Remembering Emma Goldman: Pandemics, Prisons, and Mutual Aid

Emma Goldman seated, photo by T. Kajiwara, 1911 July 15. Library of Congress

Franca Iacovetta & Cynthia Wright

When the pandemic came, Emma Goldman was in a state penitentiary in Jefferson City, Missouri. Goldman and her life-long comrade and fellow revolutionary anarchist, Alexander Berkman, had been arrested under the Selective Service Act of 1917 for conspiring to oppose the draft. Goldman had been reaching audiences of thousands all over the US with her anti-war speeches and organizing. Now, after decades of ceaseless touring advocating anarchist ideas – including in Canadian cities – Goldman was imprisoned and Mother Earth, the journal she founded in 1906 and in whose office she was arrested, was banned along with other periodicals opposed to the First World War and conscription.

Goldman was not isolated in her imprisonment, although she ardently hoped that prison would end what she describes in her classic two-volume memoir, Living My Life (1931), as the “emotional bondage” of her passionate love affair with the politically and sexually mercurial doctor-to-Chicago’s hobos, Ben Reitman. Her friends, family, and admirers supported her with letters, visits, food, and reading material. They remembered her birthday, celebrated tomorrow on June 27. Among Goldman’s admirers while she was in prison was a man she calls Leon Bass in Living My Life; years later, while in exile in Toronto, Goldman would pursue a frustrating affair with the Albany, New York-based anarchist whose real name was Leon Malmed (1881-1956). And many years after that liaison, our research led us to the Toronto home of one of Malmed’s generous descendants and a treasure trove of letters in Yiddish and English that testified to the complex intimacies that bound scattered anarchist outposts to each other. The letters revealed that Malmed was clearly enamored of Goldman well before they began their short-lived affair, but his wife was just as clearly not impressed.  

We were on the trail of Malmed as part of our research into Emma Goldman’s exile in Toronto, using her sojourns in the city as a case study for investigating how Goldman has been remembered inter-generationally in the city’s official and popular memory. Continue reading

History Slam Episode 152: When Days Are Long

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By Sean Graham

In 1949, Amy Wilson accepted a nursing job that took her from her Edmonton home to northern British Columbia and Yukon. In the position, she was responsible for covering over 500,000 sqaure kilometres and serving around 3,000 Indigenous Peoples in the North. Upon her arrival, she was confronted with a diphtheria epidemic and pushed for the immediate transportation of supplies and medications for the communities.

This was the start of her career, which saw her serve as not only a health professional, but also an advocate, partner, and friend. In her letters and reports, she would write of the challenges faced by northern communities and the damage of colonization. She would use her position to advocate and fight for those who had been deliberately ignored by colonial structures. At the same time, her travels across the North were deeply personal journeys. A closeted woman who was not accepted at home, her time in the North provided her space and time to feel more comfortable with herself and establish a social system in which she could find support.

In 1965, her memoir No Man Stands Alone was published, shedding more light on conditions in the North and the consequences of the government’s actions. Over 50 years later, the book is being re-published under the title When Days Are Long: Nurse in the North. In a time when the importance of quality medical professionals has, again, been highlighted, the book offers a unique insight into life in the North during the mid-20th century while also serving as a reminder of the damage done by colonial systems and how little has changed. To help foster change, all residuals from the book will be donated to the Canadian Indigenous Nurses Association’s Jean Goodwill Scholarship.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Amy Wilson’s niece Laurel Deedrick-Mayne, who wrote the foreword to the new edition. We talk about the family’s memory of Amy, her motivation for going north, and the desire to re-issue the book. We also talk about the challenges of nursing, Amy’s relationships with northern communities, and her legacy.

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Defund the police

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Graffiti in Montreal, Quebec. Photograph courtesy of the author.

Tamara Gene Myers

Amidst the call to “Defund the police,” it bears thinking about removing police from our schools as well.

“Defund the police” has become the rallying cry of anti-Black racism protests following the public murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. Relentless police violence has generated heated discussion about how decades of policies intended to “reform” police operations have failed to eradicate racist and criminal actions against people of colour. For some, defund the police is a slogan that invokes tearing down a hypocritical public service – an armed and dangerous part of the state that targets Black, brown and Indigenous people. At its base, the movement to defund the police recognizes that police forces come at huge public expense, especially with the militarization of police practice, often to the detriment of social, educational, and medical services, those things that are actually needed most in oppressed and precarious communities across North America. The ‘one bad apple’ argument – that rogue individuals are responsible for police violence – is indefensible, ignoring as it does the systemic racism endemic to modern policing. Continue reading

In the Wake of Columbus: Amerindian Antecedents to COVID-19

 “What causes the Indians to die and to diminish in number are secret judgments of God beyond the reach of man. But what this witness has observed during the time he has spent in these parts is that from the province of Mexico have come three or four pestilences, on account of which the country has been greatly depopulated.” – Pedro de Liévano, Dean of the Cathedral of Guatemala, writing to the Council of the Indies on November 5, 1582 (Archivo General de Indias, Seville, Spain)

By W. George Lovell

As other parts of the world recuperate, Latin America has become the epicentre of COVID-19, with over two million cases and more than 100,000 deaths. Health experts fear that fatalities will continue to escalate and by July surpass even those of the United States. The pandemic, however, is not the first to have ravaged the region and cause such grief.

On October 12, 1492, the landfall of Columbus may well have unleashed the greatest destruction of human lives in history. The toll exacted on Indigenous peoples across the Americas was catastrophic. Abuse and mistreatment notwithstanding, massive depopulation in the wake of Columbus was primarily a consequence of vulnerability to infections against which Amerindians had no immunity.

Cover from one of the author’s books. The image, “The Preparation of a Corpse,” is from the Florentine Codex (1545-1590) compiled by the Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún (1499-1590).

Are there any parallels between Old World intrusion in the late fifteenth century and epidemic eruption in the early twenty-first?

Two come to mind. One is the velocity of infection: the speed with which COVID-19 spread from a metropolis in central China to remote corners of the Amazon rainforest is, quite literally, breathtaking. Columbus’s ships may not have been as fast a vector as jet planes, but they were conduits of contagion nonetheless. Furthermore, just as COVID-19 has affected some countries (or some regions within a country) more than others, so too centuries ago did disease operate with notable spatial variation and long-term demographic fluctuation. The extinction of native communities in the Caribbean, for instance, contrasts with over twenty distinct Maya groups to this day constituting almost half of Guatemala’s national population. Better, then, to examine specific scenarios before engaging continental evaluation. Continue reading

Stronger Together: The Potential Collaborative Agency of Historians and Archivists

Andrea Eidinger and Krista McCracken

Over the past few years, the historical community in Canada has been rocked by a few scandals. No, we are not talking about the endless discussions around monuments. Rather, we are referring to the numerous public disputes between historians and archivists relating either to the discovery of or access to archival material. For example, you’ve liked seen various historians announcing that they had “discovered” a long-lost historical document by looking in a seemingly forgotten corner of the archive. To which archivists often reply, we knew it was there the whole time. Sometimes we also see these conflicts erupt into larger disputes, as has been the case with respect to the recent announcement that the BC Archives would be closed until 2021 to ensure that proper procedures were in place to protect staff and visitors from COVID-19.

The chairs of several major university history departments in BC published an Open Letter denouncing the closure. This, unsurprisingly, resulted in a major push back from archivists who derided the authors’ undue concern about their deadlines as opposed to, among other things, staff safety.

Archives are an essential part of historical scholarship. Historians continue to be one of the main user groups of archives. So why do archivists and historians fail to form meaningful, long-term partnerships that can, potentially, benefit both fields? We operate in silos with our own professional associations, scholarly journals, and methodologies. But archivists and historians often want the same things. We both want access to more archival material, archives with increased hours, and efficient reference service. 

All of us are impacted by the chronic underfunding of archives. The BC Archives are a part of the Royal British Columbia Museum (RBCM). This is unlike most provincial archives. Consequently, the BC government has had numerous disputes with the Museum around the cost of maintaining their historical records, with thousands of boxes of records sitting in storage for years without being transferred to the Archives. At one point, over 33,000 boxes of government records were in warehouses instead of being transferred to the archives because of arguments over the cost of archival work. That specific dispute was resolved in 2015, but decades of underfunding and staffing cuts have had lasting impacts on the BC Archives and problems persist to this day.

This is only one example. The pandemic is also having a major impact on the history and heritage sector. The UN predicts that one in eight museums worldwide will close permanently as a result of the pandemic, and one in three American museums may never reopen. This impact is going to be felt most strongly by museums focusing on the lives of Indigenous, Black, and People of Colour, many of who were underfunded prior to covid. The exact impact for archives in Canada is still unknown, but is likely to be just as severe. And those archives that continue to operate will be working in difficult circumstances, with reduced budgets, lay-offs, and remote working conditions. When combined with decades of underfunding, there is a huge potential for catastrophe. But, through it all, archivists continue to work, to provide services to the public and to maintain their collections as best they can, while also trying to document the impact of COVID-19

Historians are also working in difficult circumstances. There have been massive budget cuts to institutions in Alberta and Manitoba in the last few weeks. Lay-off notices have already begun at colleges and universities across the country, impacting staff, precarious academics, and tenure track/tenured faculty alike. What’s more, many universities have recently announced that they will be mostly moving to online programming in the fall, forcing thousands of professors to transition to online education with little to no training or support.

We also seem to be losing sight of the fact that the pandemic is far from over. Restrictions may be easing for the time being, but the danger is still very real. We still don’t know the impact of asymptomatic carriers or about reinfection rates. Easing restrictions have been associated with COVID-19 infection rates spiking in numerous locations. Experts are expecting a second, more deadly, wave of the pandemic in the fall. And the toll of the pandemic on our mental health is still unknown. Many of us are grieving, not only for our lost loved ones, but for the lives we had before the pandemic started. Likewise, many of us are working to confront racial inequality and violence in our workplaces, professions, and communities. 

We are all struggling, but we can find so much common ground. Co-operative advocacy has a much better chance of success. Shouldn’t we be advocating across disciplinary lines? Historians need archivists because they make historical research possible. Archives need the support of historians and academic associations to advocate for funding and staffing. And, especially during times like these, we should be raising each other up, not tearing each other down. 

We can do great things together and there are a lot of ways historians and archivists can collaborate. Let’s attend each other’s conferences and read works written by one another. We can collaborate on grants for projects that interest us both, do research together, and co-publish the results. 

Now more than ever, historians and archivists are facing times of scarcity and change. We need each other and we can benefit from strengthening relationships across discipline lines. Advocating for each other and working together can create meaningful change and help us all produce better work. We really are stronger together. 

Andrea Eidinger is a historian of gender and ethnicity in postwar Canada. She lives and works in Tiohtià:ke/Montreal.

Krista McCracken is a Researcher/Curator at the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre in Baawating/Sault Ste. Marie. They are an editor at Active History.

Gary Potts – a tribute

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By James Cullingham

We lost a towering, deeply rooted presence recently. His name was Gary Potts. He gave much to his Teme-Agama Anishinaabe – Temagami First Nation community, the Temagami region, this country called Canada and anyone whose path he crossed.

Temagami is located about 100 kilometers north of North Bay. It’s a storied region chronicled by newcomers such as Archie Belaney aka Grey Owl and the poet Archibald Lampman. It has also been site to one of the great dramas and test cases for Indigenous rights and environmental protection in modern Canada. Many of the Teme-Agama Anishinaabe reside on Bear Island on Lake Temagami which is where Gary Potts died in his home surrounded by his family on June 3, 2020.

James Cullingham & Gary Potts, September 23, 2017 Camp Wanapitei

I was blessed to know him for 40 years. A relationship that began because of his political leadership and my work as a journalist and filmmaker blossomed into a deep friendship that endured long after our professional paths intersected. Continue reading

History Slam Episode 151: The Trials of Albert Stroebel

By Sean Graham

In the spring of 1893, a murder in Sumas Prairie, British Columbia rocked the community and kicked off a lengthy debate about who committed the crime, multiple trials, and unanswered questions about the legal process in the rural community. The victim, John Marshall, was a Portuguese immigrant who had settled on a farm and built a successful life, prompting the questions over who would have killed him. The investigation settled on Albert Stroebel, a local handyman who, to many, seemed an unlikely suspect. The resulting debate over Stroebel’s guilt split the local population into two factions, one who believed Stroebel’s claims of innocence and those who were convinced of his guilt.

The story is the subject of the new book The Trials of Albert Stroebel: Love, Murder, and Justice at the End of the Frontier by Chad Reimer, who came across the court records of this long forgotten episode in Canadian history when researching another project. In the book, Reimer details the events of Marshall’s murder, the evidence against Stroebel, and the lingering questions. As a piece of legal history, the tale of Albert Stroebel serves as an example of the challenge of investigating crimes during the late 19th century. In an era where western colonization was characterized, at least in the popular imagination, with violence and lawlessness, Stroebel’s prosecution is a cautionary tale of how violence in this era has been romanticized.

A professional historian, Reimer guides the reader through the story, providing the necessary details with great clarity. In going through the events, the principal participants emerge and you are increasingly forced to think about their backgrounds and motivations. It’s not so much a ‘whodunit’ as it is a thought-provoking analysis of why and how the events took place and, most importantly, why it matters.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Chad Reimer about the book. We talk about John Marshall’s path to Sumas Prairie, Albert Stroebel’s life, and the other key people in the story. We also talk about murder investigations in the late 19th century, the legal process in rural B.C. at the time, and how the case served as a significant precedent for the province.

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So long Dundas: From Colonization to Decolonization Road?

By Thomas Peace

Last week, following widespread Black Lives Matter demonstrations across Canada and the rest of the world, a push began to rename Toronto’s Dundas Street. Building upon a similar movement in Edinburgh, it was not long before the call to remove the Dundas name spread to other places, such as, in Ontario, London’s main commercial street and Hamilton’s west-end suburb. Dundas’s namesake has been deeply emblazoned across the province.

The impetus for this removal stems from the person these designations sought to honour: Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville.

Dundas was a Scottish aristocrat and key British cabinet member under William Pitt the Younger. In 1792, Dundas (who had tight links to the West Indies) led the charge to modify a parliamentary motion to immediately abolish the slave trade. Here, it was the addition of one word – and Dundas’s subsequent actions – that tarnished his name. Much to well-known abolitionist William Wilberforce’s chagrin, Dundas amended a motion to abolish slavery by adding the word “gradually.” Dundas was then pressured to put forth another motion calling for an end to the trade by 1800. When the original motion was amended to end the trade four years earlier, in 1796, Dundas walked away from the bill. For the rest of his career, Henry Dundas opposed abolitionist efforts (you can read more about him here and here). Those calling for Dundas’s removal blame him for delaying abolition by as much as 15 years; others (specifically his family) argue that he was in fact an abolitionist and his role during these years governed by political pragmatism.

I am not an expert in the career of Henry Dundas, but as a historian who grew up in Dundas, Ontario and now frequents Dundas Street in downtown London, I do know a bit about the places that people want renamed.

When I grew up, I was told that the Dundas Streets in both Toronto and London took on these monikers because they led to Dundas the town. No one really talked about who the town was named after. What we did talk about, though, was the Governor’s Road.

The Governor’s Road was the first road to be built in what would become Ontario. Elsewhere, it was (and is) called Dundas Street.

Understanding the Dundas Street/Governor’s Road connection is important because it teaches us much about Ontario’s early history and how calls to rename Dundas might serve as an opportunity to better acknowledge that past. Continue reading

“Symbol of the IGA”: The International Grenfell Association hospital ship Strathcona and the 1970 mass tuberculosis survey of northern Labrador

The Strathcona III in Labrador. Source: Among the Deep Sea Fishers 68, no. 4 (January 1971): 105. Photo courtesy of Memorial University Digital Archives Initiative.

John R.H. Matchim

Since the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Amundsen was reactivated in 2004 it has conducted multiple mass health surveys of Inuit communities across the Canadian Arctic. In 2004 and 2017 surveys organized by the Nunavik Regional Board of Health and Social Services and Laval University’s Population Health Unit asked some 2,000 residents questions about housing, family violence, addictions, food insecurity and the reappearance of tuberculosis. While its promoters spoke of improved community health outcomes and “empowerment,” the data was also used “to compare the current situation with the health and social repercussions of the Plan Nord,” Quebec’s contentious programme of northern industrialization.[1] Another pair of surveys, conducted in 2007 and 2008, was funded by the federal government as part of the 2007-08 International Polar Year, and its researchers interviewed and examined adults and children in Nunatsiavut, Kitikmeot, and Inuvialuit regions. Launched to great fanfare, the surveys have been criticized for a lack of transparency and withholding of research findings.[2]

The Amundsen was a critical component of these surveys, providing researchers and governments with a platform that could move technology and people through adverse Artic conditions and sustain them for months at a time. But the Amundsen is just the latest of a long line of ships that have provided governments, companies and health care providers with a means to extend authority, monitor populations, and carry out research in a vast territory that challenges conventional methods of governance. Indeed, news of the Amundsen’s planned visit in 2004 awakened painful memories of the C.D. Howe, another icebreaker that conducted tuberculosis surveys during the 1960s and forcibly removed Inuit to sanitoria in southern Ontario.[3] Drawing upon my on-going research of the International Grenfell Association (IGA), a semi-autonomous health care provider active in Labrador until 1981, this piece will provide some historical context for the contemporary health surveys of the Amundsen. In particular, it will highlight the IGA’s mass tuberculosis survey of Inuit communities in northern Labrador, conducted by the hospital ship Strathcona III in the summer of 1970.

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Epidemics and Racism: Honolulu’s Bubonic Plague and the Big Fire, 1899-1900

Smoke from a “controlled fire” in Honolulu, 1900, Hawai’i State Archives.

Yukari Takai

More than a century before the global outbreak of Covid-19, another deadly disease struck Honolulu, one that ignited the tragic unfolding of many stories about public health, urban fires and social inequalities, particularly racism.

The bubonic plague, also known as the Black Death, hit Honolulu’s crowded and throbbing Chinatown in December 1899 when it took the life of one of its first victims, You Chang (or Yon Chong), a twenty-two-year-old bookkeeper at a general store. The disease had been spreading slowly in Asia in the 1870s and reached commercial cities in southern China such as Guangzhou and Hong Kong in the 1890s, before reaching Honolulu and later, San Francisco. Steamship freighters that departed from these Chinese port cities for Honolulu may have carried rats and fleas on board with their cargoes, and this could have been the source of the spread of infection to Honolulu.

Hawai‘i’s Board of Health, which counted physicians Nathaniel Emerson, Francis Day and Clifford Wood among its members, acted quickly and its recommendations were endorsed by President Sanford Dole of the newly annexed U.S. Territory. But the measures raised sensitive issues. Given that the early victims were Chinese, calls arose for the destruction of the entire Chinatown, which was viewed as a hotbed for the plague. Continue reading