History Slam Episode 129: The Making of the October Crisis

By Sean Graham

The few times that I have taught the introductory survey in Canadian history, one of the issues that students have struggled with is the Quiet Revolution and October Crisis. There are a few reasons for this, including that I teach in Ontario, where Quebec history doesn’t get a lot of coverage in high schools. A much larger issue, though, is that the October Crisis can be inherently confusing as there are a lot of moving parts, from the kidnappings to the War Measures Act to the larger ideological shifts in French Canadian culture. Trying to piece all this together as part of a broad survey can, as a result, be challenging.

In his new book, The Making of the October Crisis: Canada’s Long Nightmare of Terrorism at the Hand of the FLQ, D’Arcy Jenish provides a very useful overview that not only uses new material to explain what happened, but also explains the connection to today. A journalist and author of a variety of non-fiction books, Jenish makes great use of oral history in telling the story of the process that led to October 1970. When reading the book, Jenish’s journalism background comes through clearly as he weaves together a narrative that is engaging, clear, and informative, that has received a number of positive reviews.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with D’Arcy about the book. We talk about his approach to the subject, the historical literature on the October Crisis, and the FLQ’s rise. We also talk about terrorism, the linguistic divide, and how the book connects past and present.

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Doing Active History: Introducing the 2019 Small Grants Recipients

In addition to our work online, ActiveHistory.ca is committed to supporting and developing engaged historical practice in the material world. As such, drawing on funds donated to our project, in December we launched a new funding program to support the development of Active History projects with small grants. Several wonderful projects were put forward for our consideration, making selection difficult. Today, we are pleased to announce our support for Matthew Hayes’s podcast project South Mountain and Arpita Bajpeyi and Sinead Cox’s Staging our Histories.

South Mountain

South Mountain is a mini-series podcast about the Goler Clan, a poor three-generation family that lived together on a compound with no running water or electricity in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley. In 1984, one of the Goler daughters admitted to her teacher that she had been the victim of sexual abuse by her family members. This admission sparked an investigation that revealed ongoing abuse and deplorable living conditions in an area of Nova Scotia just a short drive from the affluent university town of Wolfville. The case became a national scandal that resulted in prison sentences for nearly all of the adult Golers, and adoptions for all of the children. But, just as soon as it exploded, the case seemingly died away, and it is now difficult to find much information about it at all.

Through interviews with Nova Scotians, the podcast will tell the history of the case itself – and the mystery of its press and ongoing life inside and outside the province – as well as explore regionalism and class in Canada, the latter being at the root of the story. Also wrapped up in this story is the idea of Come From Aways – specifically for Hayes in telling this story as an outsider, from Ontario (albeit one who lived in Nova Scotia for a time). The podcast will unravel the story bit by bit, through the voices of Nova Scotians, and explore its connections with these broader themes. If you are familiar with the story and would be interested in speaking with Hayes for the podcast, please get in touch with him through email – freefoodfilms [at] gmail [dot] com – or Twitter @freefoodfilms.

Matthew Hayes

Matthew Hayes is in the final year of the Canadian Studies PhD program at Trent University, for which he has written a history of Canada’s UFO investigation. He is also an independent filmmaker, having completed over a dozen films, including Pushbacka feature length documentary about homelessness and poverty.

Staging Our Histories

Staging Our Histories puts diverse histories and voices in conversation with each other for a live audience. Our next event, New Histories/Old Roots, features diverse histories of ‘home’ relevant to rural Southwestern Ontario today, selected from responses to an open call. The four live performances and short films selected will be presented, accompanied by talkback sessions, on March 23rd at the Livery Theatre in Goderich, ON (click here for tickets). This edition of Staging Our Histories is curated with local audiences, including growing newcomer and Syrian refugee communities and is accessible to Huron County audiences who may not have access to histories that reflect their own experiences, as well as audiences unfamiliar with gaps in local and national narratives. New Histories/Old Roots offers a transformative experience for both the audiences and artists involved by opening up and sustaining dialogue with multiple narratives that illustrate how the home we share is enriched by our diverse histories.

Co-directors of Staging our Stories Arpita Bajpeyi and Sinead Cox with co-founder Marie-Anne Gagnon.

Staging Our Histories is coordinated by Arpita Bajpeyi and Sinead Cox. Arpita is a public historian (Carleton University, 2014) and kathak dancer whose work lies at the intersection of performance and the past. Her storytelling and scholarship endeavours to bring these two practices together by finding histories in moving bodies and dance repertoires. She is currently based in Ottawa, ON. Sinead Cox is Curator of Engagement & Dialogue at the Huron County Museum and Historic Gaol, and a volunteer with Goderich’s Welcome Project: Syria. Sinead is passionate about amplifying lesser heard stories from rural southwestern Ontario, including those that connect to newcomer communities. She has a Master’s Degree in Public History from Carleton University, Ottawa, and an Honours B.A. from the University of Western Ontario, with one year spent abroad at the University of Leeds, U.K. Sinead lives in Goderich, Ontario.

ActiveHistory.ca is a volunteer run project that operates through your support of time and resources. We are able to support these projects through the generous financial support of our donors. Click here for more information about how you can support this work. 

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