Somewhere in the middle of nowhere: Gander, Newfoundland on 9/11

In the afternoon of September 11, 2001, The Toronto Star published a rare “extra” edition of the paper with the huge headline “America Under Attack.” I’d been watching live television of the attacks all morning, but it hadn’t occurred to me, not knowing how to process what I was seeing, that that was specifically what was happening. America was under attack.

I thought about that headline, and other memories from that day, while watching Come From Away on Broadway last week. The unlikely musical, written by a Canadian couple, tells the story of the many Americans who were unable to land in the United States when U.S. airspace was suddenly closed, and instead ended up in the town of Gander, Newfoundland.

A Playbill insert explains that in order to create Come From Away, “writers Irene Sankoff and David Hein collected hundreds of hours of interviews with locals in Newfoundland, as well as the passengers who were stranded there during that fateful week.” The resulting dialog felt very true, and it was easy to believe that many lines had been lifted verbatim from real people.

I was deeply moved by Come From Away in ways I found surprising, though you should perhaps take that with a grain of Atlantic sea salt for a couple of reasons. One, since the show has no intermission, I ordered a double cocktail before settling into my seat and felt sobriety slip away throughout the performance. (The two thematic cocktails available at the theater [sic] bar were called The Islander and Kiss The Cod. I ordered The Islander, which, having apparently been created by a bartender unfamiliar with the subject matter, was a fruity tropical beverage. Wrong island!)

The other reason I got a bit emotional was more personal, even though I have no personal connection to the 9/11 attacks. More on that later.

Planes lined up in Gander, September 2001. In an era with many fewer amateur photographers, in a small town without major media, amazingly this is one of the only photos I could find of this scene. (Source)

It’s easy to forget how much the world has changed since 2001, as indicated, for example, by the existence of that extra print edition of The Star. Many people didn’t have cell phones, and the phones that existed didn’t have web access. News websites existed but were not as robust as they are today. As the attacks unfolded, people looked to television and newsprint for updates, and used pay phones and other landlines to get in touch with friends and family.

Unless you were on a plane, in which case chances are you had little to no idea what was going on or ability to contact the outside world. Some pilots chose to downplay or mislead their passengers about the events unfolding in the U.S., while other pilots were kept in the dark themselves, unclear on why they’d suddenly been diverted and told to land.

As soon as the FAA closed U.S. airspace, the Canadian government ordered Canadian airports to receive those flights that suddenly had nowhere else to land. During the emergency, “planes were entering Canadian airspace at a rate of one to two planes per minute.” In the confusion and panic of that morning, there were many false reports of additional hijackings and bombs, and no one knew if these flights were safe. As the mayor character in Come From Away grimly but accurately notes, as many planes as possible were to land in his town rather than at busier airports in more populous areas to ensure fewer people were being placed at risk.

Gander was only one of seventeen Canadian airports to accept diverted flights, but it stands out for the staggering ratio of passengers to population. Fewer than 10,000 people called Gander home when about 38 planes carrying around 6,500 people suddenly showed up. (The fact that I can’t confidently be more specific than “about 38 planes,” regarding a relatively recent event taking place within a highly regulated and heavily monitored environment, should give you reason to question any historical facts you think you know. I’ve seen reports of 37, 38, and 39 planes, possibly due to inconsistent accounting of civilian vs. military aircraft. Different government agencies and officials also disagree on the total number of diverted planes that landed throughout Canada that day as part of what was called “Operation Yellow Ribbon,” reporting a range of between 224 and 250 planes!)

The musical portrays many of the logistical problems that had to be dealt with: where to shelter all these people, how to transport them in the middle of a bus driver strike, what to feed them, how to clothe and care for them, not to mention what to do about animals in the cargo-holds. The audience also relives, through the characters of Gander, what it was like to first hear the news of the attacks, and then witnesses, through the passengers, what it might have felt like to have heard very little while trapped on planes for up to 28 hours, only to have a day’s worth of terror dumped on them all at once.

Those scenes gave me chills, but they’re still not the thing that, aside from The Islander, made me the most emotional.

Come From Away is one of the best, most nuanced, and likable artistic expressions of Canadian culture I’ve ever seen. Stereotypes like Tim Hortons, Shoppers Drug Mart, and Rogers Cable news, so often used to depict Canadianness cheaply and unthinkingly, are placed in a meaningful context that actually provides a sense of how people in Gander live. Later, a “Heave Away” sing-a-long (complete with an Ugly Stick!) is followed by a reenactment of a screech-in ceremony which must seem at once charming and insane to American audiences.

And yet, the play isn’t even about Canada, and that’s what surprised and hit me. Ultimately, the protagonists are the stranded Americans, “the plane people” as locals call them. The celebratory climax is when they get to leave Canada and finally return home. The Canadian writers understood the show is fundamentally about America under attack. By weaving an affectionate and funny love letter about the people of Newfoundland into a story about another country’s tragedy and pain, Come From Away is insightful about and respectful of both countries at once.

It’s a story about Americans, written by Canadians, for Americans. And I got to see it as a Canadian living in America, surrounded by a mostly American audience, which made me feel a whole bunch of things at once.

As people walked passed me out of the theater [sic], I overheard “that was amazing,” “that was incredible,” and “do Canadians know about this?!” One ten-year-old girl was saying to her father, “it was like it was a whole, and we were one half of the whole.” She might have been talking about the performers and the audience. She might have been talking about the Canadians and their American guests.

Importantly, Come From Away doesn’t ignore the sadness and ugliness of that day and the days that followed. A medley of monotheistic prayers, emphasizing unity and understanding, is immediately followed by an angry mob verbally attacking muslim passengers. The hospitality and compassion at the heart of the show is made more important and powerful because it’s mixed in with the reality of fear and anti-muslim sentiment.

On October 2nd, 2001, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published a letter of gratitude from an American family recounting their involuntary stop in Newfoundland. It concluded: “This experience will stay with us during this time and continue to remind us that we have more friends than enemies in this world.”

Just one example of what it’s like to step on a mine

Here is a short story about what it’s like to step on a mine while you are invading the beaches of Normandy in a massive Allied push against the Nazis.

WO 11 Charles Cromwell Martin, awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) and the Military Medal (MM)

Just a few years earlier, even as the war had begun in Europe, Charlie Martin was a farmer in Dixie, now part of Mississauga, Ontario. But on June 6th, 1944, he was one of the first men to hit the shore as part of the largest seaborne invading force in history.

Martin was fresh off the boat and heading toward the town of Bernières-sur-Mer when he felt his foot step on something and heard a “click,” writes Mark Zuehlke in Juno Beach. He’d been trained to recognize what that click meant, as well as what would happen as soon as he lifted his foot. The German Schützenmine (“shoe mine,” pictured above) was designed to shoot “a canister loaded with 350 ball bearings” into the air in front of its victim.

Here’s how Zuehlke describes what happened in the next moment:

Martin was calm, for he had been trained to escape this kind of mine’s kill radius by simply dropping to the ground right beside it so that the ball bearings would spray out harmlessly overhead. But just as he made his move, a bullet struck his helmet, pierced right through the steel, and began spinning round and round inside the liner before exiting with such force that it tore the helmet clear off his head. Fortunately, the force of the bullet striking his head had also knocked him flat and the mine had exploded harmlessly overhead just as Martin had planned. Not bothering to retrieve his helmet, Martin fled the minefield and joined his small band.

Martin fought for almost another year before he was wounded badly enough in April 1945 that his war was over. (That’s yet another dramatic story. He was on a dyke in Holland when he ran “into a dug-in German with a machine gun. They both fired at the same time, Charlie killing the German while having his arm and leg broken, and as he fell, an anti-aircraft battery opened up and put shrapnel in his back.”)

He returned to Mississauga, had a family, a career working for the Ontario Department of Agriculture, and lived until 1997.

Canadian Club in New York

This weekend in New York I ran into a small piece of Canadian beverage history at Astor Wines & Spirits.

The writeup below the bottle says:

Without a doubt one of the most important whiskies of the 20th Century, Canadian Club was the go to dram for generations of whisky drinkers. This extremely rare expression was bottled by the great Hiram Walker company in its hayday and vintage dated to 1973. Only 1 bottle available.

Hiram Walker himself was American living in Detroit when he started to buy up land across the river in Windsor, Ontario, some of which became the site of the Canadian Club distillery. I remember watching Canadian Club TV commercials growing up about how it’s available in “150 Countries” and thinking that was just marketing, but it’s really true. It’s a well-known, well-liked whiskey world-wide.

Somewhat relatedly, if this talk of Canadian alcohol has you thinking of the Bloody Caesar cocktail, widely believed to have been invented in a Calgary hotel in 1969, I have a duty to mention that in 2010 my friend Adam McDowell reported that a very similar cocktail recipe was being made in Paris in 1936, and there are other references to similar drinks being imbibed in New York in 1909 and 1886.

That’s “sort of irrelevant,” counters cocktail historian Christine Sismondo, “because it didn’t take off in the United States. They may have come up with a clam juice-tomato cocktail before us; but they didn’t embrace it.”

By the way, if that 1973 Canadian Club tempts you, I didn’t buy it, so it’s still waiting for you on Lafayette St in Manhattan.

Nothing but the clothes on their backs

For more than 100 years, until 1996, Canada operated a system of Indian residential schools. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission found that children were separated from their families and placed in these schools “not to educate them, but primarily to break their link to their culture and identity.” To that end, when a child arrived at a residential school one of the first things the staff did was take away their clothes.

Martin Nicholas remembers arriving at a residential school in Manitoba in the 1950s. “My mom had prepared me in Native clothing. She had made me a buckskin jacket, beaded with fringes.… And my mom did beautiful work, and I was really proud of my clothes. And when I got to residential school, that first day I remember, they stripped us of our clothes.”

Lorna Morgan remembers wearing “these nice little beaded moccasins that my grandma had made me to wear for school, and I was very proud of them.” She says the staff took them and threw them in the garbage before issuing her new clothes, ones more consistent with the Christian Canadian culture she was meant to assimilate.

Taking away children’s clothes was intended to distance them from their cultures and families, and was only one of the factors that inspired many children to attempt to run away, back to their families, despite the risks. “At least thirty-three students died, usually due to exposure, after running away from school.”

The authorities pursued them doggedly, in at least one case going door-to-door, searching every house in town, looking for two children. Police and other agents of the state were able to do this even though “running away was not in itself a crime.” How?

“Most students were wearing school-issued clothing when they ran away, and, in some cases, principals tried, and even succeeded, in having them prosecuted for stealing the clothing they were wearing.”

In other words, the school took away their clothes, then used that theft to accuse the children themselves of stealing. In this way at least some children stayed trapped in the system, and were taken away from their families yet again.

From pages 2, 40, and 119 of the Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Photo: Thomas Moore, before and after being admitted to the Regina Indian Industrial School, Saskatchewan, in 1874. Library and Archives Canada, NL-022474

9 things I learned from Chelsea Vowel’s “Indigenous Writes”

I’ve just finished reading Indigenous Writes by Chelsea Vowel. The book’s subtitle is “A Guide to First Nations, Métis & Inuit Issues in Canada,” and it’s an excellent introduction to Indigenous issues in a contemporary context.

I want to tell you about this book and recommend it to you, but I don’t know how to write an actual book review. Instead, here are some of the things I learned from Indigenous Writes, including some things that I thought I knew but I didn’t really know, ya know?

This list is and should be embarrassing, because I should have known this stuff. Maybe you feel a similar embarrassment about your knowledge of Indigenous issues. Good news, that’s why the book exists!

1. I’m a settler

Vowel uses this term as a shorthand for “the non-Indigenous peoples living in Canada* who form the European-descended sociopolitical majority.” She spends a whole chapter discussing the word’s strengths, weaknesses, and alternatives, which I won’t summarize here, except to say that it was useful for me to hear how this is a descriptive term without pejorative intent (even though of course settler colonialism has caused a lot of harm, read on). Before reading this book I would have been less likely to think of “settler” as a key part of my identity, but I’ve now been convinced to start using it as a label for myself.

2. “Indian Status” is “deliberately convoluted and confusing”

It is possible for non-Indigenous people to have “Indian status,” a legal category defined and used by the government, while many actual Indigenous people are ineligible. That is bonkers. One of the reasons is that “for 116 years… Indian women who married non-Indians [lost] their status, while men who married non-Indian women not only kept their status but also passed status on to their non-Indian wives.” In other words, “Indigenous women and their children were specifically targeted for loss of status while non-Native women could become registered Indians!” And that’s just the beginning of the complex web of confusion.

3. Residential schools were horrific

I thought I knew this, but I don’t think I’ll really ever fully internalize it. Vowel starts by citing numbers (“I deal best with numbers… but even broken down into numbers, this hurts”):

150 years of operation
150,000 children who attended
6,000 children (at least) who died while in the system

The explicit objective of the system was cultural genocide. (Note that it’s a mistake to think “the word ‘culture’ somehow signals something was less than real genocide. Instead, scholars are arguing that destroying a group’s culture amounts to genocide plain and simple.”) Vowel encourages people to read the Truth and Reconciliation Report about residential schools, which I’m now finally doing.

4. Children are still being taken away

Even after the last residential school was closed down, though, the government continued to remove Indigenous children from their families at alarming rates. “Some estimate [that] close to 20,000” children were taken between 1960 and 1990, and that “70 to 90 percent of Indigenous children were placed in non-Indigenous homes.” Today there is an “ongoing removal of Indigenous children from their families in numbers that exceed those taken by the residential-school system and the Sixties Scoop combined.” Since this is ostensibly a history blog, I feel compelled to repeat that this is something happening in the present.

5. Nunavut is one of four “Inuit homeland” regions

Map Of Inuit Nunangat (via ITK)

You have heard of Nunavut because it is one of Canada’s territories. You might not know (I didn’t) that it’s one of four regions within “Inuit Nunangat, often translated as ‘the Inuit homeland.'” The other three are Inuvialuit, Nunavik (which is a huge chunk of Quebec), and Nunatsiavut. “Inuit are the majority population” in all of these regions, and “three quarters of Inuit people live in Inuit Nunangat.” I’ll never look at a map of Canada the same way again.

6. Starting in 1941, Inuit were required to wear ID tags

After learning about this from Indigenous Writes I kept reading additional sources and wrote about the “Eskimo Identification” tags at some length here.

7. Around 200 communities are under water advisories

Again, not history, but the result of history: Canada, one of the wealthiest nations in the world, had “138 drinking water advisories in 94 First Nations communities” as of September 2015. That doesn’t even include British Columbia, which is tracked separately, and where 116 First Nations were under drinking water advisories in 2012. These advisories often last for a long time, and at least one has been in place for 10 years.

8. Injustice did not stop at some arbitrary point in the past

Vowel makes this point explicitly and implicitly throughout the book, including through some examples I’ve shared above. She also emphasizes that when you read the report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, you should “understand…very clearly: current government policy continues to be wrong. RCAP was quite adamant about this when they released their final report in 1996, and not enough has changed in the 20 years since then.” I was guilty of lazily thinking of injustice towards Indigenous peoples as something that mostly happened in the past. I now think of it very much in the present tense.

9. Vowel reads a lot

The book is heavy on carefully-selected and contextualized endnotes. Vowel “worked as hard on the endnotes as I did on some of the chapters” for a number of reasons, including because “I want you to have a curated list” of further reading. Reading about history always raises more questions than it answers and I wish all books were this helpful and thorough in providing a way to chase after those new questions.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of what’s in this book, and I’ve also focused more on summarizing straightforward facts, which may give you the wrong impression, because Vowel also delves into complex issues and persuasively dismantles some dominant Canadian “myths.” She does so in a conversational tone, and even manages humour, too. Again, I recommend Indigenous Writes for anyone wanting to learn more about Indigenous issues in Canada today.

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*Ok technically I do not currently live in Canada, having moved to New York about three years ago, but I’m still from Canada, and New York is part of the same colonial history, so.

Coda on Inuit music

I’ve fallen one post behind on my commitment to blog weekly, due to travel and the last two posts being so dang long, so here are some outtakes from Canada’s mandatory “Eskimo Identification” tags to catch me up.

I mentioned a song by Lucie Idlout (pictured above) about Eskimo Identification tags. The song is called E5-770, My Mother’s Name. Here, you can listen while you read.

I learned about this song (and many other details and perspectives) from a paper called Reflections of a disk-less Inuk on Canada’s Eskimo identification system by Norma Dunning. Something I thought was very interesting (especially in the context of some Inuit laughing at the ID program) but didn’t fit into the post was Dunning’s interpretation of Idlout’s song.

Dunning argues that E5-770, My Mother’s Name is in the “traditional Inuit form of… an iviutit,” a type of song “used to embarrass people, to make fun of them, to make fun of their weaknesses.” These songs were used as a way of “evening the score” in place of physical violence. If you want to learn more about iviutit then apparently you should have read the book that my wife had on our shelf for years but then gave away before I ever got around to it.

Susan Aglukark also has a song about the disk system, called E186, which has a trance-like quality that got stuck in my head for most of the writing of the post.

Dunning compares this one to a traditional Inuit pisiq song, which she defines, quoting David Owingayak, as a song that “tells of things that happened in the past… sung with a drum.”

So concludes the 11th post of the 11th week. 41 to go.

Canada’s mandatory “Eskimo Identification” tags

In 1941, based on a proposal made in 1935, the Government of Canada began requiring Inuit to wear tags stamped with unique identification numbers. The Inuit word for the system was ujamiit. In English, the tags themselves — leather coin-sized disks that many people have likened to “dog tags” — read “Eskimo Identification Canada.”

I learned about this program from Chelsea Vowel’s Indigenous Writes, a book I strongly recommend and will come back to. Then, as always seems to happen, I set out to learn more and fell down a rabbit hole. The three main questions I’ve tried to tackle, all yielding surprisingly complex answers, are: why was this system put in place, how did it come to an end, and what is its legacy?

A rose by any other government-issued ID number

The apparent need for the program arose from the inability of increasing numbers of white people (first Christian missionaries, then government officials and RCMP officers) to understand, pronounce, and spell Inuit names. And because Inuit didn’t have surnames, the names they did have also weren’t considered unique.

Better record keeping and identification systems were desired to help administer government programs. Canada issued ID tags stamped with unique codes, starting with a region code and then an individual ID number, and instructed the recipients that they were to keep the disks on their person at all times. The numbers were also used in official government correspondence instead of names.

The cultural disconnect went even deeper than pronunciation and a lack of surnames, though. What I think is most important to understand, and what I almost certainly do not fully understand, is the very different significance and use of names in Inuit cultures compared to the culture of European settlers to the south.

“The government never considered… the importance of a name to the Inuit,” writes Norma Dunning. Names, which were not gendered, were given to children by elders, “who usually chose the name of someone who had recently died.” A 2006 article in The Toronto Star says that more than being a simple ancestral tribute, this practice could represent “the transmigration of souls:”

If a person died, the next baby born might not only be named after the person but also be regarded as that person.

‘The reason for this is that it eases the feeling of bereavement of the lost one,’ says Louis Tapardjuk, a long-time authority on the subject and now Nunavut’s minister of culture, language, elders and youth.

Another commonly-cited quotation, attributed to an Inuk woman, makes this idea even more explicit: “No child is only a child. If I give my grandfather’s atiq [soul name] to my baby daughter, she is my grandfather. I will call her ataatassiaq, grandfather.”

Additionally, reported the Star, “Inuit often changed their name.  A hunter suffering a lean winter might change names for good luck, perhaps going through five or six in his lifetime. Or he might be known by different names to different people.”

Names are not only important, but meaningful. Dunning says that Inuit names “[explain] kinship ties and how that person is connected within a group.” That’s similar to the purpose of a surname in other cultures. It seems to me the problem wasn’t that Inuit names didn’t encode family connections and relationships, it’s that the government didn’t know how to decode that information, and didn’t try.

Project Surname

In the 1960s opposition to the disk system grew, and the federal and territorial governments felt pressure to reform it. The trigger incident happened in 1969, when “Simonie Michael, the first elected aboriginal Canadian, spoke at a council meeting of his frustration about the continued use of disc numbers by the Canadian government.” The government created Project Surname, which was well-named, in that it was a project to assign surnames, the lack of which had been cited as an original reason for the ID tags.

One man, Abe Okpik, was central to the plan. Ann Meekitjuk Hanson explains:

Abe Okpik, a respected Inuk from the western Arctic, headed the project. Between 1968 and 1970, Abe visited every Inuit home and asked the families to choose a name. The head of the family picked a surname — often a relative’s given name — and we were no longer known by numbers.

One of the things that made Abe Okpik well-suited for the task was his “understanding of the different [Inuit] dialects” in addition to English, which made it easier for him to communicate as he traveled “from community to community.” (I’m struck by how often in Canada’s history individuals have either been empowered by their ability to speak multiple languages, or felled by language barriers. That’s probably a future post.)

Okpik’s travels took him “over 72,420 km and [he] interviewed more than 12,000 people,” writes Michelle Filice for The Canadian Encyclopedia. A year later, once everyone had been assigned a surname, the government stopped issuing ID numbers.


My initial reaction upon learning about Canada implementing mandatory identification badges in the significant year of 1941 was in the neighbourhood of horror. And you don’t have to dig deep to find Inuit today who feel very negatively about the program. But that feeling is not universal. According to Okpik himself (via Dunning’s paper), when he started working on Project Surname some people asked him “why are you taking our number away? It worked for us all this time!”

In the examples I’ve found, some Inuit who were issued tags react with humour, not just laughing off the tags but laughing at the government that deemed them necessary. Others, especially younger generations, are less likely to think this is funny, and connect the tags to greater injustices like forced relocations, residential schools, and the sled dog slaughter.

One Inuk, Zebedee Nungak, remembers his identification number E9-1956 fondly. (Inuktitut Magazine, 88:2000, pages 33-37) He thinks the fact that white people (Qallunaat) felt the need to use numbers for their record keeping is comical, and that the IDs ended up being “a unique feature of our distinct identity as Inuit,” a fun source of pride. He wishes he knew more about the behind-the-scenes conversations that deemed the disks necessary in the first place, and that his own disk, which he lost in childhood, could be officially replaced. He calls it “a handy I.D. for all purposes.”

David Ruben told The Toronto Star that he thinks of his number as “an extension of myself as a person,” and that he “[sees] the lighter side of it.”

In an interview with Dunning, an elder named Minnie Aodla Freeman “does not seem angry about the system. She says practically and sympathetically that the Inuit did not mind the tags because it was explained that the government could not understand their names.” Dunning and Freeman also laugh at the idea that Qallunaat believed the tags were actually worn all the time: “they were only worn on the days when a boat was coming into harbour,” says Freeman.

Dunning is clear that not everyone was laughing at the time, though. John Arnalukjuak said that they were afraid of losing their disks, because the RCMP issued them and told them not to lose them: “the RCMP were really bossy and you know, so we feared them.” Rachel Uyarasuk said “I was afraid to lose mine.”

Olivia Ikey Duncan grew up after the tags had fallen out of use, but she told the CBC’s DNTO that once she learned of the history of the tags, she got one tattooed on her arm as a reminder of “what the government tried to do with my people.”

“I guess it was with good intentions… but they didn’t think of us as a people, as a culture, as the children, the elders, the community. They didn’t put us in their heads and in their hearts.” She says the tattoo helps her understand the “hurt” and “neglect” from that period.

Lucie Idlout wrote a song about the tags after hearing a report that “Canada was rated as one of the top countries in the world to live in.” She thought that was “a fucking joke considering how many treaties have been broken and how many Aboriginal peoples live in poverty.” (Dunning, 216) When Sheila Watt-Cloutier talks about her tag, she immediately starts listing other ways Inuit experienced loss of “our language and culture.” She says the tags are tied up in the “legacy” of all those things and need to be talked about.

The way the tags were phased out through Project Surname is also not without problems. It might be a mistake to read the reaction Opik recounted (“why are you taking our numbers away?”) as approval of the ID system instead of as an objection to surnames as yet another culturally-ignorant governmental intrusion. Again, this all started, in part, because surnames were not an Inuit tradition. “Again,” writes Dunning, “the Inuit were being forced to absorb a governmental practice that did not recognize or respect their cultural norms. Again, the Inuit had to submit to a change imposed by the Canadian government.”

Filice summarizes the criticism this way:

Some Inuit preferred the disk system to Project Surname, arguing that it was less disruptive to identity traditions and less intrusive than other bureaucratic interventions. Most Inuit had accepted their disk numbers, and some had even become emotionally attached to them…. Some also criticized Okpik for speaking mostly to men and for using men’s names as their family’s new surname. This became a source of distress for women who came home to find their identity overturned and reassigned.

Dunning points out that Social Insurance Numbers were being rolled out to whites in the North West Territories around the same time as Project Surname. “Why not issue a social insurance number to the Inuit in replacement of their disk numbers and leave their names alone entirely?” (Notable differences between Eskimo Identification tags and Social Insurance Numbers include that the latter do not replace names entirely, and are of course not required to be worn.)

It’s been decades since ID tags were issued, but, in a Vice report, Duncan, the Woman With the Eskimo Identification Tattoo, describes an eerie practice that persisted to a new generation:

‘Growing up, all Inuit kids picked a number for themselves, like a lucky number, it was just a normal thing,’ says Olivia. ‘We signed everything with our numbers, I was number 8…my brother was 11. I guess it just kind of transferred over, weirdly, to this day.’

The same Vice report points out that the Government of Canada has never apologized for or directly addressed this program since it ended.

Stories about history are dangerous

To borrow Dan Carlin‘s phrase, I’m “not a historian, just a fan of history.” I read and listen to as much Canadian history as I can, then try to recount the events and facts that I find most interesting in a compelling way. This usually means I’m telling stories, which, if you want to be a little fancy, means I’m doing “amateur narrative history.”

It turns out narrative history is not only difficult but dangerous. This is a longer post than usual, because I think it’s important to explore the potential pitfalls of the kind of writing that appears on this internet web log site. I’ll also reveal some of the secret sausage making that’s gone into past posts, and provide a bit of a disclaimer for posts to come.

Emotive vs. historical empathy

Storytellers want to connect with their audience in an emotional way. That often means establishing a sense of empathy between the person hearing the story and the characters within. But empathizing with historical figures can be a lot harder than it seems, and attempts at empathy may leave you with a more distorted impression of the past than if you’d never felt anything at all.

A paper by Darren Bryant and Penney Clark explains two broad categories of empathy you might feel while learning about history. The first category is called “emotive empathy,” which is the type you’re most likely to experience when learning about history through stories.

When people feel emotive empathy, they “merely apply the understandings, beliefs, and experiences of their own worlds to interpret the experiences of historical agents and their worlds.” For example, a teacher might ask students to consider “what it might feel like” to be someone from the past, and ask them to “write a first-person account of that individual’s experiences.” But the average lay person would “rarely possess the contextual information or understanding to perform such a task with any degree of insight.” Instead, they end up “[projecting] their own feelings onto the historical actors” which risks exacerbating their “dubious historical orientation.”

Emotive empathy, therefore, is more like sympathy coupled with delusions of empathy. You don’t actually know how the historical person is feeling, but you imagine that you do.

The second category of empathy is “historical empathy.” Unlike emotive empathy, historical empathy “is in large part cognitive” and requires “an understanding that ‘people in the past not only lived in different circumstances… but also experienced and interpreted the world through different belief systems.’”

Historical empathy is a lot harder than emotive empathy, and that advanced difficulty is a feature, not a bug. Gathering enough context to cognitively reconstruct what it actually would have been like to experience past events with a totally different set of beliefs, values, and assumptions is so hard that the very process “acknowledges the limitations of our ability to understand the past.”

All of this means that if you’re picturing yourself in the shoes of someone from the past and you think you know what it would have been like to be them, or why they acted the way they did, you’re probably at least a little wrong.

Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story

But because great storytelling usually calls for the audience to be able to identify with characters in the story, a narrative historian has bad incentives on this count. While a level of healthy skepticism is built-in to the process of reaching historical empathy, the erasure of doubt and ambiguity is more naturally built-in to emotive storytelling.

The problem, Bryant and Clark write, is that if simple historical narratives are successful by the standards of storytelling, the viewer or reader will imagine themselves to actually be there in the past, and they will interpret that past by “[accessing] personal experiences” rather than through “cognitive tools” like consulting multiple sources and understanding the historical context.

They then apply this framework to the main focus of their paper, which is criticism of the use of emotive empathy in the 2000 CBC TV series Canada: A People’s History. The producers of that show, by their own accounts, “viewed interjection by historians to analyze evidence or suggest alternative interpretations as obstacles to the flow of the narrative.” Gordon Henderson, a senior producer, is quoted as saying “I would rather see the narrative driven; I’d rather see the story kept alive. We want to avoid history class. We want to keep telling stories.”

“The myth of progress”

On the one hand, I’m mildly scandalized that producers of a massive, federally-funded documentary series designed in part to be used in classrooms would be so dismissive of actual history. On the other hand, I can empathize (er, so to speak). I’ve certainly felt this tension.

And while storytellers have conflicting incentives, their audiences can also fall into traps. When considering the perspectives of people who had very different values or world views than your own, “historical empathy is atypical and counterintuitive for most students,” who tend to have a “working assumption… that people in the past were essentially the same as they were.”

One of the problems with assuming people in the past “were essentially the same” as you is you can end up judging their words and actions in unfair and inaccurate ways. As a result, research has found that “students tend to view historical people as ignorant or mentally defective in comparison to contemporary people,” and “students view change over time as progressive, improving on the way things were in the past.”

In her book Indigenous Writes, Chelsea Vowel writes about “the myth of progress,” and illustrates how this bias becomes additionally insidious when one of the things that “change over time” has produced is oppression and violence.

Vowel echoes Bryant and Clark when she describes “the myth that progress is tied to the passage of time, thus, things are always inevitably getting better.” As one example of how this plays out, she argues that this pervasive myth has directly reinforced colonialism. “The idea that Canadian society is evolving and progressing is an important part of” how many Canadians come to understand and process Canada’s colonial history. It becomes part of a “colonial imaginary” mythology, an “image… based not so much on historical fact as on ideological interpretation.” (119)

The assumption that progress is inevitably tied to the passage of time is maybe something you believe without really questioning it. I know I did, until I started reading history and finding counterexamples everywhere.

Show your work

Another problem with “presenting history… as ‘a story’” is that it is a “misrepresentation of how historical knowledge is created.” Stories have one definitive narrative, and they also tend to exploit binaries like hero vs. villain. But history is a messy collection of unresolved contradictions from multiple sources with multiple interpretations. That dissonance is never supposed to fully resolve.

Whenever I’ve started to research what I thought was a simple story I’ve quickly realized that it’s more complex than I assumed. Different sources have fully different versions of events, each answer reveals more questions, and there are rarely clearcut heroes and villains.

For example, in my telling of Mackenzie King’s diary about meeting Hitler, I only briefly touch on how many of his contemporaries shared his views, while simultaneously taking advantage of the fact that we, unlike Mackenzie King, know what’s coming. When talking about Canada signing on the wrong line of Japan’s World War II surrender, I present the story as if it’s a comedy, which totally falls apart if you stop to consider how the war had just ended for Japan, and the fact that Japan ends up being the butt of the joke. In my post about the “Operation Fish” plan to hide Britain’s gold in Canada, I play up the dramatic risks of the operation without including the precautions that were taken to successfully mitigate those risks.

Those are choices that I made in part to tell what I hope are compelling, engaging stories, as well as to keep posts short, which I realize is a principle I have now chosen to abandon. I don’t think that means I wrote anything that wasn’t true, and of course I try not to mislead. But I did discard some of the detail, context, nuance, and messiness, and in so doing may have contributed more towards emotional, rather than historical, empathy.

In Donnacona’s own words

Interestingly, Vowel also cautions “that it is too simplistic to think… in binaries” particularly when examining the histories and historical consequences of oppression and identity. (18) And it’s her area of focus — the histories of Indigenous peoples, colonialism, and the ongoing ramifications of those histories — that led me to Bryant and Clark’s paper in the first place.

I’ve been trying to figure out how to tell the story of Donnacona, a man who lived five hundred years ago along what we now call the Saint Lawrence River until he was kidnapped by men from another world, never to return home. Bryant and Clark’s paper turned up in my research because it criticizes how Donnacona’s story was told by Canada: A People’s History (CAPH).

Or, more accurately, it’s the story of Jacques Cartier, Donnacona’s kidnapper, that gets told. That’s because CAPH’s commitment to “tell Canada’s story through the eyes of the people who lived it” — by which they mean through actors reading primary sources, to the exclusion of historians and other experts who could provide context, interpretation, and alternative versions of events — confines us to Cartier’s account.

Donnacona didn’t write his side of the story down. We can’t know for sure what he knew, how he felt, what motivated him. If we want to guess, one way to do that is through the hard work of historical empathy. To try to get at “the understandings, beliefs, and experiences” of his world before even beginning to try to understand the story itself.

And then, even if we can do that extraordinarily well, rather than end up with one clear narrative we’ll instead be left holding a complex mesh of possibilities and paradoxes. That makes for good history, but complicates the story.

In the case of CAPH, write Bryant and Clark, storytelling wins out. “Viewers learn the opinions of Aboriginal peoples [including Donnacona and his sons] through interpretations offered by European characters,” resulting in “an empathetic distance from Aboriginal peoples and a sense of proximity to Europeans.”

Can’t stop won’t stop

I have no idea why you’ve read this far (omg thank you), but one of the reasons I’ve written all this is by way of asking permission to keep telling stories, admitting and acknowledging the shortcomings of doing so, and identifying ways to avoid the worst pitfalls of narrative history.

Even the Bryant and Clark paper I’ve quoted so heavily from doesn’t argue people shouldn’t consume narrative histories or attempt to tell each other stories about the past. The gateway drug to my current obsession with history was the Hamilton musical, which, while managing to convey a remarkable amount of historical fact, also falls into many of these traps. Millions of people still connected with it, though, and many of them went on to learn even more about the history through other avenues.

Historical stories and snapshots should be a starting point for discussion and exploration. Students of history who create or consume narrative histories should remember that their “conclusions should be regarded as tentative and may not be in agreement with” other people’s interpretations, including those of historians. And that’s ok. We should just be aware and cautious of the limitations, and always keep learning.

The man who signed on the wrong line

Colonel Lawrence Vincent Moore Cosgrave was a Canadian war hero. For his service in World War I (he was at Ypres, he was at the Somme) Cosgrave was decorated with the Distinguished Service Order twice, received the French Croix de guerre, and was blinded in one eye. He even claimed that his friend John McCrae wrote the poem “In Flanders Fields” on a scrap of paper on his back.

That’s not what Cosgrave is best remembered for, though. His most enduring contribution to world history, the time he really made his mark, so to speak, was when he signed on the wrong line of Japan’s World War II surrender document, messing the whole thing up:

The Dominion of Canada had made a “most tragic contribution” to the Pacific war, writes Geoff Ellwand, through “the hopeless defence of Hong Kong” which saw almost two thousand Canadian casualties. At the closing of the war Cosgrave happened to be stationed in Australia, and was likely called upon to sign the Instrument of Surrender simply because he was the “closest available Canadian of sufficient rank.”

So he reported for duty, and the Allies started signing from top to bottom, starting with the Untied States, then China, and so on. But when it was Cosgrave’s turn, well, Allan Richarz explains what happened next:

When signing the Japanese copy, Col. Cosgrave – perhaps owing to blindness in one eye – placed his scrawl below the line reserved for the Canadian signature and instead signed on the line of the French representative… Each subsequent delegate eventually signed on the next available – if incorrect – line; the final delegate from New Zealand simply signing his name in a blank space underneath the others, his signature line having been commandeered by the Dutch.

Somehow, things got even more awkward from there. You will note that, in the above photo, the names of each country below each signature have been manually altered. That, continues Richarz, happened after the Japanese protested:

Douglas MacArthur’s famously brusque chief of staff General Richard Sutherland scratched out the now-incorrect list of Allied delegates and handwrote the correct titles under each signature, adding his initials to each correction to forestall further protest. The Japanese were then dismissed from the USS Missouri with a short ‘Now it’s all fine’ from Gen. Sutherland.

This appears to be a photo of Sutherland “fixing” the signatures while the Japanese representatives look on.

If you’re feeling like it’s still too soon to think any of this is funny, it apparently amused people even at the time (though probably not people in Japan). According to Ellwand, The Globe and Mail’s report said the incident “put a touch of humor in the gravest ceremony of our time.” The reporter went on to write that “Col. Cosgrave’s botch … will rank high among the historic bobbles of our time.”

There may still be hope for poor Cosgrave’s reputation, though. Internet forums contain at least a couple Cosgrave truthers who point out that U.S. General Douglas MacArthur appears to have distracted Cosgrave during the signing!

Colonel Cosgrave signing the Instrument of Surrender while Douglas MacArthur stands over his shoulder whispering “you’re gonna blow it,” possibly.

If this is true, then there is no doubt video evidence in existence, but I can only chase a 70-year-old inconsequential conspiracy theory so far. While I didn’t find any footage of MacArthur waving his hands and shouting “look over here,” I did watch several videos of the signing, one of which I turned into this gif of Cosgrave signing for Canada.

And suddenly, watching him actually sign, this all seemed a little less funny to me. He’s only 55 here, but he looks older. He’s been through a lot. I think we can give him a pass.

Incidentally, Cosgrave got it right when he signed the Allies’ copy. The botched version was given to Japan, where it can still be seen at the Edo-Tokyo Museum.

Where the Great Lakes pour into the sea

When searching for this website’s header image, I first looked for any photo of Canada from space, because I love space, and because I wanted to try and capture some sense of Canada’s expanse. But when I came across this particular photo, I knew it was the one. Even from space it contains only a small fraction of the country, yet so much has happened in this frame.

St Lawrence's mouth, where the Great Lakes pour into the sea
“St Lawrence’s mouth, where the Great Lakes pour into the sea.” (NASA)

At the bottom right, where the mouth of the Saint Lawrence is open widest, we can just barely make out Anticosti Island (l’Île-d’Anticosti). If you want to sail from the Atlantic upriver into Canada, you must first pass this island that David Hackett Fischer calls “the great tongue” of the mouth of the Saint Lawrence. Anticosti was believed to be home to “huge white polar bears” whose “legendary ferocity” was enough to ensure that Europeans and indigenous peoples both gave it “a wide berth.” (Fischer 129)

Further upriver, incredibly visible, we see where the Saguenay River drains into the Saint Lawrence at a place the Innu called Totouskak, meaning “bosom,” and the French called Tadoussac, meaning “we almost pronounced Totouskak correctly.”

The Saguenay River and Tadoussac.
The Saguenay River and Tadoussac.

This country belonged to the Innu, who the French called Montagnais (the French were always renaming everything), for thousands of years. They camped and hunted in this spot, and were doing so when Jacques Cartier swung by in 1535. When Samuel de Champlain arrived at Tadoussac 68 years later, he happened across thousands of people from “many nations” engaged in a huge celebration. The chance encounter, writes Fischer, was a “moment of high importance in the history of North America” that began an unusually long period of good relations between these indigenous peoples and these Europeans. (We’re sure to come back to this meeting at Tadoussac in a future post.)

Île d'Orléans and Quebec City
Île d’Orléans and Quebec City

Then even further upriver, we can see all the way to Île d’Orléans, and clearly make out that just beyond that island is the point where the river narrows, which is what the Algonquin word Kébec means, which is how the 409-year-old city of Quebec, located at this spot, got its name.

Montreal in the bottom left, Ottawa above, right at the river’s elbow.

As unlikely as this sounds, we can even see all the way to Montreal and Ottawa. Montreal is identifiable at this distance thanks in part to Lac St-Louis splashing a flash of light at the left edge of the picture just beyond the Island of Montreal, and because the Ottawa River intersects with the Saint Lawrence here as well. We then follow that river up, as if in a canoe, and find the present capital just downriver from where the water takes a sharp turn to the right, before continuing onwards to disappear toward the horizon.

I also like that, beyond New Brunswick in the bottom left, we get a glimpse of the State of Maine, which itself is all mixed up in Canadian history, because the indigenous peoples who lived here for millennia, and the Europeans who fought and traded and colonized here for centuries, did not know they were crossing back and forth over an invisible future line.

Finally, way back on the right hand side, is one of my favourite geographical features in the world: the ring lake Manicouagan, also known as the “eye of Quebec.”

Lake Manicouagan as photographed from above by NASA’s Terra satellite in 2001, and, inset, as it appears in the Saint Lawrence photo.

The lake fills the ring of a crater left by an asteroid more than 200 million years ago. “Most craters this age on Earth have long since disappeared,” explains Phil Plait, but this one is preserved by tough Canadian rock.

All that time and all that space, and still so much of Canada isn’t in this photo at all. But I still love it. And only after I began writing this post did I realize the photo was taken by Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield. He tweeted it from the International Space Station in 2013, adding what remains the photo’s official simple caption: “St Lawrence’s mouth, where the Great Lakes pour into the sea.”