The Anthropocene, Atmospheric Chemists, Geologists and Historians


By Jim Clifford 

Paul Crutzen, who proposed the Anthropocene epoch in 2002, wasn’t a geologist. He was an atmospheric chemist. This fact might explain the decision to reject his proposed new epoch. He wasn’t thinking like a geologist when he suggested the Anthropocene. I’m not a geologist either and have no opinion on whether they got this decision right or wrong within their field. But I do know we live in a world under intense pressure from humans. Humans are changing the climate, contributing to the mass extinction of thousands of species, moving sand at a scale equal to all the rivers on the planet, spreading plastic pollution to most corners of the earth, and overloading waterways and aquatic ecosystems with nutrients. The evidence amassed by the proponents of the Anthropocene epoch confirms we live on a very different planet than our ancestors did a few generations ago.

The problem is fitting a deeply interdisciplinary concept into a geological paradigm. This was evident as the process played out, and they searched for “golden spikes” in the geological record. This is very important for geologists if they want to build a case for a new epoch. It made little sense to historians or historical geographers, who see humanity’s increased influence in shaping the global environment as a centuries-long process, not a singular event. The search for a golden spike caused the Anthropocene working group to focus on the beginning of the nuclear age after 1945 because it left a clear record in the strata (if you have the right equipment and know where to look).

As a historian of industrialization, I would look elsewhere and identify thousands of sites that record the global-scale transformation of the past few hundred years. I would try to show how their number, scale and spread increased over time. I might start with the coal fields in Great Britain and note the evidence of the absence of vast quantities of coal extracted over the past four hundred years. From there, we could map all the other subsurface locations that supplied coal, oil and gas to fuel unending economic growth. However, I would not limit it to these sites as the changing energy regimes only tell part of the global story. So, we’d want to link the coal mines with the iron foundry at Coalbrookdale, where coke was first used in place of charcoal, and the sugar plantations in the Caribbean, where African slaves used iron tools made in Britain’s fledgling industry to produce a new source of food for the English working classes. Increased global connections are central to the transformative process. Continue reading

It Starts Here: Black Histories Research Guide at the Archives of Ontario

“Levi Veney, ex-slave who lived in Amherstburg, Ontario. Taken at J. D. Burkes’ general store,” ca. 1898. Alvin D. McCurdy fonds. Reference Code: F 2076-16-3-5. Archives of Ontario. I0024830.

This is the final instalment in a three-part series on the use of content warnings in classrooms, archives, and museums. You can read the first instalment here and the second instalment here.

Melissa J. Nelson & Natasha Henry-Dixon


Melissa J. Nelson : Making Description Remediation Visible

The Archives of Ontario is the largest provincial archive in Canada. However, many of our records were created and collected through extractive colonial processes. Our collections are incomplete — there are omissions, erasures, and silences. This has caused a lot of harm and contributed to mistrust in our institution. Over the last few years, the Archives has shifted its focus to breaking down barriers and building trust. Our goal is to collect, preserve, promote, and provide access to records that document Ontario in all its diversity.

We are working to amplify the voices and stories of communities who have been underrepresented in our practice. Historical records sometimes contain language that is colonial and racist. Past descriptive practices have not always used accurate or community-preferred language, resulting in descriptions that are not easily discoverable. Our Description Remediation Team has been repairing descriptions, and in the process, excavating the presence of marginalized groups in our archives. We include respectful, community-preferred language to minimize harm and improve the findability of these records. I am part of this team, and I provide leadership on the remediation of descriptions for anti-Black archival materials.

I was aware of the violence of the archives — the violence captured within the records and the violence against Black researchers who have to search for hidden archival materials by using derogatory language. Black presence in historical archives is often captured and described by white people. In many cases, the work to locate Black people in the archives necessitates searching for white people first.[1]

I realized there was a need to make this description remediation work visible to support researchers and help direct them to relevant records. I developed our “Records Relating to Black Communities in Ontario Research Guide.” This guide provides respectful keywords that can be used when searching in our collection. It also lists Black records that have been identified in our holdings. The guide is divided into three sections: private records created and collected by Black individuals, Ontario Government records that document community-government interactions, and records related to slavery and freedom. A list of institutions and community archives is also provided to support further research within Ontario.

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When Class Content Gives the Professor Nightmares, It Might be Time for a Warning

Photo by Fernando Arcos, public domain,

This is the second in a three-part series on the use of content warnings in classrooms, archives, and museums. You can read the first entry here. 

Erica L. Fraser

Looking back, I probably began using content warnings for students after giving myself night terrors from reading the memoir of a Holocaust survivor as class prep. I was on an evening train back to Ottawa after winter break. I was tired, trying to anticipate how students in a new class on the topic would respond to Ruth Kluger’s Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered, and thumbing through it quickly to check it off my to-do list. It is a beautiful, horrifying memoir – but I had read material like this before. Next thing I knew, I was sitting bolt upright in bed the next three nights, terrified of something unnamed and with vague images from Kluger’s text fading from my mind.

(Before I go further, please note that this blog post contains references to Nazi atrocities during the Holocaust and the sexual assault of serf women in 18th century Russia).

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Trauma-Informed Teaching: Creating Classrooms that support learning

In recent years, teachers and heritage professionals have wrestled with the question of when and how to provide alerts about materials that students or users might find difficult to navigate. This is the first in a three-part Active History series on the subject of content warnings that elaborates the crucial processes and approaches that inform this work.

Source: Students in a classroom at Carleton University, 1961. National Film Board. Phototheque. 1971-271, TCS 01186, Library and Archives Canada.

Jo McCutcheon

…to foster an optimal learning environment, we need to pay attention to emotions and how the learner is feeling, as learning cannot take place in the absence of emotion.

Myas Imad[1]

As a researcher and teacher who has read exceedingly difficult archival material and as someone who has openly sobbed in the middle of the reading room at Library and Archives Canada after finishing a work of fiction and in a few cases, after reading government reports and documents, I came to realize how important it is to carefully consider assignments, readings, and topics covered in class and explicitly warn students in the syllabus, on lecture slides, and before discussing some of these topics about the difficult material we encounter as historians and researchers.[2] I have learned over the past several years that content warnings, and a consideration of triggers are part of a pedagogical framework that can provide a learning and teaching environment that can support all students.[3]

The process of teaching and learning is dynamic and often challenges us to carefully consider our approaches on an ongoing basis. When I reflect on some past experiences of teaching difficult material, I feel that I did not always have the framework or understanding at the time to fully support the diversity of challenges inherent in my courses, beyond the course content. Looking to other professions, I noted the work that was taking place to provide a trauma-informed approach, and I wanted to review the whole of my classes to see how I could provide an overall approach in this vein. This post is a reflection of what I have learned and what I am working on.

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Call for Contributors

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Join us in building the Active History project! invites propositions for blog posts, thematic series, and other contributions that highlight new research and histories that matter today. We welcome proposals from all historians, whether they work in institutions or in the community, who would like to expand the audience for their work while presenting it in an accessible format. We are particularly interested in recruiting for the following three roles: Continue reading

Thinking Historically About a Generation of Canadian Offshore Schools

Photo courtesy of the author who is shown teaching Geography 12, an accredited British Columbia curriculum course, to Chinese students in China on the Pacific coast.

Ian Alexander

This is the fourth entry in a monthly series on Thinking Historically. See the Introduction here.

In the 1990s a confluence of social, economic, and political conditions created a market for international education to expand in a multitude of ways around the globe. For those in communities across Canada, the internationalization of education has been most visible in the increase in international students in Canadian schools, colleges, and universities. Another, less visible form of internationalization was the spread of Canadian curriculum to other countries. Also on the move were textbooks, teachers, and administrators who set up offshore schools and programs abroad.The first few offshore schools opened in the mid-1990s as a novel form of transnational education, when curriculum and credentials were transported across borders to other countries. Unlike traditional international schools that taught children from expatriate families, Canadian offshore schools were mostly attended by local students seeking a foreign high school education to prepare for university abroad and sometimes to avoid aspects of their own national education system. Now that it is 2024, and offshore school students and teachers have been learning and teaching for nearly thirty years, the time is ripe to think historically about this era and gather stories of this cross-cultural education. These stories can inform the next generation of offshore schools and help identify continuity and change over time, especially when the presence and plight of international students has recently been thrust into the political spotlight.

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When the Press Had Bite: Thunder Bay’s The Black Fly

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Gary Genosko

As a cultural figure, the black fly is associated with Canadian folk singer and songwriter Wade Hemsworth who composed The Blackfly Song in 1949. Just as Hemsworth described the bloodthirsty fly’s ‘picking his bones’ while working on a survey crew in northern Ontario, the newspaper I discuss in this article promoted itself as having similar irritating attributes, but with a social and political focus.

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What is Good Citizenship? Perspectives from Former Air Cadets of Diverse Identities

These green doors mark the cadet entrance of 330 Danforth Tech Air Cadet Squadron, housed in Danforth Collegiate and Technical Institute, a secondary school in Toronto, Ontario. Originally an Army Cadet Corps, cadets have paraded at this location since 1940. Photo courtesy of author.

This is the fourth entry in a monthly series on Thinking Historically. See the Introduction here.

Rebecca Evans 

Our conceptions about good citizenship vary. Context, particularly space and time, matter. In citizenship education, young people participate and deepen their understanding of how to make change in their communities. They do so across various domains, inclusive of formal politics, political advocacy, civic society, and grassroots/community participation. Scholars Joel Westheimer and Joseph Kahne developed the What Kind of Citizen framework to capture different orientations to the concept of good citizenship.[1] Debates persist however and scholars agree that more education for supporting democratic citizenship is needed – and that knowledge, skills, and participation are significant elements of citizenship education.

In this blog post, I share the preliminary findings from my study on experiences in the Air Cadet program related to core concepts of citizenship education – agency, responsibility, and civic engagement. I focus in particular on the different ways participants make change in their communities today and how they relate these enactments as citizens to their experiences as youth in Air Cadets. This was a qualitative study. Over one hundred adult participants completed a survey. From the respondents, seventeen diverse participants were selected for in-depth study, with a view of building a deeper understanding of how the program functions as a civic educator for participants of diverse identities, including Indigeneity, race, gender, sexuality, religion, socio-economic status, and ability.

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No One Killed Canadian History. It is time to move on

By Thomas Peace

As we welcome 2024, it is time for Canadian historians to turn over a new leaf.

The end of 2023 brought echoes of 2003. As the year wound to a close, some of our colleagues – mostly working outside of the university – began to pile on as they celebrated 25 years since Jack Granatstein published Who Killed Canadian History, a divisive book that shaped the so-called History Wars of the late-1990s and 2000s.

It was no coincidence that this series was put together by The Hub, an online news site that promises an optimistic approach to news and analysis that will strengthen the Canadian nation. Core to The Hub are several of the same people behind the Dominion Institute, another key player that fueled historiographical tensions at the dawn of the new millennium.

Similar stakes from the late-1990s seem to be drawn out today.

The words of Hub editor-at-large Sean Speer summarized a subtext of the series. For Speer, over the course of the past two decades “radical” university professors (specifically at Carleton University) won the History Wars having “vanquished unfashionable scholars like Granatstein… in an exercise of ideological conformity imposed by a combination of peer pressure, hiring preferences, and growing university bureaucracy.”

In this same series, J.D.M. Stewart claims that “universities have eschewed political history and continue to dig down ever deeper into niche topics with limited value to helping Canadians understand each other.”

Neither then, nor now, does this framing of university history departments resonate with my experiences over the past 25 years. Unfortunately, though, these ideas about those of us working in universities are not unique. Continue reading

11th Annual(?) Year in Review (100 Years Later)

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By Aaron Boyes and Sean Graham

We offer our two cents on the major events of 1923. Let us know what you think in the comments

We ask ourselves this question every year: how has another year passed and we get to write this 100 Years Later Year in Review? And, more importantly, why do the good people at continue to allow us to do it? This annual tradition is something that we look forward to completing every year, especially the consumption of Rainbow Chips Ahoy (brain food). Much like in past editions of this bracket (you can find links to the previous years at the bottom of this post) we have some intriguing events and inventions to discuss.

For those who are finding this bracket for the first time, we use historical hindsight to analyze what was the most important event of 1923 – without the passage of time how can we truly determine what was the most important? The events have been divided into four brackets: the Entertainment Bracket, the International Bracket, the Still Relevant Technology Bracket, and everyone’s favourite the Potpourri Bracket.

So be sure to have your Spotify or Apple Music Replay handy – which came out in November, something that causes Sean much anger – and we hope you enjoy this year’s bracket. As always, thank you for taking the time to read it.

Round 1

Entertainment Bracket

(2) The Walt Disney Company Founded


(3) Warner Bros. Founded

Aaron: In the early 1920s, as films continued to develop, a young animator named Walt Disney and his partner Ub Iwerks developed a short film called Alice’s Wonderland (no relation to the 1865 novel) produced by the Laugh-O-Gram Studio. Before the film could be released, however, Laugh-O-Gram went bankrupt. In search of a studio to release his film, Disney moved to Los Angeles to join his brother Roy. It was in LA that Walt sold the film to Margaret J. Winkler, who also paid him $1,500 to create a series of Alice Comedies. In order to complete the contract, Walt and Roy founded the Disney Brothers Studio on October 16, 1923 (renamed the Walt Disney Studio in 1926). Since its founding, The Walt Disney Company has become synonymous with entertainment around the world, producing some of the most memorable, and popular, films and television series. It is likely that everyone reading this year’s installment has seen at least one film or tv series produced by Disney, or has visited one of the theme parks, or perhaps have sailed the seas on one of Disney’s cruise ships. What is evident is that 100 years later The Walt Disney company is ubiquitous.

In 1889, three brothers Harry, Albert, and Sam Warner (these are their Anglicized names) emigrated to the United States from Poland, which was then part of the Russian Empire. In 1892, they welcomed another brother, Jack, who was born in London, Ontario. As the twentieth century dawned, the four brothers started to show films in Pennsylvania and Ohio before founding an entertainment company in 1904. After moving to Los Angeles, the Warner Brothers established their first studio on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. On April 4, 1923, the brothers formally incorporated as Warner Bros. Pictures, Incorporated. After 100 years, Warner Bros. has also produced some of the most memorable movies, tv series, and characters. The reader, I’m sure, is having flashbacks to watching Looney Tunes – which was created in 1929 to compete against Walt Disney and the Mickey Mouse cartoons – or perhaps Animaniacs, depending on your age. Much like its competitor, Warner Bros. remains a powerful name in entertainment around the world.

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