Problems in Remembering the Underground Railroad in Southwestern Ontario

By Erin Isaac

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

Changing Place Names – What’s Old is News

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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.

Historical Headline of the Week

Cindy Tran, “Ottawa’s Sir John A. Macdonald Parkway to Get an Indigenous Name,” The Globe & Mail, January 19, 2023.

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Sports & (De)Colonization

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By Sean Graham

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.

Historical Headline of the Week

Bobby Hristova, “Indigenous Teens Hope Return of Lacrosse to Canada Games will Inspire Future Generations,” CBC News, August 6, 2022.

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Call for Contributors to Active History: Indigenous Voices

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.

For more information visit our Guidelines for authors and contact us at

Co-operative Agriculture – What’s Old is News

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By Sean Graham

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.

Be sure to check out the Rural Diary Archive and the People’s Archive of Rural Canada.

Historical Headline of the Week

Stephanie Rogers, “Why Many Atlantic Canadian Farmers Struggle to Adopt High-Tech Solutions – and What can be Done to Change That,” Dal News, August 23, 2022. Continue reading

Nazi Prisoners of War in Canada – What’s Old is News

By Sean Graham

Nathan M. Greenfield, author of Hanged in Medicine Hat: Murder in a Nazi Prisoner-of-War Camp and the Disturbing True Story of Canada’s Last Mass Execution, joins me to talk about POW camp 132 in Medicine Hat. We talk about how the camp came to be, the prisoners’ relationship with the local community, and the internal culture that developed at the site. We also discuss the Nazi influence in the camp, the murder of two prisoners, and the resulting trial and execution.

For more, you can read Nathan’s editorial “When was it Unjust to Kill Seven Nazi Soldiers? When it Happened in Canada”

Historical Headline of the Week

Stephen J. Thorne, “Archeologists Uncover Hospital Artifacts at Notorious PoW Camp,” Legion Magazine, October 25, 2022

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Collecting – and Curating – Eclectic Canadiana

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Forrest Pass

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

National Film Board & Nature – What’s Old is News

By Sean Graham
I talk with Michael Clemens, author of Screening Nature and Nation: The Environmental Documentaries of the National Film Board, 1939-1974. We discuss the origins of the NFB, its approach to portraying the environment, and the influence of federal politicians. We also chat about the filmmakers who documented Canadian wildlife, how the films changed over time, and some of the best picks for people to watch today.

If you want to watch some of the films discussed, you can check them out on the NFB website:

Cree Hunters of Mistassini

Death of a Legend

Historical Headline of the Week

Martin Morrow, “‘Iconic’ documentarian Gudrun Bjerring Parker helped define NFB’s signature style,” Globe & Mail, December 8, 2022

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The Right Man for the Job: Gordon Lightfoot and the “Canadian Railroad Trilogy”

Gordon Lightfoot, 1960s. Harold Whyte/Toronto Star.

Chris Hemer

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

Body Image Activism: What’s Old is News

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By Sean Graham

I talk with Jenny Ellison, author of Being Fat: Women, Weight, and Feminist Activism in Canada. We talk about the origins of fat activism, the strategies used by activists, and the tensions with second wave feminism. We also talk about fitness and healthy eating campaigns, the role of fashion, and the entrepreneurship of some activists.

Historical Headline of the Week

Fat’s not Where It’s At, Participaction Commercial, 1984

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