History Slam Episode 139: Canadians and the Chinese Labour Corps in the First World War

By Sean Graham

The outstanding Canada’s First World War series here at Activehistory.ca wrapped up on Friday after five years of producing exceptional content. As Jonathan Weier pointed out in one of the series’ post earlier this year, the historical focus on major narratives like Vimy that focus on nationalist mythology limits the discussion about the diverse experiences of Canadians during the war. Over the past few years, Remembrance Day has provided an opportunity for news outlets to produce stories on the people who have not been written about in a lot textbooks, but with 650,000 Canadians and Newfoundlanders serving, 66,000 of whom died, there is no shortage of stories that have been lost in the last 100 years.

One story that may not qualify as having been ‘forgotten’ is that of Canada and the Chinese Labour Corps. The only reason forgotten may not apply is because very few people knew about it at the time as the federal government kept its involvement secret. Needing labour for behind the front lines, Great Britain recruiting Chinese men to go to Europe to support British forces. The safest route between China and the western front was through Canada, however, so over 80,000 men landed at William Head Quarantine Station on Vancouver Island and traveled across the country. This largely unknown chapter in Canada’s war experience is the subject of Dan Black’s new book Harry Livingstone’s Forgotten Men: Canadians and the Chinese Labour Corps in the First World War.

Once on the east coast, the men boarded ships that took them to France. Canadian involvement in the program and the men’s experiences in Canada offer a unique perspective on the First World War and the way in which certain stories are prioritized. Even now, the men who died as they crossed the country are just starting to be recognized by name at the locations where they were buried.

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Stories of Bottomless Pond

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By Isabelle and Ian McCallum

Starting the summer vacation at the Simcoe County archives, museum and the Barrie library may seem as a different approach to welcoming the holidays. My 11 year old daughter, Isabelle, and I, however, were on a research mission to uncover the story about “Bottomless pond.” Having completed a ghost story project for her class, highlighting points of interest in Oro Township, in Ontario, we were eager to discover the connections with oral history, a local churchyard and the pond.

To set the context, Isabelle and I often stop at different points of interest, usually when coming back from school, volleyball practice or simple errands. These stops include historic buildings, churchyards and abandoned houses. I try to share what I know about our stops that has been shared with me. Naturally, two people who love a good story and history, we were often late for our destination!

I have had the opportunity to grow up associated with two rural Ontario communities, my Indigenous community of Munsee-Delaware First Nation (southwest of London, Ontario) and the farming community of Clowes/Dalston (northwest of Barrie, Ontario). Both communities are unique in terms of history,  however a common practice was visiting with the older generations. Most of what I have been able to share with Isabelle relates to a different time, when you would visit older members of the community, to check in on them and to listen to stories. This was a rich part of life.Growing up in a rural community, I was exposed to various stories that were passed down through generations. It is this practice of sharing stories that is an inherent part of how I share with my own children. Continue reading

Tenth Anniversary Repost: Love it or hate it: Stephen Harper’s Government is not Fascist

Active History is celebrating its tenth anniversary! As part of our anniversary celebrations we are sharing glimpses of how Active History developed and showcasing our favourite and most popular posts from the past ten years. 

In 2014 our longest running series, “Canada’s First World War: A Centennial Series on ActiveHistory.ca”, a multi-year series of regular posts about the history and centennial of the First World War launched. We also ran a number of shorter series in 2014 including The Home Archivist, and Anishinaabeg in the War of 1812.

One of the most discussed and read posts in 2014 was Valerie Deacon’s “Love it or hate it: Stephen Harper’s Government is not Fascist.”  

No matter which way you spin it, Stephen Harper’s government is not fascist and making comparisons between the current Canadian government and fascism in the 1930s is both disingenuous and dangerous. This Huffington Post article about the government’s decision to close major scientific and environmental libraries and destroy much of the data contained therein was weakened by the rather ludicrous claim that the Harper government might be akin to the fascist regimes of the 1930s. The article noted that:

“Many scientists have compared the war on environmental science to the rise of fascism in 1930s Europe. Hutchings muses, “you look at the rise of certain political parties in the 1930s and have to ask how could that happen and how did they adopt such extreme ideologies so quickly, and how could that happen in a democracy today?”

These questions are still very important to ask, because fascism most certainly is still a danger. And the decisions that Harper’s government are making – particularly with regard to science and the environment – are also dangerous. But the dangers are not the same. As I have written elsewhere on Active History, the overuse of the term “fascist” to identify our political enemies actually has the unintended effect of blinding us to the true dangers they represent. In our current political climate, the real danger comes when movements or political parties of the extreme right legitimize their ideology to the point where it seems anodyne to a large section of the population. This leads to electoral victories and then to the manipulation of civil society that has the potential to be irreparable. But perhaps that is a post for another day. Today I want to dig a little deeper into why the Canadian Conservatives are not fascists, as much as we might disagree with their ideology, actions, or governance. Continue reading

When Historical Time Meets Real Time: Mourning Harry Tanner

Harry Tanner, Macheteros/Sugar Cane Cutters, circa 1973

Karen Dubinsky

Harry Tanner died November 7 2019 at the age of 85. I’ve only known him a couple of years. However, I’ve known him his whole life. I knew his parents, his father a Bank of Nova Scotia manager stationed in Havana in the 1940s and 1950s, where Harry grew up. I know Harry’s excitement about life in 1960s Cuba, where he was involved from the very beginning with Cuba’s revolutionary new film world. Despite his middle class background, banker dad and Canadian passport, I knew he was inspired by the social changes and utopian possibilities of his time and place. I knew about his controversial decision to leave the Cuban film institute in 1970 to become an independent painter, something he had to go to court to win the right to do (Cuban authorities decided that without being affiliated with an institution he was a “vagrant.”) I know that Black Panther Huey Newton, in exile in Havana in the 1970s, spoke of Harry with a certain awe, as a rebel who fought for the right to be an independent artist in 1970s Cuba. I know the beauty of his extraordinary artistic productions:  his films are stories on celluloid, his paintings tell stories on canvas. I know some of his personal highs and lows. How he had to continually account for his decision to stay and participate in Cuban cultural life after most foreigners –including his parents of course – left after the 1959 revolution. I know how much that storied place and that fabled decade – Cuba in the 1960s – fuelled him, but I also know how frustrated he became with the institutionalization and bureaucratization of rebellion and creativity. I know how saddened he was by the end of his first marriage, to a Cuban actress with whom he shared a decade of cultural involvements, how thrilled he was when his beloved daughter was born.

Harry Tanner, 2016. Photographer, May Ann Kainola.

It is unusual indeed to know someone in historical time and in real time, simultaneously. Harry was my research subject who became, in a manner, a friend. Continue reading

Remembering what we forget: Memory, commemoration and the 1885 Resistance

Matthew McRae

Every 11 November, Canadians gather to remember those who served their country in times of war and conflict. But are these same Canadians also gathering to forget? Memory, especially collective memory, tends to be selective.

One particularly interesting case study of collective memory (and collective forgetting) is the Northwest Resistance of 1885. The conflict saw some 5,000 Canadian soldiers march into what is now Alberta and Saskatchewan to battle several hundred Métis and First Nations opponents. After three months of sporadic fighting, the Resistance ended. Its leaders were imprisoned and put on trial by the Canadian government.[1]

Nowadays, few Canadians pause to remember the soldiers who fought in 1885. But this was not always the case.

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In Conversation VI: Making Sense of the Centenary of Canada’s First World War

By Mary Chaktsiris, Sarah Glassford, Chris Schultz, Nathan Smith, and Jonathan Weier



During the first half of 2019, we the editors of www.ActiveHistory.ca’s long-running series “Canada’s First World War” stepped back and reflected on the editorial work we undertook over of the course of four and a half years of Great War centenary commemorations, 2014-2019. In response to a series of questions circulated over email, two parallel discussions ensued. The first, about precariously-employed scholars doing unpaid academic labour, and the origins of this series, was posted in October 2019. The second, which revolves around the highs and lows of the centenary commemorations in Canada and abroad, and of our own modest contribution to it through the “Canada’s First World War” series, is presented here.

At the time of writing, the editorial team consisted of:

  • Mary Chaktsiris, PhD (Queen’s, 2015) – Assistant Professor, Wilson Fellow, Wilson Institute for Canadian History, McMaster University
  • Sarah Glassford, PhD (York, 2007) – Archivist, Leddy Library, University of Windsor
  • Chris Schultz, PhD ABD (Western, withdrew 2016) – Open Government Team Lead, Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, Government of Canada
  • Nathan Smith, PhD (Toronto, 2012) – Professor, Seneca College, Historical Consultant, Applied-History.com
  • Jonathan Weier, PhD ABD (Western) – Instructor, George Brown College; Broadbent Institute Research Fellow

The poster we made for our July 2016 post calling for more contributions to the series.


Our Conversation (More or Less)

Part I:  Best and Worst of the “Canada’s First World War” Series

Well gang, we’ve come to the end of our centenary series that explored lesser-known aspects of Canada’s Great War experience and reflected on the 100th anniversary commemorations unfolding around us. Looking back, what are we most proud of or happy about?

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Not Learning, Unlearning, and Relearning to See Genocide: Part 2

On October 24, 2019, Active History commenced a series on education “after” residential schools with an article written by Clinton Debogorski, Magdalena Milosz, Martha Walls and Karen Bridget Murray. The series is open ended. Active History welcomes additional contributions on related themes.

By Karen Bridget Murray

…they still kill us [and] take our children…

Audra Simpson (2016)


I moved to Fredericton in 2001 to take up my first tenure-track position. I was hired to teach courses on Canadian politics at the University of New Brunswick. I was an uninvited “guest” on Wolastoqiyik and Mi’kmaw territory covered by a 1725 peace and friendship treaty (such treaties do not cede land).

Shortly after, I was asked to join a research project on “urban Aboriginal policy.” The fieldwork for the study drew my attention to the Shubenacadie Residential School, which was built on Mi’kmaw lands at Sipekni’katik and operated from 1929 to 1967.

I thought that the newly digitized “School Series” records of the Department of Indian Affairs might hold information about the Dominion of Canada’s role at the school in relation to urban labour market training.

Violence against children at that school was, by then, no secret. Mi’kmaw elder Isabelle Knockwood had brought this violence into public consciousness in Out of the Depths: The Experiences of Mi’kmaw Children at the Indian Residential School at Shubenacadie, Nova Scotia (1994). The Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement (2007) had also been reached.

Why did I think, in this political context, that inquiring into urban employment dynamics was a reasonable question to pose with respect to the Shubenacadie Residential School?

Denial comes to mind.

Lee Maracle has said that “[t]o be a white Canadian is to be sunk in deep denial” (2017, location 283 in the digital edition). Denial might nurture in oneself a sense of innocence, as Maracle says, but it is by no means “innocent”.

This point has been driven home to me after reading Daniel Rück and Valerie Deacon’s Active History post on how denial is the “eighth stage of genocide.”

Indigenous scholars and survivors of the genocide of course know more than I could ever know.

I write this reflection to join the chorus of those challenging rampant genocide denial, including where it endures behind closed doors of settler-colonial classrooms in post-secondary education.

The Pan-Territorial Residential School System Ideal

It shouldn’t have taken me this long.

I broke through denial by reading Shubenacadie Residential School records, roughly fifteen years after first hearing about the existence of residential schools.

Pulsating with evidence of violence against children – abject cruelty, including sexual violence, murderous intents, and deaths – the records showed that officials of the Dominion of Canada were well aware of this violence, did nothing to stop it, and expressly sanctioned brute force against children, including the very young and the frailest.

To the office of the Prime Minister, officials were willfully complicit in this genocidal violence, violence that implicated and continues to implicate those who turn away or deny it.

I found myself contemplating the significance of the “pan-territorial residential school system ideal.”

For me, this term conveys the geopolitical purpose of the schools, which included militaristic dimensions.

A pan-territorial residential school system ideal began to be pursued over the last two decades of the nineteenth century.

It was first articulated in 1879 by Nicholas Flood Davin, who had been commissioned by John A. Macdonald to report on the use of residential schools in the United States. Davin favourably assessed their use as a “civilization” strategy, and lauded the “soon [to] be universal” system.

He recommended the immediate opening of four schools in the Dominion but noted that an “extensive application of the principle of boarding schools” would have been preferred if the Indigenous Peoples were not “so largely migratory” (Davin, 1879, pp. 2, 9-11; see also Murray, 2017, p. 753).

Davin proposed this plan in the context of the “disappearance of bison in the wild” that led to widespread famine among Indigenous Peoples’ communities. Continue reading

A Year of Inaction: Ontario Education and the TRC

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Evan Habkirk

When the Conservative government under Doug Ford came into power in June 2018, they immediately began rolling back curriculum revisions by the Ontario Ministry of Education. Two subject areas affected by these actions were the new sexual education curriculum and the addition of increased Indigenous content to the social studies, history, geography and civics curricula. Although parents, educators, and students alike rallied against the cancellation of the sex ed curriculum (which has, in part, been reinstated), there has been less sustained public outroar against the cancelling of consultation sessions with Indigenous people (see Christou and Crawley for notable exceptions).

“Carrying Knowledge Together.” Mural created by Iroquoian artist and scholar Kanatawakhon, University of Western Ontario. Author’s photograph

As a non-Indigenous allied scholar working in the field of Indigenous history, I found this lack of sustained criticism alarming as the cancellation of these sessions went against the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, undid the work of the Ontario Ministry of Education to establish respectful relationships with Indigenous communities, and hindered the ability of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous students to see themselves in the curriculum and understand their roles in the process of reconciliation.

Through an analysis of Ontario Ministry of Education programs and policies, this post will argue that while the Ministry has been learning from their previous initiatives, this decision curtailed their efforts at the cusp of the most forward and inclusive plan to create meaningful Indigenous education directives based on consultations with Indigenous people.

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Tenth Anniversary Repost: A Proud Canadian or a Canadian too proud? Understanding Stompin’ Tom’s nationalism

Active History is celebrating its tenth anniversary! As part of our anniversary celebrations we are sharing glimpses of how Active History developed and showcasing our favourite and most popular posts from the past ten years. 

In 2013, Active History celebrated five years! Some of our more timely posts from that year included Elites, Social Networks, and the Historical Profession, Time For a Change: Historical Perspective on the Washington Redskins Name and Logo Controversy“, New History Wars?: Avoiding the Fights of the Past,and In a Rush to Modernize, MySpace Destroyed More History

There were a lot of fantastic posts in 2013 and it was hard to pick just one to repost, but we have decided to share Kaitlin Wainwright’s “A Proud Canadian or a Canadian too proud? Understanding Stompin’ Tom’s nationalism.” 

Image from Kate Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant (http://www.harkavagrant.com/index.php?id=60)

Image from Kate Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant (http://www.harkavagrant.com/index.php?id=60)

Last Wednesday, Canada lost its “national troubadour”, an “icon”, and “one of [its] most prolific and well-known country and folk singers”; a man who ranked 13th in CBC’s The Greatest Canadian list. Stompin’ Tom Connors is credited with writing three hundred songs, many of which are loudly and proudly Canadian. Upon his death, online tributes poured in from the CBC, politicians of all stripes, and even Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s fake Twitter account. NDP Members of Parliament paid tribute to Stompin’ Tom outside the House of Commons with their rendition of “Bud the Spud”. The Globe and Mail suggested that the mainstream media “patronized him as a novelty singer” and questioned whether he was given enough attention during his life. Everyone seemed to have a different story of their experience with Stompin’ Tom, but they were all general positive and “pro-Canadian”.

Let me tell you my Stompin’ Tom story: I grew up in a non-musical family. My earliest experience of his music was when I was twenty, in a second-year Canadian history course, where Big Joe Mufferaw and the NFB’s Log Drivers’ Waltz were used as part of lessons on logging. The lens that I was given to look at him through was one of myth and memory, and the building of nationhood. I never made an emotional connection with his music, and in his death my recollection of his life’s work is maybe, therefore, more easily critical in nature. Continue reading

Countering White Disbelief with Historical Knowledge: Racism and Racial Profiling in Nova Scotia

Jill Campbell-Miller

Racial profiling has lately been in the news in Nova Scotia. In September, Dr. Lynn Jones, a well-known champion of civil rights and a labour leader, was stopped by police while out with friends watching deer. Someone had called the police to report “suspicious people” in the neighbourhood. To add insult to injury, Jones was stopped in a historically black community in the town of Truro known as “The Marsh,” the area in which she grew up. Following this experience, she put together a community meeting, leading town council to pass a motion that will work to improve relations between black residents and the municipal government.

Then, on October 21, the chief of the Halifax Regional Police announced that the force will formally apologize for the practice of “street checks,” which has disproportionately affected black people in the city and its suburbs. This followed a provincial ban on the practice in April, which itself followed a report by University of Toronto criminology professor, Scott Wortley. His report found that black people were six times more likely to be stopped in the so-called “random” checks than white people in Halifax. That prompted an independent legal review, which found that the checks were illegal.

African Nova Scotians had been agitating for a ban for many months. Derico Symonds, who organized a march to support a ban in the spring, said to CBC News that it was not lost on him that it took two reports from two white men to finally get the practice banned: “And so that it took this amount of effort is absolutely disappointing. If folks don’t get their driveway shovelled in Halifax it’s an uproar and there’s immediate action. But then when we have something such as this with a 180 page report that says that the practice is racist and we know that it is, it takes several efforts from several different people over several months to actually have the action that we were asking for.” Symonds and other advocates, Trayvone Clayton, Shevy Price, and Kate Macdonald, had earlier walked away from a working group formed following the release of the Wortley report after it refused to consider an outright ban on checks. Unfortunately, activists complain that checks have continued even after the ban.

As Symonds expressed, a great deal of frustration permeated the discussion around this issue, even after this apparent win for civil rights. When the report was released, Robert Wright, chair of the African Nova Scotia Decade for African Descent Coalition’s justice committee, The Coast said that he found it hard to hear about the supposed shock of leaders who expressed surprise at the findings of the Wortley report: “‘How do you get to be the head of the police commission and be horrified by the stories people tell about their racist interactions with the police?’ Wright asks. “Do you not know that people suffer daily indignity in their encounters with the police?’”­ These events, and the responses by activists to them, had me thinking about the nature of disbelief. Why do white people persist in disbelieving the experiences of racialized peoples in this province, or in Canada more generally?

It also made me think about the many consumer affairs stories that we hear, such as the work done by CBC’s “Go Public” series. When people complain about cars with persistent dangerous mechanical failures, or bad service from airlines, the average person is automatically sympathetic. In general, we do not doubt these events have happened. This is because when many people, all with something obvious in common, report the same experience, those experiences become credible. Yet a similar automatic belief in experiences of racism does not seem to exist among white people. Why is this? Perhaps it is because when someone reports that they were lied to by telecom customer service agents, we (I’m now using “we” to identify white people) can assign blame to a greedy, faraway, corporate elite. But when someone details their life with racism while shopping for groceries, working as a bus driver, furniture salesperson, firefighter, janitor, or in their interactions with police, then the culprits become us, and our neighbours, friends, and relatives. It is deeply uncomfortable to admit that while only a minority of us are actual white supremacists, white supremacy lives in all of us.[1] It becomes easier to question and doubt. After all, haven’t we all had a troublesome co-worker prone to lying and drama? What if the shopper did seem suspicious for credible reasons? Perhaps race had nothing to do with it, and how would we feel if we were being unfairly charged with racism? And suddenly, in our imaginations, we become the victims.

Yet as white people, we usually do not have to look very far to find our own culpability, or that of personal acquaintances. I was standing in line at the grocery store when I overheard the man behind me say to his friend, “well, some people might say that’s racist, but just because it’s racist, it doesn’t mean it’s not true,” followed by laughter. I was about to turn around and counter that by definition if something is racist it cannot be true (thus cementing my status as the most popular person in the grocery store), when my husband, who had not heard the previous exchange, said, “oh, hi [name]!” It was a close relative. I shut my mouth.

Fortunately, historians are in a good position to counteract this epidemic of disbelief even if they do not personally study histories of race and racism. Continue reading