History on Trial in Daniels vs. Canada

By William Wicken

Congress of Aboriginal Peoples press conference following the verdict. CAP photo

Congress of Aboriginal Peoples press conference following the verdict. CAP photo

Last week the Supreme Court of Canada released its decision in the Daniels vs. Canada case. Writing for the court, Justice Abella declared that ‘Métis and non-status Indians are “Indians” under section 91(24).’ Much has already been written about the decision and its possible implications. Less well known are the historical arguments which were the foundation of the trial judge’s decision, and which the Supreme Court upheld. In this post, I discuss my involvement as an historian, and the questions of law, power, and intent that were at the heart of the case.

Two principal witnesses presented the historical evidence on behalf of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, the main plaintiff in the case. These witnesses were Gwynneth Jones and me. Both of us did original archival research and submitted written reports to the Court. My report was 171 pages, and Gwynneth’s report was similarly lengthy. Each of us also testified at trial before Justice Phelan of the Federal Court of Canada in May of 2011 and we were both cross-examined by federal lawyers. Afterward, the federal government presented their evidence, most of which was given by Professors Stephen Patterson and Alexander Von Gernet.

History as evidence

Why was this historical evidence important? The plaintiff sought to make the federal government recognize that they had a legal responsibility for Métis and non-status Indians. This would mean “that the Government of Canada can no longer disclaim responsibility and continue playing a game of political hot potato with the provinces over jurisdiction.”  In making this argument, the Congress’s lawyers focused their attention on section 91 of the 1867 British North America Act. Continue reading

Episodes in Canada’s arms trade: 1946 and 2016

dionBy David Webster

Foreign minister Stephane Dion is taking flak for approving the sale of military light armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia despite that country’s human rights record. Dion’s response implies that Canadian restrictions on arms exports are tough, with an emphasis on ensuring that weapons made in Canada are not be used against civilian populations, and links it to what he calls the guiding principle of his foreign policy: “responsible conviction.”

The debates are evocative of the year that Canada entered the arms export business, 70 years ago. Restrictions on arms exports are not tougher today than they were at the creation of an arms export business. Reflecting on debates over military sales in 1946 and 2016 suggests that human rights are not necessarily becoming more central in policy making over time. If anything, policy makers in 1946 seem to have been more scrupulous on avoiding sales on human rights grounds, and more restrictive about selling arms that might be used, than the policy makers of today.

So how did Canada get into the arms export business, anyway? The tale goes back to the aftermath of the Second World War. Prime Minister Mackenzie King’s government was prepared to allow surplus military equipment to remain with allied governments in Europe, and to provide military goods to the United States and Great Britain. But when it came to selling to less reliable governments, and those who might actually use the weapons, King’s cabinet was more scrupulous. Cabinet approval was needed for any military sale, no matter how small, to any country other than the United States and Great Britain. The minutes of cabinet meetings are full of discussion about possible sales, and always included a question as to whether the arms were likely to be used. Cabinet held to a policy spelled out by Prime Minister Mackenzie King that “great care should be taken with respect to all sales of weapons and supplies of war to foreign governments.” If a country was at war, if it intended to use the weapons for anything other than re-equipping its defensive forces, or if there were questions about human rights, sales tended to be refused or not even submitted for cabinet consideration. Continue reading

The Currency of Memory: #bankNOTEable Canadian Women

By Kaleigh Bradley


Source: Bank of Canada.

Last month, on International Women’s Day, Trudeau announced that by 2018, “an iconic Canadian woman” would appear on the next issue of bank notes. Up until April 18th, 2016, the Bank of Canada issued an open call for nominations of #bankNOTEable women. In order to quality, the woman in question had to be a Canadian citizen (by birth or naturalization), deceased for at least twenty-five years, and had to have demonstrated “outstanding leadership, achievement or distinction in any field.”

After the initial call, the Bank of Canada’s Advisory Council will review the crowed-sourced list of candidates to create a list of 10-12. The Canadian public will then be able to vote from this list on the Bank’s website and these votes will be used to ensure the nominees are a representative sample of our country. The list will be narrowed down to a few names, experts will be consulted, and according to custom, the Minister of Finance will make the final decision. It’s clear that officials are trying to ensure that the selection process is inclusive and representative of all Canadians. The Advisory Committee is comprised of experts and representatives from different interest groups. Public input is welcome and the list of candidates will be crowd-sourced. Despite these efforts, the process of commemoration is polarizing and the initial call has led to some important public discussions about commemoration and Canadian history.

Popular choices included artist Emily Carr, War of 1812 “heroine” Laura Secord, author Lucy Maud Montgomery, civil rights icon Viola Desmond, Indigenous poet E. Pauline Johnson, and Harriet Tubman, who helped 300 slaves enter Canada through the underground railway.

Discussions about who should be selected has me thinking about the importance of history and memory in our everyday lives. History is on our money, in the street or place names we use, the architecture we see, in the song lyrics we enjoy, and within and outside of the boundaries of the landscapes we build. The history we experience around us might not reflect our own memories, histories, and identities. Acts of remembering, boundary-making, erasure, naming, and commemoration are often political, contested, divisive, and sometimes deeply personal.

As H.V. Nelles argues in The Art of Nation Building, commemoration and myth-making are performances, acts of self-invention on the part of the nation state and the cultural elite. Myth-making and commemorations tell us more about the agenda of the state and our priorities as a society today, than they do about the events and people we seek to commemorate.

Commemoration serves to validate particular national myths and historical narratives. In Canada, there are  so many conflilcting histories that it’s hard to tell one story about colonialism, our track record with immigration and multiculturalism, our relationship to the monarchy, our artistic history and cultural institutions, and Quebec nationalism, just to name a few. Is there really one history, or one woman who can be representative for all of us? Is there a history that we can all adhere to? And why does this even matter? What does it mean to elevate one individual to an iconic status? Continue reading

Merchants of Death: Canada’s History of Questionable Exports

By Stephanie Bangarth and Jon Weier



I must say that I feel the whole Canadian policy to be very hypocritical. We talk a good game but then proceed to act inconsistently by promoting trade with the countries whose policies we denounce.[1]

The year was 1974 and the issue of Canadian trade with South Africa was making the headlines, along with concerns over the sale of CANDU reactors to Argentina and India. It reflected the increasing awareness of and support for human rights in Canadian foreign policy during the late 1960s and the early 1970s. As David Forsyth notes, as a general historical trend, more attention is now paid toward humanitarianism in world affairs.[2] In part, this development was due to parliamentarians such as New Democrat Andrew Brewin, who were central in making the issue of human rights more than merely a domestic issue.

Brewin’s statement is as relevant today as it was in 1974. Since its election in October 2015, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s new Liberal government has been dogged by the continuing saga of the sale of armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia. This deal, initially pursued and approved by the previous Conservative government, would see General Dynamics Land Systems sell $15 billion worth of Light Armoured Vehicles (LAVs) to re-equip the Saudi National Guard. These LAVs are to be produced at the General Dynamics production facility in London, Ontario, and were a centrepiece of the previous Conservative government’s plan for bolstering the Canadian arms industry through increased exports. Continue reading

Graffiti Is a Revolutionary Act at a South Africa University

Photo: Lihlumelo Toyana

By Rachel Hatcher

[Originally published by teleSUR and the first post in a series titled “Learning and unlearning history in South Africa’s public spaces”]

Students rewriting the history of South Africa on buildings and statues at the University of the Free State is an important act of restorative justice.

In recent years, students in South Africa, Chile, Québec, and elsewhere, have been protesting neoliberal/neocolonial policies, including the outsourcing of workers on campus and significant hikes in tuition fees. In South Africa, protests by mostly Black students against tuition hikes took place under declarations that Fees Must Fall. Yet, students in South Africa are also protesting continued institutional racism, and even white supremacy, on university campuses and the continued colonization of higher education. Indeed, the Fees Must Fall movement is in some ways inspired by and a continuation of the Rhodes Must Fall movement that began in early 2015 and that was successful in demanding the removal of the statue of imperialist, racist, and mining magnate Cecil Rhodes at the University of Cape Town. These protests have taken place in the larger context of widespread disappointment that the promise of 1994 has not been realized, that little has changed in South Africa since the apartheid-era ended and the first democratic elections were held, and that what changes have been made have mostly been cosmetic. Racism, especially institutional racism, remains and few structural reforms have been carried out.

At the University of the Free State (UFS) in Bloemfontein, a traditionally Afrikaner university in a traditionally Afrikaner and very conservative town and province (the Free State), Fees Must Fall protests were muted in 2015, at least in comparison to other universities. In February 2016, however, the workers’ strike against outsourcing and un-liveable, low wages, which many Black students activists participated in in solidarity with the workers, morphed into protests about just those underlying issues that Fees Must Fall was about — institutional racism and a lack of transformation at the university. Continue reading

History Slam Episode Eighty-Two: Historically Inspired Baby Names

By Sean Graham

hello-my-name-isI am not a parent. Nor am I close to becoming a parent. That being said, one of the things that strikes me as a major challenge of early parenthood – perhaps the first challenge after a child is born – is picking a name. The challenges of finding the right name has long been a sitcom staple. And while it may seem easy to pick a name that doesn’t rhyme with a female body part, I would be overwhelmed by the options available. I can stand in the cereal aisle for 20 minutes trying to decide what to get, so the prospect of picking a name seems really intimidating.

Yet, every day people are able to name their kids. Over the past five years, I’ve had a bunch of friends who have gone through the process of naming their newborn children. The consensus seems to be that naming is easier than it seems from the outside – that while there can be and often is lots of discussion beforehand, the right name tends to be clear when the time comes.

The reasons for picking a name can vary greatly, from liking the one a name sounds to honouring a departed family member to concluding that a newborn ‘looks’ like a certain name. Less common, however, is naming your kids after prominent historical figures. While it does happen on occasion, it can be challenging to find a name that is both inspired by someone from history and also fits in the 21st century. Continue reading

In Search of Digital Literacy in Canadian History Programs

By Stacey Devlin

For both students and practicing historians, a wealth of information is often just a few clicks away. Photo by Thomas Lefebvre via unsplash.com

For both students and practicing historians, a wealth of information is often just a few clicks away. Photo by Thomas Lefebvre via unsplash.com

During the second half of my MA, my colleagues and I were tasked with preparing an exhibit about early-twentieth-century medicine. Not having a background in medical history, I began by downloading archived medical periodicals from Early Canadiana Online. I reasoned that if I could identify important conversations of the profession during the period of interest, I would have clear leads for exhibit content. What were considered standard practices? What were the pressing issues or the latest controversies? Unfortunately, I wasn’t at liberty to read the thousands of pages I had downloaded, let alone to keep an ongoing record of topics or word usage. During the previous semester, however, I had taken courses on digital history and digital research methods. After using Voyant Tools to generate a list of frequently used words in my periodicals, I put together a program to extract instances of these key words and save them in new documents for review. My processing of the periodicals ended there, but even this simple operation gave me useful direction for continued research.

In the two years since then, I’ve continued to use a variety of technologies in my work. My university training in digital history (and the willingness to embrace new technologies in general) has been helpful in finding employment opportunities outside the academy. I incorporate digital tools into my workflow because they’re illuminating, time-saving, and even fun. However, digital literacy was not a priority during most of my university career. Similarly, I have few peers that would consider themselves digital historians, despite the fact that research is routinely conducted online and the digital humanities are a frequent topic of discussion within the discipline. Continue reading

Creating the Historical Record in Literary and Personal Archives

by Krista McCracken

Part of the Brian Vallée fonds. Photograph taken by author.

Part of the Brian Vallée fonds. Photograph by author.

Archives document people, organizations, and communities from almost all walks of life and are most commonly referred to for their historical value and viewed as repositories of things of intrinsic and lasting historical value. This is also true in the case of literary archives and the personal archives of creative practitioners, but these archives have the added potential to be records of culture, provide insight into individual creative practices and elicit scholarly debate.

Until recently my exposure to literary archives had been very limited.  I knew they existed but in my case, coming to archives from a history background, literary and artistic archives were always on the periphery but were never the focus of my work.  For me archives were more about historical documentation, snapshots of time, and about telling community histories.  So, how do literary and artistic archives fit within the larger archival frameworks and how can these archives be useful to historians? Continue reading

History Slam Episode Eighty-One: The Bank War

Yesterday, Jonathan McQuarrie wrote about the smash Broadway show Hamilton. Even before the show, when most people thought about the establishment of the financial system in the United States, Hamilton was likely the first person to come to mind. President Andrew Jackson, probably wasn’t top of mind, while Nicolas Biddle remains a largely unknown figure. That’s why Paul Kahan’s new book The Bank War: Andrew Jackson, Nicolas Biddle, and the Fight for American Finance is so interesting.

The book traces the battle between Jackson and Biddle through the 1830s as the President tried to dismantle the national bank while Biddle fought to preserve the institution. Ultimately, Jackson prevailed, a result that had major implications for the American economy through the 19th century.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Paul Kahan about the book. We talk about the challenges of writing popular history, the history of America’s financial structure, and the role of personalities in early American history.

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Hamilton: A Belated Discussion

By Jonathan McQuarrie

It turns out rap is a perfect medium for history. Hamilton has become a touchstone musical, winning laurels from a range of audiences from musical aficionados to people (like me) who are never quite sure why everyone is singing. Its wide appeal has made it a notoriously difficult ticket to get—as of this writing, the tickets are “extremely limited” and ticket resale sites ask for $500 to $700. As the New York Times reviewer noted, “I am loath to tell people to mortgage their houses and lease their children to attend a hit Broadway show. Hamilton, directed by Thomas Kail and staring [Lin-Manuel] Miranda might just be worth it[.]” For those unwilling to resort to such extreme measures (including myself), the cast recording is widely available, and captures much of the energy and power of the work. It has the feel of being one of those generational musicals with the power to define how many people understand a historically significant figure, much as Les Misérables shaped understanding of the French revolutionary period.

Hamilton is a lasting success. So, we need to pay attention to this cultural moment. Here’s why.

  • One need not read a fully footnoted work to find some analytically rich and complex material. The creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, demonstrated an impressive commitment to historical accuracy. He drew rigorously on Ron Chernow’s popular, but extensive, biography of Alexander Hamilton, and Chernow contributed as a consultant to the production. Other historians have largely praised the work’s portrayal, noting only minor omissions or confusions. Indeed, the approximately three hour work is remarkable for how much detail it does include, from Hamilton’s efforts to form a new financial system to an intricate detailing of the rules of dueling. The “Cabinet Battles” are must-listens.

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