The Origins of a Canadian Culture

Canada is turning 150 this year!!! We’ll be celebrating with a number of posts devoted to Canadian history and culture as well as sharing information on some of the planned programmes and activities that will be taking place across the country in honour of the country’s sesquicentennial.

Canada is a young nation. In secondary school-level Canadian history classes, students are taught that Canada began to assert itself as an independent nation at the dawn of the Second World War. In September 1939, the country’s leaders waited several days before formally declaring war on Germany, yet even then Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King requested King George VI’s approval. This was a significant change from World War One, when Canada was automatically drawn into the war via England’s declaration.

Some might argue that a truly ‘Canadian’ culture really didn’t assert itself until the 1950s and 1960s. During these two decades the country witnessed a surge in funding for the arts. This included the founding of organisations such as the National Ballet of Canada (Toronto, 1951) and the Stratford Festival (Stratford, 1952), as well as the building of major national venues for the arts such as the National Arts Centre (Ottawa, 1969) and the National Theatre School of Canada (Montreal, 1960). There was also a significant expansion of existing universities and growth in the number of universities, allowing more young people to complete post-secondary education. Of course, this was also a reaction to the baby boomers reaching university age.

Canadian artists, musicians, and writers were beginning to make their mark on the national and international ‘stage’ during this period. Singers Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and Gordon Lightfoot, the rock band The Guess Who, actor Christopher Plummer, author Margaret Atwood, poet Leonard Cohen, and many more contributed to a new idea of Canada for the younger generation. The National Arts Centre’s studio theatre opened in 1969 with George Ryga’s ‘The Ecstacy of Rita Joe’, which had debuted in Vancouver in 1967. Little money or energy had been expended on developing Canadian works prior to this period.

There are a few specific moments that highlight these efforts in defining Canada and what it meant to be Canadian in the 1960s that had lasting effects on the nation. The first has to be the decision to choose a flag design for the nation. Until the 1960s, Canada was represented by the flag was the Union Jack of the United Kingdom or the Canadian Red Ensign.


Canadian Red Ensign

In the run up to the federal election of 1963, Liberal leader and Leader of the Opposition Lester B. Pearson stated that he would have a new flag for the country within two years and found a great deal of popular support for his mission. Pearson won the election. The Canada flag that we all know was inaugurated on 15 February 1965, two years ahead of the Centennial celebrations.

Flag Day, the 15th of February, has been celebrated in Canada every year since 1996. This year Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued an official statement regarding the importance and symbolism of the flag. The Government provides useful guidelines on how to display the Canadian flag. There’s also a “Share Your Moment with the Flag” challenge for 2017, where Canadians are encouraged to share a photograph or video of themselves online holding the flag somewhere using #canadianflag.

The second major defining moment of the era would have to be Expo ’67. Held in Montreal in April 1967, Expo ’67 (aka the 1967 International and Universal Exposition, or World’s Fair) displayed the optimism and excitement of Canada’s baby boomer generation and saw record-levels of attendance, making it one of the most successful and memorable World’s Fairs of the 20th century and the inspiration behind this classic Heritage Minute:

Canada’s history, of course, stretches back long before Centennial or Confederation a hundred years earlier, back to the Loyalists of the later 1700s and the French settlers and fur traders of the 1600s, and then of course to the pre-history of Canada’s first nations peoples. As such, there’s a wealth of stories to tell in the lead up to the sesquicentennial! We’ll be looking forward to joining in the celebrations from abroad and on the blog.

Historic Preservation in Ireland, Part I: UNESCO World Heritage Sites

This semester, I’ve been taking a class in (American) Historic Preservation at the University of Colorado Denver.  Learning about the ways in which historic preservation works in the United States has made me even more appreciative of our historic sites and public history efforts.  Public outreach is such an important part of the history field, and it is up to us as historians to communicate what makes the study of history important today.  Given the current political climate, knowledge of history, civics, and global connections over time seems ever more vital.  The built heritage that surrounds us is a large part of that – it brings character and identity to our communities, and helps to bring history to life for the public.

I’ll be taking a look at different ways in which historic preservation is practiced in Ireland, starting with the highest level a historic site can reach – the World Heritage Sites recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.  These are sites of cultural and natural heritage considered to be of outstanding value to humanity.

Ireland has two sites recognized as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO.

Sceilg Mhichíl


Skellig Michael – photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996, Sceilg Mhichíl (or Skellig Michael) is a monastic complex perched on a rocky island about seven miles off the coast of County Kerry.  The site is extremely remote and, as the World Heritage listing highlights, it “illustrates the very spartan existence of the first Irish Christians.” It is considered an exceptional and in many ways unique example of an early religious settlement, preserved because of its relative inaccessibility.


Skellig Michael – photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

The rock was home to a small group of ascetic monks who withdrew from civilization to found their monastery. Buildings constructed include the monastery itself, a hermitage, and, later, two lighthouses.  The monastic community appears to have moved to the mainland by the 13th century.

The Office of Public Works has held the monastic remains in state guardianship since 1880.

Sceilg Mhichíl is also renowned as one of the most important sites in Ireland for breeding seabirds.  It is designated as a Statutory Nature Reserve and Special Protection Area.


Brú na Bóinne


Knowth – photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Designated in 1993, Brú na Bóinne – Archaeological Ensemble of the Bend of the Boyne is a complex of Neolithic mounds, tombs, standing stones, and other prehistoric structures.  Human settlement at the site dates to at least 6,000 years ago, with built heritage dating from about 5,000 years ago.

At Brú na Bóinne, three large passage tombs known as Knowth, Newgrange, and Dowth dominate the landscape alongside an additional 90 monuments.  The tombs contain the largest group of megalithic art in Western Europe.  The tombs fell into disuse around 2900 BC, but the area continued to be the site of activity including the building of large earthen embanked circles, pit circles, and pit and wooden post circles (henges).

UNESCO Site: Brú na Bóinne / Skellig Michael

World Heritage Ireland: Brú na Bóinne / Skellig Michael

Heritage Ireland: Brú na Bóinne / Skellig Michael

Discover Ireland: Brú na Bóinne / Skellig Michael

Facts versus Interpretation and Why Historians Disagree

In popular culture, I think there’s a tendency to shrug off the study of history as the memorisation of dates and facts. This ignores a fundamental element of history: it’s open to interpretation. Not only that, but ‘history’ tends to have been interpreted by the time it reaches its audience.

This doesn’t mean, however, that historians can say whatever they want and it will be considered ‘fact’. There’s a number of practices in place that historians follow that allow for reasonable interpretations to shine through, including:

  • Drawing from a wide range of sources of information
  • Clearly referencing where ideas come from
  • Situating any work within the existing historiography
  • Utilising peer-review

For example, when I sit down at a desk in the library to answer a question that’s popped up while I’m writing, I’ll typically have a stack of 6 or 8 books sitting next to me and I’ll look at every one as I develop my answer.


You see, there’s an interesting element to being a historian and to reading historical works, particularly academic monographs (books on one historical topic), essay collections (usually published in book form, where each chapter is written by a different historian and the entire book is edited by one or more historians), and journal articles in peer-reviewed journals: in these works, historians are giving their opinions or interpretations rather than reciting a list of ‘facts’.

There’s a difference between giving facts and giving opinion. Here’s an example:

Fact: The British Parliament passed the Slave Emancipation Act in 1833.

Interpretation: Following a decade of intense public pressure, the British Parliament passed the Slave Emancipation Act in 1833 in part because of parliamentary reforms the previous year and because key politicians were able to negotiate acceptable terms with absentee planters in London.

Dates tend to be factual. As a result, they usually don’t need to be cited because they don’t contain anyone’s opinion. There is consensus and agreement backed up by ‘proof’. This highlights a key point of academic historical writing: the importance of clear citations and referencing. Academic, peer-reviewed works are full of footnotes because the author has drawn their information and come to their conclusions from a range of sources. They will want to acknowledge where their ideas and information have come from, so that a reader can go back and look at the documents and the interpretations for him or herself.

Let me expand for a minute on the interpretation I gave above. First, I believe more people in more regions were enfranchised in 1832 with the passing of the Reform Act, leading to a change in the makeup of Parliament (including a further lessening of the West Indian interest’s presence). Second, as a slavery historian who has studied the role of anti-abolitionists extensively, I have to acknowledge the role that planters played in the shaping of abolition. I typically study the opposition to abolition and view abolition as a debate rather than as an inevitable progressive process, and so my individual experience (in terms of education, sources of information that I’ve used in the past, etc.), history of work (as demonstrated by my list of publications), and sub-field of research (up until recently it’s perhaps best characterised as British proslavery sentiment) directly impacts upon my interpretation.

If I were stating this assertion in an essay or article, I would also cite historians who agree with me and explain how they came to their conclusions (such as what sources they were drawing upon and what elements they deemed to be more or less important in their research) and perhaps mention historians whose interpretations differ from mine and then explain why I disagree with them. This then ties into the importance of including information on historiography in writing about history.

Historiography is the study of the writing of history. It looks at how historical events are interpreted by historians over time. So yes, as a field, we openly acknowledge that, as historians, we are interpreting what we read and study and that our writing is full of opinion. Hopefully that opinion is grounded in widely-agreed upon facts, upon primary sources of information that have been seen by the historian, and upon information from the widest range of sources available, but it is still an opinion. Including information on what other historians have written in peer-reviewed works helps check this information, and including information on the most recent interpretations out there helps ensure that the information and interpretations are up-to-date and relevant to today’s field of research, because the ways in which historians have interpreted history have changed through the years, as has the information available upon which to build one’s ideas and interpretations.

It’s also important to note that this acknowledgement of interpretation is a key difference between a history textbook and an academic monograph. A textbook tends to state ‘what happened’ without allowing for the divergence of opinion and without footnotes or clear referencing that allows readers to look up where this information is coming from and what opinions underline the chosen manner in which the facts are presented to the reader. If students don’t study history beyond the secondary level, they rarely get the chance to see that history is a subject full of interpretation and debate and how large of a role the author of a text has in shaping their readers’ views. It’s also why textbooks aren’t very useful when it comes to writing history essays.

Finally, you’ve probably noticed that I’ve mentioned the term ‘peer-reviewed’ several times in this post. The peer-review process is considered to be a vital step in the publication process of academic presses and journals to maintain the publisher’s standards. Typically done anonymously, any historical writing submitted to an academic press or journal that participates in the peer-review process will be sent to one or more historians in the field to be reviewed anonymously. Their feedback on everything from title and structure, to the legitimacy of the underlying argument or thesis, the quality of the research, and the novelty of the subject is then sent to the author via the publisher, who may or may not agree to accept the reviewers’ feedback.

A quick note: this post developed out of recent discussions in the media about facts. Historians seek out the truth on a daily basis; we’re just also very honest about how we’re contextualising what we believe to be the truth through the process of writing, peer-review, and publication, clear referencing, and the acknowledgement of what other experts have to say about our subject.

For some additional interpretations of the example given above — why slavery was abolished in 1833 — why not check out webpages devoted to the topic by The National Archives (UK), BBC History (UK), or the Canadian Encyclopedia (Canada)? You’ll probably find some similarities and some differing points of view.

More Maps: John Speed’s Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine


Photo Credit: Cambridge University Library; Creative Commons License

Back with more historic maps which may be useful for generating class discussion on how such sources illustrate perceptions and views of the British and Irish in the wider world.

Today we’re highlighting the first atlas to cover the British Isles as a whole, as well as the first work to make comprehensive plans of many English and Welsh towns available in print. English historian and geographer John Speed’s Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine was published in 1611/1612, with a print run of approximately 500 copies. Each of the English and Welsh counties and the four provinces of Ireland was separately depicted, along with a larger view of Scotland.


Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Speed used previously compiled sources to inform his Theatre, but he made the maps and other elements himself.  The maps are rich with details of local history, fashions, and features, all of which would be useful in the classroom to provide a view of life in the Tudor and Jacobean eras.

With the publication of the Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine, Speed was well on his way to becoming the best-known mapmaker of his era.


Photo credit: Cambridge University Library; Creative Commons License

Cambridge University Library has a remarkable digital resource utilizing one of their five proof copies of Speed’s atlas.  It can be found here.

Additional Sources:

Annie Taylor, “A Theatre of Treasures,” Cambridge University Special Collections.

Ashley Baynton-Williams, John Speed Biography Part I, Part II, and Part III.

“Mapping the Origins of a Masterpiece,” University of Cambridge.

Up Helly Aa Round-Up


Up Helly Aa procession, 2010 – photo source: Wikimedia Commons

Up Helly Aa, the festival celebrating Shetland’s history and Norse roots, culminated in Lerwick earlier this week with a procession, lit by 1000 torches, and burning of a galley boat.  Other local festivities will be held throughout Shetland until March.

First records date the winter festival to 1824 when a visiting minister wrote: ‘The whole town was in an uproar: from twelve o’clock last night until late this night blowing of horns, beating of drums, tinkling of old tin kettles, firing of guns, shouting, bawling, fiddling, fifeing, drinking, fighting.’

– Up Helly Aa Committee

The modern form of Up Helly Aa, with the galley burning, dates to about 130 years ago.

Description of the Events and Listing of Festivities and Recap of Lerwick’s procession

History of Up Helly Aa

Official Website

Shetland Library, Very Brief History of Up Helly Aa

Alison Campsie, “Hundreds of ‘Vikings’ gather for Up Helly Aa in Shetland,” The Scotsman

BBC News article on Up Helly Aa and Video of this year’s procession in Lerwick

Pictures from this year’s festivities (and here)

On the 75th Anniversary of US Troops’ Arrival in Belfast


Northern Ireland. People watching members of the first contingent of the New American Expeditionary Forces as they march to their trains after disembarking from transports – photo credit: Library of Congress

After the United States entered World War II following the attacks on Pearl Harbor, the first American troops were deployed to assist in the defense of the United Kingdom.  US troops debarked in Belfast on January 26, 1942, a contingent of 4,058 led by Major General Russell P. Hartle. Private First Class Milburn H. Henke was the first to descend the gangplank onto Northern Irish soil. By May of that year, about 32,000 troops and 2 divisions were in Northern Ireland.

US troop presence had an impact throughout Northern Ireland. For example, the 34th Infantry Division was headquartered in Omagh, County Tyrone, while the 1st Armored Division was based at Castlewellan, County Down.  The V Corps was headquartered in Lurgan, County Antrim, and American soldiers and sailors participated in training throughout the country.

Each American soldier and sailor received A Pocket Guide to Northern Ireland to get them “acquainted with the Irish, their country, and their ways.”

“You will start out with good prospects,” the guide enthused.  “The Irish like Americans.  Virtually every Irishman has friends or relatives in the United States; he is predisposed in your favor and anxious to hear what you have to say.  This, however, puts you under a definite obligation: you will be expected to live up to the Irishman’s high opinion of Americans.  That’s a real responsibility.”

Over the course of the war, 300,000 American servicemen were stationed in Northern Ireland.  American troops in the United Kingdom worked with British forces to fight for control of the Atlantic and Mediterranean, to launch operations for invasions of North Africa, the air war in Europe, and D-Day.


British Sergeant instructs U.S. gunners. A British Sergeant taking some of the U.S. troops in Northern Ireland through a course of light A.A. gun drill – photo credit: Library of Congress

See also:

The American Battle Monuments Commission’s interactive resources on Americans in Great Britain, 1942-1945

Francis M. Carroll, “United States Armed Forces in Northern Ireland During World War II,” New Hibernia Review 12, no. 2 (Summer 2008)

Images of the American troops from the Belfast Telegraph

My New Article in Slavery & Abolition

Hello 2017! It’s great to be back and to be blogging again. It’s been a busy few weeks, as I’m sure it’s been for all of you, too! Probably the most exciting professional development for me is that my new article has been published in Slavery & Abolition!

You might remember that last spring I wrote about the Wellesley Index and how great this resource is for finding out about authorship of anonymously written articles in popular 19th century periodicals. I wrote that blog post in the midst of working my way though the latest draft of my article, ‘The Edinburgh Review, The Quarterly Review, and the Contributions of the Periodical to the Slavery Debates’, which has now been published online by Slavery & Abolition. I also provided some resources for finding information about 19th century readers that I had come across while trying to assess the potential impact and readership of these periodicals.

At the time I was writing about how the slavery debates unfolded in the pages of these popular works. The Edinburgh Review and The Quarterly Review were two of the biggest periodicals (journals) in early 19th century Britain and they took opposing sides in the slavery debates. In my article I examined the background that led to this division, the major arguments, and the ways in which they attempted to prove that their position was superior to that of their opposition.

One characteristic of the reviews that I was working with is that they were written anonymously under the overall name and responsibility of the journal’s editor. Some historians have asserted that readers would likely have known at least some of the authors at that time (although false attributions also occurred) but this information could have been lost if it weren’t for resources like The Wellesley Index to Victorian Periodicals, 1824-1900. Thanks to the Index, I was able to draw connections between authors and editors across a number of periodicals to spot examples of times where the authors had a history of taking one side or the other, held political office, or were possibly hostile to the competition for personal reasons.


Excerpt from [John Gibson Lockhart], ‘Art. IV.’, The Quarterly Review 50.100 (Jan 1834), p. 374.

It was really interesting to watch how the debate unfolded and assess why these journals took opposing sides in the slavery debates. From the excerpt above you can see that, in the course of reviewing popular works, the reviewers shared their personal and professional opinions using passionate language and unrestrained opinion and in turn could find themselves subject to criticism. Lockhart’s above takedown of the abolition movement and the passing of the Slave Emancipation Act, for example, draws significant fire from the Edinburgh Review. Not only did the anonymous reviewers defend their positions and attempted to dismantle their opposition’s platform, but they also attacked one another. It’s a topic that’s kept me coming back for years. Be sure to check it out online now or in a print issue in the coming months (date TBC).

The United Kingdom and Ireland from the International Space Station


London at Night – photo credit: NASA/Cmdr Chris Hadfield (wikimedia commons)

As an historian of the modern era, it’s easy for me to get caught up in the details and events of the past that can easily be related to the current day without considering that I am only looking at a tiny slice of human history.  I’ve been thinking about different ways in which to perceive and wrap my mind around the vast scope of the history of humanity, and our current-day place in it.


Dublin from the ISS – photo credit: NASA/Cmdr Chris Hadfield (wikimedia commons)

One way that came to mind was to look at the world from an outside vantage point – from space.  This might be a good way to present the scope of history to students as well, as a means to spark conversation.


Thames Topsoil Flow – photo credit: NASA/Cmdr Chris Hadfield (wikimedia commons)

Canadian Astronaut Chris Hadfield, who took over 45,000 pictures of Earth in his five months on the International Space Station, writes that seeing the world from a different angle helped him to understand the world better.

Those spectacular, two-thousand-mile views make you a lot more aware of the big picture.

Every landscape, whether man-made or wholly natural, has a backstory.  Going to space forced me to figure some of them out – and doing that has changed, irrevocably, the way I perceive the world.  For instance, I have a much deeper appreciation for the immensity of time.  Today, driving down the highway near my house, I pass a hill and register not just a hump of rocky soil, but also the glacier that clawed and bumped it into existence thousands of years ago.  I recognize the vast lakes and rivers near my home for what they really are: comparatively puny remnants of an enormous inland body of water, whose traces I saw from the ISS.

Being able to perceive the narrative line behind our planet’s shapes, shadows and colors is a bit like having a sixth sense.  It provides a new perspective; we are small, so much smaller even than we may have thought.  To me, that’s not a frightening idea.  It’s a helpful corrective to the frantic self-importance we are prone to as a species – and also a reminder to make the most of our moment on this beautiful, strange, durable yet fragile planet.

– Chris Hadfield, You Are Here: Around the World in 92 Minutes (2014)


Wales from the International Space Station – photo credit: NASA/Cmdr Hadfield (Wikimedia Commons)

Hadfield writes,

Europe’s multiple personalities, apparent even 240 miles above Earth, were shaped by the whims of geology and climate – but also because of millennia of cultivation by different groups of humans with evolving ideas about how to make the most of a relatively small continent.

Seeing the world from afar can help in understanding how geography and geology have influenced human movements and choices (and how humans have impacted the world).   It can highlight interconnections that we might not have noticed before, or barriers.  It illustrates change and continuity over the long scale of history that can be hard to grasp from the modernist perspective.