It is Time to End the History Wars

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By Ian Milligan and Thomas Peace

We’ve been fighting about the same things for a quarter century. It’s time to call it quits.

Earlier this week, The Dorchester Review published an open letter under an inflammatory (and arguably misleading, as it did not appear on the version signatories signed) headline of “Historians Rally v. ‘Genocide Myth;” it also apparently appeared as a print advertisement in the Literary Review of Canada, absent the polarizing title.

The letter was signed by 51 historians from across Canada and lamented the “Canada Day Statement” issued by the Canadian Historical Association (and published here on The concern brought forth in the letter is about how the CHA framed historians’ work on the question of genocide and the role that professional organizations should play within the public sphere.

This is the second letter of this nature this year. In January, the Macdonald-Laurier Institute issued a similar letter, this time focused on the “Defence of Sir John A. Macdonald’s Legacy.”

Both letters share a common critique (and substantial overlap in signatories). In Monday’s letter, the signatories argue that in issuing their statement, the CHA’s leadership was “insulting the basic standards of good scholarly conduct and violating the expectations that Canadians have of academia to engage in substantive, evidence-based debate.” For the signatories of the January letter, the concern – according to the Macdonald-Laurier Institute’s press release – was that “those who see Canada’s history as little more than a shameful series of mistakes and failures have grown increasingly vocal in calling for the shunning of figures like our first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald.”

The phrasing of these critiques are familiar to anyone following the politics of history. They are reminiscent of provocative arguments that now have a pedigree of a quarter century.

Their roots are found in Jack Granatstein’s 1998 polemic Who Killed Canadian History. Explaining his motivations for writing his book, Granatstein points to the school lessons of a young boy named Brad. About this boy’s history work, Granatstein laments that the curriculum’s aim was more “to teach a lesson about racism and sexism, not history. The history taught is that of the grievers among us, the present-day crusaders against public policy or discrimination. The history omitted is that of the Canadian nation and people.”

The message from Granatstein nearly twenty-five years ago, and from the scholars who signed these letters, is that the discipline of history in Canada is in a state of disarray and is perhaps even, by virtue of its ostensible activist leanings, somehow illegitimate.

They are wrong. Continue reading

Abandoning the Enterprise? Alberta’s 1936 and 2021 Social Studies Curricula Compared

Kirk Niergarth

Author’s Note:  Alberta’s new draft K-6 curriculum, released in the spring of 2021, has unleashed a flurry of criticism. The Jason Kenney-led United Conservative government has followed through on their 2019 election promise to scrap an ambitious curriculum re-development project initiated by a Progressive Conservative government in 2008 and continued by the NDP government after 2015.  The new draft curriculum was produced much more rapidly with aid of a panel of expert advisors, including, controversially, historian C.P. Champion

Since the draft was made public in March, it has drawn criticism from parents, teachers, and scholars. Carla Peck of the University of Alberta, in particular, has published several incisive critiques and others have argued that the curriculum is developmentally inappropriate and contains numerous factual errors. A number of analyses have been compiled here and news coverage here. On 28 June, the Calgary Public Library organized a panel of Mount Royal University faculty to comment on the draft curriculum. As the only historian on the panel, naturally, I looked to the past to recall a previous moment when Alberta curriculum experienced dramatic changes and became, briefly, a pedagogical outlier in Canada, leading all the provinces in its embrace of “progressive” education.  The text of my brief remarks follows:

In K-6 Social Studies, the new Alberta draft curriculum changes the existing program of study in terms of content, but more profoundly in terms of educational philosophy. It represents, in my estimation, the biggest shift of this kind since the traditional subjects of history, geography, and civics were merged to become “Social Studies” in 1936. The new curriculum, proclaims, will help students “develop gratitude for the sacrifices of those who came before…and a pride in the free, prosperous, peaceful and welcoming society that they built and that students have the responsibility to carry forward.” The key concepts here: gratitude, pride, and responsibility are not absent from the current curriculum nor from the original 1936 Social Studies version, but the degree to which they have eclipsed developing skills and fostering critical inquiry represents a significant change.

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The Sesquicentennial of Treaty 1

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Paul Burrows

Archives of Manitoba. Signing of Treaty #1 at Lower Fort Garry, Events 243/2, 1871, N13290.

On August 3, 1871 the negotiations that became known as the “Stone Fort” treaty, or Treaty 1, were wrapped up at Lower Fort Garry, north of present-day Winnipeg.  The treaty negotiations were a massive affair, even by today’s standards.  More than a thousand Cree and Anishinaabe from southern Manitoba had begun to gather at the Hudson’s Bay Company post in July, and the subsequent negotiations took nine days to complete.  Scores of colonial officials, settlers, missionaries, and journalists (including a newspaper delegation from the United States) were also present, many of whom wrote accounts of the proceedings.  A contingent of soldiers accompanied the colonial delegation, in part to demonstrate the power of the “Dominion.” In the words of Lieutenant-Governor Adams Archibald, the ranking colonial figure involved: “Military display has always a great effect on savages, and the presence, even of a few troops, will have a good tendency.”[1] In the wake of the suppression of the Riel resistance in 1869-70, the threat of coercion was real.

For most of post-Confederation history, Canadian historians and politicians have tended to view the written treaty document –– that was largely crafted in advance, slightly amended, and then signed on August 3rd –– as the first and last word on the meaning of the treaty.  Most accounts dutifully followed the narrative framing established by Alexander Morris (one of the salient colonial negotiators of treaties 3 through 6) in his 1880 publication.[2] But even for those who have sought a deeper understanding of the spirit and intent of the treaty since the 1980s, and sought to incorporate Cree and Anishinaabe perspectives, as well as against-the-grain readings of colonial texts into their evaluation of the negotiations and the agreement, there has often been a privileging of the colonial presumption that Treaty 1 was, in the last instance, a “land cession” agreement in which First Nations gave up their claims to most of what is now southern Manitoba (an area of some 43,000 square kilometres).[3]

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Remember/Resist/Redraw #32: Police Surveillance and Democratic Socialism in Cold War Canada

The Graphic History Collective recently released RRR #32, by historian and illustrator Frances Reilly, that looks at police surveillance and democratic socialism in Cold War Canada. In particular, the poster examines RCMP spying and the thirty-five year long covert program, Operation Profunc (PROminent FUNCtionaries of the Communist or Labor Progressive Party) that began in 1948. This program planned to arrest Canadians in the event of a Communist-led attack or a leftist insurgence from within Canada’s own borders.

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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“We’re bringing picnic baskets, not water beds”: The 40th Anniversary of the Gay Picnic in Moncton, New Brunswick

RS418 – Moncton Community Services – Inter office memo about gay picnic

by Meredith J. Batt

On Wednesday, July 1st, 1981, Dominion Day, a group of 250 gays and lesbians met in Centennial Park, in Moncton, New Brunswick. All attending as individuals, some hanging out near the fringes of the park in case any trouble kicked-off, while police officers looked on, surveying the crowd. This gay picnic was the cause of huge consternation throughout the city in the days leading up to the event, resulting in a panicked city council enacting a by-law which prevented any group of over 40 people from holding an event in a city park without a permit, in an attempt to force the group to cancel. This summer marks the 40th anniversary of this, small, but significant event in Moncton, when instead of conceding to the City Council’s new by-law, gays and lesbians attended the picnic despite the threat of violence and arrest.

Moncton in the 1980s for the LGBT population was much like it was for other cities in the Maritimes: violence was rampant and “fag beatings” were frequent. There was a widespread hesitancy to be publicly identified as gay, and those who did faced dismissal at work and constant harassment. The picnic was also held in a year that saw lots of pushback from queer folks for the way they were being treated. The AIDS/HIV crisis was still in its infancy, as cases of pneumonia and cancers specifically affecting gay men were being reporting in the United States, first called Gay-Related Immune Deficiency. In fact, the very first AIDS case in Canada was reported in March 1981.[1] Raids on Toronto Bathhouses by police on February 5th, 1981, as part of Operation SOAP, saw 286 men charged with being in a common bawdy house and 20 charged with keeping a common bawdy house. A massive protest against the actions of police began the following day in the Gay Village. Toronto also held its first pride parade in June in response to the raids.[2]

Fredericton Lesbians and Gays (FLAG) had formed in 1979, but there wasn’t an organization for gays and lesbians of the Moncton area and the picnic organizers had hoped that by bringing the community together a group would be formed. In the week leading up to the picnic, organizers had attempted to reserve the park, but they were told by the Department of Community Services that the park was open on a first come, first served basis. The organizers did not tell the city department that it was a lesbian and gay event and when Moncton Police followed up a few days later, the city workers were shocked that a rumor was going around that it was a “gay picnic” that would be held on July 1st. The media did not help when it dramatically overstated the number of participants in an article, estimating around 500 people would be attending from the East Coast, perhaps from as far away as Toronto.[3] Continue reading

History Slam 188: Wagon Road North

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By Sean Graham

In 1960, Art Downs released Wagon Road North: The Saga of the Cariboo Gold Rush, which immediately became a best-seller. Relying primarily on photos to the tell the story of what happened after gold was found in the British Columbia interior, Wagon Road North was so popular that it was reprinted 5 different times through the 1960s. Updated in 1973 and again in 1993, it remains one of the province’s most sold history books. In looking at it in 2021, however, the absences in the narrative are apparent. As part of a colonial historiography, the book did not include Indigenous perspectives on the gold rush, nor did it explore the contributions of Chinese workers or the role of women in shaping life in the B.C. interior.

Over 60 years since its first edition, new additions by Ken Mather have sought to address these issues. With contemporary photos, revisions to the original text, and new sections to address the erasure that was clear in the original, this version takes the best of Art Downs’ research and brings it into the 21st century.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Ken Mather about the updates to the book. We talk about the gold rush in Barkerville, BC, the popularity of Wagon Road North, and the updates included in the new edition. We also chat about what makes for good popular history, the challenge of using photographs in books, and how working in interpretation at historic sites can improve historical writing.

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Saving Chinatown, 1971 to 2021

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Toronto Star, August 28, 1971 (courtesy of Jamie Bradburn).

Daniel Ross

2021 has been a difficult year for Chinatowns across Canada. In mid-April, a coalition of community leaders from six cities released a statement calling on the federal government to make it a “national priority” to support Chinatowns struggling with the fallout of the COVID-19 lockdown and a new spike in anti-Asian racism. In both Montreal and Toronto, local activists are working to protect a heritage and community-centred vision of their districts from the twin pressures of redevelopment and gentrification. As these examples suggest, both the problems faced by inner city Chinatowns and the solutions proposed for meeting them intersect with many of the key urban and social debates of our time.

None of this should be a surprise to anyone familiar with the last century of North American urban history. Saving Chinatown has been on the urban agenda in cities across the continent since the mid-twentieth century, whether in the context of community fights against urban renewal and infrastructure projects, or the longer-term transformation from a racially segregated enclave to a commercial and cultural hub for a dispersed diasporic community. In this post, I present one minor episode in that longer history: the Dragon Mall, a street festival organized by Toronto’s Chinese community in the 1970s, amid widespread concern that the city’s Chinatown was on the brink of erasure. By looking at this event through three lenses—as an ethnic celebration, as part of the political mobilization of Chinese Torontonians, and as one path for renewing the heart of the city—I hope to highlight how in the 1970s, as today, debates over saving Chinatown were entangled with larger discussions of the urban future and the nature of Canadian society.

The Dragon Mall was an annual event that transformed Toronto’s Elizabeth Street—a north-south downtown street lined with Chinese restaurants and shops—into a car-free festival of Chinese Canadian culture. Continue reading

Indigenous and Colonial Trackways: A New Historia Nostra Series

By Erin Isaac

Roads, hiking trails, rivers, train tracks, or any manner of routes we use to travel often feel like historically benign spaces (at least to me).

For myself, driving along the 401 between Kingston and Toronto has inspired more frustration about traffic and “Ontario Drivers” than curiosity about the road’s history. It feels like a space that exists to carry people between places of significance rather than one in and of itself.

That is, that’s how I felt until I first watched Tony Robinson’s series exploring Britain’s Ancient Tracks. Continue reading

History Slam 187: The Line Between Innovation & Cheating in Curling History

By Sean Graham

Ken Watson, inventor of the ‘long slide.’ Courtesy of Curling Canada

In recent years, the unwritten rules of sports have gotten a lot of attention. Whether it’s celebrations or expectations on rookies or what constitutes proper respect for your opponent, these ‘rules’ are increasingly recognized as antiquated and no longer relevant to modern athletes. In curling, the unwritten rules have always centered on the idea of the ‘Spirit of Curling’, which, generally, suggests that it is better to lose than to win unfairly.

Over the last 500 years, however, what constitutes fairness has changed. Things that are commonplace – even central to the modern game – were so controversial that those innovators who first used them in games were accused of cheating. From the Fenwick players putting a rotation on the stone to Ken Watson’s long slide, innovation in curling has been controversial. At the same time, however, other developments, like the evolution of the stone, have not been subject to nearly the same resistance.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Game of Stones Podcast co-host Scott Graham about the fine line between innovation and cheating in curling. We talk about which innovations were deemed to be in violation of the ‘Spirit of Curling’, why others weren’t as controversial, and general resistance to new technology. We also chat about how things went from controversial to commonplace, the evolution of sweeping in curling, and what the next big innovation in the sport might be.

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Postscript: (In)Security in the Time of COVID-19

Artwork by: Tobias Merlo.

This post by Emily Gilbert concludes the “(In)Security in the Time of COVID-19” series. Read the rest of the series here.

By now, it should be widely recognized that the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have been highly uneven. The elderly are particularly vulnerable, and especially those in long-term care. But there are other fault lines: racialized and low-income communities have had much higher rates of infection and death largely due to structural inequalities around housing conditions, low-paid and precarious work, and lack of paid sick leave. Access to and take-up of vaccines has also further accentuated these social disparities. All of this while the rich have accumulated even more wealth during the pandemic.

It is these kinds of issues that are taken up in the series “(In)Security in the Time of COVID-19,” but while the present conditions of the pandemic loom large, the posts probe the longer histories that have driven these inequities, with respect to, for example, racist immigration policies, profit-based housing markets, and labour policies that favour the private sector over workers. In so doing, they shift attention away from the prevalent discourses around national security that have taken hold in the 21st century—which are about fear and defense, and which invoke images of the military and militarized policing—and refocus our attention on social security, which comprises access to human needs such as housing and health care, more equitable working conditions, and more inclusionary policies and forms of belonging. Continue reading