History on TV: Political Drama in the 2010s

Alban Bargain-Villéger

Still from Borgen, 2010.

Still from Borgen, 2010.

In recent years, serial political dramas such as House of Cards and the Danish series Borgen have enjoyed quite a bit of success in North America. Although one might argue that the genre is more of a child of the 1990s, since the original House of Cards trilogy (set in a fictional post-Thatcher Britain) came out in 1991, and The West Wing ran from 1999 to 2006, the four series that I intend to examine in this post are all products of the 2010s. A comparison of Borgen (“The Castle,” Denmark, 2010-13), Les Hommes de l’ombre (“The Shadow Men,” France, 2012), House of Cards (USA, 2013-present), and Okkupert (“Occupied,” Norway, 2015) is not only useful in providing an overview of how western European and American politics are being imagined (even fantasized about) in our day and age, but also yields precious information of a historical nature. In their own way, each of these series tries to make sense of a different political history. Of course, it should be acknowledged that these four series reflect the views of the writers, directors, consultants and producers who created and shaped them. Nonetheless, the commercial and critical success that they have garnered as well as the themes they address raise several questions about the ways western democracies and their histories are perceived today.

SPOILER ALERT: be warned that plot points will be given away. Continue reading

Engaging the Past through a Community of Transcribers: The Rural Diary Archive

Erin Schuurs

John Harrington Ferguson Peel Art Gallery, Museum and Archives

John Harrington Ferguson
Peel Art Gallery, Museum and Archives

In September 2015, Professor Catharine Anne Wilson and the library at the University of Guelph, launched the Rural Diary Archive*, an online archive showcasing over 130 Ontario diarists writing from 1800 to 1960.  This digital archive collectively holds thousands of pages of handwritten diaries and the goal in placing these pages online is to engage volunteer transcribers. By fostering a transcriber community, those working behind the scenes of the Rural Diary Archive hope to make these hard-to-use but highly valuable documents more accessible.

With the launch of the website, I myself decided to try my hand at transcribing. My first task was actually choosing the diary I would transcribe from the wide variety of diaries available. I eagerly searched through my options. Should I choose a diarist who lived in a region of Ontario I was familiar with? Would I relate best with a female diarist? Perhaps a farmer? I eventually landed upon John Ferguson’s diary from 1869. After looking through some of the diaries, I admit that my initial attraction to Ferguson’s journal was based upon the highly prosaic reasoning that I found his handwriting the easiest to read. Continue reading

The Big Hole of Black Oblivion

RHphoto1By Rachel Hatcher

[This is the second in a series of posts titled “Learning and unlearning history in South Africa’s public spaces”]

The Big Hole in Kimberley, in South Africa’s Northern Cape province, somehow manages to tower over the city in a way that is surprising for a big hole in the ground, which is precisely what the Big Hole is. Yet the Big Hole does just that. It towers. Part of this is certainly because the Big Hole, which is reputed to be the biggest hand-dug hole in the world, seems to be the only reason people visit Kimberley. Mention in nearby Bloemfontein that you went to Kimberley on the weekend, and you will be asked if you saw the Big Hole. Another reason the Big Hole towers over the city is because of its history. Kimberley exists because of the Big Hole and, more specifically, because of the millions of dollars of diamonds dug from the hole, many of which ended up with the DeBeers company, founded in Kimberley in 1888.

Today, the complete Big Hole experience begins with a short film, Diamonds and Destiny, which tells the “realistic” story of the mine’s early existence “through the eyes of two fictional characters of the time,” a white travel writer and a black labourer. The experience continues with a short tour of the underground mine; a visit to the viewing platform perched overlooking the Big Hole; and, finally, a visit to the mine museum and the heavily guarded diamond display. Visitors are also invited to take a trolley ride or walk around the restored old town with its blacksmith, garage, “High Class London Tailor,” milliners, and other shops. Continue reading

Creating the Canadian Mosaic

Ryan McKenney and Benjamin Bryce

John Murray Gibbon’s image of a Czechoslovakian immigrant in his Canadian Mosaic

John Murray Gibbon’s image of a Czechoslovakian immigrant in his Canadian Mosaic

Canadians often describe their country as a “mosaic.” This idea is present on government websites and in many contemporary articles in the media (on outlets such as The Globe and Mail, Macleans, and the Huffington Post), and most importantly in the minds of people across the country. Though used in different contexts and with different goals, the mosaic almost always describes Canada as a multicultural landscape and symbolizes a national ideology of inclusion and diversity. Canadians hold great pride in this idea, placing it on the progressive end of a spectrum opposite to the American melting pot. Yet Canadians rarely question where the term comes from.

Many Canadians would likely be astonished to find that the first person to use the term “mosaic” to discuss the national character of Canada was in fact an American. Continue reading

Arab-Canadian Foodscapes and Authenticity

Michael Akladios

Tabbouleh is a Mezzeh (appetizer) made of cracked wheat with parsley, tomato, lemon, cucumbers, onion, and olive oil. Variations exist throughout the Levant

Tabbouleh is a Mezzeh (appetizer) made of cracked wheat with parsley, tomato, lemon, cucumbers, onion, and olive oil. Variations exist throughout the Levant. Wikimedia Commons

Visiting diverse Middle Eastern restaurants across the Greater Toronto Area, one quickly discovers that they all feature Tabbouleh on the menu. As an Egyptian, I had never eaten Tabbouleh until I started my undergraduate degree at York University in Toronto. It is not part of the Egyptian tradition. Interestingly, while Syrian and Lebanese emigrants found their way to Egypt in large numbers throughout the mid- to late-nineteenth century, this side-dish never made its way into mainstream Egyptian cuisine, and especially, the average family kitchen. However, in North America it has come to be defined as “authentically” Middle Eastern.

The first time I tried Tabbouleh, I was with a group of friends from various ethno-cultural backgrounds. When I asked what kind of salad that “green dish” was, I was met with confused expressions. The person across the table asked me: “I thought you were Egyptian?” Somehow, not knowing what Tabbouleh was, made my very claim to “Egyptian-ness” questionable. Continue reading

History Slam Episode Eighty-Four: Art History & General Idea

By Sean Graham

General IdeaThe art group General Idea emerged in Toronto’s counterculture scene in the late 1960s. By the early 1970s, the group’s membership was solidified, encompassing Felix Partz, Jorge Zontal, and AA Bronson. Best known for their provocative conceptual works, General Idea took on popular culture formats from beauty pageants to television and engaged in a range of media not limited to painting, photography, mail art, performance, video, and installation. They are perhaps best remembered, though, for their work addressing the AIDS crisis. The AIDS pandemic shaped their practice from 1987 to 1994, a period that ended with the deaths of Partz and Zontal from AIDS related causes.

Given the broad scope and influential legacy of General Idea, the Art Canada Institute has commissioned a new book exploring the group’s history. Part of the ACI’s series examining major Canadian artists, the book looks at the group’s founding, its major exhibitions, and its influence on later artists.

What is really unique about the book, and ACI’s series generally, is that it is an entirely digital publication. This format is particularly useful in art history, where the visual is so important. The book includes photos and videos of General Idea’s artwork, which allows the reader to fully engage with the material. Rather than have the book describe the art, the digital format allows the art to speak for itself.

Continue reading

1984: The Parable of Ethiopian Famine and Foreign Aid

Nassisse Solomon

The Terrible Face of Famine

Maclean’s, 1984

Ethiopia is back in international headlines with another apocalyptic-scale famine.  It is being widely reported that the country is facing its worst drought in 50 years, a result of three failed rainy seasons, coupled with an El Nino effect warming the Pacific Ocean affecting global weather patterns. With just weeks remaining before the start of the main cropping season in the country, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization is calling for urgent funding to assist farmers in sowing their fields in order to abate drought stricken areas from falling deeper into hunger and food insecurity. With a future saddled by the “uncertainty of what nature has called down upon it”, Ethiopia, as CBC’s Margaret Evans among many others have characterized it, is once again “on the edge.”

Currently, Ethiopia has an estimated 10.2 million people in need of assistance throughout 2016, with another 5.75 million children at risk of going hungry. Up to 2 million children are currently suffering from malnutrition, with 400,000 acute cases. The numbers are once again staggering and overwhelming, leading many to proclaim that this is evidence of “history repeating itself”. Continue reading

The Long Form Census is Back, but it is Far From Perfect

By Patricia Kmiec

census image2If you live in Canada, you have likely received your invitation to complete the 2016 Census of Population this week. The 2016 census is a celebration of sorts in Canada, with many historians, researchers, educators, policy-makers, and members of the public relieved to hear that this year’s census comprises a mandatory short-form (completed by the entire population) and a mandatory long-form (completed by approximately 25% of the population). This is unusually celebratory news as the previous Conservative government eliminated the long-form census and replaced it with a voluntary survey for our last census year, 2011. Not surprisingly, much of the data collected from the voluntary survey was found to be unreliable, and, in many ways, useless to researchers.

While it is certainly good news that the mandatory form has returned, I hope that Canadians will continue the conversation about how accurate census data is essential in providing a strong understanding of the population. Unfortunately, assumptions about Indigenous identities, race, and labour, all deeply rooted in historical biases, continue to shape how questions are posed, how information collected is categorized, and how present-day realities for many populations are made invisible. Continue reading

Reports from New Directions in Active History: Pathways to Active Historical Engagement in High Schools

By Neil Orford

DHP logoThough it may be apocryphal, Thomas Aquinas was reputed to have said that “History is a foreign land to which  few will ever travel.” After teaching history for 30 years in the Ontario Secondary system, I believe he may have been  right.

The notion of ‘Active History” is an intriguing one – knowledge mobilization for students, designing a new robust curricula founded upon Historical Thinking Concepts, demanding 21st century digital competencies that present historical understandings in multi-dimensional ways – an idea which is rich in possibility, inventiveness and intellectual rigour.

Yet the October 2015 Conference on “New Directions, challenged me to make a frank assessment of the current state of history education, albeit from a decidedly “Ontario-Centric” perspective. The workshops, speakers and roundtable debates suggested that public history (and history education) are at a crossroads between teaching traditional narrative to establish ‘the story of Canada’ or teaching  for critical inquiry and skill-development.  True, the two ‘directions’ are not mutually exclusive and they can (& do) intersect with ease. However, within the limitations of a compulsory semester-long Grade 10 history course, which should be the ‘road  more-travelled?’

Perhaps more to the point; which provides the better chance for ‘active historical’ engagement? Continue reading

Writing is “easy”… Student Learning in the First-Year Canadian Survey Course

By Mark Leier

Making a safe space
Writing real life
Making assignments matter
Doing more with less

The assignment made all of us squirm. Some broke into a sweat; others made little nervous jokes. At a workshop on teaching writing, we — professors, graduate students, librarians, deans — were asked to take five minutes to complete a short writing exercise that we would share with others. We were seasoned veterans with countless theses, books, articles, memos, and position papers between us, yet being asked to write something made us uneasy.

The sportswriter Walter “Red” Smith is alleged to have said, “Turning out a column is easy. I just sit at my typewriter until beads of blood form on my forehead.”

I took that lesson to heart as I redesigned my first year survey course, “Canada since Confederation,” as a “writing intensive” course. The aim is not to teach writing skills such as “Our Friend the Comma” or “27 Keys to the Successful Term Paper.” Rather, writing is one of the skills we work on in the class, and writing is emphasized as a way to learn. But if a simple assignment at a voluntary workshop made us nervous, what would writing do to students who know they are about to be weighed and judged?

The problem is particularly acute in “Canada since Confederation.” Continue reading