CHA Reflections


I’m back! Did you miss me? For those who missed last week’s programming notice, the blog and my Twitter feed have been a little quiet as of late because I was off attending this year’s Canadian Historical Association’s Annual Meeting. As with most conferences, this year’s CHA was a blast, and totally exhausting. Before we let this year’s CHA fade gently into the night, I wanted to take the opportunity to reflect on my experiences, what I learned, and what we and I can take forward for CHA 2018. Enjoy!


Decolonizing 1867 and Indigenizing the CHA

While the conference officially kicked off on Monday, May 28th, I was absolutely not going to miss the special workshop on Sunday, organized by Kathryn Magee-Labelle and Stacey Nation-Knapper. Officially sponsored by the Wilson Institute, this workshop, entitled “Decolonizing 1867: Stories from the People,” * was absolutely amazing and was, hands down, my favourite panel or event from this year’s CHA. It was, I think, a model for how all academic conference panels should be.

What do I mean by that? From the outside, it looked pretty standard, with six presenters speaking about their research. But it was anything but standard. Magee-Labelle and Nation-Knapper did a fantastic job of cultivating an atmosphere of sharing, teaching, and learning. This was accomplished in several ways, including having the entire room sit together in a circle (or as much as possible when the desks are bolted to the floor) so that we could all see each other, introducing a talking feather for both presenters and audience, and inviting all attendees to partake in some wonderful foods, including bison meatballs, bannock, wild rice salad, and cheesecake. The result was that the panel felt more like a conversation taking place over good food than anything else.

This panel also took the usual step of having two Indigenous artists open up discussions. First was Catherine Tammaro, an artist and the Communication Officer for the Wyandot Anderdon nation, who showcased a beautiful piece painting that spoke to the overall themes of the evening, reminding us that the customs of this country did not start 150 years ago.

Second was Helen Knott, of Dane Naa, Nehiyaw, and mixed European descent and from Propher River First Nation, who shared two of her absolutely beautiful poems, titled “Canada 150. We Are Still Here, or Have You Forgotten?” and “Indigenous Diaspora: Out of Place in Place.” As many of you are already aware, one of my unofficial mottos is that “The Historical is Personal.” Tammaro and Knott’s contributions helped to ground the workshop in the present, re-centring the experiences of Indigenous peoples in Canada, and showing how 1867 continues to loom large in Indigenous communities all over the country. I also greatly appreciated how the participation of Tammaro and Knott also helped to break down barriers between academics and non-academics, while emphasizing that our research has real-world consequences.

Finally, while all of the presenters were fantastic (and major props to Brittany Luby for organizing her paper around the theme of “choose your own adventure!”), what struck me the most was that their papers were not structured in the same ways as more traditional papers. Usually historians will talk about their latest research and what they learned. But in this case, each presenter spoke about how their research related to an overall theme of showing how Indigenous peoples experienced 1867. Their papers were an invitation for everyone, scholars and non-scholars, to reflect on our own real and imagined connections to 1867. I was especially struck by Jesse Thistle’s discussion of the Montour family, and how while 1864 is usually associated with the Charlottetown conference, for the Montours it also marked the birth of their first daughter. More importantly, each of these papers emphasized the ongoing consequences of 1867 for Indigenous peoples, and the ways in which Indigenous peoples are on the rise. As Knott put it, in her poem on “Canada 150”:



Coming up on one hundred and fifty years

I guess that makes you pretty old eh?

It explains your memory lapses

Don’t worry,

The daughters and sons of dishonoured treaties and unceded territories

will be here to remind you

Oh, did you already forget?

We are still here.


* And bonus, there will be a follow-up post on Active History and subsequent publication! Yay!


Territorial Acknowledgements

When I downloaded the CHA App, I was pleasantly surprised to see that it included, in the section called simply “CHA,” a territorial acknowledgement. I was also pleasantly surprised to see that a number of panels, including my own on Social Media, started with a territorial acknowledgement, though I would like to see this being standard for all panels, regardless of subject. However, I was still left feeling uneasy. As many people far wiser and knowledgeable than myself have pointed out, most notably Adele Perry and Chelsea Vowel, “The way in which territorial acknowledgments are delivered must matter. Are they formulaic recitations that barely penetrate the consciousness of the speaker and those listening? Are they something that must be ‘gotten through’ before the meeting or speech can begin?”

Expert Tip: There were also larger problems about territorial acknowledgements and reconciliation with Congress generally speaking, not the least of which includes the fact that the acknowledgement is almost impossible to find on the Congress 2017 website, despite their whole “on Indigenous Lands” thing. For a more detailed discussion of this problem, I would encourage you to read Danielle Lorenz’ blog post, “Congress 2017 – The Next 150, On Indigenous Lands: A Settler Colonial Reconciliatory Facade.”

While I appreciated their presence at the CHA, I often got the feeling that they were simply something that needed to be gotten through before we got “down to business.” Here’s the actual text of the territorial acknowledgement used at the CHA in the official program.

Welcome to Ryerson University. We acknowledge that the land on which we gather is the traditional territory of the Haudenosaunee, and most recently, the territory of the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation. The territory was the subject of the Dish With One Spoon Wampum Belt Covenant, an agreement between the Iroquois Confederacy and the Ojibwe and allied nations to peaceably share and care for the resources around the Great Lakes. is territory is also covered by the Upper Canada Treaties. Today, the meeting place of Toronto (from the Haudenosaunee word Tkaronto) is still the home to many Indigenous People from across Turtle Island and we are grateful to have the opportunity to work in the community, on this territory.

Which sounds great. Except 1) it’s located on page eleven of the program when it should be at the very beginning, and 2) every time I heard this, I wondered what happened with the Missassaugas of the New Credit First Nation and what is the Dish With One Spoon Wampum Belt Covenant? As a visitor to Toronto, it was totally on me to learn about the Indigenous history of the area, though I also realize that it is not feasible to include a detailed explanation at each panel.

Expert Tip: For those who would like to learn more about the Indigenous history of Toronto, check out this guide, compiled by the University of Toronto Libraries.

But if we are to truly honour the purposes of territorial acknowledgements, I think we need to do more. At the very minimum, why not provide a link to information about the Indigenous history of the Toronto area somewhere on the Congress or CHA website? This wouldn’t actually be hard, especially since the Ryerson School of Journalism already has a page on the Dish With One Spoon Wampum Belt Covenant, and the Two Row Times has an even better one. Or why not go further and have a special panel on the subject, perhaps including Indigenous community members if they are interested in participating (and I want to emphasize here that it is the responsibility of settlers to educate themselves, not for Indigenous peoples to educate settlers). Or maybe even organize a field trip slash walking tour, visiting some of the many of the resources available on Indigenous Toronto? I would like to see us do better at CHA 2018.

And as a side note, the best territorial acknowledgement that I saw was done by Joanna Joachim, who made sure to explain her personal family history and connection to this land.

Later edit: I do also want to note here that Krista McCracken mentioned on Twitter that one topic that was not addressed in the slightest was the fact that Ryerson was named after Edgerton Ryerson, a proponent and organizer of the residential school system. This was a serious lapse.


History and Education

Anyone who reads this blog knows that pedagogy is a particular interest of mine, and I attended two panels on education, but I counted at least five as well as additional individual papers, which is fantastic! But one particular moment stood out to me: Marie-Hélène Brunet’s remark that women’s history courses are not required for individuals hoping to become history teachers, or really anyone else doing history. Which, frankly, is terrifying. Now, I know what you’re going to say: that we don’t have similar requirements for any other topic, like Indigenous history or the history of ethnicity and immigration, and that history departments are allergic to requirements due to dropping enrolment. This is all absolutely true. But maybe it’s time to rethink this. As Brunet and the other members of the “Putting Women’s History into Action,” panel pointed out, the lack of required subjects, particularly when it comes to the training of history educators, is having a serious and negative impact on the education of students at all levels. As she discovered, many high school students only ever learn about the suffrage movement when it comes to women’s history. And yes, I am including university professors in this – just think about what your comps list did and did not cover.


Along similar lines, I would love to see more discussion about the mechanics of teaching, particularly when it comes to assignments. I really appreciated the frank discussion by Tom Peace and Amy Bell in their panel, “The Next 150: Research Learning, Institutional Histories, and the Colonial Past Roundtable,” where they reflected on the successes and failures of previous assignments. These are the fantastic people behind those Huron History Minutes that I adore. During the panel, I joked that we needed to have a conference on the theme of failures. But upon reflection, perhaps that is not such a crazy idea, particularly given the findings of the CHA’s National Survey of the Education Experience of Undergraduate Students, conducted by Stéphane Lévesque, J.M. McCutcheon, and Mark Currie.

While I did not attend their panel, they have helpfully posted their Powerpoint slides online (which you can see here). First of all, male undergraduate students in history continue to outnumber their female counterparts in English universities, including a 24% decrease in female enrolment in 2014, and this is very troubling. We are clearly not doing enough to make history a field that is welcome to people of any and all genders. Speaking as someone who was a female undergraduate in history, I found that the courses, with the exception of those explicitly dealing with women’s history, were almost exclusively male-centric. My sense as well is that as enrolment is declining, more departments are offering courses on WW1 and WW2, which they know will fill up, as opposed to women’s history courses, which are much riskier.

Similarly, the CHA’s survey also revealed that most students learn history by sitting in a classroom and listening to the professor while taking notes and are graded based on their ability to write research papers and exams. This is in spite of ample evidence showing that these are among the least effective ways to teach students. I would also argue that this is one of the most important reasons for declining enrolment – simply put, the way that history is being taught in most courses is boring! Ironically, history seems to be more popular than ever in pop culture, especially if you look at television shows like Downton Abbey and Vikings. So if enrolment in history undergraduate courses is declining, then maybe we need to take a hard look at the subjects and the methods that we use to teach.


The Work of History

Just as I love pedagogy, I also love learning about how historians do research, which is why I particularly enjoyed the panel on “New Technologies in Historical Research.” I was totally nerding out and am now planning to learn everything that I can about the programs the presenters mentioned. But there was one thing that struck me in particular while I was listening: the cost of history work. What do I mean by that? Well, I loved learning about the Alberta Land Settlement Infrastructure Project, the Federal Public Accounts database, web archiving, and the Landscapes of Injustice Project. I kept hearing all of the presenters emphasize that these were massive projects requiring the work of many people across multiple fields, many of whom are graduate students. And, in most cases, these projects are supported by federal or private grants. So while I am supremely grateful for this work, I can’t help but remember that the resources required to create such amazing work is almost completely inaccessible to early-career researchers, particularly those who are sessional instructors or who are currently unemployed. I was also reminded of this at the equally fantastic panel, “The Next 150: Research Learning, Institutional Histories, and the Colonial Past Roundtable,” where Amy Bell, Scott Cameron, and Thomas Peace discussed their work using project-based learning and the Confronting Colonialism: Land, Literacies, and Learning website. Again, this is absolutely fantastic work, but it depended to a large extent on a large support network of librarians, archivists, and students, in addition to funding.

Speaking as someone who has worked as a sessional for several years now, I don’t have access to most of these resources. Most SSHRC funding is only available to full faculty members, which means they are out of reach for many people, myself included. The same goes for most department and university grants. I don’t have extra money to pay for professional website designers and digitization services. And I certainly don’t have any students who can work for me (nor should I, since supervising graduate students is not included in your sessional salary!). With the increasing emphasis on digital history, the discipline of Canadian history is becoming increasingly inaccessible to many researchers, even as it depends heavily on their work.

As a side note, in the roundtable on Canadian historian and social media, we did briefly discuss the work of history and historians online – live-tweeting, blogging, etc… that is disproportionately performed by young female scholars – and how this work may be recognized and/or compensated. While we all agreed it was important, there are no clear answers.


But Without a Doubt, the Best Part Was…

…. meeting all of you! I wanted to take the time to thank each and every one of you who said such lovely things to me during the CHA! For most of the past year and a half, I’ve been working alone at home on the computer, and I’ve been pretty isolated. So it was absolutely wonderful to meet so many of you in person! I can’t possibly thank you all, since that would be a blog post in and of itself but I would especially like to thank Adele Perry, for her incredibly generous and kind spirit; Krista McCracken, for helping me find my way (literally and figuratively) and being so incredibly gracious and thoughtful; Jessica DeWitt, for being even funnier, awesome-er, and bad-ass-ier in person than on the Internet; Melissa Shaw, for being my CHA BFF and the best cheerleader you could imagine; Joanna Pearce, who doesn’t take crap from anyone but has so much empathy and compassion; Jenny Ellison, for being so inclusive, hilarious, and relatable; Lynne Marks, who is the best supervisor ever, and now has the award to prove it(!!!); and Clare Dale for giving me a place to stay, a person to kvetch with, and the chance to hang out with the sweetest kitty around. Special thanks also go to Jo McCutcheon, Patrizia Gentile,  Karen Balcom, Carmen Nielson (there in spirit!), Tarah Brookfield, Maxime Dagenais, and all of the women of the Academic Sharing Circle! We are such a fantastic community, and I think we are capable of so many awesome things!


Forgive the mushiness, but I think it’s important to recognize each other’s accomplishments as loudly and as often as possible! Especially since most of us suffer from imposter syndrome and are convinced we’re going to be found out. 😛

I hope you enjoyed this blog post!  If you did, please consider sharing it on the social media platform of your choice. I promise it’s the last one on the CHA, at least for this year. 😉 This Sunday we will be resuming our regular schedule and content with a special Canadian History Roundup covering the past two weeks (double the fun?). And stay tuned because we’re going to have some amazing blog posts coming up this summer! I have been plotting behind the scenes for a while… ::evil cackle:: See you soon!

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