For Canadians, a popular retort about the War of 1812 is our supposed role in the burning of the White House. In 1814, British soldiers landed in Washington and looted the American capital. Canadians, in their minor role in the conflict as auxiliary forces, sometimes say that Canadians themselves burned down the White House. Despite any claims you might hear, it was British soldiers behind one of the most notable moments of the war. Where and how did the myth of Canadian involvement appear?Read More
If you’ve ever visited a historic site or museum around the time of a major anniversary, you’ve probably encountered a historical reenactor. Maybe you were at Fort George in Niagara-on-the-Lake, or Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, or at a D-Day commemoration on 6 June, or any number of hundreds of different re-enactments big and small that take place every year. These historical reenactors share a love of history with historians, though they have vastly different views of it.Read More
May 5th was Cinco de Mayo, a holiday that sounds like a Mexican celebration but is largely an American one. Latinos Americans first began celebrating the Mexican victory over French forces in 1862. Since then it has spread out from the southeast United States and today Canadians also hold Cinco de Mayo events – or at least, have heard of it. The curious spread of Cinco de Mayo outside of Mexico reveals the strange nature of public holidays and our celebration of them.Read More
Much has been made of the 200th anniversary of Sir John A. Macdonald’s birth this past January. You may have heard of the events and speeches in Kingston, the city most associated with Macdonald, or more likely read about Macdonald in the spate of articles debating whether he should venerated by Canadians at all. The argument that Macdonald is the most important Father of Confederation – the man who (some suggest singlehandedly) created our nation – is not new, but its rejection question some seminal myths about Canada.Read More
In the aftermath of the First World War, many of the belligerent nations instituted memorials to the Unknown Soldier. First in France, Britain and Italy – then others – governments laid to rest the remains of a soldier that could not be identified. It symbolized the futility and terribleness of modern war that left so many of the dead lost to the churning trenches of European battlefields. The Unknown Soldier, though still familiar to us today, is a symbol of a time increasingly distant from contemporary commemoration.Read More
One of the lesser-known mysteries of London, England, is tucked away between the Tower of London and St. Paul’s Cathedral. At 111 Canon Street, inside a WHSmith (a British book retailer and, incidentally, the inventor of the ISBN catalogue system) behind a protective grille sits the London Stone. No one knows the purpose or significance of the Stone other than the one imposed upon it by generations of Londoners and writers. Many have mentioned it over the last 900 years as a significant object for London’s history, but no clue remains as to its origins. In a sense, it is historically important because people have made it so.Read More
As Canada marks another Remembrance Day, the purpose and value of what we remember is again hotly debated. Last year we addressed questions about the “White Poppy” movement, the history of Remembrance Day, and why we imbue this day with such special significance. This year for 11 November, we want to explore the process that leads to these questions about the poppy as a symbol and Remembrance Day, as well as how it is changing in new ways.Read More
The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down, sings Gordon Lightfoot in one of the most famous songs of his career, of The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. If you haven’t heard it before, you should listen to it before reading this post. In a recent Reddit AMA, Lightfoot explained that he was compelled to write the song after it seemed to go unnoticed when it happened in November of 1975. The song rose to the top of the charts in 1976, and The Wreck is one of his most famous songs. Lightfoot gave new longevity to the memory of the men who went down on the Edmund Fitzgerald. The song is a fascinating display of memory and history.Read More
Today marks the thirteenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the United States. Since the attacks themselves, many Americans have vacillated over how to commemorate the events that killed roughly 3,000 people and inflicted billions of dollars in damages. Just as important, the consequences of these events have had a global reach and affected innumerable people. In this sense, the war on terror, which includes the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and ongoing operations against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, was a direct consequence of 9/11. Any discussion of those events is bound to elicit emotional responses, particularly as the attacks are relatively recent.Read More
We are now in the centenary year of the outbreak of the First World War. No doubt some events will be incorporated into the ongoing commemorations, while others will be forgotten despite their seeming relevance at the time, like the trial of Madame Cailloux that enthralled the public in July 1914 just as the crisis in the Balkans unfolded. Memory – the combination of history that is remembered and forgotten – is hard to distinguish from history for non-historians. This is precisely why, as we've discussed before, it's important that the memory of the war be reasonably and clearly debated in the public forum. Though we might accept that the government has some license to instil a patriotic narrative about the war, it's equally vital that this narrative not overpower some of the basic historical facts put forward by historians. Outing “myths” about the war is especially useful for remembering what happened one hundred years ago and what has been forgotten.Read More
This week we are continuing our four-part examination of history. Last week, we asked: What is history? And, what is historiography? Today we ask, what is the usefulness of history for individuals and society and how does that affect professional historians?Read More
In this post, we offer some reflections about the use of water as a weapon during the Second World War, and specifically its use in the southern Netherlands. The battle for the Scheldt, which took place between October and November 1944, began by flooding large swathes of Dutch territory in an attempt to dislodge Nazi occupying forces. In the end, and because of the mobilization of water as a weapon, this particular region in the Netherlands doesn't necessarily subscribe to the "sweetest spring" narrative typically associated with Dutch-Canadian relations in 1945.
This post comments on an article that appeared in the National Post on the 71st anniversary of the Dieppe raid in August 1942, when Canadian troops were tasked with penetrating the German defenses of the small French town. Dieppe has become one of the defining moments in many Canadian histories, and most often remembered as a failure because of disproportionately high causalities inflicted on Canada by Nazi Germany. By the end of 19 August 1942, about 901 Canadians had been killed in action, while 1,946 were captured and taken prisoner.Read More
Over the last several years, the Canadian government under Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been trying to revive Canadian history. They have provided millions of dollars to celebrate the bicentenary of the War of 1812. They have reattached the Royal prefix to our armed forces for the first time since 1968. These changes are trying to recreate, or at least reemphasize, an older British Canadian identity that has been on the decline for the last fifty years. The “British” Canada that once defined our nation was marginalized in the 1960s and 70s when it lost its resonance with most Canadians. Since the time of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, Canada has moved away from its British past.Read More
The British government has recently unveiled its plans for the upcoming Great War centenary, which has sparked some controversy over what exactly the conflict accomplished and how people should remember it. Plans for official Canadian centenary events have yet to be made public, but we can expect similar discussions to take place between historians, journalists, and political commentators. In this post, we raise a number of important questions historians and the public at large might consider as we hear more and more about the First World War in the media.