Canada 150: What’s to Celebrate?

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Christopher Dummitt

In this year of Canada 150, it’s not uncommon on university campuses to hear a lot of scepticism about “celebrations” of confederation. This isn’t especially surprising. Scholars rarely celebrate anything (unless it is the end of marking season). But celebrations of the nation state often seem intrinsically troublesome – something we study rather than take part in.

Our scepticism is deeply rooted. Since Lytton Strachey, if not before, the main mode of historical writing has been irony. Just as Strachey showed the not-so-eminent underside to his Victorians, historians too expose the darker realities of what might otherwise seem to be historical respectability. We clarify and correct myths that omit unpleasant realities; we question the convenient silences in certain versions of the past. Years ago the great Canadian historian Arthur Lower claimed that the task of the historian was to chase around after those who create myths of the past, hectoring them with shouts of “That’s not how it really happened!” If this can sometimes seem pedantic (never go to historic films with historians) it also has a serious purpose – to correct false assumptions and to insist on complexity.

In the case of Canada 150, there is the added element of political earnestness. Over the last thirty years the moving force in the historical profession has been to replace an older history of the nation state with a people’s history of Canada. In these people’s histories, the Canadian nation has often been either irrelevant to the everyday realities of people’s lives or, when it has been relevant, historians show how the state has often been the enactor of discrimination, harsh treatment, or neglect. Who wants to celebrate that? Continue reading

French Elections 2017: Looking Past the Hype

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The five main candidates – François Fillon, Emmanuel Macron, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Marine Le Pen, Benoît Hamon -Editoweb

Alban Bargain-Villéger

On April 23 and May 7, 2017, French voters will be electing the eighth president of the Fifth Republic. In the last three months, much ink has been spilled over how decisive this year’s election will be. However, while this campaign has indeed been marked by several violent confrontations and scandalous revelations, its dynamics and the themes it addresses fall in line with previous political contests from 1958 onwards. Granted, some issues, like the environment, have gained in importance, and the apparent rise of a strong centre under Emmanuel Macron adds a new element. That being said, the media (in and outside of France) have overstated the uniqueness of the current campaign.

The following pages analyse three myths or half-truths that have been rife in the media ever since the first polls came out. First, this post puts in context the oft-repeated statement that the present campaign has been an exceptionally violent one. Second, I will address the red herring of the “return” of fascism and populism. The third section will focus on the supposed obsolescence of the Right-Left dichotomy championed by Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron – albeit for different reasons – and look at the widespread commonplace that Macron’s En marche! Movement would, if victorious, usher in a new era in French politics, which would henceforth be dominated by a strong “centre” party. Continue reading

HExD: Changing Centennial Commemorations of the Halifax Explosion

By Claire Halstead

It seems as though at every turn we are being reminded of Canada’s sesquicentennial: “Canada 150”. Not just reserved for commemorative events, the marketing of Canada’s anniversary has even been gobbled up by grocery stores. Atlantic Superstore, for instance, is cashing in by offering “Canada 150 deals” that advertise a variety of grocery goods for just $1.50. Yet while 2017 is being cast as a year of celebration and something worthy of being marketed to the Canadian public, the year also marks the much more somber centenary of the Halifax Explosion.

As the attention of the rest of Canada is pulled towards 150, Halifax is trying to prepare for both anniversaries. The question this begs is: will commemorations continue to frame the Halifax Explosion as simply a local tragedy? A century on, can historians and the heritage sector now use modern technology and digital methods to transform our view of the Explosion from that of a local disaster to a wartime military accident that caused not only great civilian loss but had national and international implications that extended well beyond the blast?

Atlantic Superstore Flyer, March 30-April 5, Nova Scotia.

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History Slam Episode Ninety-Seven: Using & Managing Water

By Sean Graham

In the search for life on other planets, the focus is always on water. If there is water, there is a chance that life, as we know it, could exist elsewhere. In all that excitement and speculation, though, we sometimes lose sight of the way we use and manage water on earth.

An essential commodity that is too often taken for granted, the way in which water is managed fundamentally shapes the way in which we live. From pipelines allowing the construction of new communities to canals altering the landscape, water is not only consumed, but managed to change social and economic structures around the world.

At the same time, however, the mismanagement of water has led to tragedies. From Flint to the crises in some Indigenous communities, the contemporary structures that shape water use have privileged certain groups over others. The roots of that structure are the subject of Jeremy Schmidt’s new book, Water: Abundance, Scarcity, and Security in the Age of Humanity.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Professor Schmidt about the book. We talk about the origins of western water management, the exportation of that structure around the world, and the ways in which water has become a commodity. We also talk about individual efforts to challenge that structure and ensuring access to clean water for everyone.

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National Disunity and the Meaning of Vimy Ridge

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By Matt Barrett

Attempting to identify the historical significance of Vimy Ridge for the general public, many historians, writers and politicians have often resorted to a nationalistic framework that depicts the battle as a vital step in the creation of an independent Canada. From April 9th to 12th 1917, the four Canadian Divisions fought together for the first time and achieved an impressive tactical victory, thereby symbolizing the emergence of national unity rooted in military sacrifice. This straightforward narrative neatly encapsulates the central importance Vimy is expected to hold for modern Canadians and validates the First World War as a necessary conflict because it resulted in the creation of the country we know today. The Veterans’ Affairs website for instance defines the legacy of Vimy as a battle in which, “regiments from coast to coast saw action together in a distinctly Canadian triumph, helping create a new and stronger sense of national identity in our country.”

Canadian guns at Vimy Ridge, LAC MIKAN 3397815

While many historians have effectively challenged the myth of Vimy Ridge as the “birth of a nation,” resisting the tendency to present the war within a nationalistic framework proves difficult because it seems to offer the most accessible point of entry for the public to engage with the past.[i] Reflecting on the immediate political reactions to Vimy Ridge is one way of offering alternative interpretations of the significance of the battle for Canadians today. Rather than demonstrating unity and shared celebration, politicians’ reactions after the battle exposed deep divisions in wartime Canada caused by debates over conscription, aggressive partisanship and accusations of disloyalty.

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Archives As Activism

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by Krista McCracken

Protest at the Baltimore Police Department Western District building, April 2015.

Last week was archives awareness week in Ontario, a week to raise awareness about what archivists do, what archives are, and just generally celebrate all of the good stuff associated with archives. In addition to general archives promotion this week also got me thinking about the connection between archives and activism.

Archives can connect to activism and activist movements in a number of ways, however this connection often falls into two main categories: 1) Archival material being used as evidence in activism campaigns and 2) Archives disrupting social norms by collecting and archiving the work of those outside of mainstream society.

The act of preserving the voices of oppressed groups, marginalized communities, and social movements can be a form of activism. For example, the community driven archival projects that were created in response to the Black Lives Matter movement such as the Baltimore Uprising 2015 Archive Project and Documenting Ferguson are examples of archives and communities working together to document a social activism movement.

The Baltimore Uprising initiative aims to create a digital repository of “content that was captured and created by individual community members, grassroots organizations, and witnesses to the protests that followed the death of Freddie Gray on April 19, 2015.”  The project is a collaboration between the Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore university faculty and community organizations. It is a purely digital initiative and is an example of documenting a community member, social protest, and creating archival records through community.

Similarly, the Documenting Ferguson project is a digital repository created by Washington University, St. Louis region universities and partners. It aims to preserve and make accessible “community- and media – generated, original content that was captured and created following the killing of 18-year-old Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9, 2014.”   Ferguson and Baltimore are both examples of community driven participatory archiving.  Yvonne Ng has argued that “participatory archive movements are especially valuable in communities that institutional archives have traditionally overlooked or misrepresented, and in communities where archives belonging to the state or other institutions have historically enabled discrimination and abuse.” Community archives projects have the potential to create more complete versions of the historical records and create counter narratives to mainstream accounts. Continue reading

The Conservative Working Class in Canada

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By Adam Coombs

Both the Brexit Referendum in the United Kingdom and Donald Trump’s surprise victory in the 2016 American Presidential election have resulted in a number of think-pieces analyzing the voting patterns and intentions of the white working class in both countries. While large cities like London and New York overwhelmingly supported the European Union (EU) and Hilary Clinton respectively, traditional bastions of the white working class, such as Erie, Pennsylvania and the North-West of England voted for Brexit and Donald Trump. Explaining why a majority of those in these demographic groups voted, often times against their economic interest, for conservative and reactionary ideas while abandoning the “traditional” parties of the working class has been one of the main themes of recent political and historical analysis of these two votes.

One answer that has seemed to gain particular currency is that the progressive parties of the left have moved to the centre and abandoned the working class. In late March, in Le Devoir and here on ActiveHistory.ca, historian Steven High called this process the “gentrification of progressive politics.” While I certainly agree with the general contention High and others advance, I’d like to suggest that in order to truly understand these voting patterns we need to first consider white working class conservatism not as an historical aberration but rather, if we take Canada as a case study, as a phenomenon with a long history. Continue reading

Mudeater: An American Buffalo Hunter and the Surrender of Louis Riel

By John D. Pihach

Robert Armstrong, celebrated as a Canadian hero in 1885, is largely forgotten today. That transition from national hero to obscure historical figure is challenged in Mudeater: An American Buffalo Hunter and the Surrender of Louis Riel, (University of Regina Press, 2017) which puts him in the spotlight for the second time.

Born in Kansas in 1849, Armstrong spent two decades on the American frontier. He accompanied wagon trains, drove a stagecoach, and dodged arrows and bullets, but for much of that time he was a buffalo hunter. In 1882, to avoid the law, he moved to Canada and changed not only his name, but his entire life. Before he could settle down into a more conventional life in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, however, more adventures came his way. In 1885, he became a scout for General Middleton and after the fall of Batoche, he joined his fellows scouts, Tom Hourie and William Diehl, in searching for and making Louis Riel a prisoner.

Thirty-five years later, while living in Calgary, Armstrong looked back on his life and put down his recollections in a memoir. Handed down to his descendants, the memoir was dormant for a century before being roused and published, for the first time, in Mudeater. The memoir is presented in the book’s second section, after the reader has the opportunity to explore his life in greater detail. This includes investigating his claims, providing a broad account of his life, confronting unresolved controversies surrounding Riel’s apprehension, and exposing his double life.

Though this story is of long ago, it is of tremendous importance in an era when historians, and the country as a whole, continue to work towards reconciliation. In that process, historians have a new primary source that can illuminate contemporary questions.  Issues facing First Nations today partly have their roots in Armstrong’s occupation, and the dilemma of identity confronts many today, as it had Armstrong.

History informs contemporary life. Much has been written about the past, but it is often from the perspective of a different era. A good example comes from the  scholarly treatises examining features of Plains history. That’s why Armstrong’s story is different. His memoir, like a message in a bottle, allows us to travel back in time and have a first-hand account of life and events–not yet history–in the Wild West and of the events of 1885. Armstrong’s plain talk also reveals attitudes and behaviours of the latter quarter of the nineteenth century.

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Feet of Clay? Canada’s Vimy Ridge

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Nic Clarke

The Battle of Vimy Ridge (9-12 April 1917) is held by many Canadians as a pivotal moment in the formation of a distinct Canadian identity, and, indeed, Canada’s transformation from British dominion to independent state.  At first glance this belief is not hard to understand.  Fighting together for the first time, the four divisions of the Canadian Corps achieved an emphatic victory over the Germans where French units had failed, at great cost, multiple times before.  Moreover, in the immediate aftermath, the Canadian victory was lauded both in Canada and abroad, and was proffered as evidence of certain special characteristics that differentiated Canadians from other peoples.   The supposed importance of the battle for Canada’s evolution towards nationhood was (and remains) further reinforced in the minds of Canadians by the placement of the nation’s largest, and most important, overseas memorial to its First World War dead – the Canadian National Vimy Memorial – on the highest point of the ridge.  Intended to highlight Canadian valour and sacrifice, the memorial – which dominates the surrounding French countryside – also acts to remind people of Canada’s victory.

Canada’s memorial to the battle, on Vimy Ridge in France, in a 2010 image from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canadian_National_Vimy_Memorial.

The reality of the Battle of Vimy Ridge is, however, much more complex. Despite what most Canadians have come to believe, the battle was not won by the feat of Canadian arms alone. The Canadian units that stormed the ridge were amply supported in their assault by British Imperial forces.  Over half of the artillery that paved the way for the assaulting Canadian infantry was either British or Australian.  Moreover, the Canadians were aided before, during, and after the assault by troops from a variety of Allied nations.  Operating on the Canadians’ right, the British 51st Highland Division, for example, captured the southern shoulder of the ridge. In the air, support was provided, in part, by Royal Flying Corps’ No. 16 Squadron and Nos. 1 and 2 Balloon Companies.  Likewise, much of the underground system of galleries and tunnels that famously hid and protected the Canadian troops before the assault had been either dug or improved by New Zealand and British tunnellers.  Most importantly, it was the Canadian Corps’ higher formation, the British First Army, which provided the Corps with the extensive logistical support it needed to successfully prosecute its mission.

Nor was the Canadian Corps a purely Canadian formation.  In addition to containing the Canadian divisions, the Corps also included the British 5th Division in its order of battle.  Moreover, all four Canadian divisions had British units attached to them.  In the case of the 2nd Canadian Division the units attached – and directly involved in the assault – included the 5th Division’s 13th Infantry Brigade and eight tanks.   If this were not enough, the Canadian Corps’ commander – and one of the major architects of the “Canadian” victory at Vimy – was a British officer, Lieutenant-General Sir Julian Byng.  In fact, of the 172,486 men attached to Canadian Corps for the assault on Vimy Ridge 75,302 (43.7%) did not come from Canadian formations.

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Hip-Hop History: An Interview with Webster

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This interview originally between Christine Chevalier-Caron and Webster appeared in French on Histoire Engagée. Translated by Thomas Peace.

A few months ago, I had the chance to interview the inspirational Aly Ndiaye, better known as Webster. Growing up in the Quebec City neighbourhood of Limoilou, this Sénéquéb métis pure laine began to rap in 1995. Passionate about history, Webster’s work has fuelled historiographical renewal in Quebec by emphasizing the importance of its minority populations, specifically the histories of Black Québecois and slavery. As part of Black History month (in February), we present a transcript of this interview, tackling questions focused on activism, rap, history and inequality.

Christine Chevalier-Caron: What encouraged you to become an activist?

Webster: I come from a family of activists. Even in our youth, my mother and father were very active in the labour movement and immigration issues. I recall that during Apartheid we were never allowed to eat food from South Africa. My parents took us to many protests. I grew up with models like Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and the Black Panthers. This is what I became interested in and they played a formative role in my life. As I grew up, I decided to develop this – to invest a bit – by denouncing inequalities, the events taking place around me, and the inaccuracies of history. I embedded myself into the vein of history and it is there where I found my activism.

Aly Ndiaye, AKA Webster

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