Active History in Solitude

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Sean Kheraj

Next month, I will start my first sabbatical. To prepare, I just finished reading Michael Harris’s new book, Solitude: A Singular Life in a Crowded World. The book came out in late April just as my teaching semester wrapped up. The timing couldn’t be better.

Sabbaticals are another part of the professional life of academics that are difficult to explain to friends and family who do not work in academia. So, you get paid not to work for an entire year? No. So, you just go away for a year and then come back? Not exactly. So, you’ve been fired? Uh…

As with much of the work life of an academic, sabbaticals are a tremendous privilege. They are also enormous opportunities and critical for sustaining scholarship and knowledge production. Ostensibly, they offer time to focus on research without simultaneously balancing teaching and administrative responsibilities. And as a result, they can be used as time to be alone.

As a historian interested in public engagement, particularly through online publishing (blogging, podcasting, social networking), the issue of time alone may be a challenge. Is there a place for solitude in active history? After reading Solitude, I’d say yes. Continue reading

Thanking God for … ? Historical Perspectives on Cultural Appropriation

By Andrew Nurse

Recently, a friend sent me yet another of those commentaries-cum-news-stories discussing the merits and demerits (although, the piece had precious few of these) of cultural appropriation. In short, the piece decried critics of cultural appropriation, which it treated as something of a leftist fantasy. I, more-or-less, ignored it, not because the issue is unimportant but because I’d become frustrated with the entire discussion.

After all, this is not a new debate. I’m not certain when I first encountered the concept, let alone the term, “cultural appropriation” but I recall discussing it in grad school … and that is getting further into the past than I care to admit. I recall being taken to task by a friend as I was beginning my career for my willingness to allow that there might be something wrong with the “appropriation” of culture. My view was, my friend explained, misplaced “identity politics.” The year I started working here at Mount Allison, a colleague criticized my concerns about the uses to which Indigenous cultures had been put by Settler society as a failure on my part to understand the nature of art and inspiration which, for creative purposes, necessarily drew widely across cultures.

This could be true. I won’t set myself up as an expert on creativity, but over the years my sense of the debate around cultural appropriation is that it has not changed much. There are those who are concerned about the ways in which the cultures of marginalized and colonized peoples have been used and treated by “mainstream” media and Settler society. They see it as part of a set of power relationships that often serve to reinscribe colonialism and marginalization. I’d put myself in this group. On the other hand, there are those who believe that good things come from different forms of inspiration, that the very term “cultural appropriation” is a misnomer, and that contemporary concerns about it are just PC run amuck. Appropriation has, they say, created the art that we all admire today.

What impresses me about this discussion — at least the interventions I’ve read — is that it lacks an historical dimension. I see this as a problem because historians — or, better, historical thinking — has something to contribute to this debate. This is the first in a series of blogs I’m writing about historical perspectives on cultural appropriation. I want to be clear about my objectives and intentions. My goal is not to say the first and last word on appropriation. I don’t think that one blog post (or, a series of them) will resolve a long-standing debate. Nor, am I trying to say that historical perspectives can solve all problems. Instead, what I hope to show is how the tools of historical thinking, analysis, and interpretation can contribute to this discussion and, potentially, move it in a different direction. Finally, my goal is not to be comprehensive. Instead, in each of these blogs I’ll aim for concision, making a few points that strike me as important as opposed to trying to cover all avenues of discussion. If I’ve missed something important … write back and comment on it. Let me start this series, then, by noting three points where I think historical thinking can make a contribution to discussions surrounding cultural appropriation. Continue reading

History Slam Episode 101: Science of the Seance

By Sean Graham

The humble Ouija Board, a beloved part of childhood slumber parties, cheesy sitcom plots, and top-10 games lists. Even though it’s just a board and disc, it can produce captivating evenings where people explore a mystical world. The idea that it is possible to communicate with the dearly departed is intriguing and something that, for a lot of folks, appealing. Human beings have always been fascinated by death and the thought that we can maintain our communication with the living from beyond the grave can, frankly, be comforting.

Where most people’s experience with a seance begins and ends with the Ouija Board, there are those who have dedicated their lives to the idea of communicating with the dead. In her new book Science of the Seance: Transnational Networks and Gendered Bodies in the Study of Psychic Phenomena, 1918-40, Beth A. Robertson introduces readers to some of the professionals who dedicated their careers to examining the science behind these mystical meetings where people tried to talk with those who were no longer in the realm of the living. Moving beyond the question of ‘is this real,’ Robertson explores the networks these scientists built, their strategies for investigation, and the gendered spaces in which they worked.

In this episode of the History Slam, our first ever episode with a live audience, I talk with Beth about the book. We talk about the scientists who conducted the research, how they connected with each other, and the ways in which the space became gendered. We also open the floor to questions from the audience and discuss the challenges of researching such a unique topic.

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Pregnancy and Politics: Niki Ashton’s NDP Leadership Run and the History of Political Motherhood in Canada

Christo Aivalis

Last week Niki Ashton, a challenger for the New Democratic Party’s federal leadership, announced that she was pregnant, and that stated that “like millions of Canadian women I will carry on my work…to build a movement for social, environmental and economic justice for all.” The response to her announcement has been largely supportive, although some have questioned whether balancing these two responsibilities is wise, and others have attacked Ashton for the particular phrasing of her announcement based on a belief that her pro-choice position had her sanitizing the reality that she was carrying a child.

In many ways, Ashton’s announcement is historically significant, as there has not been a person running for the leadership of a major federal party while pregnant. But Ashton is following in the general footsteps of others. In the 1970s and 1980s, Parti Québécois cabinet minister Pauline Marois gave birth more than once, including while seeking  the party leadership in 1985. Likewise, BC Premier Christy Clark was in cabinet when she gave birth in 2001, and Sheila Copps was the first federal MP to give birth while in office in 1987.Recently, pregnant legislators have become more common, due in part to young MPs and MLAs elected in the 2011 federal NDP Orange wave and in the 2015 Alberta NDP victory.

Still, challenges faced by women like Marois, Copps, and Clark continue for today’s parliamentary mothers. There is no set mechanism to provide maternity leave to legislators, and balancing votes, travel, committee meetings, and constituency appointments with a young child is difficult. Additionally, the logistics around things like breastfeeding lack formal processes and accommodations. While there has been increasing acceptance of seeing babies on the floor of Parliament, rules around this are still unclear, even among the MPs themselves.

The history around political motherhood is a long and interesting one, and we can learn a great deal by focusing in on two pioneering women. Continue reading

The Alderville War Memorial: A Bizarre Monument or A Community’s Search for Meaning?

By Jackson Pind

If you drive north from Highway 401 in southern Ontario along county road 45, you will come across the reserve of Alderville First Nation, nestled on the shore of Rice Lake. If you travel in this direction, which summer cottagers and scenic adventurers often do, you will notice a striking monument in the middle of the endless fields and rolling hills. This monument commemorates the sacrifices made by the Alderville First Nation from the First World War onwards.

The Alderville Monument in 1949. (All photos are the author’s.)

As a child, I would often attend Remembrance Day ceremonies that were held at the monument. My grandfather, James Marsden a local Legion president and son of a previous Alderville Chief, usually performed the ceremony for the reserve. The ceremonies included various veteran groups, school children and members of the local Indigenous reserve. This monument has been an important place of remembrance and identity for the local reserve since it was created. On a personal level, it is extremely significant to my family as it is where my great-great grandfather (Moses), my great grandfather (Frederick) and various great uncles’ names are memorialized. Over the last five years I have missed these ceremonies as I moved to Sudbury to pursue post-secondary studies.

However, this spring in a seemingly random occurrence, I was required to read Johnathan Vance’s award-winning book Death So Noble: Memory, Meaning and the First World War for one of my final graduate history seminars at Laurentian University. The book won Vance the Sir John A. Macdonald award in 1998 for the most significant contribution to the understanding of Canada’s past. Vance dove into archival records and looked at various monuments, commemoration events, poems, music and letters to conclude that a united national myth evolved as a way for survivors to cope with the horrors of the First World War.[1]

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High Risk: Women, Healthcare, Trauma and History

By Beth A. Robertson

Justin Trudeau “Hey Girl” meme, generated by Imgflip, 7 May 2017

A Canadian-born meme became briefly popular on social media less than a week after the US House of Representatives passed the American Health Care Act (AHCA) in early May. Modeled after a series of other well-known “Hey Girl” memes (typically featuring Canadian actor Ryan Gosling), the meme pictured Prime Minister Justin Trudeau surrounded with the words: “Hey Girl, I’ll cover your pre-existing conditions”. This was one of a few distinctly Canadian responses to the GOP’s attempt to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, a comprehensive health care bill originally put in place by former president Barack Obama in March of 2010. Not only was the meme a tongue in cheek retort to an earlier Trump campaign’s depiction of Canada’s supposedly “disaster” of a health system. It also replied to some of the concerns raised against the AHCA, including where it would leave people with pre-existing conditions and women in particular – individuals who are viewed more generally as ‘high risk’. Although perhaps unbeknownst to the makers of the meme, or US Congress for that matter, this characterization of women  as in need of greater and more costly healthcare resources has a long history. Continue reading

Remember l Resist l Redraw #05: The Dance of Decolonial Love

In January, the Graphic History Collective (GHC) launched Remember | Resist | Redraw: A Radical History Poster Project to intervene in the Canada 150 conversation.

We have released six posters. Poster #00 by Kara Sievewright and the GHC introduced and explained the goals of the project. Poster #01 by Lianne Charlie, kicked off the series with a critical examination of 150 years of colonialism in the Yukon. Poster #02 by Naomi Moyer and Funké Aladejebi looked at Chloe Cooley, Black history, and the legacy of slavery in Canada. Poster #03 by Kwentong Bayen Collective and Erin Tungohan outlined the 150+ years of care work performed by racialized women in Canada. Poster #04 by Orion Keresztesi and Jarett Henderson, which looks the 1837-1838 Rebellion and the history of settler colonialism in Canada.

Earlier this month we released Poster #05 by Angela Sterritt and Erica Violet Lee, which examines the resistance and resilience of Indigenous women in the face of 150+ years of Canadian colonialism.

We hope that Remember | Resist | Redraw encourages people to critically examine history in ways that can fuel our radical imaginations and support struggles for radical change in 2017 and beyond. Learn more about how you can support the project on our website, and connect with us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.


The Dance of Decolonial Love

Poster by Angela Sterritt

Poem by Erica Violet Lee


Canada’s Secret Archives

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Dennis Molinaro

Wikimedia Commons

By now the story of Canada’s secret archive has made the news. I will take the time in this post to elaborate more on what I found and why I think it matters to everyone.

This began during my search for documents pertaining to wiretapping in the Cold War. My early research finds made news in December 2016 and January 2017. The discovery of P.C. 3486 and the PICNIC wiretapping program led to a search for more material. The early indications were that this wiretapping went on for decades and that a paper trail had to exist. The RCMP paid rent to Bell for the wiretapping, so where were the financial records, the transcripts of calls, the warrants that were issued, etc.? To my dismay, a thorough search at Library and Archives Canada (LAC) involving the aid of the Information Commissioner’s office led to nothing. Where were these records?

I decided to try something different. I filed Access to Information (ATI) requests to every institution that I could think of that may still have material. This included: the Privy Council Office (PCO), RCMP, CSIS, National Defence, Department of Justice, Communications Security Establishment (CSE) and Global Affairs. Some preliminary searches came up negative, some places never replied. In most cases I asked the Commissioner’s office to intervene to expedite the search.

In the course of the search I learned more, such as that Global Affairs had some sort of facility in Saskatchewan that contained historical documents, enough that an archivist was needed. Some institutions like CSE wanted me to take other documents in lieu of abandoning my request because they thought it so broad that it would impede their function (something I assumed could only occur if they had too many documents); other institutions asked for a year extension because they had too much, and PCO told me they initially found 147 boxes of material. That’s usually enough material (if most of it is research rich) to give someone a decade worth of work.

One of the biggest problems I faced was that institutions wanted more specifics on what I was looking for. I told them my general research direction but as part of my request for “wiretapping files” from the Cold War, I also asked for the names of files in these institutions possession that pertained to my subject: in essence I wanted a list. If I had that, I could be specific, but no one wanted to provide one, except PCO which asked for more time but the time extensions became unreasonable. PCO then told me they actually had 1.6 million documents pertaining to my research. It was at that point I decided the public needed to know how bad this situation was.

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History Slam Episode One Hundred: History Five Years Later

By Sean Graham

Five years ago, we had an idea to do a conversational podcast that looked at a wide variety of historical issues. 100 episodes later, I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing some outstanding people and having some terrific conversations. I’ve learned a lot along the way while also having a lot of fun. To highlight that latter part, we put together a compilation of some of our favourite moments from our first 100 episodes.

As we hit the 100 episode mark, however, I was thinking of how much the discipline of history has changed over the past five years. Since we started, there has been a greater expansion of digital history, Reconciliation has become more prominent in historical study, and the academic job market, well, it is what it is. And these are just some of the major shifts that I’ve noticed over the past five years.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with the podcast’s most frequent (starting with the never released pilot episode) guest Aaron Boyes. We talk about the podcast’s origins, how history has changed over the past five years, and the adoption of digital tools by historians. We also talk about the job market for historians and the pros and cons of doing a PhD in history. As an added bonus, we talk with Megan Reilly-Boyes about the benefits and challenges of doing history in the 21st century.

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“Men Want to Hog Everything”: Women in Canadian Legislative Politics after Suffrage Victories

By Veronica Strong-Boag

“Men Want to Hog Everything”: in one revealing phrase, Agnes Macphail, Canada’s first female parliamentarian (as of 1921), summed up the decades after the first partial suffrage victories.  Admittedly, she went on to note that

There are even some men who think a woman should get a fair break. Not many, but enough to make the struggle seem worth while.[1]

But the overall assessment was bleak.

Hillary Clinton’s fate in November 2016, and many before her, invites the same conclusion. Many men (and male-identified women), like, to invoke yet another farm-yard metaphor from Nellie McClung’s anthropomorphic Mike the Ox in her suffragist manifesto In Times Like These (1915), to resist sharing power and fiercely defend their privileges. As my 1996 article “Independent Women, Problematic Men: First and Second Wave Anti-Feminism in Canada from Goldwin Smith to Betty Steele” demonstrated, Canada’s anti-woman politics has a long history.

While admitting the familiar argument that women sometimes let themselves down (not hard to do in deeply patriarchal cultures), that no party has a monopoly on misogyny, that the ‘first past the post system’ discriminates against women, and minority candidates, and that few suffragists embraced inclusive democracy, this paper highlights resistance to the first enfranchised female voters.[2] That subversion of even partial democracy is easy to find. Continue reading