History Slam Episode 109: Lace Up: A History of Skates in Canada

By Sean Graham

For the past three-and-a-half years I have had the pleasure of working with Jean-Marie Leduc and Julie Léger on a book looking at the history of skates. Mr. Leduc is a renowned expert on skates with one of the biggest private collections in the world that has been displayed at museums and exhibitions across the country, including during the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. When the opportunity came up a few years ago to work on a book, it seemed to me an interesting idea that would make for a good read.

On November 10, Lace Up: A History of Skates in Canada was released. The book traces the development of skates from bone skates used by Indigenous peoples for thousands of years to the skates used by today’s world champions. Through Mr. Leduc’s collection, the book explores how skates and their technological innovations shaped how people got around on ice. At the same time, as skates continued to evolve, new winter sports were invented based on the improved technology. For instance, the development of stop picks on figure skates allowed for the speed, agility, and aerial components required in today’s competitions.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Jean-Marie Leduc about Lace Up. We talk about the origins of his extensive skate collection, how he built the collection, and some of his favourite pairs. We also talk about the book, how we put it together, and what readers can expect. If you are in the Ottawa area, you are welcome to join us for the book launch on Tuesday December 5 between 5 and 7 at Alex Trebek Alumni Hall at the University of Ottawa.

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To Forgive and Forget? Homonationalism, Hegemony, and History in the Gay Apology

By Steven Maynard

This is a featured paper co-published with C4E Journal: Perspectives on Ethics

In June 2017, in a ceremony on Parliament Hill, where “the Pride, Transgender Pride, and Canada 150 flags were raised,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau officially announced what he’d been promising for over a year: “The government will introduce legislation to make it possible to erase the convictions for Canadians who were found guilty under historical, unjust laws for sexual activity with a same sex partner.”[1]

For a historian, who is typically tucked away in the archives, it can be a tad disconcerting to discover the records you’ve been working with for the past almost three decades – historical court records of sexual offences between men – might be ‘erased.’ It began in February 2016 when the prime minister’s press secretary conveyed the government’s intention to seek a posthumous pardon for Everett Klippert, the man whose multiple convictions for gross indecency during the 1960s led to his designation as a ‘dangerous sexual offender’ and indefinite imprisonment, and whose case played a part in pushing Justin’s father to partially decriminalize homosexuality in 1969. The review of records and possible pardons for those convicted of buggery and gross indecency in the past is part of the government’s broader plan to apologize to all those LGBTQ people who suffered under unjust laws and policies, including those fired from the federal civil service and military during the postwar period right up to the early 1990s. Known as “the gay apology,” it is due to be delivered later today (November 28 2017).[2]

This is not the first time such an apology has been called for. Twenty-five years ago, in response to a journalistic exposé of the postwar purge of queer people from the civil service, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney told the House of Commons that the purge represented “a most regrettable incident,” but he stopped far short of offering an apology.[3] In 1998, Gary Kinsman, Patrizia Gentile and their team, in a preliminary report on their research into the government’s anti-queer national security campaign, called for an official state apology.[4] None was forthcoming from then-Prime Minister Jean Chrétien. Two decades later, our pride-parade-loving prime minister with the rainbow socks has committed to making an official apology.

So why the gay apology now? [Continue Reading…]

Interpretation, Interaction, and Critique at House Museums

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Two story stone building with walking and lawn in front.

Old Stone House at the Ermatinger Clergue National Historic Site. Photo Credit: Will Hollingshead.

Krista McCracken

Ever wish there was way to provide feedback to museums and historic house sites that didn’t involve filling out a survey form? Enter anarchist tags. Created by Franklin D. Vagnone and Deborah E. Ryan, authors of Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums: A Ground-Breaking Manifesto, the tags were designed as a way to allow community members to freely provide feedback on museum and house museum interpretation techniques.

As you might have guessed by the title, the Anarchist Guide is provocative in nature and has been met with mixed feelings in the museum and preservation communities. The Guide proposes radical reinterpretation of historic house spaces through community engagement and changing traditional methods of interpretation. Vagnone and Ryan propose a number of suggestions for reinterpretation including:

  • Move beyond the idea of period interpretation at historic houses and suggest historic sites focus on all of a house’s history, not just a specific time period.
  • Connect house museums to the present day surrounding community.
  • Focus less on physical items and more on the personal experiences of past house residents.
  • Remove ropes. Allow visitors more freedom to touch and engage with artifacts.

Regardless of if you whole-heartedly agree or find yourself horrified by Vagnone and Ryan’s suggestions, their work inspires conversation and reflection on longstanding interpretation techniques. Continue reading

Is Google Home a History Calculator? Artificial Intelligence and the Fate of History

Sean Kheraj

In their 2005 article in First Monday, Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig recount the story of a remarkably prescient colleague, Peter Stearns, who “proposed the idea of a history analog to the math calculator, a handheld device that would provide students with names and dates to use on exams—a Cliolator, he called it, a play on the muse of history and the calculator.” [1] Cohen and Rosenzweig took Stearns’s idea and ran with it. They set out to build the Cliolator in the form of a software algorithm called “H-Bot” which served as a history fact finder, scouring the web for information to answer questions about the past. Even with all its limitations and the limits to what was available online in 2004-05, H-Bot was remarkably accurate. It was especially adept at identifying dates and simple definitions. Where it fell short was in more complex questions, including “hows” and “whys”.

Since 2005, the web has grown well beyond the scale of information available to H-Bot, providing a much larger reservoir of data to crawl. And artificial intelligence and machine learning software have brought us much closer to the so-called Cliolator. Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and Apple have all developed quasi-artificial intelligence voice assistants that can parse natural language queries and supply answers drawn from the web. Google Home and Amazon Echo are the most extraordinary examples of these voice assistants, stand-alone devices with the ability to listen to and answer questions. Are these the ultimate versions of the Cliolator?

I decided to put one to the test to see how well this form of artificial intelligence could perform in my introductory Canadian history course. One of the sections of my final exam asks students to identify a key point from the course and explain its historical significance. In answering the questions from this section of the exam, students must demonstrate some simple factual knowledge by identifying each key point and exercise some analytical ability by explaining why it was significant. Could a Google Home pass this section of my exam? I tested it on nine key points: Continue reading

Past, Present, and Future in Enki Bilal’s Graphic Novels

Alban Bargain-Villéger

Little known in Canada outside a small circle of aficionados, Enki Bilal is probably one of the most imaginative, talented graphic novelists alive. He is also a controversial, misunderstood figure whose work addresses deeply historical questions. Thus, this post offers a reflection on Bilal’s career and, more particularly, his perspective on the past and how it constantly collides with the present and future of humankind. I will also address two contradictions in Bilal’s approach to his craft, namely that he (a) “has no real interest in … the past”, and (b) that he believes that the events of the twentieth century irrevocably discredited communism as an ideology.[1] Indeed, a close reading of his work – whether authored in collaboration with Pierre Christin or on his own – tends to prove that a sophisticated sense of history pervades his work and that he is not as rabid an anti-communist as he thinks he is – or wants people to believe he is. Finally, an overview of Bilal’s graphic novels gives historians of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries fodder for thought, as his work (which spans the late Cold War era, the 1990s, and the post-9/11 period) does not confine itself to being a product of its time, but also constantly interrogates the past, the present, and the future.

Enki Bilal was born Enes Bilalovic in Belgrade in 1951, of a Slovak mother and a Bosnian father. When Enki was nine years old, the family moved to Paris, where his father had found a new job. It was during his adolescence that the young artist developed a taste for sketching, painting, and writing stories. In 1971, he made his breakthrough in the fine arts community, by winning the comics magazine Pilote’s “new talent” prize. Four years later, Bilal met Pierre Christin, with whom he collaborated on seven full-length books. Christin, born in 1938, soon became more than a partner in crime, as he took on a mentorship role. While the division of labour between the two men was well-established from the start, with Christin as writer and Bilal as illustrator, the omnipresence of history and politics in those early works had a major influence on the artist’s solo work. A leftist, albeit fiercely independent, thinker, Christin wanted to “introduce new topics [in the comics world], take a more adult-friendly approach at a time when the profession was still very conformist.” By contrast, Bilal has stated that he was never “really part of the world, of the culture he lived in.”[2] Soon, however, the illustrator metamorphosed into a deeply political artist. Continue reading

An Open Letter to Canadians from an Undergrad Student

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By Emma Stelter

For generations, settler governments have been trying to break and remake Indigenous families in what is now known today as Canada.[1] We must acknowledge historic wrongdoing. Regardless of whether our ancestors were immigrants during pioneer times or immigrants today, many Canadians benefit from the state’s division of land and resources.

There is a lot of work to be done on reconciliation. Over the past three decades, there have been 1,181 Indigenous women reported as murdered and 164 reported as missing. But, the real numbers are estimated to be as high as 4,000. Indigenous women are disproportionately targeted and victimized in Canada. Indigenous women face victimization rates three times higher than that of non-Indigenous women. To make matters worse, violence against Indigenous women is infrequently reported to or examined by the RCMP.

Collectively, generations of Canadians have neglected missing and murdered Indigenous women (MMIW). Continue reading

Russia 2017: The Centenary of a Global Revolution

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“V.I. Lenin making a speech at a meeting dedicated to the laying of the foundation stone for a monument to K. Liebknecht and R. Luxemburg, in Dvorstsovaya Square. Petrograd,” 19 July 1920, Wikimedia Commons.

Oleksa Drachewych

On November 7, 2017, the centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution passed. One hundred years ago, in Russia, the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, formed the world’s first communist regime.[1] Bolshevik Russia survived a bitter and violent civil war, including invasion by Entente forces seeking to replace a government that was antagonistic to them. By the end of the Second World War, the Soviet Union was a superpower, an ideological, economic, and military counterweight to American ascendency. Other communist nations formed during the Cold War, including Maoist China, Kim Il-sung’s North Korea, Ho Chi Minh’s Vietnam and Fidel Castro’s Cuba. The Cold War dominated international diplomacy for four decades. When the Soviet Union collapsed, dissolving in 1991, some declared Communism dead, but with current references to the broad left, it is clear that some of the ideas encapsulated by the Bolshevik Revolution and Marxism-Leninism thrive.

Many highlight that the Bolshevik Revolution and its results clearly show communism’s failing as a legitimate form of government. It led to one of the most violent and brutal authoritarian regimes in history, the USSR, with millions of victims of repression instigated under the guise of defending the revolution. It inspired other similar regimes, which also governed with violence, most significantly exemplified in Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward, when over 60 million people died. Other Communist regimes perpetrated great human rights violations and limited political freedoms.[2] These legacies remain relevant today as exemplified by the closed society of North Korea or the poverty of Venezuela.

Many nations have built tributes to the victims of communism. Most famously, in the United States, the Victims of Communism Memorial in Washington is one such symbol, supported by the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation which continues to condemn the horrors of communism, arguing that the ideology inherently leads to authoritarianism. In many former Soviet satellite states, there are museums, such as the House of Terror in Hungary, which include exhibits reflecting life and repression under communism. Currently, in Canada, initiated in 2015 with the support of the Harper government, the Tribute to Liberty project in part aims to memorialize the victims of communist repression, while also reflecting Canada’s position as a place of refuge for those fleeing communist persecution.

However, this focus on the Revolution’s negative consequences, while justified, ignores the genuine inspiration the principles behind the revolution provided to many around the world. Continue reading

History Slam Episode 108: The Magnificent Nahanni

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By Sean Graham

This year, Parks Canada offered free admission to parks across the country to commemorate Canada 150. As visitors flocked to take advantage of the opportunity, however, there was not much reflection in the media about the process through which national parks are determined and operated.

In his recent book The Magnificent Nahanni: The Struggle to Protect a Wild Place, Gordon Nelson looks at the process through which Nahanni National Park Reserve was established in 1972. The park, which is over 30,000 square kilometres, is in western Northwest Territories in the Dehcho region, with its western boundary edging to the Yukon border. In addition to its natural beauty, the park also includes an old mine and has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Gordon Nelson about The Magnificent Nahanni. We talk about his geography background, the physical landscape in the North, and the process of establishing a national park. We also discuss Indigenous communities in the North, their involvement in the process, and the traditional ways in which the land has been used. We conclude by talking about Canadians’ affinity for natural landscapes and whether we do enough to protect those landscapes.

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#Canada150: How to Celebrate Freedom

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By Shirley Tillotson

This essays is being published jointly on ActiveHistory.ca and Borealia and appeared in an earlier version as a Letter to the Editor in the National Post (Oct. 26, 2017)

Fundraisers love anniversaries. They’re like birthdays, right? Presents can’t be far behind. But when it’s the anniversary of a death, it’s not so much fun. For me, as an historian (and an old person), most dates on my calendar are full of births and deaths. Every celebration evokes at least a tinge of grief among the memories.

So, this summer, when I read in a National Post op-ed (July 10, “Dalhousie Student Union’s ban on Canada Day celebrations was shameful”) that “Canada Day celebrates Canadians’ freedom from oppression,” I had one of those moments of mixed memories.

July 1st – and #Canada150, for that matter – reminds me of so much more than just contemporary Canada’s goodness.

Confederation, whose anniversary we mark on July 1, wasn’t about freeing anyone from oppression.   Continue reading

Witnessing and Unwitnessing Ontario’s Treaties

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By Thomas Peace

Last week was the second annual Treaty Recognition Week in Ontario. Organized by the provincial government, this is a time for Ontarians to acknowledge and learn about the treaties upon which the province was developed. This year, Ontario’s Ministry of Education announced that Indigenous history and culture would become part of the K-12 curriculum by fall 2018.

A Wampum Belt Marking the 1764 Treaty of Niagara

In southern Ontario, treaty recognition is sorely needed. Here, the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth-century treaties that enabled settlement on Indigenous lands remain poorly understood. Continue reading