The Last Ten Years: Active History & the Teaching of Canadian History since 2008

Source: Yvette de Chavez

Editor’s Note: In 2019, Active History celebrated its 10th anniversary by posting some of our most popular pieces from each of the previous ten years. To reflect on ten years of Active History at the start of this new year, we asked Dr. Adele Perry, former president of the Canadian Historical Association (CHA), to share some of her thoughts. The post below also appears on the CHA’s Teaching – Learning blog.

Adele Perry

With thanks to Sarah Nickel and Laura Madokoro for their help.

How we teach Canada’s histories has changed in the decade that Active History and its counterpart Histoire engagée have been online. Active History went live the same year that Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established as part of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. Active History found its feet as Idle No More changed conversations in the winter of 2012-2013, as the TRC issued its final report in 2015, and as decades of activism around murdered and missing Indigenous women, girls and two-spirited people resulted in the federal government calling the National Inquiry on Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women, which began in 2016 and released its final report in 2019.

That Canada’s past looks radically different from an Indigenous perspective is hardly a new observation. In her contribution to an Active History series featuring the work of Indigenous scholars, Mary Jane Logan McCallum reminds us of the venerable “tradition of Indigenous engagement in and critique of education,” one that has observed, corrected, measured, and taken action, and will continue to do so.[1]

Significant changes to provincial elementary and secondary school curriculum speak to this advocacy, especially in the years following the TRC.[2] That these can be rolled back in the name of austerity is made clear by the sudden cancellation of Ontario’s planned curriculum revision in 2018.[3] This decade of change and advocacy has also shaped the teaching of Canadian history at a post-secondary level.  Some departments – and the University of Winnipeg is exemplary here — have developed a concerted and thoughtful process of decolonization, one that has gone beyond the particularities of Canadian scholarship.[4] Individual instructors like Carmen Nielson of Mount Royal University have rethought and revised their classroom practices .  The recent appearance of tenure-track positions designated for Indigenous historians in Canadian departments suggests that the long-standing gap between the presence of Indigenous history as a subject and the presence of Indigenous people as practitioners is beginning to be acknowledged. Much more needs to be done to meaningfully address the underrepresentation of Indigenous, Black and racialized scholars, and the heightened expectations and demands those scholars face in the academy. Continue reading

Canadian Spiritualism, Mary Melville and the Female Biographical Narrative

By Thomas Hodd

Mary Melville, The Psychic:
A Critical Edition

Mary Melville, The Psychic (1900) is an extraordinary Canadian cultural artifact. Written by first-wave feminist, psychical researcher, and suffrage leader Flora MacDonald (Merrill) Denison (1867-1921), this significant yet hitherto-undervalued text bears witness to a transformative and vibrant period in Canada’s social, literary and religious history. Based on the life of Denison’s older sister, Mary Merrill, Mary Melville is the story of an alternative New Woman figure, a gifted young scholar with psychical abilities from small-town Ontario, whose promising life is cut short by a world not yet ready for her message or her powers.

Scant historical information exists about Mary’s life. Born in 1858, Mary, like Flora, had an aptitude for intellectual pursuits. In 1876, she graduated from Alexandra College, the Ladies’ Wing of Belleville’s Albert College, with high honours in mathematics. She also appears to have worked as a teacher after graduation, although no published materials about Mary’s life discuss the four years between her graduation and death. In fact, little else is known about Mary, with the exception of two areas: her interest in spiritualism and the circumstances surrounding her death. Mary’s ties to spiritualism are not surprising, given Belleville’s long-standing history with the movement: the Fox Sisters, arguably the founders of modern spiritualism, were originally from the Belleville area. Furthermore, in the 1850s one of the sisters, Kate, introduced spiritualism to Susanna Moodie and her husband, who were residents of Belleville during this period; the trio also conducted séances together, although as Stan McMullin points out, to do so was at some social risk given the “rigid religious milieu” of the town at the time.1 Nor did the town’s penchant for spiritualism escape controversy: witness the infamous case of New York medium Dr. Henry Slade, who was invited to Belleville in the summer of 1882, then purportedly outed as a fraud by the town’s police chief.

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Stitching History: Using Embroidery to Examine the Past

Sherry Farrell Racette in Looking for Stories and Unbroken Threads notes, “Through the power of colour and design, the objects in museum collections not only speak a powerful aesthetic, they also reveal critical information about the worlds and circumstances in which they were created.” Textiles have a role in telling community and personal histories and can tell stories that aren’t evident in other historical records. In some cases, a piece of embroidery might be the only record of a life lived. 

How many of these women thought their embroidery would end up in a museum? As I have learned to embroider I have become interested in how historians and heritage professionals use embroidery to talk about the past. What can embroidery tell us about individual lives, communities, and history?

In this post I’m going to highlight a few of my favourite embroidery samplers that are held by museums, and talk about their connections to personal and larger histories. Created by young women as they learned to sew and embroider, samplers were used to demonstrate proficiency in needlework. They are particularly remarkable not only because they often include dates and the names of the maker, but are some of the only documents produced by young women from the nineteenth century. Samplers were also created for personal reference, almost like a ‘sample’ of stitches and patterns that could be recreated later in other projects. 

Tree of Knowledge embroidery sampler

Caption: Mary Lacasse Sampler, 1818. Textile Museum of Canada, T2011.10.1.

The above sampler is held by the Textile Museum of Canada and was stitched by Mary Lacasse at age 12 in Montreal. It is dated May 8, 1818. Other than Mary’s name on the sampler there is no other information in the catalogue record about Mary. However, the stitched date and name of Mary Lacasse suggest that this piece was likely an educational sampler, perhaps one that Mary completed in the course of her schooling. Embroidery was often taught to middle and upper class women as a way to emphasize feminie virtues such as patience, quietness, neatness, and conformity. This sampler showcases a range of patterns and stitches, with a floral and tree theme. The top of the sampler includes two angels and the apple tree with a Snake around it is referencing the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. These religious motifs connect Mary to the Catholic education that was prominent in Quebec in the 1800s. I still don’t know much about Mary, but by exploring her embroidery I’m pulling at the edges of her existence and connecting her work to larger social movements. Continue reading

Learning through Unlearning in Undergraduate History Education

This is part of an ongoing series of reflections from the Manitoulin Island Summer Historical Institute (MISHI)

By: Natalie Cross, Alyssa Kaminski, and Urvi Maheshwari

Beginning an undergraduate education can be uncomfortable. After several years of attending classes, however, the experience becomes common, perhaps banal. For the most part we attend three hours of classes per course each week. They are located on a relatively quotidian university campus and the lessons are anchored in readings, discussions, and lectures; all of our learning is structured around a fairly formal in-class meeting. Even the most radical of classes tend to stick to a relatively standard format.

This summer at the Manitoulin Island Summer Historical Institute (MISHI), we were introduced to a learning experience rooted in Anishinaabe pedagogies. With the majority of the programming centred at the Ojibwe Cultural Foundation (OCF), we had the opportunity to listen to Elders and knowledge keepers, learn from the Land and its people, and develop an understanding of Anishinaabe history and culture.

MISHI is the complete opposite of our typical university experience; we were uncomfortable, we were engaged, but more importantly we learned the ability to unlearn. Continue reading

Seventh Annual(?) Year in Review (100 Years Later)

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By Aaron Boyes and Sean Graham

We offer our two cents on the events of 1919. Let us know what you think was the most important event from a century ago in the comments.

You know what they say about decades – in like a lamb, out like a lion. 2019 has been, at times, a slog. From a remarkably contentious federal election campaign, to impeachment, to climate change, to violence, consuming news this year has rarely left us with an overwhelming feeling of optimism. That’s why stories like the $100,000 art banana have been so welcome for their seemingly random absurdity. Perhaps we are too invested in current events to see the forest for the trees, however, and with time maybe 2019 will look a lot better that it does as we reflect today. Only with time and distance can we truly assess a year.

It’s that idea that inspired the Year in Review (100 Years Later) posts when we started them back in 2013. Through the sober lens of time, we looked back and through a March Madness-style bracket determined the most important event of 1913. Despite some changes to the format, that model has stayed in place and this year will take us through 1919.

Even though the First World War (at least Canada’s participation) ended in 1918, our rule prohibiting First World War events from the bracket (because they were so well covered by the Canada’s First World War series) will apply to the Paris Peace Conference, Treaty of Versailles, and League of Nations. Our rule preventing repeat winners means that events related to suffrage around the world have also not been included. (Past brackets: 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018)

Even using that crutch to eliminate events, this year was extremely difficult to determine the 16 things that would be included. 1919 was so influential that paring the list down was just as hard as determining a winner. We were able to do it, though, and divided the 16 entries into 4 brackets: Conflict, Foundational, Diplomacy, and, of course, Potpourri. And while we recognize that not everyone will agree with our selections, we hope that you enjoy this year’s bracket in the lighthearted spirit in which it was written. Continue reading

The Missing History of Disappearance in Vancouver: The Rise and Fall of the Neighbourhood Safety Office


Spirits of the Realms by Haisla Collins, Jerry Whitehead, Sharifah Marsden, Mehren Razmpoosh, Richard Shorty and Vanessa Walterson.

James FitzGerald

The Downtown Eastside (DTES) of Vancouver has been described as Canada’s Poorest Postal Code and one of the country’s densest populations of substance-using and low-income communities. Largely due to the disappearances and murders of so many of its women and girls, the DTES has also become known as ground zero for disproportionate violence against Indigenous women, as well as against sex workers. These issues came into sharper focus during Vancouver’s escalation of drug overdose and HIV deaths of the 1990s, an epidemic that, under intense public and media scrutiny, was brought to the attention of international observers.

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      2 Comments on Cranes

This is part of an ongoing series of reflections from the Manitoulin Island Summer Historical Institute (MISHI)

By Philip Girard

During MISHI 2019 I stayed in Gore Bay and drove to M’Chigeeng each day. While making the drive on the first day, and every day thereafter, I noticed a half-dozen large stork-like birds in a meadow along the way. I slowed down and was able to identify them as sandhill cranes from their noticeable red cap.

A sandhill crane

These birds I knew from my youth, when I would occasionally see them flying over our farm in Kent County, southwestern Ontario. There was no mistaking them since, aside from blue herons, they were the largest bird to be seen in our skies. I seldom got to see them up close because they did not remain in our area, which was heavily cultivated and did not offer suitable nesting sites. Certainly I was never as close to them as those days going back and forth to M’Chigeeng, when I would sometimes stop the car and get out to watch them.

The Crane Doodem from the Great Peace of Montreal, 1701.

From Heidi Bohaker and Al Corbiere’s work I knew that the crane doodem was often to be found on colonial-era documents, and that Anishinaabe leaders were often drawn from the crane clan. Continue reading

History Slam Episode 141: Golda

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By Sean Graham

Golda will begin its theatrical run at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto on January 3. You can watch the trailer here and find showtimes here.

In March, 1969, a then 70-year old Golda Meir came out of retirement to serve as Israeli Prime Minister following the sudden death of Levi Eshkol. The country’s first female Prime Minister, Meir was dubbed the ‘Iron Lady’ of the Middle East. During her five years in office, Israel experienced several events that continue to influence public opinion and policy, including the Munich Massacre during the 1972 Olympics and the Yom Kippur War in October 1974. As a Canadian historian, I haven’t read extensively about Meir’s tenure, but whenever it has come up, it has generally been presented in a positive light. It was only recently that I learned that her legacy has been the subject of much debate.

That’s why I was so intrigued by the new documentary Golda, which explores Meir’s life and career. Starting with previously unseen footage from a mid-1970s television interview, the film delves into Meir’s political ambitions, worldview, and approach to the major issues she confronted during her time as Prime Minister. In doing so, it provides ample space for both her critics and supporters to present their rather divergent perspectives on her time in office. Making effective use of archival footage and contemporary interviews, the film allows the viewer to come to their own conclusions about Meir while situating her, her detractors, and her allies within the context of the time. What is most striking about the film is the lengths it goes to humanize all its characters. It is not interested in lauding or demonizing, but rather telling the story of this contentious period from a human perspective.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Udi Nir, one of the directors of Golda. We talk about the film’s point of view, the discovery of the previously unseen footage, and collecting first-hand accounts. We also chat about Meir’s legacy and the very different reactions of audiences in Israel and the United States.

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Staging History

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By Craig Heron

Historians have become increasingly attuned to the role of performance in history. Many of us have written about the pomp and pageantry of the powerful, the theatre of the high courts, the processions of urban respectability, the rituals of resistance among the poor and powerless. We have been much more reticent, however, about using theatre to present the history that engages us. The theatrical world is full of historical dramas, but rarely have historians penned them. We mostly keep our distance from the pageants of historical re-enactment and the quieter role-playing of costumed staff in historic houses or forts. Recently, I made a leap into writing short plays as part of a public-history project that I’m involved in, and I’d like to share some observations about the process of doing history through theatre.

Holly Kirkconnell and Ginny Thomson in The Labour of Little Of Little Ones

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Tenth Anniversary Repost – The Police Records of a Bath Raid Found-In: Excluded from Bill C-66

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. Today is our last re-post and we’re looking back at 2018.

In 2018 we launched the Beyond the Lecture series (still open to submissions!) and we published two open access ebooks, Confronting Canadian Migration History and Beyond The Lecture: Innovations in Teaching Canadian History. Also in 2018, Sean Graham launched the new History Chats podcast channel which features a number of fantastic recorded talks. In 2018 also we hosted a number of series including: Plains Injustice, The Spanish Flu,and Lost Stories. 

It was tough picking a post to reshare from 2018 – there were a number of really great, thoughtful, and timely posts. We ultimately decided on re-sharing Tom Hooper’s “The Police Records of a Bath Raid Found-In: Excluded from Bill C-66.”

Tom Hooper

For more than 25 years, Ron Rosenes* has been an activist on issues related to HIV/AIDS. In 2007, he was given the Canadian AIDS Society Leadership Award. In 2012, Carleton University awarded him an honorary doctorate. He is a member of the Order of Canada.

Despite this impressive resume of advocacy, the Toronto Police Service has a file on him. In the late evening of February 5th, 1981, he was sitting alone in his room at the Romans II Health and Recreation Spa, one of the city’s gay bathhouses. 200 police raided the Romans and three other similar establishments, arresting 306 men, Rosenes included. He fought the charges in court, but was guilty of being found in a common bawdy house.

This is a historical injustice. In 2016, Toronto’s Chief of Police issued a statement of regret for the raids. In November 2017, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made a formal apology to the LGBTQ2+ community in the House of Commons. He stated that discrimination “was quickly codified in criminal offenses like ‘buggery,’ ‘gross indecency’, and bawdy house provisions. Bathhouses were raided, people were entrapped by police.” On the same day as Trudeau’s apology, the government introduced Bill C-66, which would create a legislative process to expunge the records of certain Criminal Code convictions that have been defined as “historically unjust.” Continue reading