Rescuing Historical Data for Climate Science

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Captain’s Remark Book, HMS Wanderer, 15-18 September 1863. Dr Clive Wilkinson./UK Hydrographic Office.

Emily Manson

[T]hose log books give the wind and weather every hour… spread over a great extent of ocean. What better data could a patient meteorological philosopher desire? – Francis Beaufort to Richard Lovell Edgeworth, 1809[1]

Captains of nautical vessels have been keeping logbooks for centuries, for a variety of purposes. In the early modern period, captains described their travels in detail because their accounts would serve as concrete guides for later voyages. Logbooks also provided governments with economic and social information about the regions visited and could even become popular entertainment. Beginning in the 18th century, European navies recorded detailed weather observations on their voyages. The Royal Navy, especially, became heavily involved in meteorological and other scientific research.

These observations have proven to be invaluable today: they are an essential part of the effort to understand and combat humanity’s greatest threat, the climate emergency. Historians can contribute to that fight.

To understand how the Earth’s climate is changing, scientists develop computer models using historical data. Continue reading

Putin’s War on Ukraine and on History

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A sign “Ukraine is leaving the USSR” at an independence rally next to Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada in Kyiv, 1991.

Oleksa Drachewych

On February 24, 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin escalated his war of aggression against Ukraine. He began a “special military action” claiming he would “demilitarize” and “denazify” Ukraine to “defend people who have been victims of abuse and genocide from the Kyiv regime.” The declaration of war was shocking to many people because of the completely fabricated pretext for war and the unfounded accusations hurled towards the Ukrainian government of Vladimir Zelensky and, more broadly, the West. Three days earlier, Putin delivered a nearly one-hour speech detailing his distorted view of history. He sought to delegitimize the Ukrainian nation in the eyes of his government, his people and, perhaps, the world. Putin’s manipulation of history is not just factually wrong, but dangerous, since it is now being used to defend his illegitimate war in Ukraine. Historians have a duty to expose such falsifications, and to combat them by providing the public with a counter-narrative grounded in historical methods and research.

In his speech on February 21, Putin claimed Ukraine was an artificial construct, gifted to the Ukrainian people through the Soviet Union’s misguided nationalities policy and the personal decisions of Soviet leaders, particularly V.I. Lenin, Joseph Stalin, and Nikita Khrushchev. He also claimed the Soviet Constitution of 1924 allowed Soviet republics to leave the USSR, and linked that factor to the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991. Pivoting into his distortions, he asked rhetorically “Why was it necessary to make such generous gifts, which the most ardent nationalists did not even dare to dream of before, and, moreover, to grant the republics the right to secede from the unitary state without any conditions?” He derisively called Ukraine “Vladimir Lenin’s Ukraine” to further drive home his beliefs, while also highlighting Ukraine’s desires to “decommunize,” referring to the toppling of statues of Lenin during the Euromaidan protests. Using an almost a mocking tone, Putin declared that, if Ukraine seriously wanted to decommunize, Ukrainians should give up their independence as it was directly a result of Soviet policies. This connection between autonomy and the Soviet past was one of many arguments Putin made to support his actions in Ukraine.

The reality is much more complicated. Continue reading

What’s in Putin’s Head?

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Vladimir Putin

Lorenz M. Lüthi

As we are slowly coming to terms with a new reality in international relations, we try to make sense of it using the anecdotal and fragmentary information available to us. Few outside of Russia can claim to understand what is going on in Vladimir Putin’s head. Most of us are guessing about the rationale behind the war, the decision-making process that led to its outbreak, and the long-term goals Putin is trying to pursue with this military assault on Ukraine.

The first casualty, when war comes, is truth, as the oft-cited saying goes. The aggressor Russia and the victim Ukraine wage a propaganda war at home and abroad, and opportunistic partisans in the rest of the world are not shy to use the conflict to score cheap points. Ideological convictions often trump logical thinking and detached analysis.

Yet, we still must ask what led Putin to start this war, because the answer will guide future European and North American policies towards Russia for a long time to come.

Whether or not Russia ever received a promise in the 1990s, as Putin claims, that NATO would not expand into East Europe is a matter of debate among scholars—with proponents on either side. Yet, three decades later, this is a moot point. International relations are not static but dynamic.

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A Chain of Events: Creating an Archive of Winnipeg Cycling History

Jon Benson 

From its early embrace as a recreational activity upon its arrival in the 1800s to hosting a world champion at a race downtown in the 1990s to a community of folks working diligently to build up and maintain an infrastructure making commuting here safe and enjoyable for everyone year-round, Winnipeg has a long history with the bicycle. But how do these things all connect?

At the WRENCH (Winnipeg Repair Education N’ Cycling Hub), we envision a world where everyone is empowered to experience their community by bicycle. The WRENCH operates the largest and best equipped community bike shop in western Canada. It is an international leader in community bike programming. Since 2010, the WRENCH has utilized volunteer labour and bike parts reclaimed from the waste stream to create community bike programming aimed at educating youth, empowering volunteers, and providing people with affordable and sustainable active transportation options.

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The threat of the truckers protest

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Photo by Indira Tjokorda on Unsplash.

Lesley Wood

The trucker’s convoys are a serious problem, not because of their demands, nor even their disruptive tactics, but because of their appeal to the many folks, frustrated about their jobs, their lives and the inaction of governments.

Their ostensible goal is to end vaccine mandates.  Which were happening anyway, despite the risk, because all levels of government are facing pressure to ‘open up the economy’. Now that the already planned openings are occurring, the truckers claim victory, and gain a sense of momentum. Vaccine mandates are a not the point. Sure, there are lots of anti-vaxxers mixing with the “We hate Trudeau” crew, while anti-Semites, far right racists and neo-Nazis percolate the mix. Their unity rests not so much on a particular demand, but on anger, propped up by a populist chant of Freedom! They see themselves as fighting elites who don’t care about the ‘little guy’. This puts the rest of us in an awkward position. Few of us wants to be arguing against freedom, or rooting for elites. Continue reading

History Slam 204: Cultivating Community

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By Sean Graham

Each year, fall fairs fill schedules in communities across the country. While in recent years, plenty of attention has been given to the increasingly absurd food items that are sold, the fairs have retained some of their agricultural roots. Held in the fall to celebrate the harvest, fairs in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were a mix of trade shows, community building, and an expression of rural Canadian culture. From showcasing produce and livestock to competitions for textiles and baked goods, these events became important sites of political, economic, and social expression, particularly for women, whose participation in all aspects of the fairs further increased the recognition of their critical roles in preserving and growing Canadian agricultural communities.

This is the subject of Cultivating Community: Women and Agricultural Fairs in Ontario, a new book by Jodey Nurse, a Research Assistant Professor at the University of Waterloo. In exploring the growth of Ontario’s fairs well into the 20th century, she shows how women used them to demonstrate all aspects of rural womanhood. This included demanding space in everything from the organization of fairs to the livestock competitions and everything in between. Corresponding with broader political and economic changes at the time, the evolution of the fairs saw the increased role of women significantly contribute to their prosperity. And while Nurse focuses on the situation in Ontario, the book addresses universal themes of agricultural culture in Canada, which is particularly relevant today as the overall proportion of rural populations are shrinking.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Dr. Nurse about the book. We chat about what happened at fairs, who was involved in the planning, and the evolution of what constituted ‘acceptable’ women’s activities. We also discuss the economic challenges and benefits of participating in the fairs, the recognition of women’s contributions, and the materiality of these events. We finish by talking about the women who joined organizational bodies, the challenges of following them in the written archive, and the elements of early century fairs that continue today. If you’re in Guelph, Jodey is having a book launch as part of the Rural History Roundtable at 2:30.

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The Lessons of Netflix’s Munich

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Neville Chamberlain (Jeremy Irons) brandishes a document promising peace between Britain and Nazi Germany. Still from Munich: The Edge of War.

Alvin Finkel

When people desire a more bellicose response to an international conflict, they often accuse their opponents of failing to recognize the lessons of “Munich.” We are hearing that from some Canadian conservatives with regards to Canada’s response to the threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine. The assumption in their use of “Munich” is that the leaders of Britain and France “appeased” Hitler in September 1938 by approving his plan to seize the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia and ignoring his earlier seizure of Austria. But that assumes that the men negotiating with Hitler in Munich despised his goals but caved to preserve an impossible peace. In fact, there is evidence that British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and his government supported Hitler’s goal of conquering central and Eastern Europe and then invading the Soviet Union, provided that he left western European nations and their colonies alone. The new Netflix movie Munich: The Edge of War, like much of the historical work on the event and on Chamberlain, ignores that possibility.

The movie, based on a popular novel by Robert Harris, gets some things right. It introduces a network of influential Germans conspiring to overthrow Hitler and their failed efforts to win British government support. It shows Chamberlain telling Britons that Czechoslovakia was not worth fighting over before he’d even gone to Munich, though it somewhat muffles the defeatist words of his radio address. It suggests that Chamberlain believed that Hitler would not stop his territorial conquests with Austria and Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland, both conceded at Munich.

The rest is apologetics. Chamberlain is presented as a near-pacifist who finds the prospect of war appalling and who is convinced that the British people, exhausted from World War I, need to see more betrayal by Germany and more rearmament by Britain before agreeing to another war. Beyond negotiating the Munich Pact, he demands a personal meeting with Hitler to obtain the famous piece of paper in which the two countries agree not just to “peace in our time” but to eternal peace. He argues naively that Hitler’s signature will reveal him to the British people as treacherous if he seizes more territory.

Plentiful evidence demonstrates that Chamberlain, who had expressed enthusiasm for the Nazis’ destruction of communism, socialism, and unions in Germany, was not opposed to substantial Nazi expansionism. Continue reading

The State of the Site: Digging into ActiveHistory.ca Statistics

With the start of the new year,[1] the editorial collective at ActiveHistory.ca thought it would be useful to share some data about the performance of the website, along with some brief analysis of what this data tells us about how it is being used by readers. At the end of this piece, we invite readers to chime in and tell us about how you use the site and share any other thoughts about the ActiveHistory.ca project.

Insight #1: Site traffic is strong and continues to grow

In 2021, ActiveHistory.ca set a record for its most ever site views, racking up 500,170 visits, for a daily average of 1,370.  

Below you can see a breakdown of total and daily site views by month and year, going back to October 2012, about three years into the site’s existence.

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Historia Nostra: Hear, Here Underrepresented History

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Katrina Bjornstad and Erin Isaac

Hear, Here is a postmodern heritage project that began in La Crosse, Wisconsin in 2015 with the aim to make hidden histories visible in public space. Based in part on Shawn Micallef, James Roussel, and Gabe Sawhney’s [murmur] project, the concept behind Hear, Here is simple: within a particular community, project organizers post an orange sign with a phone number.

When the number is dialed, the caller will hear a story about the space in which they stand and have the opportunity to contribute a story of their own. There can be several stories associated with each sign. This platform has many advantages over traditional street-level heritage mediums. A major advantage of Hear, Here’s use of oral history is that it allows historically underrepresented or unrepresented voices to become unobscured. As a community-based project focused within gentrifying or gentrified areas, the project aims to reveal stories that have been covered over as communities change. By making hidden histories visible in public space, Hear, Here signs raise awareness about problems within the community and can become a catalyst for change. Continue reading

History Slam 203: Flying to Extremes

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By Sean Graham

If you read any edition of the Year in Review (100 Years Later) series, you’ll notice that I, to the great frustration of my co-author Aaron Boyes, insist on including advancements in aviation each year. There is something that I find completely riveting about flying – that we can get into a metal tube and a few hours later be on the other side of the world is remarkable. Trips that 200 years ago would take years can now be done in under a day. And yet, despite the complete sense of awe that I get whenever I watch planes (I spent a summer during undergrad working on the airfield at Pearson International Airport, which was an amazing plane-spotting experience) people can get so mad during the process.

Despite that, I am always excited to learn more about aviation, which is why I was so looking forward to talking with Dominique Prinet, who worked as a pilot in the 1960s and 1970s. Based out of Yellowknife, he flew throughout the north of Canada. From landing on both lakes and skis, surviving near misses when fuel ran short, and navigating the ever-changing weather without the benefit of modern equipment, Prinet’s tales of northern flying highlight the danger and thrill of aviation at this time. Far away from his childhood in France during the Second World War, Prinet fell in love with the people and environment of a region where in the summer flying by sight is a 24-hour possibility and in the winter the unseen danger of ice accumulation on the aircraft is a constant nerve-wracking presence.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Dominique about his experience flying in the North, as told in his book Flying to Extremes: Memories of a Bush Pilot. We chat about Dominique’s entry into aviation (7:16), the skillset required to be a pilot (11:28), and the day-to-day of flying in the North (15:26). We also discuss Dominque’s love of the region (23:15) and a few of the dangerous situations in which he found himself through his career (34:23).

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