The Critically Uncritical Remaking of Churchill

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Erin Isaac

Filmmakers make bad historians. While it is well understood that historically-based movies should not be taken for fact, film continues to play a major role in forming public perceptions of the past. Historians, realizing this phenomenon, often get caught up in the details of where film goes wrong, without fully understanding why these flaws matter. The mistakes made in movies are especially significant in films about politicians, like 2017’s Darkest Hour and Churchill, because they suggest that “Big Men” make history while the rest of the world watches and supports them. This fictional structure influences dangerously how we engage with today’s political leaders.

According to Winston Churchill’s critics, Britain’s 61st Prime Minister was “aristocratic, high-handed, self-centred, energetic, impatient, inconsistent, prone to rhetoric… [and] most stubborn.”[1] Alternatively, Churchill’s champions have called him “a true case of genius” with “shattering” personality. [2] To this day, Winston Churchill remains one of the most written about historical figures of the twentieth century. In addition, the Prime Minister has appeared in over eighty films in the past eighty years.  Two new films, Darkest Hour and Churchill, hit the big screen in 2017 and focused on Churchill’s actions during the Second World War. In the wake of a year that saw the rise of the far right in countries including France, Australia, and the United States, it is unsurprising that audiences would respond to films about one of history’s most famous antifascists. However, Churchill’s re-creation on film misrepresents his actions and popularity, and diminishes the public’s place in the narrative—putting power solely in the hands of an old, rich, white, stubborn man. Sound familiar? Continue reading

The Treaty of Cession: Historical Origins of a Very British Instrument of Dispossession

By Allan Greer

The crucial passage in the written texts of each of the “numbered treaties” passed in the Prairie West states that the Indigenous signatories “cede, release, surrender, and yield up to the Government of Canada for Her Majesty the Queen” a designated region.  (Carter, 121).

If the language sounds a little like a real estate transaction, earlier treaties concluded in southern Ontario are even more frankly commercial.  The 1806 “Head of the Lake” treaty was signed by ten “principal chiefs,” each of whom received five shillings, acknowledging that they, “have bargained, and sold, and by these presents do, and each of them doth bargain and sell unto His said Majesty” a tract of 85,000 acres.  Now, apart from the fact that misrepresentation was common and government rarely lived up to its treaty obligations, there is something fundamentally wrong with this picture.  As numerous Indigenous commentators have pointed out, Indigenous peoples did not see land as a saleable commodity; their languages did not even have words to convey the sense of “ceding” or “selling” territory: thus the treaty text cannot have faithfully reproduced the oral agreements that were negotiated.  Citing their oral traditions, Plains Cree and other First Nations insist that the land was never surrendered. (Venne, 192-93)  This doesn’t look like a minor misunderstanding, but rather a fundamental disconnect: government negotiators were acquiring territory that their Indigenous counterparts were not giving up. Continue reading

On Safety

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Valerie Everett/Wikimedia commons

Laura Madokoro

There are three things going on in my world at the moment. The first is that I am slowly but surely reading Tanya Talaga’s Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City about the lives and deaths of Jethro Anderson, Curran Strang, Robyn Harper, Paul Panacheese, Reggie Bush, Kyle Morrisseau and Jordan Wabasse in Thunder Bay from 2000 to 2011. It is a book that is so devastating that I can only bear to read little bits of it at a time, which is a privilege given that the families, friends and communities of these children have no choice but to carry their grief and anger with them always.

At the same time, I am following news of migrant crossings away from official border posts into Canada from the United States because it is the only way that people who want or need to make claims to protection under the 1951 Convention Related to the Status of Refugees can do so under the restrictive terms of the Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA) developed by the governments of Canada and the United States in 2002 and put into operation two years later.

The final thing I am doing is watching the emerging news coverage of how refugees are being treated in the United States, which as a reminder is a signatory to the STCA that assumes both Canada and the United States are safe places and that if a refugee claimant is refused in one country, they should also be refused in the other. In the United States, as I write, children are being separated from their parents and put into privately-run detention centres about which the American Civil Liberties Union has expressed serious concerns in a clear effort by federal authorities to discourage people from making claims to protection. And in a startling reversal of decades of work globally on the particular needs of women for safe refuge, the Attorney General of the United States has declared that domestic violence and gang violence are not grounds for asylum in that country.

All of this has me thinking about the nature of safety, in the past and present. Where have people felt safe? When have they felt safe? And from whom or what? Continue reading

From Early Canada to Early North America: Why We Stopped Teaching History before the 1860s from a National Perspective

By Thomas Peace

Let’s begin with a question: without help from the internet, can you name the person who founded the city of Chicago?

I suspect that for many of our readers, the answer is ‘no’.

“Founders” are not terribly in vogue these days, anyways.

It was, however, the man who founded Chicago that helped me make a profound shift in how I teach Canadian history. Last month, at the Canadian Historical Association’s annual meeting, I presented about this curricular shift, arguing that people like Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, the putative founder of Chicago, help us rethink early North American history, moving us away from national frameworks. The feedback I’ve received since that presentation has been very fruitful and quite diverse, so I’ve decided to post the talk here to continue the conversation.

Bust of Jean-Baptiste Pointe DuSable, next to the DuSable bridge in downtown Chicago. (Photo by Groov3, Wikimedia Commons)

The life lived by Jean Baptiste Point du Sable has all the necessary components for the pre-Confederation Canadian History survey course. Continue reading

Podcast: We Get a Piece and We Get a Say: Approaching Confederation from the Perspective of the Métis Nation of the North-West

On April 22, 2017, Jean Teillet delivered her talk “We Get a Piece and We Get a Say: Approaching Confederation from the Perspective of the Métis Nation of the North-West.” The talk was part of “The Other 60s: A Decade that Shaped Canada and the World,” a symposium hosted by the Department of History at the University of Toronto as part of its Canada 150 events.

This talk is part of our History Chats podcast series. You can subscribe to the History Chats feed wherever you get your podcasts.

Remember/Resist/Redraw #15: Class Conflict in 1920s Cape Breton

This spring, the Graphic History Collective re-launched Remember / Resist / Redraw: A Radical History Poster Project as an ongoing series.

Earlier this week, on William Davis Miners’ Memorial Day (June 11), we released RRR poster #15  by Karen Jeane Mills and David Frank that looks at class conflict, including the killing of coal miner William Davis, in 1920s Cape Breton.

We hope that Remember | Resist | Redraw encourages people to critically examine history in ways that can fuel our radical imaginations and support struggles for radical change. Learn more about how you can support the project on our website, and connect with us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.


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Curious about Learning: Teaching Postcolonial Theory to First-Year History Students

Curious George sitting on a chair and trying on clothing.

Curious George illustrations.

Susan Joudrey

I like theory, but I know not everyone feels this way. Undergraduate students, in particular, expect theory to be dry or difficult even if they’ve never actually encountered it. In order to ease students into theoretical practice, I’ve relied on active learning strategies to teach postcolonial theory in a first-year Canadian History course.

Through a number of iterations of teaching Canada: Confederation to Present, I completely reorganized the course to focus on colonialism as a central theme. One of my course outcomes is for students to be able to identify the effects of colonialism in Canada and recognize how colonial assumptions impact society. I assess this outcome at various points during the course through primary source analysis and with the inclusion of an essay question on the final exam that requires them to describe aspects of the colonial “civilizing” process using examples from the course. I provide them with four different possible essay questions and ask them to respond to two. The last time I taught this course almost every student elected to write an essay about Canadian colonial legacy in the mid-19th and 20th centuries.

For most of the students, this course is the first time they’re required to consider the long-lasting effects of colonialism or engage with postcolonial theory. I also found that many of them really didn’t understand the mechanisms of racism and weren’t able to identify why something might be racist. I decided to devote a class early in the semester to focus on critical race theory and postcolonial theory, and then I reinforced these concepts throughout the course.

There’s a general misconception that in the first year we need to teach students in a way that relies on the first two levels of Benjamin Bloom’s cognitive learning domains, remember and understand, both of which depend on an ability to recall information rather than apply knowledge.[1] Typically this approach to using Bloom’s theory perpetuates the idea that foundational learning in introductory survey courses is primarily achieved through passive reception of information and assessed using methods that rely on memorization. Sometimes our classes provide many opportunities for students to remember or understand but ignore the possibility for application or creation. When you consider how theory is learned or understood, the need to use it becomes even more apparent. The ability to recall or provide a definition of a theory is very different than attempting to apply it.

So, how do you teach postcolonial theory to first-year undergraduate students? By making it accessible. Continue reading

History Slam Episode 117: Breaching the Peace

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By Sean Graham

There are a couple things that are universal in political campaigns. Candidates will talk about creating new jobs and stress the need to leave a legacy for our kids and grand-kids (we do all for the kids, after all). In recent years, with environmentalism becoming increasingly popular politically, politicians have combined these two things in an effort to create green jobs. This has included everything from wind turbines to solar farms to hydro-electricity. It’s not so simple, however, as the concept of green energy and green jobs needs further examination.

One such example comes from the Site C Dam in the Peace Valley of Northern British Columbia. In 2010, the provincial government announced its plan to build a new dam, the third one on the river. In promoting the project, the government highlighted new jobs and green energy as key benefits to the project. For many local to the area, however, the project’s benefits were not so clear cut.

For many First Nations in the area, the dam would destroy land significant from both a cultural and ecological value. At the same time, there were questions about the province’s need for more hydro-electric energy.

Three years after the initial announcement, Sarah Cox started travelling to the Peace Valley to investigate the dam. The product of that research is her new book Breaching the Peace: The Site C Dam and a Valley’s Stand Against Big Hydro. Cox examines the project in an effort to determine its true cost, both from a financial and cultural perspective. She explores the urban-rural divide, settler colonialism, and how power and political expediency shape these types of decisions.

With Breaching the Peace, Cox movingly challenges the reader to examine the underlying motivation for public projects and consider how they can change lives for those directly influenced. While not a historical work, Cox makes tremendous use of historic precedents and trends in exploring the Site C project. As a result, the book is an outstanding of Active History and how understanding the past can help us make sense of the present.

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Repurposing a Map of Greater London’s Industry (1893-5)


A few years ago, I worked with some students to develop a database of all the factories we could find on very detailed 5 feet to the mile maps of London from the second half of the nineteenth century. This database is central to my academic research on the environmental history of industrialization in Greater London. I created maps using this historical GIS database for my first book and I’m busy working on a second major project with this spatial data at its centre. But I’ve also been thinking of how to make the HGIS data accessible and interesting to a wider public audience. I’ve created a number of interactive maps using and StoryMaps and shared them over social media. Each time they are shared by other historians, but the statistics suggest they’ve not reached a large audience. I’m hoping this post might elicit suggestions from public historians on whether these interactive maps are worthy of more effort on my part to reach a wider audience and how I might succeed in doing so. Build it and they will come is clearly not working.

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The Meaning of DoFo – how Doug Ford took Ontario

James Cullingham

Ontario – wake up and sniff the kitty litter. Doug Ford aka DoFo, is premier-elect of Canada’s most populous province. That will make DoFo arguably the second most powerful politician in the country after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. There can be no denying the political accomplishment and screaming yelp for CHANGE this proclaims. Doug Ford, elder brother of the late drug-addled, scandal-ridden and infamously world-renowned Toronto mayor Rob Ford, took Ontario in a resounding way and will lead a majority Progressive Conservative government. He obliterated 15 years of Liberal rule in the province and left the New Democratic Party (NDP), which will become the official opposition in his wake, as he racked up a significant majority. In the end, it was a PC landslide.

How did we get here? Continue reading