History Slam Episode Eighty-Nine: Amiable Scoundrel

By Sean Graham

ScoundrelOne of the things that I often joke about when talking about finding new historical material to study is that you can always revisit an old topic – after all, there’s a new book about the American Civil War published every hour. Of course that isn’t literally true, but there does always seem to be new material written about the Civil War. Given the vaunted place of the Civil War in American mythology, this is not surprising. Another reason for this, as explained by today’s guest, is that the Civil War produced a treasure trove of archival material that historians are still combing through 150 years later.

One such example is Paul Kahan’s new book Amiable Scoundrel: Simon Cameron, Lincoln’s Scandalous Secretary of War. The book traces Cameron’s career from mastering Pennsylvania’s political machine to serving in the Senate to representing the United States as a foreign diplomat. Despite this impressive resume, he is best remembered for his short stint as Lincoln’s Secretary of War and the scandals that marked his time in that office. Having lived from 1799 to 1889, Cameron’s career spanned a good deal of the 18th century and he came to be representative of his era’s political culture.

In this episode of the History Slam, I welcome Paul Kahan back to the show to talk about the new book. We chat about researching the Civil War, Cameron’s personal character, and the behind-the-scenes machinations of the Lincoln administration. We also examine 19th century American political culture and the separation between politics and personal relationships.

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The Collaboratorium – University of Saskatchewan Launches Initiative in Community-Engaged History

By Colin Osmond

The University of Saskatchewan recently launched a unique and exciting initiative called the “Community-Engaged History Collaboratorium.” This is an extension of Prof. Keith Thor Carlson’s Research Chair in Indigenous and Community-engaged History, and is designed to be on the cutting edge of community-engaged scholarship (CES). In the Collaboratorium, faculty and students work in collaboration with First Nations, non-profit organizations, and community organizations to co-create knowledge that gives agency to historical voices, narratives, and interpretations that would otherwise remain submerged and eclipsed.

Building relationships with the community strengthens the position of the University in the broader communities in which they exist. But working collaboratively does much more – it helps give people whose history is contested by the interpretations emerging from powerful corporate and government institutions a voice to challenge these narratives. Collaboration helps reinforce for communities that Universities are important institutions that need to be protected and valued, for the simple reason that they can help serve community interests and provide meaningful scholarly services. It teaches students to think beyond the classroom, and of the real world implications of their work. It reminds universities that they are not institutions of their own and that they are part of the communities in which they exist.

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Working Collaboratively: From L to R: Zachary Carreiro, Katelyn Finlay, Kristin Enns-Kavanagh, Anthony Meyer, Courtney Bowman, Hannah Cooley, Jenna Casey.

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Ramsay Cook, 1931-2016: Scholar and Friend

By Don Wright


In Montreal’s Place des Arts to accept the 1985 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction, Ramsay Cook said that he was honoured to be recognized alongside poets, playwrights, and novelists, “which is where a historian should be.” Indeed, it was one of his firmest convictions that history was also an art and that historians had an obligation to write well: “Unscientific as it may sound, language and style are part of the very essence of the historian’s craft.” After reading the first draft of an article I had written about him, he gave me two pieces of advice from his days as a cub reporter on the sports beat in the late 1940s: avoid jargon and don’t use a five dollar word when a five cent word will do the trick.

From his inauspicious start at the Morden Times, he became a prolific writer, a brilliant essayist, and a tough but fair critic with a distinctive and recognizable style marked by clarity, generosity, erudition, and the careful use of the epigraph. He also became a respected public intellectual, someone who could draw on the past to deepen our understanding of the present. Continue reading

Intergenerational Solidary? The Postal Labour Dispute and the Historical Context of Young Workers

by Christo Aivalis

Canada Post delivery truck in Ontario. Public domain image.

Canada Post delivery truck in Ontario. Public domain image.

Over the past few weeks, people, organizations, and small businesses have been left unsettled over a looming Canada Post lockout of its unionized workers, which would leave the country without mail access. However much we live in a digital world, the public postal service continues to have a logistical and cultural prominence.

The dispute is based on Canada Post’s assertion that they need greater labour flexibility and cost efficiency to spur competitiveness in a world with more parcels, and less postage. As a result, Canada Post wants the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) to accept more part time labour, along with a two-tier pension model that would put new hires under a defined contributions plan as opposed to a more secure defined benefits plan.

As I’ve written recently, CUPW is resisting a two-tier model on behalf of future postal workers. If they simply represented existing members, it would be easy to concede the existing pension model for members-to-be. This is a strong application of solidarity between generations of workers, but it is also a recognition—which has played out many times historically—that alliances between young and old workers need to be actively nurtured for the good of the labour movement.

Most of the historically-relevant context has arisen in the postwar era. Historians like Ian Milligan have noted that, while their parents had direct experiences with the Great Depression and total war, young workers in the 1960s and 70s grew up in a time of relative peace and prosperity. This environment, combined with more pervasive media and higher levels of formal education, meant young workers had higher expectations, and were more apt to challenge societal preconceptions around order and respectability in order to achieve those expectations. Continue reading

Beyond the Bulldozer: Rejected Postwar Development in Toronto

(adapted from an earlier post on torontoplanninghistorian.com)

Richard White

3 Map of Development Site CroppedAmong the most persistent myths – in the sense of widely-held but erroneous beliefs – about Toronto’s planning history, perhaps even about planning history generally, is that the modernist planners of the postwar generation wanted to “bulldoze” anything old and replace it with some lifeless, modern, tower-in-the-park sort of structure. Indeed, once sensitized to the pervasiveness of this mindset one begins to notice it in one form or other almost every day – as I did recently when questioned by a journalist. I even thought it myself, rather unthinkingly, until I began actually researching Toronto’s planning history.

It is simply not true. Admittedly, modernist planners often did want to replace aging structures with new high-rise apartment buildings, but only where and when they felt that doing so was warranted, that is to say where the condition of existing buildings, the land uses in adjacent areas, and the demographic and economic trends for the site made it for the best, not because they simply wanted the old to make way for the new. We value our existing urban fabric now more than most modernist planners of the 1950s did, intent as they were on renewing aging structures and increasing residential densities, so we are much less inclined to demolish and rebuild than they were, but the modernists were not the dogmatic ‘demolitionists’ they are often made out to be. They might have come to conclusions we no longer agree with, but they considered carefully before doing so. Continue reading

“Manna From Heaven” – A YMCA Physical Director at Valcartier and Salisbury Plain

By Robert Alldritt

Before he was a prisoner of war in Germany (a story explored in an earlier article), Sergeant William A. Alldritt served as a machine gunner with the 8th Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF). However, as documented in many of the letters he sent home and in letters written by his colleagues and fellow soldiers, he also used his experience as a pre-war YMCA Physical Director to contribute to the formation and training of his fellow soldiers at training camps in Valcartier and Salisbury Plain.

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The symbol of the Young Men’s Christian Association, as it looked in the early 20th century. (This image is public domain. All other images in the post are from material in the author’s possession, unless otherwise credited.)

Since it was introduced to Canada in 1851, the goal of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) was to provide boys and young men with healthy activities and sport, intended to improve their spiritual and moral condition. This philosophy was represented by the three sides of its triangle logo, signifying spirit, mind and body.

In 1906, the YMCA began to establish offices in Western Canada in partnership with the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) to support the growing network of railway workers stationed in remote locations across the country. By 1909, Alldritt was employed in one of the first of these offices in Revelstoke, B.C. The partnership with the CPR was considered to be a success when a visiting railway official declared “the YMCA made lambs out of the wild men of Revelstoke.”[i]

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Notice of Alldritt’s ascent on the South Albert Peak.

While in Revelstoke, Alldritt joined the Alpine Club of Canada, an amateur athletic association focused on mountaineering. On September 7, 1909, he completed one of the first ascents of South Albert Peak, as documented by club President, Arthur O. Wheeler,[ii] one of the highest peaks in British Columbia.

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Acknowledging the Land and the People: A Practice for all Canadian Historians

By Thomas Peace

Pour assurer notre existence, il faut nous cramponner à la terre, et léguer à nos enfants la langue de nos ancetres et la propriété du sol [1]

Statue of George-Etienne Cartier in Parc Montmorency (Quebec City)

Statue of George-Etienne Cartier in Parc Montmorency (Quebec City)

These words captivated my attention a few months ago as I walked across Parc Montmorency, the site of the old parliament buildings in Quebec City. They are found on the footing of a statue of George-Etienne Cartier, one of the better known politicians involved in crafting the British North America Act. What a succinct summary of Confederation, I thought: “In order to assure our existence, we must grasp onto the Land and leave for our children the language of our ancestors and ownership of the soil.”

The words struck a chord, I think, because I was in the park to eat my lunch and read a bit of Thomas King’s The Truth about Stories, the book Huron has chosen for this year’s first year common reading program. Repeatedly, in returning to the phrase: “the truth about stories is that that’s all we are,” King challenges his audience to think about how we situate ourselves in the world and the stories we use to construct it. The story invoked by this inscription is one of a national beginning. It can be read in at least two ways that both help us understand our present moment as well as point us towards areas where our practice as historians may need to change. Continue reading

Vimy Ridge and Canadian Nationalism

By Walter Klaassen

Several weeks ago the CBC National News offered a film clip of the President of France, Francois Hollande, and the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel standing together at the site commemorating the 1916 Battle of Verdun.  It has been called the biggest battle in history.  It lasted for 300 days and resulted in 300,000 French and German dead.  It was called a French victory because the Germans did not achieve the breakthrough they had intended to make.  The commemoration was not a celebration of victory.  As the modern representatives of the belligerents of a century ago met, Chancellor Merkel said that President Hollande’s invitation to the event was a great honour.  In his address the President said that now Verdun is a capital of peace, but also that “Verdun is a city that represents – at the same time – the worst, where Europe got lost.”  A French soldier wrote at the time: “People will read that the front line was Hell.  How can people begin to know what that one word – Hell – means?  Hell cannot be so terrible as this [battle].  Humanity is mad: it must be mad to do what it is doing.”  After a century the battle zone is still forbidden territory for housing and farming because of unexploded shells.  Available on the web are moving photographs of the two national leaders of those enemies of a century ago stretching their hands over a memorial wreath in sorrow and regret.  The visitors’ centre focuses on educating French and German youth about the horrors and consequences of war.

For several years now, in April, the media have been reminding us of the Battle of Vimy Ridge which, Prime Minister Trudeau said, “was the moment that defined our nation.”  In April of this year (2016) there was a commemoration event at Canada’s War Museum at which Canadian and French flags were flown.  There will be many more like it, culminating in a huge commemoration next April at the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in France, on the site of the battle.  The gathering is expected to be the largest since the monument was erected in 1936.  A recent poll suggested that the anniversary of the battle will be one of the most important celebrations during Canada’s 150th anniversary.  We are also promised a 20$ bill with a Vimy Ridge theme. Continue reading

The Distance We Have Traveled: Practicing History in the Twenty-First Century

By Andrew Nurse

Practicing History in the 21st Century. Image designed by Tom Peace.

Practicing History in the 21st Century.      (Image designed by Tom Peace)

To argue that there have been improvements in the practice of history is almost a-historical, at least heuristically. After all, claims of progress are a sign of Whig historiography and something we are supposed to avoid. And, yet, after leaving the Practicing History in the 21st Century Symposium, the idea that progress had actually been made was hard – for me at least – to shake.

There are several reasons I felt this way, but I should begin by saying that Practicing History in the Twenty-First Century was a symposium organized to honour John Reid, the noted Saint Mary’s University historians. I should also say “mea culpa” because I was one of the organizers, along with Tom Peace, Peter Twohig, Elizabeth Mancke, Jeffers Lennox, and Jerry Bannister.  As organizers we wanted to do more than honour John. We wanted to craft an event that took up the ideas with which he had worked and looked forward, building on ideas that have emerged in regional, colonialism, and Canadian history over the last generation.

The symposium featured panels that looked at public history, the shifting (or, not shifting) spatial organization of Atlantic regional history, relationships between historians and other communities, historical collaboration, and the audiences to which historians speak. Continue reading

Visualizing the Past: Mapping, GIS, and Teaching Historical Consciousness

By Sasha Mullally and Siobhan Hanratty

In defining the new field of spatial history, Richard White makes the case that mapping can be more than a corollary to a historical narrative, it “is a means of doing research; it generates questions that might otherwise go unasked, it reveals historical relations that might otherwise go unnoticed, and it undermines, or substantiates, stories upon which we build our own versions of the past.” Over the winter and spring of 2014, we taught a digital history course to honours and graduate history students at the University of New Brunswick that built upon these ideas. Designed from a theoretical perspective, the course traced the evolving relationship between digital history, mapping and map-making. In so doing, the course asked students to reconsider their own research in light of the “spatial turn,” and explore/evaluate the tools of historical geographic information systems (H-GIS). Continue reading