Canada’s Young Ambassadors: The Halifax Junior Bengal Lancers

By Claire L. Halstead

The Junior Bengal Lancers on display in Parade Square. Photo courtesy of the Lancer Archive.

Opening with scenes of Halifax harbour viewed from atop Citadel Hill, the 1956 RKO-Pathé production entitled “Canadian Lancers” turns to scenes of youth riding across green grass in the centre of Halifax. The narrator proclaims, “The junior Lancers, an accomplished children’s riding group, has its own riding ground; this is the mecca of young and hopeful equestrians”. The film follows the young Halifax Junior Bengal Lancers to Annapolis Royal where they perform their famed “musical ride” in all its splendor in celebration of the town’s founding.[1] Their colourful uniform, modeled after the English army India service uniform, consisting of a red tunic, khaki jodhpurs, white gloves, a white pith helmet and, of course, a lance complete with a flag, added to the spectacle.

That a small children’s riding club from Halifax, Nova Scotia rose to public acclaim and became featured in an international film production in such a short period of time since its founding, gives pause. Continue reading

History not Enough: A Look at the Climate of Reconciliation in Canada Today

Today we re-post the first in an Acadiensis series that features students from Jerry Bannister’s undergraduate and graduate Canadian Studies and History classes at Dalhousie University.

By Mercedes Peters

Canadians following the news lately could probably say something about The Tragically Hip’s ailing frontman, Gord Downie, and his most recent artistic endeavor, The Secret Path.[1] The conceptual album, paired with a graphic novel designed by artist Jeff Lemire, tells the story of Chanie Wenjack, an Anishinaabe child who froze to death trying to escape his Northern Ontario residential school in 1966. Reactions to the album, to the CBC special which broadcast the live performance of The Secret Path, and to the accompanying documentary film have been generally positive. Many see it as a continuation of the efforts of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), whose mandate to collect and tell the stories of Indian Residential School (IRS) survivors ended with the release of their final report in June, 2015.[2] Downie has been praised for his dedication to indigenous rights, and for once Canadians are participating in a dialogue about a once neglected history, acknowledging the horrors indigenous people in Canada have faced for centuries.

This is a good thing. We need sustained conversations about IRS in the public sphere; we need them in the government. In this regard, the TRC has been crucial to ensuring that Canada does not forget this history, as has the work of Gord Downie and others like him. The history is important, the people dedicating their time to spread this knowledge are indispensable to the reconciliation movement, but Canada is only looking at a history, past tense, and that serves as a cause for worry. It appears that our satisfaction with these endeavors leaves us content with merely recognizing a tragic story. The real work — asking tough questions of ourselves and taking action to combat the legacy of these institutions and the existence of the systems that allowed the schools to flourish in the first place—goes undone. Continue reading

History Slam Episode Ninety-Three: Towards a Prairie Atonement

By Sean Graham

As an MA student, I had the pleasure of attending the University of Regina, a place that often gets criticized for its topography. Despite the jokes, I always countered that the Prairie sky was a sight in itself, somehow powerful and majestic while also being a calming presence. In my conversation with Trevor Herriot, he offered the possibility that one of the reasons I was so drawn to the sky is that the Prairie landscape has been so heavily altered to be almost unrecognizable from its native condition. When put in those terms, it becomes abundantly clear that the land has been completely altered by human beings.

A few years ago, Herriot came across the story of forced Métis relocation in the Spy Hill region along the Saskatchewan-Manitoba border in the 1930s as part of the Community Pastures Program. Since the program was discontinued, however, the area has become the centre of questions about what to do with the land. That’s where his new book Towards a Prairie Atonement can provide some answers.

Working with Norman Fleury, who, among other roles, has served as the Director of Michif Languages for the Manitoba Métis Federation, Herriot started to ask questions about how settlers can atone for the past and work towards reconciliation. In telling the story of the land, Herriot and Fleury, whose voice can be heard throughout the text, provide a framework through which communities can be brought together and, in time, past wounds can start to heal. As they write in the book’s final section, “Any chance to create an economy that nurtures the prairie instead of devouring it, to break down the garrison holding the wealth of the land and keeping its First Peoples out, will require us to embrace the best of Indigenous and settler values.”

In talking with Herriot, this final point struck a cord for me. When I asked about a settler telling this story, he pointed out that it wasn’t exclusively a story of Indigenous peoples. Whenever issues around reconciliation are discussed, too often they are presented as Indigenous issues. But the story, by its very nature, includes settlers and, therefore, is also the story of contemporary settlers. That collective ownership of the past is a rather powerful motivator to get people invested in reconciliation and, in this case, atonement.

Continue reading

Remember / Resist / Redraw #01: 150 Years of Colonialism

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The Graphic History Collective (GHC) has launched a new activist art project: Remember | Resist | Redraw: A Radical History Poster Project.

The collaborative project will be an ongoing poster series that aims to intervene in the Canada 150 conversation. We hope to encourage people to critically examine history in ways that can fuel our radical imaginations and support struggles for radical change in 2017 and beyond.

The GHC will publish the posters on our website and on as they are completed. We also plan to create a traveling pop-up people’s history exhibition this summer. Learn more about the project on our new website, and stay connected with us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for news and special features. Continue reading

Staging an Imagined Ireland

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This post by Matthew Barlow is presented in partnership with Au delà des frontières / Beyond Borders, the blog of the Wilson Institute for Canadian History at McMaster University

Montreal from Street Railway Power House chimney, 1896. Wm. Notman & Son. Wikimedia Commons.

In May 2017, my first monograph, Griffintown: Identity & Memory in an Irish Diaspora Neighbourhood, will be published by UBCPress.  Around the same time, my colleague G. Scott MacLeod and I will release our documentary film, The Death of Life of Griffintown.  As you can imagine, I am very excited about this, as it will culminate a decade-and-a-half of work on Griffintown.  For those who don’t know, Griffintown is an inner-city neighbourhood in Montreal.  And while today it is under rapid regeneration with the construction of dozens upon dozens of condo towers, it was historically a working-class neighbourhood. Indeed, the Canadian industrial revolution began in Griff in the 1830s.

While the population was a heterogeneous combination of Irish-Catholics, Anglo-Protestants, and French-Canadians, the neighbourhood is remembered today for its Irish population.  Griffintown has emerged as the Irish neighbourhood of Montreal, even if only in memory, as a counterpart to more famous Irish neighbourhoods like Southie in Boston and the Five Points and Hell’s Kitchen in New York.  My work has centred around the constructions of identity in the Irish-Catholic population of the neighbourhood over the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.  The Irish of Griffintown were a diasporic people by the dawn of the twentieth century, as Irish emigration to Canada had more or less dried up over half a century earlier, during the Irish Famine (1845-52) once passage to the United States was made more affordable by the repeal of the Navigation Acts.

An imagined Ireland has remained part and parcel of the Griffintown experience, as the people of the neighbourhood’s diaspora found ways to represent the old country back to themselves. Continue reading

Rediscovering the “Oracle of Wheat”

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By Anne Dance

E. Cora Hind, first-wave feminist and famed agricultural journalist, was never one to back down from a fight. In the 1930s, the septuagenarian recommended reforms to a federal cabinet minister. The Canadian politician quickly dismissed Hind’s suggestions, much to her disgust. “This merely shows his colossal ignorance of the whole situation,” Hind later wrote in one of her bestselling books. “He is dead now, but I have no doubt his evil influence on that subject has lived after him.”[1]

When we reflect upon women’s activism in the Canadian West, Ella Cora Hind ticks so many boxes: a good friend of Nellie McClung, she was a proponent of women’s suffrage and advocated relentlessly for women’s vocational training. Hind was also a renowned agricultural authority. She was a ubiquitous presence at producers’ meetings, conferences, trade shows, agricultural fairs, and experimental farming stations. From the late 1890s onwards, Hind spent weeks surveying Prairie crops and interviewing farmers for the Manitoba Free Press. Her published predictions were consistently more accurate than government surveys and other experts. And they made her famous, so much so that Hind was dubbed the “Oracle of Wheat”. Continue reading

Silenced Histories: Accessing Abortion in Alberta, 1969 to 1988

By Shannon Ingram

Two years following the 100th celebration of Canadian confederation in 1967, the Omnibus Criminal Law Amendment Act was passed on May 14th, 1969 by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau that partially lifted the strict criminal sanctions regarding abortion nationwide. [1] The decades that followed the passing of, what many deemed, “the monumental omnibus bill” was no more liberating for women’s bodily autonomy than prior to the passing of the bill.

Therapeutic Abortion Committees or TACs were established across Canada following the partial decriminalization of abortion in 1969. The TAC maintained that a minimum of three medical professionals had to be present to regulate the number of abortions performed on women in hospital settings. The Therapeutic Abortion Survey, conducted in 1969, showed evidence of this increased attention by medical professionals and government. Each therapeutic abortion required the woman to fill out a standardized individual report, including such information as, “[the woman’s] marital status, age, province of residence… [and recommendations for or against] sterilization.”[2] The Therapeutic Abortion Survey, initiated by the Federal Department of Justice and Welfare, was submitted by hospitals who both had accredited Therapeutic Abortion Committees and who performed therapeutic abortions. The criteria for sterilization or recommendations for other forms of birth control was left to the discretion of the referring doctor and the TACs, and in many cases, went against the woman’s wishes. And while the standardized individual report case forms estimated the number of women across Canada seeking abortion services, it also implicitly suggested that some women were suitable for motherhood and some women were not. Ultimately, this decision was more times than not left in the hands of government and medical professionals regulating and problematizing the female body, under the auspices of a more liberalized era of reproductive choice. Continue reading

Firmly on the Left: ‘Ethnic Hall’ Socialist Women’s Activism and State Responses, 1919-1945

By Rhonda Hinther

Authorities caught up with Regina Communist Party Activist Gladys Macdonald on June 3, 1940, along with two men, John Slavkowsky (whom the press identified as a Hungarian relief recipient) and Clifford Peet, another local Party organizer. According to news reports, the three, were “accused of printing a pamphlet known as the Saskatchewan Factory and Furrow, containing materials intended or likely to cause disaffection to His Majesty; likely or intended to interfere with the success of His Majesty’s forces and intended or likely to be prejudicial to the efficient prosecution of the war.” Her arrest was a serious blow to the party locally.  Shortly after, an RCMP secret bulletin noted “The Communist Party of Canada in the Province of Saskatchewan appears to be seriously disorganized as a result of the outlawing of the Party and other left wing organizations and the arrests of Clifford Peet and Gladys McDonald, leading Communists.” Slavkowsky’s wife, Susie, was later charged and convicted with the trio, as the pamphlet’s printing allegedly took place in her home.  Susie received a suspended sentence, while her husband and Peet received jail time of six months and one year respectively of hard labour served in Regina Jail.[1]

Apparently more dangerous, Macdonald was convicted and sentenced to double the time of Peet– she was ordered to a year of hard labour at Battleford Women’s Jail. Upon completion of her sentence on the morning of July 11, 1941, “she was informed that orders had been issued for her to be held in jail.” A short time later, “the RCMP [showed up] with an internment order on which no grounds [to hold her] were shown.” A week later, she was furnished with the particulars justifying her continued incarceration, and, over a month later on August 19, 1941, a government committee heard her appeal.  Despite a host of positive character witnesses and McDonald’s own testimony that she now supported the war (in keeping with the Party’s then changed position), she did not fare well during the proceedings.  By the next month, she found herself interned in Kingston Penitentiary.

Macdonald’s story is part of a larger project I’m researching on the political incarceration of leftists during WWII.  Then, the Canadian government imprisoned, in jails and internment camps, hundreds of far left activists. Their detention was part of a broader climate of repression, intimidation, and fear that hung over many leftists in wartime Canada. Authorities here, like other western powers, used the war as excuse to criminalize radical activism, involvement in a host of leftist ‘ethnic hall’ socialist organizations, and support of the Communist Party of Canada (CPC), which, at the time, had grown to considerable strength thanks to its Depression-era activism among the working class and unemployed. The state took aim at these radicals, focussing on the CPC’s antiwar position adopted following the German-Soviet Pact in August of 1939. Fearing disruption to the war effort and seizing the opportunity to silence Canadian radical groups (a constant thorn in the government’s side), Prime Minister Mackenzie King in the spring of 1940 banned a number of organizations linked to and including the CPC, granting state authorities the right to confiscate these groups’ property and arrest the leadership.

I’m especially interested in how gender shaped wartime political incarceration.  The vast majority of the men rounded up (some 120 or so) were interned, typically serving out their time together in one of three camps across Canada.  Most of the women I’m finding (currently numbering around ten and growing as my research continues) were formally charged, convicted, and served jail time.

Gladys MacDonald enjoys the dubious honour of being the only leftist woman internee.  She was finally released, along with many of the male leftists internees then held in Hull Jail, in the fall of 1942. And after that, she seems to disappear from the record.  It’s possible her name changed through marriage, and that this is making it difficult to locate further sources on her.  It’s possible she may have left the movement entirely – wartime was obviously traumatic and lonely for her.  I’m hoping some additional sources I’m planning to examine over the coming months will help shed light on her life and activism following her incarceration. I welcome any help Active History readers can offer.

As this and the other posts in this series demonstrate, women’s political and social activism in Western Canada was complicated and complex. And it was not without danger, as Gladys MacDonald’s story underscores, especially when it was perceived as a direct challenge to the authority of the state.  Wartime, in MacDonald’s case, provided the government with the perfect excuse to silence her and others who dared to contest the lot of the working class.

Rhonda L. Hinther is an Associate Professor of History at Brandon University (BU).  Her research and teaching interests include public history, oral history, gender and women’s history, migration and labour history, and radical and social justice activism in Canada.  She is the author of the forthcoming book, Perogies and Politics: Radical Ukrainians in Canada, 1918-1991 (University of Toronto Press, 2016) and the co-editor of Re-imagining Ukrainian-Canadians:  History, Politics, and Identity (University of Toronto Press, 2011).

[1] “4 Persons Rounded Up In Regina Raid,” Medicine Hat News, June 6, 1940; “Sask. Trio Held Under War Act,” Winnipeg Free Press, June 3, 1940; “War Act Violators Sentenced to Jail,” Winnipeg Free Press, September 12, 1940; Joan Sangster includes some discussion of Macdonald and several of the other leftist women arrested at this time – see Joan Sangster, Dreams of Equality: Women on the Canadian Left, 1920-1950 (Toronto, Ont.: McClelland & Stewart, 1989). For more information on women internees and other women (of varying circumstances and political stripes) rounded up seemingly without rhyme or reason under the DOC Regulations, see Michelle McBride’s path breaking article, “The Curious Case of Female Internees,” in Enemies within Italian and Other Internees in Canada and Abroad, ed. Franca Iacovetta, Roberto Perin, and Angelo Principe (Toronto; Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 2000), 128–47.  On page 164, McBride provides important commentary on McDonald’s wartime circumstances.


Rethinking the Contributions of Union Activist Ethel Wilson Within the Postwar Context of Alberta’s Male-Dominated Industrial Complex

By Cynthia Loch-Drake

Struggling to make ends meet in 1934 while raising three small children after her husband deserted their family, Ethel Wilson took a job as seamstress in one of Edmonton’s major meatpacking plants. During WWII she became a union organizer and in the postwar era entered community politics, rising to become a cabinet minister in the Social Credit government from 1963 to 1972.[1] Despite this remarkable trajectory, critics have written off Wilson for her limited impact as a progressive politician. The labour movement judged her harshly for supporting Alberta’s most anti-union government, and Wilson is portrayed as no friend of working women because of the ineffectual provincial Women’s Bureau that she established during her tenure as cabinet minister.[2]

Ethel Wilson, 1957, Courtesy of City of Edmonton Archive (EA-10-2934-5).

I argue that as a white, Anglo-Celtic woman in a region shaped by recent colonization, Ethel Wilson’s abilities and privilege allowed her to be a more effective unionist and advocate for women workers in the 1940s than has been recognized. Her impact, however, was constrained by moralistic middle-class notions of female sexuality and her religious convictions, which fostered an individualistic approach to activism. More fundamentally, though, her career demonstrates that the male-dominated system of packinghouses, unions, and governments in postwar Alberta was a more significant barrier to Wilson’s activism, shutting her out of positions of real power due to her gender. Continue reading

The Voice of Women Against Chemical Weapons

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By Susan L. Smith

On August 20, 1988, over one hundred peace activists, environmentalists, and concerned citizens from Alberta and Saskatchewan gathered at Suffield, a military research facility in southern Alberta.  The protest was led by the Alberta Branch of the Canadian Voice of Women for Peace.[1]  The Voice of Women was an organization of peace activists founded in 1960 to demonstrate women’s discontent with Cold War politics and the nuclear arms race.  However, in the 1960s and 1980s, women in Alberta expanded their peace activism to include opposition to Canadian chemical weapons research.  Peace activists played an important role in the history of Western Canadian women’s political activism.

Women’s opposition to military research at Suffield was part of the long history of women’s international peace and disarmament efforts.  For example, during the First World War, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom was founded by women from warring and neutral nations in order to halt the war. Several decades later, women’s opposition to the nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union led to the creation of the Canadian Voice of Women for Peace by a group of women in Toronto.  Women from across Canada soon organized local branches of the Voice of Women, including one in Alberta, which existed from 1960 to 1994. Continue reading