Holiday Repost – Gin and Tonic: A Short History of a Stiff Drink is on a hiatus for the winter break, and will return to daily posts in early January.  During the hiatus, we’re featuring some of our favourite holiday and winter themed posts. Thank you to all our contributors, guest editors, and readers for making 2018 a very successful year. Happy holidays to all and we look forward to continuing our work in 2019!

Planning on enjoying a drink as part of your New Year’s Eve celebrations? Grab a glass and settle in to read this post by Jay Young was originally featured on August 14, 2012.

Gin and Tonic. Image from Wikipedia.

The Gin and Tonic – what better a drink during the dog days of summer?  Put some ice in a glass, pour one part gin, add another part tonic water, finish with a slice of lime, and you have a refreshing drink to counter the heat.  But it is also steeped in the history of medicine, global commodity frontiers, and the expansion of the British Empire.  

Let’s start with the gin.  Although it is commonly known as the quintessential English spirit, the history of gin underlines the island’s connections to the outside world. The origin of gin – unlike the drink itself – is quite murky.  Sylvius de Bouve, a sixteenth-century Dutch physician, is the individual associated with the development of gin.  He created a highly-alcoholic medicinal concoction called Jenever.  It featured the essential oils of juniper berries, which the physician believed could improve circulation and cure other ailments.  The berry, deriving from a small coniferous plant, had long been treasured for its medicinal properties, including its use during the plague.

Some students of the spirit argue that English soldiers discovered it while fighting in Holland in the 1580s during the Dutch War of Independence, whereas others trace England’s gin tradition to the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648).  The English nicknamed the drink “Dutch courage,” but what stuck was gin, a derivation of the Flemish word genever.

Gin’s popularity grew in England after William of Orange had become King of England following the Glorious Revolution of 1688.  Parliament exerted its superior authority by ousting from the throne the Catholic King James II.  With William’s reign came high import duties on French brandy – the dominant hard liquor in England at the time.  The English began to produce a gin at a low cost.  As John Watney notes in Mother’s Ruin: A History of Gin“[a] revolution in drinking habits, equal to or perhaps surpassing in importance the Glorious Revolution in politics, was about to occur.”  Parliament ended the royal monopoly on spirit distilling within London and its surrounding area, and statutes promoted distillation from grain grown by English farmers.

Click here to continue reading this post. ? Repost – Lace Up: A History of Skates in Canada is on a hiatus for the winter break, and will return to daily posts in early January.  During the hiatus, we’re featuring some of our favourite holiday and winter themed posts. Thank you to all our contributors, guest editors, and readers for making 2018 a very successful year. Happy holidays to all and we look forward to continuing our work in 2019!

The following History Slam episode was originally featured on November 29, 2017.

For the past three-and-a-half years I have had the pleasure of working with Jean-Marie Leduc and Julie Léger on a book looking at the history of skates. Mr. Leduc is a renowned expert on skates with one of the biggest private collections in the world that has been displayed at museums and exhibitions across the country, including during the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. When the opportunity came up a few years ago to work on a book, it seemed to me an interesting idea that would make for a good read. On November 10, Lace Up: A History of Skates in Canada was released. The book traces the development of skates from bone skates used by Indigenous peoples for thousands of years to the skates used by today’s world champions. Through Mr. Leduc’s collection, the book explores how skates and their technological innovations shaped how people got around on ice. At the same time, as skates continued to evolve, new winter sports were invented based on the improved technology. For instance, the development of stop picks on figure skates allowed for the speed, agility, and aerial components required in today’s competitions.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Jean-Marie Leduc about Lace Up. We talk about the origins of his extensive skate collection, how he built the collection, and some of his favourite pairs. We also talk about the book, how we put it together, and what readers can expect.

Sean Graham is an editor with and host/producer of the History Slam Podcast Repost – An (Ice) Bridge to the Past: Niagara Falls has Frozen is on a hiatus for the winter break, and will return to daily posts in early January.  During the hiatus, we’re featuring some of our favourite holiday and winter themed posts. Thank you to all our contributors, guest editors, and readers for making 2018 a very successful year. Happy holidays to all and we look forward to continuing our work in 2019!

The following post by Daniel Macfarlane was originally featured on March 5, 2015.

Niagara Falls has frozen. Well, not really. The entire water flow of the famous Horseshoe Falls doesn’t actually freeze, despite ‘polar vortexes’ (more commonly known to most Canadians as ‘winter’). Water keeps flowing underneath the ice. The American Falls does occasionally dry up due to ice jams upstream (and this has happened once in recorded history to the Horseshoe Falls: see note [1]). Tourists are nonetheless flocking to see the gelid cataract – and some people are even climbing it!

Wind can send large chunks of ice from Lake Erie down the Niagara River. Ice jams at the base of the waterfalls form what are known as “ice bridges.”  In the 19th century these congealed water spans became an occasion for festivities, as the two Niagara Falls communities on either side of the international border would use them for transnational ice parties. Talk about having a drink on the rocks!

LAC MIKAN no 3318088
 Niagara Falls Ice Bridge around the turn of the century. Wikimedia Commons
People congregating on the Niagara Ice Bridge. Wikimedia Commons


That is, they had ice parties until one fateful day. On February 4, 1912, the ice bridge broke away and raced downstream. 3 people perished. From that point on, such festivities on the ice were prohibited.

But that wasn’t the end of disasters related to ice build up. In 1938, another ice bridge broke free and took out the famed Honeymoon Bridge (see a video of the collapse here).

Obviously there was an ice problem, at least from an anthropocentric perspective.

But ice wasn’t the only aspect of the Niagara system that Canadian and American officials wanted to change. Bilateral efforts had already led to the diversion of massive volumes of water around the falls for hydro and industrial production. These efforts reached their apogee with the 1950 Niagara Treaty. This accord authorized the remaking of the actual waterfalls themselves, with up to ¾ of the water diverted around the waterfall to power stations downstream.  I won’t get into all that, however, since I’ve previously done so on the NiCHE website and other places. [2]

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Holiday Repost – Here We Come A-Picketing! Christmas Carols, Class Conflict, and the Eaton’s Strike, 1984-85 is on a hiatus for the winter break, and will return to daily posts in early January.  During the hiatus, we’re featuring some of our favourite seasonal posts. Thank you to all our contributors, guest editors, and readers for making 2018 a very successful year. Happy holidays to all and we look forward to continuing our work in 2019!

The following post by Sean Carleton and Julia Smith was originally featured on December 18, 2014.

Eaton's Picketline

By mid-December, the holiday shopping season is usually in full swing for Canadian retailers. Thirty years ago, however, several Eaton’s department stores in southern Ontario were experiencing a different type of holiday hustle and bustle: Eaton’s workers were on strike.

Hoping that unionization would improve their wages and working conditions, many of the department stores’ mostly female workers had joined the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU); but management’s refusal to negotiate left them with few options but to withdraw their labour power. On 30 November 1984 RWDSU members at six Eaton’s locations went on strike. In doing so, they embarked on a significant struggle to win a collective agreement in a sector known for poor pay and precarity, all while enduring one of the coldest winters in Canadian history.

Eaton’s workers picketed for almost six months. During that time, they used a variety of tactics to maintain morale and hold the line. With help from the Canadian Labour Congress, they organized a national boycott of Eaton’s, a particularly effective technique during the holiday shopping season. Strikers also used performance and humour to win public support. In the lead-up to Christmas, they worked with the Red Berets, a feminist musical group in Toronto, to adapt Christmas carols to incorporate issues related to the strike. These types of creative tactics attracted considerable media attention and thereby increased public awareness of and support for the strike.

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Holiday Repost – ‘Tis the Season (for Social and Economic Change): Depression-Era Christian Socialism and an Alternative Meaning for Christmas is on a hiatus for the winter break, and will return to daily posts in early January.  During the hiatus, we’re featuring some of our favourite seasonal posts. Thank you to all our contributors, guest editors, and readers for making 2018 a very successful year. Happy holidays to all and we look forward to continuing our work in 2019!

The following post by Christo Aivalis was originally featured on December 17, 2015.

If one peruses their televisions, computers, and streetscapes, they can’t help but forget that we have been in the throes of the Christmas season since November. But this form of Christmas celebration, tied so deeply with capitalism, belies the transformative optimism Christmas provided working-class socialists in the Depression, and still today. Much as Pope Francis’ criticisms of capitalism and consumerist Christmas celebrations amidst war offer a call to change, so did the Christian Left seek a new social order in the Great Depression via the message of Christ and Christmas. For them, the egalitarian and socialist ideals of a 2000 year old Humble Nararane Carpenter spoke the society they wished to build.

While much has been written about Christianity socialism among ministers-turned-politicians like Tommy DouglasJ.S. Woodsworth, and Stanley Knowles, less has been said about Christian socialism among Canadian workers and trade unionists. Yet if we look back to Depression-era trade union newspapers, we see a movement utilizing Christian scripture and imagery in order to agitate for substantive political, economic, and social reforms. After all, numerous contributors argued that Christ was not only God reborn, but was God reborn as a humble Nazarene carpenter: a workingman sent to bring a gospel of justice and equality for the downtrodden. Christ came not as a king, but as a pauper, and in so doing showed his allegiances. This identification with Christ as a radical workingman led many to propose a Christian social order that struck at the core of social and economic inequality, private property:

A theology which teaches that God is Mammon’s silent partner would necessarily be suspect in an age of folk upheaval…. Property needs not God to protect it…Jesus announced “Good News”[:] namely, that Heaven is passionately on the side of the people against the despotic tendencies of property; and under that leadership a messianic passion for men is announcing itself. The trouble is the working people at large have not yet come to behold The Carpenter.[1]

Not all pieces were necessarily so strident, but in general, there was a pronouncement that Christianity was incompatible with capitalism, at least as largely practiced. The solution for many in this case was finding in Christian theology a refuge from the cruelty of capitalist motivations, chief among them profit and property: “For it is written, ‘thou shalt not steal.’ Unhappily, our modern idea is based more truly on the idea ‘thou shalt steal.’ The whole system of Profit is theft.”[2] 

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Holiday Repost – The Great Christmas Bake-Off: Kitschy Americana vs. Canadian Victoriana is on a hiatus for the winter break, and will return to daily posts in early January.  During the hiatus, we’re featuring some of our favourite holiday and winter themed posts. Thank you to all our contributors, guest editors, and readers for making 2018 a very successful year. Happy holidays to all and we look forward to continuing our work in 2019!

The following post by Cayley Bower was originally featured on December 20, 2017

Butterhorns displayed on a section of log in Canadian Living. I don’t know about you, but I’m inspired.

During the holidays, the food we eat is often as loaded with meaning as it is butter and sugar, which is good news for those of us looking to eat as many cookies and candies as possible in the coming weeks: it’s not over consumption, you see. It’s research. Holiday cooking is part of a web of meaning, tradition, and history, both personal and, as it turns out, national. This year, while engaging in my long-standing family tradition of purchasing the Canadian Living Holiday Baking collector’s edition and planning my Christmas baking, I realized that Canada’s Christmas food culture is deeply rooted in our imperial past, with ingredients and processes that tend toward the classically British.[1] In fact, the desserts in Canadian Living would not be wholly unfamiliar to Sir John A Macdonald. The most recent issues of Canadian Living Holiday Baking (a fixture in my childhood home that I’ve maintained) demonstrate this clearly through the promotion of a particular vision of the holidays that is situated firmly in the Victorian era.  The connection between Britishness, tradition, and the holidays is especially clear when recent recipe collections from Canada are compared to those from the United States.

The recipes in Canadian Living, one of the more popular Canadian holiday baking publications, are decidedly British in flavour and have a nineteenth-century feel in both the simplicity of the ingredients and the way they are presented in the photos; evidently, Canadian culture continues to look to Britain as the source of all things traditional. The recipes in Canadian Living are predominantly twists on classic British foods like shortbread, gingerbread, and trifle, many of which were associated with Christmas in the Victorian era after the holiday was revived after being passé for many years. According to a BBC article on the history of Christmas, “the transformation happened quickly, and came from all sectors of society” and introduced many of the traditions we now regard as integral to the holiday, including roast turkey, Christmas crackers, and the obligation to see family members that one spends the rest of the year actively avoiding. Scholars generally attribute the revival of Christmas to the cult of the Christian family that Queen Victoria perpetuated after her marriage to Prince Albert.

While many of the rituals surrounding Christmas are derived from the Victorian era, the Christmas treats seem to be some of the most enduring.

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Holiday Repost – The Reason for the Season?

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The following post by Christine McLaughlin was originally featured on December 21, 2009.

A flurry of criticism was directed at MP Scott Brison of Kings-Hants after he sent Christmas cards to his constituents featuring a photo of his family.  Criticism stemed not from the fact that Canadian MPs are sending out Christmas cards in such a culturally diverse country.  Instead, Brison has come under attack by a vocal group who judge his sexuality.  It has been suggested that Brison’s cards were particularly inappropriate given that the cards were sent to mark a “Christian festival.”

The history of Christmas, however, shows that its roots in Christianity have always been tenuous; the holiday as it is celebrated in modern times is a product of an ever-deepening chasm between Christianity and Christmas.  As Christianity has never solely defined seasonal celebrations, it is more appropriately marked by sending holiday, rather than Christmas, greetings.

December 21st marks the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere, the day when the sun makes its lowest and shortest appearance.  Long before December 25 was chosen to commemorate the birth of Christ, many people across the world celebrated this event; hundreds of structures built thousands of years ago to line up with solar and lunar activity remain standing to this day .  Examples of these include Newgrange in Ireland and Stonehengein England.  As attempts to spread Christianity were made through the Roman Empire and beyond, pagan practices were often fused with Christian ones to make the latter more appealing.

Many of these pre-Christian customs have been surprisingly persistent.  They include such activities as feasting, the worship and decoration of trees, decorating homes and altars with evergreen boughs, mistletoe and holly, and burning the Yule log, to name a few.

St. Nicholas, commonly known in English-speaking North America as Santa Claus, may have Christian roots.  He was canonized for acts of charity, such as giving his inheritance to the poor and downtrodden.  This is significantly different from contemporary times, where the poorest of children are lucky if they receive any gifts at all, regardless of whether they have been naughty or nice.
Santa Claus as he is now known is very much an invention of nineteenth-century America, and traditions carried with Dutch immigrants to the “New World” – he bears many similarities to the Germanic god Odin.  Santa’s modern image was popularized in 1863 in Harper’s magazine; circulated in the midst of the Civil War, it features a pro-Unionist Santa stringing a “toy” before a group of soldiers.  By the 1900s, Santa Claus and gift-giving grew increasingly synonymous with Christmas celebrations.  Throughout the twentieth century, popular celebrations of Christmas changed considerably – particularly surrounding traditions of gift-giving – while Christmas emerged as a major pillar in an increasingly global economy.

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Sixth Annual(?) Year in Review (100 Years Later)

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By Aaron Boyes & Sean Graham

We give our two cents on the events of 1918. Let us know what you think

Every time you open a new tab you are bombarded with “Best [TV, sports, news, etc.] Moments of 2018!” At this time of year, it’s unavoidable. While some lists are appropriate – such as the worst sports ?blunders of the year, or best dressed of the year – others require some more time to truly showcase significance. That’s why we’re back with the Sixth Annual (?) Year in Review (100 Years Later) Bracket.

We took what we consider the most significant events, births, and deaths of 1918 and used the advantage that hindsight provides to determine what was the most important a century ago. We divided the events into four categories – International, Mortality, Culture, and, of course, Potpourri – and then pitted the top 4 seeds against one another in a March Madness-style bracket. Note: the scores are arbitrary and totally made up. (Editor’s note: this is fake news. It is a highly classified, proprietary algorithm that determines the scores)

As in year’s past – which you can read here – we have omitted any event associated with the First World War. This is because our friends at Canada’s First World War provide excellent insights into War, and events from the War would have dominated the Bracket. It is a safe bet to say that the Armistice at 11am on 11/11/1918 would be the most significant event had we not omitted the First World War.

Similarly, we have decided to eliminate from contention topics that have won in year’s past so as to not have repeat winners. As an example, women’s suffrage in Denmark won for 1915, so women winning the right to vote in subsequent years have not been included.

Whether you are a first timer or a returning reader, thank you very much for taking the time to check out our list. If you think we got something wrong, believe another event was overlooked, or if you disagree with our rationales, please let us know by posting a comment below or writing to us at:

First Round

International Bracket

(1) United States Passes Standard Time Act


(4) Nelson Mandela Born

Aaron: As Sean astutely argued in 2016, time is very much a human creation. Our planet spins on its axis as it revolves around the sun; but the measure of time it takes for one revolution – 23 hours, 56 minutes, 4.0916 seconds – is entirely a human creation. I will not delve into the philosophical debate about “what is time”, but suffice to say time is useful, especially since it helps to regulate aspects of our lives. Greenwich Mean Time was established in 1675 to assist sailors in determining longitude at sea; the first standard time was introduced in Britain in 1847 for use on railroads. Here in North America, Canadian and American railroad companies instituted a standard time in 1883, which improved both communication and travel. However, not everyone got on board with these time zones. That’s why in March 1918, the United States Congress passed the Standard Time Act, which implemented both Standard time and Daylight Saving Time across the nation. The act gave the Interstate Commerce Commission the responsibility of defining each time zone. The impact of standardizing time across the United States, as well as clearly defining time zones, has undoubtedly had significant positive impacts, especially with increased trans-continental communication and trade.

Few figures in the English-speaking world are as revered as Nelson Mandela. Born Rolihlahla Mandela, a Xhosa term that colloquially meant “troublemaker”, he was given the English name “Nelson” by his schoolteacher. He reminisced in 1994, “Why this particular name, I have no idea.” Mandela was the first in his family to attend school; he eventually studied law at the University of Fort Hare and the University of the Witwatersrand. While living in Johannesburg, Mandela became increasingly anti-colonial and an African nationalist. He joined the African national Congress (ANC) in 1943 – he eventually became its President in 1991. In 1948, South Africa’s ruling National Party, which was all-white, established apartheid, the system of legal, racial segregation. Mandela and the ANC were committed to overthrowing the National Party, first non-violently, then using force. In 1961, he helped to create the Umkhonto we Sizwe, “Spear of the Nation”, which led a sabotage campaign against the government. He was arrested and imprisoned in 1962 and sentenced to life in prison. Mandela served 27 years in prison before being released in 1990. Upon his release, he worked with then president F.W. de Klerk to end apartheid. In 1994, he was elected President of South Africa, the first black person to assume the office. After one term, he refocused his energies on the AIDS/HIV crisis in Africa. A controversial figure, both on the right and left, Mandela’s life and his commitment to equality cannot be understated.

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What Makes Oshawa So Special?

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Steven High

Most mills and factories close with a whimper and not a bang. Few were therefore prepared for the media fire-storm sparked by General Motor’s (GM) decision to close its auto-assembly plant in Oshawa, putting 2,500 Canadians out of work.

What makes this closure so special?

Unifor Local 222 members on Nov. 26. Jason Liebregts / Metroland

For starters, there is the historic centrality of the auto industry in Southern Ontario. The auto makers have provided generations of Canadians with work and wages that have allowed working-class people to achieve a middle-class standard of living. For more than a century, Oshawa was synonymous with the auto industry.

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200 Years of Treaty Annuities

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Treaty payments at Fort Vermilion, 1927 or 1928 (LAC, PA-134996)

Betsey Baldwin

Indigenous people have received treaty annuities in Canada for 200 years (1818-2018). These annuities are annual payments made to Indigenous people in fulfilment of treaties. They were promised for all time, are still paid now and will be paid in future. The amount is not indexed to inflation. For example, this photo shows a Treaty 8 payment made in Fort Vermilion, Alberta. Treaty 8 (1899) promised $5 per person distributed each year, and Treaty 8 members continue to receive $5 per person today.

Despite the small amount, treaty payments remain an important annual event, which begs the question—what is the ongoing meaning of treaty annuities? Historical records allow us to glimpse the intent and understanding of annuities when they were first introduced.

The First Treaty Annuities in 1818

Annuities were first included in three treaties made in October and November 1818.[1] For example, on November 5, 1818, the Ojibwa and British made a treaty pertaining to the Rice Lake area, with financial terms described as $10 worth of goods at Montreal prices to be distributed annually to each man, woman and child. This was explained by Crown representative William Claus, who introduced the new system of payment that would continue “as long as any of you remain on Earth.”[2]

While Claus didn’t say so, the Crown was likely financially motivated to avoid larger, one-time treaty payments. During this period, there was tremendous Imperial pressure to reduce the Indian Department’s annual expenses, as funded from Britain’s military budget. After the War of 1812 and the Treaty of Ghent (1815) the British foresaw lasting peace in North America, and wished to reduce military expenditures for Indigenous people. By 1818, there were frequent instructions from London to find means to reduce this cost.[3]

Surviving records of the November 5, 1818 treaty council report the Ojibwa Chiefs’ concerns regarding depletion of local game, continued hunting and fishing rights, and protection of islands for their use, but their reaction to the new system of annuity payments was not recorded.[4] They may have been surprised, or potentially dismayed, at not receiving an upfront payment as had been the usual practice.[5] However, the idea of an annual distribution was not a new one. Indigenous people in Upper Canada already engaged in a long-standing official distribution of annual presents as a means of Imperial diplomacy to express gratitude, and to ensure loyalty and military alliance of Indigenous allies with the Crown.[6] After 1818, the treaty signatories simply received a further $10 worth of goods over and above their regular presents. Therefore, while treaty annuities were a departure in how treaties were paid, they mimicked a system already in place. Continue reading