The Nicholson family has deep roots in St. Catharines’ history. The family patriarch, Adam Nicholson was a Freedom Seeker who arrived in St. Catharines after escaping bondage in Virginia in 1854. Adam’s son Alexander and his family were active members of the BME (British Methodist Episcopal) church, called Salem Chapel. In the nineteenth century, Salem Chapel was a centre of abolitionist and Civil Rights activities in St. Catharines.
Like many members of its congregation, the Nicholson family were heavily involved in community organizing and activism. For example, Mabel Nicolson (Alexander’s wife) provided room and board for struggling workers who came to the Niagara region to work for McKinnon Industries (later GM) after the company began hiring Black employees. Mabel’s daughter, Helen Smith was at the forefront of efforts to preserve the BME church and have it designated as a National Historic Site.
Salem Chapel was designated in 2000. As Sara Nixon wrote in a 2018 blog post for the St. Catherines’ Musem, the Nicolson’s story is “quintessential of St. Catharines.” And yet, like the stories of many Black activists and important figures in the community of St. Catharines, this family history is not often told.
Because when we discuss Black history in the Niagara Region, the conversation almost always (and frequently exclusively) turns to Harriet Tubman. Continue reading →
In Canada, and Ontario in particular, we love to celebrate the Underground Railroad during Black history month. We celebrate Freedom Seekers, Black Underground Railroad Conductors, and walk or drive “Freedom Trails” with little mind to the Black histories that came before or after this period—a period that spanned the early 19th century, but most notably the years between the American Fugitive Slave Act (1850) and Emancipation (1863). There is nothing inherently wrong with celebrating this part of our nation’s past, but scholars have become evermore frustrated with the historical myths that frequently accompany these stories.
Chief among these historical fictions is the idea that Canada was a “promised land” where all citizens were “equal under the law.” This pervasive myth is often propagated in Canadian museums and media as a contrast to American racism and slavery. Charmaine Nelson and Nina Reid-Maroney, among numerous others, directly combat visions of Canada as a benevolent or tolerant space for Black people in their scholarship. Others, such as Amani Whitfield and Afua Cooper, have challenged the idea that Canada was the “freedom place” by publishing on our nation’s long history of Black slavery.
These were key ideas that I explored with my students in the fall semester of 2022 in Western University’s first Black Canadian history course (although this subject was sometimes included on the syllabi for other survey courses and at our affiliate colleges, this was the first time a semester-long course was offered at main campus). Our class owes a huge debt to a series of guest speakers who spoke to us on their areas of expertise. Continue reading →
By Sean Graham
Lauren Beck, author of Canada’s Place Names & How to Change Them, joins the show to talk about the debate over changing names. The discussion ranges from how Canada’s places got their names, colonial naming practices, and the cultural significance of place names. The conversation also touches on Indigenous naming customs, the politics of renaming, and the overall challenge of naming places after people.
Janice Forsyth, author of Reclaiming Tom Longboat: Indigenous Self-Determination in Canadian Sport, and I talk about the Tom Longboat Awards and the role of sport in the story of colonization. We discuss Janice’s history as a past winner, the importance of sporting role models, and mainstream sports’ role in colonial structures. We also chat about how the media tells athletes’ stories and the role of traditional sports and games in decolonization.
Active History and Know History are partnering to publish Active History: Indigenous Voices.
Know History is generously sponsoring a series and providing honoraria for an editor and up to four contributors. The editor will receive $500 and each contributor will receive $125.
We invite proposals from First Nations, Inuit, and Métis editors and authors from all educational and occupational backgrounds. Proposals should include a series title, a one-paragraph statement explaining the theme and format of the series (essays, artwork with commentary, etc.), and short biographies of the editor and each contributor.
Catharine Wilson joins me to talk about the history of co-operative work bees in rural Canada. Communal events to complete big projects in short amount of time, work bees are representative of rural Canadian culture and are the subject of Catharine’s new book Being Neighbours: Cooperative Work and Rural Culture, 1830-1960. We chat about community in rural areas, how work bees were organized, and their legacy today.
Collecting made me a historian. A few months ago, in the course of my work as a curator at Library and Archives Canada, I came across a letter from Francis Parkman to Dominion Archivist Douglas Brymner and it made me smile, because my first “acquisition” as a child philatelist had been a stamp commemorating “Francis Parkman – American Historian.” It probably had not occurred to me before examining that stamp – carefully peeled from a postcard – that “historian” was a career option.
I continue to collect as an adult, although stamps are no longer my focus. Today I comb thrift stores and estate sales, Facebook Marketplace and eBay for unusual books, quirky paper ephemera, and inexpensive but evocative small artifacts, all under the broad theme of “eclectic Canadiana.” Some of these acquisitions support my scholarly projects. For example, I have accumulated a large collection of postcards, pamphlets, matchbox covers, and other ephemera documenting the history of Canadian flag culture, which serves as source material for ongoing research (and, incidentally, for an illustration in a previous Active History contribution).
Not everything I collect is linked to a specific project, but that doesn’t mean that it is unconnected to my work and identity as a historian and curator. Part of the fun of each new “find” is researching its story, and uncovering its connections to broader themes in Canadian and world history. Collecting gives me opportunities to hone my curatorial craft, to think about how objects, however insignificant they might seem at first glance, can reveal intriguing, and even otherwise undocumented, aspects of the past.
A few examples illustrate the tales that these modest acquisitions can tell. Continue reading →
Gordon Lightfoot, 1960s. Harold Whyte/Toronto Star.
On this day, 56 years ago, Canadian folk singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot and his song “Canadian Railroad Trilogy”—a tune steeped in national mythology—became the focal point of a CBC-produced centennial television special, 100 Years Young, on New Year’s Day, 1967. While his work is now largely synonymous with Canadian identity, Lightfoot did not always hold this esteemed position within Canada’s national popular culture.
Canada’s 1967 centennial marked a time when both the country and Lightfoot were eager to claim their identities. This period was marked by tension and a growing desire for national pride in the face of American cultural hegemony, and Canada saw an opportunity to reify its national mythology. It is within this context that Gordon Lightfoot was enlisted to create his song “Canadian Railroad Trilogy”—a unique opportunity at a likewise unique moment in Canadian history, where old familiar chords would be used to write a new song. Continue reading →