Bored Stiff: A Cranky Historian on ChatGPT

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Edward Dunsworth

Remember, not a game new under the sun
Everything you did has already been done
— Lauryn Hill, interpolating the book of Ecclesiastes

I’m not worried about ChatGPT.

Well, let me be more precise. I’m not worried about ChatGPT sparking a surge in undetectable student cheating, or writing better short stories than Alice Munro, or leading the Roombas and Alexas of the world into a great machine uprising that wipes out the human species.

These possibilities, all of which have been extensively gushed or fretted over, depending on one’s standpoint, are frankly preposterous. In order to get past the fairytales, I found it extremely helpful to develop a baseline understanding of what exactly ChatGPT is and how it works. I’m no software engineer, so I was pleasantly surprised to find that it wasn’t all that difficult to grasp the basics. Here’s my layperson’s attempt to describe how ChatGPT works in one sentence: using mountains upon mountains of text, ChatGPT produces answers to prompts by spitting out one word at a time, each individual word chosen simply because it was deemed by an algorithm to be the most logical word to follow in the sequence.

Don’t take my word for it. Take this guy’s:

ChatGPT is derivative. It’s a copycat, a cheat, a confidence man. It’s a biter, not a writer. Everything it does has already been done.

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ChatGPT and the History of Government Refugee Policies

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Ausma Levalds Rowberry arriving at Pier 21. The government of Canada announced Ausma as the 50,000th displaced person to arrive in Canada after the Second World War.Credit: Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 [2013.1912.24].

Laura Madokoro

I wasn’t quite sure what to make of Chat GPT when it first started making news headlines earlier this year. I was therefore intrigued when the Active History Collective decided to experiment a little by asking it to comment on our areas of expertise. I jumped right in with a quick question. In hindsight though, I completely underestimated what the program was capable of. Had I had more faith, I would have asked a better historical question.

The question I asked was “Is Canada a welcoming country for refugees?”

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Home and Homecoming: My Mother’s Return as a Ugandan Asian Refugee after 50 years of Forced Displacement


Our family of 5 standing underneath the Welcome to Mbarara sign before we entered the city. Photo courtesy of the author.

Shezan Muhammedi

This year mark’s the fiftieth anniversary year of the Ugandan Asian refugee resettlement in Canada. It was the first major resettlement of a non-European refugee community in Canada during the post-war period, following the official de-racialization of Canadian immigration policy in 1962. My mom and her family are part of the nearly 8,000 Ugandan Asian refugees who were resettled in Canada between 1972 and 1974. Her experience served as the foundation for my doctoral thesis and subsequent publication of Gifts From Amin: Ugandan Asian Refugees in Canada which includes in-depth archival research and oral histories with over 50 members of the refugee community. Oral histories, archival documents, artefacts and more from this resettlement are also being collected by Carleton University and showcased in their Uganda Collection. This post explores our family’s trip to East Africa and my mother’s reflections on her returning to her homeland.

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The Asianadian – What’s Old is News

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By Sean Graham

In this episode of What’s Old is News, I talk with Angie Wong, author of Laughing Back at Empire: The Grassroots Activism of The Asianadian Magazine, 1978-1985. We talk about the magazine’s origins, its regular features, and how it built community across the country. We also discuss how it was funded, how it fit within the rise of conservatism in the 1980s, and its legacy nearly 40 years after its final edition.

Historical Headline of the Week

Winston Ma, “I Was Ashamed of Being Chinese Until I Learned About my Ancestors’ First Years in Canada,” CBC, May 30, 2023

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“Out of the Frying Pan”: The Economist on peasants and climate change”

Pedro Rafael González Chavajay, a Tz’utuhil-Maya from San Pedro la Laguna. Used with permission from him and Artemaya.

Jim Handy

As summer winds down I have been slowly catching up on reading avoided while happily engaged elsewhere. This includes back copies of The Economist. As always reading The Economist prompts an appreciation for their insightful reporting on some issues and their tone-deaf, ahistorical and simply wrong accounts on others.

The July 1st, 2023 edition had a briefing entitled “Out of the Frying Pan” filed from Cairo, Chattogram (Bangladesh), and Niamey (Niger). In this story the author (anonymous as is the practice in the paper) appropriately warned that peasants in some of the poorest areas of the world are likely to suffer the worst consequences from climate change. As global warming intensifies and their lands and livelihoods suffer, they will make up a significant portion of the millions of climate refugees. Already, The Economist notes, rural livelihoods have been made more precarious by conflicts created or exaggerated by climate change.[1]

But it is exactly here that the author finds a silver lining. The author suggests, “Climate change may jolt some into making a decision (to migrate) that would long have been in their interest anyway.” If climate change accelerates rural to urban migration and induces more peasants and small farmers to give up their land more quickly, the paper predicts, “they will probably find better work, health care and schools. They may also start having smaller families.” The task of feeding the world, including new migrants to urban areas, will need to “rely on bigger, more capital-intensive farms.”

In making such an argument, the paper is at least reliably consistent. Since its birth in 1843, the paper has unfailingly championed large, capital-intensive farming and counselled that small farmers and peasants be forced to abandon the countryside and flee to the cities as the natural (and beneficial) consequence. In the second edition of the paper in September 1843 the paper celebrated the fact that the “science of agriculture” was replacing the “art of husbandry” in the English countryside and in the process modern farmers employing capital were “breaking up the hard clods of ignorance, sloth and indifference.” [2] From that point, the paper steadfastly argued that the most pressing problem in English agriculture was “how can capital be attracted to the soil?”[3] Continue reading

‘Rather Absurd’: Christian Nationalism and the Dominion of Canada

Reproduced from J.W. Bengough, A Caricature History of Canadian Politics (Toronto: Grip, 1886), 2:225; originally published in Grip (8 August 1881). This cartoon depicts Conservative politicians Charles Tupper and Leonard Tilley attempting to counteract the politicking of prominent Liberal Edward Blake, alluding to their past professions: Tupper as a medical doctor and Tilley as a pharmacist.

Daniel R. Meister

In July 2023, former adherents of a religious movement went public with concerns that Christian conservatives in New Brunswick were “more radical than they seem.” The specific context was a political controversy surrounding Policy 713 on LGBTQ+ students in public schools.

In its coverage of Policy 713 and the conservative Christian reaction to it, the CBC reported that some of the primary figures had been involved in an earlier incident in Charlottetown. As a historian, my interest was piqued. In 2019, the Canadian Prophetic Council recreated the iconic image of the “Fathers of Confederation” on the steps of Government House in Charlottetown. According to former members of the broader religious movement with which this group is affiliated, the staged photograph was more than a “cheeky homage” but rather was a “prophetic act”: the group was announcing its intention to “reestablish the Dominion of Canada as something that honours God.”[1]

That Canada was originally called a “dominion” is particularly significant for adherents of this movement who have played with history in order to suggest a different destiny for the country.

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“No Historical Significance Found”: Clashing with ChatGPT

In this series, Active History editors are asking ChatGPT about their own areas of expertise and commenting on the process and answers. 

Sara Wilmshurst

A black-and-white photograph of seven men and two women sitting around a conference table that is covered with papers and magazines. At the head of the table sits an older white man with a moustache.

Health League of Canada Meeting ca. 1947-1948. Library and Archives Canada, MG28 I 223, Box number: 1B DAP-10A-1. Copyright: Expired.

Unlike most of Active History’s editorial team, I’m currently neither a student nor an educator. I haven’t had to resist the temptation of assigning my work to artificial intelligence or had to bust students for succumbing to that temptation. I hadn’t interacted with ChatGPT at all.

So, when some of the Active History editors decided to ask ChatGPT questions about our areas of expertise, I steeled myself for an immediate spiral of doubt when the program spat out a competent response. However, my experience was unexpected. Continue reading repost — Aboriginal History in Ontario’s Cottage Country is slowing down our publication schedule this summer, but we’ll be back with more new posts in September. In the meantime, we’re featuring posts from our archive. Thanks as always to our writers and readers!

The following post was originally featured on April 3, 2012. This summer, learn whose land you vacation on.

Editor’s note: Several outdated links throughout the article have been updated for this repost.

Credit: Frank W. Micklethwaite / Library and Archives Canada / PA-132099. Restrictions on use: Nil. Copyright: Expired

Thomas Peace

Frequently, when I am ‘up north’ and discussing my research on northeastern Aboriginal peoples during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, I am asked one of two questions:  Why were there no Aboriginal people living here?  Or, what happened to the Aboriginal people who were here?

The questions are good ones, and reflect the absence of Aboriginal people from general discussion of Muskoka’s (and much of cottage country’s) past. Continue reading

What’s the Point in Talking About it: Community Responses to Enslavement in Shelburne, NS

By Erin Isaac

The thoughts and sentiments shared in this essay are my own and do not represent the Nova Scotia Museum or Shelburne Historical Society.

The Ross-Thomson House & Store Museum, in Shelburne, NS, has always been known as a site of enslavement in this community. Most people around here reference this by speaking about a pair of leg shackles that were once in the basement—“do you know, there were shackles in the basement?” Like many 18th-century Maritime communities, Shelburne’s early economy was inextricably tied to the institution of slavery—through the goods they imported, the buyers for goods they produced, and the actual labour of enslaved Nova Scotians. But even as many of our communities have houses that are remembered as enslaved spaces, like Ross-Thomson House, it is my impression that this is where (for many of us) our curiosity ends. There is a simultaneous impulse to remember shackles in the cellar and to distance ourselves from their implications.

In Shelburne, people lower their voices when they speak to me about slavery. Continue reading