Who Cares About Thinking Historically?

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Graduate students working on the Thinking Historically for Canada’s Future project bring diverse perspectives that are shaped by the places they live. Rebecca is writing from Kingston, Ontario, situated on the territory of the Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe peoples. Ian is writing from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver which is situated on Musqueam territory.

Rebecca Evans and Ian Alexander

The purposes of history are legion. In the context of Canadian schools, history and social studies were initially developed at the end of the nineteenth century to unite the nation and manage competing tensions among Francophones and Anglophones. History curricula concurrently omitted Indigenous perspectives as well as voices from other marginalized groups, from the national narrative, reaffirming the voices of the prominent group of white settlers. Much has changed, and history and social studies now offer much more than a unified national narrative. They hold the potential to play a significant role in developing young peoples’ capacity to think critically about crucial civic issues and engage in problem-solving –  both essential ingredients for building and sustaining a healthy democratic society. As students, our perspectives are shaped by the places we live, the people we interact with, and the histories passed down to us through intergenerational family conversations. Interactions with mass media and pop-culture also make their mark. Learning to identify and interact with these forces is a core component of thinking historically.

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Uncovering the Sexual Assaults of Mervyn Brown: Part 1

By Eloise Moss

Trigger Warning: This article contains references to sexual assault and rape. To respect the dignity of historical victims of sexual violence, the names of the survivors in this article have been anonymised

As a historian of crime, I have spent years working with criminal investigation files created by London’s Metropolitan Police (‘MEPO’ files), held at the U.K. National Archives. They have a familiar pattern. Witness reports and material evidence are compiled, trial outcomes recorded. It would be a mistake to regard them as an unfiltered collection of facts and experiences; like all historical records, criminal case files offer a carefully curated narrative, in which the testimony and photographic evidence of police, as well as their comments and marginalia, frames the ‘story’ of the crime in a particular way — often, reinforcing the power, rigour, and authority of the police.

Last summer, however, when conducting research for my latest book (a history of hotels as spaces of modern slavery and inequality in Britain), I came across marginalia on the opening pages of one file, MEPO 3/397, that told a different story:

‘A.C.C. [Acting Chief Constable] It is a thousand pities that we cannot obtain evidence of these individuals attempts to defeat the ends of justice. Sincerely trust that the Counsel for the prosecution, will do all he can to put the seriousness of the crime forward. 27.4.26’

What was this cryptic note about?

As I investigated further, what I came across was a case of serial sexual assault by a prominent Canadian business man, covered up and hidden by his peers and associates. In this essay, and one to follow next week, I will lay out the case for you and why it is important that you know the deeds of Mervyn Brown, mayor of Medicine Hat during the First World War.

Mervyn Brown, c. 1914, Image Courtesy of the Esplanade Archives

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Did ChatGPT-4 attend my lecture?

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Henry Trimen a.png

Henry Trimen, director of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Ceylon 1880-1896

Jim Clifford

In the lead-up to my take-home exam last April, I was trying to think of questions ChatGPT could not answer. I hoped that by focusing on details from my lectures that are not available on Wikipedia and other similar online sources, the large language model would fail to provide a strong answer. I was dead wrong:
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Critical Reflections on Histories of Residential Schools

By Karen Froman, Leah Kuragano, Aileen Friesen, Cathy Mattes, Mary Jane Logan McCallum

On Sept 25, 2023, the University of Winnipeg’s History Department Indigenization Committee presented a panel engaging with the Interim Report of the Office of the Independent Special Interlocutor for Missing Children and Unmarked Graves and Burial Sites associated with Indian Residential Schools, entitled Sacred Responsibility: Searching for the Missing Children and Unmarked Burials, here: https://osi-bis.ca/osi-resources/reports/ released by Interlocutor Kimberley Murray in June 2023.

L-R Karlee Sapoznik Evans (Deputy Manitoba Advocate for Children and Youth), Chair; Sarah Delaronde, Univeristy of Winnipeg Indigenous Engagement Office; Mary Jane Logan McCallum, Cathy Mattes, Karen Froman, Leah Kuragano, and Aileen Friesen, History Department Indigenization Committee members.

The OSI’s role is to identify measures to ensure the appropriate treatment and protection of unmarked graves and burial sites of children at former residential schools. The interim report points to twelve key findings that included issues of access to, and destruction of records; the importance of affirming Indigenous data sovereignty; facing an Increase in the violence of denialism; a lack of adequate funding and supports; and the importance of accountability and justice in the process. As a committee, we wanted to engage with the report by asking each others questions to illicit a discussion of the issues in the report in the context of being historians in Canada. What follows are several of the questions we asked each other and a summary of our answers. Continue reading

Bored Stiff: A Cranky Historian on ChatGPT

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Edward Dunsworth

Remember, not a game new under the sun
Everything you did has already been done
— Lauryn Hill, interpolating the book of Ecclesiastes

I’m not worried about ChatGPT.

Well, let me be more precise. I’m not worried about ChatGPT sparking a surge in undetectable student cheating, or writing better short stories than Alice Munro, or leading the Roombas and Alexas of the world into a great machine uprising that wipes out the human species.

These possibilities, all of which have been extensively gushed or fretted over, depending on one’s standpoint, are frankly preposterous. In order to get past the fairytales, I found it extremely helpful to develop a baseline understanding of what exactly ChatGPT is and how it works. I’m no software engineer, so I was pleasantly surprised to find that it wasn’t all that difficult to grasp the basics. Here’s my layperson’s attempt to describe how ChatGPT works in one sentence: using mountains upon mountains of text, ChatGPT produces answers to prompts by spitting out one word at a time, each individual word chosen simply because it was deemed by an algorithm to be the most logical word to follow in the sequence.

Don’t take my word for it. Take this guy’s:

ChatGPT is derivative. It’s a copycat, a cheat, a confidence man. It’s a biter, not a writer. Everything it does has already been done.

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ChatGPT and the History of Government Refugee Policies

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Ausma Levalds Rowberry arriving at Pier 21. The government of Canada announced Ausma as the 50,000th displaced person to arrive in Canada after the Second World War.Credit: Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 [2013.1912.24].

Laura Madokoro

I wasn’t quite sure what to make of Chat GPT when it first started making news headlines earlier this year. I was therefore intrigued when the Active History Collective decided to experiment a little by asking it to comment on our areas of expertise. I jumped right in with a quick question. In hindsight though, I completely underestimated what the program was capable of. Had I had more faith, I would have asked a better historical question.

The question I asked was “Is Canada a welcoming country for refugees?”

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Home and Homecoming: My Mother’s Return as a Ugandan Asian Refugee after 50 years of Forced Displacement


Our family of 5 standing underneath the Welcome to Mbarara sign before we entered the city. Photo courtesy of the author.

Shezan Muhammedi

This year mark’s the fiftieth anniversary year of the Ugandan Asian refugee resettlement in Canada. It was the first major resettlement of a non-European refugee community in Canada during the post-war period, following the official de-racialization of Canadian immigration policy in 1962. My mom and her family are part of the nearly 8,000 Ugandan Asian refugees who were resettled in Canada between 1972 and 1974. Her experience served as the foundation for my doctoral thesis and subsequent publication of Gifts From Amin: Ugandan Asian Refugees in Canada which includes in-depth archival research and oral histories with over 50 members of the refugee community. Oral histories, archival documents, artefacts and more from this resettlement are also being collected by Carleton University and showcased in their Uganda Collection. This post explores our family’s trip to East Africa and my mother’s reflections on her returning to her homeland.

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The Asianadian – What’s Old is News

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By Sean Graham

In this episode of What’s Old is News, I talk with Angie Wong, author of Laughing Back at Empire: The Grassroots Activism of The Asianadian Magazine, 1978-1985. We talk about the magazine’s origins, its regular features, and how it built community across the country. We also discuss how it was funded, how it fit within the rise of conservatism in the 1980s, and its legacy nearly 40 years after its final edition.

Historical Headline of the Week

Winston Ma, “I Was Ashamed of Being Chinese Until I Learned About my Ancestors’ First Years in Canada,” CBC, May 30, 2023

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“Out of the Frying Pan”: The Economist on peasants and climate change”

Pedro Rafael González Chavajay, a Tz’utuhil-Maya from San Pedro la Laguna. Used with permission from him and Artemaya.

Jim Handy

As summer winds down I have been slowly catching up on reading avoided while happily engaged elsewhere. This includes back copies of The Economist. As always reading The Economist prompts an appreciation for their insightful reporting on some issues and their tone-deaf, ahistorical and simply wrong accounts on others.

The July 1st, 2023 edition had a briefing entitled “Out of the Frying Pan” filed from Cairo, Chattogram (Bangladesh), and Niamey (Niger). In this story the author (anonymous as is the practice in the paper) appropriately warned that peasants in some of the poorest areas of the world are likely to suffer the worst consequences from climate change. As global warming intensifies and their lands and livelihoods suffer, they will make up a significant portion of the millions of climate refugees. Already, The Economist notes, rural livelihoods have been made more precarious by conflicts created or exaggerated by climate change.[1]

But it is exactly here that the author finds a silver lining. The author suggests, “Climate change may jolt some into making a decision (to migrate) that would long have been in their interest anyway.” If climate change accelerates rural to urban migration and induces more peasants and small farmers to give up their land more quickly, the paper predicts, “they will probably find better work, health care and schools. They may also start having smaller families.” The task of feeding the world, including new migrants to urban areas, will need to “rely on bigger, more capital-intensive farms.”

In making such an argument, the paper is at least reliably consistent. Since its birth in 1843, the paper has unfailingly championed large, capital-intensive farming and counselled that small farmers and peasants be forced to abandon the countryside and flee to the cities as the natural (and beneficial) consequence. In the second edition of the paper in September 1843 the paper celebrated the fact that the “science of agriculture” was replacing the “art of husbandry” in the English countryside and in the process modern farmers employing capital were “breaking up the hard clods of ignorance, sloth and indifference.” [2] From that point, the paper steadfastly argued that the most pressing problem in English agriculture was “how can capital be attracted to the soil?”[3] Continue reading