Congress 2020, Interrupted: Racism and Commemoration in Western University’s Department of History

Will Langford

At the cancelled Congress 2020, Olivette Otele was scheduled to deliver the Canadian Historical Association’s keynote address. Otele was recently appointed the first History of Slavery professor at Bristol University. Her immediate research will examine Bristol University’s historical ties to the transatlantic slave trade.

A growing number of universities are detailing institutional links to slavery and showing why those ties continue to matter. At McGill, two postdoctoral fellows have been recruited to research institutional connections to slavery and colonialism. In Halifax, scholars conducted a slavery inquiry at University of King’s College. And the recently completed Lord Dalhousie report revealed that 30% of Dalhousie University’s original endowment came from taxes levied on slave-produced goods.

Our would-be Congress hosts might take inspiration and apply their attention to the late 20th century period my first two posts addressed.[i] Western University’s Department of History has its own institutional history problem. It has to do with racism and commemoration.

As Asa McKercher first noted on ActiveHistory, Western University’s Department of History received $750,000 from Kenneth Hilborn’s estate in 2016. A series of scholarships were named after the former University of Western Ontario (UWO) history professor, whose career stretched from 1961 to 1997.

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Making the Best of It, Then and Now

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Sarah Glassford and Amy Shaw

A week or two into our respective COVID-19 isolations at home in Alberta and Ontario, we (colleagues Amy and Sarah) each received, by mail, fresh from the printer, our copies of our new edited collection about female Canadians’ and Newfoundlanders’ experiences of the Second World War. The title – a last minute substitution at the press’s insistence, which seemed bland and unmemorable when we chose it six months ago – struck us, in the altered reality of a global pandemic, as entirely appropriate. [1] We are all, in these unsettling times, Making the Best of It.

Our book’s self-appointed task was to reassess and try to make sense of a persistent tension in the history and memory of how women and girls in Canada and Newfoundland experienced the Second World War. Scholars have amassed piles of compelling evidence showing the ways in which that era was one of anxiety, loss, strife, oppression, and hardship for women… but those who lived through it, even when they acknowledge those other elements, often remember it very differently. For them, it was also a time of new opportunities, fun and romance, challenges met and overcome, and communities pulling together in a common cause. 

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Profiteering in the War against Covid-19

Ryan Targa

“This Little Pig Stayed Home,” Toronto Star, 13 August 1917, 5.

The new year began with the threat of war after the Iranian general Qassem Soleimani was killed by a U.S. airstrike. The following month, fears about climate change were stoked by the massive fires in Australia and California. And while these events were alarming, it is strange to say that they have already fallen out of focus. Humanity has turned its attention to an even more urgent crisis – the war against Covid-19.

Although the enemy in this war lacks consciousness, its strategy to thrive at our demise has been most effective. By preying upon our need for physical interaction, the disease uses its highly infectious traits to spread. The initial surprise attack sent an ill-equipped world into panic, but having overcome this first blow, we have organized a robust war effort: hundreds of millions of people have sheltered themselves in their homes; governments and state institutions are deploying their resources; factories are being re-tooled; and healthcare workers and scientists are fighting the disease on the frontlines.

Similar to the world wars of the twentieth century, profiteering has reared its ugly head. Drawing upon my on-going research, which examines profiteering in Canada during the First World War, I would like to offer some insights into what profiteering means, how profiteering controversy unfolded in the past, and how it is re-emerging today. Continue reading

Why am I teaching about this? Historical significance in Canadian history

By Lindsay Gibson and Catherine Duquette

Historical significance raises one of the most fundamental and unavoidable questions for understanding history; which events, people, and developments from the past should be studied and remembered?[i]

The past is everything that ever happened to everyone everywhere, but it is impossible to study or remember everything that occurred. History is comprised of narratives about the past that are shaped by conditions and priorities in the present. No narrative can present all that is known—historians are selective about the topics they focus on and the details they include in their narratives.

Focusing on the Winnipeg General Strike instead of the Toronto Printers’ Strike of 1872, for example, places daily life over political events, marginalized people over well-known people.

Additionally, all historical narratives are framed from a particular perspective that influences what is included and excluded from a narrative, and how the event or person is described. Analogously, all history teachers, whether in K-12 or post-secondary, make decisions about historical significance when they create a course outline, design a lesson plan, or explain the causes of an event.

For the past three years we have been working on a project where we created sets of cards focused on significant events in Canadian history and designed pedagogical strategies to teach students to think historically about Canadian history. Continue reading

History Slam Episode 144: Finding Sally

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By Sean Graham

Finding Sally premieres tonight on CBC and GEM at 8:00pm (8:30 NT) and documentary Channel at 9 ET/PT

In September 1974, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie‘s government was overthrown following years of declining popularity. While he was popular with the country’s elite, the wider population was less inclined towards the nobility. He was replaced by the Derg, a group of low ranking military officials who established a military junta in the country. In order to maintain their power, the Derg took a hard stance against any dissent, going so far as to arm civilians with the instruction of eliminating those who opposed the government.

Groups that were targeted included the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party, whose members were regularly targeted as part of the Red Terror, in which 500,000 people were killed. Those who were not killed shifted their operations underground in an attempt to avoid detection. As a result, they were separated from families as any contact was risky. The result for families was years of not knowing what happened to their relatives.

That is the subject of the new documentary Finding Sally. Directed by Tamara Mariam Dawit, it follows her as she learns the story of her Aunt Sally. A charismatic young woman who fully embraced the nation’s political fever, Sally’s life had not been discussed by her family, leaving Dawit to wonder what happened to her. In the film, she discovers who Sally was and what she did during this period while at the same time situating her life within the wider context of Ethiopia’s political upheaval. The result is a powerful film in which a family represents the pain and suffering experienced by so many during an era marked by violence and insecurity.

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Year in Review (100 Years Later): Underrated 1911 Edition

By Aaron Boyes and Sean Graham

We offer our two cents on the events of 1911. Let us know what you think in the comments.

This is the 9th time we have convened to do one of these 100 Years Later brackets and it’s always a lot of fun to go through the list of events and consider what could be a contender to win. Most years it has been hard to determine if there any favourites, but as we looked through 1911 it was a bit of a different story. While all the events are interesting and influential in their own way, it felt that there was a power group within the list and we were curious to see how it would play out in the bracket.

We have divided the events into 4 brackets. For 1911, we have the Power to the People Bracket, This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things Bracket, Is This a Good Thing? Bracket, and, of course, Potpourri Bracket. As always, we welcome your thoughts on the matchups and hope that you enjoy these brackets in the lighthearted spirit with which they are written.

Power to the People Bracket

(1) Direct Election of United States Senators


(4) United Kingdom Passes Parliament Act

Image depicting the 1856 caning of Charles Sumner

Sean: In 1897 George Frisbie Hoar, a Massachusetts senator who had been an elected official for nearly 50 years, said that the United States Senate “was created that the deliberate will, the sober second thought of the people might find expression. It was intended that it should resist the hasty, intemperate, passionate desire of the people.” Referred to by many Americans (usually senators) as ‘the world’s most deliberative body,’ the United States has seen a variety of political strategies employed, from punching your opponent, to hitting him with a cane, to reading stories to your children watching at home. Clearly, the chamber’s self-anointed status is well earned.

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Congress 2020, Interrupted: Racism, Academic Freedom, and the Far Right, 1970s-1990s

Will Langford

In 1989, psychology professor Philippe Rushton inflamed debates over discrimination at Western University (then known as the University of Western Ontario (UWO)) by outlining his racist theories at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. For some, Rushton’s academic racism made him unfit to teach at UWO. For others, protecting academic freedom was ultimately more important than the content of Rushton’s work.

Perhaps the lines of debate will sound familiar. Jordan Peterson, University of Toronto psychology professor, came to prominence in 2016 for attacking gender-neutral pronouns. Like Rushton, Peterson welcomed debate that made academic freedom, not prejudice, the core issue.

In my first of three posts about the now-cancelled Congress 2020 at Western University, I noted that the most ardent opponents of university codes of conduct mixed up academic freedom and free speech in the early 1990s.

This second post takes up a related history: how academic freedom, as a valued principle of university life, became useful cover for professors trying to beat back criticism of their fringe or far-right views.

Edmund Burke Society bumper sticker, 1970 (Source: LAC, MG 32 C 21, Vol 407, File 7-9)

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How do we teach history after this? Thoughts from the “Pandemic Pedagogy” series

By Samantha Cutrara

I went into self-isolation about a week before many others. Because I had come into contact with family traveling abroad, I worked from home while the university and college I work for continued to prepare for what felt like an inevitability after the WHO’s declaration. Being by myself that first week exacerbated the sense of shock that schools would be closing and learning moved online.  I thought of the release of my upcoming book and my new video series talking to K-12 teachers about ways to expand their pedagogies and practice related to history. Would these conversations even matter any more? Would history be understood as an indulgent and frivolous subject of study when there was an urgent need for health care, economic stimulus, a reorganization of work and home? How would we teach history after this, I asked on my video series. I didn’t know. I didn’t even know where to start. But, as with most things, when you explore topics within a community you lessen your sense of isolation and broaden your capacity to understand perspective and approaches far beyond yourself. So came the “Pandemic Pedagogy” video series where I’ve been talking with historians, history teachers, and people in the heritage community about how we can think about history and teaching history during and after this moment.

Three women working at desks during the 1918 Spanish Flu

Three masked women working at desks, c 1918-1920

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Revisiting “Was Laurier Canada’s Obama?”

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By Elsbeth Heaman

In September 2016 I published at Active History an argument that the 2016 election in the United States was shaping up like the 1911 election in Canada. The previous elections had seen a diversity candidate (Catholic and French in Canada, Black in America) win the highest office. But instead of inaugurating a new and more equitable political life, the consequence was electoral repudiation of the progressivism and partyism that delivered such results, and a turn towards plutocrats who promised effective business-like governance.

Of course, the real interest in the piece, as in the book manuscript I had just completed, wasn’t what happened in 1911 but what happened at the next election in 1917, namely, the most racially polarizing campaign in Canadian history. The plutocrats couldn’t run on their record because they had too spectacularly enriched themselves—and had too obviously continued to do so amidst a global catastrophe, the First World War—that seemed to require better things. So they campaigned on racism. The dog-whistle was dropped and racism, along with voter suppression and a host of other nasty tricks, became the core of the Conservative government’s campaign. They claimed to repudiate “party” and embrace “union,” but this was party politics rebranded and intensified.

Credit: Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1983-28-727

“Good luck in 2020 guys,” I was warning Americans, should they elect Donald Trump.

My forecasting was dismayingly accurate. I didn’t predict either the pandemic or the economic collapse of 2020, of course, but the more predictable pattern of plutocracy and racism was confirmed. And plutocratic rule does tend to have catastrophic consequences.

Of course one can only carry the parallels so far: Robert Borden was no Donald Trump. Continue reading

Plagues and Social Change: Putting Covid-19 in Historical Context

Extract from the plague-era Second Statute of Laborers, 1351. British National Archives, C 74/1, m. 18 (1351).

Alvin Finkel

After the Black Death of 1347-52, which cut the population of Europe in half and accounted for some 75 million deaths globally, the feudal system faced challenges from peasant uprisings while labour shortages resulted in large wage increases for day workers. Orphanages and hospitals, run by churches and wealthy lay people, sprang up in towns across the continent. While social changes in the aftermath of plagues build on transformations that were already occurring in societies, they often rapidly accelerate such changes.

The so-called Justinian plague from 541 to 750, which may have accounted for as many deaths as the Black Death, severely limited ambitions of the Eastern Roman Empire to extend its reach and eventually re-establish the western empire that had been captured in the century before the plague struck. The Persians and other powers in the eastern Mediterranean developed immunities to the diseases that were causing massive declines in the Roman population. So Constantinople was reduced mainly to campaigns to hold on to whatever territories it already held in the pre-plague period.[i]

In the aftermath of the Black Death, the monarchy led efforts by landlords and town guilds to maintain the status quo and resist efforts by workers to get more wages and by peasants to keep more of their crop from the exactions of lords, the church, and the monarchy. Continue reading