Monumental Questions: Practical Experiences of the Politics of Commemoration

As cities and communities across Canada confront the legacies of colonialism and racism, monuments and memorials have become a hot topic of public debate. On November 14th, London, Ontario’s Words Festival, brought together Lisa Helps, Mayor of Victoria, Monica MacDonald, co-chair of Halifax’s Cornwallis Taskforce, and University of Toronto History Professor Melanie Newton, for a discussion on the deliberative processes that communities have undertaken to tackle the difficult subject of historical monuments and commemorations, especially when the figures or events they honour confront us with Canada’s legacies of systematic racism and slavery. Join Active History editor Thomas Peace in exploring with the panelists how cities have confronted their monumental legacies, the civic production of history and heritage, and strategies you can draw upon to better understand the politics of historic monuments and place names.

Learn More:

Cindy Blackstock, Spirit Bear: Echoes of the Past (First Nations Child & Family Caring Society)

City of Toronto Briefing Note Responding to the Petition to Rename Dundas Street

City of Victoria – Reconciliation Programs

Monica MacDonald, Recasting History: How CBC Television has Shaped Canada’s Past (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019)

Melanie Newton, “Henry Dundas: Naming Empire and Genocide,” History Workshop (Nov 2020) 

Emma Renaerts, “The Right Way to Topple a Statue,” We Are Not Divided (Oct 2020)

Report of the Task Force on the Commemoration of Edward Cornwallis and the Recognition and Commemoration of Indigenous History

2013: It’s time to commemorate the 1763 Royal Proclamation

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Royal ProcNDP Leader Thomas Mulcair made a good suggestion last week.  After the Prime Minister publicly outlined the marching orders for his ministers – which did not address recent tensions with First Nations but did emphasize the allocation of funds and resources towards a handful of historical celebrations – Mulcair took him to task. Picking up perhaps on the contradiction of funding historical celebrations while systematically gutting Library and Archives Canada and Parks Canada (two key institutions that preserve Canada’s documentary and material heritage), Mulcair gilled the Prime Minister on his political use of the past. Rather than throwing the baby out with the bath water, however, Mulcair suggests that perhaps the Prime Minister expand his commemorative agenda. Why not celebrate the 250th anniversary of the 1763 Royal Proclamation this year?

I agree with Mulcair. The Harper government should embrace the Royal Proclamation. Not only is it a foundational – one might even say constitutional – document in Canada’s legal history, it also provides the Prime Minister with an opportunity to demonstrate his apparent concern for First Nations’ priorities.  The Royal Proclamation has all the trappings of a Harperesque vision of the past. It draws together the military, monarchy and a firm spirit of law and order.

I don’t think Mulcair went far enough in his indictment, however. It’s not just Stephen Harper (and his cabinet) ignoring the Proclamation. It’s all of us. Continue reading “2013: It’s time to commemorate the 1763 Royal Proclamation”

The History Wars: Where is the media?

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Last week the Globe and Mail published an editorial about the video game Assassins Creed III . According to the Globe’s editors, the video game distorts the history of the American War of Independence by suggesting that native people (the protagonist, Ratonhnhaké:ton, is Mohawk) fought alongside the rebelling colonies.  Both gamers and historians quickly and resoundingly condemnedthe Globe‘s opinion as factually flawed (see here, here, and my own letter to the editor, here, for a sample of the critiques). I don’t want to rehash these critiques here. Instead, I want to ask some more pointed questions about why the Globe decided to run this piece in the first place.

It’s not everyday that a national newspaper decides to pick on an individual business over the quality of its product. Continue reading “The History Wars: Where is the media?”

Colonialism and the Words We Choose: Lessons from Museum and Academy

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About two months ago I was in a local museum with my family learning about the eighteenth century history of the community in which the museum was located. In many ways we had a typical country museum experience. We were met by costumed interpreters and told the stories of the building and the people who lived there. Then we learned about some of the broader historical context. For our guide, the story this museum told hinged on the European settlement of the “savage wilderness inhabited only by Indians.”

As a historian who studies Native communities during the eighteenth century in the places best-known today as Quebec, New England and Maritime Canada, I felt that I had been transported to a different era. Though wilderness remains pervasive, isn’t the noun savage an artifact from an earlier century? And don’t Native people have a history that predates their encounter with Europeans? Continue reading “Colonialism and the Words We Choose: Lessons from Museum and Academy”

An Open Letter to James Moore and Daniel Caron

Recently the Government of Canada and the management at Library and Archives Canada have made a number of changes to how Canada’s national library and archives operate.  Many of these changes are a great concern to historians, librarians and archivists.  I have decided to post a letter that I wrote earlier this week to the Minister of Canadian Heritage, James Moore, and Canada’s national librarian and archivist, Daniel Caron, in order to emphasize what I see as some of the key problems with the recent decisions that their institutions have made. Continue reading “An Open Letter to James Moore and Daniel Caron”

A Reluctant Engagement: Mi’kmaw-European Interaction along the Annapolis River at the Beginning of the Eighteenth Century

I am giving the following presentation at 7 p.m. on Tuesday evening January 3, 2012 in the Lower Hall of St. George & St. Andrew United Church in Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia.

Pierre du Gua, the sieur de Mons, and Samuel de Champlain chose to build their small French outpost along the Annapolis River because of a nearby (and friendly) Mi’kmaw community.  But, aside from the first few years of settlement, Europeans did not record much about the specific group of people who lived along the river’s banks during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  Although there is little source material remaining from this period, the British conquest of Port Royal provides an important opportunity to gain insight about this local Mi’kmaw population.  Developing from his PhD research on Aboriginal experiences of the conquest of New France, Thomas Peace will share his work on the Kespukwitk Mi’kmaq at the turn of the eighteenth century.  His presentation will use census data and local parish records to compare local Mi’kmaw experiences to those elsewhere in peninsular Mi’kma’ki (modern-day Nova Scotia), expanding our understanding of Mi’kmaw interaction with European officials and Acadian settlers.

Museum Closures, Heritage and Cultivating a Sense of Place in Toronto

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“Places possess a marked capacity for triggering acts of self-reflection, inspiring thoughts about who one presently is, or memories of who one used to be, or musings on who one might become… When places are actively sensed, the physical landscape becomes wedded to the landscape of the mind, to the roving imagination, and where the latter may lead is anybody’s guess.” – Keith Basso, Wisdom Sits in Places, 107.

Just as I read these words last week, the Toronto Star disclosed municipal plans to close three of the City of Toronto’s ten museums.  Montgomery’s InnGibson House and the Zion School House – museums outside of the downtown core and closely allied with the Etobicoke and North York Historical societies – are on the chopping block due to municipal cutbacks.  This decision builds on the recently announced closure of the Air and Space Museum at Downsview Park, one of a few other museums in the north end of the city.

In an age of austerity, as Sean Kheraj noted last week, all public institutions supporting culture and heritage are vulnerable. But these cuts do not just reflect cutbacks in the culture and heritage sectors. In a city already bereft of recognized historical sites outside of the downtown core, this municipal decision reinforces urban and suburban differences in how Toronto’s past is told. If places have the power to shape our self-perception and how we situate ourselves in the world, as Basso and others have suggested, how has the uneven distribution of historical places influenced the culture and politics of Canada’s largest city? Continue reading “Museum Closures, Heritage and Cultivating a Sense of Place in Toronto”

Historical Quests: An intergenerational tool for connecting school and community

This piece was originally posted on Teaching the Past.

Whether we have an informed view of the past or not, an understanding of history is an important part of how we situate and re-evaluate our position in local, regional, national and international contexts.  Because the past is so important to connecting and situating ourselves to others and the places where we live, it cannot be taught entirely from the classroom.  History, I believe, is best taught collectively and collaboratively, with lessons that anchor into a student’s everyday experience and understanding of the past.

This point was driven home last week when my family and I – looking to better understand our new home in the upper Connecticut Valley – participated in a historical walk in the nearby community of Hartford Vermont.  The walk was one of over 150 Valley Quests, a place-based educational program devoted to building community in the Upper Valley.  Like many historical walks, this quest was led by a local resident who provided details about the community’s history, geography and everyday life.  Unlike other historical walks that I have been on, however, the Valley Quest also integrates local schools and encourages regular public participation. Continue reading “Historical Quests: An intergenerational tool for connecting school and community”

Renaming Schools: A society in dialogue with its past

After a six month hiatus to put the finishing touches on my dissertation and have a baby, I have re-entered the blogosphere.  This appeared on earlier this week.

It should come as no surprise that the recent controversy over the renaming of a junior high school erupted in Nova Scotia.  On 22 June 2011, the Halifax Regional School Board voted unanimously to change the name of Cornwallis Junior High.  The school board was concerned about the legacy of Edward Cornwallis, the city’s founder, who in an effort to secure the town site placed a bounty on Mi’kmaq heads.  The board’s decision has caused considerable controversy and according to the media it seems that many people want the school’s name retained.  The changing of the school’s name, however, fits within a long history of name changes in Nova Scotia.  It presents a good opportunity to reflect on the diverse roots that make up Nova Scotia’s population and the province’s relationship with its past.  Renaming landmarks is a sign of a growing and evolving society that is in critical dialogue with its past. Continue reading “Renaming Schools: A society in dialogue with its past”

Black Creek Living History Bus Tour

Last week I had the pleasure of joining the Black Creek Living History Bus Tour, which is part of a broader Black Creek oral history project being run by the York Woods branch of the Toronto Public Library.  Below you will find three videos of my contribution to the tour.  In the first video I discuss the Parsons Site, in the second Downsview United Church, and in the third Elia United Church. Continue reading “Black Creek Living History Bus Tour”