributions, this post is the result of an accident. While browsing the contents of my external hard drive in June during a (late) spring cleaning operation, I found a folder labelled “Caroline.” Intrigued, I opened the file and immediately remembered what these forgotten documents were. In the summer of 2008, while on vacation at my grandparents’ place, I spent a couple of hours reading a number of children’s books, which my grandmother used to read to me when I was a child. Entitled Caroline, these books follow the adventures of the eponymous character, a blonde preteen in red overalls, and her eight anthropomorphized critter friends. Both amused and intrigued, I decided to photograph the books. Since I was in the early stages of my doctoral research at the time, and since I am not a historian of childhood, I decided to archive the folder and forgot about it for the next eight years.

Although there was plenty to write about this summer, chancing upon the “Caroline” folder was serendipitous. Continue reading

The Morality of Mergers

By Jonathan McQuarrie

henry_herbert_stevensRecently, Monsanto received a $66 billion purchase offer from the even mightier German pharmaceutical company Bayer. It would be hard to find a more disliked firm than Monsanto, and the fact that a major pharmaceutical company is the potential buyer has created even more alarm. But should we disentangle our moral concerns from our economic understanding?

The Bayer offer is a massive one, even during a spike in of mergers and acquisitions (M&A), measured by value, in North America. Globally, the total value of M&A in 2015 set a new record as measured by total value. In Canada, the proposed merger of two major potash companies, Potash Corp. and Agrium Inc. and Enbridge’s proposal to acquire Spectra Energy Corp. have prompted concern over a “mega-merger mania.”

Financial news discussions tend to focus on two key points. Firstly, we see the typical business and financial questions that animate much of the business papers. How much will the merger or acquisition contribute to creating value, both for shareholders and the new entity? What sort of shared competencies, expertise, and efficiencies do the two firms have, and how will the larger entry generate profit from them? Might the M&A lead to some sort of bust—an unwieldy conglomeration whose brand identities fail to work together? (The Quaker Oats’ acquisition of Snapple in 1994—remember Snapple? —is used as a case study in this regard).

The second key point are any legal questions. In the United States, M&As are subject to the Federal Trade Commission’s Antitrust laws, whose origins stretch back to the Sherman Act of 1890. In Canada, M&As are subject to oversite from the Competition Bureau. The Bureau is governed by the Competition Act, which was passed in 1985, but whose origins stretch back to a Combinations in Trade Prevention Bill discussed in the House of Commons in 1888. In both the United States and Canada, M&As are subject to legal reviews that are designed to prioritize consumer rights. For instance, the FTC quashed a potential Staples-Office Depot merger because the firms failed to convince a court that their merger would lead to anything but a reduction in the number of stores, and thereby, competition and customer service.

Continue reading

History Slam Episode Ninety-One: Teaching in China

By Sean Graham

What did you for the summer? A common question asked when you see someone for the first time in the fall. Normally, I haven’t had an overly interesting answer to that question, but this year was a little different. For a couple months this summer I had the pleasure of traveling to Beijing to teach in the international summer school program at the University of International Business and Economics. It was my first time not only in China, but in Asia, so the cultural learning curve was steep, but by the end of the summer, I had started to feel more and more comfortable with my surroundings.

In addition to being in a new city, the teaching was rather different from what I expected. The biggest thing that I discovered was how much I rely on assumptions in my teaching. Teaching, whether in Boston or Ottawa, I learned how much I could reference something and be assured that the students were familiar with the reference. On the other side of the world, however, I couldn’t always rely on that luxury and had to do a better job presenting a clear narrative.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Dorothy Verkerk from the University of North Carolina about the experience of teaching in the summer program at UIBE. Recording while we waited for our flight to Toronto at the end of the program, we chat about the challenges of teaching a condensed summer session, some of the highlights of the summer, and how much we enjoyed teaching our UIBE students. We also debate the pros and cons of teaching abroad and discuss my ambivalence towards Chinese beer.

Continue reading

“Finally”: Peace in Colombia?

Stefano Tijerina 

Ares. "El Proceso de Paz. Secuestrado por el Miedo? La May 24, 2014.

Ares. “El Proceso de Paz. Secuestrado por el Miedo?”, May 24, 2014.

It is with great skepticism that I reflect on the recent announcement of the peace agreement between the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian government.  I grew up in Bogotá, Colombia and lived through directly and indirectly the multi-layers of the most recent Colombian Civil War.  Within this fifty-two year old Civil War I experienced the other spatial dimensions of violence that also impacted and continue to impact Colombians on a daily basis.  I have seen informal and organized crime, I have seen the bodies of the victims of urban social cleansing, I have been shaken by the bombs detonated by narcos, and I have heard the stories of those impacted by paramilitary violence, and even military violence.  I have seen the outcomes of systemic and structural poverty that ultimately led to greater social violence, including the attacks on workers and labour union leaders, I have seen the violence that falls upon those that question the state including comedians, journalists, students, civilians and humanitarian NGOs, and I have seen the cultural violence perpetuated on women, racial minorities, the LGBTQ community, indigenous groups, the homeless and other disenfranchised groups.

There is no good and evil in this conflict and from my perspective everyone has blood on their hands directly or indirectly.  Some do not want peace because there is plenty of money to make from the perpetuation of war; some do not want peace because their pain from lost ones may only now be satiated with vengeance; some want peace to advance their own individualistic agendas; others want peace because they have never experienced such pleasures; and others do not even care because they are marginalized and lack citizenship rights.  My experience in Colombia, my own knowledge and historical understanding as a scholar, and my gut feeling tells me there will not be peace in Colombia.  The history behind the genocide of the Unión Patriótica political party members in the late 1980s is enough evidence to show me that peace is not possible, and it is a history I am convinced will repeat itself in this particular case. Continue reading

Historicizing Hillary Clinton’s Body

By Beth A. Robertson


If you are a Canadian as obsessed with current U.S. politics as I am, you probably are aware of the strange presidential election south of the border. In fact, even if you are not interested in US politics, the theatrical run-up to the 2016 US election seems hard to avoid. The Republican candidate, Donald Trump has repeatedly filled headlines with his flagrantly racist and sexist views, as well as his fondness of dictators and the use of nuclear weapons. His approach to immigration includes building monolithic walls along first the Mexican, and then Canadian border. With US citizens threatening to move to Canada in droves if Trump is elected, giving rise to “dating sites” attempting to match US citizens with compatible Canadians, this presidential race has become a truly North American preoccupation.

Clinton in Hampton, NH, by Marc Nozell, CC License Attribution Generic

Clinton in Hampton, NH, by Marc Nozell, CC License Attribution Generic

Many peoples’ hope for this election, if begrudgingly, rests on the shoulders of the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state. Although she has by no means courted controversy as much as Trump, she has experienced her fair share of drama. One of the more recent is a video emerging of Hillary Clinton stumbling into her SUV after attending a 9/11 memorial last Sunday. Later in the day, it was revealed by Clinton’s doctor that she had been diagnosed with pneumonia on Friday. Viewing it as “not a big deal”, Clinton continued with her campaign duties, until the fateful stumble made it apparent she might just have to give herself time to recover. This event was widely touted afterwards by the media as the “health crisis” of Clinton’s campaign that could threaten her bid for presidency. It fuelled conspiracy theories that emerged relatively early in the campaign that the Democratic candidate is in poor health, whether due to a brain injury, a heart condition, Parkinson’s Disease, or even syphilis.

There has been some understandable backlash to such claims, one of which emerged from CNN journalist, Christiane Amanpour, who pithily asked the question, “Can’t a girl have a sick day?” She then invoked history to point out an unfair double standard, listing examples of previous male presidents before Clinton who had some sort of health-related issues, yet were never questioned as to their ability to fulfill their duties as head of state. It seems fair to reason that Amanpour may be correct in thinking that the preoccupation with Clinton’s health is a product of historically ingrained sexism. Continue reading

Religion and Auteurism in The Revenant

What are the problems and possibilities of Hollywood history? ActiveHistory is pleased to feature a four-essay forum on The Revenanta 2015 Hollywood historical epic set against the backdrop of the early 1800s North American fur trade. As a primer, we recommend reading Stacy Nation-Knapper’s excellent review from earlier this year.

Benjamin Bryce and Anna Casas Aguilar

The Revenant is loosely based on a year in the life of the U.S. fur trader and mountain man Hugh Glass. The spectacular cinematography, the action, and – for some – questions about the veracity of the story may have overshadowed what in many ways is the central theme that runs through the storyline: religion.

The influence of Alejandro González Iñárritu, the director and co-author of the screenplay, can clearly be seen in the way religion appears in the movie. Iñárritu’s auterism (a film studies term that describes the indelible imprint that some directors leave on the films they make) has created a work of transnational cinema that emphasizes a specific view of the history of the North American West in the 1820s and also a specific view of religion.

The director (left) and star of the Revenant.

The director (left) and star of the Revenant.

Continue reading

The True Revenants of a Buried Past

What are the problems and possibilities of Hollywood history? ActiveHistory is pleased to feature a four-essay forum on The Revenanta 2015 Hollywood historical epic set against the backdrop of the early 1800s North American fur trade. As a primer, we recommend reading Stacy Nation-Knapper’s excellent review from earlier this year.

Michel Bouchard

Hugh Glass’s encounter with the grizzly bear was depicted in illustrations soon after it was first reported. Wikimedia Commons.

Hugh Glass’s encounter with the grizzly bear was depicted in illustrations soon after it was first reported. Wikimedia Commons.

The Revenant is the latest of ghostly resurrections of the Hugh Glass story, and in many ways the worst in the ways it distorts the history of the French-speaking traders, trappers, and boatmen who outnumbered the Anglo-American “mountain men” by a ratio of four-to-one in the era depicted. Each time the tale has been told, the purpose is nonetheless the same, to define the new American hero. This latest haunting is no different. The movie first and foremost glorifies the hyper-individualist hero. Not only does Glass kill a grizzly bear, he does so alone. The first telling of the tale in 1825 was a bit more modest as it was Glass’s companions that came to his rescue: “the main body of trappers having arrived, advanced to the relief of Glass, and delivered seven or eight shots with such unerring aim as to terminate hostilities, by despatching [sic] the bear as she stood over her victim.” Written shortly after the incident and having certainly met Glass or acquaintances of Glass in person, the 1825 account had to be a bit more restrained in telling Glass’s story. Nonetheless, since 1825, both historians and popular culture have contributed to denigrating then burying then denying the history of the French speakers of the West and on both sides of the 49th Parallel.

The reality is the colonial French were actively pushing into the plains a century prior to the 1820s. In the 1720s, the French had established the “Compagnie des Sioux” with the stated intent of trading with the Sioux in this very region of the world where the historical Hugh Glass was crawling. Continue reading