The Burden of Precedent: Reflections on the Sixtieth Anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution

By Laura Madokoro

This month marks the sixtieth anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution, which was violently suppressed by Soviet forces, leading to the flight of thousands of people to neighbouring countries, including war-weary Austria. It’s also been sixty years since countries such as the United States, Canada and Australia responded to both the Soviet violence and the migration of people by resettling thousands of refugees. Canada took in almost 37,000 people in an event that continues to be celebrated as evidence of the country’s extraordinary compassion.

As we reflect on the events of sixty years ago, against the backdrop of the ongoing violence in Syria and Iraq, the destruction of the migrant camp in Calais, France and the continued efforts to address the needs of thousands of people who have fled violence in the Middle East, not to mention ongoing displacement in Africa and southeast Asia, it bears contemplating how the events of sixty years ago shaped the current landscape in which refugee assistance and resettlement takes place. There is a particular urgency to this task because Canada’s response to the refugees of the Hungarian Revolution has been cited again and again as evidence of the country’s humanitarian character. Yet the policymakers of 1956 never expected that their commitment to resettling refugees at what was arguably one of the tensest moments in the cold war would lead to future, if intermittent, resettlement efforts. Little did officials know that in committing to refugee resettlement as a way of relieving the situation in Austria and condemning Soviet violence, that they would be transforming the landscape in which advocates would demand comparable action for events in other places in the decades that followed. Continue reading

The Upside Down of 1980s Culture, Gender and the Paranormal: An Historical Analysis of the Netflix Series Stranger Things

By Beth A. Robertson

It would seem the 1980s have come back with a vengeance, whether judging from the work of a growing number of historians investigating the decade, or pop culture.[1] My personal favourite of such popular reincarnations is the acclaimed Netflix original Stranger Things. The series unabashedly borrows from the 1980s to achieve its unique aesthetic, drawing on themes and plot lines familiar to anyone who’s watched A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), Firestarter (1984), The Goonies (1985) or Stand By Me (1986). This is in addition to a brilliant typography that will genuinely thrill Stephen King readers.

Stranger Things is more than simply a salute to 1980s film and fiction, however. It also seems to capture memories of the eclipsing Cold War and the anxieties it unleashed, as well as the cultural conservatism, militarism and sexual discrimination of the era. The series references the controversial revelations of long-term CIA-funded experiments with LSD on non-consenting individuals in both Canada and the US.[2] It signals at the growing fears over U.S. military intensification under the Reagan administration, as well as government secrecy and surveillance in that period that seemed to mark “a return to the Cold War after the years of the détente.”[3] Combined with the homophobia of the villains in the series, as well as the conspicuously queer-like character “Eleven”, it also suggests the ongoing sexual policing in the 1980s, and the different ways people were forced to navigate their way around it, and sometimes outright resist.[4] When Eleven’s newfound friends dress her up as a “girl” before she goes out in public (reminiscent of a similar scene in Steven Spielberg’s E.T.), it serves as one of many moments when this theme rises to the surface. Here it becomes clear that the source of Eleven’s ‘strangeness’ is not merely the fact that she can throw moving vehicles in the air like miniature toys, but because she does not conform to normative conceptions of appropriate girlhood. Continue reading

Video in the Classroom: Exploring the CBC Digital Archives

Andrea Eidinger

Anyone who has searched the internet for videos to use while teaching Canadian history has run into one big problem: the overwhelming dominance of American media online. Adding “Canadian” or “Canada” to your Google search doesn’t necessarily solve this problem. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t great Canadian videos, soundbites, and films available. You just have to know where to look for them! This post is going to focus on my favourite place for Canadian audio-visual material: the CBC.

What is It?

All of the images in this post are screnncaptures used with permission from the CBC.

All of the images in this post are screenshots used with permission from the CBC.

Whether you love it or hate it, the CBC is one of Canada’s most prominent national institutions. Founded officially in 1936, it is the oldest network of broadcasting stations in Canada. When most of us think about the CBC, we think about Peter Mansbridge and The National, Rick Mercer and the Mercer Report, and This Hour Has 22 Minutes. But it has also stood witness to the history of Canada for more than 70 years.While many broadcasting corporations keep their archives private, the CBC has gone the opposite route by opening up select portions of its archives to the public and to educators.

The public version of the CBC Television and Radio Archives is called the CBC Digital Archives.[1] According to their Facebook page, the archive contains more than 6,500 clips (video and audio) dating back to 1927. These clips cover just about every topic you could possibly imagine. Don’t discount the use of these websites for Pre-Confederation classes! CBC Digital Archives can be great for teaching students about historical perceptions of past events. It is completely free to use, though you will have to sit through ads to watch your selected clip. The website also contains coordinating lesson plans for many of these clips.

How Does it Work?

CBC Digital Archives is an absolute treasure-trove of information. However, like treasure-troves, it is often difficult to find exactly what you need. So how do you find the clip you want?  Continue reading

Confronting the Secret Path and the Legacy of Residential Schools

Sean Carleton

ah-image-1Despite growing up near St. Paul’s Indian Residential School in North Vancouver, I did not learn about residential schools as a child. I did not learn about Chanie Wenjack (misnamed “Charlie” by his teachers), a 12-year-old Anishinaabe boy who ran away from the Cecilia Jeffery Indian Residential School in Kenora, Ontario in October 1966. It was not until I moved to Ontario and started teaching in a classroom at Trent University dedicated to Wenjack’s memory that I, as a settler, first heard his harrowing story: he died of exposure while trying to walk the 600 kilometers from the school to his home in Ogoki Post in northern Ontario. It seems fitting, then, that this past Sunday, October 23 (the 50th anniversary of his death) I attended a packed event in Trent’s Wenjack Theatre to watch CBC’s livestream of The Secret Path, Gord Downie’s new multimedia project about Chanie Wenjack.

Like many people, I had high hopes for the solo record, graphic novel, and short animated film that comprise the project. As a historian of education and as someone with a family member navigating the ongoing legacy of residential schools, I was excited that Downie was using his star power to raise awareness about the legacy of Indian Residential Schools in Canada. After reviewing the project, however, I share Hayden King’s concerns about Downie’s use of Wenjack and the history of residential schools to offer a narrow and settler-curated vision of reconciliation. In this review, I offer a critical analysis of the strengths and limitations of The Secret Path to promote further dialogue about popular representations of residential school history and their role in reconciliation. Continue reading

Pop-Up Museums as a Vehicle for Community Building

Meredith Leonard

aMUSE: Fashion pop-up exhibit held in November 2013 at Mahtay Café and Lounge in downtown St. Catharines.

aMUSE: Fashion pop-up exhibit held in November 2013 at Mahtay Café and Lounge in downtown St. Catharines.

Since 2012 the St. Catherines Museum & Welland Canals Centre  has engaged in pop-up style programing as a vehicle through which to reach out to an under-served population in our community – millennials[1]

While doing quite well with tourists, older adults and young families, has difficulty attracting and engaging new generations of visitors and supporters. This challenge isn’t unique to the St. Catherines Museum or even museums in Canada – in the United States, studies by the National Endowment for the Arts identified young adult audiences as being regularly under-served by traditional museums. Many museums around the world have been working to address this problem by developing specialized programming aimed at engaging younger audiences.[2]

Staff at the St. Catharines Museum grappled with our own unique set of challenges in creating programming for millennial audiences. The physical location of the Museum is a major challenge; located beyond the City’s core and not accessible via public transit, getting young adults out to the site can be difficult – especially when many are unaware that a museum even exists in the City. In order to raise our profile, dispel the perception of the “dusty, old, irrelevant museum” and reach new audiences, museum staff concluded we would have to take the Museum and its collection into the community.

Inspired by pop-up shops, flash mobs, music festivals and other social museum experiences, such as Friday Night Live at the ROM and the Nature Nocturne at the Canadian Museum of Nature, the St. Catharines Museum set out to inject the community with artifacts and stories through aMUSE, our curated “pop-up museum experience”. Continue reading

“The water power of Niagara should be as free as the air:” The Past, Present, and Future, of Democratic Energy Control in Ontario

Christo Aivalis

Ontario power station below the falls, 1908. Public domain image.

Ontario power station below the falls, 1908. Public domain image.

The politics of energy are omnipresent in historical and contemporary Canadian society. Who owns energy, how it is produced, and who benefits from its production and distribution has been central to the rise and fall of governments. In some cases, as with Pierre Trudeau’s National Energy Program (NEP), the regional tensions it inflamed are still evident to this day.

Perhaps the most interesting and current debate around energy hails from Ontario, where the provincial Liberal government—without seeking a mandate in the 2014 election—has begun the process of privatizing Hydro One, which has been in public control for more than a century. And while the majority of opposition has come from the left and organized labour, the advent of a public energy system in Ontario predates nearly all of Canada’s major unions and leftist parties.

Surprisingly given our modern ideological landscape, a public hydro system in Ontario was created in 1906 by James P. Whitney’s Conservatives (the title quote is attributed to him), who fought successfully against Liberal George W. Ross’ rejection of public energy control, which was driven by a distrust of public ownership as well as Ross’ pecuniary conflicts—which included being an executive of a company involved with energy production, as well as bestowing energy contracts as political favours.

The rationale for a publically-controlled energy system from Whitney’s perspective was quite forward-thinking. Ontario in the early 1900s was on the verge of mass industrialization, and electrical power was the lifeblood of such a system. To have electricity owned privately—either by foreign interests, domineering monopolies, or a patchwork of petty capitalists—served neither the public interest nor the needs of an increasingly capitalized and urban province. Whether for the worker, farmer, consumer, municipality, or industrialist, affordable, accessible, and consistent power networks were imperative. Continue reading

Ten Books to Contextualize Reconciliation in Archives, Museums, and Public History

Krista McCracken

trc-coverIn June 2015 following the closing event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada I wrote an Active History post about “The Role of Canada’s Museums and Archives in Reconciliation.” Over a year has passed since the TRC concluded its work and much of what I wrote in that post is still true.

I still wholeheartedly agree with the TRC’s statement that “there is an urgent need in Canada to develop historically literate citizens who understand why and how the past is relevant to their own lives and the future of the country. Museums have an ethical responsibility to foster national reconciliation, and not simply tell one party’s version of the past. ” (Summary of the Final Report of the TRC, p. 308)  I also still think that archives have a similarly important role in preserving and teaching about Indigenous communities and the history of Canada.

This year, as September rolled around, I received a number of requests for reading recommendations and instruction suggestions around teaching about public history, museums, archives, and reconciliation.  In light of those requests I’ve created a list of ten books and articles that contextualize and explore the role cultural heritage organizations have in reconciliation and responding to the work of the TRC in Canada.

This list is merely a starting point and there are many other sources where students and scholars can learn about residential schools and reconciliation.  Additionally, in all cases I would suggest that listening to the voices of survivors and Indigenous communities is a crucial part of learning about the history of residential schools and that heritage professionals need to be thinking about what it means to be an ally.  Conversations about privilege, reconciliation, and decolonial practices can be challenging but they are something that need to happen. Continue reading

Gun Rights: Hoping History Won’t Matter


R. Blake Brown

In September 2016 the Aspen Institute, a non-partisan American think-tank, held a symposium entitled “Firearms and the Common Law Tradition” at the Institute’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.  The conveners of the symposium, historian Jennifer Tucker of Wesleyan University, curators Margaret Vining and Bart Hacker of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, and Ruth Katz of the Aspen Institute, hoped to create space to discuss constructively the changing meaning of firearms in American culture and to identify new areas of research that will allow historians and legal professionals to think creatively about the challenge of guns in American law and culture.

The conveners invited a broad spectrum of participants, including historians who take opposing views of what the Framers of the American constitution meant to enshrine in drafting the Second Amendment, which famously proclaims that “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”  Others in attendance included lawyers who have argued for and against the constitutionality of various American gun laws, British constitutional historians who have addressed the constitutional inheritance that informed American ideas concerning the right to bear arms, and scholars of American gun culture and violence.  In addition, curators of a number of firearm museums attended, including the curators from the Autry Museum of the American West, the National Firearms Centre of the British Royal Armouries, and the Cody Firearms Museum at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West.  The expertise of the participants was thus broad and deep, and, on paper, the symposium offered an excellent opportunity to move forward the debate over gun culture and gun rights. Continue reading

The Year of the Flood: Hurricane Matthew, Oral Narratives, and Climate History


Cabot Street, Sydney, N.S. – 10 October 2016. Photo by author

By Lachlan MacKinnon

The tail-end of Hurricane Matthew battered Nova Scotia and Newfoundland on Monday afternoon and through the evening. Although the damage does not approach the devastation wrought by the system in the Caribbean and other points south, for many in Cape Breton it will be remembered as the storm of a generation. As I drove around the streets of Sydney, scrambling to help check the basements of family and friends for flooding, it struck me that these sorts of extreme weather events promote an interesting form of collective storytelling. As common experiences, they provide the basis for casual small-talk but may also segue into meaningful discussions about climate change, politics, or environmental history. Surveying the flood-soaked South End, onlookers engaged each other with impromptu “oral histories” of past storms and personal experiences.

The October Gale of ’74 looms large in such discussions. While Hurricane Matthew is the worst storm that I remember experiencing, residents were quick to draw comparisons to another unpredicted weather system that pounded the island on October 20th, 1974. Ultimately, thirty-three families were left homeless and more than 1,500 homes were damaged in Sydney alone. According to many in the city, the ’74 Gale was far worse than the recent hurricane. One man – only a child at the time – described using his overcoat as a makeshift sail, jumping into the 145 km/h winds and being carried several feet – not realizing the apparent danger. A 2014 article in the local newspaper, published near the 40th anniversary of the Gale – includes fourteen comments describing local storm experiences. These contain descriptions of trailers being upended, roofs coming undone, and pedestrians narrowly escaping flying debris. Although I had not previously heard of the ’74 Gale, in the days since Hurricane Matthew, I have been confronted time and again by the memories of people who were directly affected. Continue reading

The building of which nation? Conflicting Narratives at the National Women’s Memorial and Anglo-Boer War Museum

By Rachel Hatcherphoto-5

[This is the fifth post in the Learning and unlearning history in South Africa’s public spaces series.]

The Garden of Remembrance, renamed the Garden of Misremembrance in the previous post, was explicitly oriented toward “reconciliation and nation building through shared suffering.”  For this reason, the Garden also commemorated the thousands of (unnamed) black South Africans who died in the concentration camps the British created to deprive the Boers of information and material support in the Anglo-Boer, or South African, War.  As problematic as the Garden of (Mis)Remembrance may be in its own right, the narrative of shared suffering, as well the goals of national unity and nation building, are undermined by other features of the larger National Women’s Memorial and Anglo-Boer War Museum site. This is to be expected in the Women’s Monument itself, erected in 1913, and in the War Museum, which openly focuses on and celebration of the former Boer Republics (i.e., the Orange Free State and Transvaal).photo-1 More surprising is the way a second newly erected monument, located across the lawn from the Garden (and in the shadow of the War Museum), that also remembers blacks who died in the camps contradicts the Garden’s focus on national unity and nation building, at least if the nation being referred to is South Africa and not the Afrikaner nation. Continue reading