Professional Historians, Personal Histories: A Roundtable on Objectivity, Subjectivity and Family History

Laura Madokoro

This week, Active History features a roundtable on history called “Professional Historians, Personal Histories: A Roundtable on Objectivity, Subjectivity and Family History.” As the title suggests, the four contributions from Benjamin Bryce, Leslie Choquette, Bonnie Huskins and Michael Boudreau and Brittany Luby focus, from different perspectives, on the question of the relationship between professional historians, family histories and the issues that arise from pursuing research related to people with whom one has a personal connection.

Polish Immigrant Family. Source: Library and Archives Canada, PA-148294. Author’s note: I debated about inserted a picture of either my Rothfels, Manning, Kimoto or Madokoro family here but my own desire for professional distance made it more attractive to select an archival image of a family with whom I had no connections to complement this post.

Any tension in professional historians pursuing research related to family arises from the longstanding expectation in the discipline that historians should be objective and distant from the subjects they study. This distance has often been described in temporal terms, with sideways glances if one proposes to undertake historical research deemed too recent. The craft of history thrives on distance, cherishing the decades and centuries between historian and subject. The idea is that distance enables scholars to better comprehend the historical record, the contingencies that led to particular events and phenomenon, and to assess their full implications.

The celebration of distance means that there is considerable concern when historians propose to undertake more intimate research, research that is literally closer to home. As Benjamin Bryce acknowledges in his essay, “Our discipline clings to a belief in a certain degree of objectivity, and historians shy away from flagging our subjectivity more than other scholars.”

Rather than shying away from subjectivity, or from the topic of family histories, the four essays in this week’s Active History roundtable centre their experiences and approaches as professional historians engaged with family histories. Continue reading

Biidwewidamoog Anishinaabe-Ogimaakwewag: Mnidoo Mnising Neebing gah Bizh’ezhiwaybuck 2019

Women’s Leadership Echoing Through Generations: The Manitoulin Island Summer Historical Institute (MISHI) 2019

by Carolyn Podruchny and Katrina Srigley

Ancestors, elders, leaders, youth, and those yet to come met together for the seven-day summer institute (MISHI) from August 19 to August 25, 2019 on Mnidoo Mnising (Manitoulin Island) to explore the theme of women’s leadership. Co-sponsored by the Ojibwe Cultural Foundation (OCF), an organization devoted to Anishinaabe history and culture, and the History of Indigenous Peoples (HIP) Network, a research cluster embedded within the Robarts Centre for Canadian Studies at York University, MISHI brought together 50 established and emerging scholars, graduate and undergraduate students, librarians, administrators, Elders, and knowledge-keepers to explore all things Anishinaabe through site visits, lectures, stories, and activities (the video below encapsulated MISHI 2018, see the end of the post for more about the film).

For Anishinaabeg, the gendered world is deeply contextual. Gender roles, experiences, and meanings are shaped by dynamic relationships to land, animals, and spirits, as well as, family, community, and self. To reflect on gender for Anishnaabekwe (Anishinaabeg women) is to acknowledge the complexity of this engagement: gendered meanings rooted in time immemorial, the binary of the colonial and western world, or an individual’s own understanding of their being can be simultaneously present (or absent) and powerfully reconfigured across time and place.

In present day and historic contexts, knowledge, skills, contributions to community, and emphasis on balance can be far more important markers of gender than prescribed meanings. Continue reading

History Slam Episode 135: The Nature of Canada

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By Sean Graham

With the federal election campaign in full swing, the environment has emerged as a prominent issue for the parties vying to form the next government. The news of hundreds of young Canadians pledging not to have children until Canada takes significant steps towards addressing its carbon emissions highlights how environmental policy continues to sway voters.

For environmental historians, the ever-increasing importance of environmental policy has further highlighted the need for all Canadians to better understand the nation’s relationship with nature. The country’s imagination and the image it projects to the rest of the world is one where open space, beautiful vistas, and majestic wildlife are pristine and easily accessible. The reality, however, is not always as worthy of a commercial.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Colin Coates, one of the editors of the new book The Nature of Canada. We chat about the book, its approach to Canadian environmental history, and the process of putting it together. We also talk about the role of nature in informing Canadian identity, understanding the environments role in reconciliation, and Canadians’ relationship with nature.

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Once Were Brothers: Reflections on Rock ‘n’ Roll revisionism

By James Cullingham

I first saw The Band at Massey Hall in January 1970 when I was a Toronto high school student. It was a highly anticipated comeback show just around the corner from the bars and strip clubs they had played when they were known as The Hawks.

The Band’s sound drew on Appalachian music, Country & Western, Delta and Chicago blues, rockabilly, R&B and Indigenous musical forms that powerhouse guitarist and principal songwriter Robbie Robertson grew up with. Even with all these influences, at its best, this band sounded only like The Band. As Bruce Springsteen says, “they were loaded for bear” because in bassist Rick Danko, drummer Levon Helm and pianist Richard Manuel, The Band possessed three singers who could have sang lead for any group. The combination of their voices is still thrilling decades after they cut The Band’s records. In keyboardist and saxophonist Garth Hudson, The Band also featured a singularly brilliant musician equally steeped in Christian church music, jazz and experimental forms.

In 2019, the saga is being revisited through Robertson’s eyes. Once Were Brothers – Robbie Robertson and The Band directed by Daniel Roher launched the Toronto International Film Festival. It is the first Canadian documentary to be so chosen. Robertson was on hand for the premiere. Toronto Mayor John Tory presented him with a key to the city where he grew up. (Full disclosure: I was briefly consulted by Roher and one of the film’s executive producers Peter Raymont in the film’s pre-production phase.)

Once Were Brothers begins with funky black and white old timey titles on a decayed background. Continue reading

University Donations and the Legitimization of Far-Right Views

by Asa McKercher

In 2016, Western University’s Department of History announced the establishment of a variety of graduate awards and scholarships named for Kenneth Hilborn, who had bequeathed $1 million to the university in his estate. A faculty member at Western from 1961 to 1997, Hilborn (PhD, Oxford) was of a generation where one could apparently secure tenure without having published a scholarly, peer-reviewed book. Rather, in the early part of his career, Hilborn’s writing – and here is where I am familiar with him given my research on Canadian international history – consisted mainly of op-eds focused on the Cold War and Canada’s foreign policy. A fixture in Canada Month, a long forgotten conservative – small ‘c’ and quite opposed to the federal Progressive Conservative Party – magazine, he maintained a column offering strident anti-communist positions and criticisms of the Pearsonian status quo (multilateralism, peacekeeping, less than full-throated support for the United States). Hilborn also devoted his time to defending the white minority regimes in Southern Rhodesia and South Africa. While his defence of apartheid was ostensibly rooted in his anti-communism, it is telling that his columns on this subject were often reprinted in the Canadian Intelligence Service, a newsletter published between 1951-2005 by Ronald Gostick, whose hatreds included communists, socialists, Pierre Trudeau, Jews, race-mixing, and fluoride.

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Seeing What Lies Beneath Paintings

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By Brett Liem and Michael Robertson

Last year we published a short article in Active History where we described optical techniques for recovering the contrast from faded documents.  A range of light sources from ultraviolet (UV) to near-infrared (NIR), filters, and a camera adapted to form images with light outside or the normal visible spectrum were used to reveal residual ink that was no longer visible due to damage or aging.  This year, we extended the work to investigate the use of similar optical techniques for imaging a pencil sketch underneath a painting.  The inspiration for this work was a paper by Delaney et al [1] where three layers of underdrawings were imaged beneath Picasso’s The Tragedy.

In order to understand the optical properties of the acrylic paints used in this study, optical transmission spectra were obtained from 8 colours of acrylic paint applied to a glass slide as well as from the glass slide itself. Continue reading

History Slam Episode 134: Advocate

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By Sean Graham

Since I started doing the podcast back in 2012, there have been a lot of topics and discussions that have surprised me. Perhaps nothing was as surprising, though, as when I learned of the new documentary Advocate, which premiered earlier this year. The film tells the story of Lea Tsemel, an Israeli lawyer who has spent her career defending political prisoners, including many from Palestine. Her story is one of strength, perseverance, and the power of standing up for principles in which you believe. It premiered earlier this year and has earned positive reviews following its screenings at Hot Docs in Toronto.

In this episode of the History Slam I talk with filmmakers Rachel Leah Jones and Philippe Bellaiche about their documentary. We talk about Lea Tsemel, her career, and how she is perceived in Israel. We also talk about the challenges of putting together the film, its narrative structure, and why this story is so important to share.

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Public History Placement for the Undergraduate History Student

By Valla McLean, Tim O’Grady, Carolee Pollock, Allan Rowe

As part of MacEwan University’s Public History offerings, the Field Placement course provides undergraduate students with a distinctive learning experience and offers local public history partners significant benefits. This successful course is built on four pillars: meaningful work, structured learning, an opportunity for networking, and an emphasis on the importance of the broader historical context in local public history work. Benefits for community partners include both short and long-term capacity-building, the completion of projects and the pleasure of working with enthusiastic young people. This program aligns with the university’s commitments to engage with its local community, and to provide students with a meaningful university experience. It introduces them to the professional world and possible careers. Students report great satisfaction with their placements.

Historians have long emphasized the importance of experiential learning in public history education and training. Continue reading

Spare a Thought for the History Teacher

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By David Calverley

As a secondary school history teacher in Ontario, I enjoyed the posts published in March by Samantha Cutrara and Rose Fine-Meyer. I agree that women’s history and gender issues are not well-represented in Ontario’s Grade 7 and 8 History curriculums. Lack of representation is also an issue in the Grade 10 History Curriculum. It is the final compulsory history class in Ontario, a course I’ve taught numerous times, and the course I’ll largely focus on for this article. However, observations that the curriculum fails to address certain content sufficiently carries the implication that the curriculum requires revision. Such observations are useful since curriculum is always changing to reflect different needs. However, as a practicing teacher, I think it is important to consider another factor when addressing limitations in the history curriculum: the practice of teaching high school history. Multiple issues impinge upon a history classroom but many can be lumped under the heading of time. So, please spare a thought for the history teacher and give some consideration to our practice.

A Harkness-Style Classroom Discussion

First, all teachers must consider their students. Good teachers love their kids and want them to succeed but puberty ridden students can be exasperating. Intermediate students (grades 7 to 10) have only partially developed brains. They have poor attention spans, and what attention they do have is often focused elsewhere. They have difficulty grasping concepts that might seem straight forward to the teacher but are too abstract for a thirteen-year-old. Complicating all of this, teachers instruct students with a range of academic, social, emotional, and developmental issues. I’ve taught Grade 10 students who read at a Grade 3 level, students with ASD, FAS, and other social/emotional/developmental issues. Creating a course that addresses the curriculum, is age appropriate, and supports exceptional students takes time.

Teenage life also intrudes on your class time. Perhaps a student is upset because their friend is facing a manslaughter charge, or a member of their family is charged with multiple, indictable offences. Perhaps their parents are divorcing. Maybe their father, mother, brother, or sister has suddenly passed away. The student might be developing mental health or addiction issues. Perhaps one of your female students is pregnant and both she and the father are understandably stressed. Maybe a student at the school has died, from illness, accident, or suicide and it is impacting the students in your class. Maybe one of your students is being abused and your are part of a Children’s Aid Society investigation. I have faced all of these issues at some point in my career, and each required my time and attention. Continue reading

A new mission statement for HistoireEngagé

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For nearly a decade, Active History and our French-language partner, Histoire Engagée, have shared similar goals and concerns, while working independently in two quite different social and historiographical contexts. Today the editorial team of Histoire Engagée have published a new mission statement that anyone interested in their work or more broadly in what it means to be active historians today should read. It presents three broad goals: to offer texts that interpret the present in Canada and the world in light of the past; to take an active role in important historiographical debates; to forefront historical narratives that give agency and place to marginalized actors and voices. 

Un nouvel énoncé de mission pour

Introduction par Florence Prévost-Gégoire, University College Dublin, membre du comité éditorial d’ Énoncé de mission par l’équipe éditoriale d’


En guise de premier texte de l’année 2019-2020, l’équipe éditoriale d’HistoireEngagé publie aujourd’hui son nouvel énoncé de mission. Après une année 2018-2019 pleine de changements, il nous apparaissait nécessaire de repenser les objectifs de la revue afin qu’ils soient plus en accord avec les valeurs d’une équipe éditoriale qui s’est considérablement renouvelée dans les deux dernières années. La chronique éditoriale que nous avons publiée en janvier dernier parlait de cette année comme d’un moment charnière, d’un tournant, dans l’histoire d’HistoireEngagé L’augmentation de nos publications (maintenant deux par semaine) témoigne effectivement du fait que la plateforme occupe une place de plus en plus importante dans les milieux historiens. Notre revue offre un lieu de diffusion rapide et nous recevons de plus en plus de textes spontanés qui réagissent à l’actualité ou réfléchissent aux apories de la discipline historique. L’augmentation de notre rythme de publication nous a placés devant un grand éventail de dilemmes éditoriaux et nous a fait prendre conscience de la place de notre revue dans la diffusion de la connaissance historique. Ce « succès » d’HistoireEngagé (qui fêtera l’an prochain sa première décennie) vient avec une responsabilité : utiliser cette plateforme pour apporter des changements réels dans la discipline.

(To read the rest of this article, visit HistoireEngagé