From Crisis to Clean-Up

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Left: Halifax Herald, 24 June 1942. Right: Dr. Ahmed Rabea via @DrLeanaWen, 20 March 2020.

By Shirley Tillotson

Imagine a 500% increase in business and a steady loss of your best staff, snaffled up by competing firms who double their salaries. It’s 1944. You’re the federal income tax department. Tens of thousands of unassessed returns pile up. By 1949, the backlog reaches 1.9 million.

The Canadian Emergency Relief Program (CERB) is today’s explosively expanded program. And, just as there was with the postwar income tax system, there will be a clean-up. In this post, I’ll sketch some parallels between the two cases and dive into some details about successes, failures, and lessons.

The creation of a mass income tax as an emergency measure during the Second World War was a remarkable accomplishment. In a few years, and especially during a few months in 1942, income taxation went from affecting 300,000 Canadians to more than 2 million. By 1951, income taxpayers numbered almost 3 million (about two-thirds of the labour force).[1] Organizing citizens to pay tax on that scale was a massive undertaking. Measures taken hastily during the crisis required clean-up, however, both quickly and later, as part of post-war changes.

Those circumstances should remind us of the conditions in March 2020, when again the federal government, under withering pressure of time, needed to devise a system that would involve millions of Canadians and their money. The various emergency programs that have been rolled out over the last few months – and especially the Canadian Emergency Relief Program (CERB) – have been by now a subject of worries and criticisms and hopes. Are they fair? Will they create problems after the crisis? Do they foreshadow good things or bad in some new normal? As I watch current events around COVID-19 unfold, I have been thinking that, as difficult as our current situation is, we are not yet anywhere near the kind of mess in public finance that unfolded after the new tax measures of the 1942 budget and during the early years of reconstruction. Among the similar problems, worries, and solutions, there are a few examples that might help us anticipate what comes next.

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Missing Pieces: The Romanticisation of the RCMP in CBC’s “When Calls the Heart”

By Erin Isaac

With rising awareness and concern about police violence against people of colour in Canada and the United States, and following several recent instances of Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) violence against Indigenous persons — including the killing Rodney Levi of the Metepenagiag First Nation in New Brunswick, the RCMP attack on Chief Adam Allan of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation in Alberta, and an RCMP officer using the door of a truck to run down an Inuit man in Kinngait, Nunavut, not to mention the continued presence of RCMP on Wet’suwet’en land amid pipeline protests and the militarized raids on multiple camps therein earlier this year —  some Canadians are questioning the role of the RCMP and its relationship with Indigenous communities.[1]

For many Canadians, this pattern of RCMP violence is surprising and, though increasingly evident as protests about police aggression draw our attention to the systematic oppression that underlies these encounters, this image does not fit with the Mountie’s national image.

At first glance, the RCMP appear as red-coated peacekeepers with broad brimmed hats. It is an image that is hugely influenced by popular media. From U.S. classics, such as Dudley Do-Right, to Canadian television shows, like Due South and Murdoch Mysteries, a specific image of policing—and the Mounties, in particular — serve as a character type in our national psyche.

These are not the most recent offenders, however. That title goes to the hit CBC and Hallmark Channel program When Calls the Heart, which just wrapped its 7th season on April 26, 2020.

The early seasons of the show, set in the 1910s, centre around a romance between Elizabeth Thatcher, a teacher from the big city (Hamilton, ON) who chases new adventures in a small mining town in the west, and Jack Thornton, a Royal North-West Mounted Police (NWMP, later RCMP) constable who is also new in town. While Elizabeth embarks upon storylines leading her to new revelations of self-discovery, often upon reflection after helping a struggling friend or neighbour, Jack investigates minor crimes or chases outlaws who stir up trouble in their quaint frontier town. The show is, taken as a whole, cute in its neat single-episode story arcs and shamelessly romantic presentation of life on the western frontier of Euro-Canadian colonisation.

There is, however, a major problem in the way the show represents the RCMP’s purpose. Continue reading

Cuban Serenade: Exploring the History of Cuban Music in Canada

Cuban Serenade (logo).

Karen Dubinsky & Freddy Monasterio

“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Origin debatable.

In the face of this indisputable cliché, we created a documentary podcast series. The first episode of Cuban Serenade premieres today (July 2), the birthdate of our first protagonist, Chicho Valle (1924-1984). Chicho was, we believe, the first professional Cuban musician in Canada. He arrived in Toronto in 1946 to host a CBC radio program Latin American Serenade. He spent the next four decades popularizing Cuban and Latin American music in Canada: on TV and radio, as well as on the dancefloors of swanky Toronto and area hotels and lounges. He produced three albums, he was musical director for the Four Seasons Hotel chain in Canada, and later in his career, he ran a successful booking agency. He endured patronizing attempts at humour about his accent and his fast-paced (for the time) musical stylings but got his own back singing in Spanish (occasionally with what would have been considered, if anyone understood them, risqué lyrics), on the national airwaves. Like another Caribbean CBC personality of the same era, Trinidadian Calypso singer Rufus Callender (“Lord Caresser”), Chicho Valle’s presence raises important questions about Canadian musical tastes and trends in the mid twentieth century, and the racial hierarchies that shaped them. For all its past and present popularity, Cuban or Latin American music has not been subject of much attention by historians or other scholars in Canada. Continue reading

Miners’ Houses: Lawren Harris in Glace Bay

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David Frank

I think I first learned about this remarkable painting when my friend Allen Seager sent me a postcard from the Art Gallery of Ontario. Eventually I used it as the cover illustration for my biography of the union leader J.B. McLachlan. More recently, it was featured in an exhibition at the AGO and in a documentary film. It is in the public eye again with the release this spring of stamps to mark the centennial of the first public show by the Group of Seven. Among the seven stamps, Lawren Harris is represented by Miners’ Houses, Glace Bay (1926).

This was not the most obvious choice. Only a few years ago, one of Harris’s iconic images of the north, Mountain Forms (1926), broke the record for Canadian art prices when it sold at auction for $11.2 million. But the lesser known Miners’ Houses was a very good choice. Within its limits, this is a “labour stamp” that acknowledges the often-overlooked working-class presence in Canadian history. It also opens up interesting questions about Harris’s social and political engagement and his evolution as an artist.

Miners’ Houses has been read variously, as an expression of the artist’s personal struggle with depression over his brother’s death in the Great War and as an example of his longstanding interest in depicting working-class housing. It has also been described as an important and eloquent statement on social justice. The most explicit origins for this painting, however, are found in Harris’s visit to Glace Bay in April 1925, at a time when the Nova Scotia coal country was convulsed by a long and bitter strike. Continue reading

The Festival Express 50th Anniversary 1970 – 2020

By James Cullingham

It was a psychotropic June evening half a century ago. The superb British band Traffic led by Stevie Winwood played Nina Simone’s ‘Feeling Good.’ The sound of Chris Wood’s flute mingled with a marijuana haze as thousands sat or danced entranced on what was usually the Toronto Argonauts’s home field at CNE Stadium in Toronto.

The Festival Express got underway on June 27 & 28 1970 when the vision of ace promoter Ken Walker to hire acts including Eric Andersen, The Band, Delaney & Bonnie & Friends, Robert Charlebois, The Grateful Dead, Ian & Sylvia and The Great Speckled Bird, Janis Joplin, Mashmakan, Mountain and Buddy Guy had come to fruition. The tour started in Toronto and then went on by special CN train festooned with FESTIVAL EXPRESS to shows in Winnipeg and Calgary.

I was 16 years old and it was an unforgettable experience that unbeknownst to me at the time would go on and on for the next 30 years. Let me be clear about one thing: I bought a ticket – $14 to see some of my favourite musicians in the world play over two days in glorious sunny weather.

The Festival was famously the subject of protests in Toronto. Thousands stormed the CNE gates demanding that the music be free. Hippie politics and anti-Vietnam War sentiment were rife in Toronto. It was less than two months after student protesters were shot dead at Kent State University in Ohio. Activists centered around Rochdale, Toronto’s alternative experimental cooperative college, targeted the music industry demanding that the shows go on for free. Continue reading

Remembering Emma Goldman: Pandemics, Prisons, and Mutual Aid

Emma Goldman seated, photo by T. Kajiwara, 1911 July 15. Library of Congress

Franca Iacovetta & Cynthia Wright

When the pandemic came, Emma Goldman was in a state penitentiary in Jefferson City, Missouri. Goldman and her life-long comrade and fellow revolutionary anarchist, Alexander Berkman, had been arrested under the Selective Service Act of 1917 for conspiring to oppose the draft. Goldman had been reaching audiences of thousands all over the US with her anti-war speeches and organizing. Now, after decades of ceaseless touring advocating anarchist ideas – including in Canadian cities – Goldman was imprisoned and Mother Earth, the journal she founded in 1906 and in whose office she was arrested, was banned along with other periodicals opposed to the First World War and conscription.

Goldman was not isolated in her imprisonment, although she ardently hoped that prison would end what she describes in her classic two-volume memoir, Living My Life (1931), as the “emotional bondage” of her passionate love affair with the politically and sexually mercurial doctor-to-Chicago’s hobos, Ben Reitman. Her friends, family, and admirers supported her with letters, visits, food, and reading material. They remembered her birthday, celebrated tomorrow on June 27. Among Goldman’s admirers while she was in prison was a man she calls Leon Bass in Living My Life; years later, while in exile in Toronto, Goldman would pursue a frustrating affair with the Albany, New York-based anarchist whose real name was Leon Malmed (1881-1956). And many years after that liaison, our research led us to the Toronto home of one of Malmed’s generous descendants and a treasure trove of letters in Yiddish and English that testified to the complex intimacies that bound scattered anarchist outposts to each other. The letters revealed that Malmed was clearly enamored of Goldman well before they began their short-lived affair, but his wife was just as clearly not impressed.  

We were on the trail of Malmed as part of our research into Emma Goldman’s exile in Toronto, using her sojourns in the city as a case study for investigating how Goldman has been remembered inter-generationally in the city’s official and popular memory. Continue reading

History Slam Episode 152: When Days Are Long

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By Sean Graham

In 1949, Amy Wilson accepted a nursing job that took her from her Edmonton home to northern British Columbia and Yukon. In the position, she was responsible for covering over 500,000 sqaure kilometres and serving around 3,000 Indigenous Peoples in the North. Upon her arrival, she was confronted with a diphtheria epidemic and pushed for the immediate transportation of supplies and medications for the communities.

This was the start of her career, which saw her serve as not only a health professional, but also an advocate, partner, and friend. In her letters and reports, she would write of the challenges faced by northern communities and the damage of colonization. She would use her position to advocate and fight for those who had been deliberately ignored by colonial structures. At the same time, her travels across the North were deeply personal journeys. A closeted woman who was not accepted at home, her time in the North provided her space and time to feel more comfortable with herself and establish a social system in which she could find support.

In 1965, her memoir No Man Stands Alone was published, shedding more light on conditions in the North and the consequences of the government’s actions. Over 50 years later, the book is being re-published under the title When Days Are Long: Nurse in the North. In a time when the importance of quality medical professionals has, again, been highlighted, the book offers a unique insight into life in the North during the mid-20th century while also serving as a reminder of the damage done by colonial systems and how little has changed. To help foster change, all residuals from the book will be donated to the Canadian Indigenous Nurses Association’s Jean Goodwill Scholarship.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Amy Wilson’s niece Laurel Deedrick-Mayne, who wrote the foreword to the new edition. We talk about the family’s memory of Amy, her motivation for going north, and the desire to re-issue the book. We also talk about the challenges of nursing, Amy’s relationships with northern communities, and her legacy.

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Defund the police

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Graffiti in Montreal, Quebec. Photograph courtesy of the author.

Tamara Gene Myers

Amidst the call to “Defund the police,” it bears thinking about removing police from our schools as well.

“Defund the police” has become the rallying cry of anti-Black racism protests following the public murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. Relentless police violence has generated heated discussion about how decades of policies intended to “reform” police operations have failed to eradicate racist and criminal actions against people of colour. For some, defund the police is a slogan that invokes tearing down a hypocritical public service – an armed and dangerous part of the state that targets Black, brown and Indigenous people. At its base, the movement to defund the police recognizes that police forces come at huge public expense, especially with the militarization of police practice, often to the detriment of social, educational, and medical services, those things that are actually needed most in oppressed and precarious communities across North America. The ‘one bad apple’ argument – that rogue individuals are responsible for police violence – is indefensible, ignoring as it does the systemic racism endemic to modern policing. Continue reading

In the Wake of Columbus: Amerindian Antecedents to COVID-19

 “What causes the Indians to die and to diminish in number are secret judgments of God beyond the reach of man. But what this witness has observed during the time he has spent in these parts is that from the province of Mexico have come three or four pestilences, on account of which the country has been greatly depopulated.” – Pedro de Liévano, Dean of the Cathedral of Guatemala, writing to the Council of the Indies on November 5, 1582 (Archivo General de Indias, Seville, Spain)

By W. George Lovell

As other parts of the world recuperate, Latin America has become the epicentre of COVID-19, with over two million cases and more than 100,000 deaths. Health experts fear that fatalities will continue to escalate and by July surpass even those of the United States. The pandemic, however, is not the first to have ravaged the region and cause such grief.

On October 12, 1492, the landfall of Columbus may well have unleashed the greatest destruction of human lives in history. The toll exacted on Indigenous peoples across the Americas was catastrophic. Abuse and mistreatment notwithstanding, massive depopulation in the wake of Columbus was primarily a consequence of vulnerability to infections against which Amerindians had no immunity.

Cover from one of the author’s books. The image, “The Preparation of a Corpse,” is from the Florentine Codex (1545-1590) compiled by the Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún (1499-1590).

Are there any parallels between Old World intrusion in the late fifteenth century and epidemic eruption in the early twenty-first?

Two come to mind. One is the velocity of infection: the speed with which COVID-19 spread from a metropolis in central China to remote corners of the Amazon rainforest is, quite literally, breathtaking. Columbus’s ships may not have been as fast a vector as jet planes, but they were conduits of contagion nonetheless. Furthermore, just as COVID-19 has affected some countries (or some regions within a country) more than others, so too centuries ago did disease operate with notable spatial variation and long-term demographic fluctuation. The extinction of native communities in the Caribbean, for instance, contrasts with over twenty distinct Maya groups to this day constituting almost half of Guatemala’s national population. Better, then, to examine specific scenarios before engaging continental evaluation. Continue reading

Stronger Together: The Potential Collaborative Agency of Historians and Archivists

Andrea Eidinger and Krista McCracken

Over the past few years, the historical community in Canada has been rocked by a few scandals. No, we are not talking about the endless discussions around monuments. Rather, we are referring to the numerous public disputes between historians and archivists relating either to the discovery of or access to archival material. For example, you’ve liked seen various historians announcing that they had “discovered” a long-lost historical document by looking in a seemingly forgotten corner of the archive. To which archivists often reply, we knew it was there the whole time. Sometimes we also see these conflicts erupt into larger disputes, as has been the case with respect to the recent announcement that the BC Archives would be closed until 2021 to ensure that proper procedures were in place to protect staff and visitors from COVID-19.

The chairs of several major university history departments in BC published an Open Letter denouncing the closure. This, unsurprisingly, resulted in a major push back from archivists who derided the authors’ undue concern about their deadlines as opposed to, among other things, staff safety.

Archives are an essential part of historical scholarship. Historians continue to be one of the main user groups of archives. So why do archivists and historians fail to form meaningful, long-term partnerships that can, potentially, benefit both fields? We operate in silos with our own professional associations, scholarly journals, and methodologies. But archivists and historians often want the same things. We both want access to more archival material, archives with increased hours, and efficient reference service. 

All of us are impacted by the chronic underfunding of archives. The BC Archives are a part of the Royal British Columbia Museum (RBCM). This is unlike most provincial archives. Consequently, the BC government has had numerous disputes with the Museum around the cost of maintaining their historical records, with thousands of boxes of records sitting in storage for years without being transferred to the Archives. At one point, over 33,000 boxes of government records were in warehouses instead of being transferred to the archives because of arguments over the cost of archival work. That specific dispute was resolved in 2015, but decades of underfunding and staffing cuts have had lasting impacts on the BC Archives and problems persist to this day.

This is only one example. The pandemic is also having a major impact on the history and heritage sector. The UN predicts that one in eight museums worldwide will close permanently as a result of the pandemic, and one in three American museums may never reopen. This impact is going to be felt most strongly by museums focusing on the lives of Indigenous, Black, and People of Colour, many of who were underfunded prior to covid. The exact impact for archives in Canada is still unknown, but is likely to be just as severe. And those archives that continue to operate will be working in difficult circumstances, with reduced budgets, lay-offs, and remote working conditions. When combined with decades of underfunding, there is a huge potential for catastrophe. But, through it all, archivists continue to work, to provide services to the public and to maintain their collections as best they can, while also trying to document the impact of COVID-19

Historians are also working in difficult circumstances. There have been massive budget cuts to institutions in Alberta and Manitoba in the last few weeks. Lay-off notices have already begun at colleges and universities across the country, impacting staff, precarious academics, and tenure track/tenured faculty alike. What’s more, many universities have recently announced that they will be mostly moving to online programming in the fall, forcing thousands of professors to transition to online education with little to no training or support.

We also seem to be losing sight of the fact that the pandemic is far from over. Restrictions may be easing for the time being, but the danger is still very real. We still don’t know the impact of asymptomatic carriers or about reinfection rates. Easing restrictions have been associated with COVID-19 infection rates spiking in numerous locations. Experts are expecting a second, more deadly, wave of the pandemic in the fall. And the toll of the pandemic on our mental health is still unknown. Many of us are grieving, not only for our lost loved ones, but for the lives we had before the pandemic started. Likewise, many of us are working to confront racial inequality and violence in our workplaces, professions, and communities. 

We are all struggling, but we can find so much common ground. Co-operative advocacy has a much better chance of success. Shouldn’t we be advocating across disciplinary lines? Historians need archivists because they make historical research possible. Archives need the support of historians and academic associations to advocate for funding and staffing. And, especially during times like these, we should be raising each other up, not tearing each other down. 

We can do great things together and there are a lot of ways historians and archivists can collaborate. Let’s attend each other’s conferences and read works written by one another. We can collaborate on grants for projects that interest us both, do research together, and co-publish the results. 

Now more than ever, historians and archivists are facing times of scarcity and change. We need each other and we can benefit from strengthening relationships across discipline lines. Advocating for each other and working together can create meaningful change and help us all produce better work. We really are stronger together. 

Andrea Eidinger is a historian of gender and ethnicity in postwar Canada. She lives and works in Tiohtià:ke/Montreal.

Krista McCracken is a Researcher/Curator at the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre in Baawating/Sault Ste. Marie. They are an editor at Active History.