Lessons from the Past, Promises for the Future: Reflections on Historical Thinking in Canadian History

By Thomas Peace

“Our historians have almost wholly ignored the existence of slavery in Canada.”

Two weeks ago these words echoed through Fountain Commons here at Acadia University.  Historians, educators and activists had gathered for Opening the Academy: New Strategies for Exploring and Sharing African Nova Scotian Histories. The message those of us in the audience heard was that African-Canadian history remains a marginal field in Canadian history. The words above – evoked at the conference, but originally delivered by T. Watson Smith in 1898 to the Royal Nova Scotia Historical Society – still hold true today.[1]

It’s not my intention here to delve into the relative merits of this comparison (though a look through Watson Smith’s address makes one wonder just how far historical research has come over the past 115 years). Rather, I want to use Watson Smith’s statement as a way to introduce a more fundamental point about teaching history and communicating information about the past: it isn’t easy and it’s highly political.

This week ActiveHistory.ca has put together a series of blog posts that focus on the Historical Thinking Project. Scheduled to close its doors at the end of the month, the Historical Thinking Project has made a tangible difference in Canada’s historical landscape. Continue reading

Slavery in Canada? I Never Learned That!

Slavery advertisement from Upper Canada Gazette, 10 February 1806.

Slavery advertisement from Upper Canada Gazette, 10 February 1806.

By Natasha Henry

The highly anticipated soon-to-be-released film, 12 Years a Slave, has garnered lots of attention following its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. The film provides a shocking but realistic depiction of American slavery. It is based on the life of Solomon Northrup, a free man, who was kidnapped from his hometown in New York and sold south into slavery. Northup is able to regain his freedom after Canadian Samuel Bass, a carpenter from Prescott, Upper Canada, writes several letters to authorities in New York on his behalf. No doubt, Canadians are proud of the usual portrayal of us as crusaders against American slavery and wear the badge of “Canadians as abolitionists” with honour. Canadians readily embrace the notion of Canada as a haven for American freedom-seekers, who were escaping the same conditions that Solomon Northup endured. Once he was freed, Northrup himself helped fugitives flee to Canada, the “Promised Land.”

But what about Canadian slavery?

African slavery existed in the colonies of New France and British North America for over 200 years, yet there remains a profound silence in classrooms and teaching resources about Canada’s involvement in the African slave trade.  Continue reading

Room for Change: Anti-Slavery Rhetoric in Contemporary Literature, an Interview with Emma Donoghue

Ma’s grinning. “We can do anything now.”
“Because we’re free.”

– Emma Donoghue, Room (Toronto: HarperCollins, 2010).

Free of “Room” – a locked garden shed with a single skylight, the primary setting of Emma Donoghue’s award-winning fiction novel, Room.

In Room, Donoghue brings readers into Jack’s world, an eleven by eleven ‘cell,’ that he shares with Ma and a key cast of inanimate characters like Rug, Bed, Table, Tooth, and Door. While readers can sense within pages that Jack’s world is a little too small, he reminds readers that “We [Ma and Jack] have thousands of things to do every morning, like give Plant a cup of water in Sink.” It is through this eerily ‘safe’ space that Donoghue eases her readers into an alternate America: captive America. And, while Ma is never sold by her captor, it is through Ma’s story that Donoghue draws readers’ attention to a thriving 32 billion dollar minimum criminal industry: human bondage.

Donoghue wrote a book that I couldn’t put down. A suspense novel that had me Google-searching for spoilers. A book that made me want to learn more about Donoghue, how she recreated Ma’s world, and what she wanted to tell her audience about human bondage. What follows is a Q & A with Emma Donoghue and key passages from Room. Continue reading

Announcements of Upcoming Events

There are a variety of exciting events being held this fall: Approaching the Past, the Parler Fort series, and the Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking Conference.

The teaching history workshop Approaching the Past will be holding its first event of this fall on Wednesday October the 5th.  It is being held from 5 – 8 p.m.  The first half of the event will be held at the Toronto Archives and then we will also visit the Spadina House Museum.  The cost is free but participants need to RSVP.  For more information or confirm you attendance visit: https://sites.google.com/site/approachingthepasttoronto/home/event-1

The Parler Fort series, a forum for citizens exploring Toronto’s Past, Present & Future, is an initiative of the Friends of Fort York.   On Monday October 24th at 7:30 pm at Historic Fort York, Parler Fort presents “Canada Invaded on the Eve of Confederation: The Intertwined stories of the Fenian Invasion and Thomas D’Arcy McGee – journalist, poet and Father of Confederation.”  Join Christopher Moore, David A. Wilson, and Peter Vronsky to learn more about these tense, interconnected Canadian stories that resonate with issues today.  Cost is $10.00 and students are free.  For more information or to register email fortyork@toronto.ca or call 416-392-6907 ext. 221.  Future Parler Fort events take place on November 14th and December 12.  Details will be posted here.

The Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking Conference is being held on October 15th, 2011 at York University.  This one-day conference seeks to address important gap areas in public and media perception of modern slavery and human trafficking issues, including post-enslavement rehabilitation, memory and trauma, sex tourism, best practices analysis, preventive measures, partnerships and avenues to counter the ways in which we all are connected to slavery through the consumer goods we purchase and consume on a daily basis.  It also seeks to illuminate a number of lesser known forms of contemporary slavery that are thriving at home and abroad.  These include domestic slavery, debt bondage, child soldiery, hereditary slavery, forced servile marriage and human trafficking for forced labour.

To register for free or to get more information, please visit:  www.allianceagainstmodernslavery.org



An Ethical Argument for Fashion

Joel Krupa and Sali El-Sadig, Alliance Against Modern Slavery

High fashion is an integral part of everyday life in the great cities of the industrialized world. Often clustered on prestigious roads, we find the high fashion boutiques in places like Bond Street in London, Fifth Avenue in New York, and Bloor Street in Toronto regularly topping the lists of the most expensive retail spaces in the world. Of course, items like the stitched $15,000 (USD) Hermes bag or the $1,700 Louis Vuitton scarf may raise a few eyebrows among even the deepest of pockets and will remain the strict purview of oligarchs and business moguls for years to come. However, fashion has recognized its influential position and has aggressively moved into the mainstream by targeting more budget-conscious consumers and, in the process, it has become truly international and cosmopolitan. Every year, millions of people around the world casually hand over thousands of dollars for name brands like Hugo Boss, Gucci, and Prada, and hand over many times more for less prestigious names like GAP and Nike. With the emergence of luxury-hungry markets like China and India, these trends show no signs of abating in the near future. Continue reading

May 12th Public Lecture: “Understanding Slavery Past and Present”

A reminder to our readers that you are all invited to the final lecture in the Mississauga Library System’s ‘History Minds’ series, co-hosted with ActiveHistory.ca. This talk will be on Thursday, May 12th at 7:30PM in Classroom 3 at the Mississauga Central Library (see below the cut for directions).

“Understanding Slavery Past and Present”
With Karlee Sapoznik, Co-Founder of the Alliance Against Modern Slavery.

Interest in contemporary slavery and human trafficking have increased dramatically over the last two decades. Ms. Karlee Sapoznik has expertise in slavery in all of its forms. Her research integrates the study of historical and contemporary slavery. Although slavery is now illegal around the world it is still widely practiced. Experts place the number of living modern slaves at 27 million, twice as many as the number of Africans enslaved during the four centuries of the transatlantic slave trade. As Sapoznik argues, if we can better understand both the successes and the failures of past abolitionist movements, we may better understand this paradox. We might hope to change it. Continue reading

Modern slavery, environmental stress, and lingering international imperialism – unwinding the connections between intimately linked problems

By Sali El-Sadig and Joel Krupa

There is a tendency in the social sciences to compartmentalize issues. In particular, the modern academic atmosphere in the social sciences and humanities has sliced and diced nearly every conceivable economic, social, cultural, and environmental topic into specialized categories, allocated it (or them) to the ostensibly ideal discipline, and subsequently dissected the topic at length. Too often, this lack of interdisciplinary focus has resulted in a lack of intellectual inquiry into the causative factors and intimate links behind various problems. In an increasingly seamlessly connected and globalized world, we continue to do this to our own peril – especially when analyzing interconnections between the important contemporary human rights issues of forced bondage/slavery, globalization, and environmental stress. Continue reading

Forced Marriage: An under recognized, poorly understood form of enslavement

UK Forced Marriage Unit Handbook

Editors Note: There are two parts to this post.  Part 1 is Karlee Sapoznik’s piece on Forced Marriage.  Part 2 is a summary of the launch and upcoming events for one of our partners, the Alliance Against Modern Slavery.

When we think of slavery, the institution of marriage rarely comes to mind. However, the denial of basic human rights and the enslavement of women and girls continue on a widespread scale, often centering on marriage.

Since the post World War II era, forced marriage has been prohibited under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), forbidden in dozens of international treaties recognizing the right to free and full consent in marriage, and specific forms of forced marriage have been defined as “slavery.” Continue reading

Slavery Affects 27 Million Lives Today: Legal Abolition vs. Effective Emancipation

Slavery was one of the grossest violations of human rights and dignity in human history. It permeated, at one time or another, every inch of the globe: from the sugar plantations, and mines of the Americas, to the harems of the Ottoman Empire and the armies of the Sokoto Caliphate, slavery was an incredibly diverse and global institution.  

Reduced to expendable chattel, slaves were divorced from their homelands, sold and bought, and forcibly taken to new sites of exploitation where, under the threat of violence, were made to work for the financial accruement of others. By various emancipatory decrees and proclamations throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century, slavery gradually declined and eventually ceased to exist. Or did it? Continue reading

New ActiveHistory.ca Paper – Cancun Summit: The True Reasons for the ‘Failure’ of the Green Movement by Jean-François Mouhot

As the 2010 UN Climate summit in Cancun seems unlikely to make any significant advances, the green movement has been blamed for failing to convince the public that action on climate change is both urgent and necessary, in particular because of its refusal of technologies such as nuclear energy and geo-engineering. However, looking at a previous period of “boom and bust” in environmental awareness in the late 1980s, the paper shows that the recent decline in concern over global warming in the West is due both to the economic recession and to people’s reluctance to accept self-restraint. Then, it argues that our reticence to act on climate change is best understood by way of an analogy with slavery, an analogy further developed in an article published in the journal Climatic Change. Finally, it reminds technology enthusiasts that the solutions of the past have often been the problems of the future: CFCs, for example, were considered a great invention until their ozone-depleting effect was discovered.

Link to the full paper