Reclaiming the People’s Memory

This essay originally appeared in the Fall 2015 edition of Canada Watch: The Politics of Evidence. 

By Karen Murray

Knowing our democratic selves, our democratic possibilities, and most crucially our democratic failings steers us toward greater freedom and justice in Canada and beyond. With these thoughts in mind, I offer a personal reflection on the erosion of the people’s memory at Library and Archives Canada under the government of Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Library and Archives Canada, 395 Wellington

Library and Archives Canada, 395 Wellington

When I began new research on democratic governance in 2001, 395 Wellington Street was the National Archives Canada and the National Library of Canada. It had remained as such when the latter two merged into Library and Archives Canada in 2004. Large auditoriums at the street-level housed exhibitions and public talks, allowing visitors to reflect upon different fragments of Canada’s past. On the fifth floor, there was a small café overlooking the Ottawa River. On the flagship research levels, sandwiched between the café and the downstairs exhibits, one would find numerous gifted librarians, archivists, and staff. With their assistance I gained access to materials impossible to find on my own. Down the road, I visited again and again. From across the planet, researchers took heavy advantage of the interlibrary loan program to access publications and microfilmed records. I did too. We were all part of a global democratic experience at the heart of which was Canada’s national memory.

An Institution’s Metamorphosis

Through Locked Doors at the East Side Exhibition Room

Through Locked Doors at the East Side Exhibition Room

I was not prepared for 395 Wellington’s metamorphosis when I returned in the spring of 2015, after several years away. Parts of the second floor, formerly alight with activity, stood eerily dark and silent. During the now much shorter time frames when it appears, a skeletal staff triages visitors toward or away from archivist consultations—mostly away, as far as I could tell. Evidently as a matter of policy, in the first instance, the staff directs researchers toward the computers, even though it is easy to see that Library and Archive Canada’s digital interface is a cumbersome and often useless creature. In any event, there is no substance to the as-much-as-possible-full-digitization-dream for the near future or ever. In 2014, the auditor general released a scathing report. It illustrated the weaknesses of the digital system, the incompleteness of finding aids, and the languishing of uncollected and unprocessed records. Continue reading

On Guard for Canadian Parochialism, Part Three

By Gilberto Fernandes

Whence they left

Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.

Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.

Critics of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s citizenship, immigration and refugee reforms argue that they are grounded on lies, exaggerations, fear mongering, and narrow-mindedness. Their criticism boils down to the fact that Conservative policymakers have not been informed by reliable data, which is lacking on Canadian emigrants. Recognizing this problem, the Asian Pacific Foundation of Canada (APFC) – one of the leading voices calling on Ottawa to develop diaspora-building policies and institutions – conducted research on Canadians living abroad and published its results in 2011. Besides confirming that the speculations of nativist politicians are largely unfounded, their report uncovered a very large section of the Canadian population that was previously hidden in the statistics. Few Canadians realize that an estimated 2.8 million of their compatriots live abroad – the equivalent of 9% of the country’s total population. Continue reading

Back to Work: Revitalizing Labour and Working-Class History in Canada

By Christo Aivalis, Greg Kealey, Jeremy Milloy, and Julia Smith

North Vancouver Museum and Archives, Reference Number 8073

North Vancouver Museum and Archives, Reference Number 8073

Earlier this month, Statistics Canada confirmed what many people had known for months: Canada is in a recession. As the economy has been shrinking, unemployment has been increasing. Meanwhile, people who are fortunate enough to be employed are increasingly working precarious, part-time positions for low pay. Canada is not alone. The global crises of capitalism over the past decade are symptomatic of our current age of inequality and instability.

Understanding these ailments and imagining possible remedies requires a solid historical analysis of class relations and capitalism. The most recent meeting of the Canadian Historical Association, however, indicates that these issues are not central to our current historical conversations. Of the approximately 102 panels on the program, the titles of only five mention work, workers, class, labour, or capitalism. This number does not necessarily reflect the important and innovative work being done on these subjects by historians; however, it raises the questions: Why are fewer historians labeling their work as labour and working-class history? Why is it important to study the history of class relations and capitalism? What can we do to foster renewed interest in these topics? Continue reading

Whose Left? A Call for the Revival of Parliamentary Socialism in Canada

By Lachlan MacKinnon

Canada, the United States, and the U.K. have recently witnessed a popular revitalization of left-politics that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. Jeremy Corbyn, the newly elected Leader of the Labour Party in the U.K., unabashedly appeals to the intellectual traditions of “Old Labour” with a leadership campaign that includes promises to fight austerity, expand public ownership, and invest in public housing, healthcare, and transportation. Bernie Sanders, self-proclaimed democratic socialist and potential candidate for President of the United States, has gathered hundreds of thousands of supporters through promises of doubling the federal minimum wage, implementing single-payer healthcare, and increasing revenue through a more progressive tax structure. In Canada, the NDP has been leading in polls since the beginning of this election cycle – although their campaign has been markedly more centrist than that of either Sanders or Corbyn [1]. Indeed, as Leo Panitch and Colin Leys write, it would appear that nearly three decades of “constant reductions in social services, chronic unemployment, increased stress, longer hours and increased insecurity at work [has robbed] ‘market society’ of its appeal” for a growing segment of the electorate [2].

Thomas Mulcair, 2012.jpg

Thomas Mulcair, 2012; Photo by Matt Jiggins, Creative Commons licence


Emerging out of the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis, the anti-neoliberal (if not anti-capitalist) left represents an opportunity for transformation within Canadian social democracy. Continue reading

Can “The Donald” Trump History as a Third Party Candidate?

By Oscar Winberg

Donald Trump, August 2015. Michael Vadon/Wikipedia Commons.

Donald Trump, August 2015. Michael Vadon/Wikipedia Commons.

The U.S. presidential campaign is already in full swing, even though it is roughly five months before the first ballot will be cast in the primaries and caucuses that select the major party nominees, and over a year until the people will actually elect the 45th president. This summer much of the coverage has been reserved for a candidate more familiar from reality television than electoral politics; Donald Trump. Polls show Trump leading the considerable line-up of candidates the Republican Party presents, and on account of the polls – and to the despair of political scientists – the media is considering him something of a favorite. If one disregards the polls, or looks beyond the main numbers to focus on favorability ratings and other more relevant information that does not correlate so closely with name recognition and media coverage, there is really nothing that points to Trump having any serious chance of capturing the Republican nomination. Historians might come up with spectacular political surprises from yesteryear, but the influential political science monograph The Party Decides: Presidential Nominations Before and After Reform (2008) makes it clear that Trump will not find any encouragement in recent political history.

Instead, Trump’s influence in 2016 might come as a third party candidate. Continue reading

History Slam Episode Sixty-Nine: Historica Canada and Heritage Minutes Contest

By Sean Graham

I’m fairly confident that everyone in my elementary school classes could recite the ‘Burnt Toast’ Heritage Minute by memory. It seemed to air multiple times each episode during re-runs of Degrassi on the CBC. While that one stood out the most for me and my classmates, other Heritage Minutes like Laura Second (“Take me to Fitzgibbon”), the Halifax Explosion (“Come on Vince, come on!”), and Orphans (“Johnson, sir, Molly Johnson”) are seared into the memories of millions of Canadians – whether we like it or not.

The Minutes are not perfect and their limitations have been well documented. Historica Canada’s 2012 decision to revive the minutes re-ignited the debate over their content and representation of Canadian history. The new Minutes have made an effort to be more inclusive and less celebratory (during the podcast it is revealed that Historica is currently producing a minute on residential schools), but overall their style is similar to those from the 1990s.

It is that format, however, that makes Heritage Minutes really accessible in today’s media environment. The idea of running one minute commercials doesn’t make nearly as much sense today as it did 20 years ago, particularly amid stories of people cutting off cable subscriptions in greater numbers, but so much internet content is consumed in short installments. Watching a one minute video on YouTube isn’t a significant investment and the ability to embed videos into web pages adds versatility. These clips are a terrific entry point into historical discussion for students used to on-demand content.
Continue reading

One Monument Too Many: Why R.B. Bennett Doesn’t Deserve a Spot on Parliament Hill

By: Sonya Roy and Steve Hewitt

bennettwIn recent years, non-experts, with the Harper government leading the way, have advocated and pushed for a conservative rewriting of Canadian history in an effort to find “heroes”[1]. This “great man” rewriting of Canadian history focuses on White, middle-class politicians and businessmen, militarism, and monarchism and leaves out the experiences of ordinary people and related subjects such as the labour movement, social justice struggles, immigration, feminism and colonization. A perfect example of this trend is the 20 August piece in the Globe and Mail “Let’s give R.B. Bennett his due” which portrays Bennett through the lenses of “happy history” as some sort of benevolent and prescient Canadian “Daddy” Warbucks. In making this case, the authors, a collection of journalists, an ex-politician, and a former civil servant, fail to engage in any way with considerably less savoury aspects of his time in office that might help to explain why he does not have a monument on Parliament Hill and why he should not have one in the future. Continue reading

On Guard for Canadian Parochialism, Part Two

By Gilberto Fernandes

Who killed spawned Canadian citizenship?

Wikipedia Commons.

Wikipedia Commons.

Like Gillian Frank and Jamie Duong, who challenged the Elections Act rule limiting the external voting rights of Canadian expats to five years living abroad, I too am an emigrant. I moved to Canada from Portugal over ten years ago through spousal sponsorship. I became a Canadian citizen as soon as I was eligible, mostly because I wanted to be able to vote. I am also a citizen of Portugal, a country that has long encouraged dual citizenship, provided various kinds of aid to its emigrants, and used its diaspora to generate international exchanges with various host countries – something that Canadian governments, businesses, and cultural institutions have welcomed. Like Frank and Duong, I keep well informed about political debates and current events in my home country, which I visit often and may return to one day. I also intend to vote in my homeland’s upcoming national elections.

But unlike Canadian expats, I will be able to vote for my own member of parliament in Lisbon representing my “Outside of Europe” riding. Everyone who knows me knows that I follow Canadian politics avidly and like to express my views on it – case in point. Even before coming to Canada, I educated myself about this country’s history and political system, and can safely say that I know more about these than most Canadians. I have also contributed to disseminating historical knowledge among Canadians and helped preserve their collective memory, to which I have dedicated an unhealthy amount of volunteer hours. Finally, I will soon be the father of a Canadian-born child, to whom I will be sure to bequeath my Portuguese citizenship. In the eyes of some leading historians and public intellectuals, this makes me an uncommitted, compromised, and even ungrateful Canadian. How come? Continue reading

A Neverending “Crisis”: Migration by Boat and Border Policing in the Mediterranean Sea

By Keegan Williams

April 19, 2015: a boat carrying up to 850 people sinks half-way between the Libyan coast and Lampedusa, Italy. Social media explodes and cries crisis, prompting an emergency meeting of European Union leaders. Their response is clear: dramatically increase funding for border policing and surveillance, and create Operation EUNAVFOR Med to systematically “identify, capture and dispose of vessels and enabling assets used or suspected of being used by migrant smugglers or traffickers” [1]. What social media missed is that this had all happened before, and will likely happen again.

There is a worrying pattern to the external border, immigration, and asylum policies of the European Union and its member states in the Mediterranean Sea. Seeking tighter external borders since the establishment of the Schengen Area in 1995, they created what sociologist Stephen Castles called “a policy of containment”, or a system designed to keep most migrants out [2]. As legal entry became all but impossible for most people from Africa and Asia, boats were used to bypass the physical border. Their illegalised position heightened their precarious position and led to losses as their journeys became circuitous and expensive. These losses were often labelled as a “crisis” and prompted even tougher security.

The movement and loss of people by boat from the Western Balkans to Italy in the late 1990s, for instance, was called a crisis. Boat crossings and sinkings near the Canary Islands and Lampedusa were also termed crises in the mid-2000s. The deaths of hundreds in large boats near Lampedusa in 2011, 2013, and 2014 were each called a crisis. At these intervals, the EU, along with its member states, made use of the narrative of crisis to justify extralegal responses in the form of stricter visa and entry rules, wider patrols and surveillance, and reduced legal protections. These intended to force people back before arrival at the physical border. Geographer Alison Mountz makes a compelling argument in “Seeking Asylum” that migration crisis can be manufactured to effect rapid policy change [3]. What we see in the Mediterranean is the use of this manufacture to enhance security, the consequence of which is more death – and therefore further crisis. Yet the cycle continues.
Continue reading

Lessons Learned from the Ugandan Asian Refugees

Ugandan Asian refugees board a plane for Canada, 1972. NHQ/AC Roger St. Vincent Collection PH-437.

Ugandan Asian refugees board a plane for Canada, 1972. NHQ/AC Roger St. Vincent Collection PH-437.

“Asian immigrants have already added to the cultural richness and variety of our country, and I am sure that those from Uganda will, by their abilities and industry make and equally important contribution to Canadian society” – Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, August 25, 1972.

By Shezan Muhammedi

This was Prime Minister Trudeau’s defence of the decision to deploy an immigration team to Uganda in August of 1972. Following the widely-publicized expulsion of Uganda’s South Asian population by President Idi Amin, the Canadian government admitted almost 8,000 Ugandan Asian refugees. This represented the largest resettlement of non-white, non-Christian refugees in Canada up to that date. As we contemplate the current government’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis, it is worth reminding ourselves of one of the earliest cases of non-European refugees being resettled in Canada. Continue reading