Modern Curling History – What’s Old is News

By Sean Graham

In between games at the 2019 Continental Cup, Brian Chick stopped by to talk about his book Written in Stone: A Modern History of Curling. We talk about the sport’s inclusion in the Olympics in 1998, the professionalization of curling, and it’s current place within the sporting landscape.

Historical Headline of the Week

Tyler Searle, “Thistle Curling Club Closing Shop, Moving in with Deer Lodge,” Winnipeg Free Press, February 28, 2023. Continue reading

Today’s AI, Tomorrow’s History: Doing History in the Age of ChatGPT

AI generated image of a blue faced human

    Prompt by Bing, “Self-portrait of ‘Sydney,’ Microsoft’s Bing Chat, based its description of itself as imagined through AI image generator,” MidJourney

Mark Humphries and Eric Story

You have probably heard about OpenAI’s ChatGPT, Microsoft’s Bing Chat or Google’s Bard. They are all based on Large Language Model (LLM) architectures that produce human-like text from user prompts. LLMs are not new, but they seem to have recently crossed a virtual threshold. Suddenly, artificial intelligence—or AI for short—is everywhere. While it is true that they sometimes “hallucinate,” producing factual errors and quirky responses, the accuracy and reliability of LLMs is improving exponentially. There is no escaping it: generative AI like ChatGPT is the future of information processing and analysis, and it will change the teaching and practice of history. Although some of its effects can be felt already, its long-term implications are not as clear.

Generative Pre-trained Transformer (GPT)-based LLMs are new and powerful tools that have only been around for about five years. The rapidity with which they have evolved to produce remarkably cogent prose, complete complex tasks, and pass theory of mind tests have astonished even those that created the technology. When prompted correctly, ChatGPT—which is based on the GPT-3.5 model—can write effectively, with an engaging style, good organization, and clarity. For context, its 45 terabytes of training data alone is the equivalent of about 215 million e-books, but it cannot access the Internet.

We have had access to the beta-mode of Microsoft’s new AI-enabled Bing since 14 February and it is another leap ahead of ChatGPT. It has a similar training base but can search for information on the web and analyze large bodies of text, as well as write essays, summaries, and emails right in a new Edge browser sidebar. Most importantly, it does these tasks in seconds through a conversational approach that like ChatGPT, on a powerful neural network––that is, a series of computer processors arranged to mimic the synapses in the human brain. Using the new Bing truly feels like stepping into the future. Continue reading

‘If These Four Walls Could Talk’: The Griffin House, An Agent of Change

By Juliana Springer

Enerals Griffin was about 41 years old when he arrived in Ancaster Township (present-day Hamilton, ON) where he purchased a house set upon 50 acres of land. With land and water routes along the Niagara Peninsula and Lake Ontario, Ancaster was a prime location for those fleeing slavery and persecution in the United States in the mid-19th century. Enerals was one of the first Free Black people to settle in the area in 1834.

A Freedom Seeker who had been born into slavery on a Virginia plantation around 1793, Enerals settled first in Ohio, then the Niagara region, when race riots pushed many free Black settlers out of the state in 1829.[1] Unlike many self-emancipators who made their homes in Upper Canada, Enerals did not join planned Black settlements like the Wilberforce Colony or Dawn Settlement, or an unplanned one like Hamilton’s “Little Africa.”[2] Instead, he and his European-descended wife made their home in the predominantly white community of Ancaster.[3]

Griffin House

Today, their house lives on as a physical monument to the more than 200 Black people who resided in the area by 1865. As a museum, Griffin House is dedicated to telling the Griffin family’s story as well as the region’s broader Black history. The way the story has been told has shifted over the past three decades and continues to change in response to community and scholarly feedback. The museum has, however, consistently combatted views of Freedom Seekers as passive beneficiaries of benevolent Canadian aid by presenting Black settlers, like Enerals, as agents of change. Continue reading

Black & Immigrant Communities in Vancouver’s Hogan’s Alley

By Sean Graham

In the 1930s, Hogan’s Alley in Vancouver was home to a vibrant community, which was slowly displaced through the construction of the Dunsmuir and Georgia viaducts. This is the settling for Junie, a historical fiction that explores the complexities of community, race, sexuality, substance abuse, and, most importantly, love. Author Chelene Knight talks about the book, balancing historical accuracy with artistic licence, and some of the key themes that emerge through Junie’s story.

You can learn more about Chelene’s work at her website.

Historical Headline of the Week

Kenneth Chan, “This is the plan to rebuild Vancouver’s Hogan’s Alley for the Black community,” Daily Hive, June 15, 2020.

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How a Name Changed Amherstburg’s North American Black Historical Museum

By Samuel Pratt

Betty and Melvin Simpson of Amherstburg, ON opened a small history museum in 1975. They “had a dream to illuminate the history of Black people in a dignified manner,” wanting to promote their town’s extensive involvement in the history of Black Canadians. Known as the North American Black Historical Museum, the museum was built in the former Nazery African Methodist Episcopal Church. Though established in 1848, the congregation had dwindled by the late twentieth century, making their vision possible.

Photo by author.

Named after Bishop Willis Nazery, a prominent Bishop and the first leader of the British Methodist Episcopal Church, the church had historically provided a safe haven for those seeking food, shelter, and clothing, and as a centre for education and community for those who remained residents of Amherstburg.

Despite this legacy, before the museum opened, Black history had often been forgotten or ignored, not just in Amherstburg, but in Canada as a whole. The Simpsons created a space that informed the public about Black history in Canada through educational exhibits and tours. After Melvin’s death in 1982, Betty continued to be involved with the museum until she died in 2014.

While the museum continues to honour their legacy (with plaques, signage, and images of the couple appearing within the museum), some changes have taken place since Betty died. These changes have departed from the Simpsons’ original vision. Most notably, the museum rebranded from the “North American Black Historical Museum” to the “Amherstburg Freedom Museum.”

This name change, which took place in 2015, carries different connotations than the Simpsons’ much broader name by focusing explicitly on Amherstburg’s connections to the Underground Railroad rather than the community’s wider role in Black history. Canada sees its role in the Underground Railroad as “the promised land” wherein generous White Canadians leant aid to Black refugees escaping from the racist and discriminatory United States. By using the term “freedom” in its new name, this rebranding contributes to a common impulse to represent Canada as a “bastion of freedom” for Freedom Seekers. This name change, and associated marketing, somewhat ironically, promotes a vision of Black Canadian history that is directly resisted by the museum exhibits found onsite. Continue reading

Commemoration, Celebration and Criticism concerning the Public History of the Elgin Settlement

By Raghd Abou Jarboua

In 1849, Reverend William King with the support of the Presbyterian Church established a Black refugee community by the name of the Elgin Settlement, also dubbed the Buxton Settlement, just south of Chatham-Kent, Ontario. The settlement’s objective was to promote “social and moral improvement of the coloured people in Canada”[1].

Rev. William King

In commemorations of the Elgin Settlement’s history, King is often revered for his benevolence. This is partly because research on the Buxton Settlement relies heavily on King’s autobiography (and thereby his bias). However, scholars such as Howard Law and Sharon A. Roger have taken a more critical position when considering King’s contributions. This most recent scholarship challenges our public memory of King—highlighting instead his paternalistic attitude towards Elgin families as well as the measures he imposed to ensure the settlement would meet his standards for “success.”
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Is the Canadian Red Ensign an extremist symbol?

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Forrest Pass

Fifty-eight years ago today, the Canadian Red Ensign ceased to be the national flag. Yet in 2022, the Ensign unexpectedly became a subject of public discussion again.  Its occasional appearance during protests against public health measures, especially the “Freedom Convoy” occupation of downtown Ottawa in February, led some observers to point out the Ensign’s recent use as an emblem of white nationalists. In June, the Canadian Anti-Hate Network launched Confronting and Preventing Hate in Canadian Schools: A Toolkit, which controversially labeled the Canadian Red Ensign a “Hate-Promoting Symbol” when displayed in certain contexts.  One provincial government discouraged use of the toolkit, and a few commentators jumped to the Ensign’s defense, reminding readers that Canadian soldiers fought Nazism and fascism under the Red Ensign during the Second World War.

There are legitimate, or at least innocuous, reasons to fly a Canadian Red Ensign. Given its military history, it is entirely appropriate to display the Ensign on war memorials. Canadian civilians also flew the Red Ensign as their national flag for many years, so it does inspire nostalgia for some.

However, unusual religious beliefs, conspiracy theories, and anti-Semitism and white nationalism have been part of the Ensign’s story since at least the 1950s and 1960s. A small minority of Red Ensign proponents held these views, but that minority did influence mainstream flag discussions. Present-day extremist use of the Ensign has its roots in these fringe contributions to the Great Flag Debate of 1964. Continue reading

Family Immigration to Canada – What’s Old is News

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By Sean Graham
Authors Linda Peterat (From Denmark to the Cariboo: The Epic Journey of the Lindhard Sisters) and Michael Andruff (The Russian Refugees: A Family’s First Century in Canada) join Sean to talk about how familial stories can shape our understanding of immigration to Canada. They discuss their respective stories, the push/pull factors that contribute to immigration, and the challenges families faced once in Canada. They also discuss immigration and colonialism, how factors like gender and education influenced newcomers’ experiences, and the legacy of these stories.

Historical Headline of the Week

Irem Koca, “Turkish Diaspora Urges Canada to Expedite Immigration of Families Hit by Earthquake,” Toronto Star, February 14, 2023.

Be sure to learn more about Michael’s Homeglen Legacy Fund initiative.

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How we misremember Free Black history at the Wilberforce Colony

By Miranda Sagle

Driving through the small town of Lucan, Ontario, one would have no idea that it was once the site of the free-Black settlement known as the Wilberforce Colony.

Free Black people from Ohio established the small settlement in 1829 and by the mid-30’s it boasted a population of between 150-200 families. By the 1850s only a handful of these free Black settlers remained.

One of the only ways the site is commemorated is by a mural downtown that was painted in 2020. It depicts Black refugees coming to Canada through the Underground Railroad. It also features a quote from John Colborne, the governor who sold land to the original settlers of Wilberforce, stating

“We do not know people by their colour… come to us you will be entitled to all the privileges of the rest…”

While it is good that the Wilberforce colony is being recognized, the mural misrepresents the key reasons Wilberforce is worthy of being commemorated. Namely, it takes away from the original goals of those who first started Wilberforce and perpetuates a misleading narrative that Canada was a free and equal society that welcomed them.

Photo by Erin Isaac

These myths, along with the misconception that Wilberforce was a “failure,” come from early histories of the settlement and a lack of documentation. While circumventing these deep-seeded ideas is a slow and difficult process, scholarship and research has begun to reshape both academic and popular interpretations of this long-misunderstood community. Continue reading

Establishing Identity: The Underground Railroad and Harriet Tubman’s effect on the Salem Chapel

By Amorette Ngan

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.[1] 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

Salem Chapel was designated in 2000.[2] As Sara Nixon wrote in a 2018 blog post for the St. Catherines’ Musem, the Nicolson’s story is “quintessential of St. Catharines.”[3]  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