A Precautionary History?

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Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth, Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1842.

This is the tenth post in the series Historians Confront the Climate Emergency, hosted by ActiveHistory.ca, NiCHE (Network in Canadian History & Environment)Historical Climatology, and Climate History Network.

By Thomas Wien

The next Ice Age is behind schedule. Now for the bad news: the infernal and, for many in the northern hemisphere, eye-opening summer of 2021 has shown that global warming’s effects are reaching critical levels sooner than expected. Worsening drought and extreme weather events afflict the hotter parts of the globe, already sorely tried. The rapidly warming Arctic, devastating fires and floods in places like British Columbia, Siberia, or the Rhine Valley, and a stray hurricane over Newfoundland suggest that the “cool blue north” isn’t quite what it used to be (you may remember that Jesse Winchester first sang those words in 1977…).

Using uncharacteristically blunt language, experts confirm this impression of acceleration. And over the past decade or two, they have added an order of magnitude to the uncertainty: no longer does the worsening seem linear (“one additional degree will cause more such-and-such”), conjuring up situations that while alarming, at least present a threat that is directly proportionate to the amount of carbon (etc.) in the atmosphere – and to human action or inaction. Rather, the warning now is “such-and-such may happen regardless,” or even “all hell may break loose,” as sudden, irreversible shifts and catastrophic chain reactions within the Earth System become more likely.

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2021 Bike. Race. America.

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Watching them fly by. Harlem, 2021. Photograph by Rosemary Lennox.

By Jeffers Lennox

This is the sixth in a series, “History En Vélo,” about cycling and thinking historically, shared with NiCHE.

We do it every year, if we can. It’s only an 80 minute train ride on the Metro North from New Haven to Harlem, and Father’s Day seems like a perfect excuse to explore the city and spend the afternoon watching a bike race: the Harlem Skyscraper Cycling Classic. This year, the kids (now 5 and 7) had more questions about where we’re going and why things are like they are. These aren’t the impossibly insightful queries from children that parents post on Twitter, but rather the simple curiosity of young people put into words. We could let them go without engaging (which, let’s be honest, we do all the time), but now and then we take the opportunity to respond as thoughtfully as we can. It turns out something as innocuous as cycling and watching a bike race be a portal to discussions about American history.

As ex-pats living in the US since 2012 (“it’ll be just a few years,” we told ourselves when we first moved) (Sigh ~ ed.), we’ve had to adjust. A decade later, now with two kids in tow, things have become more complicated as we navigate the wonders and pitfalls of American living. When COVID hit, we fled back to Canada for three months, returning to the US just as the George Floyd uprisings were cresting. Our kids had questions – lots of them – and we had to find answers. Continue reading

Teaching the Climate Emergency in World History

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This is the ninth post in the series Historians Confront the Climate Emergency, hosted by ActiveHistory.ca, NiCHE (Network in Canadian History & Environment)Historical Climatology, and Climate History Network.

By Philip Gooding

I recently taught a remote, intensive Summer course entitled ‘Themes in World History’ at McGill University. This course was aimed mostly at second- and third- year undergraduate students. I chose as my theme ‘Climatic and environmental change.’ This provided me with many opportunities, one of which was to teach students a historical perspective on the current climate emergency. What follows is a description of the thought processes behind my course design and its objectives, as well as a reflection on its successes and shortcomings.

World history and the climate emergency are highly compatible subjects for two core reasons. First, the climate emergency has no respect for human borders, and so, like world history, it transcends traditional spatial paradigms in the humanities and the social sciences, such as nation states and area studies. Second, world history courses tend to attract students with vastly different disciplinary backgrounds, not just history majors and minors. A historical perspective on the climate emergency, which students are generally conscious of and interested in, therefore, can act somewhat as an entry point into the study of history more broadly. Additionally, understanding the role of climate in history necessitates a high degree of interdisciplinarity, incorporating climatological and other perspectives from the natural sciences. Students can engage with climate history from a variety of disciplinary standpoints.

John Crome, A Windmill near Norwich, 1816, Wikimedia Commons. The style of this painting is characteristic of the Romantic movement, whose dates (c.1790-1850) roughly correspond to those of the late Little Ice Age (c.1780-1840). Crome painted this image in the ‘Year Without Summer,’ a year of severe cold in Europe and other global regions following the eruption of the Tambora volcano, in present-day Indonesia, in 1815.[1]

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Experts Confront Postwar Poverty, or How Good People Do Bad Things

Tina Loo

Figure 1: Padlei [in the Keewatin region], 1950. Credit: Richard Harrington / Library and Archives Canada / PA-177219.

The Northern Affairs Officers who live and work with the people of the Keewatin have no promise and little hope that tomorrow will bring an opportunity for work and self-dependence for all the Eskimo people of that region. If the problem does not seem capable of immediate solution, it is no reflection on them; we have been impressed with the serious and constant concern they show for the future of the Eskimo people with whom they live. The problem of Keewatin is one Canada may not yet know how to deal with, for we have not experienced one quite like it before.

Donald Snowden, Chief, Industrial Division, Department of Northern Affairs and National Resources, 1963[1]

“We tried hard but we don’t have the answers.”

That’s essentially what Donald Snowden was saying. His admission isn’t one we might expect to find at the start of an expert report recommending ways to improve the standard of living in the Keewatin region of the central Arctic. Those recommendations included forced relocation, something that had been tried multiple times in the region before – with tragic consequences.[2]

Figure 2: Map of the Keewatin District. Credit: Eric Leinberger.

His open acknowledgement of the intractability of the problem of poverty and development is striking. It contrasts with the confidence we’ve come to associate with the bureaucrats and experts engaged in what anthropologist James C. Scott calls “high modernist schemes to improve the human condition.”[3]

The resignation and distress that colour Snowden’s remarks point to what we might think of as the emotional history of high modernist expertise.[4] Continue reading

Climate Resilience, Past and Present: Rural Communities and Food Systems

Formerly farmed land, overlooking Penobscot Bay. Photo by author.

This is the eighth post in the series Historians Confront the Climate Emergency, hosted by ActiveHistory.ca, NiCHE (Network in Canadian History & Environment)Historical Climatology, and Climate History Network.

By Emma Moesswilde

This summer, the raspberry crop at Daisy Chain Farm was much smaller than usual. The variable winter weather meant that abnormal freeze-thaw cycles caused the raspberry canes to lose their resistance to cold in periods of thaw, making them more susceptible to damage when the weather turned icy again. In comparison to last year’s bumper crop, whose flavor and color filled my family’s freezer and lifted our spirits through a pandemic winter, this year’s raspberries were nowhere near as abundant.

Thanks to the observations of farmers and other food-producing folks, and to the work of climate scientists, we know that such variable weather and its impacts on agriculture and food production are consequences of human-created, or anthropogenic, climate change. For decades, despite insidious efforts to suppress the overwhelming scientific consensus on human-caused greenhouse gas emissions and their impacts on the earth’s systems, it has been clear that changing ecological realities due to climate change have the potential to severely disrupt the systems that provide humanity with sustenance, from industrial-scale grain cultivation to small family farms to fisheries to my local raspberry crop.

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Indexed Shifting: Past and Present from the Bike Saddle

By Steven Schwinghamer

This is the fifth in a series, “History En Vêlo,” about cycling and thinking historically, shared with NiCHE.

Biking happens at the right combination of speed, effort, and scope for me to do some interesting thinking about places. Being raised in a Canadian historiographical canon, I suppose it’s a cousin to Harold Innis’ “dirt research,” although as Josh Howe mentioned, there are still steep climbs ahead for us in integrating the knowledge of “doing there” as disciplinary practice. In terms of memory and place, I am not sure about relating this construction of place to Pierre Nora, because while the process contends with discontinuous or disrupted pasts, it is equally indebted to vibrant continuities and a critical relationship with the public commemorative landscape. I do know that I can’t get to this relationship with a place by walking (usually too slow for the scope) or driving (too fast and superficial).

Biking is perfect.

(And fun!)

George’s Island from Halifax, near the northern edge of the Ocean Terminals development (2021). Photograph by Steven Schwinghamer.

There are lots of points along my bike commute where we can locate significant events in the history and present of Halifax. My route includes Beechville, a historic African Nova Scotian community; the old rail and streetcar connections for the city (with their associated car-centric modern forgetting); and some of the water, salt and fresh, that has defined human relationships with Kjipuktuk, the Great Harbour, for time immemorial. As a public historian, I enjoy saying hello to the city’s landmarks current, lost, and debatable. I ride by the Public Gardens and the Commons, the Citadel, the prior site of the “Morris” house that didn’t quite belong to the right Morris, and Peace and Friendship Park where stood the statue that was supposed to be Cornwallis, but wasn’t. I often indulge in a detour to ride directly alongside the harbour, where vast container ships lumber along under the guns of Fort Charlotte. Fishing boats set out from Eastern Passage, not far from the graves of a pair of Nova Scotian seamen who succumbed to smallpox at the quarantine station on Lawlor’s Island in 1901.

Only a handful of the people who perished at the Lawlor’s Island Quarantine Station have marked graves. This one recalls the passing of a Nova Scotian, reflecting the domestic work of the site. Credit: Sara Beanlands (2011).

My commute finishes at the heart of much of my historical research: Pier 21 and the Ocean Terminals. I work in the latest incarnation of the waterfront sheds, exploring immigration history for the Canadian Museum of Immigration. Although the whole ride, and the many connections above, could unfold a much longer story, I’m going to pick a few things directly connected to the Ocean Terminals construction to illustrate how experiencing the remaking of the place from my bike has altered how I think about history. Continue reading

Climate at the Speed of Weather

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Environment Canada meteorological observation, Charlottetown, PEI, December 1873.

This is the seventh post in the series, “Historians Confront the Climate Emergency,” hosted by ActiveHistory.ca, NiCHE (Network in Canadian History & Environment)Historical Climatology and Climate History Network.

By Alan MacEachern

They say that climate is what you expect but weather is what you get. Or they used to say that. Now, the climate seems to be changing as quickly and unexpectedly as weather. When New York’s Central Park receives a record 48 millimetres of rain in one hour and then, just ten days later, a different storm system dumps 79 millimetres in one hour, it feels as though more than just weather is at work.[1] And why wouldn’t climate be changing rapidly? It used to take millennia for atmospheric carbon dioxide levels to fluctuate just ten parts per million. Now it takes five years. That cannot be good news for anyone.

I taught environmental history for twenty-plus years before developing a course in climate and weather history. It had taken me a while to recognize the centrality of climate change to environmental affairs, longer to become well-informed on the topic, longer still to feel competent enough to teach it, and longer still to determine how to structure such a course and what I might contribute. But in 2014, having helped bring Environment and Climate Change Canada’s extant historical weather observations to my university’s archive on long-term loan, I knew it was time to take the plunge.[2] I developed a course around the meteorological collection, used its material in lectures and seminar activities, and devoted full assignments to it.[3]

And the course was a bust.

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As Long As The Rivers Flow 30 years on : An epic collaboration in documentary filmmaking

By James Cullingham

This autumn marks a significant milestone in the history of filmmaking about Indigenous – settler relations in Canada. As Long As The Rivers Flow, the documentary series about Indigenous resilience that launched Tamarack Productions, was released in September 1991.

As Long As The Rivers Flow was among the first national collaborations of Indigenous and non-Indigenous documentarians in Canadian television history. It is a series of five one-hour documentary films. The films recount an epic story. The struggle of Indigenous peoples to assert control of their destiny in the place that came to be called Canada.

In September 1991 two documentaries in the series, one by the late Métis director Gil Cardinal and the other – her first film – by Métis filmmaker Loretta Sarah Todd, director of 2020’s wonderful Monkey Beach drama, premiered at TIFF (then The Festival of Festivals.)

Following the world premieres of Tikinagan and The Learning Path, As Long as the Rivers Flow debuted on a consortium of provincial educational broadcasters led by TVO. The films were introduced by Cree and Métis actor and activist Tantoo Cardinal for the English broadcast premiere. The series was first broadcast en français in Canada and abroad that same year on TV5 as Tant que coulent les rivières. Eventually the series was versioned in Cree for broadcast and educational use in northern Ontario and Québec.

To celebrate the 30th anniversary of the series, and in the spirit of intercultural cooperation, respect and truth that the series represents, Tamarack Productions is proud to offer the films free of charge for the remainder of 2021 on its website in the interest of fostering reconciliation and collaboration among storytellers.

You can watch the films here.

The films from the series have screened on five continents and won over twenty international awards. Continue reading

Land Back, Indigenous Futurisms, and the Climate Crisis: An Interview with Molly Swain

This is the sixth post in the series Historians Confront the Climate Emergency, hosted by ActiveHistory.ca, NiCHE (Network in Canadian History & Environment)Historical Climatology, and Climate History Network.

Molly Swain is a Métis woman, or otipêmsiw-iskwêw, from Calgary, Alberta (otôskwanihk), in Treaty 7 territory, Métis Nation of Alberta (MNA) Region 3, currently living in amiskwaciwâskahikan (Edmonton), MNA Region 4, Treaty 6 and Nehiyaw-Pwat (Iron Confederacy) territory. A PhD student in the Faculty of Native Studies at the University of Alberta, Molly also co-hosts otipêyimisiw-iskwêwak kihci-kîsikohk (Métis in Space), an Indigenous feminist science fiction podcast, along with Chelsea Vowel. She is part of the directorship of the Métis in Space Land Trust and a member of Free Lands Free Peoples, an anti-colonial penal abolition group.

Politically, Molly describes herself as an Indigenous, specifically Métis, anarcha-feminist, with the goal of “total anti-colonial liberation,” including “the destruction of white cis-hetero-patriarchal supremacy, colonialism, capitalism, ableism, and states, as well as the regeneration of both new and remembered ways of living together with the land and with one another,” humans and other-than-humans alike.

Series co-editor Edward Dunsworth spoke with Molly over Zoom on 14 July 2021. Transcript edited for clarity and length.

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Hiding in Plain Sight: Newspaper Coverage of Dr. Peter Bryce’s 1907 Report on Residential Schools

Article from the front page of Victoria’s Daily Colonist, 16 November 1907.

Kathleen McKenzie and Sean Carleton

As the result of the news of unmarked graves being located at former residential schools across Canada, many people are finally reckoning with the history of the Indian Residential School (IRS) system. While school survivors and Indigenous communities are not surprised by the recent revelations, some Canadians have been shocked to learn of the high rates of death and disease at the schools. They shouldn’t be, though. The horrors of the system were always hiding in plain sight.

As was recently reported in the Globe and Mail by Crystal Fraser, Tricia Logan, and Neil Orford, the Department of Indian Affairs’ own medical officer, Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce, blew the whistle on the IRS system in the early 1900s. In a 1907 report on the inadequate care that Indigenous children were receiving in some schools, Bryce outlined the ills of the system – including death and disease – that many Canadians are only learning of now. The Department of Indian Affairs, however, chose to ignore Bryce’s findings, burying his report and thwarting his subsequent calls for reform.

Yet, it is too easy for Canadians to say that the public was not made aware of Bryce’s report and apply blame solely to church and state officials who downplayed and ignored his warnings. The report was leaked to the public, and an examination of newspaper articles from the early 1900s reveals that readers across the country were presented with the findings.

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