(In)Security in the Time of COVID-19: New Histories of Human Vulnerability, Community Resilience, and the Struggle for Social Justice

Artwork by: Tobias Merlo.

This post introduces “(In)Security in the Time of COVID-19,” a ten-part blog series that will be featured on ActiveHistory.ca over the next six weeks. Visit the series page here.

We are the (In)Security Working Group, a collective of historians based at the University of Toronto committed to developing a rigorous and critical analysis of the ways in which security regimes impact people’s lives.

We understand “security” as a set of police practices that states mobilize to protect property under the guise of keeping people safe. Historically, these governmental techniques designed to foster a healthy population and to ensure capital accumulation have also produced precarity, exploitation, and skewed life chances among “undesirable” populations. Security regimes thus render Black and Indigenous; LGBTQ2+; mentally or physically disabled; undomiciled or precariously housed; undocumented; and poor people vulnerable to premature death despite their stated objective of fostering life. Policing practices that ostensibly keep people (and property) safe and frequently culminate in the disproportionate arrest, assault, and execution of black people are one example of the Janus-faced nature of security. Yet, even seemingly benign professions like social work and governmental agencies like public health play increasingly important roles in contemporary security regimes that underpin what Ruth Wilson Gilmore calls “organized social abandonment” in the age of austerity.  Prioritizing property and profit over people leaves too many people vulnerable to the direct and indirect violence of market forces. Our collective believes that alternative ways of keeping people safe exist. Indeed, the very same communities abandoned and targeted for injury and death are often the birthplaces of innovative strategies for survival and harm reduction.

The (In)Security working group was created during a state of emergency. Continue reading

Lessons From a Not-so Distant Pandemic: The H1N1 Pandemic and Indigenous Disparities

Indigenous pharmacist Dr. Jaris Swidrovich preparing to administer vaccines at the Saskatoon Tribal Council’s clinic.

Curtis Fraser

Over 80% of Indigenous adults have now received their first vaccination against COVID-19, compared to 57% of the Canadian population as a whole. Active COVID-19 cases among Indigenous peoples peaked in January of 2021, but have since dropped by 85%, thanks to the successes of the vaccination campaign. While the number of cases among Indigenous people is likely undercounted, as Courtney Skye showed in a Yellowhead Institute report, Indigenous activism is resulting in improved health outcomes for Indigenous peoples, although much work remains to be done. Canada’s health care system continues to struggle with systematic racism as we have seen recently in the case of Joyce Echaquan, the forced sterilization of Indigenous women in Saskatoon, and widespread discriminatory practices within British Columbian health care against Indigenous patients.

The most recent epidemic was that of H1N1. For Canada as a whole, the history of H1N1 is seen as a success story – the epidemic was not nearly as severe as was initially feared. There were fewer hospitalizations and fewer deaths in many regions from H1N1 than during a regular flu season. But this was not the case for Indigenous peoples. In 2009, Indigenous peoples made up roughly 4% of the Canadian population, but they accounted for 25.6% of those who became critically ill.

The H1N1 deaths in Indigenous communities cannot be blamed on the virus.  The Federal government badly mismanaged the epidemic. Continue reading

Death was the Point: Interrupting our shock at colonial practices. Thoughts on the Kamloops discovery.

By Samantha Cutrara

Trigger Warning: This article discusses the residential school system. The National Residential School Crisis Line is 1-866-925-4419.

When the news came out about the mass grave at Kamloops Indian Residential School located on the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation – or the news from this past weekend which identified 104 ‘potential graves’ as part of the Brandon Indian Residential School on Sioux Valley Dakota Nation – I wasn’t shocked, I wasn’t in disbelief. While I was incredibly sad, I found familiarity in what was being announced, because for so long I’ve heard residential schools described as schools with graveyards rather than playgrounds. The loss of life – physical life, along with spiritual and cultural life – has long been part of the narratives of residential schools by members of Indigenous nations and was most formally “heard” by Canadians in the TRC final report that was published in 2015. As Kukpi7 Chief Rosanne Casimir said in the Tk’emlúps te Secwe?pemc press release: “We had a knowing in our community that we were able to verify… We sought out a way to confirm that knowing out of deepest respect and love for those lost children and their families…”. This briefing also identified that this work was the result of preliminary work in 2000, eight years before the TRC was established.


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Residential Schools: How Quebec Colonized the West

By Catherine Larochelle

Trigger Warning: This article discusses the residential school system and the Roman Catholic Church. The National Residential School Crisis Line is 1-866-925-4419.

With the Quiet Revolution, identity in Quebec shifted from an association with French Canada to one more tightly bound by the province’s political borders. Quebec’s so-called national history similarly refocused to emphasize histories of Quebec rather than histories of francophones living elsewhere in North America. Along with this transition was buried the shared history between Quebec and the Prairies. As a consequence, many Quebecers today have difficulty associating Quebec with Canada’s colonization of the west.

Memorial statue of Father Albert Lacombe, one of many French Canadians who worked on the Prairies during the 19th and 20th Century. (Wikimedia Commons)

Although the media has begun to discuss Quebec’s twentieth-century residential schools, too often in Quebec, when we learn about tragedies like the one at Kamloops Residential School, we continue to hear common refrains that absolve Quebecers of their participation within this genocidal system.

Some say: “It was the Federal government!” As if Quebecers do not elect their members of parliament and participate through them in the government… don’t forget about Hector-Louis Langevin.

Others reflect: “It was the church! And the church also oppressed French Canadians.” As if priests and nuns were not themselves French Canadians… don’t forget about Albert Lacombe.

And yet others lament: “We have suffered under the British yoke. French Canadians were friends with Indigenous peoples.” As if the desire to eliminate these peoples did not begin in the seventeenth century… don’t forget about the narrative of New France’s Golden Age.

These are not old pre-Truth and Reconciliation Commission claims. From his perch at the Journal de Montreal, columnist Mathieu Bock-Côté made just these arguments earlier this week.

And yet…

The history of residential schools in Western Canada is part of Quebec’s history. The history of genocide is part of Quebec’s history. Continue reading

Historia Nostra Bookclub: Why I Don’t Like Guns, Germs, and Steel

By Erin Isaac

2021 has been a long year. It’s only June, but I’m calling it—2021 has been a year to endure or make the most of rather than one rife with opportunities. At least, that’s been my experience. My YouTube project, Historia Nostra, has pushed through it and, I hope, given viewers a chance to “visit” places they couldn’t physically go during the pandemic. While I’ve got more of those videos in the works, this month we’re taking a step back from travel videos to try something new.

The Historia Nostra Bookclub is my way to take advantage of the daunting amount of reading history that PhD students are required to do during their first years of study. While we’ve been locked down I’ve had the pleasure and pressure of reading for my comprehensive fields exams—many of which I want to talk about here. I’ll share my thoughts about some of the books I’m reading and hope that viewers will be challenged to read along with me or contribute their own reflections in the comment section.

First up to bat is an old foe of mine, Jared Diamond’s Pulitzer Prize winning Guns, Germs, and Steel.

Over the years, this is a book my non-academic historian friends and family have often referenced in discussions about history or recommended to me for a “fun” read. As a younger scholar I wrote it off as a “popular history” that was, in my biased and frankly conceited opinion, not worth my time. Continue reading

History Slam 183: American Refugees

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By Sean Graham

On January 1, 2015, Rita Shelton Deverell landed at Miami International Airport from Santiago, Chile for what was scheduled to be a brief layover on her way back home to Toronto. When US border agents scanned her passport, they noticed that it listed her birthplace as Houston, Texas. A Canadian citizen who had lived in Canada for the past half century and a Member of the Order of Canada since 2005, Deverell was quite surprised when border agents detained her to tell her that she was still a U.S. person and that “the United States still loves you.” That incident proved a strong motivation to expediate a book project that had been in the works for the previous two years.

That project is American Refugees: Turning to Canada for Freedom. In the book, Deverell explores the history of Americans moving to Canada at various points over the past two centuries. From the underground railroad to Vietnam War resistors to Americans crashing the Canadian immigration website following the 2016 election, the idea of Canada a safe haven for some Americans has loomed large in the Canadian imagination. In the book, Deverell uses powerful personal stories to contextualize the mythology that has been built around American immigration to Canada. By telling these stories, the book is an important contribution to an oft-discussed yet understudied element of Canadian history and the country’s relationship with its southern neighbour.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Rita Shelton Deverell about the book. We discuss her personal story and its influence on the book, American immigration to Canada in the popular imagination, and what has traditionally drawn American immigrants to Canada. We also chat about racism in Canada and the United States, colonialism’s influence on perceptions of diversity, and the current state of Canadian-American relations.

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The Perils of Digital Humanities for Academics

Dominique Clément

Why does historical training at universities place so little emphasis on research methods? The rise of digital humanities presents a fundamental challenge to how we train historians. But for anyone pondering a career in academia, it’s a perilous journey where the risks might not be worth the rewards.

We are in the digital age yet historical research remains primarily a modified pencil and paper discipline – laptops instead of paper, cameras instead of pencils. I’m an historian who happens to teach in sociology. Research methods are central to the undergraduate and graduate curriculum in sociology. In contrast, historical training remains the equivalent to throwing your kid into the deep-end of the pool – head off to the archives and figure it out on your own.

The lack of training in digital research methodologies is a profound failing of our discipline. There are few Canadian conference sessions, workshops, publications, or networks where historians can dialogue about their experiments with new technology. In a special edition of the Canadian Historical Review in 2020 on the use of digital tools for historical research, Ian Milligan discusses his survey of historians’ use of digital cameras for archival research: 92 per cent used a digital camera but 90 per cent had no formal training. Over 40 per cent took over 2000 images for their last project. But 70 per cent simply used their own device rather than professional equipment.

Technology is changing, but not our training. Most historians have to teach themselves how to use digital tools. Continue reading

Accountability for the Roman Catholic Church’s Role in the Residential School System: Urgent Actions Needed Immediately

By Carling Beninger

Trigger Warning: This article discusses the residential school system and the Roman Catholic Church. The National Residential School Crisis Line is 1-866-925-4419.

In the 1880s, the Canadian federal government created the residential school system in an attempt to assimilate Indigenous children and destroy their Indigenous culture and traditions through cultural genocide. Residential schools were run by Christian churches, with the Roman Catholic Church operating 60% of the institutions. The last residential school closed in 1996.

Indigenous children who attended these institutions were forcibly taken from their families and communities and faced horrible living conditions, trauma, and abuse. Many Indigenous children were subjected to physical and sexual abuse. In 2008 Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized for Canada’s role in the residential school system and recognized that “the consequences of the Indian Residential Schools policy were profoundly negative and that this policy has had a lasting and damaging impact on Aboriginal culture, heritage and language.” In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), held from 2008-2015, released its final report that included 94 Calls to Action, which included several calls directed towards the churches. To date, only 10 of the TRC Calls to Action have been completed.

The Roman Catholic Church’s response to its role in the residential school system continues to be harmfully insufficient. TRC Call to Action 58 calls for the Pope to apologize, which has yet to occur. The Roman Catholic Church continues to withhold archival records that it was legally required to provide to the TRC. Additionally, Roman Catholic entities, comprised of 47 Catholic defendants, did not paid full compensation as was determined by the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement (IRSSA), a comprehensive response to the residential school legacy that included compensation to survivors, establishment of the TRC, and commemoration and healing initiatives. Continue reading

Anti-Racism and Archival Description Work

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by Krista McCracken

In May as part of the Archives Association of Ontario conference I was able to participate in a workshop on Anti-Oppressive Description and Re-Description Workshop. Facilitated by Aaron Hope, Catherine Falls, Renee Saucier, and Danielle Robichaud, this workshop discussed records which contain racist, sexist or other discriminatory content and potential ways archivists can call out problematic materials in archives.

I’m really grateful for the space this workshop provided to dig into archival challenges and share ongoing work around re-description. In archival practice typically archival materials are only described once. This means that records researchers encounter may have been described decades ago by a staff member. Language changes and how we interact with and interpret records can also change. Archival re-description has become a more common practice.

Likewise, there has been a growing practice of archivists calling out racism in their records and acknowledging the potential harm of historical racist language. This sometimes looks like including content warnings about racial slurs, notes about blackface, or similar contextual notes. It can also look like new descriptive notes or new titles being added to existing records, to fill in contextual information that may have been missing from the original description. For example, records that were labeled as “John Smith and Wife” may have a new description added reading “John Smith and Jane Smith.”  Continue reading

Remember/Resist/Redraw #30: Intergenerational Resistance in Vancouver’s Chinatown

The Graphic History Collective recently released RRR #30 by erica hiroko isomura and Kaitlyn Fung that highlights intergenerational resistance and community organizing in Vancouver’s Chinatown. In particular, the poster emphasizes the role of women in preventing the building of a freeway through the community in the 1960s as well as ongoing efforts to resist displacement and gentrification.

We hope that Remember | Resist | Redraw encourages people to critically examine history in ways that can fuel our radical imaginations and support struggles for social change. Learn more about how you can support the project on our website, and connect with us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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