History Slam 194: Mining Country

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By Sean Graham

In April 1936, three workers at the Moose River Mine in Nova Scotia became trapped over 40 metres below the ground when the mine’s roof collapsed. On the sixth day following the collapse, rescuers were able to drill a borehole that allowed them to send food and water to the men. As the news spread, the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission, the predecessor to the CBC, sent J. Frank Willis to the scene to report on the rescue operations. For 56 consecutive hours, Willis sent live updates to over 650 stations around the world, as the story captivated a global audience. When the men finally emerged from the mine on the 11th day, Willis reported with great flare that they has escaped their underground graves.

The story of the Moose River Mine disaster is often looked at as one of heroism – of the trapped men surviving, of the rescuers persisting, and of Willis continuing to broadcast. What tends to be omitted in a lot of the retellings of the story, however, is how roof collapsed. Or the dangers associated with mining. Or, frankly, even what they were mining. For me, this is representative of a lot of the population imagination surrounding mining in Canada. The images of miners covered in dirt emerging at the end of a long day extracting the materials society needs without getting the proper recognition dominate representations of miners and mining. The larger economic systems at play, their role in the colonial project, or even the environmental or human cost of mining are conspicuously absent.

So when I sat down to read Mining Country: A History of Canada’s Mines and Miners, I was expecting a piece celebrating the workers and highlighting their economic contributions to Canada. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised to see a book that explored the costs of mining. From the impact on Indigenous communities to the environmental damage of abandoned mines, the book highlights five key themes in Canada’s mining history and explores them through an effective use of case studies. At the same time, however, the book is not dismissive of the miners themselves, those who worked in dangerous situations and built strong communities both inside and outside their workplaces. While today mining is industry that is often discussed in very polarized terms, the book is able to avoid the contemporary talking points to provide a nuanced examination of mining’s history in Canada.

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History Slam 193: The Bad Detective

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By Sean Graham

Popular culture is full of popular detectives and detective stories – from Sherlock Holmes to Jessica  Fletcher, we seem to love seeing good sleuth get to the bottom of a case. That fascination translates into real life cases, where everything from crime podcasts to live courts proceedings find big audiences, thrusting those who investigate crimes into the limelight. This has long been the case, and some in law enforcement have fallen prey to the allure of the bright lights and notoriety.

That was certainly the case for Nic Power, a Halifax-based detective in the 19th century and the subject of Bob Gordon’s new book The Bad Detective: The Incredible Cases of Nic Power. Coming into public view following claims of saving the young prince from a Fenian bomb, Power enjoyed his reputation as an influential detective and did anything he could to maintain that position, even if it meant bending and breaking the rules he was responsible for enforcing. A tale that reminds modern readers of the importance of holding those in power to account and the need for a free and independent press, The Bad Detective explores a larger than life figure who boasted his way to a lucrative career.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Bob Gordon about the book. We chat about uncovering the story of Nic Power, his ability to manipulate the press during his life, and his rise to power during tensions with the Fenians. We also discuss Power’s unscrupulous behaviour, how prejudices aided his malfeasance, and what lessons audience in 2021 can take from this story. Bob is also the author of Life After Covid-19, which we talk about at the end of the episode.

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Critical Cycling: Race and Memory On an Old Stagecoach Route

This is the tenth in a series, “History En Vélo,” about cycling and thinking historically, shared with NiCHE.

By Jacqueline Scott

It was one of the most important stagecoach routes in the early 1800s. Then, travelling the Toronto-Kingston-Montreal route took about a week. We had a weekend to cycle roughly 300 kilometres, covering the Toronto to Kingston portion of the trail.

Biking Prince Edward County.

James Mink and his daughter Mary Mink were the inspiration for the bike ride. He was one of the four livery stables keepers listed in Roswell’s 1850 City of Toronto Directory. James Mink was Black. He was a successful businessman, making his fortune from operating the Toronto to Kingston stagecoach, delivering mail and transporting passengers. We started the ride in downtown Toronto, close to where Mink’s hotel and stables once stood.

The search for Black history, and a love of outdoor recreation, drives my adventure trips. These journeys are not just play; they are a way of honouring and memoralising the long Black presence in Canada. Black people are typically erased from Canadian history texts, or are confined to the margins and footnotes (Mackey, 2010; Shadd, 2010). Our absented presence underlines the fiction that Black people are either recent immigrants, or arrived to find freedom here via the Underground Railroad in the 1800s (Walcott, 2003). This fiction disappears the 200 years of slavery from the Canadian historical memory (Cooper, 2007; Henry, 2010).

On our bike ride, we cycled along half-quiet and rolling country roads with farms on both sides. Acres of corn danced in the summer breeze. Continue reading

Historia Nostra: Myth, Memory, and Misconception at the Plains of Abraham

By Erin Isaac

The Battle on the Plains of Abraham, on 13 September 1759, is heavily commemorated on Québec’s physical landscape. From the streets, buildings, and shops named for the French and British military men who fought that day, to the monuments that dot the city’s historic neighbourhoods, and commemorative panels or plaques at the Plains of Abraham, it’s hard to wander around Old Québec without being reminded of this moment in the city’s history.

But this battle is a bit of a sore spot when it comes trying to commemorate Canadian history. Do we celebrate the British victory there in 1759 or lament the French loss? We celebrate the martyred (if I may be so bold!) French commander Montcalm, sure, but the British commander, Wolfe also has his share of monuments and mentions. Public works seem to believe we can have it both ways, treating history like it is politically benign or neutral territory.

Wolfe–Montcalm Monument, Québec City, Wikipedia

It might not be surprising, then, that most misconceptions about the Battle on the Plains of Abraham seem to diminish its importance, or place blame for the French loss away from the imperial regimes that sought to shore up claims on Indigenous lands during the Seven Years’ War. We treat this battle as a one-off, singular, or definitive moment. The mythology around that day is parsed out from what came before or after it. Continue reading

Bartleby By Bike

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By Michael Egan

This is the ninth in a series, “History En Vélo,” about cycling and thinking historically, shared with NiCHE.

Hang the anachronism: I liked the alliteration. The sentiment remains, however. I would prefer not to superimpose Herman Melville’s scrivener’s rejection of the world he inhabits while inhabiting that world as metaphor for the bicycle’s place in twenty-first-century petrocultured environments.

I would prefer not to consider the relationship between bicycles and history. I would prefer not to mention that the first roads were paved for bicycles and not automobiles. I would prefer not to posit the transformative qualities the bicycle imposed on the late-nineteenth-century cityscape. I would prefer not to talk about bloomers or the oft-quoted position, held by both Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, that women were riding to suffrage on a bicycle.

I would prefer not to shift toward environmental history tropes and evoke the ways in which topography and weather and seasons and the experience of physical work mediate my relationship with my surroundings. I would prefer not to describe the burning of lungs as I lean into steeper inclines, or how this attunes rider to landscape.

I would prefer not to touch on the materials of the bicycle’s construction—tubing made of steel, aluminum, carbon fibre, bamboo—or its manufacture. I would prefer not to assert the simplicity of its original design, its efficiency for capturing human power, or its ability to propel its rider at the optimal maximum speed across shared and populous spaces.

Umberto Boccioni, Dynamism of a Cyclist (Dinamismo di un ciclista) – Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Public Domain.

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Postscript: Cuts from “Pandemic Methodologies”

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By Erin Gallagher-Cohoon

PMTC Co-Organizer’s note: Unlike me, Erin has not yet had the opportunity to publish the initial piece of writing that inspired and was inspired by the Pandemic Methodologies Twitter Conference. We felt that this series was the right place to begin that process and ensure that her thoughts, writing, and emotions had a place. The unconventional, beautiful piece of writing that follows represents the state of mind and body that we, as co-organizers, colleagues, and friends, grappled with during the pandemic as we searched for ways to continue our work – while we continue to explore what that means.

 Author’s note: I wrote this in the kind of brain fog or fever dream that makes time blend together. Chronology seems unimportant when every day under lockdown under grief feels the same. The disregard I show for the most basic of historical tools, the timeline, is done with all due respect to the role of narrative and smooth editing in historical writing. Traditional historical narrative, however, does not capture my current experience of time. The mess and confusion I have decided not to edit out, as you will see below, are a closer approximation.

 I message a good friend and fellow PhD candidate over Facebook. He shares snippets of his annual review. I share snippets of this personal essay that I fatten and trim daily. Neither one of us talk about the other writing that hangs over us both besides to admit that the dissertations are coming along slowly, if at all. After writing myself into an existential crisis, my friend sends me an article about how historians can be vicariously traumatized by their research. Partway through reading it, Robert sees that I am online and FaceChats me from the hospital. He is bald and bloated and his conversation does not always make sense. He tells me that he met my Dad in 1920. At other times, he seems as rational as he ever was. He hangs up after saying “I love you.” I think about crying but don’t really feel like it.

Man with glasses and black shirt raising hand

Selfie Robert took in hospital and texted to author on February 21, 2020. He is raising a hand in hello or goodbye.

I go back to the article. I read: “every day, sometimes for decades, historians open themselves, if not willingly then by a sense of obligation, to the pain of the past. Often, the present intrudes, exacerbating the trauma.” My present intrudes. This present where I cannot hug my immunocompromised, end-of-life Robert because of a global pandemic, but where I can connect with him, however dissatisfyingly, via text message and Facebook. If my present is intruding, exacerbating the compassion fatigue if not outright trauma of my research, how does that shape the research itself? What types of histories are we writing shut away behind our computer screens, doom scrolling and desperately trying to keep ourselves, our families, and our communities from shattering? How do we write history during a pandemic? Continue reading

Socially Distant: Writing History in “Unprecedented Times”

“We Grieve Together.” Dark background with bright illustrations of a number of grieving people holding candles, scattered across windows and computer screens.

Image Credit: Art by Molly Costello (www.mollycostello.com).
Image Description: “We Grieve Together.” Dark background with bright illustrations of a number of grieving people holding candles, scattered across windows and computer screens.

This is the sixth post in the Pandemic Methodologies series. See the introductory post for more information.

By Johanna Lewis and Daniel Murchison 

We are part of academia’s COVID generation – ours is a cohort of scholars whose graduate studies coincided with the global pandemic. COVID has produced many challenges, at micro and macro levels, and textured how we practice history and what meaning we make from it. As historians studying the forces of capitalism and colonialism, and as graduate students witnessing and navigating how the pandemic has worsened precarity and inequality, we are collaborating here to reflect on the wider context of the COVID crisis, and to trace its consequences for our work – both the conditions of our labour and the content that we produce – in “unprecedented times.”

The COVID Context
We understand the COVID moment as more than a year and a half long health crisis; the global pandemic emerged from a wider context and its impacts will continue to play out across both individual trajectories and collective histories. The volatility of advanced capitalism and the uneven austerity of neoliberal governance had, in several ways, set the stage for the COVID crisis. These developments have not only facilitated declines of intergenerational social mobility and the continued concentration of wealth, but also turned our homes and schools into sites of financialization and struggle, institutionalized precarious work, and marketized healthcare. In the context of an inadequate social safety net, the state responses to the global pandemic prioritized accumulation for some at the expense of the lives and wellbeing of the many, spawning crises of evictions, impoverishment, and mental health alongside waves of deadly and inequitably borne public health emergencies. Industrialists and financiers are reaping record profits while the working-class, particularly low waged and racialized workers, earn less than a living wage and face a deadly virus on the job. Private for-profit care facilities are paying huge dividends to shareholders even as elderly and/or disabled residents died in their beds. Growing class divides are being both exposed and exacerbated. Continue reading

The Stubborn Commuter

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This is the eighth in a series, “History En Vélo,” about cycling and thinking historically, shared with NiCHE.

By Josh MacFadyen

I’m not sure I belong in this series on cycling and its connections to academic thinking. I am nothing more than a stubborn bike commuter. I’m not a racer, club member, gearhead, or aficionado of any kind. I don’t care if anyone sees my bikes (they’re beaters) or sees me on my bike (my outfits never match). I’ve never worn Lycra. OK, let me rephrase that. Everyone over the age of 30 wears some Lycra; I just don’t wear any visibly. I don’t talk much about biking either. The topic is often dull to the cycle-hesitant and pharisaic to the cycle-adverse. To be clear, I love cycling. It’s the best part of my day. I love how it clears my mind, how it changes the way I see the environments I study, and how it gets me to work. But I try to follow a different approach when spreading the gospel of gearshifting: I just ride. I ride a lot, I enjoy the benefits it brings, and I occasionally bring someone new along. This post shares my brief experience as a cyclist and the surprising lesson cycling taught me about the history of land use and energy transitions on Prince Edward Island.

I’m a relatively recent convert to cycling. I knew very little about it until about 10 years ago. That was when a friend who had moved to PEI brought me and a second bike along to the Island’s new “Alpine” trails. He was from British Columbia, of course, and found our rolling hills very cute. Between his lessons and a taste of riding a good bike, I was getting hooked. But at that time I was mainly looking for something else from bikes. I had recently completed a PhD on rural and environmental history, so naturally I was looking for a cheap and low-emission way to get around as I searched for work. I was aware of the tensions between cyclists and motorists, and I understood the incompatibility of car-based infrastructure and the desire for cheap, low-emission transportation. However, the best argument for cycling came from Mr. Money Mustache, a humorous financial blogger who called bikes automatic life-balancing machines. Using a bike for as much of your commuting and shopping as possible keeps your communities local, your transportation bills down, your emissions low, and your heart rate up. That was reason enough, but like everyone else writing in this series, I also discovered new ways of understanding rural and urban landscapes, and new ways of teaching the environmental history of my neighbourhoods.

This is what keeps me stubbornly commuting to work. Between my PhD in early 2010 and today, I’ve been fortunate to find work at UPEI, Western, Saskatchewan, Arizona State, and now UPEI, again. I have bought exactly zero semesters of parking passes from any of those universities. My wife and I have fought the urge to get a second vehicle, or to “put another one on the road” as they say in PEI. It’s a challenge with a busy and relatively large family. It means we run a house with exactly 0.16 cars per person. Our bike fleet fluctuates, but it is usually closer to 1.5 bikes per family member.

This lifestyle allows the stubborn commuter to spend a little more on bike gear than, say, the occasional rider’s budget, but even still the costs are minimal compared to owning more cars. Bike components and quality matter, but for commuting my list of essential “gear” is quite short: a helmet, rechargeable lights, and a waterproof pannier bag with a rack and a laptop sleeve. The list changed over time — I needed more bike locks when I was a junior postdoc without an office; I need more padding now that I’m older. The list also changed dramatically depending on my geography. In Arizona you don’t bike anywhere without water, especially in the summer. In the Saskatoon winter, you don’t bike anywhere without face coverings and thick gloves. Continue reading

Pros, Cons, and Confusion: Return to Campus

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The author’s three cats napping on a bed.

This is the fifth post in the Pandemic Methodologies series. See the introductory post for more information.

By Victoria Seta Cosby

Being back on campus is like being in an alternate universe where everything is the same and yet somehow different. Everything feels familiar while also being simultaneously much more sinister and dangerous. Teaching on campus has always carried some pressures, but now I am responsible for the physical health of my students in the classroom. I must ensure that my students wear their masks (properly), which is a significant additional anxiety on top of my teaching responsibilities. Despite this, I am not being compensated for the additional burden of maintaining COVID-19 safety procedures. I am also not getting any hazard pay to make up for the risks I am exposed to being in contact with 50 undergraduate students on a weekly basis. Communication from the university about safety planning and backup plans has been slow and generally unhelpful.

All these additional problems have worn me down physically and mentally. I am finding it very hard to work on my thesis when I am also trying to maintain my own safety in the unpredictability of this new reality. The university refuses to acknowledge that graduate students are facing any real hardships and need extensions on funding and completion times. Continue reading

The Forgotten History of Cyclone Science: Lessons for the Climate Crisis

Damage in Kolkata from Cyclone Amphan, May 2020. Source: Reuters via Al Jazeera.

This is the twelfth and final post in the series Historians Confront the Climate Emergency, hosted by ActiveHistory.ca, NiCHE (Network in Canadian History & Environment)Historical Climatology, and Climate History Network.

By Vinita Damodaran

In May 2020, Cyclone Amphan battered the east coast of Bangladesh and India, especially Kolkata and the Sundarbans, leaving hundreds of people dead and causing damage of over $13 million USD. This was not the first time such a storm had battered the coast but was only one in the long history of such events. In 1999, a super cyclone in Orissa killed 10,00 people and destroyed 210,000 houses. In flood-prone cities the dangers are even greater. For example, in cities in the region such as Ho Chi Minh City, Kolkata, Dhaka, and Manila, potential sea level rise and the increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events pose significant adaptation challenges. The urban poor—often living in riskier urban environments such as floodplains or unstable slopes, working in the informal economy, and with fewer assets—are most at risk from exposure to hazards. Regions with active river deltas, such as Kutch in Western India and the Sundarbans, are historically more prone to frequent droughts, famines, pestilence, earthquakes and floods, which can be mapped through the archive.

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