Countering White Disbelief with Historical Knowledge: Racism and Racial Profiling in Nova Scotia

Jill Campbell-Miller

Racial profiling has lately been in the news in Nova Scotia. In September, Dr. Lynn Jones, a well-known champion of civil rights and a labour leader, was stopped by police while out with friends watching deer. Someone had called the police to report “suspicious people” in the neighbourhood. To add insult to injury, Jones was stopped in a historically black community in the town of Truro known as “The Marsh,” the area in which she grew up. Following this experience, she put together a community meeting, leading town council to pass a motion that will work to improve relations between black residents and the municipal government.

Then, on October 21, the chief of the Halifax Regional Police announced that the force will formally apologize for the practice of “street checks,” which has disproportionately affected black people in the city and its suburbs. This followed a provincial ban on the practice in April, which itself followed a report by University of Toronto criminology professor, Scott Wortley. His report found that black people were six times more likely to be stopped in the so-called “random” checks than white people in Halifax. That prompted an independent legal review, which found that the checks were illegal.

African Nova Scotians had been agitating for a ban for many months. Derico Symonds, who organized a march to support a ban in the spring, said to CBC News that it was not lost on him that it took two reports from two white men to finally get the practice banned: “And so that it took this amount of effort is absolutely disappointing. If folks don’t get their driveway shovelled in Halifax it’s an uproar and there’s immediate action. But then when we have something such as this with a 180 page report that says that the practice is racist and we know that it is, it takes several efforts from several different people over several months to actually have the action that we were asking for.” Symonds and other advocates, Trayvone Clayton, Shevy Price, and Kate Macdonald, had earlier walked away from a working group formed following the release of the Wortley report after it refused to consider an outright ban on checks. Unfortunately, activists complain that checks have continued even after the ban.

As Symonds expressed, a great deal of frustration permeated the discussion around this issue, even after this apparent win for civil rights. When the report was released, Robert Wright, chair of the African Nova Scotia Decade for African Descent Coalition’s justice committee, The Coast said that he found it hard to hear about the supposed shock of leaders who expressed surprise at the findings of the Wortley report: “‘How do you get to be the head of the police commission and be horrified by the stories people tell about their racist interactions with the police?’ Wright asks. “Do you not know that people suffer daily indignity in their encounters with the police?’”­ These events, and the responses by activists to them, had me thinking about the nature of disbelief. Why do white people persist in disbelieving the experiences of racialized peoples in this province, or in Canada more generally?

It also made me think about the many consumer affairs stories that we hear, such as the work done by CBC’s “Go Public” series. When people complain about cars with persistent dangerous mechanical failures, or bad service from airlines, the average person is automatically sympathetic. In general, we do not doubt these events have happened. This is because when many people, all with something obvious in common, report the same experience, those experiences become credible. Yet a similar automatic belief in experiences of racism does not seem to exist among white people. Why is this? Perhaps it is because when someone reports that they were lied to by telecom customer service agents, we (I’m now using “we” to identify white people) can assign blame to a greedy, faraway, corporate elite. But when someone details their life with racism while shopping for groceries, working as a bus driver, furniture salesperson, firefighter, janitor, or in their interactions with police, then the culprits become us, and our neighbours, friends, and relatives. It is deeply uncomfortable to admit that while only a minority of us are actual white supremacists, white supremacy lives in all of us.[1] It becomes easier to question and doubt. After all, haven’t we all had a troublesome co-worker prone to lying and drama? What if the shopper did seem suspicious for credible reasons? Perhaps race had nothing to do with it, and how would we feel if we were being unfairly charged with racism? And suddenly, in our imaginations, we become the victims.

Yet as white people, we usually do not have to look very far to find our own culpability, or that of personal acquaintances. I was standing in line at the grocery store when I overheard the man behind me say to his friend, “well, some people might say that’s racist, but just because it’s racist, it doesn’t mean it’s not true,” followed by laughter. I was about to turn around and counter that by definition if something is racist it cannot be true (thus cementing my status as the most popular person in the grocery store), when my husband, who had not heard the previous exchange, said, “oh, hi [name]!” It was a close relative. I shut my mouth.

Fortunately, historians are in a good position to counteract this epidemic of disbelief even if they do not personally study histories of race and racism. Continue reading

The War-Time Elections Act and Women Voters in 1917

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News Telegram, 27 November 1917

Editor’s Note: As a follow up to our special election series that ran before 21 October, this post is a focused reflection on elections, politics and gender.

Lyndsay Campbell 

We heard a lot about concerns and even scandals around voting and the manipulation of the electorate in the lead up to, and aftermath of, the 43rd federal election. As Colin Grittner noted here before the election, the question of who should be entitled to vote has long been a source of conflict, especially over the question of who should have a say in determining a polity’s future. Women have been central to these debates.

Women first voted federally in Canada in December 1917 under the provisions of the War-time Elections Act, which received royal assent the previous September. This statute and its companion, the Military Voters Act, 1917, are often framed as milestones on the road to universal suffrage. What is often forgotten or ignored in the process is that they were drafted to sculpt an electorate to produce an electoral outcome that the drafters framed as necessary for winning the war. The main goal was to neutralize Liberal support in western Canada, where women were believed entitled to, or indeed already had, the franchise, as did naturalized citizens with roots in places under the control of Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A combination of militarism and self-interest – the commitments of Robert Laird Borden, Arthur Meighen and others – pushed aside concerns about unfairness, discrimination, empirical evidence and the integrity of elections. Only thus did a select group of Canadian women vote federally for the first time.

This electoral manipulation hasn’t been exactly forgotten in scholarly circles (Carol Bacchi’s 1983 analysis in Liberation Deferred? is dead right), but it is generally omitted from popular narratives about women’s enfranchisement. Instead, we learn that the wives, sisters and daughters of the men who had gone overseas voted federally for the first time in 1917, one more way in which they fulfilled their patriotic duty. We may also learn of  the manipulation of the military vote. However, the rationalizing and the scale of these efforts, along with the almost wholesale disenfranchisement of women in the West and Ontario who expected to vote, generally escape note. Continue reading

Not Learning, Unlearning, and Relearning to See Genocide: Part 1

On October 24, 2019, Active History commenced a series on education “after” residential schools with an article written by Clinton Debogorski, Magdalena Milosz, Martha Walls and Karen Bridget Murray. The series is open ended. Active History welcomes additional contributions on related themes.

By Karen Bridget Murray


A friend of mine introduced me to this German word, which refers to the collective process of grappling with problematic truths of the past. This is happening in Canada as awareness of the Indigenous genocide grows.


That is the finding of both the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada and the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Women and Girls in Canada.

Canada committed genocide. Canada commits genocide, as many others have also argued. I will return to this point in the second part of this two-part reflection.

I’m a university educator who, like many others, is trying to climb her way out of ignorance about how genocide has shaped Canada’s past and present. There is a lot to learn. I’m in the early days of this work, necessary work, if one is committed to unlearning and relearning for a post-genocidal world.

In this first part of my reflection, I share some of my personal history, including how members of my family, relative newcomers to Canada, were no strangers to state violence.

I’m not suggesting equivalencies with the Indigenous genocide. I situate myself in this way because it provides some context to my learning about residential schools and the Indigenous genocide of which they are a part.

This is, of course, a partial self-reflection, one that no doubt falls prey to the practice of narrating oneself into the best light possible. I’m not sure how one extricates oneself from this problem, other than beginning with where one is at. This my beginning. Continue reading

History Slam Episode 138 – Cheating Hitler: Surviving the Holocaust

By Sean Graham

Cheating Hitler: Surviving the Holocaust will be screened on Wednesday November 6 at the Bell TIFF Lightbox in Toronto, after which there will be a special talkback with the three Holocaust survivors featured in the film along with the director and producer. The world broadcast premiere will be on November 11 at 9pm on History Channel.

Survivor Rose Lipszyc visits Majdanek Concentration Camp where her father was last seen alive.

During the 75th anniversary of D-Day back in June, we were reminded that as we continue to move further away from the Second World War the number of living veterans continues to decrease and that we need to honour their service and do everything possible to preserve their stories. While veterans got all the press in June, there is another group of people who experienced the war whose stories also need to be heard while we still can: Holocaust survivors. Each year, the number of survivors of the horrors of the Nazi’s genocide decreases. While there are organizations dedicated to preserving their stories, the ability to hear about the violence, fear, and, in a lot cases, courage that embody their experiences first hand represents a powerful opportunity. For a lot of survivors, telling their stories is not only about teaching younger generations about what happened, but also about warning the world that, without vigilance, it could happen again.

In the powerful new documentary Cheating Hitler: Surviving the Holocaust, three survivors tell share stories of the Holocaust. All three were children in the 1940s, but their re-counting of the experience is as vivid as if it it happened yesterday. In following their stories, viewers also see researchers work to answer questions and resolve lingering mysteries that have stayed with them throughout their lives. Beautifully combining the lost innocence of their childhoods, the inexplicable violence that came with the murder of 6 million people, and the perseverance of survival, the film exquisitely brings a level of humanity to the inhumane.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with the film’s director Rebecca Snow and producer Steve Gamester. We talk about the process of finding the three survivors featured, the research process, and the emotion in telling these stories. We also talk about the film’s style, the survivor’s different reactions to the research, and the valuable lessons that we can learn from survivors.

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A Short History of Reading Disability and Special Education

By Jason Ellis, University of British Columbia

When a child does not learn to read, what does the school do? The answer has varied over time, and the history of this topic tells us something about special education as well. In the nineteenth century, if not earlier than that, physicians described “word-blindness” and “alexia.” They considered these rare and peculiar conditions, occurring where a person who was otherwise quite intellectually normal (sometimes even very bright) suffered from a complete, or near-complete, inability to learn to read. [1] It was not until the 1920s that psychologists and remedial educators began to develop something more akin to the modern notion of reading disability and to develop techniques for addressing it in special education classrooms. It took until the 1930s for them to get their ideas onto the special education policy agenda. When they did succeed in placing them there, they were able to improve education for some children. Yet others were still left behind. Special education’s approach to reading disability teaches that special education is a riddle of contradictions, a fact that remains as true today as ever.

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Tenth Anniversary Repost: Gin and Tonic: A Short History of a Stiff Drink

Active History is celebrating its tenth anniversary! As part of our anniversary celebrations we are sharing glimpses of how Active History developed and showcasing our favourite and most popular posts from the past ten years. 

Founding editor Jay Young’s post on “Gin and Tonic: A Short History of A Stiff Drink” was one of our most popular pieces in 2012. Seven years later this piece continues to be frequently shared and discovered by new readers.

2012 also saw the launch of the History Slam podcast under the leadership and innovation of Sean Graham. Want to know more about what happened in 2012? Check out our 4 Years of post

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. Continue reading

Dyslexia Awareness Month Advocacy

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By Jim Clifford

I’ve spent the past month working with parents of dyslexic kids in Saskatoon to raise awareness about the ongoing struggles students face in the public school system. I’ve used my history with dyslexia to highlight what is possible when public schools provide the students with adequate support and accommodation. I was interviewed by the U of S, CBC and CTV and I gave a talk at a fundraiser event. I’ve included the text of my speech below. On Wednesday, we will publish a post by Dr. Jason Ellis on the history of special education in North America and its mixed success in supporting students who struggled with reading and writing.

Thanks a lot for coming out to this Dyslexia Awareness Month event. I would like to thank Crystal for coming up with the idea and doing all the work to make it happen. I have a very simple message tonight. If we support dyslexic students, they can do anything. They can thrive in university in any discipline, become authors and even become a professor in a history department, a field that focuses on reading and writing. I was very lucky. I was born in the right year, in the right school district with the right parents. I want to see a future where dyslexic kids don’t need my improbable luck.

I am dyslexic. When I sat down this morning to write some notes for this talk, I misspelt the word “dyslexic” and then the word “misspelt”. Quickly editing as I write with the help of Grammarly is a normal part of my day, as I write emails, articles, and a draft of my second book. I’ve been writing this way since the introduction of the red squiggly underline in Microsoft Word in 1998. This was one of many lucky developments in my educational career, as the technology arrived the year I left home to start university Bishop’s University in Lennoxville, Quebec. Throughout high school, writing remained a major struggle and I dictated my exams and essays to a fantastic teaching assistant and my parents. I finished high school with straight As, but I still could not write on my own.  Continue reading

Not Enough Trained Infantrymen: The 1944 Conscription Crisis

This is the tenth post in a series marking the 75th anniversary of D-Day and the end of the Second World War as part of a partnership between Active History and the Juno Beach Centre.

By R. Daniel Pellerin

In October 1944, while Canadian forces in Northwest Europe were in the midst of bitter fighting to wrest the approaches to the vital port of Antwerp from German hands, Prime Minister Mackenzie King’s government was embroiled in an intense debate over whether to reinforce combat units with conscripts.

A Canadian Army recruiting poster from the middle of the Second World War. It calls for new recruits by handing the viewer a rifle and soldier’s kit.

Reports showed that though the Canadian Army had tens of thousands of volunteers who were not serving in an operational theatre, very few of them were trained as infantry. This was a serious problem. The infantry, the arm responsible for closing with the enemy in battle and capturing and holding ground while operating mostly on foot and vulnerable to enemy fire, suffered the highest casualties. By the autumn of 1944, the army risked depleting its ranks of infantry reinforcements by the end of the year.

One of the key factors that contributed to the situation was the Canadian Army’s use of casualty projections that proved to be inaccurate. The army had trained too few men as infantry soldiers, and too many in other military roles.

The “Conscription Crisis” of 1944 was a complicated affair in Canadian military history. Continue reading

Education “After” Residential Schools

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Editorial Note: This article introduces a series of reflections to be published on Active History in the weeks to come. It is also an invitation for additional contributions that relate to the themes sketched out below.

By Clinton Debogorski, Magdalena Milosz, Martha Walls, and Karen Bridget Murray

We are settler-colonial educators writing to settler-colonial educators against the backdrop of “decades of efforts by Indigenous Peoples, including Indigenous scholars, [who have long] highlight[ed] the problems of residential schools and colonial education more generally” (Canadian Historical Association, 2018).[1]

We are all members of a community: the Canadian university system.

This same system propagated untruths about residential schools and their roles in settler colonialism.

This same system silenced knowledge, “sanctioned ignorance” (Spivak, 1999: 2), and trained many of the functionaries who made the residential school system possible.

This same system dignified some of the most egregious figures in residential school history, even celebrating the notorious Duncan Campbell Scott. Scott served as president of the Royal Society of Canada. He received an honourary doctorate from both the University of Toronto and Queen’s University. That these accolades continue to stand is a testament to how the residential school system remains deeply rooted within the university community today.

As many have said, it is long past time for decolonizing post-secondary education.

Our reflections in this series speak to an omission in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s (TRC) Calls to Action, which says nothing about post-secondary educators as independent actors. Individual teachers and learners are, of course, not passive recipients of directives. They are agents of change in their own right. So regardless of how any government, university administration, faculty association, union, or other organization might respond to the TRC, individual scholars will invariably play an essential role in shaping university education “after” Residential Schools. Continue reading

In Conversation V: Publishing, Precarity, and the Public History of Canada’s First World War

Mary Chaktsiris, Sarah Glassford, Chris Schultz, Nathan Smith, and Jonathan Weier

During the first half of 2019, we the editors of’s long-running series “Canada’s First World War” stepped back and reflected on the editorial work we undertook over of the course of five years of Great War centenary commemorations, 2014-2019. In response to a series of questions circulated over email, two parallel discussions ensued. One, which revolved around how the series came to be, the directions it took (or did not), and what that said about precarious academic employment at this moment in time, is presented here. We have chosen to share this conversation in the belief that there is value in drawing back the curtain on the kinds of unpaid intellectual labour done by graduate students, precariously-employed scholars, and alt-ac/post-ac intellectuals in the field of Canadian History. Paradoxically, the professional precarity of the editorial team members is both the reason for our series’ existence, and the reason it may not have fulfilled its broader promise.

A screenshot of the Call for Blog Posts piece that launched the Canada’s First World War series on Active History, on 4 August 2014.

At the time of writing, the editorial team consisted of:

  • Mary Chaktsiris, PhD (Queen’s, 2015) – Assistant Professor, Wilson Fellow, Wilson Institute for Canadian History, McMaster University
  • Sarah Glassford, PhD (York, 2007) – Archivist, Leddy Library, University of Windsor
  • Chris Schultz, PhD ABD (Western, withdrew 2016) – Open Government Team Lead, Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, Government of Canada
  • Nathan Smith, PhD (Toronto, 2012) – Professor, Seneca College; Historical Consultant, Applied History,
  • Jonathan Weier, PhD ABD (Western) – Instructor, George Brown College; Broadbent Institute Research Fellow

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