History Slam Episode 148: Why Political Leaders Matter

By Sean Graham

As an undergraduate student, I had an idea for a paper in my fourth year seminar on Canadian history to write about the 1930 federal election. It was a campaign that I was intrigued by – you had an economic collapse, a new leader of the Conservative Party, and a Prime Minister who would come back five years later. The more I read about the election, trends emerged that I had not expected and the paper turned into an analysis that went beyond politics.

A similar thing happened when I started to deal with the 1935 federal election during my MA research on the history of Canadian radio. In this case, you had the same two leaders as 1930, but a very different economic outlook and, more importantly, an unrecognizable media landscape. While radio played a role in 1930, its use was a major issue during the 1935 campaign and a significant factor in William Lyon Mackenzie King’s desire to re-organize the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission following his government’s return to power.

What was remarkable in looking at these campaigns, though, was that the role of the leaders, over the course of 5 years, was different. The two individuals were the same, but the way they engaged the Canadian people – and the way Canadians felt about them – had drastically changed.

In our federal elections, the vast majority of the population does not cast a ballot for a leader of a political party. Despite this, people have a tendency to vote for the candidate representing the party of their preferred leader. At the same time, there is a saying that all politics are local. As I result, when I’ve written about the 1930 and 1935 elections, I’ve wondered how to analyze this potential paradox.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Amanda Bittner of Memorial University about the significance of political leaders. We talk about how polling data is used, partisan voting patterns, and the role of leaders in swaying voters. We also discuss policies v. personalities, the significance of branding leaders, and the challenges of attracting people to politics.

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Surviving Grad School During a Pandemic

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By Erin Gallagher-Cohoon

This post has been cross-posted with CovidChroniclers.com

I owe a deep debt of gratitude to the 20 graduate students who shared their stories with me. Wherever you end up, may you never lose your passion, curiosity, and empathy. I see you. I acknowledge you.

Two weeks ago, I wrote a blog post about surviving grad school during a pandemic. I was flattered (and saddened) that my comments seemed to resonate to such a degree with other graduate students. I noticed that many who shared my post on social media quoted one paragraph in particular, a paragraph in which I refute the idea that we are simply preparing for a future career. One colleague messaged me to say how “soothing” it was to hear someone else acknowledge what she does as a career. Another fellow graduate student e-mailed me to say how much she appreciated folks “sharing their stories despite the immense difficulty of the time and self-exposure of the practice.”

I started to more deliberately ask people to share their stories with me. Many wanted to discuss their role as workers and the lack of recognition from the university for their labour. Some were sessional instructors or Teaching Assistants during the move online. For some, there was a noticeable increase in their hours of work, in the emotional labour needed to support undergraduate students who were themselves anxious and stressed, and even in the technical support some faculty were asking from them as someone who was “young and decently tech savvy and reasonably approachable.”

My willingness to see graduate school as a career, to talk about our work as work seems to have resonated so deeply with people because that is how many experience graduate school. And, yet there is a disconnect between this experience and the perspective of university administrations. One colleague described it like this: “Basically, it feels like their approach to graduate student work is that we do this for professional development or some sort of recreation or like extra pocket money or something . . . my job actually is what I pay the rent with.”

In the last two weeks, I have spoken with 15 graduate students and 5 others have messaged me with written comments. I spoke with students from Simon Fraser University, the University of Lethbridge, the University of Saskatchewan, Queen’s University, Carleton University, the University of Ottawa, the University of Guelph, Université Laval, and York University. They have ranged from M.A. students to PhD candidates in their 8th year, in programs as diverse as Computer Science, Sociology, Kinesiology, History, and Anthropology.

I spoke with students who felt that their universities (or, more often) Departments had really stepped up and provided them with support, and many others who felt disillusioned and disheartened by the lack of support. I spoke with students who had prestigious external awards and were as financially stable as possible while in graduate school, and others who were beyond the guaranteed funding period. Some felt that graduate school had actually prepared them for working from home, or in isolation, or that previous mental health crises had given them the coping skills that were so crucial at this time. One student with a serious injury described how, despite the many problems with online learning, “maybe it will make the university see that it’s actually doable so that my accommodation wouldn’t be seen as something insane to ask.” In other words, for some, transitioning to online research has been possible, and may even come with some surprising benefits. For others, it has meant drastic adjustments, perhaps even a complete halt to their work. Continue reading

Research stories: The Mystery of the Missing Camera

Hopewell Rocks, New Brunswick. Author’s photo.

Ronald Rudin

Once upon a time, I did my research in the archives, a controlled environment where weird things rarely happened. Then, I became a public historian, venturing out into the real world, and things were not always so straightforward, particularly when I was on the road with a film crew. For instance, there was the time when the director was convinced that he had lost an expensive camera, which would have destroyed my budget. We subsequently discovered that the camera had only been misplaced. Overly excited by the good news, I decided that I could race the van carrying the equipment over a short distance, not accounting for the large curb that was in my way, which resulted in my falling face first into the pavement. A tooth was cracked, but mostly my ego was injured.

That story had a beginning, middle, and end, but the one that follows — also about a missing camera — remains a mystery. It began when I set off during the summer of 2018 with a filmmaker and his cameraman to work on a documentary dealing with the environmental history of the marshlands at the head of the Bay of Fundy in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. For nearly three centuries, various human interventions tried to control the bay’s tides, the largest in the world, so that marshes could be drained to allow farming to take place. We travelled across the region, interviewing a wide range of people connected with the landscape and capturing images that documented the human impact on this environment. Our efforts resulted in the production of Unnatural Landscapes, but the film makes no reference to the mystery.

It began one afternoon when we were filming near a dam in southeastern New Brunswick that had been built in the early 1950s to prevent tides from going upstream. Continue reading

Who Speaks? Who Tells? Who Listens? – Part 3

Excerpt of A World Without Martha: A Memoir of Sisters, Disability, and Difference

By Victoria Freeman

For so many years, my knowledge of my sister had been defined more through her absence than her presence, through the shape of the void she left in my life. I had been able to approach who she was only through echoes and shadows, through my own fear of being carted away or of being seen as crazy or stupid, through my fear of experts, those who had condemned her to exile. I had known her in my own mind as the accusing sister, the crazy sister, or the sister who could not speak. Sadly, through most of her life and my own, I had been so affected by my own trauma in relation to her that I had been largely oblivious to what she may have actually experienced. I was never able to see the real person. I had never asked her what she felt, because I had never considered her capable of answering. Unconsciously, I had understood her abandonment, felt it, and absorbed it, but I had taken it on as my own, an appropriation that was not true empathy. I had not recognized that her pain was distinct from mine. The only way I had been able to deal with it was to make it mine, but that was a disservice to her. Now, finally, as my own pain lessened, I could begin to consider hers.


In her book Gender Trouble, the philosopher Judith Butler says that some identities cannot exist. Continue reading

History Slam Episode 147: Influence

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By Sean Graham

Influence debuts tonight on CBC and GEM at 8 pm (8:30 NT) and 9 ET/PT on documentary

Whenever I teach a course about popular culture, the final class always includes a discussion about the importance of being critical consumers of content. We are bombarded with information on a daily basis, whether advertising, news, or entertainment and I find it useful to constantly remind myself that all this stuff is created for a reason – the person/people behind it have some sort of goal (if even subconscious) for putting it into the world. It’s up to us to wade through those motivations as we navigate a media landscape that is growing more crowded each day.

Sometimes it’s pretty easy to figure out. An advertiser wants you to buy a product. A political party wants your support. A sitcom wants you to laugh so you’ll keep watching and they can sell ad time. Other times, though, the messaging isn’t as apparent. As marketing firms and PR professionals continue to innovate, they are using increasingly sophisticated techniques to convey messages.

With this, there has been an increase in the weaponization of information and misinformation. From sowing division, creating fear, and fostering distrust, the political landscape in which some people work has fundamentally changed.

This is the subject of the new documentary Influence. The film profiles the life and career of Sir Tim Bell, who rose to prominence in advertising before shifting his attention to politics. Following his success with the election campaign of Margaret Thatcher, Bell, and his now infamous Bell Pottinger firm, turned his attention to international affairs, with part of its portfolio creating influential campaigns in support of dictatorial regimes.

Despite its massive influence, the firm eventually collapsed following the revelations of its misdeeds by South African journalists, but its story and legacy are a powerful example of how susceptible societies are to misinformation. Featuring interviews with Tim Bell and many of his contemporaries, the film demonstrates the extent to which some people will openly spread misinformation for their own political and financial gains. The film is gripping without being prescriptive and serves as a welcome warning in an age where critical consumption is part of being an engaged citizen.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with the film’s writers and directors Diana Nielle and Richard Poplak. We talk about the film’s origins, the extent of Bell Pottinger’s international operations, and how things came to a head in South Africa. We also discuss why the principals agreed to be interviewed, their motivations, and what audiences can take away from the documentary.

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The Generation of 2020: Coming of Age in Covid-Time

Teenagers in self-isolation, May 2020. Photograph from the author’s collection, courtesy of Alexander Ly.

Cynthia Comacchio

Although not always the most important identity marker, age has always mattered in the making of roles, rights, status and power structures. It signifies as much as, and occasionally more than, class, gender, race, sexuality, heritage. Only partly a biological/chronological category, it is also socially-constructed and consequently historical, varying in time and place. The time-shifting meanings of age reflect, correspond to, and also shape public discourses and national objectives.[i]

Age came to matter all the more in the wake of the Great War, that cataclysm that in so many ways lifted a rising tide ever faster toward cultural modernity. The traditional hierarchy that made status and power contingent with advancing years was overturned. Youth came to be revered, though not so much in the sense of real, chronological, biological, embodied age—what power do the unenfranchised reasonably have?— as in the matter of “modern” style: the newly-coined “sex appeal”, the apparent youth of those who could buy it. Youth, or at least youthfulness, not only sold new consumer products, it was the singular product of a modern consumer culture.[ii]

These ideas about age and generation are the basis of much of my research. But my own life, in our own day, gives me reason to consider how they apply to this unique—many say ‘unprecedented’—historical moment. Continue reading

Addressing Precarity at ActiveHistory.ca

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The Active History collective is thinking about how to address precarious employment, both in the way we operate and in the wider history profession. We want your help to do it.

In February, Active History was asked to support and publish the Precarious Historical Instructors’ Manifesto. Written by a group of historians who have experienced, or continue to experience, the challenges of piecing together casual academic-labour contracts, the manifesto calls attention to the visceral problems of the “multi-decade internship system” this type of academic employment has created. The manifesto makes 3 key recommendations:

  1. Universities limit off-season and online offerings to non-tenure/tenure track faculty members.
  2. Contract faculty members should be considered as part of the departmental planning process.
  3. Acknowledge that the university is not a functioning meritocracy.

To implement these recommendations, the authors put forward several calls-to-action focusing specifically on activities to be taken up by professional associations, history departments, faculty associations, and funding agencies.

Though we – the editors at ActiveHistory.ca – appreciate the manifesto’s authors desire to use this site to launch and publicize their manifesto, we are not immune from their critiques. Started as a volunteer-run website, Active History has benefited from the unpaid labour of our editors and authors, many of whom have made significant and important contributions to the project while working under difficult and precarious employment conditions. We have had several editors and regular contributors leave the project over the years because their precarious employment situation did not afford them the time necessary to continue sustained involvement with us.

The reality of precarious employment for historians is one with which our editorial collective has grappled on several occasions. This fall, we decided to revise how we distribute the small amount of donations we receive each year. Replacing our somewhat ineffective awards program, beginning in September 2020 ActiveHistory.ca will begin providing small honorariums to our editors and regular contributors who work for the project in conditions of precarious employment. Though these honorariums will not match labour market rates of compensation, it is our intention to recognize the time and energy that so many people put into the project while also balancing the challenging reality that comes with precarious employment.

Because our funds are entirely raised by donations, the amount we can offer at this time remains relatively small ($150/year). In adopting this new policy, however, we are also asking our community to begin making regular contributions to the project. Up until now, all contributors have been involved in the project in addition to their other personal and work commitments. We recognize, of course, that there is a significant discrepancy between tenured professors working on the project in this capacity and those contributors working under different conditions of employment. Our hope is that this honorarium policy will begin to mitigate some of those differences.

For the past eleven years, Active History has thrived upon institutional support from York University, Huron University College, and the University of Saskatchewan. These institutions have allowed us to stay online and maintain the infrastructure of our growing website, but we have not been able to secure funds to compensate our authors and editors. We have raised enough funds over the past several years for the honorarium policy to work in 2020. For the policy to continue, however, we will need our community to begin making regular contributions to the project. You can do so through Huron University College. Donations over $20 will receive a tax receipt; we encourage readers in general, and historians with secure employment, in particular, to consider giving monthly. If we are successful in this campaign, we will look to increase the honorarium in 2021.

To make a donation: Visit Huron’s donation page at Huron University College and select “Other” in the drop-down menu. In the comments section, clearly indicate that this gift is intended to support the work of Active History.

Who speaks? Who Tells? Who Listens? – Part 2

By Victoria Freeman

Birds make me think about freedom.

They can go where they want and don’t have to talk about it.

It’s a gift in itself because it’s something that doesn’t come overnight.

You have to work on it. If you have it, it’s just there, like a light.

These words, from a person who lived for 20 years in a large Ontario institution for people with intellectual disabilities, inspired the title and overarching theme for Birds Make Me Think About Freedom, a play I co-created in 2018 with members of L’Arche Toronto’s Sol Express performance ensemble[i], led by Cheryl Zinyk, with assistance from Jumblies Theatre.[ii]

My late sister Martha had lived at the Rideau Regional Centre in Smiths Falls from 1960 to 1973. Birds was created through funding remaining from the court-ordered settlement for former residents of three such institutions, the last of a province-wide system that was finally shuttered in 2009.

Because the lawsuits were settled out of court, survivors’ stories had not been widely shared. Our aim was to educate the public about this shameful and shocking chapter of Ontario’s history and honour those who suffered and died in the institutions, as well as advocate for others still held in similar institutions in other provinces.

But how do you research and ethically represent a history that has been experienced by people with intellectual disabilities, some of whom do not use words to communicate? Continue reading

History Slam Episode 146: Enemy Alien

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By Sean Graham

In the midst of the First World War, the Canadian federal government established a program for the internment of Ukrainian Canadians. Since many Ukrainian immigrants arrived in Canada on passports of what were now enemy countries, some government officials believed that confining these people was a necessary precaution. One of the places they were taken was Kapuskasing in northern Ontario, where the forced labour of those in the camp helped build the infrastructure for the new settlement.

Nearly 100 years later, University of Toronto PhD candidate Kassandra Luciuk was in the midst of researching for her dissertation and discovered a first-person memoir describing life in the camp. While the author is not directly identified, Luciuk was able to verify many of the memoir’s details. In the process, it became clear that the story outlined in the memoir could not be lost to history. The only question was in what format should it be told.

The answer comes in the form of the new book Enemy Alien: A True Story of Life Behind Barbed Wire. The graphic novel takes readers through the memoir, pairing engaging images with powerful stories of an oft-forgotten chapter of Canadian history.

As someone who hasn’t read a lot of graphic novels, I was really impressed with Enemy Alien. It is clear that both Luciuk and artist Nicole Marie Burton went to great lengths in researching the book and ensuring readers are presented a final product that respects the source material. The format, which, of course, allows information to be presented visually, is effectively balanced between text and image, making it is easy to find yourself completely engrossed in this story.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Kassandra Luciuk about the book. We talk about the Ukrainian experience in Canada during the First World War, the legacy of the work camps, and her efforts to identify the memoir’s author. We also chat about confirming the memoir’s claims, the decision to write a graphic novel, and the challenges of funding.

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Year in Review (100 Years Later): Winners at War

By Aaron Boyes and Sean Graham

We put our money down on what we think is the most important event of the 1910s. Let us know what you think in the comments.

Welcome to the First Decennial(?) Year in Review: Winners at War (100 Years Later) bracket. In 2013, we had an idea to do a recap of 1913. The idea came out of our frustration with the annual recap columns that declared winners and losers, often before the year is even over. As historians, we felt that the only way to truly assess a year’s significance was through the benefit of time. And with that, an annual(?) tradition was born. Each December since that fateful first edition, we have convened to determine the most important event from 100 years ago. Over the past 3 weeks, we have gone back and completed the decade by looking at 1910, 1911, and 1912. And today, we put them against each other in an effort to determine the most significant event of the 1910s. To recap, here are the past winners:

1910: Binder Clip Patented

1912: Titanic Sinks on Maiden Voyage

1911: First International Women’s Day

1913: Zipper Patent

1914: First Successful Non-Direct Blood Transfusion

1915: Women’s Suffrage Legalized in Kingdom of Denmark

1916: Margaret Sanger Opens First American Birth Control Clinic in Brooklyn

1917: Russian Revolution

1918: Spanish Flu Pandemic

1919: First Nonstop Transatlantic Flight

Our two ‘rules’ through this series have been that no events from the first world war were eligible, nor would we have repeat winners. We have forgone the classic four-bracket model, and instead we seeded the 10 events. They will go head to head in a single-elimination format to determine the most important event of the 1910s.

Round 1

 (1) Spanish Flu Pandemic


(10) Binder Clip Patented

Aaron: In light of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the Spanish Flu of 1918 seems eerily relevant. Each year, between 3 and 5 million people catch the seasonal flu, and between 250,000 and 500,000 of these cases are fatal. The Spanish Flu, however, was much worse. The virus spread around the world and infected close to 500 million people – for perspective, the estimated population of earth was 1.8 billion. That means that slightly less than one-third of all humans alive in 1918 contracted the flu and between 50 and 100 million of them died.

(Editor’s note: Aaron wrote the following in December 2018, proving once again that historians make TERRIBLE prognosticators: “With hope, virologists are able to determine the exact cause [of the Spanish Flu] and we can prevent another devastating flu season.”)

Louis E. Baltzley patented the basic design of the binder clip in 1910; he was granted the US patent number 1,139,627. As Sean so accurately pointed out in our original bracket, binder clips are everywhere despite the fact that you personally never seem to buy them. If you work in an office, like I do, binder clips are especially ubiquitous and necessary. Some people, like Sean, even use them as their “wallet”.

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