Restrictive Immigration – What’s Old is News

By Sean Graham

Since Confederation, Canada has implemented a number of restrictive immigration policies, including on Jewish immigrants during the 1930s. Norm Ravvin, author of Who Gets In: An Immigration Story, joins the show to talk about one story of a Jewish immigrant coming to Canada and challenging those restrictions, We talk about researching what was a hidden story, how prospective immigrants fought against the rules, and the power of community.

Historical Headline of the Week

Jadine Ngan, “A Look Inside the New Chinese Canadian Museum in Vancouver’s Chinatown,” Maclean’s, July 6, 2023.

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Building LGBTQ2+ Communities in Restaurants – What’s Old is News

By Sean Graham

Alex Ketchum, author of Ingredients for Revolution: A History of American Feminist Restaurants, Cafes, and Coffeehouses, joins Sean Graham to talk about the book and how these sites build communities. They chat about what constitutes a “feminist’ restaurant, the cultural significance of food, and how the cafes’ business imperatives sometimes conflicted with their ideals. They also discuss the need to protect patrons, the role of racial discrimination, and how these sites are critical in the face of recent legislation.You can follow Alex’s work on Twitter, Instagram, and through The Feminist Restaurant Project.

Historical Headline of the Week

Tim Carman, “Annie’s Paramount Steakhouse, long a haven for D.C.’s gay community, wins a James Beard Classics Award,” Washington Post, January 31, 2019.

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The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1923: Settler Colonialism and the Structure of Racism in Canada

By Timothy J. Stanley

Chinese Immigration Act Certificates of the Fong Sisters and their Mother on Display in the Foyer of the Senate of Canada, Jiaqi Wu, Reflections on Exclusion: An Exhibition on the Chinese Immigration Act, 1923. Exhibit. Senate of Canada, June 5 – June 27, 2023. Photo courtesy of Senator Yuen Pau Woo.

Until its 1947 repeal, the Chinese Immigration Act of 1923, also known as the Chinese Exclusion Act, effectively barred Chinese people from immigrating to Canada and required all Chinese, including the Canadian-born, to register with the government. Failure to register made them liable to fines, imprisonment and deportation. The Chinese are the only group to which such regulations applied. As Henry Yu showed in yesterday’s post, the Act devasted Chinese Canadian communities and permanently marked the Chinese as outsiders who do not belong.

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How Can We Reckon with a Future that Never Was

Photo of Yeung Sing Yew, the author’s grandfather, with his brothers, all of whom paid a head tax to enter Canada.

By Henry Yu

On July 1, the “Paper Trail” exhibit curated by Catherine Clement detailing the impacts of the legal Chinese exclusion of Chinese from Canada in 1923, will open at the new Chinese Canadian Museum located in Vancouver Chinatown. Having spent the last seven years of my life helping in some capacity or another to envision, consult, plan and implement the creation and building of this new museum, I hope I can be forgiven for asserting that there is an appropriate statement being made in opening both the exhibit and the new museum on exactly the 100th anniversary of the passage of Chinese Exclusion on Dominion Day in 1923.

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Alberta and Abyssinia

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Robert N. Thompson and children at dinner table. Credit: Gilbert Alexander Milne and Co. Ltd./Library and Archives Canada, PA-148635

By David Webster

One textbook on Canadian foreign relations sums up the 1930s with the chapter title “Alberta, not Abyssinia.” Canada was more concerned with domestic politics affairs, not overseas crises such as the Italian invasion of Ethiopia (previously called Abyssinia) in 1935. “All these European troubles are not worth the bones of a Toronto grenadier,” in the words of University of Toronto professor Frank Underhill.

Those who look at Canadian foreign relations through the lens of people rather than government know that Canadians were highly engaged overseas. As scholars like Will Langford point out, we need to trace the history of right-wing transnational influences. Often, we see those non-governmental connections most clearly in countries seen as peripheral. Nassisse Solomon shows – and problematizes – how Canadians embraced Ethiopia during the 1980s famine.

Alberta’s contribution to Abyssinia in the 1930s came in the person of Robert N. Thompson, KCLJ, CMLJ, FGS, LLD, perhaps best known for his bizarre affirmation that “the Americans are our best friends, whether we like it or not.” Thompson grew up in Red Deer, Alberta. He was for a time in the 1960s the leader of Canada’s Social Credit party, that odd plant rooted in Western Canadian and Quebec politics from the Depression to the 1960s. And he was “Mr Africa” in Canada’s parliament while serving as MP for Red Deer.

Oddities like Bob Thompson’s years in Ethiopia tell us a great deal about Canadian engagement abroad. This story comes from the archives of Trinity Western University, where Stephen Hay generously went well outside his field to go through materials for me and allowed me to see Thompson’s Ethiopian presence as an influence on both that country and Canadian foreign relations.

Bob Thompson never led Social Credit to power in Canada. In fact, he eventually stopped being a Socred MP. Yet he spent a decade in the government of Ethiopia as a close advisor to Emperor Haile Selassie (reigned 1930-74). There, he pushed some of the policies of evangelical Christianity on a willing emperor and government.

Ethiopian guerrillas backed by British forces succeeded in freeing their country from Italian occupation by 1944. Thompson, in a military history of the campaign, insisted that Ethiopia was “the first to be freed.” He was Ethiopia-bound himself by 1944, a tale he recounted to journalist Peter Stursberg. (Stursberg’s remarkable oral histories conducted for parliament in the 1980s are a wonderful, much-overlooked resource at Library and Archives Canada – we need something similar today.)

In his telling he had a “secret mission” in Lisbon, then accompanied a boatload of Jewish refugees to the British mandate of Palestine. Perhaps. What we do know from written records is that was that he was bound for Ethiopia as a medical missionary. It was no longer possible to go to China, traditionally Canada’s major missionary field, as it has plunged into war in the 1940s and would soon come under the rule of the Chinese Communist Party. Thompson embraced the Sudan Interior Mission (now simply SIM), which was able to return as Italian forces surrendered.

“Here is opportunity for evangelism, for Bible Schools, for medical work, for Christian schools where future national leaders will be trained,” enthused The Evangelical Christian in 1945. “Homeless waifs not more than five or six years of age cry out pityingly on the streets, as they huddle at evening time under a few rags on the curb trying to keep warm.… There is a real famine of the written Word of God among them.[1]

This “famine” was filled by missionaries such as Thompson. Yet he was almost immediately seconded to serve Haile Selassie as an education advisor, despite lacking any training in education (Thompson was a chiropractor). He switched his Canadian air force uniform for an Ethiopian one, using his experience in the Canada-based Commonwealth Air Training Scheme to train Ethiopians and get in some flying himself. He worked with US air force colonel John C. Robinson, an African-American nicknamed “the Black Eagle of Chicago.”. The African-American presence in Ethiopia had been fraught, with a segregated Black air force squadron “lord[ing] it over the native Ethiopians even more-so than the fascists had done” and only Robinson allowed to stay, if we can trust Thompson’s memory as recounted in his unpublished memoir. Nor was there much more luck in an appeal for African-American teachers to come to Ethiopia published in Time Magazine.[2]

Canadians taught instead. Thompson recruited dozens from his home country. He ran Ethiopia’s first high school – named after Haile Selassie – then became superintendent of schools in Kaffa province. On the side, he wrote reports on evangelization prospects, rendering unto SIM what he thought was SIM’s, but leaving this out of his reports to the government. He ended his service as one of two top officials at the ministry’s offices in Addis Ababa.

Bob’s wife Hazel, invisible in the archival records, appears in his unpublished memoir. She supervised dorms, instructed chefs in meal planning, taught piano, and organized contests in room cleaning, and “hardly seemed to miss [Alberta’s] modern conveniences.” I’ve made the case elsewhere, in a book splendidly edited by Stacey Barker and Jill Campell-Miller, that “life stories” of Canadians overseas also need to be “wife stories,” seeing women rendered invisible by official archives. Hazel Thompson, a trained radiologist, made Thompson’s advising possible, much like (as Donica Belisle has pointed out) Mary Quayle Innis did for historian Harold Innis.

Education in Ethiopia was very much a family affair. While Hazel ran the home and raised the children, Bob recruited his brother Howard to be one of the first Canadian teachers in Ethiopia. Howard moved on to Washington to become educational attaché at the Ethiopian embassy, thus an official member of the Ethiopian diplomatic corps.

Susanna Erlandsson writes about how diplomatic politics is also personal politics, with family and wives especially being an integral part of diplomatic practice, It’s the same for non-diplomatic figures.

Bob and Hazel left government work to run a leprosarium, leaving the country in 1956 when their daughter required medical care. Henceforth, apart from a year that Bob spent teaching at the US evangelical outpost Bob Jones University, they lived in Canada.[3] Still, Bob toured with Prince Makonnen, who he called his “kid brother,” served as honorary Ethiopian consul in Canada, and helped the royal family when a military coup overthrew Haile Selassie in 1974. He retained an interest in Africa, where he went as Prime Minister Lester Pearson’s special emissary on at least one occasion, and was an active booster of the Nigerian federal government during the Biafra secession – unlike many Canadian leftists.

A white Christian evangelical who had served both Emperor and God seems an odd candidate to be Canada’s Africa expert in the revolutionary 1960s. Yet he was. “I had no problems racially associated with me,” he told Peter Stursberg. This is so often the Canadian self-image abroad. Though Thompson does not speak or write about race or racism, it is hard to imagine that racial divides were not often on the minds of his hosts. We can see them only by reading “against the archival grain” and noting the sense that Canada and Britain offered models and better government – an underlying, unspoken assumption of British colonialism. Media coverage of Thompson’s Africa travels on behalf of the Canadian government abound in racial stereotyping, which we recognize far too rarely when writing diplomatic history, with a few noble exceptions.

Canadian history needs to look beyond borders more than it does, a change already well under way. Historians need to dig for the offbeat stories in the out-of-the-way archives, and try to read to see the personal politics alongside the story that the archived subject wants told. We also need to be attentive to our citational politics, which is in itself a methodological intervention.  For Thompson’s story, this Alberta and Abyssinia story, is ultimately one about methods.

David Webster teaches Human Rights Studies at King’s University College, Western University. His next book will be Modern Missionaries: Canadian Development Advisors Overseas 1945-75.


[1] C. Gordon Beacham, “Rebirth in Ethiopia,” The Evangelical Christian (April 1945), 173-174, 204.

[2] “Teachers for Ethiopia,” Time, 7 Aug. 1944, p. 50

[3] Aubrey Wice, “Their Work in Missions Practice of their Faith” The Telegram [Toronto] 29 Oct. 1960, p. 49; RNT, “Leprosy Mission – Ethiopia,” 1955, TWUA, Thompson papers, box 17, file 1; Hazel M. Thompson and Robert N. Thompson, “Southern Leper Colony Progress Report No. 3” April 1956, ibid, box 2, file 11; memoir

Fighting Racism Through Sport

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By Sean GrahamWe’re back with new episodes and this week I’m joined by Ian Kennedy, author of On Account of Darkness: Shining Light on Race and Sport, which explores how athletes from Chatham-Kent in southwestern Ontario fought racial discrimination through sports. We discuss Ian’s interest in sports, Chatham-Kent’s history as a terminus of the underground railroad, and why sports are a powerful tool for social change. We also talk about the Chatham Coloured All-Stars and Fergie Jenkins, the difference between amateur and professional sports, and the future of activism in sports.

You can keep up with Ian’s work on Twitter and at The Hockey News

Historical Headline of the Week

Richard McGahey, “The Super Bowl, Racism, and Segregation,” Forbes February 13, 2023.

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Deindustrialization as Failed Postindustrial Transition

by Steven High

We are living in polarized times. Brexit, Trump, and the rise of right-wing populism has led to a resurgence of popular and scholarly interest in working class history and the ways it gets entangled with race in the wider politics of economic change. There is much at stake given the looming global transition away from fossil fuels. We can therefore learn much from our failure to affect a socially “just transition” to our deindustrialized, “post-industrial” present in huge swathes of Europe and North America. In fact, it is urgent that we do.

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The Politics of Deindustrialization in the ‘Birthplace of New Scotland’

by Peter Thompson

Pictou is a sleepy town of about 3000 people on the north shore of Nova Scotia. Despite its small size and its place on Canada’s margins, Pictou has been featured twice in the pages of over the past decade. First in Lachlan MacKinnon’s 2014 piece, “The Power-Politics of Pulp and Paper: Health, Environment and Work in Pictou County,” and then in Colin Osmond’s “A’Se’k — Boat Harbour: A Site of Centuries’ Long Mi’kmaw Resistance” (2019). In addition to its outsized presence on, the Northern Pulp site at Pictou County’s Abercrombie Point has also been the subject of Elliot Page and Ian Daniel’s documentary There’s Something in the Water and the CBC documentary “The Mill.” Each of these reinforce a central fact about Pictou: visual representations of the town found in tourist advertisements and in the memorial complex found on the waterfront itself elide darker elements of its history, including environmental racism and Indigenous dispossession. (See also Ingrid Waldron’s 2018 book, There’s Something in the Water: Environmental Racism in Indigenous and Black Communities.) In this post, I will look at how two sites on the Pictou waterfront—a plaque memorializing the passage of the Ship Hector and the Northern Pulp site itself—communicate ideas about history, progress, settler colonialism, and deindustrialization on the north shore.

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“We feel left behind:” Ethnographic Perspectives on Just Transition, Re-Training, and Future of Energy Among Oil & Gas Communities in Alberta, Canada

by Anna Bettini

A Changing Energy Landscape

Driving along Highway 529, two hours south of Calgary, giant wind turbines tower over the fields of canola. Along the road, several signs indicate the local community opposition to wind energy projects [Picture 1]. As I approach the entrance of village of Carmangay, I notice a large wind turbine blade lying near it [Picture 2]. Not far from it, Mr. Ralph Allen greets me with a warm smile. He is a retired geologist, employed in the oil and gas sector for over 40 years. He agreed to be part of my project as I investigate and report the lived experiences of the energy transition for workers and communities in Alberta. As I introduce myself, Mr. Allen points to the large blade behind us. “Have you seen the turbine? It’s from the wind farm near us,” referring to the Blackspring Ridge Wind Project (in operation since 2014). Considered among the largest renewable energy infrastructures in Western Canada with 166 turbines, the project created over 350 short-term jobs during construction and an additional 20 long-term jobs for operations.

Picture 1: Sign opposing wind turbines in Vulcan County area. Photo by the author.

Picture 2: Blade of a wind turbine from BlackSpring Ridge Project, Carmangay (Alberta). Photo by the author.

Continuing toward Lomond, millions of solar photovoltaic panels spread over thousands of hectares of land surrounded by farming acreages as part of the Travers Solar Project [Picture 3]. One of the largest solar farms in North America, it will  produce 465 megawatts of power and generate more than 500 temporary full-time jobs. The project was still under construction when I began ethnographic fieldwork in June 2022.

Picture 3: Travers Solar Project, Travers (Alberta). July 19, 2022. Photo by the author.

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The Breaking of the Borgia Area: Dismantling Sudbury’s Industrial City Centre

by Eliot Perrin

The Flour Mill neighbourhood in Sudbury serves as an almost mythical place in Franco-Ontarian identity. Much like St-Boniface further west, it survived for decades as a Francophone enclave, maintaining and nurturing the French language, its institutions, and artistic production. For individuals of Franco-Ontarian background such as myself, it remains a place of residual family memory and lore.

Sudbury is a city in Northern Ontario long associated with its massive mining infrastructure. Since the late 1800s, the Sudbury Basin has been mined for nickel that, in the 20th century, came to be in high demand thanks to its use in steel production. As the area’s mining operations expanded, the International Nickel Company (Inco) also built smelting, milling, and refining facilities, further increasing the number of workers in the area. Following successful unionization drives, Sudburians experienced a growing degree of prosperity throughout the 1950s and 60s.

Since its settlement, Sudbury has hosted both Franco-Ontarian institutions and industrial work. Sudbury was chosen as a townsite following the discovery of minerals along the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) construction route in 1883. French Catholic priests were already in the vicinity, providing mass for French-Canadian railway workers. The French Ste-Anne-des-Pins parish (also formed in 1883) sat on the elevated northern half of what would become downtown Sudbury. Other French Catholic institutions soon followed the church itself, including the Hôpital St-Joseph and the St-Louis-de-Gonzague school. Further to the northeast in what later became the Flour Mill, the Jesuits opened the Collège Sacré-Coeur. Both institutions played roles in the protests against the Ontario government’s 1912 Regulation 17, which threatened to ban French-language instruction in private schools beyond the second grade. Meanwhile, the south of downtown was dominated by the CPR yards. These were joined by the Canadian National Railway (CN) whose eastern arm followed the eastern border of the Flour Mill, with a roundhouse located at the bend of Agnes Street.

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