Of History and Headlines: Reflections of an Accidental Public Historian

Cross-posted with ActiveHistory.ca

When I first heard Alvin Dixon’s voice I was driving along Dupont Avenue in Toronto with my partner, Laural, and our three-month-old son, Oscar. Dixon was talking to Rick MacInnes-Rae, who was filling in as the co-host of the CBC Radio show As It Happens. The interview was about Dixon’s experience at the Alberni Indian residential school (AIRS) where he had unwittingly been part of a recently uncovered nutrition experiment conducted by the federal government during the late 1940s and early 1950s.


In addition to describing his memories of the experiment – in impressive and accurate detail – Dixon talked in a jarringly blunt manner about hunger and about the horrors of life in that notorious institution on the west coast of Vancouver Island. “It was totally inadequate food a lot of the time,” Dixon told MacInnes-Rae. “I remember all of us kids having to steal fruit, steal carrots and potatoes so that we could roast potatoes somewhere off site on a fire and eat them – because we were never full when we left the dining room table.”

Dixon had long suspected that something had been done to them at the school. “As early as 20 years ago,” Dixon told MacInnes-Rae, “I heard that there were these experiments from former students who worked in the kitchens.” And when asked what it said to him that his federal government was willing to do this, Dixon responded that it affirmed what he’d always believed: “That the federal government and most Canadians don’t give a shit what happens with us as First Nations people. They’re on our stolen lands, our holy lands and they’re not going to be happy until they have it all. They were trying to eliminate us. So that’s not surprising.”

By the end of the interview I was in tears – something that would happen with increasing frequency over the coming months as I met, corresponded with, and listened to the stories of survivors of these experiments and of Canada’s Indian residential school system more generally. While I’m still not sure what I expected to happen after I published my research on these experiments, I don’t think anything could have prepared me for how profoundly the strength, courage, and anger of survivors like Dixon would change my life and my perspective on what it meant to be an (active) historian. Continue reading

2013-2014 Talks

The last few months have been a whirlwind, it seems, and I plan to write a long post about my experiences once I have a chance to catch my breath. In the meantime, I’ve been invited to give a number of talks across the country over the next few months. The first talks at Acadia University and the Millbrook First Nation (see below) were two of the most inspiring experiences of my academic career, so I’m looking forward to future talks. I’ll update this post as I get more information from the organizers.

18 Sept. 2013 “Nutrition Research and Human Experimentation at the Shubenacadie Indian Residential School in Historical Context,” Invited Lectures at Acadia University and the Millbrook First Nation. [link]
25 Sept. 2013 “Administering Colonial Science: Nutrition Research and Human Biomedical Experimentation in Aboriginal Communities and Residential Schools, 1942-1952,” Invited Lecture at the University of Guleph’s Ethics and Politics of Food Series. [link]
4 Oct. 2013 “Human Biomedical Research in Aboriginal Communities and Residential Schools: Historical Legacies,” Invited Lecture at McGill University.
26 Oct. 2013 “Administering Colonial Science: Nutrition Research and Human Experimentation in Northern Manitoba in Historical Context,” Invited Lecture at the University of Winnipeg. [link]
10 Dec. 2013 Keynote Talk at Forum on Experiments on Students at the Alberni Indian Residential School, Hosted by the Tseshaht First Nation and Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council, Port Alberni, British Columbia [link]
16 Jan. 2014 “Truth, Reconciliation, and the Historical Legacy of Human Biomedical Experimentation in Aboriginal Communities and Residential Schools,” Invited Lecture at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law’s Health, Law and Policy Series. [link]
6 Feb. 2014 “Truth, Reconciliation, and the Historical Legacy of Human Biomedical Experimentation in Aboriginal Communities and Residential Schools,” First Nations Student Club Residential Schools Awareness Day Lecture, University of Western Ontario.
26 Feb. 2014 “The Politics of Malnutrition: Dietary Standards, Food Rules, and the Transformation of Canada’s Nutritional State During the 1930s and 1940s,” Invited Lecture at the University of Toronto’s Institute for History and Philosophy of Science and Technology. [link]
20 Mar. 2014 Panelist (with TRC Commisioner Dr. Wilton Littlechild, Dr. Rebecca Sockbeson, Dr. James Daschuk, Dr. Keavy Martin, and Tanya Kappo) at Understanding #TRC: Exploring Reconciliation, Intergenerational Trauma, and Indigenous Resistance at the University of Alberta. [link]
27 Mar. 2014 “Administering Colonial Science: Nutrition Research and Human Biomedical Experimentation in Aboriginal Communities and Residential Schools, 1942-1952” Keynote Lecture at the 2014 McMaster Graduate Student Colloquium
25 Apr. 2014 Keynote Lecture at the 2014 Annual Meeting of the Canadian Association of Research Ethics Boards (CAREB) [link]
29 Apr. 2014 “Hunger, Human Experimentation and the Legacy of Residential Schools,” Invited Lecture at the Annette Street Branch of the Toronto Public Library as part of the History Matters speakers series. [link]
13 May 2014 Keynote Lecture at the Annual Meeting of the Aboriginal Nutrition Network of the Dietitians of Canada [link]


LIST UPDATED 26 March 2014


Administering Colonial Science

I’m excited to see that my newest article, “Administering Colonial Science: Nutrition Research and Human Biomedical Experimentation in Aboriginal Communities and Residential Schools, 1942–1952,” has just come out in the May 2013 issue of the scholarly journal, Histoire sociale/Social History. 

This is the first piece of new, non-dissertation related research I’ve published since receiving my PhD and it was, without a doubt, the most difficult research project I’ve undertaken. But while the subject matter and the sources were often disturbing, I think that the story itself is one the needs to be told if Canadians hope to come to grips with the devastating impact of Canada’s colonial policies governing the lives of Aboriginal peoples.

I struggled to include all of the relevant arguments in the space allotted for the official abstract, so I’ve posted a somewhat extended abstract below that captures a bit more of what I think the paper is trying to say.

Continue reading

Eat Your Primary Sources! Or, Teaching the Taste of History

Cross-posted with ActiveHistory.ca

History has a distinct taste. Actually, it also has a distinct smell, feel, sound, and look to it but – as a historian of food and nutrition – I always find myself coming back to the taste of history. No, I’m not talking about the musty, acrid taste of dust and mildew as you open up a long neglected archival box or that weird metallic aftertaste you get after sitting in front of a microfilm reader for way, way too long. History can also taste like molasses, cloves, nutmeg, raisins. You know, the good stuff.

At least this is what I tried to prove to the students in History 3240: Food History at the University of Guelph this past semester. Not only did I want to teach them about the versatility of food history as an entry point into the history of science, immigration, colonialism and gender – not to mention business, environmental, or political history. But I also wanted to prove to them that, as budding food historians, they should always make sure to actually eat their primary sources. Continue reading

Foodscapes of Plenty and Want

I’m one of the co-organizers – along with Catherine Carstairs and Kristin Burnett – of the upcoming scholarly workshop, Foodscapes of Plenty and Want: Historical Perspectives on Food, Health and the  Environment in Canada. The workshop is being held at the University of Guelph between June 23 and 25, 2013. The goal is to bring together Canadian scholars working on research projects that examine the historical relationship between food history and the history of health, medicine and the environment and, eventually, to use the papers presented at the workshop as the basis of a special issue of the Canadian Bulletin of Medical History (CBMH).

The program is up at the website here and you can read through the abstracts here. Registration for the conference is also FREE. To register, send an email to foodscapes2013@gmail.com.

Cooking With Primary Sources

After all the dust has settled, I plan to write a longer post about my (so far really great!) experience teaching my first ever Food History course at Guelph this past winter. For now, though, I thought I would share this excellent video that one of my students made for an in-class presentation.

The assignment was to find a primary source – but preferably a recipe – related to that week’s readings and to develop a creative five minute presentation that addresses the usefulness of cookbooks and recipes as primary sources while also engaging with the arguments being made in by the individual readings. There have been quite a few fantastic and creative presentations – often with food being provided for the whole class – but this one has so far been a highlight. Bon appétit!

The Past, Present and Future of Cookbooks

This past weekend, I was featured in a Canadian Press article on the past, present and future of cookbooks that seems to have been picked up by quite a few newspapers and online media outlets across the country, including the Vancouver Sun, the Saskatoon Star Phoenix, the Ottawa CitizenCTV.ca and the Cape Breton Post among others. Aside from the odd photo, the article – “Technology enhances cookbook experience but aficionados unlikely to give up books” – includes a pretty interesting discussion of the impact of e-readers and other new technologies on the business of cookbooks.

UPDATE: Seems like the story was delinked from most of the newspapers linked to above, with the exception of the CTV.ca article (which unfortunately includes the weirdest, most unflattering photo of the bunch).

Revisiting the ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’

A few years ago I published an article in the journal Social History of Medicine entitled “‘That Won Ton Soup Headache’: The Chinese Restaurant Syndrome, MSG and the Making of American Food, 1968-1980.” It looks at the ‘discovery’ of this unique medical condition in the late 1960s and explores what it tells us about the social construction of illness and the role of ethnic and racial food fears in colouring popular perceptions of risk.

Last year, I was asked by the Culinary Historians of Canada to write a piece for a more popular audience about the effect of this particular health scare in the Canadian context for their newsletter, Culinary Chronicles. With the CHC’s permission, I’ve decided to post it below for those of you who aren’t CHC members. If you’re interested in the scientific and technical element of the Chinese restaurant syndrome and MSG story, I would recommend sticking with my original article (which includes an extended quotation from famous Canadian Bonanza and Battlestar Galactica star, Lorne Greene). But if you’re interested in something like a short cultural history of MSG and ethnic food fears in Canada, the Culinary Chronicles piece below might be worth a read.

Continue reading

The Burdens of McHistory

[Cross-posted with ActiveHistory.ca]

Walking out of the subway into Yonge Station in Toronto recently, I was confronted with poster after poster bearing some strange, slightly off-putting questions about McDonald’s. These included, in big bold letters, messages like: “Is the meat fake?” “Are there eyeballs put in your meat?” Or, “Are McNuggets made from processed pink sludge?

In the end, it was the presence of other posters assuring me that McDonald’s burgers and McNuggets are made of only recognizable cuts of the chicken or cow that finally tipped me off that the posters were, in fact, part of a McDonald’s ad campaign and not some kind of PETA-inspired anti-McDonald’s stunt. The question still remained, though: who thought this was a good idea? Like the recent Domino’s “Pizza Turnaround” campaign that bizarrely admitted that their food had been terrible for years (but was, supposedly, fine now), these ads seemed to remind commuters of the many reasons they’d likely developed over the years — both ridiculous and practical — not to eat at McDonald’s. What was going on here?

My search for answers eventually led me to the fascinating website yourquestions.mcdonalds.ca where, apparently, Canadians can submit questions like those plastered around Yonge Station and, within a few days, they’ll be answered by someone at McDonald’s and posted for the world to see. Initially launched this summer, the website currently contains hundreds of questions and answers that, it turns out, provide a fascinating glimpse into Canadians’ complicated relationship with their fast food and, perhaps more interestingly, McDonald’s ongoing and often failed attempts to deal with its own McHistory. Continue reading