History as Rhetoric: Indochina and Contemporary Refugee Crises

By Laura Madokoro

Vietnamese Boat People: A reflection on policy or an Extraordinary Event?

Vietnamese Boat People: A reflection on policy or an Extraordinary Event?

Recently, and perhaps not surprisingly for a historian, I have been thinking a lot about the relationship between the present and the past. In particular, about the use of history by advocates seeking to draw attention to the current refugee crises in the Mediterranean and Andaman Seas. In the past few weeks, there has been considerable news coverage about the thousands of migrants from Syria, Eritrea and Libya who are making their way to Europe under dangerous and treacherous conditions. This past April alone, 1,200 people died trying to cross the Mediterranean to seek refuge in Europe. The plight of an estimated 6,000 to 20,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants adrift at sea in a “game of human ping pong” in the Andaman Sea is also garnering international attention.

Many observers have drawn parallels between the current crises and the international efforts on behalf of three million Indochinese refugees following the end of the Vietnam War. These comparisons, especially the ones employed by observers pressing for humanitarian intervention, sparked my musings about the relationship between the present and the past. Specifically, how do references to the recent past affect our understanding of that history? And relatedly, what are the consequences of misrepresenting the past in service of the present? Continue reading

A Review of The Education of Augie Merasty: A Residential School Memoir

By Kevin Plummer

“When I was at that school,” Joseph Auguste (Augie) Merasty writes of his years at St. Therese Residential School, “it seemed always to be winter time” (Merasty, 41). It’s little surprise, then, that certain anecdotes from that season stand out in the memoir he’s written with David Carpenter, The Education of Augie Merasty: A Residential School Memoir.


University of Regina Press, 2015
Casebound 120 pages, $21.95

One winter when Augie was 11 or 12, he recounts vividly seven decades later, he and another boy were forced to retrace their steps 20 miles across the lake and into the wild, by themselves and with the temperature plummeting, in search of the two mittens they’d lost. Out there alone, as the temperatures plummeted, the boys’ fright was only exasperated when they came across fresh wolf tracks and imagined having to fend off a pack with nothing but sticks. When they found all trace of the lost mittens erased by the blowing wind, they returned to school to admit their failure to Sister St. Mercy. “We, of course, got the strap, twenty strokes on both hands,” Merasty concludes (12).

This matter-of-fact tone is a strength of Merasty’s memoirs, underlining as it does the casual nature of the brutalities he and the other Indigenous children suffered at St. Therese. It wasn’t just that physical and sexual abuse occurred over and over again, but the school’s pervading climate: the hypocrisy of students subsisting on “rotten porridge and dry bread”, for example, while Brothers and Sisters feasted on roast chicken and cake (14). Continue reading

Reassessing the Abortion Caravan

 York University Libraries, Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections, Toronto Telegram fonds, ASC04612.

York University Libraries, Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections, Toronto Telegram fonds, ASC04612.

By Shannon Stettner and Christabelle Sethna

The Abortion Caravan is a gutsy, fun, and bold example of direct action. The more recent attention to it seems to have resulted in a level of exposure and an attribution of importance that probably exceeds its actual historical significance to the pro-choice movement in Canada. When an event is popularized, perhaps even mythologized, there are new challenges to teaching its history. A reassessment of the Caravan underscores the importance of seeking balance when evaluating historical significance. If measuring accomplishment solely by the fulfillment of the demands of the Vancouver Women’s Caucus (VWC) to repeal the abortion law, it’s hard to call the Caravan successful since it took an additional 18 years before the Supreme Court overturned that law. But, there are several other ways to measure its significance in Canadian history. As the first national protest that called for unrestricted access to legal abortion, the Caravan brought important media attention to the issue. Through public speaking engagements, guerilla theatre performances, and feminist consciousness-raising sessions, Caravan participants connected with women across the country and learned from one another about their shared experiences with and fears of unplanned and unwanted pregnancies. As a woman-planned and woman-led event, the Caravan featured women stepping out from many male-dominated protest organizations of the New Left; they gained important experience and confidence from activism that emerged out of a period known as second wave feminism. Continue reading

The New Abortion Caravan

 York University Libraries, Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections, Toronto Telegram fonds, ASC04612.

York University Libraries, Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections, Toronto Telegram fonds, ASC04612.

By Karissa Patton

The Abortion Caravan of 1970 brought an issue that was primarily confined to letters and opinion pieces in newspapers, magazines, and to the Report of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women, to the streets of Canadian cities and towns.[1] Caravaners were successful in raising awareness about, and building support for, the notion that women must have a choice in accessing abortion services regardless of opposition to abortion. In 2012 the Canadian Centre for Bioethical Reform (CCBR) began a campaign calling for a “New Abortion Caravan.” This campaign mimicked not just the original Caravan’s name and route but also its narrative of risk-taking in the name of social justice and human rights. Furthermore, the CCBR Caravan sought to change the historical meaning of the original Caravan, portraying abortion as genocide. Consequently, fetuses—which are referred to as the “pre-born”—are identified as needing legal protections. Its website states: “Using historical precedent while exposing an undeniable injustice, the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform’s New Abortion Caravan will save lives.” Continue reading

Bodies of Water, Not Bodies of Women: Canadian Media Images of the Idle No More Movement

This article is a commemoration of the late Myra Rutherdale, Associate Professor of History at York University, who presented a version of this essay at a Canadian Studies conference in Jerusalem in the spring of 2013. Her graduate student Erin Dolmage and colleague Carolyn Podruchny extended and completed the essay to honour Myra’s dedication to scholarship and social justice. Erin and Carolyn thank Robert Rutherdale and members of the History of Indigenous Peoples (HIP) Network at York for their helpful feedback.

Water is political. It nourishes us, connects us, and separates us. Water is especially political in Canada: almost nine percent of Canada is covered by fresh water, annually Canada’s rivers discharge seven percent of the world’s renewable water supply, and Canada holds 25 percent of the world’s wetlands.[1] But we forget the power of water sometimes when stories about water become stirred into other stories, especially about Indigenous women’s bodies. The mingling of stories about water and about Indigenous women seems obvious. Indigenous women in Canada have long had special connections to water. In the Haudenosaunee tradition, Sky Woman built the world as we know it out of a primordial sea on the back of a turtle. Four women (three of them Indigenous and the fourth an ally) founded the Idle No More Movement to protect Canada’s waters, as well as Indigenous rights, from Stephen Harper’s government. The mainstream English Canadian media, however, began to conflate the Idle No More movement with Indigenous women’s bodies, focusing on objectification, discrimination, and violence. The desiccated imagery in newspaper reports of scorched Indigenous women’s bodies left us wondering what happened to the water that the Idle No More Movement set out to protect? [continue reading…]

Indebted to History

By Jonathan McQuarrie

Via Globalnews.ca

Via Globalnews.ca

Personal and household debt has become a defining issue of the post-2008 world. In a series on debt, The Globe and Mail proposes to “[Explore] our dependence on debt—from the average household to global institutions—and the looming risks for a nation addicted to cheap money.” The “addiction” stems in part from the lengthy period of low interest rates set by the Bank of Canada, which currently sits at 0.75%. According to the Bank of Canada, these low rates, below the thirty-year average of approximately 5.5%, have contributed to increased mortgage debts. Debt from consumer spending has also been trending upwards, with consumer credit constituting nearly 45% of disposable income for Canadian households in 2011. Warnings about Canada’s high debt to income ratios have sounded since the 2008 recession, and continue to concern both policymakers and people trying to stretch budgets. Anxiety over high debt extends well beyond the household, shaping government fiscal policy orientated around balanced budgets—to the point of proposals for balanced budget legislation. According to the Canadian Centre of Policy Alternatives, focus on balanced budgets have had the effect of further burdening households, which have to make up for the reduced government spending.

History has much to tell us about debt. The most obvious and frequent use of history is through historical statistics. Many of the reports noted above tended to draw on data sets on interest rates and household debts of thirty years or so. However, reliance on such data is imperfect. As a 2012 C.D. Howe Institute report on household debt noted, the U.S. mortgage crisis emerged in part because of overconfidence in the lack of a fall in nationwide average housing prices since World War II. Data works best when placed in social and cultural context, which is where historians come in.

Here are two ways in which history nuances and sharpens our understanding of debt. There are, of course, many others—these just happen to be two of my favourite lessons.
Continue reading

Podcast: Pride and Prejudice: Anti-Americanism Among Canada’s Intellectuals, 1891-1945

Activehistory.ca is pleased to present a recording of Damien-Claude Bélanger’s talk ‘Pride and Prejudice: Anti-Americanism Among Canada’s Intellectuals, 1891-1945′. The talk was delivered as part of the Ottawa Historical Association Lecture Series on February 17, 2015.

Continue reading

The Abortion Caravan and RCMP Surveillance

 York University Libraries, Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections, Toronto Telegram fonds, ASC04612.

York University Libraries, Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections, Toronto Telegram fonds, ASC04612.

By Christabelle Sethna

Very few Canadians know that the RCMP conducted surveillance of the Vancouver Women’s Caucus (VWC) and its Abortion Caravan.[1] This discovery is just one outcome of research undertaken with Dr. Steve Hewitt. We worked with hundreds of pages of declassified RCMP files, using surveillance reports (many of which are redacted) as well as appended open source material. The 1969 Criminal Code reforms coincided with the emergence of women’s liberation groups like the VWC. These groups, made up mainly of young, white women, were part of the 1960s New Left ferment that included opposition to the Vietnam War and support for women’s rights, the student movement, Black Power and Red Power and anti-imperialism.[2] Continue reading

Who built Toronto’s St Lawrence Neighbourhood?

(adapted from an earlier post on torontoplanninghistorian.com)

By Richard White

1974 conceptual sketch of St Lawrence. City of Toronto

The first known depiction of St Lawrence Neighbourhood – a conceptual sketch included in the City Housing Department report “St. Lawrence: A New Neighbourhood for Toronto”, 22 May 1974.

Earlier this month, it was Jane’s Walk time again in Toronto, and thousands were out this past touring various urban locales under the guidance of local experts. It is a remarkable success story, this concept, and a fitting legacy for someone who conceived one of the most influential books of the twentieth century on the basis of what she observed walking about the city.

Among the options this year was a tour led by former city councillor and now Liberal Member of Parliament Adam Vaughan titled “Lessons from a Great Neighbourhood” that began in the celebrated St Lawrence Neighbourhood, an area that, the promotional blurb tells us, “was built in the 1970s by some of our City’s greatest visionaries including Jane Jacobs”. This assertion prompted an eye-roll, from me at least – an eye-roll I have done before and am likely to do again. Jane Jacobs did not build St Lawrence Neighbourhood anymore than Frank Lloyd Wright designed my suburban childhood home. Continue reading

OpenTextbooks in Canadian History: Part II

By John Belshaw

There are three reasons why anyone teaching or studying introductory history ought to be excited – or at least curious – about OpenTextbooks. First and foremost – and most likely to appeal to us cheapskate Canucks – is that they are free to use, order, assign, etc.

By “free,” I mean, um, free. There is no charge to use them. They don’t come cheaper in a bundle , there’s no special password that you’ll have to buy, no account info you have to submit, there’s no clock ticking in the background and there’s no best-before date. They’re free. Free of charge. Anytime, anywhere. I just looked at one on my smartphone. I paid for the electricity, yes, okay, that’s true. You got me there.

It’s the two extraordinary things one can do with OpenTextbooks, however, that make them most appealing. Continue reading