Revisiting “Was Laurier Canada’s Obama?”

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By Elsbeth Heaman

In September 2016 I published at Active History an argument that the 2016 election in the United States was shaping up like the 1911 election in Canada. The previous elections had seen a diversity candidate (Catholic and French in Canada, Black in America) win the highest office. But instead of inaugurating a new and more equitable political life, the consequence was electoral repudiation of the progressivism and partyism that delivered such results, and a turn towards plutocrats who promised effective business-like governance.

Of course, the real interest in the piece, as in the book manuscript I had just completed, wasn’t what happened in 1911 but what happened at the next election in 1917, namely, the most racially polarizing campaign in Canadian history. The plutocrats couldn’t run on their record because they had too spectacularly enriched themselves—and had too obviously continued to do so amidst a global catastrophe, the First World War—that seemed to require better things. So they campaigned on racism. The dog-whistle was dropped and racism, along with voter suppression and a host of other nasty tricks, became the core of the Conservative government’s campaign. They claimed to repudiate “party” and embrace “union,” but this was party politics rebranded and intensified.

Credit: Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1983-28-727

“Good luck in 2020 guys,” I was warning Americans, should they elect Donald Trump.

My forecasting was dismayingly accurate. I didn’t predict either the pandemic or the economic collapse of 2020, of course, but the more predictable pattern of plutocracy and racism was confirmed. And plutocratic rule does tend to have catastrophic consequences.

Of course one can only carry the parallels so far: Robert Borden was no Donald Trump. Continue reading

Plagues and Social Change: Putting Covid-19 in Historical Context

Extract from the plague-era Second Statute of Laborers, 1351. British National Archives, C 74/1, m. 18 (1351).

Alvin Finkel

After the Black Death of 1347-52, which cut the population of Europe in half and accounted for some 75 million deaths globally, the feudal system faced challenges from peasant uprisings while labour shortages resulted in large wage increases for day workers. Orphanages and hospitals, run by churches and wealthy lay people, sprang up in towns across the continent. While social changes in the aftermath of plagues build on transformations that were already occurring in societies, they often rapidly accelerate such changes.

The so-called Justinian plague from 541 to 750, which may have accounted for as many deaths as the Black Death, severely limited ambitions of the Eastern Roman Empire to extend its reach and eventually re-establish the western empire that had been captured in the century before the plague struck. The Persians and other powers in the eastern Mediterranean developed immunities to the diseases that were causing massive declines in the Roman population. So Constantinople was reduced mainly to campaigns to hold on to whatever territories it already held in the pre-plague period.[i]

In the aftermath of the Black Death, the monarchy led efforts by landlords and town guilds to maintain the status quo and resist efforts by workers to get more wages and by peasants to keep more of their crop from the exactions of lords, the church, and the monarchy. Continue reading

Annual Year in Review (100 Years Later): Physical Distancing/Bored At Home Edition

By Aaron Boyes and Sean Graham

We offer our two cents on the most important events of 1910. Let us know what you think in the comments.

Remember December? It was only 4 months ago, despite how long ago it feels. When we convened for our Annual(?) Year in Review (100 Years Later)™ we wrote that 2019 had been “a slog” and that “consuming news this year has rarely left us with an overwhelming feeling of optimism.” Then 2020 came along and said “hold my beer.”

The work that has been published here on Active History and elsewhere putting contemporary events into context has been remarkable and we have eagerly visited the site every morning to see what new gem has been published. As we discussed in the most recent episode of the History Slam, though, we are also seeking content that will provide a brief respite from the news. That’s why marble racing has become a staple of lunch time at Sean’s house.

So we got to thinking if there was something we could do in that same vein and Aaron remembered that in our zeal to review years 100 years later, we hadn’t looked at the entirety of the 1910s and that it would be good to back and rectify this unacceptable oversight. So that’s what we are doing. Over the next 3 weeks we will recap the years which were not included during our annual brackets. This will culminate on May 13 when we determine the most important event of the 1910s with the eagerly anticipated ‘Winners at War’ Bracket.

Today, it’s 1910. We have 16 events broken into four brackets: Things That Move, Pre-Netflix and Chill, Well Intentioned Inventions, and, of course, Potpourri. As always, we welcome your thoughts on the matchups and hope that you enjoy these brackets in the lighthearted spirit with which they are written.

Things That Move Bracket

(1) Establishment of the Royal Canadian Navy


(4) German Zeppelin Deutschland Makes 1st Commercial Passenger Flight

Aaron: The British Empire was built on the strength of its navy. As an island nation, the United Kingdom had to dominate the seas if it had any chance of expanding its influence. Before 1910, Canada, as a British dominion, was reliant on the Royal Navy to protect its offshore interests and maritime defence, which, up until the 20th century, was not a priority. The Royal Navy patrolled the seas and, until this time, was unrivaled on the seas.  That changed in May 1910, however, when the government of Sir Wilfrid Laurier introduced the Naval Service Act. Its intent was to create a separate navy for Canada but one that, if necessary, could be placed under British control in times of war.

Recruiting poster from the First World War

The main impetus for the creation of a Canadian navy was the arms race between Britain and Germany – the Dreadnought crisis. Britain required assistance from its Dominions, either in the form of money or them assuming more responsibility for their maritime defence. Laurier and his supporters preferred the creation of a unique Canadian navy, arguing it was a better long-term solution. Canadian imperialists, on the other hand, believed that Canada’s responsibility was to the Empire first and that monetary contributions were the preferred option. French Canadian nationalists, led by Henri Bourassa, opposed Canada having any involvement whatsoever in Britain’s naval problems.

Continue reading

Congress 2020, Interrupted: A Brief History of University Codes of Conduct

Will Langford

Congress 2020 is cancelled. But before the conference is forgotten, let’s ponder the anti-racism Congress that never was.

At last year’s gathering, in a brazen act of racial profiling, a participant harassed political scientist Shelby McPhee and falsely accused the Black graduate student of theft. Following an investigation, the perpetrator was issued a ban for violating the Congress Code of Conduct.

The Black Canadian Studies Association led the way in demanding redress. In part, it challenged the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences to add anti-Black racism to the theme of Congress 2020.

Before the response to COVID-19 intervened, about 8,000 academics were set to attend Bridging Divides: Confronting Colonialism and Anti-Black Racism, the re-titled event hosted at Western University (commonly known as UWO prior to its rebranding in 2012).

Continue reading

Jean Little: Celebrating Friendship and Kindness

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By Catherine Carstairs

One of Canada’s best-known children’s writers, Jean Little, passed away at the beginning of April at the age of 88.  With COVID-19 dominating the news cycle, her death attracted little attention.

Jean Little just before delivering the 2016 Margaret Laurence Lecture in Toronto. (Wikimedia Commons)

And yet, as we live through a severe epidemic, perhaps we need Jean Little’s wisdom more than ever.  Little created a world in which injustice was real, but her characters did their best to make the world a kinder place. Continue reading

History Slam Episode 143: Building the Greatest Hockey Team Ever

By Sean Graham

One of the great things about sports is the ability to argue passionately and vehemently about subjective things that, ultimately, don’t matter. Would you rather a defensive stalwart who can’t score or a gifted offensive player who is a turnstile on defense? Did a coach make the right decision in switching lines down the stretch? And, of course, most debated question across all sports: who is the greatest player of all time?

One of the things that makes that question so tough is that comparing players across eras is nearly impossible. In the NHL, for instance, the 1980s saw a scoring surge while the mid-1990s were notorious for low-scoring plodding games (See: Devils, New Jersey). So how do we assess goalies who played in these eras? Could a 1980s goalie with a higher goals against average than a 1990s goalie be considered a better player?

A popular off-shoot of the greatest player debate is the greatest team debate. Teams like the 1985 Chicago Bears, 1927 New York Yankees, 1980s Boston Celtics, and 1976 Montreal Canadiens have become mythic within the canon of their respective sports, but definitively knowing who is the greatest is impossible to know.

Fortunately, there are simulators available that attempt to settle these long-standing debates. To put these programs to the test, I asked History Slam veterans Aaron Boyes, Jeremy Garrett, Mike Thompson, and Pat Fournier to put together a roster for what they would consider to be the greatest NHL team of all time. Each person selected 11 players for their teams, which I then put into a 30-game simulated season, the results of which were at times what I expected and, in a couple cases, shocking.

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Deep listening and remote interviews with military families

Isabel Campbell

In the midst of the Covid 19 pandemic, blogs, webinars, and posts with expert advice about remote interviewing in oral history have blossomed. For example, three experts at Baylor University in the United States put together a webinar which is available on YouTube.[i] It is particularly aimed at Americans; Canadians will quickly realize that our legal environment is very different, though the webinar includes relevant ethical and technical information. The Oral History Society (of Britain) has also created a helpful web page which begins with “Oral historians have always favoured the face-to-face interview and discouraged remote interviewing.” This piece cautions us about the need for informed consent with signatures, trust building, and concern for the archival quality of the end product. It contains a list of helpful sources.[ii] Graham Smith, an oral history activist, responded to this piece, emphasizing the vital role of oral history in exposing ageism and violations of basic rights to life which are heightened during this crisis.[iii]

The best practices remain the same, but may be more challenging to achieve during a pandemic, while utilizing remote technology. Joy Parr’s ‘”Don’t Speak For Me”: Practicing Oral History amidst the Legacies of Conflict’[iv] was written in 2010, but is especially relevant as it addresses the problems of vulnerable narrators and power relationships based in academic authority which utilizes methodology as a thick barrier. In effect, she asks: Do we have the right to interview traumatized people, and who are we to speak for them?[v]

And yet, I have learned that whole life oral history methodology is a powerful way of allowing people to speak for themselves. Continue reading

Learning from Past Pandemics: Resources on the 1918-1919 Influenza Epidemic in Canada

By Sean Carleton, Andrea Eidinger, Carolyn Podruchny. This is an Active History/Unwritten Histories Collaboration.

We are living in unprecedented times, or so we are being told by many commentators, health experts, and politicians these days.

Just last week, released a list of “The Best Words to Use During Unprecedented Times” to help people describe their experiences during the COVID-19 crisis. The first word was “unprecedented.” The website explained, “If you’ve been keeping up with the news, you’ll have seen this word used quite a lot. Instead of defaulting to “I’ve never seen anything like this before,’ say ‘This is completely unprecedented.’”

Though the world has never seen a coronavirus pandemic quite like we are currently witnessing, that does not mean that what we are experiencing is “completely unprecedented.”

COVID-19, as a global pandemic, is extraordinary but it is not unparalleled. Indeed, we can learn how to respond to the current crisis, in part, by studying how people responded to past pandemics, including the influenza epidemic that spread around the globe in 1918–1919. That pandemic killed an estimated 50 million people globally; in Canada, the influenza epidemic claimed 55,000 lives.

Poster issued by the Provincial Board of Health about the influenza epidemic, Alberta. Glenbow Archives, NA-4548-5.

Drawing inspiration from a list of sources on the history of epidemics (that ignored Canadian scholarship) recently posted by the Society for the Social History of Medicine, we have compiled the following resource guide to direct people to available sources (a mix of popular and scholarly materials) on the 1918–1919 influenza pandemic in Canada. Continue reading

Reading Canadian History in Isolation

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Donald Wright

Billing them as tonics to our unnerving times, newspapers around the world are keeping pandemic reading lists. When the Globe and Mail invited Margaret Atwood to weigh in, she recommended In the Lateness of the World, a new poetry collection by Carolyn Forché. But, she quickly added, Forché’s poetry can be “pretty dire.” Indeed, the image of a child refugee floating face-down in the sea, “its eyes taken by fish or the birds above us,” is hardly encouraging. Clearly, Atwood is cut from a tougher cloth than I am.

But the Globe’s list got me thinking: what books are Canadian historians taking into isolation? And so I wrote to a handful of historians, more or less randomly selected. Continue reading

Feasting with the Imagination Now and in the Second World War

Cover of the print version of The Prisoners of War Cook Book. Mindemoya Pioneer Museum Archives, Manitoulin Island.

Suzanne Evans

We are living through a time made for feasting with the imagination, an act precedented in Second World War prison camps.

“Am cooking Mum’s old favourite tonight – scalloped potatoes on ham. It makes me think of her every time I make it.” Over the past few weeks of pandemic lockdown my sister has reverted to our mother’s old reliables, recipes so tried and true they were never recorded, just absorbed. She is not alone in changing her cooking habits. From stress baking to rediscovering the oven or learning how to turn it on for the first time, many who are lucky enough to have a constant supply of food are making meals differently. Comfort, whether it be found in a bag of take-out or a homemade gourmet meal, is high on the list of goals. One friend has been relaxing into one of the few methods of travel still open – eating her way around the world. “So far our family has made food from Lebanon, Greece, Palestine, Belgium, next is France, Italy, Mexico, we are also planning South Africa, Canada and beyond.”

Her efforts echo the tastes of Audrey Goodridge, a British woman who contributed international recipes to an odd little cookbook with an unwieldy title: Prisoners of War Cook Book: This is A Collection of Recipes Made by Starving Prisoners When They Were Interned in Changi Jail, Singapore. The collection was compiled by a Canadian prisoner, Ethel Mulvany, and contained over four hundred recipes from the women interned at Changi Jail. Audrey was young and pregnant when the British colony of Singapore fell to the Japanese in 1942. The invaders had no plan for feeding the tens of thousands of military and civilian prisoners who quickly became their responsibility.[i] Over the next three and a half years of the war those prisoners were always more than hungry. Continue reading