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Prime Minister Sir John A. MacDonald
[Photo credit: Library of Congress]

History is a complicated, messy business. That's why there's room for both seriousness and fun in upcoming anniversary commemorations.

By Christopher Moore

One night last January, the Great Hall of the University of Toronto’s Hart House was packed to capacity for John A. Macdonald’s 199th birthday. The crowd was loud and lively — politicians and public figures along with history types. Many wore Victorian costumes. Quite a few dressed as the great man himself. The mood was boisterous, and the speeches short and funny. A good time was had. If the 199th birthday is this big, people said to each other, imagine what the next year’s will be like!

Monday morning’s newspaper brought a sizzling riposte. Avvy Yao-Yao Go, the Toronto lawyer, social activist, and executive of the Chinese Canadian National Council, had some questions for the partygoers.

What, she wanted to know, about the racist policies Macdonald put in place? The head tax imposed on Chinese immigrants in 1885? The calculated neglect of starving First Nations on the Prairies? The declaration that “the Chinaman has no British instincts and therefore ought to have no vote”? All this was being whitewashed, Go charged. It was “historical revisionism.”

It all led to a blunt challenge. “Given the stark human rights record under his belt, why should Canadians celebrate Macdonald’s birthday?” It’s a fair question. Avvy Go’s questions are ones we should be prepared to embrace. In fact, it’s when we consider such questions that history really takes shape.

Macdonald’s government had not at first been eager to stem Chinese immigration. Macdonald sent his minister Adolphe Chapleau to the West Coast, and Chapleau reported that the Chinese made excellent immigrants. There was little reason to deny them entry. But Macdonald read the political winds. There were more votes in an anti-immigrant policy than a pro-immigrant policy. He imposed the head tax and secured the loyalty of his West Coast MPs, one deal amid thousands that helped shore up his hold on power.

To me, this story of Macdonald weighing principle against power takes him off his pedestal. Indeed, it shifts the weight of the decision from Macdonald to all Canadians. Anti-Chinese policies were very popular in 1885. Should we blame an elected politician for doing what the electorate demanded? Surely, it still happens all the time.

Macdonald was a profoundly important figure at a formative moment in Canadian history. We should be able to acknowledge that Macdonald was and is important because he was a shrewd and ruthless politician and did not let scruples get in the way of advancing his goals.

“If you are doing big, hard things … there’s going to be some aspects of it that aren’t clean and neat,” someone recently said. That was not a historian excusing Macdonald. It was American President Barack Obama assessing his own record. A bicentennial celebration that could not raise such issues about Macdonald would hardly be a party worth throwing. But refusing to note the bicentennial of his birth would be no triumph, either. It would be a kind of historical suicide, a wilful forgetting.

In the past two years, the bicentennial of the War of 1812 provoked vigorous debate about the meaning of war today. And, surely, that was one of the best things about the event. If Macdonald’s birthday could stimulate clear-eyed discussion about greatness, morality, and political leadership in Canadians then and now, it would be an example of how precious history can be.

Canadian museums and historic sites deal with choices like these all the time. If we visit Batoche, Saskatchewan, Saint-Marie-among-the-Hurons, Ontario, Grand-Pré, Nova Scotia, or Skedans on Haida Gwaii, British Columbia, we are in the presence of winners and losers and of divided loyalties. Even if we choose to stand with the victims of history, we often have to admit that it was the victors who shaped the country we live in.

Historic site and museum professionals have a phrase for how to deal with these ambiguities. About the great events of the past, they often say, “commemoration, not celebration.”

Public history, official history, does not have to pick winners and pump up triumphs for us. Better for it simply to help us to notice and to ponder the great historical doings that happened in some time and place. Often, the lessons are best left to be debated, not laid down as triumphal answers.

This year the world marks the hundredth anniversary of the start of the First World War. Surely here is one anniversary where commemoration, not celebration, is the decent and appropriate response. This year, let’s salute the difficult choices faced by Canadians on the home front and on the battlefield. Let’s honour skill and bravery and sacrifice. Let’s consider how Canada’s response shaped our standing as a nation among nations.

But celebrate? Every attempt at triumphal celebration of the First World War must surely wreck upon the more than sixty-six thousand dead, on all the loss and pain and grief. The best idea I heard for how to commemorate that anniversary was a proposal to plant a million poppies, nothing more.

The War of 1812, the First World War, the John A. bicentennial. Let’s not hide from any of them. Let’s dive in and explore, even have a little fun in some of these commemorations. Dress up as Sir John A. or Lady Agnes. Re-enact a military parade. I think that’s okay, too.

Christopher Moore comments in every issue of Canada's History magazine and blogs about history at

Posted: 26/03/2014 1:45:05 PM by MARIA CRISTINA LAUREANO | with 0 comments

By Tina Loo

Something’s rotten in the state of Clio. Clio, of course, is the Greek muse of history. Sadly, depending on which way the wind blows, the smell of Canadian history’s decay is more or less pungent. In the hallowed halls of academe, the stink seems greatest at the end of term, during course assessment time.

“The lectures are fine, but it’s still about Canada,” the students write. “Professor Loo tries hard, but what can you do with Canadian history?” “Wake me up when it’s over.”


As I tell anyone who’ll listen, Canadian historians often labour under the weight of students’ preconceptions: They come in expecting to be bored, and sometimes they are. That got me thinking about whether at least part of the present discontentment with Canadian history has to do with our expectations.

What is it that we want from history?

A lot, as it turns out. History is supposed to be a teacher, instructing us about what to do: “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

Or it’s a judge. How many times have we heard political analysts temper their opinions, leaving the ultimate assessment of a policy or leader to “the judgment of history”? The jobs of teacher and judge have come together in truth and reconciliation commissions — institutions established in places as diverse as South Africa, Chile, the Philippines, and Canada to help the members of these societies move forward together by coming to grips with a shared and violent history.

Lessons and judgments aside, we also seek other things from the past, like identity and enjoyment. We want history to tell us who “we” are — to give us the story of our lives and to validate our present-day experience, perhaps as members of different groups who struggled, resisted, persisted, and, in certain circumstances, prevailed. In some instances, we want those experiences publicly recognized, or commemorated, as, for instance, is the case with the Famous Five who fought successfully to have women recognized as “persons” in 1929, the victims of AIDS, fishermen who lost their lives at sea, or the Sikh passengers on the Komagata Maru, who, after they were denied entry to Canada in 1914, were shot at during their disembarkation in Kolkata, India.

Finally, and not least, we consume history — literally, as heritage foods, and figuratively, as entertainment, whether in the form of documentary films, historic sites, or museum exhibits. For history to be worth the price of admission, we want it to be flavourful and fun, to appeal to our emotions, especially our sense of nostalgia, the immediacy of the passage of time.

Teaching, judging, reconciling, identifying, validating, and entertaining — that’s a heavy load for history to bear, and an unwieldy one. There’s a fundamental tension between the analytical tasks we assign to history and historians and the others that require us to suspend some of that critical capacity.

We want history to teach and judge, but are we always open to the lessons and judgments historians offer? Like, for instance, the argument that Canada is founded on settler colonialism, the displacement of indigenous peoples, and the theft of their lands? Or that political policing, the surveillance and detention of individuals or groups deemed suspicious by the Canadian state, is necessary and legitimate?

Arguments like these, rooted in a close combing of evidence and a careful consideration of context, are the stock and trade of history and historians. But they can’t do the work of reconciliation on their own; among other things, reconciliation requires effort from all of us, the cultivation of empathy and compassion, not just for each other, but also for people in the past — all of them.

Nor do historical arguments necessarily work to validate experience and confer identity. They may, but that’s not their main purpose. In fact, it’s equally likely that they’ll complicate and muddy identities as much as clarify them. What do we do, for instance, with the anti-Asian racism of union members and their leadership in British Columbia at the turn of the twentieth century? The support for eugenics from some first-wave feminists, such as Emily Murphy? The fact that Calgary millionaire and Conservative Prime Minister R.B. Bennett could approve of the violent suppression of the peaceful On to Ottawa Trek for improved conditions in Canada’s relief camps but at the same time send his own money to individuals who wrote to him about their troubles during the Great Depression?

Not everyone finds this kind of complexity entertaining, at least not all the time. Sometimes we just want to escape into the past, a place where we remember things being much simpler: That, after all, is what makes it seemingly different from the present. We aren’t always in the mood to be told otherwise and to learn the difference between memory and history.

There’s nothing wrong with putting the past to all these purposes; but, when we do, we should be aware that what we’re doing isn’t exactly what history is made for, at least the kind practised by professional historians.

If history can’t easily carry the load we give it, what is its capacity? What should we ask of it? We’ve long moved past the time when we think the job of history is simply to tell us what happened, to give us the “facts,” no more and no less. So the first thing we should expect — even demand — of history and historians is an argument, an interpretation based on evidence and a deep understanding of context.

But, because arguments by their very nature are conversations, we should also expect to carry some of the weight of history ourselves when we read and watch it, or go through an exhibit. We need to engage by asking questions, to be prepared and want to be challenged and surprised, delighted as well as dismayed and disgusted.

Beyond argument, maybe the most important thing history can convey is a sense of distance. According to intellectual historian Allan Megill, history might not be able to show us where to go, at least not easily. But it can tell us where we’ve been — not in any “march-of-progress, benighted- past-enlightened-present” sort of way, but much more subtly.

The gift of good history lies in evoking the pastness of the past, taking full measure of the worlds we have lost without using today’s standards to do so, and, through that, fostering a sense that we too are history, creatures of context and circumstance. If anything, history should make us humble.

Tina Loo is an environmental historian based out of UBC. She is a former contributor to Canada's History magazine.

Posted: 20/01/2014 10:32:26 AM by MARIA CRISTINA LAUREANO | with 0 comments

By Tina Loo

The Canadian historian is a unique species, shy and even furtive. It avoids calling attention to itself, often hiding behind computer screens, digital cameras, and banker’s boxes.

Despite its retiring nature, this animal is innately curious. You can spot a Canadian historian by its watery eyes, sometimes rimmed by spectacles that help it navigate the murky depths of the past. But before you even see one, you may hear its distinctive wail, “Why? Why? Why?”

Today, the Canadian historian is threatened: Climate change has diminished its food and allowed competing species to thrive. To conserve and protect the Canadian historian, inform yourself. And that’s just a start….

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Hinterland Who’s Who (HWW), the best-known of Canada’s public service announcements. Produced by the Canadian Wildlife Service and introduced by an often-parodied flute melody, these sixtysecond spots were designed to make viewers aware of the diversity of creatures that live around them.

HWW’s fiftieth is an occasion to think about another species at risk, the Canadian historian. Given the upcoming centennial of the start of the First World War (1914) and the sesquicentennial of Confederation (1867), to say nothing of the recent commemoration of the War of 1812, you’d think there was no better time to be a historian of Canada.

But if what’s happening in this country’s big research universities is any indication, the Canadian historian is a species at risk. So too is Canadian history.

Numbers tell part of the story: As Rod Macleod, professor emeritus at the University of Alberta, recently pointed out, at the start of his career in the mid-1970s the U of A had twelve full-time faculty members teaching and researching Canadian history; in 2013 it has three, along with four more who teach the subject part-time, in a department of fifty-five. At the University of Toronto, there are nine Canadian historians in a department of sixty-eight, and at McGill Canadianists number six in a department of forty-two.

Perhaps even more alarming is the decline in the number of students enrolling in introductory Canadian history courses, ones that explore the story of how the nation-state of Canada came to be.

When I started teaching in the early 1990s, I regularly inflicted my version of this story upon three hundred or more students; as I write, there are just sixty-eight enrolled for this academic year. Without “bums in seats” there’s not much justification for universities to allocate their scarce resources to buttressing Canadian history, a subject that seems to be of marginal interest to the paying customers.

Assuming it’s not me, who or what is killing Canadian history in the universities? (My other classes are full, in case you’re wondering.)

In part, it’s globalization. Where their offerings might once have been dominated by European, American, and Canadian history, university departments now offer the world to their students. Courses dealing with the global south are particularly popular, and Canadian history, always perceived by students as dowdy and dull, suffers by contrast. These days, Che Guevara and comfort women will always edge out Louis Riel and Gerda Munsinger. Responsible government and freight rates don’t stand a chance.

But the decline of introductory Canadian history is also a reflection of some shifts in the scholarly discipline. Over the last thirty or forty years, professional historians have moved away from studying the nation-state as the progression “from colony to nation,” to borrow the title of one standard textbook. Instead of formal politics, we focus on power, recasting the political history of Canada and other countries. Some scholars do so using a transnational framework, in terms of the dynamics of empires. In this configuration, the nationstate is the outcome of the flows and encounters of material resources, people, and ideas, something that was facilitated by governments but also by merchants, missionaries, and markets.

If the story of the nation-state has been internationalized, it has also been localized. Professional historians have looked beyond Parliament and politicians to study other institutions of state power: For instance, Carleton University’s Bruce Curtis has examined the nineteenth-century census and how it did the work of government, and Gregory Kealey (University of New Brunswick), Reginald Whitaker (York), and Andrew Parnaby (Cape Breton University) have explored political policing from the Fenians to Mahar Arar. Other historians focus their gaze on particular groups in Canadian society, analyzing how they experienced the state and shaped it and how the work of government in making good citizens was carried out by actors as unlikely as social workers and anthropologists.

Research shapes teaching: New courses reflecting these approaches to Canada fill with students who are as enthusiastic as academic historians are about a new way to think about the country’s past. We’ve rebuilt it, and they have come. But in the process they’ve also abandoned the existing structure in which introductory Canadian history has been housed, one that’s framed nationally and filled with people who, they’re told, are old relatives but with whom they feel no connection.

Maybe it’s not surprising that, for the most part, the young people I teach don’t see the relevance of the national; it’s not a scale at which they live or perceive their lives. Many students have travelled internationally. Fewer have explored their own country. They are political, but the politics they’re engaged with isn’t that of their parents or grandparents; it doesn’t work through the conventional institutions or formal processes. (Think of the Occupy and Idle No More movements). And, because Canada doesn’t have a settled national history that everyone learns from grade school on, they don’t come to my classroom with a shared experience of being taught the same story.

Some argue that if nationally based histories aren’t well-adapted to the current environment, they should be allowed to go the way of the dodo bird. But that would be to deny the fact that the nationstate wields a great deal of power over our lives. All of us need to understand how and why it does. Its power and, more importantly, our potential influence on it need to be made more visible, not less. That’s why the history of Canada is worth saving.

Environmental thinkers often point to humans’ separation from nature as the root cause of our inability to act on issues like climate change. We’ve forgotten about the connections that link us to the natural world, and until we get over our collective amnesia we can’t and won’t take responsibility for our actions; we won’t call ourselves to account, never mind those who govern us.

The same goes for the nation-state. We need to overcome our alienation from it and understand the connections that link us to it. We need to understand how the nation-state has come to infiltrate our lives if we’re to begin to make the world we want. Because in the end the real species at risk is democracy.

Tina Loo is an environmental historian based out of UBC. She is a former contributor to Canada's History magazine.


Posted: 11/10/2013 1:14:20 PM by MARIA CRISTINA LAUREANO | with 0 comments

With the death of Stompin’ Tom, Canada’s underdogs have lost their champion.

By Tina Loo

When Twitter told me #StompinTom was trending in early March, I knew it couldn’t be good. I dug out one of his CDs and listened as I read through the 140-character tributes. they were as remarkable for their range as their number. Stompin’ Tom Connors connected with English-speaking Canadians from all walks of life and all over the country and beyond. The federal NDP caucus saluted him by performing “Bud the Spud” in the foyer of the House of Commons, and the expatriate community chimed in with their memories of the man and his music through social media.

Connors was a true patriot, a true Canadian, “the folk poet-singer of the country itself,” according to CBC broadcaster, fan, and fellow national icon Rex Murphy. Putting aside the fact that he is virtually unknown among francophone Quebeckers, what exactly is Stompin’ Tom’s Canada? What does his music say about who Canadians are?

The answer is both obvious and not: Connors’ Canada is a nation of regions and the ordinary working people who live in them. While we readily acknowledge regional diversity as the source of the country’s identity, we don’t recognize how class also defines it. Until we do, Canada won’t be the country he saw it as.

Stompin’ Tom didn’t write about “Canada” so much as he wrote about particular places: Ontario’s Tillsonburg, Sudbury, or Ballinafad; or Prince Edward Island; or Saskatchewan. In doing so, he gave musical voice to the arguments made by two of Canada’s most prominent historians in the late 1960s.

According to Ramsay Cook and Maurice Careless, Canadians shouldn’t lament their lack of a national identity. They had one, and, even better, it was different from that of other countries: Canada was defined by a “heterogeneous pluralism”; the many “limited identities” of region, ethnicity, and class were what made it admirably distinct. As Cook put it, Canada “stubbornly refuses to exchange its occasionally anarchic pluralism for a straitjacket identity.” The whole was somehow greater than the sum of its sometimes unwieldy parts. Cook and Careless later had misgivings about just how healthy this diversity of identities was for the country. But if Stompin’ Tom knew of them, he would have disagreed. He never changed his position about Canada, even as the country changed dramatically over the course of his career. In any case, he wasn’t a man given to academic debates or phrases like “limited identities” that seemed to damn with faint praise the country’s vigour.

For him there was nothing limiting about strong regional identities or about Canada, except its doubters. Part of his appeal was the unapologetic certainty and pride of place that emanated from every song and lay behind his 1978 protest against Juno awards being given to “turncoat Canadians” who had chosen to make their careers in the United States.

Connors was a populist, as unvarnished as the battered piece of plywood that gave him his nickname. His uncomplicated lyrics celebrated ordinary life in small-town and rural Canada, whether it was heading out to the lake with “a rod and reel and a snowmobile,” going out to bingo, or the joys of “back yardin’” — “That’s a chitchat party in the garden / Just a barbeque with a friend or two where you don’t give a … Beg your pardon! / That’s back yardin’.”

At the heart of Stompin’ Tom’s populism lay a respect for the hard-working, hard-playing men and women of Canada’s working class. He celebrated the truckers who brought Canadians their food and asked us to do the same: “So when ya see that big truck rollin’ by / Wave yer hand or kinda wink yer eye / ’Cause that’s Bud the Spud from old P.E.I., with another big load o’ potatoes!”

He remembered the lobstermen who “sailed away at the break o’ day to pull traps in oilskin trousers,” the labourers who toiled in the tobacco fields of Tillsonburg (“My back still aches when I hear that word…”), and the ironworkers who lost their lives building the Second Narrows Bridge (“So you could ride to the other side / Of old Vancouver town”).

And he made his admiration (and his lack of political correctness) clear for the likes of Big Joe Mufferaw, who “drank a bucket o’ gin and beat the livin’ daylights out of twenty-nine men,” and Muktuk Annie, who stood “four-foot-six” and weighed “two-sixteen” in her “long black hair and reindeer underwear."

These were all Tom Connors’ type of people. He grew up poor in New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island before leaving his foster family to hitchhike across the country, doing the kinds of work and meeting the kinds of people he’d later write about.

But for all we sing about how “we’ll think no more of Inco on a Sudbury Saturday night” or cheer on Bud as he speeds down the 401, evading the police to make his delivery time, we don’t fully take in the meaning of these lyrics or their politics.

Class is as central to defining Stompin’ Tom’s Canada as is region. But “class” isn’t a word that comes up in discussions about him or the Canada he stood for, despite our long-standing acknowledgement that Canadians have historically been “hewers of wood and drawers of water.” We have no problem talking about how language, ethnicity, race, religion, and sexuality shape identity, but when it comes to class Canadians are apparently all the same. Although inclusiveness is usually about recognizing difference, when it comes to class the reverse seems to be the case: It seems almost impolite to call attention to it.

If we really want to make Canada a place to be proud of — the wonderful place Connors thought it to be — then we need to come to terms with the inequalities of class. That might start with something as small as recognizing that he didn’t just happen to invoke Inco because it rhymed with “stinko.” It did, but it also captured a defining aspect of working-class experience, people trying to do the best they could with what they’d been dealt — and having fun even if they didn’t have control.

“We’ll get to work on Monday, but tomorrow’s only Sunday / And we’re out to have a fun day for she’s Saturday tonight!” When all is said and done, Stompin’ Tom was a class act all the way.

Tina Loo is an environmental historian based out of UBC. She is a former contributor to Canada's History magazine.


Posted: 22/05/2013 10:27:31 AM by Jen Sguigna | with 0 comments

Newly rebranded museum opens up contentious questions about what to exhibit.

By Tina Loo

Vancouver Library at night. / Tina LooThere’s a wonderful piece of art outside the public library in Vancouver: Ron Terada’s The Words Don’t Fit the Picture. When I walked past it on a rainy night last November, it seemed especially appropriate: A warning of what might happen and, two hours later, a summary of what did.

By then we’d heard civilization was history; the Canadian Museum of Civilization (CMC) was about to become the Canadian Museum of History, opening in time for the country’s sesquicentennial in 2017. Vancouver was the first stop for the CMC’s travelling road show. The museum’s representatives were here to find out what the public wanted to see in the reconfigured space.

And so was I — for professional and nostalgic reasons. Full disclosure: Not only do I teach and research Canadian history, but I also was involved in an earlier effort by a different government to create a history museum in Ottawa.

The exhibits all of us have wandered through might seem simple, but putting them together is enormously complicated. The challenge for museum professionals is to tell stories through objects and to do so in a way that’s engaging and meaningful for the people who see them. But what stories do you tell? What experiences do you cultivate? What messages do you want people to take home with them?

These challenges aren’t all that different from the ones I face as a teacher, except that I’m not as bound to use objects to convey my message, and I don’t need to work nearly as hard to get an audience, in no small part because they come to my exhibit space — the lecture hall — knowing they’ll come away with a university credit towards a degree, at the very least.

I knew I’d learn something from the evening. And I did. But it was less about the specific stories and objects people wanted in a Canadian history museum and more about what they sought from the past. Newly rebranded museum opens up contentious questions about what to exhibit.

The people gathered at the library wanted their history museum to concern itself with migration. This was Vancouver, after all. Almost everyone there that night had come from somewhere else, and what they wanted most from the past was to see that aspect of themselves represented, whether it was through the stories of the home children or the Hawaiians who’d come to British Columbia.

The “citizen timelines” the museum staff facilitate at these whistle stops go some distance in doing that. They allow people to see the events they identify as significant in their lives in relation to ones other people designate as well as to the events we’re told are important, like the siege of Louisbourg, the creation of the Indian Act, or the October Crisis. It’s a first step in knitting together these diverse and personal stories, in making my history museum the country’s. While timelines locate people in the past, they don’t validate their experiences.

The people at my table didn’t just want their stories included; they also wanted to know they mattered. Like many of us, they want to connect with the past, to find the familiar there, and to know it was important, whether “it” happened to be the story of the harvest excursions that brought their family west, the munitions factory their great-grandmother worked in, or the restaurant in their town that sold “Chinese and Canadian cuisine.”

At the same time, there was a sense that these sorts of stories aren’t the ones that get told, that they’ve been pushed aside for others that better serve the interests of those in power. Concerned about the federal government’s commemoration of the War of 1812, people at our table talked about the need for exhibits that would challenge the official version of the past, ones that would make visitors uncomfortable and wouldn’t serve as “propaganda” for any group.

This is a tall order for both the CMC and we historians. People want a past they can recognize, one that’s inclusive and validates the experience of ordinary folk. But at the same time they want a past that challenges prevailing assumptions, perhaps in uncomfortable ways.

For me, the words don’t fit the picture of history I have — at least not easily. The fact is, we don’t really like our assumptions to be challenged, at least not too much, and we don’t really want to pay to be made uncomfortable. History shouldn’t be like a trip to the dentist.

In the end, I wondered if we don’t expect too much of history and if it’s worth having a conversation about that, too. I’m not sure history can or should do what people sometimes ask of it.

Although we use “history” and “the past” synonymously, they’re different things, at least to professional historians. History isn’t chronology or past events; it’s an interpretation, an argument about the past. That means it’s inherently contentious. It will alienate and inspire — and we should expect and welcome that. Historians seek to present a different way of seeing from the ones that exist; their purpose is to provoke in order to teach.

Fundamentally, what historians do is ask questions, with “Why?” being among the most important. And maybe that’s what struck me the most about that rainy Friday night in Vancouver. Listening to people talk about what they wanted of the new history museum and of the past, I noticed no one said “answers”; no one said they wanted a museum of history to help them understand why something happened, why people experienced what they did.

And therein lies the problem. People want something we historians aren’t well placed to give, and what we do have doesn’t seem to be wanted. We can tell you why something happened but we can’t guarantee you’ll feel good about it. That’s not our job, or the purpose of history.

Insofar as historians deal in feelings, it’s empathy we seek to cultivate, not inclusion or validation. Rather than look for the familiar, we approach the past as “a foreign country,” knowing “they do things differently there.” Understanding why requires empathy; it means learning about those alien hopes, fears, and values as well as the political and economic circumstances that defined what “common sense” was and that set the boundaries of what was possible. Knowing the context in which people in the past lived, acted, and were acted upon is the business of history. Far from precluding judgment, it’s what makes it possible.

What I’d like to see most in a history museum is a curious public, one that is open to seeing exhibits that cultivate historical empathy, putting visitors in the shoes of people in the past, including the deep past. Museum goers could walk the paths that were open to those in steel-toed boots and brogues, as well as sealskin overshoes; they’d learn about the worlds and the choices of the ordinary and the extraordinary and the extent to which each was able to make the lives they lived.

If we build such a place and if they come, I suspect visitors will find themselves reflected in the exhibits, so long as what they look for is people in the past doing what we do: acting — often imperfectly — to make history as far as circumstances and individual ambition permit.

Tina Loo is an environmental historian based out of UBC. She is a former contributor to Canada's History magazine.


Posted: 01/02/2013 3:23:18 PM by TANJA HUTTER | with 0 comments

City-dwelling foodies look to the past for inspiration — and solace.

By Tina Loo

The cheese stands alone, the cheese stands alone, hi-ho the dairy-o, the cheese stands alone!

Tina Loo's homemade cheese It does, but it’s also pretty good with roasted beets. “It” is chèvre, made by yours truly in a six-hundred-square-foot apartment in downtown Vancouver with nothing but basic kitchen equipment and four litres of Fraser Valley goat’s milk. Now I’m now on the hunt for Penicillium candidum and real cheesecloth: it’s Camembert by Christmas!

As it turns out, my cheese-making adventures aren’t so unusual. In fact, I’m part of a sociological trend. (Don’t you hate it when that happens?) Urban homesteading is a twenty-first-century social movement promoting self-sufficiency in the name of sustainable living. Among other things, an urban homestead produces its own food, is powered by alternative energy sources, recycles grey water, and collects rainwater. Urban homesteaders try to recreate a local economy as much as possible, working from their homes and trading goods and services with their neighbours. They’re the people with mason bees and chicken coops in their backyards — the annoying ones who brag about making cheese.

What’s the appeal here? After all, I grew up in a self-consciously modern household: We were raised by non-hippie parents according to Dr. Spock and with the “helping hands at Kraft,” surrounded by Scandinavian design furniture. Orange was the colour of my youth.

No, my journey from Kraft to craft — from Cheez Whiz to artisanal cheese — came as an adult. Like many, I find urban homesteading appealing because it hearkens back to a world we seem to have lost, a time that seems simpler and slower. In the process of making bread or planting a garden, there’s space for other things to grow — like an understanding of how the natural world works and the limits of our control over it. Acquiring a competency is enormously satisfying, all the more because the self-sufficiency it makes possible is one that’s rooted in relationships. It’s called DIY, but the doing is often the result of conversations with other DIY-ers. Preserving food or planting fruit trees connects you to a community of like-minded people, and that has great appeal in the fast-paced, fragmented, and anonymous world in which we live, a world where cash is the connective tissue of society.

But urban homesteading isn’t just a sociological phenomenon, it’s a historical one dating back well beyond the 1960s. In the late nineteenth century, many among the privileged urban classes in Canada, the United States, and Great Britain reacted against the very forces that made modern life modern: mechanization, industrialization, and urbanization — in short, all the developments that are commonly thought of as progress. It wasn’t so much that they were against progress as that they were struggling with the unprecedented changes progress brought and the speed with which it brought them. While it was exhilarating to see “all that was solid melt into air” — to use Marshall Berman’s evocative description of modernity — it was also frightening. What was the world becoming? What were we becoming?

These worries coalesced into a loose critique of progress that historians have dubbed “anti-modernism.” It was characterized by nostalgia, a sense that there was something lacking in the present that could be found in the past. Anti-modernism sparked a growing interest in medieval and Eastern cultures; it lay behind the Arts and Crafts movement. Closer to home, it inspired an interest in Atlantic Canadian folk cultures and pushed millions outdoors to “get away from it all” by cottaging in the Muskokas and Laurentians or, if you really had money, at St. Andrews-by-the-Sea and the Lower St. Lawrence. In the West, many people took up Teddy Roosevelt’s call for the “strenuous life” — hunting, fishing, and hiking in the Rockies. Anti-moderns believed intense experiences could penetrate the artificiality of modern life, leading to a purer, more meaningful, authentic existence.

A century later, we seem to be suffering from another bout of anti-modernist flu, and once again we’ve turned to an imagined past to cure what ails us. Most of us live urban lives that are astonishingly dependent on miraculous electronic technologies that have shrunk the world far more than those who marvelled at the railway could ever have imagined. And yet, like our forebears, we’re ambivalent — not, perhaps, about industrialization but about what globalization has wrought: a world of interconnection and loneliness, of standardization but not safety; one where neither time nor space are barriers. The same society where you can buy mangoes all year round is also one where people find themselves wanting experiences that are bounded and grounded — that are “real.”

Urban homesteading is only the latest manifestation of anti-modernism and the search for authenticity, for real connections with the people and things in our lives. Our disenchantment with a globalized world explains why we love knowing where the food we eat comes from, how it’s grown, and who grows it; it’s partly what’s behind the appeal of craft beer and artisanal bread. What we want is what French winemakers have known and marketed so well as terroir, the unique qualities that come from the soil and environment in which things are grown. For something to be “authentic” it has above all to be rooted in place, put there by hand — ones attached to a real person making a real living from the land.

Like cottaging and the wilderness craze, urban homesteading emerged from an important critique of how the world we live in is wanting. And like those earlier instances of anti-modernism, the critique that gave urban homesteading its life has morphed all too easily into elitist consumerism and conservatism. Instead of getting political and challenging the system that created the problems they railed against, people turned inward. They read Helen Creighton’s collections of Nova Scotia folktales and heritage seed catalogues. And they went shopping — for hooked rugs, cottages, and, most recently, authentic experiences in the backyard, kitchen, and community garden — the new urban frontiers.

Tina Loo is an environmental historian based out of UBC. She is a former contributor to Canada's History magazine.


Posted: 26/10/2012 3:19:01 PM by TANJA HUTTER | with 0 comments

By Tina loo

Love it or hate it, everyone uses Wikipedia! I wrote a long post about my experiences using it this past term with my students at the University of British Columbia. If you're interested, you can read it here.

What do you think of Wikipedia? Have you ever tried writing or editing an article on Canadian history for it? What was your experience?

Tina Loo is an environmental historian based out of UBC. She is a former contributor to Canada's History magazine.


Posted: 01/06/2012 5:08:14 PM by Tina Loo | with 0 comments

As I write, the signs of a new season are all around me. I don’t mean the crocuses, snowdrops, or cherry blossoms — the usual brags Vancouverites make. No, here in the wired West, the arrival of spring is livestreamed.

By Tina Loo

I’m referring to the enormously popular “eagle cams,” which swing into action every year as part of the regional rites of spring. Anyone with a computer and an Internet connection can watch the birds build nests, lay eggs, and feed their hatchlings. This is reality TV at its best.

Bear 71 on NFBBear 71 combines remote camera footage and hightech map graphics. View it at

If the popularity of critter cams is any indication, we humans have evolved into inveterate voyeurs, and it’s all because of our history. Over the last millennia, we in the Western world have come to see ourselves as separate from nature. No longer an enigmatic, powerful, and sentient force to be feared, appeased, and accepted on its own terms, we see nature instead as subject to human control. We’ve got to where we are thanks in no small part to Christianity, the Enlightenment, and the scientific revolution. These developments — “progress” — led us to believe the world was fully knowable, to assume there were no limits to what the human mind could comprehend. But something got lost along the way: When limits disappeared, so too did magic and mystery.

Indeed, part of what defines the modern condition is our effort to come to terms with what the eminent sociologist Max Weber called “the disenchantment of the world.” Looking at animals is a way to get over our alienation from nature. No longer able to talk to them, we content ourselves with watching, hoping to discover their secrets, to re-establish a kinship connection, and to end our isolation as a species.

If looking at animals helps us overcome our history, telling stories about them helps us understand who we are, where we’ve been, and where we’re going. They help us to make sense of the world. Tales about wild animals have probably been around since we’ve been around as a species. But the realistic wild animal story is newer. Dating from the late-nineteenth century, it’s a genre that some believe to be “the one native Canadian art form.”

Whereas The Call of the Wild (1903) is a celebration of Americanization and The Wind in the Willows (1908) is about the British class system, the stories of Ernest Thompson Seton and Charles G.D. Roberts speak to how Canadians see themselves. In books like Wild Animals I Have Known (1898) and Kindred of the Wild (1902) the animals all die; they’re victims, not heroes. For Margaret Atwood, the focus on victimization reflects our “national psyche,” providing evidence for her argument that the central motif running through Canadian literature is survival.

All of which brings me to Bear 71, a female grizzly radio-collared in 2001 and tracked through Alberta’s Bow Valley until her death by CPR in 2009. Her life is the subject of a new realistic animal story in the form of a remarkable twenty-minute interactive film by Leanne Allison, Jeremy Mendes, and the National Film Board of Canada.

Told from the grizzly’s perspective, Bear 71 is in keeping with the best traditions of the Canadian realistic animal story: Not only does it anthropomorphize its principal character — she has a voice and a sense of irony worthy of Atwood — but she’s also a victim.

Had Bear 71’s story been told a century earlier, it would have reflected the concerns of a world rocked by Charles Darwin and the idea of the survival of the fittest. In their work, Seton and Roberts tried to reconcile a nature “red in tooth and claw” with one that was not bereft of goodness.

Their belief in the morality of nature was shaped by their own early experiences. Growing up in Toronto, young Seton retreated to the woods and drew animals to escape an abusive father. Roberts grew up in rural New Brunswick, the son of an Anglican minister who raised him to see God in nature’s design.

While Darwin isn’t their concern, the producers of Bear 71 are troubled by another aspect of modernity. The grizzly’s history speaks to how much technology has changed the planet, creating a hybrid world where we don’t know how to be. Charging an oncoming train to protect your cubs isn’t a good idea. Survival depends on being who you’re not, on denying your very nature. But at other times instinct is what keeps you alive, preventing you from challenging the male grizzly for dibs on the roadkill. The modern world is a confusing one, calling on its inhabitants to remake themselves, even as they have to remember who they are.

The film’s arguments echo those being made by the New Nature Movement about the negative impacts of technology. Thanks to our addiction to electronics, among other things, we all suffer from what Richard Louv calls “nature-deficit disorder.” Kids hardly ever play outside in an unstructured way, and neither do we. As a result, we’re afflicted by behavioural problems and obesity. The long-term effects of nature-deficit disorder on the Earth are also distrubing: How, Louv asks, can we care for something fewer and fewer of us experience directly?

Compelling as they are, these arguments are a bit old hat. As modern people, we’re given to stories of decline and fall, especially ones about the environment and technology. What makes Bear 71 unusual is that it’s more than just another sad story.

The film invites us to rethink our relationship to technology, to come to a more complex understanding of its relationship to the natural world. Bear 71 was caught on film repeatedly using human-engineered wildlife crossings that allow animals to traverse the Trans-Canada Highway safely.

Modern technology is invasive and harmful, but in the hands of conservation biologists it has given us the ability to repair our relationship with nature.

In the hands of skilled storytellers, modern technology also offers the possibility of forging a better relationship with nature by allowing us to see the lives of the animals whose space we share in an unfamiliar way. As Bear 71 moves as a pixelated dot across the Bow Valley, along with a jogger from Canmore, a raven, and an elk, we realize how our paths cross even if they don’t always intersect; that we share a world of which we are only dimly aware.

When Bear 71 and the other animals roaming through the park trigger a camera, the footage provides a privileged glimpse into another society, a nature that is more astonishing for our seeming absence from the frame. It’s that recognition, and the enchantment that comes with it, that’s the foundation for a better relationship with the planet and the creatures that call it home.

Tina Loo is an environmental historian based out of UBC. She is a former contributor to Canada's History magazine.


Posted: 30/05/2012 4:43:57 PM by TANJA HUTTER | with 0 comments

Unfortunately for historians, some of Canada’s secrets never get old.

By Tina Loo

Ask historians of Canada what their favourite number is and the answer is likely to be ninety — especially if they’re in Ottawa.

That’s because in the numerological system that governs this country’s national archives, ninety means a given collection is open for consultation. You have only to order it and, short of the delivery truck breaking down on its way from the Gatineau warehouse to the Wellington Street reading room, you’ll be moiling for historical gold in no time.

But pity the poor sods whose interests lead them to collections otherwise designated. Drawing eighteens or thirty-twos gives you a weak historical hand: Those numbers mean access is restricted. Analysts in the Access to Information and Privacy division of Library and Archives Canada (LAC) have to review the files to decide if and what you can see, applying the Access to Information Act.

Because the review process can take a good deal of time, some of us fold in the face of eighteens and thirty-twos, choosing to use only what’s already available or shifting the focus of our inquiries, researching topics where access isn’t an issue.

But as Kenny Rogers says, “You gotta know when to hold ’em” as well as when to fold ’em. Jim Bronskill is just that kind of gambler. A journalist specializing in security and intelligence issues, Bronskill filed for access to the RCMP files on former Saskatchewan Premier Tommy Douglas (1904–1986). After a delay of over a year, 1,142 pages of material landed on his desk in December 2006.

And what a riveting story they told: The Mounties tailed the former Baptist minister well into the 1970s, going to his speeches, listening in on his conversations, collecting his writings, and keeping track of his associates, especially the peaceniks and pinkos. In the eyes of the Cold War state, members of Canada’s peace movement, as well as the Communist Party, were potential subversives. Douglas wasn’t the only public figure to fall under the RCMP’s encompassing gaze: Fellow traveller Dr. Norman Bethune got lots of attention, as did former prime ministers John Diefenbaker and Lester Pearson.

As interesting as this was, even more tantalizing were all those black lines that decorated the pages. About a third of the material Bronskill got was blacked out for reasons of national security and privacy. Hundreds of other pages, some dating to the 1930s, remain completely off limits. Bronskill tried to find out what he hadn’t been allowed to see and appealed LAC’s decision to withhold parts of the Douglas file to Canada’s information commissioner. When that proved unsuccessful, he sued the federal government in the fall of 2009, asking the court to order the release of the records.

One of the more surprising things to emerge during the subsequent Federal Court hearing in the spring of 2010 is the involvement of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS). It seems Canada’s spy agency takes an active interest in history. Its interventions, as much as those of Library and Archives Canada, influence how and what we know of our past.

Although LAC holds RCMP material, as it does the historical records of all federal departments and agencies, intelligence files are subject to extra oversight. They might have sent some of their old files to Wellington Street, giving them a good scrub first, but the spymasters still play a role in determining who can see them. After Bronskill made his request, LAC sent the Douglas file back to the spy agency, where their access to information analysts made recommendations for redaction before returning it to the archives. At that point, the archives’ own analysts reviewed the file and CSIS’s recommendations before making a final determination about what information would be released.

Bronskill and The Canadian Press news agency argue that the restrictions imposed by CSIS and LAC are excessive. Putting aside the question of whether Tommy Douglas was ever a threat to national security, the danger posed now by allowing researchers access to his RCMP file is minimal. The methods of surveillance that were used to monitor Douglas have surely been surpassed, and the people who informed on him are likely dead. It’s hard to imagine how disclosure would compromise the current intelligence operations of the Canadian state or breach any individual’s right to privacy.

These arguments are convincing, and the stakes are high. As Bronskill and his lawyers point out, democracy depends on the free flow of information. Transparency is the best guarantee of accountability. Governments need to know that we’ll know what they get up to, and that knowledge, in theory, limits the arbitrary exercise of power.

Unfortunately, in reporting on the case, Bronskill’s fellow journalists have chosen to focus on the sensational rather than on the serious. It’s shocking to learn that the man who’d later be named the “Greatest Canadian” in a CBC contest was considered by the Mounties to be a potential threat to the country’s security. And there’s a certain satisfaction in expressing our collective indignation at seemingly unimaginative bureaucrats bent on enforcing the letter of the law. We shake our heads, ask each other, “how could they be so dumb?” and then forget about it. After all, a story about how the government is preventing the release of a pile of old documents dealing with a dead politician might be interesting and even entertaining, but it isn’t really relevant to my life, is it?

It is. What happened with Tommy Douglas’s RCMP security file raises important questions about knowledge and power as well as public culture. Access to information bears directly on the relationship between the state and its citizens and the quality of democracy we enjoy. We just don’t always know it.

Instead of fixating on the contents of the restricted files, we need to take a long, hard look at how that content came to be hidden in the first place. In a way, the release of redacted records has served the interests of the state: All that black ink has captured our attention, focussing it on finding out what’s been hidden, rather than how it came to be hidden in the first place.

If we’re interested in maintaining a healthy democracy, we need “to engage with hiddenness itself,” as the academic John Beck tells us in Dirty Wars. That means interrogating the institutions, processes, and material circumstances that govern and shape the flow of information. As Beck points out, “the freedom and transparency of democracy are underwritten by unseen and often unknowable powers.”

Engaging with hiddenness means understanding the workings of the bureaucracy around access to information, our version of George Orwell’s Ministry of Truth. We need to pay attention to boring stuff, like the relationship between the archives and other federal government departments, budgets, and workloads. For instance, the Federal Court hearing heard that the analyst assigned to the Douglas file was under some pressure to complete the review. Given the circumstances, it’s easy to imagine how that individual might have been tempted to accept CSIS’s recommendations about what to remove from the Douglas file without fully exercising her or his own independent judgment.

Engaging with hiddenness also means challenging the common sense assumptions that influence the work of analysts like CSIS’s access to information and privacy coordinator Nicole Jalbert. During the hearing last March, Jalbert was asked if there were guidelines to help analysts determine what information was sensitive and shouldn’t be disclosed because it bore on current security and intelligence operations. Her answer was no.

“It’s not rocket science,” she said. “When you are working in the milieu that we are working in, you are aware of what is relevant and what isn’t.”

Perhaps most fundamentally, engaging with hiddenness means demanding more of ourselves. The Access to Information Act is an act of Parliament. It’s something we’ve created — and can change. University of Ottawa professor and lawyer Amir Attaran, who represents Bronskill, observes that compared to the United States and the United Kingdom, Canada’s access to information provisions are the most restrictive. While there are likely many reasons for that, in part it reflects the country’s public culture: Canada doesn’t have a strong tradition of openness in government — and it won’t until we start demanding it.

It’s not that states can’t or shouldn’t keep secrets. We just need to make sure everyone knows in no uncertain terms why and how we’re going to do so, who can make those decisions, and what criteria they’ll use. Strong democracies expose how they hide things.

Tina Loo is an environmental historian based out of UBC. She is a former contributor to Canada's History magazine.


Posted: 01/12/2011 3:21:30 PM by TANJA HUTTER | with 0 comments

Is our policy of multiculturalism, which turns forty this year, actually hurting the country?

By Tina Loo

When novelist Yann (Life of Pi) Martel called Canada “the greatest hotel on earth,” he meant it as a compliment –– here is a country that “welcomes people from everywhere.” But before he knew it, the chattering classes seized on his metaphor to launch yet another attack on multiculturalism. Yes, they argued, Canada is a hotel, and it is full of people “sleepwalking to segregation.”

Now that multiculturalism has reached middle age, it’s time for a little reflection, exploring how history might help assess one of Canada’s most well-known policies.

Forty years ago this fall, when Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau rose in the House of Commons to announce his government’s newest policy, he couldn’t have known it would shape how people in Canada and around the world thought about cultural diversity, freedom, and national unity.

“National unity, if it is to mean anything in the deeply personal sense, must be founded on confidence in one’s own individual identity,” he insisted. “Out of this can grow respect for that of others and a willingness to share ideas, attitudes and assumptions. A vigorous policy of multiculturalism will help create this initial confidence. It can form the base of a society which is based on fair play for all.”

It was a bold statement and an important precedent. Canada was the first Western country to establish a multiculturalism policy and is the only one in the world to enshrine multiculturalism in its constitution. When it was announced in 1971, it enjoyed all-party support. Insofar as there was any criticism, it came from Robert Stanfield and the Progressive Conservative Party; why, they wanted know, had the Liberals waited so long to introduce a policy that was so glaringly sensible and needed?

As anyone who has paid even the slightest bit of attention to the news in the last decade will know, multiculturalism no longer inspires politicians and pundits to choruses of “Kumbaya.” In the same year multiculturalism policy became law, Trinidadian-born Quebecker and novelist Neil Bissoondath condemned the ghettoization it supposedly encouraged and took issue with how it defined culture. Multiculturalism supposedly reduced diversity to the exotic and commodifiable, contributing to a heightened and yet shallow sense of difference: Canada is dragon dances and bhangra; perogies and penne.

More recently, philosopher Charles Taylor and historian Gérard Bouchard suggested multiculturalism be replaced with “interculturalism.” If the problem with Hotel Canada was that there was “no there there” — that it was a safe and comfortable place to land with no distinguishing features — then the solution was to provide some definition. The two academics contended that the “reasonable accommodation” of minorities in Quebec should occur within a common civic culture defined by language and liberal democratic values.

Debates about the effects of multiculturalism haven’t been limited by our borders. After 9/11, the critiques became international as fears about the lack of integration became tied to the growth of extremism. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel declared multiculturalism had “utterly failed.” British Prime Minister David Cameron called for his country to adopt a “more muscular liberalism,” one that embraced tolerance but also set out a vision of the society that clearly signalled what was expected of its members.

In the United States, supposedly the great melting pot, influential thinker Robert Putnam argued that there was less civic engagement — less volunteering, less giving to charity, less community — in places that were less homogeneous. “Diversity, at least in the short run,” he writes, “seems to bring out the turtle in all of us.” We pull in, not trusting our neighbours.

Despite the choruses of disapproval from within and without, the multiculturalism policy persists in Canada. Are we deluding ourselves in thinking it’s a good thing?

Political scientists are doing important work surveying public opinion to answer multiculturalism’s critics, but we don’t need to rely solely on pollster Angus Reid to provide us with some perspective on the debate: Canada’s history does, too.

One of the main criticisms levelled at multiculturalism is that it works against the very unity it’s supposed to promote. While ethnicity and race certainly have been barriers to integration, they’re not the only ones. Historically, one of the biggest challenges to social integration was the divide between rich and poor. There were wealthy neighbourhoods and underprivileged ones, but places like Halifax’s North and South End and Vancouver’s Shaughnessy and Strathcona — economic enclaves all — haven’t provoked the same kind of anxieties about segregation.

Indeed, recent surveys suggest residential segregation among the Chinese in Canada — currently the highest among immigrant groups — doesn’t provoke alarm because Chinese-Canadians are relatively well-integrated economically. When segregation becomes worrisome is when it’s combined with poverty and high unemployment.

If our concern is unity, then is divisiveness any more acceptable if it’s caused by disparities in wealth? By defining diversity in terms of ethnicity and race, multiculturalism policy addresses just one cause, albeit an important one, of social fragmentation. But this can divert us from the need to overcome other obstacles among immigrant communities and the Canadian population as a whole — like the class divide — that stand in the way of achieving the social integration supporters and critics of multiculturalism alike want.

Places like Shaughnessy and Strathcona can’t be categorized with a single adjective; ethnic and economic ghettoes, the former was home to wealthy Brits and Scots and the latter to working-class Brits, Italians, Ukrainians, and Chinese. These neighbourhoods and their residents had multiple identities that shaped their senses of belonging. Given this, the all-too-common assertion that people should be “Canadian” first is a bit facile. “Identity,” as Robert Stanfield argued, “is a complex thing.”

Having multiple affiliations doesn’t make us less of one thing or more of another. People aren’t necessarily less Canadian because they carry other passports or have other homelands to which they feel a deep connection. Identity isn’t a zero-sum game.

In fact, historically, being Canadian meant having an abiding attachment to another country — namely, Britain. Imperialism was at the heart of Canadian nationalism. In that context, no one would have called Daisy Phillips and her husband Jack “un-Canadian” because Jack, like many English immigrants to Canada, went back “home” to fight for the British in the First War, abandoning their orchard in British Columbia’s Windermere Valley.

The imperial tie also shaped how people responded to conscription in the two World Wars. Critics of conscription argued that these were European conflicts in which Canadians shouldn’t be compelled to participate. To the Empire’s supporters, such opinions and the people who gave voice to them — many of them Quebeckers — bordered on the treasonous. After all, “we” were fighting for “King and country.”

Perhaps the most important things history reveals are the circumstances that create belonging. The waves of immigrants that arrived in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to settle the Prairies did so without the benefit of any multicultural policy. But their successful integration shouldn’t fool us into thinking the process is automatic. Agricultural immigrants to the Prairies found jobs busting sod on their own homesteads or on those of others; their incorporation into Canada was helped in part by an economic context that didn’t depend as much on language skills or formal education for success. In cities, the integration of immigrants was facilitated by churches like J.S. Woodsworth’s All People’s Mission in Winnipeg, which provided language instruction, clothing, and help finding jobs to needy newcomers.

Before we conclude that multiculturalism isn’t working, we need to realize that integration doesn’t just happen. It’s the outcome of a particular economic, social, political, and institutional context; of civil society as well as state intervention.

If we agree that immigrants remain crucial to Canada’s continued growth, then we need to recognize that promoting immigration means investing ourselves in integration. That’s the only surefire way to make a hotel a home.

Tina Loo is an environmental historian based out of UBC. She is a former contributor to Canada's History magazine.


Posted: 01/08/2011 3:10:28 PM by TANJA HUTTER | with 0 comments

Pushback over potash sale rooted in ignorance of history.

By Tina Loo

Flashing lights. A thundering bass line. Screams and whistles. The crowd parts and suddenly he is there.

Justin Bieber about to take the stage? Georges St. Pierre about to leap into the octagon? Not exactly. The object of the frenzied high-fives and fist bumps was a middle-aged man in a suit and tie. If it weren’t for the noise and the pompoms no one would have noticed him. After all, he was walking through the business school at the University of Saskatchewan in the middle of the academic term. He was Bill Doyle, president of the Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan Inc. (PotashCorp) and he was on campus for “Ten Million Reasons to Cheer,” a pep rally for PotashCorp, which, over the years, had donated that amount to the university.

As it turned out, the rally was just a prelude to the larger roar of approval that greeted the Harper government’s announcement shortly afterwards that it was blocking the sale of PotashCorp to the Australian mining multinational BHP Billiton because the offer didn’t meet the “net benefit” test. From the student union presidents of both Saskatchewan universities, to the premiers of Alberta, Manitoba, and Quebec, to organized labour and First Nations, it seemed almost everyone from left to right and east to west was against the takeover and backed the decision.

Whatever else it might have been — a comment on the state of student radicalism in the twenty-first century, perhaps? — the fall of 2010 was a rare moment of unanimity in federal-provincial relations regarding resources.

It was also an argument for including history as one the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Had BHP Billiton president Marius Kloppers and his team been schooled in Canada’s history, they might not have been as shocked as they appeared to be by the storm of populist protest that greeted their takeover attempt and by the “political” decision rendered by the Conservative government.

As students in any “Intro to Canadian History” class learn, resource rights have been a sensitive issue in the West since Confederation. Canada’s four original provinces retained control over natural resources under the British North America Act, as did British Columbia and Prince Edward Island when they joined the country in 1871 and 1873.

By contrast, the Prairies came into Confederation under different and unequal terms. Citing the need to build the transcontinental railway and to colonize the West effectively, Ottawa — controversially — kept control over the natural resources of Manitoba, Alberta, and Saskatchewan. It wasn’t until 1930 and the passage of the Natural Resources Transfer Act that the prairie West managed to shed its status as Canada’s colony.

Although the Prairies have wielded control over their resources for more than eighty years, all of us live with the legacy of their unequal beginnings. Doubtful of Ottawa’s ability to act in the interest of all Canadians equally, the region’s politicians are pit bulls when it comes to guarding their resource rights. Just when suspicions would subside, another controversy would erupt, stoking the fires of alienation in a new generation of Westerners. There was the Crow Rate, a rail-transportation subsidy that was popular with Western farmers because it made shipping their grain and importing the machinery they needed less expensive. Passed at the end of the nineteenth century, it was supposed to last “forever,” but it was modified over the twentieth century before it was done away with entirely.

Then there was the National Energy Program, a set of federal government initiatives designed to achieve greater Canadian ownership in the oil and gas industry and to redistribute the wealth generated from that industry to the federal government and Central Canadian consumers. When Alberta and Saskatchewan tried to offset their loss of revenues by levying royalties on oil and potash exports, Ottawa gave Westerners another reason to be incensed: It disallowed the legislation, arguing that taxing exports was a federal not a provincial power.

While the power to review foreign investment lies in Ottawa, this history and the culture of alienation it generated suggests that outsiders looking for a piece of the action would do well to spend a good deal of time in Regina and Saskatoon exorcising the demons of a colonial past to ensure the success of any future takeover.

This is especially the case when those demons are so often joined by the spectre of George (Lament for a Nation) Grant and the ghosts of economic nationalists past. Opposition to BHP Billiton’s proposed takeover was sometimes couched in language that hearkened back to the Trudeau years. Concerns about Canadian sovereignty and particularly about the foreign ownership of Canadian industries led the federal government to investigate and then regulate investment in the national interest. The powerful rhetoric about the “silent surrender” of sovereignty to multinational interests that was so effective in the 1960s and ’70s was deployed again in 2010 — this time to defend provincial power.

As proficient in the lessons of Canadian history as BHP Billiton was untutored, Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall managed brilliantly to tap into the wellspring of nationalism to beat back the Australian bid, challenging the federal government to approve a deal that was, in his view, anti-Canadian. People from all over the country agreed, insisting on the need to protect “our” potash.

Maude Barlow, chair of the Council of Canadians, put it this way: “When you hand over all the power over these resources to international investors ... you lose control, you lose the ability to take care of your local economy, your local environment.”

What got lost in the debate was that Canadians didn’t own the pink rock anymore. Not unless they were shareholders in PotashCorp, a private company headquartered, as Prime Minister Stephen Harper reminded his fellow citizens, in Chicago. Most people forgot — or never knew — that Saskatchewan had privatized potash in the 1980s, ending PotashCorp’s life as a Crown corporation. Nevertheless, despite giving up direct ownership, the provincial government, not Ottawa, still had the power to make laws relating to the development, conservation, and management of Saskatchewan’s potash. In directing people’s attention to the feds, Premier Wall was also deflecting it away from an inconvenient truth; namely that his government could impose whatever regulations it saw fit on any company — whether it’s PotashCorp or BHP Billiton — involved in the exploitation of its resources. Remembering the circumstances of their entry into Confederation, Saskatchewan, along with its western neighbours, made explicit recognition of provincial control over resources in the 1982 Constitution Act (s. 92a) a condition of their support for its repatriation. That fact too got lost in the Ottawa-bashing.

Indeed, the heady cocktail of Western alienation and Canadian nationalism that Wall and his supporters served up was so powerful that it rendered most of us blotto. The lampshades we wore hid the ideological contortions that allowed a right-of-centre provincial government to insist it was a free enterprise party at the same time as it denied shareholders the opportunity to decide on a takeover bid. The province also called for federal intervention in the market as well as protection for what to some is a cartel; namely, Canpotex, the firm that manages the export of all of Saskatchewan’s potash outside of North America.

We need to realize that history, like potash, is a strategic resource. Knowing the past gives us a perspective from which to evaluate claims about the present and directions for the future. What better net benefit could there be than an investment in historical understanding? Call it fertilizer for democracy.

Tina Loo is an environmental historian based out of UBC. She is a former contributor to Canada's History magazine.


Posted: 01/04/2011 3:09:13 PM by TANJA HUTTER | with 0 comments

A modern-day Don Quixote is on a quest to show how the Columbia River has changed since the sixties.

By Tina Loo

Don Quixote wears blue jeans — or so I discovered when I met him earlier this year.

And he doesn’t call himself Quixote, by the way (no one can spell it). Instead, he’s a Layman — William D. — and for the last twenty-five years he’s devoted his energies to chronicling the history of the great river of the West, the Columbia.

In the few hours we recently spent together, he shared his enthusiasm and his latest project with me — I also have an interest in the river. At first, as I listened, I began to feel more and more like Sancho Panza, seeing only windmills where the Don — er, Bill — saw giants.

But just as the Man of La Mancha taught us much about what it means to be human, I came to appreciate how Bill Layman and his work on the Canadian Columbia speaks volumes about the importance of place and memory in modern life.

For the past two years, Layman has been following the flight patterns of a dead man — former fire chief T.A. Weaver. In the summer of 1962, “the Chief,” an amateur photographer and flying enthusiast, took to the air, travelling the length of the Columbia River. His goal was to document the river — including its remaining wild reaches in Canada — in light of its imminent remaking, thanks to the Columbia River Treaty that was signed just the year before.

The treaty, which resulted in storage dams that would increase the generating power of American hydro dams downstream, flooded farmland in B.C. and changed the landscape and ecosystem of one of North America’s largest river basins.

If the hundreds of Kodachromes Weaver took captured the river, they also captivated Layman when he first saw them in 2006. With the support of the Wenatchee Valley Museum and Cultural Center, he re-enacted the 1962 flight, photographing a much-changed river from the same vantage points Weaver had used nearly half a century earlier. The result is The Canadian Columbia: Aerial Views of a River’s Remaking, a book he’ll publish later this year.

Paging through the paired photographs and accompanying survey maps detailing what was on the ground during Weaver’s time is likely to be a moment suffused with sepia for those who live with the river.

People less familiar with the Columbia and its history might not immediately appreciate how the river basin was transformed thanks to the treaty dams; they might not see the scale of the changes that motivated Layman to embark on this impossibly complex project. Instead, what will strike them right away is his passion and commitment.

The expense, time, and attention to detail that went into The Canadian Columbia is mindboggling. None of Weaver’s 300-plus 35mm slides were labelled with a location, never mind any coordinates.

Layman knew Weaver flew along the river, but not his exact flight pattern. Land-based repeat photography is hard enough. If moving left or right a few metres can result in an entirely different perspective, imagine how difficult it is to reproduce aerial photographs, where altitude has to be taken into account as well and the picture snapped while hurtling through the air at high speeds. And then there was the small matter of matching the photographs with maps that were made from the late-1940s to the late-1950s as part of the comprehensive survey of the Columbia Basin undertaken by Canada and the United States.

In the end, what we have seems as much a monument to determination as it is to obsession. As Layman himself admits, the Columbia is his passion — and it’s also his affliction! And yet, there’s something powerful in these pages, something familiar, even if the landscapes aren’t.

To see Boat Encampment, B.C., in 1962, for instance, is to see it in much the same way David Thompson and his men did when they spent the winter of 1810 building watercraft to take them down the Columbia; it’s to imagine the joy and relief of the men from Fort Vancouver and Jasper House, and perhaps to hear their voices raised in song when their fur brigades met.

Put that 1962 photo next to the one taken in 2008 and you come to appreciate a very different manifestation of human power: the megaproject. Boat Encampment was drowned by the Kinbasket reservoir, created when Mica, one of the three Columbia River Treaty dams, was completed in 1973.

The same waters that obliterated the past now hide the damage. For all the more recent arrivals and visitors to the area know, Kinbasket “Lake,” as it’s commonly called, has been there forever. Set side by side, these photos communicate both the enormity of the changes that define modern life and the amnesia that comes along with them.

For me, what’s most affecting about Layman’s photos is the transformation they worked in him, rather than the changes in the land they record.

Reflecting on his labours of the past few years, Layman is acutely aware of how the project connected him with Weaver, forging an “aerial kinship” between strangers. It also connected him to all the other people whose lives had been touched by the Columbia’s waters, from the fur traders of the nineteenth century to the settlers and adventurers of the twentieth.

“This tardiest explorer,” to echo the Stan Rogers song “Northwest Passage,” was only the latest in a long line of people to be gathered up by the river’s currents.

Although few people will do what Bill Layman has, his motivations resonate deeply, encompassing the human instinct to mark the passage of time and make sense of the changes.

We all do this, whether with pencil marks on the wall, charting the heights of children, or through the yearly class photo. We share Layman’s desire to connect: His work makes us think about those special places in our lives that link us to the past and to each other.

In our fragmented and sometimes alienating modern world, such connections and the places that nourish them are all the more important. They tether us to place and time and help us to deal with the maelstrom of change that surrounds us.

In that sense, Bill Layman’s affliction is one we all share. We can thank him for showing us his cure.

Tina Loo is an environmental historian based out of UBC. She is a former contributor to Canada's History magazine.


Posted: 01/08/2010 2:46:38 PM by TANJA HUTTER | with 0 comments

Are truth and reconciliation commissions asking the right questions?

By Tina Loo

When is a killing a slaughter? That’s what Jim Igloliorte has been trying to find out. For the past two and a half years, the retired Labrador judge has been chief commissioner of the Qikiqtani Truth Commission (QTC), a body charged by the Inuit with investigating the alleged slaughter of sled dogs by the RCMP in the eastern Arctic from the 1950s to the 1970s.

Many Inuit believe that the Mounties shot some 20,000 of their animals as a strategy to get them off the land and into permanent communities, where they were subject to greater colonial “care” and control.

The legacy of that violent loss — of their dogs, their independence, and their culture — continues to corrode relations between the Inuit and the RCMP to this day, especially in light of the force’s denial of these allegations following its own investigation in 2006.

The commission’s main objective is “to ensure an accurate history” of these events and thereby “promote healing for those who suffered wrongdoings, as well as to heal relations between Inuit and the government.” While the dog killings are the QTC’s main focus, its inquiry has led it to investigate a number of related issues, including health care, housing, hunting, and education.

Igloliorte was scheduled to submit his final report no later than the end of March 2010, making this a good time to think about what truth commissions do and whether they can deliver what they promise. In what sense is the history they write truthful? What’s the relationship between history, truth, and healing? Can reckoning with the past help us move ahead together?

Since the 1970s, governmental and, in some cases, non-governmental organizations around the world have invested a great deal of effort and hope into “truth commissions” as part of the peace process that has accompanied the transition to democracy in places like South Africa.

These bodies investigate patterns of abuse over a period of time, rather than specific events. They’re not criminal trials. They don’t have powers of prosecution. Their proceedings aren’t adversarial, and they focus on the victims of abuse rather than the perpetrators.

Indeed, one of the purposes of truth commissions is to provide a safe place for victims to tell their stories and to have their experiences become part of the official record.

The public hearings held by truth commissions give a voice to victims who have otherwise been ignored. But truth commissions also make history. Using evidence from victims’ testimony as well as material from the documentary record, each truth commission produces a report that is meant to stand as an authoritative history of what happened.

Making history won’t be easy for the QTC because history isn’t just a matter of facts, of simply outlining the hard edges of what happened. It’s an argument about meaning, causes, and effects. In the eastern Arctic, there’s widespread agreement that Mounties shot Inuit sled dogs. But was it a “slaughter”? Were the killings part of a larger policy of colonization?

Everyone might agree that Constable A shot Z’s dogs, but the consensus ends there. Constable A might have shot them because they were running loose and posed a threat to the children of the community — and to him. Perhaps the dogs were diseased. Or maybe the officer was simply fed up with people ignoring his repeated injunctions about tying up their animals.

For his part, Z insists that Constable A shot his animals to force the Inuit to give up their nomadic ways. Without dogs, he and his family were stuck in places like Pangnirtung or Frobisher (Iqaluit). Losing dogs meant losing mobility — and freedom. For Z, the actions of the RCMP really did amount to forced relocation. Colonial power had a face — and a trigger finger.

Both A and Z are telling the truth. But the history that commissioner Igloliorte is charged with writing is a different thing; it’s an argument that builds on the particular and divergent truths that emerge from the textual record and from the testimony of a variety of people living in fourteen different communities. Like all histories, it’s meant to provide context, and most importantly, it’s meant to help those involved and their descendants move ahead.

The QTC’s preliminary findings suggest that it is looking beyond the specific issue of whether the RCMP killed sled dogs and is trying to address a broader question: What explains the decline in the dog population?

The reasons it offers are multiple and complex. The available documentation indicates that the RCMP shot at least 1,200 dogs in the period under investigation, 500 of which were killed in Iqaluit and Pangnirtung between 1966 and 1967.

The concentration of these killings likely magnified their impact and significance for the Inuit there.

In addition to Mountie bullets, dogs fell victim to distemper, hepatitis, and rabies. Tuberculosis also affected them indirectly: The Inuit who were sent south for treatment lost their teams and were often unable to re-establish them if they did return home. The decline in dogs was also linked to changes in hunting practices that came along with the move to settlements, the increased availability and importance of snowmobiles, and the growth of waged employment.

Identifying this complex set of causes doesn’t diminish the trauma or loss many families felt when the Mounties shot their dogs. Instead, it helps us appreciate why those killings have the significance they do. They occurred at a time of great change and upheaval that left many Inuit more vulnerable to a range of government policies and historical circumstances that further eroded their independence. If its preliminary findings are any indication, the QTC’s final report stands to be an excellent and significant piece of history. But can it lead to reconciliation?

I don’t think so — at least, not on its own. Truths have to be heard as well as told. No one who witnesses the raw emotion of the Inuit who testified will have any doubt about the need for reconciliation. Hurt, anger, and betrayal have cut a deep chasm between Inuit and Qallunaat (non-Inuit), making it difficult to reconcile the past.

Yet, despite the QTC’s work over the last few years, few Canadians know it exists, much less what it’s about. We need to know — and we need to take responsibility for what we hear. Putting aside the disconnect between telling and hearing, a report from the QTC that explains the meanings and consequences of the dog killings will likely only provide meagre gruel to feed the healing process, whatever its qualities as a piece of history.

Does that mean that we’ve overestimated the healing powers of the past? No. If anything, we may have underestimated them. Truth commissions stop short of tapping in to the richest historical resources for reconciliation because they rarely ask a second type of question.

Igloliorte and the QTC were right in pushing beyond the dog killings. But if reconciliation is the goal, they — and we — need to push further still and ask questions that go beyond the disappearance of the dogs, beyond the abuses of colonization: What can we learn from occasions in the past when Inuit and Qallunaat bridged the cultural gulf that separated them, helping each other on the land? Is there anything in the long history of the relationship between the Inuit and the RCMP that can act as a foundation for living and working together?

All of us need to consider the possibility that there are other truths to be found in the past, and other stories — ones of cooperation rather than conflict, of understanding rather than ignorance. Reconciliation can only begin by asking all the right questions — because without them, the answers won’t matter very much.

Tina Loo is an environmental historian based out of UBC. She is a former contributor to Canada's History magazine.


Posted: 01/04/2010 2:44:26 PM by TANJA HUTTER | with 0 comments
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