Gary Potts – a tribute

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By James Cullingham

We lost a towering, deeply rooted presence recently. His name was Gary Potts. He gave much to his Teme-Agama Anishinaabe – Temagami First Nation community, the Temagami region, this country called Canada and anyone whose path he crossed.

Temagami is located about 100 kilometers north of North Bay. It’s a storied region chronicled by newcomers such as Archie Belaney aka Grey Owl and the poet Archibald Lampman. It has also been site to one of the great dramas and test cases for Indigenous rights and environmental protection in modern Canada. Many of the Teme-Agama Anishinaabe reside on Bear Island on Lake Temagami which is where Gary Potts died in his home surrounded by his family on June 3, 2020.

James Cullingham & Gary Potts, September 23, 2017 Camp Wanapitei

I was blessed to know him for 40 years. A relationship that began because of his political leadership and my work as a journalist and filmmaker blossomed into a deep friendship that endured long after our professional paths intersected. Continue reading

History Slam Episode 151: The Trials of Albert Stroebel

By Sean Graham

In the spring of 1893, a murder in Sumas Prairie, British Columbia rocked the community and kicked off a lengthy debate about who committed the crime, multiple trials, and unanswered questions about the legal process in the rural community. The victim, John Marshall, was a Portuguese immigrant who had settled on a farm and built a successful life, prompting the questions over who would have killed him. The investigation settled on Albert Stroebel, a local handyman who, to many, seemed an unlikely suspect. The resulting debate over Stroebel’s guilt split the local population into two factions, one who believed Stroebel’s claims of innocence and those who were convinced of his guilt.

The story is the subject of the new book The Trials of Albert Stroebel: Love, Murder, and Justice at the End of the Frontier by Chad Reimer, who came across the court records of this long forgotten episode in Canadian history when researching another project. In the book, Reimer details the events of Marshall’s murder, the evidence against Stroebel, and the lingering questions. As a piece of legal history, the tale of Albert Stroebel serves as an example of the challenge of investigating crimes during the late 19th century. In an era where western colonization was characterized, at least in the popular imagination, with violence and lawlessness, Stroebel’s prosecution is a cautionary tale of how violence in this era has been romanticized.

A professional historian, Reimer guides the reader through the story, providing the necessary details with great clarity. In going through the events, the principal participants emerge and you are increasingly forced to think about their backgrounds and motivations. It’s not so much a ‘whodunit’ as it is a thought-provoking analysis of why and how the events took place and, most importantly, why it matters.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Chad Reimer about the book. We talk about John Marshall’s path to Sumas Prairie, Albert Stroebel’s life, and the other key people in the story. We also talk about murder investigations in the late 19th century, the legal process in rural B.C. at the time, and how the case served as a significant precedent for the province.

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So long Dundas: From Colonization to Decolonization Road?

By Thomas Peace

Last week, following widespread Black Lives Matter demonstrations across Canada and the rest of the world, a push began to rename Toronto’s Dundas Street. Building upon a similar movement in Edinburgh, it was not long before the call to remove the Dundas name spread to other places, such as, in Ontario, London’s main commercial street and Hamilton’s west-end suburb. Dundas’s namesake has been deeply emblazoned across the province.

The impetus for this removal stems from the person these designations sought to honour: Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville.

Dundas was a Scottish aristocrat and key British cabinet member under William Pitt the Younger. In 1792, Dundas (who had tight links to the West Indies) led the charge to modify a parliamentary motion to immediately abolish the slave trade. Here, it was the addition of one word – and Dundas’s subsequent actions – that tarnished his name. Much to well-known abolitionist William Wilberforce’s chagrin, Dundas amended a motion to abolish slavery by adding the word “gradually.” Dundas was then pressured to put forth another motion calling for an end to the trade by 1800. When the original motion was amended to end the trade four years earlier, in 1796, Dundas walked away from the bill. For the rest of his career, Henry Dundas opposed abolitionist efforts (you can read more about him here and here). Those calling for Dundas’s removal blame him for delaying abolition by as much as 15 years; others (specifically his family) argue that he was in fact an abolitionist and his role during these years governed by political pragmatism.

I am not an expert in the career of Henry Dundas, but as a historian who grew up in Dundas, Ontario and now frequents Dundas Street in downtown London, I do know a bit about the places that people want renamed.

When I grew up, I was told that the Dundas Streets in both Toronto and London took on these monikers because they led to Dundas the town. No one really talked about who the town was named after. What we did talk about, though, was the Governor’s Road.

The Governor’s Road was the first road to be built in what would become Ontario. Elsewhere, it was (and is) called Dundas Street.

Understanding the Dundas Street/Governor’s Road connection is important because it teaches us much about Ontario’s early history and how calls to rename Dundas might serve as an opportunity to better acknowledge that past. Continue reading

“Symbol of the IGA”: The International Grenfell Association hospital ship Strathcona and the 1970 mass tuberculosis survey of northern Labrador

The Strathcona III in Labrador. Source: Among the Deep Sea Fishers 68, no. 4 (January 1971): 105. Photo courtesy of Memorial University Digital Archives Initiative.

John R.H. Matchim

Since the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Amundsen was reactivated in 2004 it has conducted multiple mass health surveys of Inuit communities across the Canadian Arctic. In 2004 and 2017 surveys organized by the Nunavik Regional Board of Health and Social Services and Laval University’s Population Health Unit asked some 2,000 residents questions about housing, family violence, addictions, food insecurity and the reappearance of tuberculosis. While its promoters spoke of improved community health outcomes and “empowerment,” the data was also used “to compare the current situation with the health and social repercussions of the Plan Nord,” Quebec’s contentious programme of northern industrialization.[1] Another pair of surveys, conducted in 2007 and 2008, was funded by the federal government as part of the 2007-08 International Polar Year, and its researchers interviewed and examined adults and children in Nunatsiavut, Kitikmeot, and Inuvialuit regions. Launched to great fanfare, the surveys have been criticized for a lack of transparency and withholding of research findings.[2]

The Amundsen was a critical component of these surveys, providing researchers and governments with a platform that could move technology and people through adverse Artic conditions and sustain them for months at a time. But the Amundsen is just the latest of a long line of ships that have provided governments, companies and health care providers with a means to extend authority, monitor populations, and carry out research in a vast territory that challenges conventional methods of governance. Indeed, news of the Amundsen’s planned visit in 2004 awakened painful memories of the C.D. Howe, another icebreaker that conducted tuberculosis surveys during the 1960s and forcibly removed Inuit to sanitoria in southern Ontario.[3] Drawing upon my on-going research of the International Grenfell Association (IGA), a semi-autonomous health care provider active in Labrador until 1981, this piece will provide some historical context for the contemporary health surveys of the Amundsen. In particular, it will highlight the IGA’s mass tuberculosis survey of Inuit communities in northern Labrador, conducted by the hospital ship Strathcona III in the summer of 1970.

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Epidemics and Racism: Honolulu’s Bubonic Plague and the Big Fire, 1899-1900

Smoke from a “controlled fire” in Honolulu, 1900, Hawai’i State Archives.

Yukari Takai

More than a century before the global outbreak of Covid-19, another deadly disease struck Honolulu, one that ignited the tragic unfolding of many stories about public health, urban fires and social inequalities, particularly racism.

The bubonic plague, also known as the Black Death, hit Honolulu’s crowded and throbbing Chinatown in December 1899 when it took the life of one of its first victims, You Chang (or Yon Chong), a twenty-two-year-old bookkeeper at a general store. The disease had been spreading slowly in Asia in the 1870s and reached commercial cities in southern China such as Guangzhou and Hong Kong in the 1890s, before reaching Honolulu and later, San Francisco. Steamship freighters that departed from these Chinese port cities for Honolulu may have carried rats and fleas on board with their cargoes, and this could have been the source of the spread of infection to Honolulu.

Hawai‘i’s Board of Health, which counted physicians Nathaniel Emerson, Francis Day and Clifford Wood among its members, acted quickly and its recommendations were endorsed by President Sanford Dole of the newly annexed U.S. Territory. But the measures raised sensitive issues. Given that the early victims were Chinese, calls arose for the destruction of the entire Chinatown, which was viewed as a hotbed for the plague. Continue reading

History Slam Episode 150: Dope is Death

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By Sean Graham

In the 1970s, Richard Nixon launched the War on Drugs to combat, what he called, public enemy number one. In New York City, groups like the Black Panther Party and Young Lords recognized the damage addiction was doing to local communities, but also felt that federal efforts to combat drug use were doing more damage. From overuse of methadone to police surveillance to removing access to medical and social services, addiction and the ensuring War on Drugs was particularly harmful for marginalized communities in the city.

To combat this, the Black Panthers and Young Lords, with their membership of young activists, implemented a new form of detox that combined medical intervention and political action. Together they established the Lincoln Detox, a centre in the Bronx that used acupuncture to combat withdrawal symptoms caused by heroin. Along with its medical services, the program also ran classes on political activism. In its entirely, the Lincoln Detox sought to help its patients with addiction while simultaneously empowering them to combat systemic discrimination.

That program is the subject of the new documentary Dope is Death. Directed by Mia Donovan, the film follows the story of the Lincoln Detox as described by the people who lived it. As the centre grew, the program and its leaders faced increased scrutiny from government officials upset with the Detox’s use of a new treatment technique and its ideological teachings. A story that highlights racial discrimination, economic subjugation, and the value of social networks, Dope is Death is a powerful film of an influential movement that threatened the medical, political, and social establishment of New York City.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Mia Donovan about the film. We talk about her initial interest in the story, earning the trust of the participants, and the intersection of medicine and activism. We also talk about the racial dynamics in the story, the value of alternative medicine to combat addiction, and the story of Mutulu Shakur.

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Thanks to Christo Aivalis

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This week, the editors would like to highlight the work of an outgoing member of the editorial collective. Christo Aivalis started writing for in 2015, and was a member of the editorial collective from late 2017 through to this month. A specialist in the history of labour, the Left, and twentieth-century Canadian politics, Christo is also a model of an active, publicly engaged historian, sharing his research widely beyond academic contexts and constantly highlighting its relevance for understanding the world of today. As a tribute to his time as an editor, we are republishing today one of his most popular (and still very timely) posts, which originally appeared on April 5, 2018.

Populism Isn’t a Four Letter Word: Reasserting a Progressive Populism in 2018

Christo Aivalis

In the era of Donald Trump and Doug Ford, populism’s reputation has taken quite the tumble, associated now more than at any time in the recent past with the alt-right movement, predicated in large part on xenophobia, racism, misogyny, and a reflexive aversion to anything that may be connected, however tenuously, to the ‘Social Justice Warrior’ caricature. In this context, populism is little more than a regressive rabble roused by wealthy men with a dubious reputation as ‘regular guys just like you and me.’

Bernie Sanders with arms raises in front of a crowd.

Bernie Sanders, photo by Gage Skidmore

Given this perspective, much handwringing has come from the centre of the political spectrum, as establishment politicians of a multi-partisan bent pine for the political consensus before the Tea Party movement, Trump, and Ford, where it was accepted that a narrow window of political discourse—all cordoned within a general neoliberal consensus built upon a wide-ranging distrust of the common man and woman—reigned supreme.

This is in part why, both during and after the 2016 American Presidential election, Hilary Clinton obtained so much support from those deemed to be moderate republican intellectuals and stalwarts, ranging from George H. W. Bush to David Frum. Such men were mortal enemies of the American centre-left before Trump’s rise, and yet are now welcomed with open arms into #TheResistance because they share a similar overall vision about how society should be run, and most importantly in this context, who should run it.

While a good chunk of this is a genuine reaction to the rhetoric of Trump, it was and is more cynically an attempt to equate Trump to the left wing populism of figures like Jeremy Corbyn and Senator Bernie Sanders. In this narrative—a rift on the questionable horseshoe theory of politics—Trump and Sanders are both demagogues who irresponsibly stoke the fears of the masses to destroy the liberal political tradition for their own benefit. From my point of view as a historian and observer of contemporary politics, however, the two men could not be more different. Continue reading

12 Black Scholars on the Black Lives Matter Movement and Canada

Black Lives Matter demonstration, Calgary, 1 June 2020. Calgary Herald.

As millions around the world take to the streets to defend Black lives, decry racist police violence and structural racism, and articulate visions for a radically different future, a number of Black scholars in Canada have engaged with public audiences to help contextualize this moment and lay out how racism is very much a Canadian problem as well. The below list, assembled by’s editorial collective, highlights some of these important contributions.

  1. Robyn Maynard, author of Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present (Fernwood, 2017), spoke to the CBC News Network about the history of anti-Black racism in Canada.
  2. Professors Afua Cooper and Rinaldo Walcott were interviewed by the Toronto Star on Black Canadian history and its persistent erasure. The article also includes a useful list of relevant books, films, and historical sites.
  3. Professor Barrington Walker of Wilfrid Laurier University spoke to CBC Radio: “I think what we’re seeing is the connection between longer histories of socio-economic marginalization [and] the impoverishment and neglect of black communities in both countries.”
  4. Just before the burgeoning of worldwide protests, postdoctoral fellow Melissa N. Shaw spoke to the McGill Reporter about her exciting new research on the foundational role of slavery and colonialism in McGill’s history. 
  5. In an op-ed for the Washington Post, poet and activist El Jones debunked narratives of Canada’s benign racial past and present.
  6. Professor Rinaldo Walcott of the University of Toronto beautifully blends past, present, and future in this essay for Maclean’s. Nine other prominent Black intellectuals contributed essays to the same issue.
  7. Professor Ingrid Waldron was interviewed by The Narwhal on the links between environmental racism and police brutality.
  8. Philippe Néméh-Nombré a parlé au 15-18 (Radio-Canada) sur la question de couper les fonds des forces policières.
  9. Sandy Hudson, co-founder of Black Lives Matter – Toronto, wrote about how defunding the police will save Black and Indigenous lives.
  10. In the Globe and Mail, Professor Debra Thompson discusses her family’s experience in Canada and the United States, and asks what it means to be Black in North America. 
  11. Professor Cheryl Thompson penned an article for Spacing Toronto on Black people, space, and erasure during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  12. In The Varsity, OISE professor rosalind hampton announced the creation of the National Black Graduate Network.

Two bonus links:

  1. Want to do something to support Black history in Canada? Join Nova Scotia Senator Wanda Bernard and historian Natasha Henry, president of the Ontario Black History Society, in their push to have Emancipation Day recognized across the country.*
  2. Want to buy books by some of the above scholars? Why not support a Black-owned bookstore in the process? Check out this map of Black-owned bookstores in North America, including three in the Greater Toronto Area and one in Montréal.

* Correction: The original post omitted a key actor in these efforts. Rosemary Sadlier, former president of the Ontario Black History Society, has been at the forefront of the campaign for the recognition of Emancipation Day for over twenty years.

If you’re not doing history to make change, what the f— are you doing it for?

By Samantha Cutrara

How to you teach racism in your Canadian history classroom?

Do you teach racism in your Canadian history classroom?

Do you mention racist actions or events and then move on to the next part of the chronology?

Do you acknowledge that there were ethnically and culturally diverse peoples in the Canadian past but fail to introduce any of these people or communities in your lessons in any substantial way? Maybe there is no time, maybe it doesn’t fit the narrative, or maybe you just don’t know these histories enough to teach them.

Black Histories Matter

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History Slam Episode 149: Indigenous Self-Determination in Canadian Sport

By Sean Graham

June 4 is Tom Longboat Day, which recognizes the life and career of one of the best distance runners to ever represent Canada. Winner of the 1907 Boston Marathon, Longboat is remembered for both his athletic achievements and innovative training methods. From the Six Nations of the Grand River Reserve near Brantford, ON, Longboat faced racism and prejudice throughout his career, including being called lazy by the press and fellow competitors over his training schedule.

By introducing regular rest into his regime, however, Longboat had a competitive advantage over other runners, who believed that they had to train at maximum effort all the time. He had a better understanding of how to train for long races and, as a result, he was fresher and better prepared than his competitors. This served him well during his career as he was known for his strong finishing sprints.

In 1951, the Tom Longboat Awards were established to recognize Indigenous athletes for outstanding contributions to sport in Canada. In the new book Reclaiming Tom Longboat: Indigenous Self-Determination in Canadian Sport, Janice Forsyth explores the history of the awards and their place within the broader history of Canadian policy and Crown-Indigenous relations. The book looks at how sport has been part of colonization in Canada while at the same time it asks how it can be part of decolonization. Through both oral and textual sources, Professor Forsyth pushes the reader to think critically about sport’s role in Canada while also shedding light on an under-told story in Canadian sport history.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Professor Forsyth about the book. We talk about her experience as a winner of the award, the place of role models in sport, and the use of mainstream sports in colonization. We also talk about sport and culture, the media’s role in telling athletes’ stories, and traditional sport and games and their role in decolonization.

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