The Historian Writing Contemporary True Crime

By Greg Marquis

The true crime section of the local bookstore or library is a popular place. In addition, specialty television channels have a heavy rotation of true crime documentaries, series such as “48 Hours” and “Forensic Files” and docudramas based on celebrated crimes and criminals such as serial killers, gangsters and outlaw bikers.  Then there are popular podcasts such as “Serial” based on the trial and conviction of Baltimore teenager Adnan Syed for the murder of his girlfriend.

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52 Canterbury Street, Saint John Court Exhibit R. V. Denis Oland

According to Anita Biressi, a true crime book or magazine article, “unlike news or a documentary, is promoted primarily and explicitly as a leisure pursuit.”[1] By this criteria alone, the academic historian contemplating working on contemporary crime should probably quit at the outset- we are not trained or conditioned at graduate school or via grant writing, conference participation, peer-review publishing, or (hopefully) through teaching, to ‘entertain.’  Yet the public and trade (non-academic) publishers and reviewers expect accounts of well-known crimes that entertain. And public interest in a specific crime tends to be in direct proportion to the amount of media coverage accorded an investigation and trial. Thus the 2016 trial and acquittal of CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi, reporting for which helped start a national conversation on consensual sexual relationships, produced a book by Ken Donovan, published several months after Ghomeshi’s acquittal on sexual assault charges. In contrast, none of the thirty-seven homicides that took place in the Atlantic provinces in 2015 has been the subject of a book.[2]

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Remembering Danny Vickers

by Jerry Bannister

I remember the first day I saw Danny Vickers.  It was in September 1986, and he was one of the instructors in my first-year History course, “Ideas and Society in the West,” a team-taught lecture at Memorial University of Newfoundland.   He was tall, thin, and paced back and forth when he lectured, with a curious blend of anxious energy and relaxed reflection.  When he paused to make a point, he tended to cough, and he waved his arms around a lot.   We liked him and he had a good sense of humour in the classroom, but rumour around campus was that he was a tough marker who expected students to work hard.

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Daniel Vickers. Photo courtesy UBC.

When I took his fourth-year seminar on popular culture in Colonial America, I discovered that the rumours were true.  Danny expected a lot.  Each week we had to complete a ton of reading, most of it classics in English and American social history, and we had to keep a journal to demonstrate that we had grasped the arguments of each author.  We had to design a major research project, based on a diary or similar primary source, and then present a draft paper to the seminar for peer review.  After our presentation, Danny gave each of us an extensive list of revisions to be completed for the final version of the research paper.  At the end of the course, each of us received, typed on a red index card, an assessment of our performance for the term.

On my index card, Danny explained that I needed to improve my writing style, because I relied too much on the passive voice.  He had hammered me for my poor writing all term, and he was not going to let me off the hook.  But, in between the criticism, Danny suggested that I consider applying to do graduate work in history.  No one had ever suggested that to me before – I had some vague notion of going to law school – and I was stunned that someone who was so critical would think that I had a possible future as a graduate student.  Even now, 31 years later, I think about this when I advise my own students, because I know how much a single word of encouragement can impact a student.

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Barry Cahill reviews James Muir’s Law, Debt and Merchant Power: The Civil Courts of Eighteenth-Century Halifax (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016)

James Muir. Law, Debt and Merchant Power: The Civil Courts of Eighteenth-Century Halifax. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016)

By Barry Cahill

James Muir’s book is a densely-detailed study of the administration of civil justice in Halifax from its founding in 1749 to about 1766. Though legal history has been slow to reach the mainstream, this is a welcome addition to the increasingly sophisticated historiography of eighteenth-century Atlantic Canada.  Muir deals with all four civil courts – inferior court of common pleas, chancery, divorce, and vice-admiralty – , but his focus is chiefly on the first, where most of the litigation occurred. The argument is based on a close analysis, statistical and otherwise, of civil court case records, which are extensive for the jurisdiction and period concerned. Indeed, the book is a series of minute, if not microscopic, case studies.  The lens through which the evidence is viewed is both procedural and substantive law, involving the nature of action and process, and the narrative presupposes considerable technical knowledge of Anglo-American historical law.  This is not a book for amateurs or under-graduate students; it is hard-edged internal legal history.

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James Muir. Law, Debt and Merchant Power: The Civil Courts of Eighteenth-Century Halifax. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016).

At the higher methodological level, the work both fascinates and provokes. Muir claims that “This book is a work of social history” (9), but many social historians may not view it as such. Rather, they would see it as a work of legal history, a discipline that emerged in Canada in the early 1980sand was initially separate from mainstream history. Muir also states that the “political story” of Nova Scotia is not part of the study and claims that his socio-legal approach makes up for the absence of political history. In view of the “merchant power” in the book’s main title, however, such a claim is unsustainable. The power to which he refers was no less political than economic. The Justices Affair of 1752-53, for example, which Muir discusses, was a political struggle between rival mercantile and settlement groups – Englishmen and New Englanders (especially from Massachusetts) – and its resolution was a compromise that had significant legal and political ramifications. It is not possible to separate law and politics in early colonial Halifax, nor would making the “political story” part of the study preclude a social history approach. The point, however, is that this book is not a work of social history.

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Cutting Through the Fog: Public Memory and Confederation

The following post is the second in a series that features collaboration between the Acadiensis blog and the students in Jerry Bannister’s undergraduate and graduate Canadian Studies and History classes at Dalhousie University.

by Alex Martinborough

The 150th anniversary of Confederation is rapidly approaching, and around the country plans to commemorate the occasion are being implemented.  How the past is remembered and celebrated is a central component of national identity, and the ongoing process of nation-building.  Plans for Canada150 began as early as 2011 under the Harper Government, as a committee began preparing a report on previous commemorations[1] of the British North America Act, 1867 or as it is now called The Constitution Act, 1867.  The legacy of Confederation is highly complicated, especially as it remains shrouded in the nearly impenetrable fog of nationalist mythology.  Though coming to an agreement on a system that brought four, and eventually ten, provinces together was a significant accomplishment, neither the British North America Act nor its authors should be celebrated without reservation. Canada150 presents historians, and the broader Canadian public, a unique opportunity to consider how we discuss and commemorate our past.

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The Peace Tower

The idea of history, and as a result the nation, being under threat is hardly a new idea, the declensionist narrative serving as a powerful political tool.  Peter van Loan,  Conservative critic for Canadian Heritage, declared the plans for Canada150 to be “just another salvo in the Liberal war on history”[2].  The Conservative Party of Canada, building their arsenal from Granatstein’s Who Killed Canadian History, has long promoted a narrative of the country being torn apart due to inattention to our true history.  In this skirmish, Van Loan claims that the Liberals’ decision to have diversity and inclusion, Indigenous reconciliation, the environment, and youth as the themes of Canada150[3] demonstrates a sense of shame of our collective past that weakens the nation as a whole.  The idea that history is under siege because these themes are being promoted suggests a better or more truthful history, and that this history is fixed and unchanging.

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History not Enough: A Look at the Climate of Reconciliation in Canada Today

The following post is the first in a series that features collaboration between the Acadiensis blog and the students in Jerry Bannister’s undergraduate and graduate Canadian Studies and History classes at Dalhousie University.

by Mercedes Peters

Canadians following the news lately could probably say something about The Tragically Hip’s ailing frontman, Gord Downie, and his most recent artistic endeavor, The Secret Path.[1] The conceptual album, paired with a graphic novel designed by artist Jeff Lemire, tells the story of Chanie Wenjack, an Anishinaabe child who froze to death trying to escape his Northern Ontario residential school in 1966. Reactions to the album, to the CBC special which broadcast the live performance of The Secret Path, and to the accompanying documentary have been generally positive. Many see it as a continuation of the efforts of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), whose mandate to collect and tell the stories of Indian Residential School (IRS) survivors ended with the release of their final report in June, 2015.[2] Downie has been praised for his dedication to indigenous rights, and for once Canadians are participating in a dialogue about a once neglected history, acknowledging the horrors indigenous people in Canada have faced for centuries.  And this is a good thing. We need sustained conversations about IRS in the public sphere; we need them in the government. In this regard, the TRC has been crucial to ensuring that Canada does not forget this history, as has the work of Gord Downie and others like him. The history is important, the people dedicating their time to spread this knowledge are indispensable to the reconciliation movement, but Canada is only looking at a history, past tense, and that serves as a cause for worry. It appears that our satisfaction with these endeavors leaves us content with merely recognizing a tragic story. The real work—asking tough questions of ourselves and taking action to combat the legacy of these institutions and the existence of the systems that allowed the schools to flourish in the first place—goes undone.

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Gord Downie and Jeff Lemire. The Secret Path.

The TRC was, and still is, key to facilitating reconciliation in Canada, but we place too much weight on its existence as an example of our success in mending the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians. We are content to watch The Secret Path on TV, with reading stories about survivors on the CBC, with praising schoolboards for including the history of residential schools in their curriculums.[3] The issue with this is that the TRC was only meant to be the beginning of a much larger and more difficult task than merely collecting historical evidence. The late Roger Simon worried in an article published in Reconciling Canada—rightly, I would argue—in the months following the beginning of the TRC’s mandate that Canadians would see the material the Commission generated and do nothing with it.[4] This seems hard to believe, especially with the success of Downie’s work, and of books like Richard Wagamese’s Indian Horse and Joseph Boyden’s Wenjack on a national level. When we look at what we have achieved, however, in terms of indigenous rights, it’s clear that we have a long way to go.

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William C. Wicken reviews Marie Battiste, editor. Living Treaties: Narrating Mi’kmaw Treaty Relations. (Sydney, NS: Cape Breton University Press, 2016)

Marie Battiste, editor. Living Treaties: Narrating Mi’kmaw Treaty Relations. (Sydney, NS: Cape Breton University Press, 2016)

By William C. Wicken

This collection includes essays by political leaders, scholars, lawyers, and community activists discussing various aspects of the Mi’kmaw struggle to establish their treaty and aboriginal rights in Atlantic Canada. Most of the essays are by members of the Mi’kmaw community, providing insight to the history of this struggle and how community members think about relations with provincial and federal governments.

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Marie Battiste, ed., Living Treaties: Narrating Mi’kmaw Treaty Relations (Sydney: CBU Press, 2016).

Some of the essays focus on multiple elements of the ‘written’ past, using well-known archival records in tandem with memories passed down through parents and grandparents to re-interpret the numerous treaties which their people signed with British authorities in 1726, 1749, 1752, 1760/61, 1776, 1778, and 1779. Included in this group are essays by Patrick Augustine, Jaime Battiste, Fred Metallic, Pamela Palmeter, and Natasha Simon. Central to these essays is the idea that the Mi’kmaq agreed to live peacefully with British authorities but neither recognized British jurisdiction over Mi’kmaw lands nor submitted to British authority. At times, the authors make important insights into the historical record by including memories garnered from the community. Jamie Battiste, for instance, integrates a discussion of the Gabriel Sylliboy case of 1927-28 gleaned from various sources, including interviews with Sylliboy’s daughters. Similarly, Stephen Augustine discusses the stories his grandmother told him in order to discuss how the Mi’kmaq conceptualized the treaties.

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The Chinese Immigrant in the City: Reflections on Race, Class and Gender in the Public Spaces of St. John’s, Newfoundland, 1895-1949

by Miriam Wright

I first became interested in Chinese immigrants and public spaces through a public history project on the Chinese in Newfoundland my partner, Bob Hong, and I were part of a few years ago. In doing the research for the project, we were struck by the disjuncture between the historical presence and impact of the Chinese immigrants, and their near absence in both the academic literature and the popular images of Newfoundland and St. John’s.[1] Rather than being an invisible minority, Chinese immigrants were relatively numerous and had a highly visible presence in the city, with over 500 individuals (almost all men) arriving in the first half of the 20th century. Considering the population of St. John’s was about 20-30,000 in this period, those numbers are significant. Chinese immigrants also opened dozens of businesses including laundries, cafés, and restaurants throughout the commercial and downtown residential areas of St. John’s.

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Hop Wah Laundry, St. John’s, 1922. From City of St. John’s Archives.

The more recent literature on Chinese immigrants in North America emphasizes that the Chinese were never isolated but were part of diverse urban neighbourhoods.  In exploring the ways Chinese immigrants interacted with their neighbours, this research provides a richer view of urban life and the social and economic relationships that shaped it. Patrick Dunae et al. in their study of race and space in Victoria’s Chinatown, draw on the ideas of Henri Lefebvre who said space is “not only supported by social relations but is also producing and produced by social relations.”[2] This allows us to think about how the dynamics of race, class and gender get played out in public spaces in the city. I would argue that taking this approach, and looking at the encounters and relationships between people – Chinese immigrants, non-Chinese men, women and youth – in the streets and commercial establishments of St. John’s should help us start to think about the history of this city differently.

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James Howley’s The Beothucks and the historian’s imagination

by Jeff A Webb

As a much younger man I worked as a crew member on a couple of important archaeological sites in Newfoundland and Labrador. Among the pleasures of that work was the teamwork, in contrast to the largely solitary historical research in which I am now engaged, and of literally uncovering the past was immensely rewarding.  Kneeling in the middle of a sixteenth century Basque tryworks as the wind blew in from the ocean, it was easy to imagine the men who once worked in that exact spot. It was evocative to sit in a sleeping hollow in an eighteenth century Beothuk house and uncover finely made tools that had last been touched by those remote and mysterious people. (Forgive the romantic prose; we know the tropes of remoteness and mysteriousness say more about us that they do about the Beothuk.) In contrast to much of my undergraduate experience in which I learned of the past through the publications of historians, hardly a day passed that I didn’t feel that we were adding something to what was known.

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The Beothuks

Archival research can spur the imagination too. Sometimes a letter in the archive speaks so eloquently that we can imagine the voice of the author. I once happened upon a letter to Joe Smallwood, while he was the Barrelman, from my wife’s grandfather. Handwritten letters always seem more intimate that typewritten ones, and in that instance my imagination read the letter in Clayton’s voice.

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The Legacy of Coal: The Staple Trap

by David Frank

The writing is on the coal face wall, and it has been there for more than half a century. King Coal is on the way out, and beyond the coal country there is not much lamenting.

It was once a way of life for tens of thousands of Canadians, and for more than a century it was the country’s main source of industrial energy. At the end of the Second World War, coal still supplied more than half of Canada’s energy needs. But in the next decade coal was widely replaced by hydro, oil and gas.

With the environment minister’s recent confirmation that the federal government is phasing out the burning of coal by 2030, we seem to looking at the final chapter.

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The View from Underground, Dominion Coal c. 1945 (Source: Reel #10023, Series #1134, United Mine Workers of America, District 26, Public Archives of Nova Scotia)

Some provinces may find ways to continue using coal while also satisfying emission standards. Some may continue to import coal from overseas. There is even news of a small mine development on Cape Breton Island. And it is unlikely British Columbia will stop mining coal for export across the Pacific.

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Taking Silence Seriously: A Musing on Method and Oral Histories

By Sharon Myers

“How are you related to all these people down there?”  This seemingly innocuous question went unanswered in an oral history interview with then 82-years-old Rosella McCarron-Gallant. Twenty years ago, Island historian and broadcaster Dutch Thompson approached McCarron-Gallant to record her memories of the tale of Minnie McGee.

McGee and her family lived in poverty in the rural, eastern-most county of Prince Edward Island.  In April of 1912, all six of the McGee children died in very close sequence while exhibiting the same symptomology.  Attention turned to McGee who was found guilty of the only charge brought against her: the murder of her oldest son Johnnie.  Sentenced to hang, McGee confessed to brewing matches in the children’s tea and in sweetened water, thereby causing their deaths by phosphorous poisoning.  Her death sentence was eventually commuted but penitentiary officials soon thought her insane and she was returned from Dorchester to Falconwood Hospital, Prince Edward Island’s mental asylum.  Except for a brief sojourn to Kingston Penitentiary, McGee spent the rest of her life under the mantle of Falconwood Hospital.

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Dutch Thompson

McCarron-Gallant’s interview is one in a collection of over 1000 hours of oral histories collected by Dutch Thompson, now available through the University of Prince Edward Island’s digital archive, “Island Voices.”[1] Island Voices offers rich material to scholars who study rural life in the early 20th century.  Yet as rich and as instructive as that material often is, it is equally enigmatic and challenging on occasion.  The primary enigma I consider here is silence.

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