Hidden Edinburgh: The World’s First School for the Deaf is in my back Garden

A few times a week, I walk down a quiet path through Edinburgh’s residential Southside. This well-used and well-maintained path follows the foot of the Salisbury Crags and offers a magnificent, up-close view of Holyrood Park. It’s also a stone’s throw from my flat.

This path borders one of the largest council-built estates in southern Edinburgh called “Dumbiedykes.” (Pronounced as dumm-ee-dykes). While this is a strange name, I had once been told that it derived from the fact that there was once an old school for the “deaf and dumb” nearby. (Of course, no one in modern PC language would ever call it that nowadays).

A tall stone wall separates this walk path from Queen’s Drive, the road that skirts the Salisbury’s Crags and is annoyingly closed every Sunday or during major events to all road traffic. (Often due to royal events at nearby Holyrood Palace, an inconvenient reality for us plebs who live so close to royalty).  Thus, a walker such as myself must walk along this wall when using the path. Here’s a crude representation:

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Upon closer inspection of this marvellous stone wall, you begin to notice the remnants of fireplaces, walls, and numerous inexplicable nooks and crannies that have no logical order.

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Can you spot the fireplace? Can you spot the commemorative plaque?

Every time I pass this wall, I try to imagine the stone cottages or stables that might have been attached to it so long ago.  Of course, just like so many other parts of Edinburgh’s dark grimy history and confusing urban landscape, I merely shrug my shoulders and continue my walk.

 

Not today, I vowed myself. Not today! 

After an afternoon of researching my local area, learning about this deaf school, its founder, and discovering British Sign Language’s status in Scottish society,  I thought a blog post would be a perfect forum for my findings.

Who founded this “deaf and dumb” school? When? And, why? 

Born in 1715 in South Lancashire, Thomas Braidwood studied at the University of Edinburgh and began a career in education to the children of wealthy families. At his home in Edinburgh’s Canongate, Braidwood privately instructed local students and especially enjoyed teaching mathematics. However, this changed in 1760 when a wealthy Leith wine merchant, Alexander Shirreff, asked Braidwood to teach his 10 year old deaf son, Charles, how to write.

Evidently, Braidwood was eager for the challenge. In 1764, he founded Braidwood Academy just south of the Royal Mile along a street called St. Leonards. The building, which came to be known as “Dumbie House,” was the very first (private) school for deaf children in Britain and, some claim, in the world.

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This drawing (1885) depicts Dumbie House (later named Craigside House), and it can also be seen on 1820s maps from Historic Environment Scotland.

Despite Braidwood’s good connections and enthusiasm towards this untapped educational market, Charles Shirreff (who would become a celebrated painter and portrait miniaturist) was his only pupil. However, soon enough, Dumbie House welcomed other wealthy pupils, including astronomer John Goodricke (1764-1786), Governor of Barbados Francis McKenzie (1754-1815, also Clan Chief of Highland Clan McKenzie, British MP, and a botanist with the Royal Society of London), and Scottish biographer John Philip Wood (1762-1838).

Remarkably, Braidwood became a pioneer in sign language. During the mid-18th century, deaf education mostly comprised of teaching how to speak clearly enough to be understood. But Braidwood’s new technique was unusual; he combined the vocal exercises of articulation with lip-reading and, for the first time, hand gestures that we recognise today as sign language. This combined system became the forerunner of British Sign Language (BSL).

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Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) suffered from poor health himself having contracted scofula (a form of tuberculosis) as a child. Despite hearing loss and bad eyesight, Johnson had a remarkable career as a writer. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, he is the second-most quoted Englishman in history.

Braidwood Academy also received attention from famous contemporaries. Sir Walter Scott mentioned Braidwood Academy in Heart of Midlothian (1818) and even the famous author, Dr. Samuel Johnson, described the school after a short visit en route to the Western isles: “There is one subject of philosophical curiosity in Edinburgh which no other city has to show; a College for the Deaf and Dumb, who are taught to speak, to read and to write, and to practise arithmetic, by a gentleman whose name is Braidwood. It was pleasing to see one of the most desperate of human calamities capable of so much help: whatever enlarges hope will exalt courage. After having seen the deaf taught arithmetic, who would be afraid to cultivate the Hebrides.”

Dumbie House eventually boasted 20 students, including women (Jane Poole, for example, set a major legal precedent when a court accepted her last will as valid, even though she had communicated her wishes to the drafter exclusively by fingerspelling as she was both deaf and blind – a massive victory for legal rights of the disabled in Britain). By 1780, Thomas Braidwood moved to London to begin a new school in Hackney. Notably, his three daughters also became teachers for the deaf and continued to practise his combined approach to new generations of pupils. Dumbie House continued to operate as a school until it was shut in 1873 and Dumbie House was demolished in 1939.

But Braidwood’s Influence Spreads Across the Seas….

Another very important Braidwood Academy pupil was Charles Green. Born deaf, Charles was the son of fourth-generation American and Harvard graduate Francis Green (1742-1809). Just prior to the American Revolution, the Green family moved to England and in 1780, Charles was enrolled at Braidwood Academy in Edinburgh.

Francis watched his son learn how to communicate orally, but was astonished at the speed of which sign language could allow his son to communicate with other students. He was so impressed, apparently, that Francis published a book anonymously that praised Braidwood’s work called “Vox Oculis Subjecta: A Dissertation on the most curious and important art of imparting speech, and the knowledge of language, to the naturally deaf, and (consequently) dumb; With a particular account of the Academy of Messrs. Braidwood of Edinburgh” in 1783. “Vox Oculis Subjecta” translates to “voice subjected to the eyes.” Francis wrote in the introduction that:

 “Man as a social being has an irresistible propensity to communicate with his species, to receive the ideas of others, and to impart his own conceptions.”

The first half of Vox Oculis Subjecta surveys the natural capacity of humans for language (quoting various famous authors extensively), and then describes Braidwood’s methods. As Braidwood himself never wrote about his own teaching practises, Green’s Vox Oculis Subjecta (1783) is invaluable record of deaf education.

Although Charles tragically drowned at age 15 while fishing, Francis continued to take an interest in deaf education. According to historians Melvia M. Homeland and Ronald E. Homeland, in the 1790s, Francis visited Paris and London to see how other institutions taught deaf students to communicate (The Deaf Community in America: History in the Making, p. 31). He eventually returned to the US. Before his death, he not only advocated through his writings for free education to all deaf children in America, but in 1809, had collected the names of 75 deaf individuals in Massachusetts (the first ever census of the deaf) with plans to start a school.

In 1812, just three years after Francis Green’s death, Col. William Bolling, who was a sibling to some Braidwood Academy’s pupils who studied alongside Charles Green, and himself a father of two deaf children, attempted the first US school for the deaf. Even Thomas Braidwood’s grandson, John Braidwood II, who had moved to America by then, assisted with the school. Although the school closed in 1815, it just two year later when another educationalist, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, successfully started what is considered today to be America’s first school for the deaf in West Hartford, Connecticut.

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This road sign, which serves history more than a practical purpose and is just meters from the remnants of Dumbie House, has a great deal more meaning for me now.

So What? 

It seems rather odd that such an instrumental school for deaf education and British Sign Language is so little acknowledged. When I stride past its demolished foundations and the fireplace in the stone wall, I note that its commemorative plaque was not installed there until 2015 (admittedly with a great turn out by the Lord Provost, British Deaf History Society, Deaf History Scotland, and multiple Scottish officials). But this delayed promotion of deaf history is inconsistent with the remarkable work of Edinburgh’s numerous charities and societies (Historic Scotland, National Trust, Old Edinburgh Club, Lost Edinburgh, etc) that are outstanding in their ability to conserve, protect and promote local history…

So perhaps my perception of Braidwood Academy’s neglect speaks to some of the larger attitudes towards disability. Of course, during the 18th Century, deafness – like all disabilities – was poorly understood and it wasn’t until institutions like Braidwood Academy that some began to realise that intellect was not affected by disability. Being deaf was certainly not synonymous with being “dumb.” Compounding this ignorance was the issue of class. Initiallly, only the rich could afford to educate their children at Braidwood Academy. Fortunately, in 1792, the London Asylum for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb Poor at Bermondsey, became the first public Deaf school in Britain. Again, Braidwood’s influence was also felt there too – it was one of his previous employees, Joseph Watson, who founded it.

British Sign Language (BSL) was not recognised as an official language by Westminster until 2003.  Ironically, Braidwood Academy’s Dumbie House is just half a mile from where the British Sign Language (Scotland) Act was passed unanimously in 2014 by MSPs in the Scottish Parliament – giving BSL the same legal protection as languages such as Gaelic. In Scotland today, an estimated 12,500 people speak BSL. However, in Wales and Northern Ireland, BSL has no legal status or protection.

While I’m pleased that BSL is legally protected and that a commemorative plaque was mounted on the original foundations of Braidwood Academy,  I do not believe that deafness, or disabilities in general, are given the recognition they deserve. But Braidwood’s remarkable influence on language, teaching and disabled rights is at least an excellent starting point for repositioning deafness as a critical aspect of Scotland’s broader history.  As Ella Leith, secretary of Deaf History Scotland, said at the unveiling of the plaque in 2015:

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“It’s partly about pride for the deaf community in seeing their history recognised, but also about raising awareness among hearing people that Scotland’s heritage should include deaf people too. Their heritage is as much part of Scotland as general heritage.”

 

 

 

A Historian’s Quest in the Archives: How to Study Controversy around a Controversial President

Currently, I am in Hyde Park, New York, combing through the archives of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Have you heard of him? Of course you have! He was a pretty big deal. Not only was he elected when over a quarter of Americans were unemployed during the Great Depression – pulling them out of their collective misery through massive public works projects and reviving America’s trust in the economy through weekly radio broadcasts called “Fireside Chats”– but he also held office during one of the deadliest wars in American history. Oh, and he was crippled too. Having contracted polio in his 30s, he was the only physically disabled president to be elected to office. Ever.

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FDR served as US President from 1933 to 1945. Here’s a flattering photo, courtesy of Densho Encyclopaedia

Considered the most influential president of the 20th century, FDR’s impact has been felt ever since. Under his watch, unions were given the right to form. His government was the first to provide old-age security, unemployment benefits and disability and single-parent allowances. He introduced the American public to a new relationship with its government by calmly discussing the issues of the day over the radio while they sat comfortably in their homes. He declared that the role of the central government was to secure the material well-being of the American people.   Having enacted the Executive Reorganisation Bill in 1939, he broadened and increased the presidency’s overall responsibilities. He supported the United Nations and ensured the US had a key role in the UN’s Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (and thus, a key role in reshaping post-war Europe). FDR substantially changed America, and its position in the world.

But FDR also had major flaws. Politically, he broke the no-third-term rule in 1940 and sought to centralise the power of the presidency, leading some to question if he would become a dictator. Under his command, he allowed the harsh internment of Japanese-Americans on the west coast. After his death, many questioned why Roosevelt never took a leading role in helping the Jews of Europe, leaving their welfare instead to private organizations and charities. Some claimed he was a racist. Others said he was just a narcissist.

FDR also had an unusual personal life. He was a proper Mama’s boy.  The closeness to his mother created a toxic atmosphere, leaving little emotional room for anyone else. Despite his mother’s fierce opposition, he married his rather remarkable wife, Eleanor. They were cousins, albeit distant. But Eleanor was unusual too; she was an independent thinker and terribly clever, likely a lesbian, and eventually became a politician in her own right in the 1950s.

FDR Mom Eleanor

Sarah Roosevelt was a clever and educated woman who apparently doted on her son. At age 26, she married FDR’s father, James, 52 years old. The birth was difficult and she bore no other children. After James’ death in 1900, she held the majority of the Roosevelt fortune. Sarah died in 1941.

The Roosevelts had an odd relationship, which historians have commented served political ends rather than being a romantic union. But, they did produce six children! While Eleanor advocated for women’s rights and various social reforms, FDR pushed his own career towards vice presidency then eventually presidency. He dealt with a painful disability daily and he adequately “overcame” the perception of it (apparently, people didn’t realise the extent of his immobility because he was so excellent at hiding it in public). He even created a foundation and rehabilitation park for other polio victims in Well Springs, Georgia.

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FDR had contracted polio while at his summer home in Campobello, Canada, in July 1921. He was just 39 years old. He eventually founded a home for other polio victims in Warm Springs, Georgia, depicted here in 1924.

Affairs were rampant in the Roosevelt household. FDR kept close company with Eleanor’s secretary, Lucy Mercer and, later, his own personal secretary, Marguerite “Missy” LeHand.  Meanwhile Eleanor formed “close” relationships to like-minded women, going on holidays with them regularly, all with FDR’s blessing. He even built a small cottage for Eleanor and her friends to have sleepovers just two miles from the family home in Hyde Park. After her husband’s death, Eleanor became a chief philanthropist in post-war Europe, advocating for human rights (and especially children’s rights) in the new United Nations. Evidently, the Roosevelts lived remarkable and unusual lives, both together and apart.

Eleanor

Eleanor Roosevelt is celebrated as one of the most influential women of the 20th century. She pushed for social reforms, women’s rights, and human rights,  offering her help and influence to marginalised groups and fringe societies. Notably, Eleanor was chair of the United Nation’s Human Rights Commission and, in 1948, was the chief proponent of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In 1941, just a few years before FDR died, he oversaw the construction of the FDR Library and Archives on his family estate in Hyde Park. Not long after his death, his immediate family relinquished their rights to the estate and, at FDR’s request, it became a national park. Today it houses multiple series of the Roosevelt’s papers, with over 20,000 boxes of documents.

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The FDR Library. Critics claimed FDR’s library was a shameful display of self-promotion, but he claimed it accomplished two goals: preserve documents and provide transparency of all his actions to the American people.

This brings me back to why I’m here. Considering the complexity of these multi-faceted pillars of American history, it is important to approach the Roosevelts with caution and respect, right?

But it’s tricky. As a historian, it’s hard to remain objective when you want certain things to be true. Or, when your research subject is just as controversial as the Roosevelts.

While Eleanor intrigues me, I am actually here for FDR alone. I want to discover why FDR was an obstinate and obstructive SCHMUCK to his closest ally, the British, during the Second World War. Let me explain…

During the Second World War, one of the most powerful weapons the Allies held against Nazi Germany was the economic blockade of Nazi-controlled continental Europe. ALL trade, including relief, sent by the Allies to Germany OR German-occupied countries was strictly forbidden during the war. This prevented Germany from plundering relief, while also forcing Germany to take full responsibility for the territories it conquered. Over time, the blockade would apply considerable pressure upon Germany and strain its resources and, thus, its ability to win the war. Seems logical, right?

The blockade policy was one of those items that was constantly discussed by all levels of multiple governments. I’ve witnessed this in the German, British, Swiss and now American archives. It’s incredible. And surprisingly, very rarely discussed by historians in any great detail (see Meredith Hindley or Jean Beaumont’s “Starving for Democracy”).

Public pressure from various groups (for example, thousands of letters written by concerned Yorkshire women’s groups or Pennsylvanian famers or Belgian mothers or various Red Cross branches) meant that governments were always rejecting pleas for relief from well-meaning citizens, large reputable charities, or governments in exile. And, due to Germany’s considerable exploitation of its conquered territories, the list of those governments begging for relief was very long: Polish, Belgian, Norwegian, Dutch, French, Yugoslav…

But blockade policy remained practically unyielding. (The single exception during the entre war was Greece because of a massive famine, but you can read about that here). So long as the Allies could hold it together, maintain unity on this key war policy, then the blockade have the strongest effect on the enemy.

But humanity is cunning. Swiss charities sought to overcome the blockade by relocating children to Switzerland instead. Massive child evacuations, which is the core of my research, successfully relocated Belgian, French and Yugoslav children to Switzerland for three month periods of recuperation. And the Germans allowed it! No great inconvenience to them, because it removed many mouths to feed and pacified parents. Over 60,000 children were successfully evacuated in this way during the war, and another 100,000 in the post-war period. Impressive, eh?

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Swiss Red Cross nurses prepare to receive thousands of French and Belgian children at a train station in 1942 in Basel, Switzerland.

However, this changed in August 1942. Hitler’s armies invaded southern, unoccupied France and, soon after, began large round-ups of Jews. Initially, Jewish children were not included in the deportations to the East, which meant that thousands of children were abandoned and parentless. (A few weeks later though, the Germans rounded them up too).

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A Belgian child (4 years old) with severe malnutrition at a Swiss train station, 1942.

Due to this invasion and deportation, thousands of French children now needed immediate relief. Swiss charities grappled with how to help. They approached the Allied governments that perhaps these Swiss-run evacuations could be increased – possibly to over 100,000 children!  But, crucially, Switzerland too was experiencing war shortages – it could not adequately provide for all the children of Europe.  So perhaps the Allies would send relief (food, medicines, vitamins) directly to Switzerland for all these children?  Of course, the Swiss emphasised, they were neutral, not Nazi-controlled, so they were excluded from the Allies’ blockade policy.

It all sounds very logical. A clever and elegant solution to a major humanitarian crisis. While memos shot excitedly across the Atlantic between the US State Department and the British Foreign Office, dear President Roosevelt was having informal meetings with the Ambassador to Norway, Wilhelm Thorleif von Munthe af Morgenstierne. According to strongly-worded and angry British documents, in late October 1942, FDR promised the Ambassador – without consulting the British – that the US would send relief to Norway!

When the British heard of FDR’s assurances, they insisted that there was no way that relief could be sent to Norway without it being allowed also to Belgium, France, Poland, etc, thus breaking the blockade! Also, FDR’s promises complicated the possibility of sending relief to children evacuated to Switzerland, which would both relieve children while also respecting the blockade. Therefore, the British emphatically conveyed their absolute rejection of FDR’s promises to Norway in November 1942 and keenly awaited the American reply.

However, no reply was given. British documents reveal acute frustration and abhorrence that the US would ignore the British regarding such an important subject, to such an extent that Churchill himself was lobbied to become involved. And although Churchill and FDR met at the Casablanca Conference in January 1943, the British government still received no official reply. WHY?

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FDR and Churchill were close allies during the war. The complete (and overwhelmingly detailed) correspondence was compiled by Warren F Kimball in THREE volumes. Notably, when writing informally, Churchill was referred to as “Former Naval Person.” Only in official correspondence was his title “Prime Minister,” indicating the intimacy of their relationship.

By August 1943, the Americans finally gave a half-hearted, vague and conditional reply that they might support extra provisions to Switzerland, but the British, Swiss and Americans took no action. Allied support for child evacuations was not raised again between the British and US until May 1944, just one month before the Allied invasion of Europe on DDay. Of course, by that point, a humanitarian mission for children was hardly as important as the rapid liberation of oppressed nations by the largest invasion in history.

BUT.

Why did FDR promise such a thing to Norway? Was it during a schmoozy, drunken lunch or a formal high-level meeting? Was the promise conditional or was it a blank cheque? Did the Norwegian Ambassador perhaps misunderstand FDR’s “promise” and in fact, no promise was made? Or was FDR’s “promise” actually hollow – perhaps a vain attempt to get the insistent Norwegian off his back – and the British were just overreacting? But then, if that was the case, why would FDR not reply immediately to his ally? Why ignore their determined attempts to find out what happened? WHY? Why, oh President Roosevelt, why?

Meanwhile, let’s all remember: children are starving, being rounded up and sent to concentration camps, experiencing violence and bombings and general oppression. This makes any bureaucratic error or deliberate avoidance all the more inexcusable.

This is the purpose of my research visit. To discover the answer to these questions. My current historical opinion of FDR is not too complimentary. But even I know it’s not fair to FDR, his legacy, or the study of history to jump to conclusions. Which brings me back to my original assessment of FDR…

President Roosevelt was obviously a brilliant politician and, in many ways, a great strategist. His lasting legacy is a testament to his commendable, practical approach and determination to improve American lives. But he also prioritised certain lives over others, and was a blatant narcissist. FDR liked being in control – to such an extent as being classified as a dictator – and sought personal validation from various audiences.  Some legitimate, and some behind closed doors.

A large part of good historical research is accurately determining the motives, personalities, and fears of major historical figures. Both the problem and beauty of studying FDR as a historical topic is that he was just as flawed as he was extraordinary. Throughout his remarkable but challenged life, he engaged with a broader spectrum of victory (and failure!) than others, so predicting his motivations will be exceptionally difficult. He is an infinitely complex character.

My hunch about the whole promising-relief-to-Norway thing? Based upon all the research, documentaries, articles and books I’ve had to read about the man, FDR was NOT impulsive. FDR was deliberate and purposeful.  Everything he did was meaningful and goal-oriented. He was an impeccable strategist. Therefore, I truly think that President Roosevelt had a reason behind his promise to Norway. Now, I just need to figure it out…

Wish me luck!

Should the Youth be given the Vote? Historical Reasons Why Age is Arbitrary

I made a rather startling discovery. Those who suffer from dementia can still vote in the UK and Canada. “Really?” you may ask. “Really,” I reply.

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Voting in an inalienable right in democratic nations. Once you gain the right to vote, it is extremely difficult to lose.

Criminals are some of the only disenfranchised groups. In Britain, a criminal’s right to vote is suspended while you serve your sentence. This is the same for Australia, except prisoners who serve less than three years can still vote. In Canada, criminals still retain the right to vote, regardless of the prison sentence. The United States has some of the most punitive measures against voting for criminals and because it varies drastically between states, I excluded the USA from this article. (Apologies to my American friends, but you can read more about the almost 6 million felons, or nearly 2.5% of voting Americans, who could not vote in the 2012 federal election here).

Voting is a pillar of equality among citizens and the act of voting is a benchmark in a person’s life.

What about the Youth Vote?

Historically speaking, the argument that youth aged 16 and above should get the right to vote is a very recent phenomenon. Before the Second World War, only people aged 21 years and older were given the right to vote in most major western democracies. In the 1970s, this age was lowered to 18 years of age in the UK, Canada, Germany, and France due to the fact that 18 years was the age of military conscription. However, some nations retain 20 or 21 years as the age of suffrage. Only since the 1990s have some nations successfully lowered the youth vote to include 16 year olds. Scotland is one of them.

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Over 75% of Scottish youths voted in the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum

After years of campaigning, the Scottish National Party were able to give youth the right to vote in the June 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum. Impressively, over 75% of those youths aged 16 and over (who registered) turned out, compared with 54% of 18- to 24-year-olds. This turnout was considered hugely successful and resulted in Westminster granting new electoral powers to the Scottish Parliament in December 2014. Now, all youths aged 16 and over can vote in both parliamentary and municipal elections in Scotland.

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Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP Party campaigned successfully for years to secure the youth vote (Photo from BBC Article)

For the rest of Britain, youth cannot vote in UK general elections until age 18. Although calculating the youth turn-out rates must not be accepted entirely at face value, in the recent general election one statistic claimed that 72% of all 18 to 24 year olds turned out to vote. This means that turn-out rates for young British voters were remarkably high.

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Molly Scott Cato said that denying the youth the right to vote because they aren’t responsible enough was “elitist rubbish” (Photo from BBC Article)

British politicians hotly debate the voting age. The Tories believe it should remain at 18, while Labour proposes lowering it to 16. The Liberal Democratics are somewhere in the middle, suggesting it should be only lowered for local elections. The Scottish National Party, who are very popular with Scottish youth, believe it should be lowered to 16 for general elections. My favourite, perhaps, was when the Green Party’s Mary Scott Cato said that arguments that claim 16 year olds aren’t responsible enough to vote is “elitist rubbish.”

Age is Arbitrary: “Childhood” is a Young Concept

Age as a marker is quite arbitrary, especially when you look at it historically.  In the wake of the Second World War, when over 15 million children were left homeless and resettlement was a huge crisis, the United Nations defined anyone under the age of 17 as a child. Today, childhood ends in the majority of sovereign states at age 18.

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These Polish war orphans at a Catholic Orphanage in Lublin, on September 11, 1946, are among the 15 million children displaced by the war. To expedite the settlement process, the UN defined all children under age 17 as a “child”

But childhood as a historical concept has only been closely examined in the last few decades. That is not to say that children or childhood were never discussed in historical sources. But, similar to race and gender, age was often overlooked, understudied or poorly represented within historical accounts.

In the 1970s, a revival of the historiography of childhood occurred as the result of the book “L’Enfant et la vie familiale soul l’Ancien Regime” (or “Centuries of Childhood,” 1962) by a French medievalist named Philippe Ariès. He argued that childhood was actually a recently-invented modern term, which evolved from the medieval period. Importantly, the concept of childhood was not static but underpinned heavily by the culture of the time. This revolutionized social history and led many scholars to investigate how Europeans transitioned from a pre-children-conscious world to one which had ‘invented’ childhood. (For an excellent overview, see Nicholas Stargardt, “German Childhoods: The Making of a Historiography,” German History, 16 (1998): 1-15).

With state intervention in education in the 19th century, and the subsequent child labour laws from the Industrial Revolution, children’s ages became both legally and economically relevant. How old must a child be to work? Can a child be charged with crime? Records of child delinquency are often the first historical accounts that children existed in certain cultural contexts. For example, historians are aware of the punishments of child delinquents in 19th C Irish workhouses, but we know little else about Irish children’s experiences in workhouses who were not delinquent.

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Illustration of children in a 19th C workhouse courtesy of workhouses.org.uk

Even biological markers of age are debatable. In the USA, lawyers have used science to argue that grey matter is still being developed well into our 20s in the same area of our brains that regulate self control; this has led to numerous cases where juveniles charged with murder have had their prison sentences reduced.  The use of puberty as a reproductive “line in the sand” has also changed in the last few hundred years: the age of puberty today (10-12 years for girls, 12 for boys) is lower today than it was centuries ago (15-16 for girls). And unlike a few centuries ago, “Puberty today marks the transition from childhood to adolescence more than it does childhood to adulthood.” Meanwhile, in the animal kingdom, biologists define animals as adults upon sexual maturity. It seems that neither the historian or biologist can agree about childhood.

And, to make it even more complicated, children as individuals also vary greatly.  Children’s experiences and what they’re subjected to also vary greatly. When in doubt, think of Joan of Arc, Malala Yousafzai, or Anne Frank.

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Anne Frank was just 15 years old when she died in Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp

So what does this have to do with voting?  

If our definitions and beliefs about childhood are culturally dependent, then the ages we assign it, or the assumptions we have about it, are a product of our culture, and not necessarily an authentic reflection of “childhood.” (If such a thing actually exists).

During the medieval era, children were considered “little adults” who needed to be civilized, which presumes that children are born with inborn rationality and intelligence, but lacking social graces. A medieval parent therefore viewed childhood as a rigorous lesson in civility.

Medieval Children

During the Medieval era, children were viewed as “little adults” and as as Bucks-Retinue points out, even their clothing was just “smaller versions of adult clothes.”

But today’s parent does not view it quite like that. Due to the legality of certain social freedoms – driving a car or drinking alcohol – the state has defined a child in contradictory ways. You can join the military at age 16 in the UK, but you’re not legally entitled to toast the Queen’s health until age 18.  The predictable argument is that if you can join the military, drive a car, leave school for full-time work, pay taxes, marry (and thus have the state’s endorsement to be a parent), then you should have the right to vote. I see no fault in this argument.

So why did I start this conversation by talking about people with dementia?

Dementia is an umbrella term for various progressive neurological disorders that includes memory loss, anxiety/depression, personality and mood changes, and problems communicating. We most often associate dementia with Alzheimer’s disease, which has no cure. 46 million people suffer from dementia world wide, which is expected to double every 20 years.

In Britain, 1 in 6 people over the age of 80 have dementia, or a total of 850,000.  But having dementia, similar to having learning difficulties or other mental health problems, does not preclude you from voting. According to the Electoral Commission’s Guidance:

“A lack of mental capacity is not a legal incapacity to vote: persons who meet the other registration qualifications are eligible for registration regardless of their mental capacity.”

If someone suffers from mental incapacity or physical disability, they may assign a close relative as a proxy to vote for them (These situations are generally meant to help those serving overseas, or temporarily inaccessible, so they can still exercise their democratic rights and, sometimes, must be approved by a health practitioner or social worker). If a proxy is authorised, the Electoral Commission makes is absolutely clear that no one – whether relative, doctor, nurse or lawyer – can decide how to cast that ballot. The choice alone lay with the voter. Period.

In Britain, you cannot vote if you reside in a mental institution due to criminal activity or if you are severely mentally incapacitated and cannot understand the voting procedure. Those with dementia are still legally entitled to vote because it is not considered legally incapacitating (especially in its early stages) and worthy of disenfranchisement. Usually it is not until a doctor is requested to authorise a proxy vote whereupon someone possibly becomes disenfranchised, depending on the doctor’s judgement.

In Canada, 1.5% of the Canadian population (around 480,000) have dementia, most of which experience this after the age of 75. The Canadian Human Rights Act makes it illegal to discriminate against persons based on age or (dis)ability.

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Age is the number one risk factor for dementia.

Canada was one of four countries (Italy, Ireland and Sweden) which did not impose any mental capacity requirement (dementia included) upon the right to vote. After a legal challenge in 1992, the call for a minimum mental health requirement was repealed and by 2008, only Nunavut will disqualify someone from voting based upon mental incapacity. Thus, similar to Britain, Canadians with dementia also retain the right to vote.

What does this tell us about our society?

It is impressive that people suffering from dementia (often elderly) still retain this right. This demonstrates that nations like Britain and Canada strongly respect equality among citizens, irrespective of (dis)ability, mental (in)capacity, or age. And, importantly, this demonstrates that these nations honour the incontrovertible democratic rights of its aging and sick citizens. Discrimination is fundamentally not tolerated.

BUT to deny the youth vote while granting it to someone with a progressive neurological condition seems unfair. Should a 16-year-old “child” be considered less politically capable than someone with dementia?  Is that fair?

Youth Vote vs. “Elderly” Vote

In my frustration at this quandary, I read a provocative and humourous commentary calling for disenfranchising all elderly in Time Magazine. Joel Stein said simply “Old people aren’t good at voting”.  Although Stein avoided getting his hands dirty with dementia, he highlighted the “out of touch” policies endorsed by “old people”: They’re twice as likely to be against gay marriage, twice as likely to be pro-Brexit and nearly 50% more likely to say immigrants have a negative impact on society. Although funny, I am a staunch supporter of democracy and believe we should enfranchise people even if we disagree with them. That’s the point of democracy: to find consensus among disparate voices. Young, old, sick, healthy, rich, poor, all should be allowed to vote.

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In June 2017, Justin Trudeau and Barack Obama had an intimate dinner

Justin Trudeau and Barack Obama recently enjoyed their enviable bromance over a candlelit dinner in a little Montreal seafood restaurant. They spoke of a great many things, but one was “How do we get young leaders to take action in their communities?”

Such conversations among politicians reflect a growing interest to include the youth’s voice and agency within our political process and communities.  If what medievalist Philippe Ariès said is true – that our concept of childhood is culturally-dependent – then how our culture interprets our youth needs to change. Historically speaking, it appears that that change is already beginning. And although Scotland has taken remarkable strides towards giving political agency to Scottish youths, this can be taken even further.

By engaging youths in political process, supporting their agency and action in multiple national bodies and networks, and listening to their needs and incorporating their voices into politics, then our cultural assumptions will shift. In the same way as we honour our elders and our sick, let us honour our youths.

From a Land of Immigrants to a Land of Colonisers: A Lesson in Canadian Diversity for British Policymakers

This is a big year for Canada. After 150 years of explosively entertaining hockey, igloo-icy winters, and deliciously decadent Timbits, people around the world will celebrate Canada’s sesquicentennial. Happy birthday, Canada.

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For those who have ever travelled, studied or lived abroad, you begin to appreciate your homeland in an entirely new way. As American philanthropist Cliff Borgen said “When overseas you learn more about your own country than you do the place you’re visiting.”  The novelty of other cultures is endearing and even helpfully distracting from the monotony of your normal life. But it’s when we are forced into new cultures when we are confronted with the reality that our own customs, traditions and protocols are sometimes arbitrary, bizarre and inefficient.

In this sense, travelling is not just gazing into the porthole of another new place, but actually a much more inverted and introspective experience. You begin to realise the ways you are fortunate, and the ways you are deprived. This even makes you think differently, apparently. According to one study, “People who have international experience or identify with more than one nationality are better problem solvers and display more creativity.” But, crucially, this depends on openness, an ability to embrace other people, cultures and ideas, which also means you’re happy to accept ambiguity and a lack of closure.

But what happens if you already hail from a country that values inclusivity, openness, diversity? How does that change your experience abroad?

As a Canadian, I think I am already “open” to others. It’s part of my “culture,” eh? Just under 40% of Canadians are immigrants or second-generation immigrants, and that is expected to rise to half the population by 2036. Canada is about as diverse a country as you can experience. A true land of immigrants. Canada is not a melting pot. Unlike the USA, newcomers to Canada are not expected to shed their cultural cloaks, assimilate and promptly adopt the “Canadian Dream.” Instead, Canada’s strength is its diversity. We embrace others.

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Happy Photo of Canadian Diversity from candiversity.com

It wasn’t always like that. In 1970, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau faced a major domestic crisis due to rising French nationalism in Quebec. Separatists wanted quicker political process and to expedite their demands they kidnapped a cabinet minister and British diplomat, resulting in the FLQ or October Crisis. Trudeau enacted the War Measures Act and tanks rolled into Montreal. Martial law was controversial and when asked by a reporter how far he would take such policing, Trudeau famously replied: “Just watch me.”

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Watch Pierre Trudeau’s steely reaction to reporters here

In the background of this domestic upheaval was the introduction in the late 1960s of a new points-based system for immigration. Applicants were awarded points for age, education, ability to speak English or French, and demand for that particular applicant’s job skills. If an applicant scored enough points, he or she was granted admission together with their spouse and dependent children.

These “landed immigrants” were given all the same rights as Canadian-born citizens. A new sponsorship system also meant that immigrants could also sponsor relatives abroad for settlement. This allowed naturalized Canadians to engage in the immigration process. And, importantly for Trudeau, immigrants were given the right to vote.

By opening the doors and flooding the country with immigrants, while espousing a strong multiculturalist ideology, Trudeau and his Liberals diluted the Anglophone vs Francophone tensions. The Liberals, predictably, courted the newly arrived voters and sought policies that would appeal to them. Politically speaking, it was superior “checkmate” move against the radical separatists. Decades later, the same maneuver was used again by Conservative PM Stephen Harper, who needed to win a coalition in order to stay in power. The newly arrived minority voters were wined and dined which, in turn, meant that anti-immigrant groups were kept on the edges of politics. In the 2011 and 2015 elections, the Conservatives won a higher share of the vote among immigrants than it did among native-born citizens.

If it wasn’t already clear from centuries of Canadian history, then such politics firmly cemented the immigrants’ place in Canada’s national identity.

Right-wing, anti-immigrant political agendas are rare in Canada. Of course, there are always exceptions. Canada still has anti-Semites and people shooting up mosques out of fear of “the other.” One study recently claimed that anti-immigration sentiment was rising in Canada, although the same study claimed that over half of Canadians still agree to allow immigrants from poor countries. (Sweden’s 75% approval for immigration is the highest of all nations studied).

But let’s also remember the difference between immigrants and refugees. In 1978, Canada instituted the Canadian Immigration Act, whereby refugees – persons fleeing armed conflict or persecution – would no longer be an exception to Canadian immigration regulations. Although there were some problems, it remains a cornerstone of Canadian immigration policy and law.

For example, the Syrian Refugee Crisis caused the United Nations High Commissioners for Refugees to call on western nations to resettle 130,000 refugees. Canada has carefully focused on selecting families, children and members of the LGBT community, while single men will be processed only if they are accompanied by their parents or identify as LGBT. From 2013 until January 2017, Canada has welcomed over 40,000 refugees, or a staggering 248% of its “share” of refugees.

The United Kingdom? It has welcomed 216 Syrian refugees under the UNHCR scheme. Through another domestic policy called the Vulnerable Person Resettlement Scheme, it has welcomed 5,423 Syrians by March 2017, or just 18% of its “share.”

Prime Minister David Cameron, under severe public pressure in 2015, promised to take on 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020. Even more mounting pressure caused him to announce the Dubs Amendment, whereby 3,000 lone child refugees from the Middle East were to be welcomed. Due to pressure from Theresa May (who was then Home Secretary), Cameron conceded child refugees should come from Europe, not the Middle East, and the number was lowered to just 350 children.

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Demonstrators in Berlin in November 2015

When Calais’ Jungle Camp was at a breaking point in 2016, and Prime Minister May was securely in control at Downing Street, more public pressure forced to her accept another 750 lone children.  (This was done reluctantly and controversially, as refugee children’s dental records were screened to “verify” their true ages. As Hugh Muir writes, “We want to do right by a handful of children, but it is really a way of shirking our duty to do the right thing”).

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Children in Calais’ “Jungle” Refugee Camp, October 2016

Welcoming 1,000 refugee children by modern day peace-time Britain stands in stark contrast to the 10,000 refugee children resettled via the Kindertransport to Britain in 1938 to 1940. As a historian, I shudder to think what would have happened to those thousands of children if they had stayed under Nazi Germany’s control throughout the war.

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German-Jewish refugee children arrive at Southampton in 1939

Additionally, Theresa May proposes to lower annual net immigration from 273,000 to just 100,000. But it doesn’t stop there. From April 2017 onwards, the Tories implemented a policy whereby British employers must pay £1,000 per year for each skilled migrant they hire. The Tories wish to increase it to £2000/year. That means that if your average Indian IT software engineer or Canadian postgraduate student successfully gets through Theresa May’s restricted immigration net, then they face further fiscal penalization in the pursuit of employment due to being foreign. Thanks, Britain.

As an immigrant in the UK who hails from a country where immigration is a cornerstone of my home culture, I just hang my head in shame. As a historian of refugees and modern warfare, I can say that the same self-serving, nationalist ideologies that caused so many borders to close and so many refugees to flee during the Second World War, are still true today.

So, what are some solutions?  

Political inclusion of minority voters. Enfranchisement of immigrants (including EU nationals). Open (though still selective) immigration policies. Bring back the Dubs Amendment. Invest in affordable housing. Delegate to charities (where possible). Celebrate all forms of Britishness, including minority groups. Delight in globalism and mobility.

But the best solution requires a major attitude shift. 

Britain was once a colonial and imperial superpower. Although this was by no means a peaceful power-dynamic on native populations or settler colonies, British rule also enabled enormous trade of goods, cultures and ideas. Some nations became immensely wealthy, while others were robbed of their natural and human resources. The gap in global living standards today are often a long-term result of colonialism’s exploitation.

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At its height, more than 458 million people and 23% of the world’s population were under British colonial rule

Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick, Gurminder K Bhambra, claims that when thinking about today’s refugees and immigrants, we must remember that:

The economic motivation that drives poorer people to migrate has been produced and continues to be reproduced by practices emanating from richer countries and their own deficient understandings of their global dominance… The failure to properly understand and account for Europe’s colonial past, cements a political division between ‘legitimate’ citizens with recognized claims upon the state and migrants/refugees without the rights to make such claims.

It would be unfair to claim that Canadian history has been bloodless and peaceful, while Britain’s has been singularly exploitive and war-ridden. But personally moving from a land of immigrants to a land of colonisers has been an eye-opening experience.  

Canada, as a nation of immigrants, has attempted to confront its differences in an ongoing process of renegotiating and re-conceptualizing national identity, bringing immigrants to the fore with policies that directly value and embrace their diversity. Britain may have neglected to engage in such a process on their own soil, but the opportunity to do so is now arriving alongside the refugees and immigrants who greatly wish to be part of the British community. Myself included.

I am an immigrant and I love my new home in Britain.  By learning from my new culture while sharing my own, I am participating in a “very Canadian way” to integrate in society. I hope my British friends don’t mind.

Happy Birthday, Canada.