History Slam Episode 171: A Canadian Activist in Spain’s Civil War

By Sean Graham

In 1937, following the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, the Mackenzie King government passed the Foreign Enlistment Act. Like other western democratic countries, Canada had decided to stay out the war, which saw the democratically-elected Republican government fight against the Francisco Franco-led Nationalists. Despite the law, over 1,600 Canadians went to Spain to fight alongside the Spanish Army against Franco. Known as the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion, their stories have not been included in much of Canada’s military history – Canadian casualties from the war are not included in the Book of Remembrance, for instance, as Canada wasn’t officially in the war. There has been some work done, including a memorial in Ottawa, but for the most part, the motivations and actions of these individuals can be difficult to discern.

In 1980, Manuel Alvarez, a boy whose life had been saved by a Canadian during the bombing of Corbera d’Ebre wrote The Tall Soldier to pay tribute. The book provided some unique insights into the conflict while also telling a touching story about one of the Canadians who had traveled to Spain to participate in the war. That man was Jim Higgins and when the two finally met, it made headlines around the world.

Jim Higgins was English-born and came to Canada in the late 1920s, worked as a carpenter in Regina, participated in the Regina Riot, and, as an active member of the workers rights movement, received plenty of attention from the RCMP. Compelled to fight for democracy and freedom, he traveled to Spain in 1937, but, like so many members of the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion, never really talked about his experience. Around the same time as Alvarez’s book came out, Higgins’ children were pushing him to write his story.

That story has now been published as Fighting for Democracy: The True Story of Jim Higgins (1907-1982), a Canadian Activist in Spain’s Civil War. Compiled by his daughter Janette Higgins, the book provides a riveting account of a oft-forgotten chapter in Canadian history. Higgins’ conviction to the cause is compellingly outlined as he tells his story. And if sharing his story wasn’t enough, Jim continues the fight for what he believes in as all the proceeds from the book will be donated to causes that were important to him.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Janette Higgins about the book. We talk about her father’s childhood, his decision to come to Canada, and his participation in the Regina Riot. We also talk about Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion in the Spanish Civil War, Jim’s role in the war, his meeting with Manuel Alvarez, and the legacy of the Spanish Civil War in Canada.

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Deconstructing Dominant Historical Narratives through Progressive Metal

Parade by Martin Wittfooth – album art for Protest the Hero’s Palimpsest

Jessi Gilchrist

Progressive metal is not the genre that we think of when we consider decolonization, anti-racism, or intersectionality. In fact, in 2017, The Atlantic published an article entitled “the Whitest Music Ever,” a critique of one of progressive metal’s predecessors, progressive rock.[i] Spawned in the 1970s with bands like Rush and King Crimson, progressive rock has been known as an avant-garde approach to the operetta rooted in extended structures, quasi-symphonic orchestration, and overt technicality. Something about the virtuosity, the masculinity, and the aggressive concert culture screams whiteness and privilege. 

Within the slew of sub-genres that characterizes the metal community, progressive metal has been identified as a fusion between heavy metal and progressive rock that features highly complex melodic and rhythmic constructions, experimental time signatures, extended orchestration and elaborate song structure with a plethora of external influences from classical music to ragtime. Until recently, overt political critique has been less common in progressive metal than it has been in its punk-leaning counterparts. Instead, progressive metal has favoured the concept album in which all songs on an album revolve around a particular theme or tell a particular story leaving the listener to interpret its meaning.

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A Structural Pandemic: On Statues, Colonial Violence, and the Importance of History (Part III)

Princess Anne on a Royal Tour, here in Tuktuyaaqtuuq, IPA, 1970. Credit, Toronto Star Photo Archive, spa_0122734f

Kristine Alexander and Mary Jane Logan McCallum

While – as shown in our previous post – Guiding and Scouting were inextricably linked to British imperialism and settler colonialism, some Indigenous students in Canadian Indian residential schools also found that these organizations provided a refuge in an alien environment and a short break from labour and strict routine. It was an opportunity to meet and communicate more informally with other young people, and many had positive experiences of Guide and Scout activities. Dinjii Zuh, Gwichyà Gwich’in historian Crystal Gail Fraser, explains that Indigenous youngsters also resisted and shaped Girl Guide programming at residential schools in the Canadian Arctic. Fraser writes that Guides in the Northwest Territories reformed programming to cope with the school environment, to take control of their education, to train for leadership, and to express local Indigeneity. Guides at Inuvik, Aklavik, Hay River, and other smaller communities in the north “embraced the useful and rejected the useless, while asserting their independence and identities during a time when many children were embroiled in colonial initiatives.”[1] The girls wore braids, pants, beading, and mukluks instead of the standard Guide uniform; created new badges for trapping and fishing, among other Indigenous activities; and developed a unique camping program better suited to northern, Indigenous knowledge, practices and environments. These northern Girl Guides deeply challenged national Girl Guide programming – and Baden-Powell’s original vision – while setting their own standards for generations of young women in the north. Assertive gestures like these are reflective of Indigenous activism today, including many efforts to retain and revitalize Indigenous cultures.

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A Structural Pandemic: On Statues, Colonial Violence, and the Importance of History (Part II)

Guides and Scouts at Old Sun School, Alberta, ca. 1930. Credit: Archives of the Girl Guides of Canada, APH2374

Kristine Alexander and Mary Jane Logan McCallum

As we documented in our previous post, looking more closely at the history of Scouting and Guiding reveals that the divide between colonialist violence, fascist discipline, and peaceful pedagogy was not quite as stark as Baden-Powell and his supporters would have us believe. Instead of insisting on the ideological opposition between Scouting and the fascist youth groups of interwar Europe, it might make more sense to understand them as different points on a continuum – what Franziska Roy refers to as a “common grammar” of physical discipline and a desire for racial regeneration that reached across national and political boundaries.[i] An additional key point in all of this – one that has largely eluded both historians and supporters of Scouting and Guiding – is the fact that colonialism and fascism are related entities. As Aimé Césaire wrote seventy years ago, Hitler “applied to Europe colonialist procedures which until then had been reserved exclusively for the Arabs of Algeria, the coolies of India, and the blacks of Africa.”[ii]

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A Structural Pandemic: On Statues, Colonial Violence, and the Importance of History (Part I)

Members of the Scout movement salute Baden-Powell as the statue was boarded up. 12 June 2020. Credit, Daily Mail and w8media (Used without permission)

Kristine Alexander and Mary Jane Logan McCallum

2020 has been intense. Living in lockdown, uncertain about the future, watching the body count from Covid-19 and police violence continue to rise. Time, shaped by anger, grief, and fear, moves differently, as the pandemic – like other disease outbreaks before it – exposes and deepens socio-economic divisions and inequalities. Despite the best efforts of conservative politicians and social commentators, it is no longer possible to deny or ignore the fact that racist violence and dispossession are at the core of national histories and still shape social relations and institutions in the twenty-first century.

The relationship between past and present looms particularly large in public consciousness just now, and we are writing as historians – one Indigenous (McCallum) and one settler (Alexander) – whose lives and careers have been shaped by the legacies of British imperialism and Canadian settler colonialism. In quarantine, while grappling with changed domestic and work routines and worrying about loved ones, we read the news. Headlines blend into one another: infection and unemployment rates, racist attacks and anti-racist protests, and the creeping spread of authoritarianism in Western democracies. Significantly for us, there are also stories – a new one every day it seems, about increasingly fractious disagreements regarding what to do with statues of “great men.” This week, we explore issues around commemoration, rights and the pandemic beginning with this post on the life and work of Lord Robert Baden-Powell and recent debates about how he should be remembered, and commemorated.

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Indigenizing the Teaching of North American History: A Panel Discussion

In late-October, Active History editor Thomas Peace met with Marie BattisteAlan Corbiere, and Sarah Nickel to discuss decolonization and Indigenization in the teaching of North American history. Over the course of an hour, the conversation explored the meaning of decolonization, Indigenizing the academy, Indigenous resurgence in the Indigenizing of history, assessed specific anticolonial strategies for affecting change in the discipline, and provided advice for history teachers and professors about how to change pedagogies and curriculum.

To extend the conversation, we asked the panelists to provide a list of useful resources history teachers and professors can use to learn more about the subjects addressed during the session. Here is their reading list:

History Slam Episode 170: Being Fat

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By Sean Graham

In 1984, Participaction ran a television commercial telling viewers that “fat is not where it’s at.” Produced long before the “keep fit and have fun’ messages of Hal Johnson and Joanne McLeod, the ad has been cited as an example of fat shaming in Canadian culture. Instead of ideas of ‘movement as medicine’, these types campaigns placed categorized people based on the ‘proper’ body type. In doing so, they created a strong sense of unbelonging in those who do not fit within this socially constructed ideal.

The story of those who pushed back against this and engaged in fat activism is the subject of Jenny Ellison’s new book Being Fat: Women, Weight, and Feminist Activism in Canada. Making extensive use of interviews with activists, Ellison explores how these women organized and created things like ‘fat only fitness classes’ and businesses that catered to this underserved market. In doing so, the book analyzes the reach of second wave feminism and its influence on the daily lives of Canadians.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Jenny Ellison about the book. We talk about the origins of fat activism, the strategies used by activists, and the tensions with second wave feminism. We also talk about fitness and healthy eating campaigns, the role of fashion, and the entrepreneurship of some activists.

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Monumental Questions: Practical Experiences of the Politics of Commemoration

As cities and communities across Canada confront the legacies of colonialism and racism, monuments and memorials have become a hot topic of public debate. On November 14th, London, Ontario’s Words Festival, brought together Lisa Helps, Mayor of Victoria, Monica MacDonald, co-chair of Halifax’s Cornwallis Taskforce, and University of Toronto History Professor Melanie Newton, for a discussion on the deliberative processes that communities have undertaken to tackle the difficult subject of historical monuments and commemorations, especially when the figures or events they honour confront us with Canada’s legacies of systematic racism and slavery. Join Active History editor Thomas Peace in exploring with the panelists how cities have confronted their monumental legacies, the civic production of history and heritage, and strategies you can draw upon to better understand the politics of historic monuments and place names.

Learn More:

Cindy Blackstock, Spirit Bear: Echoes of the Past (First Nations Child & Family Caring Society)

City of Toronto Briefing Note Responding to the Petition to Rename Dundas Street

City of Victoria – Reconciliation Programs

Monica MacDonald, Recasting History: How CBC Television has Shaped Canada’s Past (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019)

Melanie Newton, “Henry Dundas: Naming Empire and Genocide,” History Workshop (Nov 2020) 

Emma Renaerts, “The Right Way to Topple a Statue,” We Are Not Divided (Oct 2020)

Report of the Task Force on the Commemoration of Edward Cornwallis and the Recognition and Commemoration of Indigenous History

Remember/Resist/Redraw #26: 1995 Calgary Workers Laundry Strike

Earlier this month, the Graphic History Collective released RRR #26 to mark the 25th anniversary of the 1995 Calgary Laundry Workers Strike.

The poster by Mary Joyce and Alvin Finkel outlines the importance of rank-and-file militancy, much of it by immigrant women of colour, in the fight against austerity and privatization in places like Alberta. This poster is particularly pertinent because the Provincial Government of Alberta is today, 25 years later, launching new attacks on health care workers in the midst of a global pandemic.

We hope that Remember | Resist | Redraw encourages people to critically examine history in ways that can fuel our radical imaginations and support struggles for social 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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History Slam Episode 169: Jeannie’s Demise

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By Sean Graham

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Ian Radforth about his new book Jeannie’s Demise: Abortion on Trial in Victorian Toronto, which examines the murder trial following the 1875 death of Jeannie Gilmour, a young woman who had gone to Arthur and Alice Davis to have an abortion. We chat about crafting a narrative from the story, how the case was sensationalized by the press, and the Victorian idea of ‘Toronto the Good.’ We also talk about Arthur and Alice and how they advertised, Jeannie’s path to them, and how Jeannie’s story fits within the wider history of abortion in Canada.

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