History and the Perils of Inevitability

By Jonathan McQuarrie

Image from Judge Magazine in 1917.

Image from Judge Magazine in 1917.

Not long after Donald Trump’s victory, Hillary Clinton sought to reassure her supporters, and perhaps herself. Echoing President Obama, who in turn drew on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., she said “the arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice.

This is a reasonable and comforting thing to assert, and it may well be right. But, as one European commentator noted, it’s just as likely wrong.

One major insight of history is to critique teleological thinking—the idea that events are moving towards some predetermined end. Analysis of events with set ends, while often useful for providing some manageable structure for courses and narratives, are limited. Alternative ends and paths need to be assessed and developed so that consequences and challenges can be managed.

Listing developments that point to current and future turmoil creates a sense of dread. Consider events that have taken place or that will turn towards a new period of instability, racism, and uneven scarcity. It’s foreseeable that racist discrimination, environmental problems, and social conflict won’t improve, and will indeed worsen. Let’s take recent reports of low ice cover as a sign of impending climate disaster, and also assume that reports that the worst case scenarios traced in the Club of Rome’s 1972 Limits to Growth are indeed happening. Let’s assume that President Trump’s administration follows through on many of its racist polices of registration and deportation (and indeed builds on deportation precedents set by Obama’s administration). In Europe, Brexit happens, Marine Le Pen (or François Fillon, who stretches definitions of ‘centre-right’ to meaninglessness) is elected president, and the EU begins to dissolve under nationalist strains. Let’s assume Assad retains control in what is left of Syria. Let’s assume Vladimir Putin continues to grow in influence and military force. Let’s assume North Korea remains agitated, Japan accelerates re-armament, and southeast Asia continues down the gradual movement towards geopolitical conflict (I could go on).

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A luta continua: past, present, and future in South Africa’s Constitutional Court  

By Rachel Hatcher

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

Located in the heart of the larger Johannesburg metropolitan area, South Africa’s Constitutional Court is the ingenious and deeply moving physical manifestation of what post-apartheid South Africa was supposed to be like. As renewed student protests demanding that #FeesMustFall and the militarized response to them reveal more and more each day, however, it is not what post-apartheid South Africa actually is like.

The Constitutional Court as an institution was founded in 1994 by the 1993 interim Constitution, which was then superseded by the final Constitution in 1996. The building was officially inaugurated with much fanfare in 2004.


Photo 1

The Court is located on the site of what had been the notorious high security men’s prison, where Mahatma Gandhi, Albert Luthuli, Joe Slovo, Nelson Mandela, and many others were once interned. The prison closed in 1983. The equally notorious but far less known women’s prison, where Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Albertina Sisulu, and Fatima Meer were imprisoned, is located a stone’s throw away.

The men’s prison’s notoriety is certainly due to the names of those who passed through its gates, but also to the dehumanizing and torturous treatment political prisoners, especially, received there, as in other prisons in apartheid-era South Africa.

When the site was chosen to be the home of the new Constitutional Court, rather than raze the building and erase it from the cityscape entirely, it was decided to incorporate parts of the old prison into the new court building and so leave a very visible reminder of the past—its pain and injustices—in the present. Thus, the bases of several stairwells in the Awaiting Trial Block were left standing (photo 1).  The voices of former detainees can be heard narrating their experiences in great detail from loudspeakers attached to one of the stairwells. Continue reading

Quarrelsome cannabis in the UK: evidence from Canada and elsewhere

By Lucas Richert

screen-shot-2016-11-23-at-8-40-26-pmIn September the All Party Parliamentary Group on Drug Policy Reform in the UK stated there was “good evidence” cannabis could help alleviate the symptoms of several health conditions, including chronic pain and anxiety. According to Professor Mike Barnes, a leading consultant neurologist who contributed to the report, “We must legalise access to medical cannabis as a matter of urgency.”

The co-chair of the Group, Baroness Molly Meacher, stated:

“The evidence has been strong enough to persuade a growing number of countries and US states to legalise access to medical cannabis. Against this background, the UK scheduling of cannabis as a substance that has no medical value is irrational.”

The All Party Group obtained evidence from 623 patients, representatives of the medical professions and people with knowledge of how medical cannabis is regulated around the world. It reviewed over 20,000 reports and suggested cannabis could be used for multiple health problems.

By contrast, a Home Office spokesman noted: Continue reading

Queen’s Goes Viral

Scott Rutherford

unnamedEach year at Halloween my partner and I hand out candy to a couple of dozen neighbourhood kids. We live in a working/middle class neighbourhood in Kingston where most of the children are white, as are their parents. I’m always anxious before opening the door to that first trick-or-treater. Who’s going to be the first Osama Bin Laden or any number of other racialized caricatures? But it hasn’t happened, not once in four years. That doesn’t mean it won’t next year, but I’ve yet to have a “wtf” moment at my front door—save for the non-costumed twenty something year old who asked for candy this year.

So, I have a stock of WTFs in the bank. It’s a good thing, too, because I need them for when I go to my job as an adjunct instructor at Queen’s University–especially around Halloween. This year a bunch of what-appears-to-be-mostly-white students have made national headlines (yet again) for dressing up in various racist costumes. Once again, Queen’s administration is scrambling the PR department to spin away from the familiar tale of this university, to quote an old friend, being not a haven for the “best and the brightest, but the richest and whitest.” I remember that line well, it comes not from 2016, but from late 2005 in response to a young white Queen’s student who wore blackface and called herself “Miss Ethiopia.” Ten years at Queen’s provides some powerful entries (the “Cowboys and Indians Kegger,” for example)[1] into what some of us might call its race archive. My WTF moments are much fewer and much farther apart than for my colleagues who do not inhabit my same identities—straight, white, and male. But racist Halloween costumes have a way of not passing you by easily. For those of us who have been around this campus a while, this moment should not be “a shocker.”[2] Continue reading

Before Mifegymiso: A History of Rural Women’s Access to Abortion

Katrina Ackerman

Tourism PEI / John Silvester, CC 2.0 Attribution

Tourism PEI / John Silvester, CC 2.0 Attribution

Women in the Atlantic Provinces have long struggled to access reproductive health care services due to the rural nature of the region. Whereas Canada’s rural population declined from 24 percent in 1971 to 19 percent in 2011, the Atlantic region’s rural population only declined from 47 percent to 46 percent rural in the same period. Christabelle Sethna and Marion Doull’s research on Canadian women’s access to freestanding abortion clinics in the 2000s demonstrates that the Atlantic Provinces have the lowest access to abortion services in the country.[1] Many researchers argue that medical abortions would ensure access for women in the Atlantic, northern, and remote regions of Canada.

With the impending release of Mifegymiso in Canada—a prescription drug that can terminate a pregnancy in the first 49 days of gestational age—there is much debate over the requirement that women receive the drug under the supervision of a doctor. Physician-only dispensing would create an additional barrier to accessing Mifegymiso in rural areas, particularly in regions without surgical abortion services.[2] In defence of the criticism that the federal government is limiting rural women’s access to the drug, Health Canada argues in Mifegymiso: Myths vs. Facts that medical abortions require physician oversight because approximately 1 in 20 women will require surgery for unsuccessful terminations.

The urban-rural divide surrounding access to reproductive health care services is nothing new and the role of physicians in delivering services have often been at the center of these disputes. Continue reading

Dusting off the history of drought on the Canadian Prairies in the 1930s

Image credit: Glenbow Archives NA-2496-1

Image credit: Glenbow Archives NA-2496-1

By George Colpitts, Shannon Stunden Bower and Bill Waiser

[Editors note: this post was prepared for both our website and NiCHE-Canada.org where it was published on Monday, November 28, 2016].

The dustbowl years on the Canadian prairies live on in the imaginations and landscapes of Western Canadians.

Elderly survivors might still leave teacups upside down on saucers, as they did in the 1930s when dust settled everywhere in a household. Treebelts hastily planted on farms to reduce wind erosion have now become mature stands. In southern Saskatchewan, when a dry spell stretches over two seasons, farmers begin to scour again their holdings.  Well aware of what happened in the 1930s, they look for the “hardpan” emerging from soils starting to shift and blow on their land.

The dustbowl of the 1930s might have ended over eighty years ago, but many western Canadians still watch for its return.

blog-screen-shot2-jpgThe multi-media website, Climate and Change: Making Sense of the Dustbowl Years on the Canadian Prairies was launched in September 2016 to provide a more robust explanation for one of the most significant episodes in the environmental history of Canada in the twentieth century.  Environmental history examines the ongoing relationships between humans and their environments. The 1930s dustbowl years can be viewed as both a relatively short-term event, as well as a part of the longue-durée climate history of the Great Plains. Normal and abnormal at once, the drought can be studied for dustbowl social and economic outcomes; the ways western science hastily adapted itself to solve perceived problems; or how humans responded emotionally — rationally and irrationally — to an environmental crisis. Continue reading

Fake News, Global History Wars, and the Importance of Historical Thinking

By Thomas Peace

In the last week we’ve seen a strong desire to put an end to “Fake News”. With the rise of social media and increasingly savvy revenue generating fake news sites, this is an important intervention (the dangers of which Alan MacEachern addressed here last week). It is, however, misleading to assign blame for Donald Trump’s rise to the U.S. presidency solely on this blatant deception. Focus on the “fake news” distracts us from the very real way that some producers of the “real news” (editors, producers and pundits) and legitimately elected politicians (and especially governments) use the media to distort and distract in an effort to cultivate public opinion.

Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in the deliberate (mis)use of history to construct a specific polarized vision of the nation. Globally, politicians and opinion makers (some of whom are admittedly professional historians) have recently turned to un-contextualized facts about their nation’s past for their own political ends, often directly targeting university-based historians and their increasing emphasis on historical thinking over the reinforcement of a national narrative.  Though I am not in a position to argue cause and effect, in this post I would like to suggest that declining enrollments in history programs and classes are perhaps related to the fact that politicians deploying this tactic have recently found electoral success. “Fake news” may be part of the problem, but the problem’s roots go much deeper and relate more directly to established power structures. Continue reading

After the Asylum/Après l’asile: Launching a History of Survival

afterBy Megan Davies & Erika Dyck

The shift from institutional to community mental health was among the most significant social changes of the late 20th century. Between 1965 and 1980 nearly 50,000 beds were closed in residential psychiatric facilities across Canada. De-institutionalization profoundly changed the lives of former patients and those who worked with them, impacting the larger economy, public health and social planning, and challenging ideas of individual rights and capabilities.

The first national project of its kind, After the Asylum/Après l’asile presents this complex and often difficult history, making clear its continuing relevance. We examine early mental health initiatives, we consider how therapeutic and professional contours of care were reshaped, and we explore new consumer / user networks and cultures that emerged. Many of the exhibits speak to the continuing social and economic marginalization of people deemed mentally ill, whose lives are often poignant testaments to the limits of a reconstituted mental health system. Continue reading

After the Wall: Nostalgia and Cynicism during the German “Honeymoon,” 1989-1992

Alban Bargain-Villéger


Ampelmännchen (Trail Life, Weltradreisen)

Twenty-seven years ago, on November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall collapsed. Twenty-seven is an odd number, so why write a post on this particular topic now, on the occasion of a not-so-symbolic anniversary? One reason is that I had always wanted to write something on the couple of years that followed the Fall of the Wall. But mainly, it was the realisation that the official reunification of the two Germanies actually occurred twenty-five and a half years ago that prompted me to reflect on that particular topic. Indeed, the storming of the Wall did not immediately result in the spontaneous stitching back together of the Germany of old – the question being, what Germany was to be resurrected? The prospect of seeing a strong Germany re-emerge on the world scene did not fail to upset members of the European political élite, many of whom had lived through World War Two. As a result, it took a year and a half for the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) and the German Democratic Republic (GDR) – both founded in 1949 – to negotiate and sign the Treaty on the Final Settlement With Respect to Germany.

This post focuses on the two-year honeymoon period that occurred in the wake of the November 1989 events, which the Germans refer to as die Wende (“the turn”). The Wall was built in 1961 as a solution to the growing numbers of East Germans making their way to the West through West Berlin. Until its fall, the “wall of shame” had symbolized the Cold War and the lengths to which a totalitarian regime could go in order to stifle freedom of movement. The immediate cause of the Fall was the opening, in August, of the Austro-Hungarian border, which triggered an outflow of East German citizens through Hungary. The authorities initially attempted to prevent East German citizens from leaving, but these measures backfired and provoked a series of demonstrations, which led to the resignation of Erich Honecker, who had been at the helm of the country since 1971. However, the situation did not improve, as the new government soon felt obligated to allow passage directly through the various border crossings between the Federal Republic and the GDR. Besides, the government’s spokesman mistakenly confirmed that the changes would take effect immediately, which took the border guards by surprise and resulted in thousands of East Berliners crossing into the western part of the city. This meant the beginning of the end for the Wall and for the regime. Continue reading

Indigenous Voices and Resistance in Oil Pipeline History: The Dene Tha’ and the Norman Wells Pipeline.

New York City rally in support of Standing Rock Water Protectors. Source: Joe Catron, Flickr.

New York City rally in support of Standing Rock Water Protectors. Source: Joe Catron, Flickr.

Sean Kheraj

The actions, protest, and resistance in Sioux Nation Territory among Indigenous people, ENGOs, and other allies in North Dakota in recent months echo what Paul Sabin once referred to as “voices from the hydrocarbon frontier.” Once again, Indigenous people stand on the front lines of opposition to the development of a major energy pipeline infrastructure project in North America. The conditions and issues, of course, are different from those expressed by Inuit, Dene, and Métis people during the Berger inquiry into the development of a gas pipeline in the Mackenzie Valley in the 1970s, but some of the sentiments still resonate today.

The emergence of the #NoDAPL movement and the prominent and leading role of Indigenous people is part of a now decades-long phenomenon of Indigenous people’s efforts to resist energy megaprojects in their traditional territories. In my own work on the history of long-distance oil pipelines in Canada, I’ve found that some of the adverse environmental consequences of oil pipelines (in the form of oil spills) likely disproportionately affected rural environments and the lives of rural Indigenous and settler populations. Given the historical geography of oil pipeline spills in Canada, it was no surprise to me to find Indigenous people among the most prominent voices to warn against the environmental risks of energy pipelines.

Those voices spoke out against the potential risks of constructing an oil pipeline in the southern Mackenzie Valley in the 1980s. In 1980, Interprovincial Pipelines Inc. or IPL (now Enbridge) submitted an application to the National Energy Board (NEB) for a certificate to construct an 868-kilometre small-diameter oil pipeline from Norman Wells, Northwest Territories to Zama, Alberta. The pipeline would carry increased production of crude oil from Norman Wells to a transfer point in Zama where it would then flow south in the Rainbow Pipeline to refineries in Edmonton and on to southern markets in Canada and the US. Continue reading