Review of Bruno Ramirez’s Inside the Historical Film

By C.S. Ogden

What stake does historical research have in fictionalized cinematic productions? Does film offer another medium to convey this research effectively to new audiences? What role can the academic historian take within such endeavours? In his latest book Inside the Historical Film, Bruno Ramirez, a history professor and screenwriter at Université de Montréal, considers these issues by investigating the relationship between historical research and cinematic narratives.


McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2014
238 pages, Paperback $29.95.

Acknowledging both the attraction to and the scepticism of historical film by historians, Ramirez traces the study of historical film. He does not focus solely on how various films have portrayed historical events. He also asks how fiction has been employed for these kinds of narrations: is it used primarily to increase a film’s commercial viability or does it have the potential to augment an audience’s understanding of the past? The manner in which historians and filmmakers engage with these notions inform the book’s chapters.

Ramirez explores the development and professionalization of the scholarly study of history and film during the twentieth century. He acknowledges the importance of film’s visual and technical components and more could be added here about the visuality of film but he is careful not to stray from the book’s major theme. He notes that the appeal and challenge of film is through its combination of the visual and the dramaturgical. The result is that the “filmic image, in other words, speaks through its own language” (33). Continue reading

OpenTextbooks in Canadian History: Part I

By John Belshaw

I had this ‘eureka’ moment in the barber’s chair.  Well, I thought, if a book is like a railway line, heading in one direction from west to east, then an e-book is more like a mine elevator, heading from the surface into the depths, from top to bottom or, perhaps, from north to south. If that’s the case, then an OpenTextbook is like a hive. It is living, fluid, with junctions that run up, down, outward in several horizons but also in three dimensions. It offers options rather than a singular pathway, complexity rather than guiderails, a little more risk but the possibility of greater rewards.

Moving from metaphor to practicality, the OpenTextbook is just plain different from conventional textbooks. For starters, it’s smart. It can evolve. Instead of waiting for the (inevitable) umpteenth edition, you (the prof) can refine and effectively create the newest edition. What if your textbook could be made to look more like something from Harry Potter, with moving images on the page? What if it could function differently?

What if it was available for free? Continue reading

Labour rights, Socio-Economic Rights, and the Limitations of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms

by Christo Aivalis

charterEarlier this year, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that Canadian workers have the right to strike as per Section 2 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This builds on a 2007 ruling that bestowed the right to bargain collectively. Both reversed a 1987 Supreme Court ruling, and two similar cases (‘the labour trilogy,’) which excluded those rights. But still absent from the Charter are rights to basic economic security, and this omission is not an oversight.

Rather, Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s vision for the Charter was to serve as a locus for a liberal and secular patriotism based in a collective understanding of what human rights did and did not entail. This combined with a failure of the New Democratic Party and organized labour to fight for social, economic, and labour rights, giving us a limited conception of rights that continues to shape our national philosophy, guide our approach to policy, and limit the validity and promise of our democracy.

For Trudeau, the Charter was to forge a societal recognition that rights should not politicized, because they “are the common heritage of all Canadians.” In contrast to the 1867 constitution, which lacked an educational message about what Canada was and aspired to, the Charter would also constitute a pedagogical tool and “enlightened basis for patriotism.” But Trudeau was clear that this collective patriotism would not include workers and poor Canadians, even as it included numerous minorities. The workers and poor were omitted “because economic rights do not simply restrain others in order to protect the individual in the exercise of his freedoms, but instead seek to impose obligations on the state or others for the positive benefit of the individual.”[1] Continue reading

Sharing Local History on the John Rowswell Hub Trail

by Stacey Devlin

The Great Lakes, showing the location of Sault Ste. Marie. Satellite data: SeaWiFS Project, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, and ORBIMAGE, 24 April 2000.

The Great Lakes, showing the location of Sault Ste. Marie. Satellite data: SeaWiFS Project, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, and ORBIMAGE, 24 April 2000.

Situated at the meeting point of three Great Lakes on the traditional territories of Garden River and Batchewana First Nations, Sault Ste. Marie is one of Canada’s oldest settlements. Its natural beauty, rich past, and diverse culture make it an exceptional place to live, work, and visit. Even so, it’s not always easy to find or access information about the city’s many cultural assets. How can we more actively engage with the heritage that surrounds “the Sault”?

Over the past year, I’ve had the opportunity to address this question through the Animating the John Rowswell Hub Trail Project. This project is led by the Sault-based Northern Ontario Research, Development, Ideas and Knowledge (NORDIK) Institute in collaboration with the City’s Planning Department and in partnership with over 40 community organizations and individuals. Growing out of a belief that the Sault is ready for culture (including history, the arts, the built environment, and the natural environment) to be highlighted in the community on a large scale, its goal is to provide an information platform that respects and includes the diverse perspectives that make the Sault what it is today. To achieve this goal, the project makes innovative use of one crucial piece of City infrastructure: the John Rowswell Hub Trail. Continue reading

Toronto vs. Montréal: A Short History

By Daniel Ross

Toronto Sun

Tory and Coderre, Toronto Sun

Last month, the mayors of Canada’s two largest cities met in Toronto, and the mood was positive. After discussing business partnerships, security, the upcoming federal election and—inevitably—hockey, Denis Coderre and John Tory announced a new era for relations between Montréal and Toronto. “The two solitudes are over,” stated the charismatic Coderre, who last made the news in Toronto for snubbing then-Mayor Rob Ford at the 2014 Big Cities Summit in Ottawa. Instead, he and Tory evoked a “strategic alliance” between the two metropolises, to be formalized with sister-city status sometime in the next few months.

What this new partnership will amount to is anyone’s guess. Both cities could use some good news, after four years of Rob Ford’s drug-addled behaviour and the revelations of corruption made by the Charbonneau Commission. The big issues that Tory and Coderre hope to raise together in the upcoming election—infrastructure, housing, transportation—are crucial ones; but Ottawa has proved very able in ignoring similar campaigns in the past. Rather than predicting where this mayoral love-in will lead, I’d like to use the occasion to look back at nearly two centuries of real (and imagined) rivalry. Continue reading

Starbucks: Welfare Capitalism, Public Education, and the History and Possibility of American Social Democracy

By Jason Ellis

starbucks college

Welfare capitalism is back in vogue. Earlier this month Starbucks announced that it will expand an existing company benefit program that offers university tuition coverage to Starbucks workers. The expansion of the program, a plan to extend these benefits to 23,000 workers over the next decade at a cost of $250 million, will target “opportunity youth,” i.e. unemployed 16- to 24-year olds. While this is an innovative move on Starbucks’ part, it is also a move that brings to mind and joins together interesting historical precedents in American working-class, corporate, welfare, and education histories. This small announcement by a big corporation is the spindle from which I will unravel threads of a discussion of the history and possibility of social democracy in the United States. My argument is that historic American commitments to welfare capitalism and to public education spending, and the revival of both in the Starbucks’ announcement, may hint at a dormant social democracy in US society and politics today. Continue reading

History Slam Episode Sixty-One: The Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas and the JFK Assassination

By Sean Graham

On November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed in Dallas, Texas. Over the past fifty years, that assassination has resulted in investigations, speculation, and conspiracies about how and why Kennedy died. From the Warren Commission to the Oliver Stone movie, JFK and the circumstances of his death have captured a place in the American imagination. The circumstances of his brother’s and son’s deaths have, along with the romance of life in Camelot, further cemented Kennedy’s place as an American cultural icon.

In 1989, a temporary exhibit opened in Dallas exploring the assassination, its aftermath, and JFK’s legacy. That temporary exhibit has since evolved into the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza. Located on the same floor where Lee Harvey Oswald shot the President, the Sixth Floor Museum takes guests from the early days of the Kennedy administration to Walter Cronkite delivering the news to a stunned nation to the conspiracies surrounding the assassination and all points in between. Visitors are guided by an audio tour that supplements the printed material and in addition to the videos and other artifacts, are able to get a glimpse of Oswald’s view onto Elm Street.
Continue reading

Terry Fox Mania

This is the last of four posts this month commemorating the 35th anniversary of the Marathon of Hope.

By Jenny Ellison

Fox rally in Toronto, 1980. Toronto Star

Fox rally in Toronto, 1980. Toronto Star

Terry Fox was unknown to most Canadians when he began the Marathon of Hope on April 12, 1980. Five months later he was a national celebrity.

Calls to commemorate Terry Fox and mark his achievements for future generations began within days of the end of the Marathon of Hope. Terry himself had presciently said in a July 1980 speech that he “might not make it. And if I don’t make it, the Marathon of Hope better continue.” When the run finished on September 1, 1980, Canadians began to scramble to find ways to honour Fox’s work. Within days CTV announced “The Marathon of Hope Continues: A Tribute to Terry Fox.” News anchor Lloyd Robertson hosted a star-studded telethon featuring John Candy, Al Waxman and Karen Kain. Ten million dollars was raised in one night. That week the Canadian Cancer Society also reported being flooded with calls and donations. In letters to the editor Canadians suggested that Fox be awarded the Order of Canada, which he received in a special ceremony in Vancouver on September 20th. Continue reading

“On ‘The Road to 2017’: Reflecting on Canada’s First World War Commemoration Plans”

By Jonathan Weier

Last year on I wrote about the lack of federal government funding for First World War commemoration. Despite the fact that the First World War centennial period has started, the federal government continues to offer little support for First World War commemorative activities. The coming federal election, the recent decline in oil prices, as well as the demands of market orthodoxy make it unlikely that this situation will change.

This is in contrast to the commitments Ottawa is making to commemorate the sesquicentennial of Confederation in 2017. Called The Road to 2017, this program has included events around the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of Sir John A. MacDonald among other milestones. According to the official narrative and the opinions of prominent Conservative cabinet ministers, John A. has been portrayed as the sole force behind Confederation and as a statesmanlike, if slightly flawed, father of our country. Most recently, in its 2015 Budget the government announced a $210 million fund spread out over four years to “support local community events such as festivals and concerts, enhanced Canada Day celebrations in the National Capital Region and other major Canadian cities and other national initiatives, such as Rendezvous Naval 2017, that will unite Canadians from coast to coast to coast.”[1]

What The Road to 2017 lacks, however, is an inclusive building and commemoration process designed to leave Canadians with a useful and forward-looking legacy, as was the case for the programs that were initiated for the 1967 centennial.[2] There has been little attempt to bring in a diversity of voices or discuss the years-long process and other milestones that were part of the evolution towards confederation.

The uninspiring and simplistic nature of government involvement in sesquicentennial commemoration would seem to suggest that I was right, that First World War commemoration will be better with minimal active government involvement. Continue reading

Literature and History: Michel Houellebecq’s Soumission and the Politics of Cultural Despair

By Alban BargainVilléger

864563Even today, literary fiction can still provide an ideal entry point into historical studies. Although this might seem like stating the obvious, one has to recognise that the increasing overspecialization of history as a discipline has hindered the ability and/or willingness of many historians to explore universes outside of their respective fields. Nonetheless, it is clear that some historians still consider themselves engaged intellectuals – Active History provides almost daily examples of such attempts to transcend the limits of historical study.

But in addition to reading and rereading classics (and non-classics), paying attention to present-day fiction can also help historicize the present. Now, for methodological and conceptual reasons, historians tend to let several decades pass before exploring a subject. These precautions stem from the unavailability of some archival materials and from the need for hindsight. That said, such precautions should not prevent historians thinking about our day and age, or engaging in intellectual exercises. In that regard, French author and contrarian intellectual Michel Houellebecq’s latest book, Soumission, constitutes an ideal guinea pig for an experiment of that type. Continue reading