What Black History Month Can Teach the Rest of the Year

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February is one of my favourite months. Not only do red and pink hearts predominate, but there is a proliferation of events, displays, and articles celebrating the contributions of Black Canadians as part of Black History Month.

Black History Month 2019 Poster

Growing up in the southern United States and in the Caribbean, I was introduced to the richness of Black history as a young White Canadian who quickly had to learn the historicized dynamics of race in ways I had not encountered in Canada. Reading and learning about Black people in American and Caribbean history – or, better said, in reading about American and Caribbean history from the perspectives of people from the African diaspora – I was introduced to the complicated and intersectional dynamics of history that explained both the overt pride and visceral anger I saw in the quasi-segregated schools I attended. Learning history from these perspectives allowed me to see a richness and explanation in history in ways I hope to have carried with me in my own work as an educator and historian in Canada. Continue reading

Closing Nuclear Plants Will Increase Climate Risks

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By Nancy Langston

This is the first post in a collaborative series titled “Environmental Historians Debate: Can Nuclear Power Solve Climate Change?” hosted by the Network in Canadian History & Environment, the Historical Climatology and ActiveHistory.ca.

On March 28, 1979, I woke up late and rushed to catch the bus to my suburban high school in Rockville MD. So it wasn’t until I found my friends clustered around the radio in the cafeteria that I learned seventy-seven miles upwind of us, Three Mile Island Reactor Unit 2 was in partial meltdown.

Three Mile Island, Reactor Unit 2. Credit: Rowen’s Photography, (Creative Commons CC BY-ND 2.0).

Two months after the disaster, when the containment of its radioactivity was still in dispute, I was chosen as a finalist for a National Science Foundation (NSF)-sponsored competition to showcase emerging young scientists. The prize was a tour of Australia, where we were expected to promote the stellar safety record and wondrous technology of the U.S. nuclear program. The timing wasn’t perfect, to put it mildly. At the finalists’ interview, I ended up in a lively argument with the NSF judges when they told me that the public’s nuclear anxieties were irrational, and I replied that NSF’s certainties of safety were even more irrational, given the measurable risks of a meltdown and the failure of the U.S. to promote energy conservation as an alternative.

To no one’s surprise, I was not chosen to represent America in that summer’s nuclear wonders tour. Instead, I marched against nuclear power. When the movie China Syndrome came out the following spring, all my worst suspicions about nuclear risks found fictional confirmation.

Four decades later I now teach the problematic history of nuclear power. Students use the emerging field of discard studies to explore the structural context of a society that creates vast volumes of toxic waste, designating certain landscapes as sacrifice zones. We turn to Traci Voyles’ insights in Wastelanding to understand the appalling history of uranium mining, exploring how the Dine (Navaho) were made into disposable peoples by the nuclear mining industry.[1] We watch a few of the “Duck and Cover” movies from 1950s to show how an enormous gap developed between potential nuclear hazards and possible individual responses.[2] When we examine the three major disasters in the history of nuclear energy—Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima—we use Diane Vaughan’s concept of “the normalization of deviance” to explore the ways “disasters are socially organized and systematically produced by social structures” in high risk industries.[3] After glancing at the risks of nuclear proliferation and terrorism, we finally turn to the challenges of high level waste transport and storage.

This is hardly an eco-modernist paean to the promise of nuclear power. I sound less like Robert Stone in his 2013 pro-nuclear documentary Pandora’s Promise and much more like the younger Robert Stone in his 1988 documentary Radio Bikini, which focuses on the horrors of nuclear weapons testing and fallout.[4]

Mushroom cloud, Ivy Mike. U.S. nuclear weapon test MIKE of Operation Ivy, 31 Oct 1952, the first test of a thermonuclear weapon (hydrogen bomb). Credit: National Nuclear Security Administeration Nevada Site Office Photo Library IVY-52-05

By the end of the segments on nuclear, my students fully expect me to call for an end to nuclear power. But I do the opposite: I call for continuing, not shuttering, nuclear power plants. Why? Because the risks of climate change are overwhelmingly greater than the risks of all stages of the nuclear cycle combined. I am convinced that to have a chance of avoiding the existential threat of runaway climate change, we must keep the globe’s clunky, aging, awkwardly designed 451 nuclear reactors limping along for the foreseeable future. Until renewables have replaced all existing fossil fuels, closing aging nuclear plants would mean game over for keeping warming to less than 2º C.[5] To paraphrase Winston Churchill’s comments on democracy: existing forms of nuclear power are the worst form of non-renewable energy—except for all the other forms ever yet tried.

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Environmental Historians Debate: Can Nuclear Power Solve Climate Change?

The first light bulbs ever lit by electricity generated by nuclear power at EBR-1 at Argonne National Laboratory-West, December 20, 1951.

This is the introductory post to a collaborative series titled “Environmental Historians Debate: Can Nuclear Power Solve Climate Change? hosted by the Network in Canadian History & Environment, the Historical Climatology and ActiveHistory.ca.

Is nuclear power a saving grace – or the next step in humanity’s proverbial fall from grace?

This series focuses on what environmental and energy historians can bring to discussions about nuclear power. It is a tripartite effort between Active History, the Climate History Network (CHN), and the Network in Canadian History and Environment (NiCHE), and will be cross-posted across all three platforms. Reflecting this hydra-headed approach, this series is co-edited by a member of each of those websites: Jim Clifford (Active History), Dagomar Degroot (CHN/HistoricalClimatology.com), and Daniel Macfarlane (NiCHE).

Why a series on historians, nuclear power, and the future? After all, predicting the future is pretty much a fool’s errand, and one that historians tend to avoid. But this isn’t so much about prognosticating what is to come as using the knowledge and wisdom of history to inform dialogue about the present and future.

It all started on Twitter, as these things often do. Daniel Macfarlane was tweeting back and forth with Sean Kheraj about some energy history books they had recently read. Daniel was lamenting that one ended with an arrogant screed about how nuclear energy was the only hope for the future, and anyone who didn’t think so was deluded. This led them to wonder – on Twitter, mind you – what environmental historians, and those who studied energy history in particular, thought of nuclear energy’s prospects.

Some other scholars, many of whom will be represented in this series (Dagomar Degroot, Andrew Watson, Nancy Langston, Robynne Mellor), began chiming in online. The exchanges remained very collegial, but it was clear that there were some sharply diverging positions. This mirrored the stark divides one often finds among environmentalists and environmental studies students. To some, nuclear energy is just another dead end, like fossil fuels; to others, it offers humanity its only real hope of addressing climate change.

The three editors of this series themselves project differently across a spectrum running from anti-nuclear to pro-nuclear, with an in-between that might best be called anti-anti-nuclear. Daniel Macfarlane is decidedly a nuclear pessimist, Dagomar Degroot sees an enduring role for nuclear fission on a limited scale, and Jim Clifford is not sure how to engage the nuclear debate within the context of continued inaction on carbon emissions. Each of the three will explain their basic positions below (in the first-person voice for the sake of coherence). Continue reading

History Slam Episode 128: A Modern History of Curling

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By Sean Graham

Late last year, the story of 2014 Olympic Gold Medal curler Ryan Fry being ejected from an event in Red Deer made headlines around the world. The conversation ranged from disappointment to jokes about how drinking beer is a central part of the sport. And while looking at photos of curlers playing with cigarettes hanging out of their mouths can be entertaining, the stereotype of the unathletic curler no longer applies to the top players. When you turn on national or international championships today, you will see people who have spent countless hours in the gym getting ready for these games.

One of the reasons for this change was the introduction of curling to the Olympics in 1998. Since then, the sport operates on a four-year cycle, where teams are re-formed and players gear up to represent their countries on Olympic ice. At the same time, there is more money available to players, both through federal funding and an explosion of events where top teams can win significant money.

In his new book, Written in Stone: A Modern History of Curling, Brian Chick tells the story of these changes over the past thirty years. Based on interviews with some of Canada’s top players, Chick goes through the sport’s major changes, including its inclusion in the Olympics, the early 2000s boycott of national events, and the expanding competitive schedule. With his journalism background, Chick is able to weave together the various perspective to tell the story of the sport’s growth.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Brian about the book. We talk about the Olympics, the boycotts over sponsorship at the Brier and Scotties, and the TV controversies of the mid-2000s. We also talk about the changes in fitness, the professionalization of the sport, and what the future may hold for some of the top teams.

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It Inspires Us Still: A Century Later, the Winnipeg General Strike Still Matters

Crowd gathered outside old City Hall during the Winnipeg general strike, June 21, 1919. Wikimedia

Christo Aivalis

In just a few months, we will be in the midst of celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Winnipeg General Strike, where thousands of workers walked off the job, initially to support the traditional bargaining demands from some of the city’s established unions, but eventually to demonstrate a more systemic challenge to the social, political, and economic status quo which reigned across Canada in the aftermath of the Great War. But this is all so far away from us today, is it not? Aren’t the efforts of those working-class and socialist activists—however storied—a relic of the past? What can that all mean in an age like ours? Quite a bit, it turns out.

The strike took place in the spring of 1919, in a context of deep socioeconomic strife. The end of the war led to unemployment, which was exacerbated by veterans returning from the European front.  This war was not only meant to end all war, but to usher in a just social order. As we know, neither happened, and this left many Canadians dismayed. In this context, building and metal trade workers appealed to the Trades and Labor Congress’ Council in Winnipeg to support them in a general sympathetic strike to win key demands such as recognition of their bargaining units. The result—no doubt driven in part by a climate of social injustice—led to most of the city’s working class population striking and shutting Winnipeg down. This led to a coordinated counter-assault, as the Canadian state, the Royal Northwest Mounted Police, the Winnipeg press, a special group of police officers (scabs replacing the strike-supporting city police), and the city’s elite organized into the shadowy Citizen’s Committee of 1000, worked to successfully break the strike by demonizing ‘alien’ elements among the strikers, and by arresting its leaders. In this way, the strike could be deemed a defeat, at least in the immediate term, as capital reasserted dominance over the city, and didn’t meet the strikers’ demands.

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Moral Foundations in History

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By Matthew Neufeld

Upper Waterton Lake with Prince of Wales Hotel

Waterton Lakes national park is named after a distinguished nineteenth-century British naturalist and pioneer in conservation. After returning from his family’s holdings in South America in 1824, Charles Waterton converted part of his estate in Yorkshire into the world’s first wildfowl and nature preserve.[1]. As recently digitized documents published by University College London show, Waterton was also a slaveholder.[2]  Waterton was by no means the first or last historical actor who demonstrated the virtue of care in one domain of life—toward plants and animals—but did not extend similar concern into another—toward enslaved black women and men.  The naturalist was clearly a morally complex figure whose historical legacy—early environmentalist and slaveholder—is mixed.

In what follows I will argue that historical debates over the meaning and legacy of complex and controversial past phenomena could be more productive and less acrimonious were historians to acknowledge that their disagreements are in part contentions over different conceptions of the good. Disputes about the past between historians generally are not between good people and bad people. No single historical perspective or methodology holds a monopoly on virtue, even when the subject is one as contentious as colonialism and imperial history.

Professionally, historians tend to think more about doing good work than doing good. Continue reading

President Trump’s Medievalish Walls

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Siege of Constantinople, as seen in « La Cronicque du temps de tres chrestien roy Charles, septisme de ce nom, roy de France, faitte et compillée par JEHAN CHARETIER ». Bibliothèque nationale de France, Manuscrit Français 2691.

Mairi Cowan

The medieval has made a resurgence in the news. Hakeem Jeffries, Democratic Senator for New York, issued a tweet declaring “No medieval border wall for Trump,” followed by Dick Durbin, Democratic Senator for Illinois, who tweeted that “a $5 billion medieval wall is no solution for illegal immigration or stopping drugs from coming across our border.” Donald Trump responded from the Oval Office, stating that “they say it’s a medieval solution, a wall. It’s true, because it worked then and it works even better now.” Later, speaking in Texas at the border with Mexico, President Trump praised expensive Secret Service cars by saying that “a wheel is older than a wall.” As many have pointed out, he’s factually wrong on the wheel/wall dating – the earliest walls predate the earliest wheels by thousands of years – but the President’s confused chronology may not matter much for his main point. Insofar as anyone can figure that out, it seems to be that old technologies can still provide good solutions in today’s world.

Of course, as is probably obvious to anyone with a basic knowledge of premodern defenses, nothing from medieval Europe looked much like what is being proposed for the US-Mexico border. Ranging from earthworks and ditches to masonry walls with crenellations and towers, medieval defensive structures were neither the concrete barrier nor the steel slats envisioned by the Build the Wall enthusiasts. Furthermore, medieval defenses didn’t always do a very good job of protecting people against invaders. The most famous walls in medieval Europe cost a fortune to construct and maintain, and even the strongest among them could be scaled, besieged, or, once gunpowder artillery was introduced, blasted into a heap of rubble. And in any case, medieval city walls were not meant just to keep people out. They had gates, which were often the most beautiful parts of the defences, and these were supposed to let people in for commerce and for living. Medieval urban populations did not grow through natural increase. The only way to increase (or, in most cases, even maintain) a town’s population was through immigration. In many medieval towns, customary law granted freedom to anyone living there without causing trouble for a year and a day. Medieval town air made you free, in a way that crossing a modern state boundary does not.

Distinctions between medieval walls and twenty-first century border security are important to keep in mind, but I would suggest that the President of the United States actually is following a medieval tradition in one respect: he sees in the wall an opportunity for symbolic display. Continue reading

How and When to Invite Indigenous Speakers to the Classroom

Circle of people in chairs outside

Photograph of Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre educational programming.

By Skylee-Storm Hogan and Krista McCracken, with Andrea Eidinger

In recent years, particularly since the publication of the TRC Calls to Action, there has been an increasing push to integrate Indigenous content into elementary and secondary classrooms across the country. While we believe that this work is essential, recent news reports have given us cause for concern. From the ongoing debates about Quebec’s latest high school history textbooks to the Ford government’s cancelling of the TRC curriculum writing session, there has been a significant pushback against the inclusion of Indigenous content.

Further, while provinces like BC and Alberta are working to integrate Indigenous content into their curriculums, they often fail to properly prepare educators. Several studies have shown that while many settler educators want to include more content about Indigenous history and culture, they often lack the confidence and training to do so. Some well-intentioned teachers either decline to include Indigenous content out of fear of offending anyone or misappropriate Indigenous stories, traditions, and even ceremonies. And in some cases, the results have been extremely problematic or even disastrous (content warning: racist language), and Indigenous educators are often faced with taking up the burden.

With this in mind, we are launching a new Beyond the Lecture mini-series, specifically dedicated to the issue of teaching Indigenous history and the inclusion of Indigenous content in the classroom. Our goal is to provide resources for educators at all levels to help navigate the often fraught terrain of teaching Indigenous content.

For the first post in this mini-series, we decided to tackle the issue of inviting Indigenous speakers into classrooms. To that end, Andrea compiled a list of commonly-asked questions about how and when to invite Indigenous speakers, and Skylee-Storm and Krista have written detailed responses. Continue reading

The Mysteries of a Hobo’s Life: Uncovering a Forgotten Revolutionary

[photograph of unknown man] (Canadan Teollisuusunionistinen Kannatus Liitto [CTKL] fonds)

Saku Pinta

An earlier version of this post appeared on the “Increasing Access to the Finnish Language Archives” project blog.

This black and white photograph appears, at first glance, to be quite ordinary. An unidentified man poses in front of a tar paper shack, possibly at a logging camp, hands clasped behind his back. His stony gaze is contemplative, confident. Perhaps even defiant. Little else is known about this individual, aside from the near certainty that he lost his life prematurely and tragically, likely dying for his convictions.

Who was this man? While it is possible that we may never know for certain, examining this photograph reveals a story interwoven with the enduring themes of class, ethnicity, justice, and memory.

The significance of the photograph, and the first clue in the difficult task of determining the man’s identity, is revealed through his inclusion in a collage of six labour martyrs. The creator(s) of the long forgotten collage, also unknown, believed that the unknown man belonged in this collection, suggesting that he too met a similar fate as the others. Yet unlike the others, the photograph of this individual is not a mass produced, postcard-sized portrait photo. Rather, it appears to be a one-off, original photograph, possibly local in origin.

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