Old Chieftain or Old Charlatan? Assessing Sir John’s Complex Legacy through Political Cartoons

This essay originally appeared on ActiveHistory.ca in January 2015 as part of a theme week examining the legacy of Sir John A Macdonald.

This week ActiveHistory.ca has focused our attention to the legacy of Sir John A. Macdonald. In less than a week’s time, Canada will be in the throws of one big Sir John love-in. On 11 January, this country’s first prime minister will be celebrating the 200th year since his birth in Glasgow, Scotland. Over the course of this week, we’ll bring you essays on Sir John’s legacy regarding Indigenous peoples, immigration and the broader politics of his time. In doing so, we aim to present and assess Sir John in all his complexity. Neither then, nor now, has Canada’s first prime minister been universally celebrated and loved.

John_A_Macdonald_Daguerreotype Continue reading “Old Chieftain or Old Charlatan? Assessing Sir John’s Complex Legacy through Political Cartoons”

The Nation-State is not what we think it is: Teaching Canadian History from a non-national perspective

This essay was originally posted to ActiveHistory.ca in December 2014.

At the beginning of November I was asked to join a panel entitled “No One is International” as part of Huron College’s Centre for Global Studies‘s symposium “Critically Engaging: Global Awareness in the Academy.” As I considered the panel’s title, and the broader purpose for the conference (to critically engage with the meaning of “internationalization” for the college), I decided to frame my reflections around a central question related to my work as a historian of Canada: What does it mean to teach Canadian history (that is, the history of the nation-state) from a non-national perspective? Continue reading “The Nation-State is not what we think it is: Teaching Canadian History from a non-national perspective”

Towards an Active History

This essay was originally posted on ActiveHistory.ca in October 2014

Over the past couple of weeks, the Active History editorial collective has begun the initial planning for a stand-alone conference to be held in late 2015 or 2016. Agreed that there was a need for a conference, we set about to determine the conference’s overall purpose and goals. What quickly became apparent was that we had slightly divergent views about the meaning and practice of Active History. As our conversation continued (and moved toward fruitful resolution), it occurred to me that these varied perspectives might be of interest to the broader readership of ActiveHistory.ca and, through the comments section, provide a good opportunity to hear about your thoughts: What is Active History? Continue reading “Towards an Active History”

Where have all the censuses gone? A Problem with Digital Data

This essay was originally posted on ActiveHistory.ca in July 2014

This post is a little late in coming, but hopefully it will be useful for those of us working in pre-twentieth century North American history or with online resources. About a year ago, I discovered that one of the most useful reference resources I use, Statistics Canada’s E-Stat tables of the Censuses of Canada1665-1871 had been removed from their website. Living in a country where the current federal government has a bit of a history mucking around with censuses and data collection (for good examples see herehere and here), the removal of this resource upset me. Why had I not heard about E-Stat’s impending demise? Where could I retrieve the valuable and accessible data formerly available for download through this website? And (of course) what type of subtle political purpose could be behind the removal of data from Canada’s early censuses?

Stats Can - 2014
Continue reading “Where have all the censuses gone? A Problem with Digital Data”

What does Canadian History Look Like? Impressions from the Periodical Room

This essay originally appeared on ActiveHistory.ca in May 2014

This morning, as you read this post, historians from across the country have gathered at Brock University in St. Catherines, Ontario for the Canadian Historical Association’s annual meeting (click here to read the program). The CHA’s annual meeting is one of the most important forums to hear about new and emerging research on Canada’s past or by historians working in Canada on non-Canadian subjects. This year, panels address computer modeling of battles and pandemics (today at 9 a.m.), the 1200th anniversary of Charlemagne’s death (also at 9 a.m.), surveillance in 20th century Canada (tomorrow at 8:30 a.m.) and Canadian historians and the media (a panel we’re sponsoring at noon on Wednesday). There’s always a little bit for everyone and it’s a good place to familiarize yourself with the breadth of historical work being conducted in Canada.

As such, the CHA’s annual meeting provides a convenient opportunity to reflect on the current state of Canadian history. Last year, at the start of the CHA, I wrote a post analyzing paper titles over the past decade, using them as an index to better understand the subjects on which historians are working (click here to read that post). The theory underpinning that exercise was, when taken collectively, paper titles reveal broader patterns about the state of the field. This year, I’ve embarked on a similar task, looking at the Canadian history papers that will be delivered over the next three days and setting them in a broader context. Instead of rehashing last year’s post, though, I’ve decided to take my study a little further. Rather than looking at past CHA programs, this year I decided to take a look at what some of Canada’s premier history journals suggest about the field as a whole. To do so, like last year, I’ve run article titles from the past decade of Acadiensis, B.C. Studies, Revue d’histoire de l’Amérique française and the Canadian Historical Review through wordle.net (for the visualizations) and Voyant Tools (for the word ranking) to get a better sense of the topics in which Canadian historians are interested.[1]

Continue reading “What does Canadian History Look Like? Impressions from the Periodical Room”

Lessons from the Past, Promises for the Future: Reflections on Historical Thinking in Canadian History

This essay originally appeared on ActiveHistory.ca in March 2014

“Our historians have almost wholly ignored the existence of slavery in Canada.”

Two weeks ago these words echoed through Fountain Commons here at Acadia University.  Historians, educators and activists had gathered for Opening the Academy: New Strategies for Exploring and Sharing African Nova Scotian Histories. The message those of us in the audience heard was that African-Canadian history remains a marginal field in Canadian history. The words above – evoked at the conference, but originally delivered by T. Watson Smith in 1898 to the Royal Nova Scotia Historical Society – still hold true today.[1]

It’s not my intention here to delve into the relative merits of this comparison (though a look through Watson Smith’s address makes one wonder just how far historical research has come over the past 115 years). Rather, I want to use Watson Smith’s statement as a way to introduce a more fundamental point about teaching history and communicating information about the past: it isn’t easy and it’s highly political.

This week ActiveHistory.ca has put together a series of blog posts that focus on the Historical Thinking Project. Scheduled to close its doors at the end of the month, the Historical Thinking Project has made a tangible difference in Canada’s historical landscape. Continue reading “Lessons from the Past, Promises for the Future: Reflections on Historical Thinking in Canadian History”

Canadians and their Pasts on the Road to Confederation

This essay originally appeared on ActiveHistory.ca in January 2014

cdns and pasts

2014 has begun and it looks like another banner year for historical commemoration. The government of Canada has been clear: we’re now on the road to commemorating Confederation. But as the new year begins, the metaphorical road we’re headed down better resembles the roads at the time of Confederation than anything we’re familiar with today (Montreal and Saskatoon excluded). There’s a rocky ride ahead! The past and its uses remain contested ground as Canada’s history and heritage landscape continues to undergo significant, and potentially lasting, change. However, rather than more of the same, the publication of the large-scale survey Canadians and Their Pasts and Canadian Heritage’s recently launched ‘Have your Say’ questionnaire promise that in 2014 the debates of the past few years may take on new dynamics. Continue reading “Canadians and their Pasts on the Road to Confederation”

The politics of proclamation, the politics of commemoration

This essay originally appeared on ActiveHistory.ca in September 2013

October 7th 2013 marks the 250th year since King George III issued what is, for Canadians, the Crown’s most famous Royal Proclamation.  Over the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the English monarch released over a hundred royal proclamations.  Some of these proclamations declared war (usually against France), others – such as the Royal Proclamation of October 23rd 1759 – mandated public thanksgiving and celebration, while others focused on more local laws (lotteries in Virginia in 1621, prohibiting trade in Hudson’s Bay in 1688, establishing a post office in 1711, and mandating ‘fast days’ in England during the American Revolution). Few of these proclamations, however, carry the historical legacy of the one issued in October 1763. This morning, ActiveHistory.ca and the Robarts Centre for Canadian Studies presents a week-long series of 14 essays situating this Royal Proclamation in its historical context. Continue reading “The politics of proclamation, the politics of commemoration”

Digital History isn’t for everyone

This essay originally appeared on ActiveHistory.ca in July 2013

Most of the work that we do here at ActiveHistory.ca is what I have called elsewhere, passive history. Though there are a number of important exceptions (such as the History Matters lecture seriesApproaching the Past, community and institutional partnerships), we generally take a ‘field of dreams approach’ to our online content.  If we post it, readers will come. This has been a successful strategy. Since our beginning in April 2009, the website’s readership has continued to grow (now averaging about 15,000 unique visitors a month).

Active History as an idea, however, is broader than the online forum we have created. At its core, an Active History approach to studying the past seeks to be socially transformative and publically engaging. To accomplish these goals, it is important for our work to resonate both online and in the material world (meatspace for those of you familiar with cyber-jargon). In order to be successful Active Historians, then, we need to understand how these two worlds are connected and what possibilities and pitfalls exist when we share our work in one or the other space.

Digital History isn’t for everyone. Continue reading “Digital History isn’t for everyone”

What does Canadian History look like? A Peek Inside the Canadian Historical Association

This essay was originally posted on ActiveHistory.ca in June 2013

Over the past few months Canadians have spent an unusually significant amount of time discussing how our history is told. Following significant cutbacks at our key national historical institutions (Library and Archives CanadaParks Canada, and the Museum of Civilization) and the announcement of targeted government-led history projects (such as the new Canadian Museum of History and the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage’s Study of Significant Aspects in Canadian History), the study of our history has re-emerged as a subject for heated debate. Amidst much discussion, historians and politicians have made fairly broad statements about the state of historical research in Canada. All of which leads to the question: In 2013, what does Canadian history look like?

Today, hundreds of historians are descending upon the University of Victoria for the Canadian Historical Association‘s annual meeting (the CHA). This is the pre-eminent gathering of professional historians in the country. Over the next three days, a mix of junior and senior scholars will discuss local and regional issues as well as broader international subjects and more methodological concerns. Historians will celebrate our successes and share new directions in our research.

The CHA is perhaps the best place to assess the discipline as a whole. Continue reading “What does Canadian History look like? A Peek Inside the Canadian Historical Association”