Saturday 2 January 2016

Most Important Books of the last 25 Years (Canadian edition)

There is something wholly satisfying about a good "review of books" - that is, those publications published in old-fashioned slightly smaller than newspaper size booklets that review the latest published books. My favourite has always been the London Review of Books. I know that the Times Literary Supplement is older and seemingly more renowned, but nothing beats the long erudite, analytically precise, funny and comprehensive essays in the LRB. Against this standard, the perfunctory and formulaic reviews that you find at the back of academic journals just can't match up.

When I moved back to Canada in 2007 I took a look at the Literary Review of Canada and have been a regular reader, and then contributor, ever since. It is wholly Canadian and rarely strays from the books put out by our university and some other presses. This is what makes it useful even if sometimes it means that the selection of texts is limited. As with so many other areas of Canadian culture, if we don't talk about it ourselves, no one else is going to.

A regular reader of the LRC could honestly say that they knew about the most important books published in and about this country. There are a lot of academic books that make it into print every year. Many are especially useful for specialists. But those that really matter, and those that would be useful to anyone outside a small area, will end up being reviewed in the LRC.

I'm eagerly awaiting the news of who will replace the LRC's wonderful former editor Bronwyn Drainie. She was enormously pleasant and helpful to deal with. It was entirely different from  the university press editorial process which consists of sometimes useful peer-review that largely ignores one's writing, and then the details of copy-editing which can be good or not depending on the copy editor. With Bronwyn, you always felt that she wanted to get the best out of the text - to make the LRC a stellar publication.

The current crew of the LRC, including interim editor Mark Lovewell, are now in the midst of celebrating the journal's 25 yeas in publication. And they have had the good idea to get contributors and readers to nominate the most important books published in the time of the LRC's history.

It's a fun, eccentric list in a world obsessed with lists. My own suggestion was John Milloy's 1999 book A National Crime. Read it and the rest of the list here.

Thursday 12 November 2015

History lessons, cast in bronze

If we build statues of Canadian prime ministers are we being culturally insensitive? This is the argument of a group of protesters at Wilfrid Laurier University who are objecting to a plan to erect statues at that university. 

I wrote about it in the Globe & Mail here. 

Wednesday 1 April 2015

Explaining East Coast History to Central Canadians

A guest post from Shirley Tillotson, professor of history at Dalhousie University. The other week Globe & Mail columnist John Ibbitson wrote an extended article called 'How the Maritimes became Canada's incredible shrinking region.' 

It generated some heated response including a nice letter to the editor (and on her Facebook page) from Professor Tillotson. I once took a whole course at Carleton University on the history of underdevelopment in Atlantic Canada. Shirley's post reminded me of some of what I'd learned back then. I thought it was worth reprinting here. Here she is:

I've joined the long tradition of Nova Scotian political economists explaining, again, patiently, to a well-meaning Ontarian, that he has missed some key facts of our common history. Let's see how much, if any, of the following (much condensed already) letter makes it into the Globe. I've missed Monday's deadline, and the discussion may have moved on by Tuesday. Anyhow, here it is:
Re: The Incredible Shrinking Region. John Ibbitson admonishes Maritimers for clinging to the idea that “state intervention” is useful. His history of the Maritimes’ long economic decline puts all the villainy in the hands of earlier, activist governments. He advises us in the Maritimes to change our idea of what Ottawa and governments can do, presumably so that we will be like the “have” provinces. But what the “have” provinces have in common is not an idea about government. What they have in common is massive endowments of currently lucrative natural resources. 
So let’s look again at the role of the state in our economic history. In 1867 and the decades after, Maritimers knew that the massive public spending required to create a resource infrastructure in the west would be paid for by public revenues raised in the east. It was inevitable that the newer, and ultimately bigger, provinces would come to have comparatively vast public revenues derived from natural resource taxation. And, with Confederation, Maritimers would lose their main revenue source, customs duties, to Ottawa. But Maritimers invested in the transcontinental vision. In exchange, they were promised annual grants from Ottawa. These were part of the Confederation deal. The “subsidies” of the 1950s were not new, invented by the activist Keynesian state. The equalization formula was just a more flexible way of delivering on the Confederation promise. Another way was the enshrining of equalization in the 1982 Constitution Act. Much has changed since 1867, but what remains constant is that Canadian governments, provincial and federal, have a role to play in fairly distributing the nation’s public revenues. 
Shirley Tillotson
Department of History
Dalhousie University

Monday 16 March 2015

Enweying 2015 - A Bunch of Profs Talking About Stuff

I was pleased to get asked to talk at this festival of ideas at Trent University this Saturday. See below for the great lineup. And I'll be talking about - what else? - Mackenzie King.

Thursday 22 January 2015

A Monumental Mess - Update

I learn from my inbox today of a few more stories about the monumental mess brewing in Ottawa over the Monument to Victims of Communism that I wrote about in December.

There are two more useful stories, each giving more behind-the-scenes details about the process that led to the monument's designation - one in the Ottawa Citizen  and the other by John Geddes in Maclean's.

Both of these stories confirm what I had heard unofficially about the process - that the committee of advisors who are tasked with providing input to the National Capital Commission had advised against putting the monument in its proposed location. They found it 'totally inappropriate'.

Yet the government apparently said from the get-go, the decision on location has already been made.

Monday 12 January 2015

A Prime Ministerial Villain?

Here's the scenario: two venues for serious discussion of a prime minister's record, each tackling the question of how the founding prime minister should now be remembered. Each presents the views of four different scholars and thinkers on the man's record. In one outlet, we see a real difference of opinion with clashing perspectives. In the other, everyone pretty much agrees.

This is what we see this week in a series of articles assessing the record of John A MacDonald in the Globe & Mail and on Active History 

Sadly, the venue with a greater diversity of opinion and better debate was the commercial newspaper, though they had to go outside the university world to get the different viewpoints. And so it goes in the world of scholarly debate (even the always interesting Active History).

Sunday 28 December 2014

The Monument Men

Source: Ottawa Citizen

Just before Christmas I penned an op-ed for the Toronto Star questioning the decision of the Harper government to erect a monument to the victims of communism in Ottawa. (Alas, the oped is not online.) My main criticism wasn't the monument itself but its location. If all goes ahead as planned, this huge almost block-sized monstrosity is going to sit next to the Supreme Court of Canada.

In other words, alongside the parliament buildings, our national library and archives and our supreme court, we're going to have a monument to the victims of communism. Where everything else along this stretch of the national capital deals with all Canadians and is centred on our collective national citizenship, we're now going to have this politically motivated edifice. It's like one of those quizzes for grade school kids - pick the one that doesn't fit.

The op-ed might not be available to read but it generated some fascinating letters to the editor which you can read here. For some of these, the best one can say is that the author really is dead - and much ado about misinterpretation.

You can see more about the controversy in the Ottawa Citizen which has been doing a good job in following the brewing controversy. Articles here and here are useful.

It's not as if Harper and his crew have simply invented the monument out of thin air. There is a constituency of Canadians of eastern European ancestry in particular who really want something like this. It was initially supposed to be a monument to the victims of totalitarianism. But along the way the Harperites have modified the message to best suit them.

The biggest pity is the blight this will make on the central street in our national capital. Perhaps it's not too late to stop things.