Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Québec, Printemps 1918

The memorial pictured here commemorates the Quebec City riot of Easter weekend, 1918 [1]. It sits in St-Roch, a predominantly working-class neighborhood in Quebec City. It is right beside a bus shelter. In fact, part of the memorial (not pictured here, but directly to the right of the column) acts as a functional bench for those waiting for the bus.

On 1 April 1918, in this very area of St-Roch, soldiers from Ontario reacted to civilians whose opposition to conscription had turned violent. A lengthy text panel accompanies the stele. Named for Jean Provencher's 1974 play "Quebec, Printemps 1918", the text tells of the riot. If you click on the photo and zoom in, you can read the text. Alternatively, there is a Wikipedia page on the memorial that includes its full text.

The text tells that, for five days, citizens mounted active opposition to conscription. It tells that the federal government used anglophone soldiers from Ontario and the West to deal with the rioters. After reading the riot act in English only, it continues, the soldiers fired on the crowd, killing 4 and wounding 70 others. The panel explains the monument's symbolism, and lists the names of the 4 killed.

One of the friends I traveled to Quebec with this past weekend is writing his Master's thesis on the memorial. Chris is investigating the history it teaches, and the kind of memory it perpetuates. I am really looking forward to reading his work when it's finished, as, aside from what he told us in Quebec, I know absolutely nothing about the conscription crisis. I knew that there was some unfortunate thing called a conscription crisis, and that it featured some pretty angry Quebecois. This is likely, in part, a result of my failure to pay close enough attention in junior high Canadian history. But, wait: I wasn't a terrible student in junior high. I was even actively interested in history. I would like to think that, if the Quebec City riots had figured large in the curriculum, I would retain at least some memory of them.

I attended junior, and senior high school in Toronto from '93 - 2000. In those years, the story of the First World War that I learned of was about Vimy and Passchendale. It was about Canadian women on the home front. I just finished reading Jane Urquhart's The Stone Carvers; it's a fascinating and engaging read, and one that entirely corroborates the WWI story I learned. I'm quite sure my WWI story did not include any more than passing reference to opposition to conscription in Quebec. My WWI story certainly was clearly not heavily inspired by Provencher [2].

Another friend of mine, now doing PhD work in Canadian history, attended public school in Shawinigan in the mid- to late'90s. This likely sounds naive, but I was completely amazed to learn that his WWI story had not included the battlefields of the Western front. His was, it seems, more of a social history of Quebec, and a story of of tensions between local, provincial and federal politics and politicians of the time.

Standing in front of the Quebec, Printemps 1918 monument (and helping us to translate its text) Chris explained that there are huge inaccuracies in the story it tells. But who, in St-Roch, we wondered, would question its narrative? Further, if someone were to wonder at it, what would it take for him or her to research the history, and to challenge the narrative? We then started to wonder about the stories that monuments in Ontario had told us - stories that seemed so straightforward that we had never questioned them.

I'm not, in any way, trying to illustrate conspiracy, or propaganda. I don't know enough about the history of the conscription crisis in Canada, or about the ins-and-outs of our nation's different WWI narratives to do so. I just wanted to take a moment to reflect on the scope, and power of Canadian memories. Not until this past weekend did I appreciate just how disparate memories in Canada are, and will likely continue to be.


[1] See the Newspaper Extract, "Five civilians shot by soldiers in Quebec City
April 2, 1918" on the McCord Museum's Keys to History online exhibit
. I wrote a blog post a couple of months ago on the success of the McCord's online exhibits, and of the tagging and collecting functions that the My Folders function allows the museum's online visitor over digitized artefacts. I googled "quebec city 1918 riots", and the McCord's page, complete with a digitized image of La Presse's 2 April '18 page, was the fourth result listed. The page offers a short history of the riot, explaining its connection to the conscription crisis. While this page is useful, I will criticize the lack of navigation tools it offers me. I came at this artefact through a 'back door' - that is, by arriving at the precise artefact via my broad Google search. It seems that the artefact is, however, a part of someone's Folder of collected items. The Folder is unnamed, and I can't find a link to provide me with some context to understand who created this Folder.

[2] See Jean Provencher, Québec sous la loi des mesures de querre, 1918 (Trois-Rivières: Boréal-express, 1971). My friend who is working on this thesis told me that Provencher's interpretation remains the seminal Quebecois work on the conscription crisis.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Wolfe, in all his glory

Three good friends and I just got back from a 4-day road trip to Quebec City. Though we spent most of our time in Vieux Quebec, on Saturday we ventured as far as Battlefields National Park - better known as the Plains of Abraham. It was a damp, chilly afternoon, and we didn't linger very long on the windy Plains before going to get a big bowl of chocolat chaud. We did, however, see a good number of monuments while in the park. Of those we saw, the plaque pictured above is my favourite.

Three things about this plaque caught my attention. First, of course, was its outrageously old-fashioned-sounding text. With the issues that Litt, Wood and McKay raise on the topic of commemoration still fresh on my mind, I thought that it would be great to have a short informational plaque beside this one to state who put up the plaque, when they did so, and if, or, more likely, how it had been defaced in its lifetime.

Second, I realized, the plaque tells its colourful story first in English, followed by a French translation. We saw other plaques in the park that marked the position different divisions had taken on the day of the battle. They were of the same standard shape and size as this little one of Wolfe's. I wish I could remember now if any of the other such plaques featured their English text first, or if that primacy is reserved for ol' Wolfe, alone.

Third, this plaque's bombastic story seemed completely incongruous to the physicality of the monument itself. The plaque is embedded into a slab that is about the size of a modest gravestone.

As anyone who has been to the Plains will know, a tall column marks the spot where Wolfe died. The column is a short walk away from the small plaque. Four bronze plaques cover the four faces of the column's base. One reads, simply, (in French, followed by an English translation), "ICI MOURUT WOLFE LE TREIZE SEPTEMBRE 1759". There's really nothing noteworthy about that inscription. The other three plaques are, however, much more intriguing, as they relate the column's biography. They state that five successive Wolfe memorials occupied the spot. The first, they teach, was nothing more than a stone rolled to the spot after the battle in 1759. The British Army in Canada built a memorial in 1832. It was subsequently "destroyed" (how? why?), thereby forcing the Army to build another one in 1849. In 1913 the National Battlefields Commission built the 4th installment which "reproduced" the column of the previous incarnation. Finally, the Commission erected the 5th memorial in July 1963 "in replacement of the column which was destroyed on March 29th 1963."

What a story! It's too bad the column doesn't tell its visitor why the darn thing was destroyed so many times. Or, on second thought, is there value in sparking the visitor's curiosity so that she might try to uncover explanations on her own?

I really appreciated Kevin Marshall's comment on my last post that history is "messy", and that it "spills away from a historic site in a way that plaques can't possibly illustrate." Thanks, Kevin! I like that description. I do wonder, though: Might Wolfe's column - as much a memorial to itself as a memorial to the General - be a successful complement to the unabashedly old-fashioned Wolfe plaque that my friends and I encountered first? Might the odd combination of those two markers urge anyone intrigued by what their texts avoid stating outright to learn about, say, what was going on in Quebec City in '63?

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Public History as Interruption?

On the afternoon of Sunday 19 November, there was a bright yellow parrot in the William's Coffee Pub on Richmond St. A dapper looking older gentleman brought the bird into the shop with him. Man and uncaged bird sat together at a booth for a moment, watching the world go by. Then the bird squawked, hopped down from the booth and toddled around on the floor. The man scooped it up, set it on the table, and went to the counter alone to get a coffee. The bird stayed still, guarding the booth.

The scene, of course, woke me out of the stupor that reading the aforementioned, remarkably uninteresting, Europe in the Sixteenth Century textbook had put me in. The bright yellow bird also startled others. One young couple headed to claim the booth and, when they saw the parrot, were visibly discombobulated. They looked at each other, at the parrot, and then around at other customers ( who, like I was, were watching & waiting for their reaction). I could almost hear their thoughts - are we nuts? Does anyone else see that big, crazy-looking bird? I don't even need to tell you how the after-church ladies' crowd reacted to the scene.

While all of this transpired to my immediate left, two hundred paces to my right, outside the coffee shop and in the middle of Victoria Park, stood one of those stoic iron historical plaques that we had been reading about for that week's Public History class. The plaque commemorates the British Garrison in London.

The crazy parrot-related confusion on my left and the staid, quiet plaque in peaceful Victoria Park on my right seemed to occupy two entirely incongruous realities. Our commemorative plaques, I reflected, could do with being a little more like bright yellow parrots. Without tearing down all of our country's classy-looking little iron beauties (an act that would not only be expensive and wasteful, but would likely anger many[1]), perhaps we can update some of them. Perhaps we can infuse them with a little bit of the surprise value that the vision of a tropical bird in a London coffee shop engenders.

The plaque in Victoria Park waits patiently for the passerby to approach it. It is silent, and passive. This is all fine and good, as I'd imagine most of us don't want to be harassed by a commemoration when all we're after is a good coffee on a Sunday afternoon.

But what if we made even some of our plaques active? [2] What if we designed some of them to interrupt our busy activities? We have the means to make the public history equivalent to that yummy smell that Saint Cinnamon pumps out of its store - the one that makes you stop and take notice of your surroundings when you're barreling through the mall, too occupied with your Christmas shopping to really take note of anything extraneous.

American artist Shimon Attie installed a project in Berlin's Scheunenviertel district in 1992 titled "The Writing on the Wall." It consisted of slides of Jewish life in the '20s and '30s, projected onto the façades of the same, or nearby addresses in the district. Attie had been trying to make transparent the process of change through time, and, in this case, the loss of a people from Berlin.[3] Another similar temporary installation in Berlin was designed so that passerby set off a sensor which activated a projection of a short fact, such as, at this intersection, on 23 April 1943, Gestapo assembled 23 young German Jewish women from this community for deportation to Ravensbruck.

In my view, five factors work to make such a commemoration powerful:

1. Its 'surprise factor' - it instantly animated an otherwise innocuous-looking space,
2. it's relationship to the pedestrian - it appeared only when he or she occupied the immediate area,
3. the fact that it was a temporary art installation,
4. the fact that the event it commemorated took place at the exact spot where the commemoration now stood, and
5. that the Holocaust has become iconic in Western cultural memory

Now, clearly, there aren't any sites in London, ON, at which violent acts that would later be identified as part of the Holocaust occurred. I believe that the first four qualities on the above list can, however, be integrated into ongoing commemoration projects in a London context. Furthermore, I remain inspired by Carling's suggestion (made in our last Public History class, and reiterated on her recent blog post) that the Museum of Jurassic Technology struck her as more of a permanent art installation than a museum. I think that if public historians can fully embrace planning that places public commemoration in the realm of (permanent or temporary) installation art, as well as in the realm of history, we could create some genuinely dynamic projects.

Imagine, for example, walking by a normal-looking storefront on Dundas, say, just east of Richmond, when suddenly you hear,

"Hey, you! Yeah, you. You in the purple sweater. Beatrice McPherson lived here in 1911. She was very poor, and she lost her few belongings in a fire that same year."

This noisy commemoration could also (assuming it was programmed somehow) offer conflicting viewpoints of how Ms. McPherson's residence met its fiery demise. Half of the time, it could repeat one popular rumor that gained currency after the fire: that ol' Bea set the fire herself in a suicide attempt. The other half of the time it could repeat another: that the shopkeeper below was the arsonist.

This Ol' Bea example is fabricated (I don't know if there was a Bea on Dundas in 1911, and, if there was, I sincerely hope she didn't suffer a devastating fire). Further, an active monument isn't an original concept. In previous research projects, I have run across countless examples of what many refer to as "countermonuments" - projects that seek to challenge monuments' traditional form - in Germany. I'm certain they exist elsewhere.

The aim, however, of our hypothetical London example would be to work against the relegating of history to quiet, passive and often cordoned-off spaces [4]. Unfortunately, I'm sure we could all imagine that even the noisiest, most aesthetically interesting memorial could quickly become 'invisible.' It could only be a matter of time before the pestering memorial could become completely ordinary to Londoners.

Ideally, then, Ol' Bea would only be a temporary installation. Better yet, it could be one in a series of related commemorative installations. There is, after all, nothing more historical than constant change [5]. If we could attach such noisy plaques to places in the city that are in flux, (such as construction sites), we could work to animate commemoration.

Of course, Ontarians can boast a wealth of existing memorials and commemorative plaques. I would never advocate abandoning traditional memorial forms. I simply think there is much room for creative additions to our current memorial landscape.

[1] Paul Litt wrote of being reprimanded by an angry Torontonian who caught him in the act of replacing an old historical plaque in the city's Beaches area. "You are taking away our history", the elderly man had yelled. Litt's article charts the history of our historic plaques. Although he determines that many plaques are now artefacts in themselves, most Ontarians continue to see the merit in our provincial plaque program. See Litt,“Pliant Clio and Immutable Texts: The Historiography of a Historical Marking Program,” The Public Historian vol.19 no.4 (Fall 1997), pp.7-28.

[2] Patricia K. Wood's writing on historic sites that strive to re-animate the past led me to think about making commemoration noisy, and active. Wood criticizes, in particular, how living museums in Calgary physically relegate attempts at re-animating the past to suburban sites. If she so chooses, the Calgarian could entirely avoid living museums in the greater metropolitan area. Wood raises interesting questions: how can we make successful commemoration projects not only present in the city core, but also relevant to those who live, work, and travel there? How can we make sure that we integrate material commemoration of the past into our dynamic, and ever-growing cities? See Wood, “The Historic Site as a Cultural Text: A Geography of Heritage in Calgary, Alberta,” Material History Review (Fall 2000), pp.33-43

[3] See Eyestorm's 2003 article on Attie's work for some photographs of his installations.

[4] Again, Wood's critique of living museums in Calgary underscores the problem of keeping history in pristine, artificial areas outside of where 'real' people live, work and play.

[5] Ian McKay has written about the politics of public commemoration in Nova Scotia from 1935-64. His article tells that new kind of history for tourists' consumption in NS in that period was “profoundly anti-historical.” Instead of presenting change through time, McKay argued that bureaucrats and promoters sought to freeze a moment in time, for example, in an all-too-perfectly restored building. See McKay,“History and the Tourist Gaze: The Politics of Commemoration in Nova Scotia, 1935-1964,” Acadiensis vol.22 no.2 (1993), pp.102-38.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

a sense of belonging in a new home

All of us UWO Public History students have had the opportunity to conduct at least one interview in the course of our research for our Museum London exhibit. I genuinely enjoyed meeting with my interviewee. He is a collector of one of the technologies that our exhibit will feature, and he was most generous in sharing his time, and items from his personal library, to aid our research.

Furthermore, the whole experience really heightened my sense of belonging in London. The interview occurred about a month ago, during the same week as some of my colleagues and I returned to Museum London's artefact storage facility to examine the material a little more closely than we had on our initial trip in September. It was also during the same week as our Understanding Archives class took place at London Life Insurance, right downtown. The London Life building, the Museum, and my interviewee's house are all within walking distance of my own house, and of Western. By the end of the week, I was struck by how much more comfortable - by how much more at home - I felt in London. My sense of the geography of the city had expanded along with my sense of the city's identity and, of course, it's history. I had also begun to reflect on my own identity, and place, in this city.

Whether we are new to a given community or have lived in it for years, oral history and local history have great potential to heighten our experience of belonging in that community. Conducting oral history interviews and researching local material culture are a couple of ways to build up relationships between people. They can also help us construct (or build on existing) networks of local places, spaces and institutions. Finally, of course, such community research facilitates our sharing of information.

Community institutions such as churches, libraries, museums, galleries, theatres and regional, or municipal parks commissions are ideal candidates to lead community members in recreational oral history, and local history projects. If we could secure federal or provincial funding for those projects by explaining their potential for community-building, we'd be on our way. If we incorporate the building of an online, easy to use, open access digital repository for all of the information gathered an integral part of the project itself, I think we'd really be cookin'. Contributors would have the opportunity to hone their technical skills, too.

Today, there is truly an overabundance of opportunities for us to travel internationally. Work abroad programs, study opportunities, travel, internship and fellowship possibilities invite us to make virtually anywhere a new home. In our world, so many of us move around so much. Participation in discovering the history of the place we reside can amplify any interpersonal connections we make in a new home. Historical research has the potential to not only combat the newcomer's sense of dislocation, but also to help her become an active participant in the community.

Why can't I reflect in real time?

The last time I posted a blog was 18 November. That’s almost a quarter of a term ago. It doesn’t need saying, but I’ll say it: I’m clearly having trouble being active and reflective at the same time. My colleagues have figured it out, and I am inspired by their accomplishments. What ‘action’ has kept me from this blog?

  1. Museum text panel editing
  2. A presentation about what makes for an archive's successful educational outreach initiative
  3. A paper on how public access should be paramount among libraries’ mandates
  4. Interview transcribing
  5. Lately, shoveling. No matter how many times family cautioned me, I didn’t fully appreciate the “London is in a snow belt, y’know” comment until, well, last Thursday’s illustration.

We have all faced the challenges that assignments, deadlines, and inclement weather have mounted over the past few weeks. Once again, I commend my fellow public history students (please see the “blogroll”, at right) for their success in managing to meet such challenges, and to blog about their experience in real time. Our History 500 syllabus suggests that we're to "engage in 'reflective practice' throughout the term, responding to readings, discussions, and experiences as they occur."


The opportunity to post a blog on something that occurred in (even relatively) real time in invaluable. I've been fortunate to have had this experience a few times this term. The resulting blog post can, I think, really convey my excitement, wonder, or confusion about the subject at hand. In contrast, my scribbled, coffee-stained notes about an idea that I found engaging three weeks ago are certainly not inspiring sources for new blog posts.

Professor Turkel's History 513 syllabus reinforces the value of blogging in real time. It encourages us to use our computers during seminar meetings to look things up on online, to blog about the discussion, and even to "send backchannel text messages to other people in the room"! These are exciting, inspiring suggestions. If I could manage to act on them, I think some really dynamic writing could be the result. I just need to figure out how to operate in the 'real world' and the 'digital world' simultaneously. I do, however, strongly dislike that 'real'/'fake' world distinction. So, better yet, I would like to figure out how to conflate action and reflection - to make them, as I wrote in an earlier post, integrated layers of one big activity.

Sigh. It's an ongoing challenge. For now, I will have to settle for dusting off, and hoping to re-invigorate, some of those two- and three-week old reflections.