Alberta’s Oil Spill History

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By Sean Kheraj

On Friday, 29 April 2011, Plains Midstream Canada quietly issued a press release, informing the public of a crude oil spill from the Rainbow Pipeline east of the Peace River in northern Alberta near Little Buffalo, AB. Four days later, following the Canadian federal election, Alberta’s Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB) announced that 28,000 barrels of crude oil had been released from the pipeline rupture, making this the largest pipeline oil spill in Alberta in over 35 years. Commenting on Alberta’s history of oil spills, Environment Minister Rob Renner said “sure there are incidents from time to time, but I would put our record up against any other.” Just what is that record? Continue reading

Can Ontario Overcome Bob Rae’s Legacy?

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Can one leader single-handedly sink an entire political party? Having recently spent time discussing election issues while knocking on doors in my riding, I was surprised to learn that some Ontarians would answer this in the affirmative, pointing specifically to Bob Rae. Time and again I witnessed a similar reaction during this campaign: “Oh, I’ll never vote NDP!” Oh, why not? “Bob Rae!” (Insert door slamming here.)

I would like to suggest that this sort of reaction is misinformed. My purpose here is not to offer a defence of Bob Rae; on the contrary, I am highly critical of his leadership record. Rather, I would like to address the faulty logic that Bob Rae can be conflated with the current New Democratic Party. 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 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

Exploring Local Heritage Through Doors and Trails Open

Canadian Music Centre, Doors Open Toronto, 2010

This year marks the tenth anniversary of Doors Open Ontario.  Doors Open is a program that celebrates heritage and culture by inviting the general public to visit buildings that are normally closed to the public.  Doors Open also includes a number of sites which normally charge an entrance fee, these sites typically waive this fee for the duration of the doors open event.  Buildings featured in Doors Open activities may be architecturally unique, have significant local heritage, be privately owned heritage homes, or be culturally relevant institutions. Continue reading

The Morning After Canada Voted

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By Sean Kheraj

The news media narrative in the 2011 federal general election, by May 2nd, was clear: what began as another boring election surprised everyone when it actually got interesting. Leaving aside the troubling notion that anyone would characterize a democratic election as “boring” or “unnecessary,” the narrative came to focus on the NDP surge and the possibility that the party might become the Official Opposition. Continue reading

The Webby Nominees Are In

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On 3 May 2011, this year’s winners of the Webby Awards will be announced. The Webby Awards celebrate the best of the internet in a series of categories that focus on design, as well as content. The major awards are chosen by the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences, as well as by the general public in the People’s Voice Award. Voting for the People’s Voice Awards is open until 28 April. The full list of competitors can be accessed, but I thought that I would use this space to note a few contestants that may be of relevance to those engaged in the fields of history, public history, museum studies or web development for cultural institutions. Continue reading

History in Turbulent Times

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Recently, I found myself wondering about the possibility of a healing history when so often, it is the burden of personal and institutional histories that seem to be at the root of tremendous grief and pain. Rather than alleviating present circumstances, the weight of personal experiences and histories can actually overwhelm.

I am not the first person to wonder about the ability of history as a discipline to alleviate or improve present circumstances. A few years ago now Timothy J. Stanley made a marvelous call for an anti-racist approach to history that would fundamentally alter social relations and norms that we often accept and take for granted when in fact, they can be extremely damaging to a marginalized individual’s self of sense and worth.

Just as many historians believe that exposing past injustices and the manner in which they continue to be perpetuated is potentially transformative, the many campaigns for redress and the work of truth and reconciliation commissions around the world are founded in the belief of the tremendous cathartic impact of being able to vocalize hurt and wrongdoing. But after redress, and after the truth has been shared, then what? Do historians have a responsibility to think further about the impact of such revelations on a community and actively engage with the heavy weight that exposing buried wounds and hurts may result in? I think we do.

In search of answers, I picked up a copy of Unsettling the Settler Within: Indian Residential Schools, Truth Telling, and Reconciliation in Canada by Paulette Regan (UBC Press, 2010). Paulette Regan is the Director of Research for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada and has born witness to the accounts of hundreds of residential school survivors and who makes an absolutely powerful and compelling argument about the possibility of engaging with history in a meaningful and cathartic manner. The key, Regan explains, is that it is not only victims who must come to terms with past harms but everyone, including non-Indigenous Canadians, must engage in the process of healing and reconciliation in an active and committed manner. Regan calls for a decolonizing of the self, an active self-awareness, a cognizant turn within and a probing and fundamentally destabilizing interrogation of assumed truths.

Regan offers a truly remarkable opportunity to fundamentally alter relations between “settler Canadians” (Regan’s terminology) and Indigenous peoples and also how we think about ourselves as members of a national community. What is so important about Regan’s arguments is that for once, Indigenous people alone are not being asked to bear the burden of assessing their positions in Canadian society and the impact of contemporary and historical legacies of injustice. Rather, Regan calls on all Canadians to participate in a decolonization process by looking hard at themselves and their circumstances and considering the manner in which the colonial legacy manifests and perpetuates itself on a daily basis. Regan writes, “as Canadian citizens, we are ultimately responsible for the past and present actions of our government. Regan argues that the federal government’s 2008 apology to victims of residential schools was not an end, but rather “an opening for all Canadians to fundamentally rethink our past and its implications for our present and future relations.”

Regan’s work offers the possibility of a transformation born of reflection and processing by all parties rather than a situation in which Indigenous peoples are held responsible for coming to terms with what has happened to them. Regan insists that Canadians cannot simply be a passive audience, left to feel guilt-ridden and hopeless at the trauma created by the residential school experience or worst, removed and unaffected. Rather, Regan insists on a transformation based on the shared possibility of critical hope “to plant the seeds of a more authentic, ethical, and just reconciliation.” Critical hope is born of injustice and rooted in struggles for freedom but it has the potential to help us remember “though we cannot change the past, neither are we held prisoner by it.”

According to Regan, who notes the experience of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in particular, transformative justice requires that all parties transform. Testifying to wrongdoing and harm is undoubtedly cathartic but it is potentially destructive if wider societal attitudes do not change as a result. Here, all Canadians have a responsibility to live their daily lives in a manner that creates space for different historical legacies from grand national narratives of Canada the Good and Canada the Peacemaker. In Regan’s own words, if settler Canadians can bear “ethical witness” to the testimonies of residential school survivors, “the unsettling questions we then ask ourselves are ripe with potentially transformative possibilities.” Bearing ethical witness is an enormous challenge for it requires an extraordinary capacity to listen without judging and to see without labeling. We must learn to see beyond “Indigenous victim” to see the whole life story and acknowledge authentic differences in personal and community histories, traditions, values and spiritual beliefs.

The story of residential schools in Canada has a history. And it is one that we all share in. There are many ways of communicating that history: in-depth media coverage, such as that pursued by the Globe and Mail in the spring of 2010 is one. The work at is another. But beyond communicating history, what we really need is the courage and the candor to acknowledge what we don’t want to hear or see of ourselves in that history.

*My thanks to Chelsea Horton, PhD Candidate, University of British Columbia for introducing me to Paulette Regan’s work.

**This article was revised in August 2013 in response to comments made by the family members of an individual mentioned in the original version.

New Papers: So What Is the Story? Exploring Fragmentation and Synthesis in Current Canadian Historiography

The editors of are proud to present a round table on the current state of Canadian History writing and teaching by Ruth Sandwell, Lyle Dick, Peter Baskerville and Adele Perry. The round table includes an introduction by Sandwell and Dick and four short papers from the authors.

The idea for this forum arose from a discussion between Ruth Sandwell and Lyle Dick during the Canadian Historical Association Annual General Meeting in 2009, at which time we observed that historians tended to attend conference sessions relating only to their own sub-specialties, with the result (we complained) that environmental historians often only talked to environmental historians, gender historians to gender historians, military historians to military historians, and so on. We hatched a plan to bring Canadian historians of different kinds together in a single roundtable session in the next 2010 CHA meeting, inviting them to discuss the relations, if any, amongst their various kinds of historical work. After some discussion, we decided that we would follow along with the CHA conference theme of Storytelling and ask panelists to approach this question by focusing their comments in a session entitled “So What IS the Story? Exploring Fragmentation and Synthesis in Current Canadian Historiography.”

Session organizers Lyle Dick (speaking about critical studies in history) and Ruth Sandwell (history as taught to undergraduates) succeeded in persuading four other Canadian historians to participate: Peter Baskerville speaking on quantitative history, Steven High on oral history, Alan MacEachern on environmental history, and Adele Perry on gender and colonial history. The Roundtable proposal we submitted was accepted for the 2010 CHA conference. After what turned out to be the lively and well attended session in Montreal, four panellists agreed to publish contribute their comments with Active History, and Steven High’s paper appeared separately on the Active History website.What follows is a short introduction, followed by four panellists’ essays, only slightly revised in most cases from the presentations they gave at our CHA roundtable.

Lyle Dick and Ruth Sandwell, “Introduction: So What Is the Story? Exploring Fragmentation and Synthesis in Current Canadian Historiography.”
Peter Baskerville, “Undetermined by Borders: The Commonality of Counting.”
Lyle Dick, “Fragmentation and Synthesis from the Standpoint of Critical History.”
Adele Perry, “Synthesizing or Fragmenting What? Nation, Race, and the Writing of Canadian History in English.”
Ruth Sandwell, “Synthesis and Fragmentation: the Case of Historians as Undergraduate Teachers.”

Catastrophic Flooding: Manitoba’s Perennial Challenge

Library and Archives Canada

This originally appeared on the Network in Canadian History and Environment [NiCHE] group blog, Nature’s Chroniclers. Shannon Stunden Bower’s given us permission to repost it here.

Southern Manitoba has flooded. Again. Given the large number of notable floods that have occurred in the past few years, this must be a surprise to precisely no one, environmental historian or otherwise. Traversed by both the Red and the Assiniboine, two large prairie rivers that come together at the heart of the city of Winnipeg, the region has a long and well-publicized history of high water.

Some of the earliest stories of the region tell of the devastation wrought by flooding. Indeed, the departure of a substantial number of early settlers is linked to a particularly devastating flood along the Red River. [1] There are also stories about deliberate efforts to ignore the flood risk. The transcontinental railway was built through flood-prone Winnipeg, despite expert advice to select a higher and drier alternate route. [2] Today, there’s a federal penitentiary at Stony Mountain, an area once employed as a refuge in times of high water. [3]

The thing about flooding in Manitoba is that sometimes it doesn’t happen, or doesn’t happen with sufficient severity to attract much notice. Sometimes the flooding is minor for years, even decades, at a time. It can be tempting to think that any period of diminished flooding is indicative of a trend that will certainly continue, effectively extinguishing the risk of severe flooding. So prisons and railways are built in ways that make sense in relation to other considerations. And then any subsequent flood can seem like water out of place, rather than the inevitable consequence of people on a floodplain. So check the ring dykes. Start up the sandbag-making machines. [4] And cue the nervous waiting by evacuated residents.
Continue reading

Eating Animals: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

Over the past few years, books like Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food and documentaries like Food Inc. have increasingly challenged us to ask: How much do we really know about the “food” we buy and consume on a daily basis?

In his recent book, Eating Animals, an exposé on fishing and factory farming, Jonathan Safran Foer finds George Orwell’s famous words written in Animal Farm to be particularly apt: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” Continue reading