Thinking Historically about Canadian Commemoration Controversies

By Lindsay Gibson

Over the past year, Canada’s history has been centre stage. Controversy about commemoration of the past has fuelled public discussion and debate. In addition to #Canada150, the sesquicentennial anniversary of Canadian Confederation, there were impassioned arguments over the legacy of historical figures such as Hector Langevin, Egerton Ryerson, Joseph Trutch, Nicholas Flood Davin, Mathew Baillie Begbie, Edward Cornwallis, and Sir John A. Macdonald.

Statue of Edward Cornwallis in downtown Halifax, Photo by Ben MacLeod, Wikimedia Commons.

Rather than weigh in on these specific controversies, in this essay I offer a history educator’s perspective on how we might think historically about commemoration controversies. Building upon Yale University’s Witt Committee’s “Principles of Renaming, this essay draws from Peter Seixas’ historical thinking framework to propose a series of questions designed to support teachers, students, and members of the public in making reasoned judgments about how best to respond to these controversies. Continue reading

#150Acts: A Poster Series to Bring Us into the Next 150

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Crystal Fraser and Sara Komarnisky

On August 4, 2017, there were 150 days left in Canada’s 150th year and Active History published “150 Acts for Reconciliation for the Last 150 Days of Canada’s 150.” Since then, the post has gone viral with more than 30,000 views.

As we wrote #150Acts in the late days of July, we pinged ideas back and forth, tossed some, kept many more, and had profound conversations about Indigenous-settler relations in Canada. We viewed this as an important exercise of reconciliation between a Gwich’in woman and a settler Canadian with Ukrainian heritage and hoped that others would similarly engage. In our post, we offered 150 different ways for Canadians to practice reconciliation, individually, with families and friends, or at work.

The ripple effect of our list has been both overwhelming and humbling. We have witnessed change happen on the ground as a result of Canadians further committing to reconciliation: Indigenous flags have been erected at municipal facilities, learning circles have been organized for people to take the University of Alberta’s MOOC, “Indigenous Canada,” and people continue to add to our initial list of ideas.

To further share our ideas and our #150Acts, we created a set of posters that are now available for purchase. We are pleased to share design and art by Yukon artist Lianne Marie Leda Charlie who is Tagé Cho Hudän | Big River People (Northern Tutchone). Please visit our website for more information and to purchase the posters. We invite you to keep making acts of reconciliation and share project this with others.

Hài’ choo,

Crystal and Sara

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Reflections on Learning: Conversations in the Car, the Bus, the Boardwalk

By Clara MacCallum Fraser with Kelly King & Nicole Latulippe

This essay is part of an ongoing series reflecting on this summer’s Manitoulin Island Summer Historical Institute (MISHI).

Is it possible to convey the depth of embodied learning through the written word?

In the past, when I was in a similar learning environment (such as the Anishinaabe Law Camp at Neyaashiinigmiing First Nation), I was asked to put away the pen, the paper, the computer, and just listen. But really listen – listen actively, with my whole body.

It’s a scary thing. I often feel I have the memory of a goldfish, and worry that I’ll forget everything I hear or read if I don’t take copious notes.

I was told then “you’ll remember what you need to for now, the other things will emerge in time, when you need them, or when their time comes.”

This was a challenging lesson to learn, but one that I sought to work towards during the MISHI trip.

On this trip, I was reminded yet again that every time I step into this sort of immersive learning environment, whether for a moment or for an extended length of time, to learn about Indigenous ways of knowing, some piece of learning or memory from the last time appears and finds solid form. The wisps of learning from the past take shape, as new wisps appear and wait for a future when they too will find form.

Although quiet reflection and pondering is indeed necessary in order for us to work through our own thoughts and ideas, I’m beginning to learn that it is really lived experience following initial teachings, and in relationship with others, where the seeds shoot roots and begin to grow; the light turns from a hard brightness to a glowing warmth.

During this week with MISHI, I found I wasn’t alone in my worries, nor in my aspirations to listen more wholly.

A piece from Michael Belmore’s installation “Smoulder”. Carved stone, gilded copper.

Kelly, Nicole, and I have met before. Kelly and I were classmates in a course on Indigenous research methodologies taught by Dr. Deb McGregor. Nicole was a guest speaker at one of those classes. Continue reading

History Slam Episode 109: Lace Up: A History of Skates in Canada

By Sean Graham

For the past three-and-a-half years I have had the pleasure of working with Jean-Marie Leduc and Julie Léger on a book looking at the history of skates. Mr. Leduc is a renowned expert on skates with one of the biggest private collections in the world that has been displayed at museums and exhibitions across the country, including during the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. When the opportunity came up a few years ago to work on a book, it seemed to me an interesting idea that would make for a good read.

On November 10, Lace Up: A History of Skates in Canada was released. The book traces the development of skates from bone skates used by Indigenous peoples for thousands of years to the skates used by today’s world champions. Through Mr. Leduc’s collection, the book explores how skates and their technological innovations shaped how people got around on ice. At the same time, as skates continued to evolve, new winter sports were invented based on the improved technology. For instance, the development of stop picks on figure skates allowed for the speed, agility, and aerial components required in today’s competitions.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Jean-Marie Leduc about Lace Up. We talk about the origins of his extensive skate collection, how he built the collection, and some of his favourite pairs. We also talk about the book, how we put it together, and what readers can expect. If you are in the Ottawa area, you are welcome to join us for the book launch on Tuesday December 5 between 5 and 7 at Alex Trebek Alumni Hall at the University of Ottawa.

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To Forgive and Forget? Homonationalism, Hegemony, and History in the Gay Apology

By Steven Maynard

This is a featured paper co-published with C4E Journal: Perspectives on Ethics

In June 2017, in a ceremony on Parliament Hill, where “the Pride, Transgender Pride, and Canada 150 flags were raised,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau officially announced what he’d been promising for over a year: “The government will introduce legislation to make it possible to erase the convictions for Canadians who were found guilty under historical, unjust laws for sexual activity with a same sex partner.”[1]

For a historian, who is typically tucked away in the archives, it can be a tad disconcerting to discover the records you’ve been working with for the past almost three decades – historical court records of sexual offences between men – might be ‘erased.’ It began in February 2016 when the prime minister’s press secretary conveyed the government’s intention to seek a posthumous pardon for Everett Klippert, the man whose multiple convictions for gross indecency during the 1960s led to his designation as a ‘dangerous sexual offender’ and indefinite imprisonment, and whose case played a part in pushing Justin’s father to partially decriminalize homosexuality in 1969. The review of records and possible pardons for those convicted of buggery and gross indecency in the past is part of the government’s broader plan to apologize to all those LGBTQ people who suffered under unjust laws and policies, including those fired from the federal civil service and military during the postwar period right up to the early 1990s. Known as “the gay apology,” it is due to be delivered later today (November 28 2017).[2]

This is not the first time such an apology has been called for. Twenty-five years ago, in response to a journalistic exposé of the postwar purge of queer people from the civil service, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney told the House of Commons that the purge represented “a most regrettable incident,” but he stopped far short of offering an apology.[3] In 1998, Gary Kinsman, Patrizia Gentile and their team, in a preliminary report on their research into the government’s anti-queer national security campaign, called for an official state apology.[4] None was forthcoming from then-Prime Minister Jean Chrétien. Two decades later, our pride-parade-loving prime minister with the rainbow socks has committed to making an official apology.

So why the gay apology now? [Continue Reading…]

Interpretation, Interaction, and Critique at House Museums

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Two story stone building with walking and lawn in front.

Old Stone House at the Ermatinger Clergue National Historic Site. Photo Credit: Will Hollingshead.

Krista McCracken

Ever wish there was way to provide feedback to museums and historic house sites that didn’t involve filling out a survey form? Enter anarchist tags. Created by Franklin D. Vagnone and Deborah E. Ryan, authors of Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums: A Ground-Breaking Manifesto, the tags were designed as a way to allow community members to freely provide feedback on museum and house museum interpretation techniques.

As you might have guessed by the title, the Anarchist Guide is provocative in nature and has been met with mixed feelings in the museum and preservation communities. The Guide proposes radical reinterpretation of historic house spaces through community engagement and changing traditional methods of interpretation. Vagnone and Ryan propose a number of suggestions for reinterpretation including:

  • Move beyond the idea of period interpretation at historic houses and suggest historic sites focus on all of a house’s history, not just a specific time period.
  • Connect house museums to the present day surrounding community.
  • Focus less on physical items and more on the personal experiences of past house residents.
  • Remove ropes. Allow visitors more freedom to touch and engage with artifacts.

Regardless of if you whole-heartedly agree or find yourself horrified by Vagnone and Ryan’s suggestions, their work inspires conversation and reflection on longstanding interpretation techniques. Continue reading

Is Google Home a History Calculator? Artificial Intelligence and the Fate of History

Sean Kheraj

In their 2005 article in First Monday, Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig recount the story of a remarkably prescient colleague, Peter Stearns, who “proposed the idea of a history analog to the math calculator, a handheld device that would provide students with names and dates to use on exams—a Cliolator, he called it, a play on the muse of history and the calculator.” [1] Cohen and Rosenzweig took Stearns’s idea and ran with it. They set out to build the Cliolator in the form of a software algorithm called “H-Bot” which served as a history fact finder, scouring the web for information to answer questions about the past. Even with all its limitations and the limits to what was available online in 2004-05, H-Bot was remarkably accurate. It was especially adept at identifying dates and simple definitions. Where it fell short was in more complex questions, including “hows” and “whys”.

Since 2005, the web has grown well beyond the scale of information available to H-Bot, providing a much larger reservoir of data to crawl. And artificial intelligence and machine learning software have brought us much closer to the so-called Cliolator. Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and Apple have all developed quasi-artificial intelligence voice assistants that can parse natural language queries and supply answers drawn from the web. Google Home and Amazon Echo are the most extraordinary examples of these voice assistants, stand-alone devices with the ability to listen to and answer questions. Are these the ultimate versions of the Cliolator?

I decided to put one to the test to see how well this form of artificial intelligence could perform in my introductory Canadian history course. One of the sections of my final exam asks students to identify a key point from the course and explain its historical significance. In answering the questions from this section of the exam, students must demonstrate some simple factual knowledge by identifying each key point and exercise some analytical ability by explaining why it was significant. Could a Google Home pass this section of my exam? I tested it on nine key points: Continue reading

Past, Present, and Future in Enki Bilal’s Graphic Novels

Alban Bargain-Villéger

Little known in Canada outside a small circle of aficionados, Enki Bilal is probably one of the most imaginative, talented graphic novelists alive. He is also a controversial, misunderstood figure whose work addresses deeply historical questions. Thus, this post offers a reflection on Bilal’s career and, more particularly, his perspective on the past and how it constantly collides with the present and future of humankind. I will also address two contradictions in Bilal’s approach to his craft, namely that he (a) “has no real interest in … the past”, and (b) that he believes that the events of the twentieth century irrevocably discredited communism as an ideology.[1] Indeed, a close reading of his work – whether authored in collaboration with Pierre Christin or on his own – tends to prove that a sophisticated sense of history pervades his work and that he is not as rabid an anti-communist as he thinks he is – or wants people to believe he is. Finally, an overview of Bilal’s graphic novels gives historians of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries fodder for thought, as his work (which spans the late Cold War era, the 1990s, and the post-9/11 period) does not confine itself to being a product of its time, but also constantly interrogates the past, the present, and the future.

Enki Bilal was born Enes Bilalovic in Belgrade in 1951, of a Slovak mother and a Bosnian father. When Enki was nine years old, the family moved to Paris, where his father had found a new job. It was during his adolescence that the young artist developed a taste for sketching, painting, and writing stories. In 1971, he made his breakthrough in the fine arts community, by winning the comics magazine Pilote’s “new talent” prize. Four years later, Bilal met Pierre Christin, with whom he collaborated on seven full-length books. Christin, born in 1938, soon became more than a partner in crime, as he took on a mentorship role. While the division of labour between the two men was well-established from the start, with Christin as writer and Bilal as illustrator, the omnipresence of history and politics in those early works had a major influence on the artist’s solo work. A leftist, albeit fiercely independent, thinker, Christin wanted to “introduce new topics [in the comics world], take a more adult-friendly approach at a time when the profession was still very conformist.” By contrast, Bilal has stated that he was never “really part of the world, of the culture he lived in.”[2] Soon, however, the illustrator metamorphosed into a deeply political artist. Continue reading

An Open Letter to Canadians from an Undergrad Student

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By Emma Stelter

For generations, settler governments have been trying to break and remake Indigenous families in what is now known today as Canada.[1] We must acknowledge historic wrongdoing. Regardless of whether our ancestors were immigrants during pioneer times or immigrants today, many Canadians benefit from the state’s division of land and resources.

There is a lot of work to be done on reconciliation. Over the past three decades, there have been 1,181 Indigenous women reported as murdered and 164 reported as missing. But, the real numbers are estimated to be as high as 4,000. Indigenous women are disproportionately targeted and victimized in Canada. Indigenous women face victimization rates three times higher than that of non-Indigenous women. To make matters worse, violence against Indigenous women is infrequently reported to or examined by the RCMP.

Collectively, generations of Canadians have neglected missing and murdered Indigenous women (MMIW). Continue reading

Russia 2017: The Centenary of a Global Revolution

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“V.I. Lenin making a speech at a meeting dedicated to the laying of the foundation stone for a monument to K. Liebknecht and R. Luxemburg, in Dvorstsovaya Square. Petrograd,” 19 July 1920, Wikimedia Commons.

Oleksa Drachewych

On November 7, 2017, the centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution passed. One hundred years ago, in Russia, the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, formed the world’s first communist regime.[1] Bolshevik Russia survived a bitter and violent civil war, including invasion by Entente forces seeking to replace a government that was antagonistic to them. By the end of the Second World War, the Soviet Union was a superpower, an ideological, economic, and military counterweight to American ascendency. Other communist nations formed during the Cold War, including Maoist China, Kim Il-sung’s North Korea, Ho Chi Minh’s Vietnam and Fidel Castro’s Cuba. The Cold War dominated international diplomacy for four decades. When the Soviet Union collapsed, dissolving in 1991, some declared Communism dead, but with current references to the broad left, it is clear that some of the ideas encapsulated by the Bolshevik Revolution and Marxism-Leninism thrive.

Many highlight that the Bolshevik Revolution and its results clearly show communism’s failing as a legitimate form of government. It led to one of the most violent and brutal authoritarian regimes in history, the USSR, with millions of victims of repression instigated under the guise of defending the revolution. It inspired other similar regimes, which also governed with violence, most significantly exemplified in Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward, when over 60 million people died. Other Communist regimes perpetrated great human rights violations and limited political freedoms.[2] These legacies remain relevant today as exemplified by the closed society of North Korea or the poverty of Venezuela.

Many nations have built tributes to the victims of communism. Most famously, in the United States, the Victims of Communism Memorial in Washington is one such symbol, supported by the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation which continues to condemn the horrors of communism, arguing that the ideology inherently leads to authoritarianism. In many former Soviet satellite states, there are museums, such as the House of Terror in Hungary, which include exhibits reflecting life and repression under communism. Currently, in Canada, initiated in 2015 with the support of the Harper government, the Tribute to Liberty project in part aims to memorialize the victims of communist repression, while also reflecting Canada’s position as a place of refuge for those fleeing communist persecution.

However, this focus on the Revolution’s negative consequences, while justified, ignores the genuine inspiration the principles behind the revolution provided to many around the world. Continue reading