Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Update: Museum of Civilization / Canadian Museum of History

I wrote a brief post last week about the new Canadian Museum of History (or the rebranded Museum of Civilization, whichever you prefer).

An extended version of this is now an op-ed in the Ottawa Citizen, online today, in print tomorrow. You can read it here.

I'd love to hear from anyone working at the museum who has a different story from that being presented by the executives. Is what we are hearing actually what will be in the museum? Looks, so far, pretty mild and innocuous.


Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Leaders and Legacies - New Website


A new website with an interesting premise promises to bring us some stories on former prime ministers and governor generals (or is that governors general, I always forget). Roderick Benns of Fireside Publishing has started the site and it is now up and running here.

There are several stories up there now including one on Paul Martin's aboriginal aboriginal youth entrepreneurship program, an interview with Michael Meighen, the Senator and grandson of former prime minister Arthur Meighen.

And then I have a slightly longer piece on Arthur Meighen that I titled 'The Unlucky Prime Minister'. If you're looking for a primer on the King-Byng dispute, and a fresh take to boot, in less than 1700 words, this is it. And hey, who doesn't want that?!

Thursday, 28 November 2013

A Sneak Peak at the New Museum of Civilization


The renaming and rejigging of the Museum of Civilization in Ottawa has managed to offend many  in Canadian history circles over the last year. Many are sceptical about the reasons it is being changed to the Canadian Museum of History.

Even former director Victor Rabinovitch spoke out publicly about the change. He linked it to what he called "'the Harper-Kenney vision of Canada as a land of victorious armed forces, brawny resource extractors and compliant monarchists.”

Today the Ottawa Citizen has a story from Don Butler giving us a first sneak peak into the main hall of Canadian history. See the story here for all of the details.

According to David Morrison, head of the museum's team putting together the hall, the main themes to be addressed are aboriginals and their relations with European settlers, French-English relations, and immigration. He talks of how “There is a sort of a backbone to the hall of political history, but most of the real content is the consequences of political history...What did this mean to ordinary people?”

The story says that '[t]he history hall exhibit will include events that make most Canadians squirm today, such as residential schools, the imprisonment of Ukrainian Canadians during the First World War, anti-potlatch laws and the forced relocation of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War.' 

We won't know what it will actually look like for a while. I'm sure some will be critical no matter what. But honestly the framework, on the surface, seems ho-hum, as expected. No conspiracy. No massive exclusion. Just the kind of Canadian history you would teach in a general survey.  

We'll see.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Patriotism for the Wealthy

Source: Library and Archives Canada

Arthur Meighen's descendants are in the news today, and probably not happily so. CBC is reporting about a lawsuit that pitted different family members against each other from 2008 to 2011. It all had to do with the money in the Arthur Meighen Trust.

After Meighen left the Senate and was defeated in a comeback bid to reenter the House of Commons as prime minister in 1942 (much to the relief of Mackenzie King who feared having a decent opposition leader, capable of tearing him apart in debate just as the conscription debated threatened to tear the country apart), Meighen went back to Toronto and became rather wealthy as the head of an investment business. He later set up the trust under his name to provide money for his descendants after he died.

Families don't always get along.

The CBC came onto this story as part of its own investigation into offshore tax havens - the far-sighted and generous way so many wealthy Canadians ensure that they don't have to support our country and our government any more than they absolutely have to. Patriotism for the wealthy - diluted because otherwise they would just be so overcome with devotion - financially verklempt.

Documents submitted to the courts as part of the lawsuit allege that some in the family funnelled money through complex offshore investments so as to avoid paying taxes. In the midst of all of this, some in the family felt that they were being left out. The case was settled out of court and none of this was ever settled in court.

Perhaps most strikingly, the documents allege that the scheme to get the funds out of the country was put together by a man named Jim Love. Alas, if the documents are true, Mr Love would seem to have been struck by a particularly hard case of patriotism for the wealthy. You see Mr Love is also the chair of the board of governors at the Canadian Mint. That's right: the man in charge of making Canadian money. He's also allegedly a strong Conservative and good friends with Finance Minister Jim Flaherty.

I don't know what to say. I'm overcome. I'm… verklempt.

Friday, 22 November 2013

Tim Cook Wins Governor General's Award for History


The Ottawa Citizen is reporting that Tim Cook has been honoured with the Governor General's History Award for Popular Media, the Pierre Berton Award.

It is well deserved. Cook is a historian curator at the War Museum as well as the author of several well-known and nicely written and researched books on military history in Canada. He's a good writer, a great speaker, and the award couldn't have gone to a more decent, well-deserving historian.

If you haven't already, go and pick up one of his books.


Thursday, 21 November 2013

Parliamentary Debates - Update


Great news for political historians and political junkies. A few months ago I wrote about how the reconstructed parliamentary debates from the 19th century were now available online.

Now I see from the Canadian Historical Association's voxhistorica that all of Canada's parliamentary debates are now - finally - online. What a great resource. You can find them at the Library of Parliament's website here.

I'm in the midst of sorting out the King-Byng fiasco of 1926 so I immediately went to look up the place in 1927 when King was obliged to hand over the letter he had written submitting his resignation to Byng in 1926.

King went all across the country in 1926 campaigning against 'Downing Street' interference - that is interference from the British Government in Canadian affairs. He won the election and King-Byng became yet another gem in the glorious Liberal story of Canada's rise from colony to nation.

Only problem? In his letter of resignation, King wrote that he had urged Byng, and continued to urge him, to consult the British government before he made a decision. The letter only emerged after King won the election. It did little good. But it's a marvellous instance of a politician having to face his own dishonesty.

Of course, King was well used to this and to read him adroitly squirming out of any wrongdoing is both amazing and disgusting.

And now I can read this from my own house. Great resource.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

And the GG goes to … huh?


I've been reading my way, very pleasurably, through Eleanor Catton's new book The Luminaries and now I see that she has just won the Governor General's Literary Award for Fiction. (see the details on all winners here). The book is wonderful so far, and Catton's interview on The Sunday Edition on the weekend, showed her to be thoughtful, with a graceful, inventive speaking style. But to call her Canadian is…well… a stretch. She was Canadian born and then moved to New Zealand at a very young age. Her accent is Kiwi, the book itself draws on Kiwi history. This is a trend in the literary awards if late - going off in search of make-believe Canadians.

It's also, of course, happening in Canadian academia as I wrote about earlier: who needs anything Canadian when we have The World??

There were a couple of historical links to the GGs:

The non-fiction award went to Sandra Djwa for her biography of the poet P K Page. I haven't yet read this book, but Djwa's biography of the lawyer, poet and intellectual F R Scott is fantastic.

And then the children's illustration award Matt James for his book Northwest Passage which illustrates the Stan Rogers song of the same name.


UPDATE 14 November

Writing the above spurred me on to write even more and the good folks at the Ottawa Citizen published  the extended version of my critique of the GG Awards Committee's decision to give the fiction prize to Eleanor Catton this year. As I hinted at above, I think this about more than just this prize and this author.

You can see the full op-ed on the Citizen's page here.  (and buy a paper if you are in Ottawa!)

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Findings… Canadian Letters (not a typo)


I don't know how I've missed this for so many years, but I've just discovered the Canadian Letters website and project. As the creators themselves describe it, the project is 'an online archive of the Canadian war experience, from any war, as told through the letters and images of Canadians themselves.'

There's plenty of excellent material here - well worth a look, whether just to troll through, perhaps for your own research/reading, or for teaching.

I came across it via another interesting project from the Champlain Society. That organization has started an interesting project called 'Findings/Trouvailles' that will each month present a snippet of a particular archival document/ source with a historian explaining its significance. The series is edited by Douglas Hunter and this month had Jack Granatstein talking about some of the documents left behind by Ivan Clark Maharg who fought in the final push of the last 100 days, about which Granatstein is currently writing.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Jesuit Relations


A couple of nice posts today on the history of some of the most fascinating documents in Canadian history - the Jesuit Relations. These are the collection of letters and reports from Jesuit missionaries in North America that have become so essential to the telling Canada's early history. 

Kathryn Magee Labelle reminds us at Active History that this year is the 100th anniversary of the death of the man who organized and published the collection, Reuben Gold Thwaites. (And, after all, we don't seem to do any history any more in this country without marking an anniversary of some kind!). Then Charlevoix gives us some more reflections on the documents and the man.

I remember trawling through some of the books years ago for a course in Quebec history. Now, for some reason, I can't think of them without the word 'relations' sticking in my head - as in Bill Clinton's 'I did not have sexual relations ….' Go figure.


Monday, 4 November 2013

History of scandal - again!


Last Friday I wrote a short op-ed about the Senate scandal, essentially saying that all of the parties can learn something important from the history of political scandal. The short version of what I said was this: 'scandals don't last'.

The Ottawa Citizen published the op-ed today (Monday).

Over the weekend, the Conservative convention showed me that, in at least one respect, politics doesn't change.

In the op-ed, I talk a bit about the King-Byng controversy of 1926. (see note below) Most people forget that King's government actually fell because of a political scandal - the Liberals were 'on the take' in Montreal, skimming money off of bootleggers who were themselves feeding prohibition-era thirsty Americans. But all of this was forgotten in the election of 1926. King essentially found a wedge-issue in the constitutional issue that became the King-Byng controversy.

I can't help but think, as John Ibbitson also writes today, that the Conservatives on the weekend were trying to do essentially the same thing with public sector unions and pensions. If the opposition parties are smart, they won't take the bait. This would have to be, for them, a 'shield issue' not a 'sword issue'. These are the terms that Paul Wells shows, in his new book on Harper, that the Conservatives use - that is, shield issues are those that they can't win on, they can only defend.  Bashing unions is a classic sword issue for Conservatives. They are trying to switch from the scandal, on which they can only defend, and ineptly at that, onto something that they feel much better about.

Good to see that lessons from long ago King-Byng are still useful today. History really can teach you things.


Note: I was going to link to the Wikipedia entry for King-Byng just to give some general info but when I went to it I found that it repeats a bunch of folklore/myths about the scandal. It gets some of the details right, but leaves out a good deal of important issues.

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Canada - a tough sell

Are Canadian academics interested in Canada?

Obviously some are, but this seems to be a question worth asking. I have an essay coming out in next month's issue in the Dorchester Review about the diminishing importance of Canadian history in Canada's universities, especially the big research universities.

But it seems this isn't only about history.

Colin Coates, a historian from York University and current president of the Canadian Studies Network, drew my attention to a study of Canadian economics departments. It found the same thing. Fewer and fewer Canadian economists are publishing work on their own country.

Then there are the comments from those in English departments. They report the same phenomenon. Just read Thomas Hodd in the Globe from last week.

It seems 'there's something happenin here'...

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Pundit or Scholar or Both?


Sometimes reviews can be better than books. I haven't yet read the essays in Nelson Wiseman's edited book The Public Intellectual in Canada but I know that Andrew Potter's review in the Literary Review of Canada is well worth a read.

And what he suggests in the review, is that the book itself is already out of date. Certainly the list of contributors suggests as much. Social media sites, especially twitter, are upsetting the way this world of media savvy intellectuals works.

My own recent experience, though, is that some things remain unchanged. Since the spring hoopla over Harper's history agenda I've had several conversations with producers interested in talking to me about being on radio or TV shows. In the end, most often haven't worked out. One thing remained constant: the people they chose were much more ideologically oppositional, taking one firm position, even if it wasn't as nuanced or reasonable as it could and really should have been. (ie Harper's history project is a monstrosity or Harper's history project is perfectly fine). Conflict works. But intellectuals ought to be good at nuance. It's hard to balance the two - and when you do, if you can see value in opposing views, trying to get to the truth of the matter, the media might not be interested.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

For love of a ... textbook?



I think I'm in love. Again. This time, though, it's with a textbook.

It shouldn't be possible. Nor is it seemly or respectable or, let's be honest, normal. But when I clicked through on the links, first from email, then to catalogue and to website, intrigued by this new textbook in Canadian history, I finally came to a sample chapter. That's when I fell in love.

For years now I have been hoping someone would write a beautiful, engaged, comprehensive, narrative history of Canada. And there it was. Easy and accessible, but engaging. Not broken up with excessive sidebars and moving from theme to theme to theme to sub-theme, not forgetting this old character - and 'oh, look at this article I've read recently' kind of textbook.

But I'm forgetting to say who it is. I'm not the jealous type, and textbooks are for sharing. Take a look yourself at Narrating a Nation.  It comes in pre and post confederation volumes, and the authors are Raymond Blake, Jeff Keshen, Norman Knowles and Barbara Messamore.

The sample chapter for the post-Confederation volume deals with the years of the Great War. And, wonder of wonders, it actually deals with the war, with the grimy reality, the mud-up view, as well as the many important domestic implications, and not even forgetting the Progressives and the 1919 hoopla.

The only funny bit that stuck out was this line about Mackenzie King, when they note how socially awkward and pudgy he was but then say that, no matter:

'King was a master political tactician with an astonishing ability to read the public mood, build coalitions, impress the right people, make the right friends, and demolish his enemies.' 

This is definitely cart-before-the-horse writing. Folks might have started saying this by the summer of 1940, or perhaps the most astute might have said it late in 1926. Not in 1919.

But who am I to complain? Every love affair has to have its little blemishes.

Oh, and no one (alas) paid me to write this!


Tuesday, 8 October 2013

The Canadian Publishing Blues


At my neighbourhood Chapters Store on the weekend, looking for Susan Delacourt's new book Shopping for Votes. But where is the book? Not at the front of the store. Not on the 'New Arrivals' shelf. Not even on the 'In the News' section despite the fact that the book was all over the news last week.

It seems that Harbour Publishing (owners now of Douglas & McIntyre, who published the book) haven't paid the good folks at Indigo Chapters enough money for the book to show up near the front.

I did eventually find this important book in the back of the store under Canadian Political Science.

So far, it's well worth a read. The first chapter is actually a nice undergraduate lecture on the emergence of a consumer society in the postwar years - citing folks like Mona Gleason on psychology, Richard Harris and Valerie Korinek on suburbanization, Donica Belisle on department stores, and Russell Johnston on advertising. Though she, like me when I've written lectures on the topic, really has to search to fill in the many, many holes.

I do think, though, that Andrew Coyne had a good point in his critique of the book. The basic argument is that politicians have come to treat voters more as consumers than citizens. They just now want to give these people goods (policies, politicians) that the consumer/voter will buy. There is very little about convincing citizens about important issues or ideas. Coyne says that this has always been the case, only the techniques have improved.

I found myself thinking much the same thing. After all, that was always the line on Mackenzie King. He never led, he followed. He appeased. He caved in to the lowest common denominator - whether it was his illiberal Catholic supporters in Quebec, or the scions of industry from Montreal. Sounds a lot like Harper. King had 'instinct' and 'intuition' they said. Harper has marketing and polling companies to 'intuit' for him.

Coyne is a bit too dismissive, though. Delacourt is telling us an important story about the relations between politics and citizens. Even if the overall argument overlooks some continuities, the book is still essential reading.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Royal Proclamation: A Diversity of Views?

I'm looking forward to reading all of the essays published this week over at Active History's  commemoration of the Royal Proclamation of 1763. Tom Peace's first essay lays out what the series will look like, and the first essays are already coming out.

I do wonder about one point, though. Peace says that Active History is giving a variety of views of the Proclamation. The summary of each sort of shows this. But I can't help but see one glaring absence - any interpretation that might differ from what Tom Flanagan has elsewhere called the 'aboriginal orthodoxy'. It seems from what we can see so far that all of the opinions come from within this perspective. Maybe when all of the essays are out, this will prove not to be the case. Maybe.


Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Just a Minute


This blog has been far too silent lately. I've realized how hard it is to actually write a book and write a blog. So the book writing is going well, if slowly. The blog....well, here's a post.

Historica Canada today released a request for proposals for two new Heritage Minutes. These will deal with the First World War, in time for the centennial of its beginning next year.

I won't dwell here on the 100-500 thousand dollar estimated value (not sure if this is for each or together).

But I will say that many historians will be pleased with the themes. Historica notes that we already have three heritage minutes on the war, commemorating Vimy Ridge, John McRae and Valour Road. Now the list of possible topics includes:

-   unique acts of bravery 
-    war’s impact at home
-    the role of women
-    multiculturalism in the military
-    founding of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry & the Royal 22nd Regiment 
-    conscription 
-    resistance to the war
-    Impact on Canadian identity
-    war art

Not a bad sample, I think. But surely someone will complain.

And while we're on the subject of Heritage Minutes, here's my vote for the Heritage Minute to be made in 2030:


Thursday, 15 August 2013

Magna Carta: A Tradition of Our Own


My guess is that many Canadians now know almost nothing about the Magna Carta - even many of the chattering classes. Maybe I'm wrong, but I don't think so. 

It's one of the things that makes the attempts of Len Rodness to bring a copy of the Magna Carta to Canada so interesting. (see this article in the Star about it.)What would we make of it now? 

The Magna Carta was the agreement signed by England's King John 1 in 1215 with the barons of his realm who rose up in rebellion and essentially forced him to sign an agreement limiting his powers. The medieval terms of the agreement were fairly narrow, but in later years it came to be part of an invented tradition of democracy in Britain, each generation using it to expand the democratic powers of parliament, a document that became powerful precisely because of its history and because it showed a very long standing tradition of limiting royal power (however limited the initial premise).

In bygone generations, English Canadians would have understood the Magna Carta as part of the British parliamentary legacy - part of the British tradition of liberty and fair play (with all of its omissions that often weren't acknowledged) that Canada inherited. In the 1950s when Liberals were busy demolishing the British symbols in Canada, much to the delight of French Canadian nationalists, and increasingly as many English Canadians didn't especially notice or bother about it, Eugene Forsey railed in indignation when Arthur Lower complained about how English Canadians took such things like the Magna Cart as a 'tradition not thine own.' 

This, to Forsey, was nonsense. It was his tradition. It was the tradition of Canada.

What would we think now?

Personally, I first heard of it when I was a young voracious reader of about eleven, poring through the historical novels of Sharon Kay Penman. Good reading still, though I can't find an image from the edition I read.

Friday, 9 August 2013

The Real McCoy



Who was Elijah McCoy? Until recently I hadn’t a clue. Probably I’m not alone.

When the good people of the 4thLine Theatre invited me to see a production of their latest play, ‘The Real McCoy, I soon found out. The play is a loosely historical and biographical story of McCoy, a black inventor, born in Upper Canada but who moved to the United States, and made a life for himself as an inventor of many things, notably a special cup that allowed steam engines to run for longer periods of time without having to be stopped every so often to be re-lubricated. If this sounds small, imagine a train trip (as the play asks you to do) interrupted every fifteen minutes by stops to re-lubricate the engines – the stops lasting longer than the journey. Sounds like commuter hell.

I confess that I don’t know how much of the production is historically accurate. McCoy doesn’t get an entry in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography. He shows up only briefly in Robin Winks’ history of the blacks in Canada, as one amongst many Canadian blacks who drifted south to the United States in search of opportunity in the latter years of the nineteenth century. I haven’t done an extensive search, but it seems hard to find a good deal of material on him. What’s more, the writer of the play, Andrew Moodie, admits in the program that he has taken some liberties. He wanted to get at the human story of the man’s life. In this, he more than succeeded.



This blog isn’t usually the place to find a theatre review, so I won’t go on at length of the merits of the production (there are many).

As a work of history, the play is fascinating. Written and first produced in 2006, the play makes some interesting choices. The most noticeable is to make the endemic racism of McCoy’s life only one part of the production. An intelligent and ambitious man like McCoy would have had to face racism on a continuous and ongoing basis. It would have stunted his career, blighted many of his hopes. All of this is in the play, but the play is also much more than this. In many respects it succeeds at telling a deep and universal human story – at drawing anyone in.

I found myself chuckling at a moment early in the play when the young McCoy tries to smash a puzzle his father has given him – frustrated that he can’t get it right. One of my own sons does this on an almost daily basis, especially when hungry or tired. Lego is just too much. In the play McCoy’s father shushes his anger, consoles him and says ‘Anger blinds you. You can’t see when you’re angry.’ The situation is particular; its application is universal.

As I sat in the outdoor theatre in a crowd consisting entirely of white folks, watching this play put on by African Canadian actors, in rural Ontario, it reminded me that the inclusive history that many academics practice is part of something bigger. A historical play, whatever the liberties taken, is still a history lesson – and a much more pleasant one than I could deliver in a lecture hall. 

Thursday, 25 July 2013

Open Access, History by Committee and other failed utopias



It’s not entirely a beginning; in fact, it might be the end.

 I’m talking about open access publishing. There’s been a fair bit of discussion of this on Canadian history blogs over the last week, mostly over the success of Ian Mosby’s article on nutritional research on aboriginal peoples that made such news but was (temporarily and soon again to be) locked behind a paywall and so inaccessible to many.

Is this a problem? Should we have to pay to read articles? Or should they just be free? Isn’t this research paid for by the taxpayers anyway? These are the kinds of questions, discussed in a much more sophisticated way of course, that have animated discussion on various blogs including those by Christopher Moore and Andrew Smith.

For many younger scholars, though not only them, open access seems like a great idea. It’s democratic. It’s of the times. What’s not to like? Now the Times Higher Education supplement informs us of a growing movement amongst publishers to move towards open access publishing for monographs (for the non-academics who read the blog, monograph is academese for book, usually a boring book). This plan would have scholars (or their institutions, funders, etc) pay lump sums to get their books published and be freely and openly accessible.

Hooray for democracy and open access to researchers! Or maybe not.

This move only furthers trends already firmly entrenched within the academic community to leave publishing decisions firmly in the hands of academics. That is, under these models it will even more be the case that it will be academics and academic bureaucrats making decisions about what matters in a book/article, about how these should be framed, what questions should be asked, how they should be written. This isn’t new. Today in academic journal publishing, the process is almost entirely done by academics, with articles being peer reviewed by other academics. There is an editor, an academic, who supposedly (and sometimes really does) edit the article. There is an editorial board (staffed by academics) who make large decisions about the journal and the articles to be published.

For monographs (or books - they really could be books although they rarely are now) the process is also increasingly only handled by academics and editors who don’t actually edit. The only editing most books receive is copy-editing - that is, the editing that tries to get rid of typos and grammatical errors. The assumption is (largely based on finances) that this is the only editing needed for monographs.

Open-access publishing will only further entrench this process. Academic publishing will be just that – academic publishing.

Given the recent problems in the wider world of Canadian publishing –  the consolidation amongst publishing houses, the declining interest in Canadian non-fiction titles – this should make us worried. (Remember even Stephen Harper’s soon (ever?) to be published history of Canadian hockey is signed to a US press.) Publishing with academic presses might soon be one of the only areas where we can publish non-fiction books on Canada that are serious. And if this process is not curated, not edited, only peer-reviewed, and then ultimately paid for only when you have an institutional affiliation or have been deemed acceptable by your scholarly peers in peer review, this will be alarming and harmful.

This is especially the case in Canadian history. Historians, after all, aren’t physicists. We don’t just do ‘pure’ history only to be discussed amongst ourselves. Some of what we do is pretty much only intelligible, or interesting, to other academics. But much of what we do is or should be geared toward the public, toward the people whose society we are studying. Historians tell stories.

The back-and-forth discussion between academics and the wider society, between academics and editors, between the interests of academics and the realities of what is interesting and compelling in the wider society is/was a good tension. It is/was useful. You wouldn’t want either side to fully win out. Like much that is useful in the intellectual world, it’s the conversation, the continuing dialogue and perhaps disagreement that matters.

Open-access publishing, especially if this moves to monographs, will be a disaster for historians unless there is a serious injection of funds to institutions and to wider funding bodies. This isn’t going to happen. Welcome to a future of history only by peer-review committee. We’ve tasted it before, always as one dish alongside others. When it comes to fill the whole plate, we may decide that we’d like a different flavour now and then. But it might be too late.

Friday, 19 July 2013

The Funny and Interesting and Dusty Bookcase



Another great example yesterday of why Brian Busby's blog The Dusty Bookcase is becoming something I look forward to read with each new post. This time it is a history of Canadian literature via the Bombardier's Guide to Canadian Authors published in National Lampoon (yes, Bombardier of the snowmobile, not the English ale, and yes National Lampoon of, you know, National Lampoon).


Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Reconstructed Parliamentary Debates Online


I learn from Kady O'Malley's CBC politics blog that more of the reconstructed debates of the House of Commons of the early Confederation years are now online. This is the project undertaken back before the 1967 centennial to reconstruct the debates of parliament from the reports of journalists in the period before official records began to be kept in 1875. The Library of Parliament now has up all of these early debates until 1873.

It's nice to have them there, and we can only hope that the others follow soon. It seems amazing that all of the debates for the whole of our history are not online.

Sadly amusing, too, to see in the first debate in parliament on 6 November 1867 that John A Macdonald is the first to speak and put forward a motion and that when he is seconded by Cartier, the reconstructed version of what happened reads like this:


Hon. Mr. Cartier seconded the motion, sup- porting it in a few remarks in French sub- stantially to the same effect as those of the Minister of Justice. 


I thought I'd check out the French language version and it reads like this:


L'hon. M. Cartier appuie la motion, faisant en francais quelques remarques dans le sens de celles du Ministre de la Justice. 

Really? Did none of the French language papers cover this debate? Could it not have been reconstructed, in the 1960s, from papers in both languages? Perhaps it couldn't, but then again, perhaps no one thought to try.


Monday, 8 July 2013

More Change at the DCB


With their great new website up and running, it looks like the Dictionary of Canadian Biography is set to make another change, though this one not so pleasant. John English, editor of the DCB since 2006, is resigning to take up a position as head of the new Bill Graham Centre for Contemporary and International History. See the details here.

Who will replace him? Big shoes to fill...

Friday, 5 July 2013

Thank you Library and Archives Canada



There's something about the national archives that always makes me happy. It's not any one thing - the view out over the river, the pseudo-Stalinist modernist architecture, the rare privilege of being away from the children, with the permission to be a historical voyeur for several days... it could be any one of these things. Or just some ineffable happiness that comes from knowing that I'm actually getting paid to do this. A privilege indeed.

And then, alas, there's always something that snaps me out of my reverie. Every trip.

Today it was a wrist strap for my phone. I didn't have one. But I needed one, or so I was informed. There I was snapping picture after picture of correspondence from the Pierre Trudeau fonds when some kind lady came to tell me that I needed a wrist strap.

No doubt I looked confused, but she patiently explained to me that I might drop my phone and damage the documents. Apparently all 112 grams of my iphone were going to fall on the paper and... well... you know, hurt the paper.

As she left, she looked just so pleased to have helped me.

Then later in the day I sat and listened to an audio recording of Blair Neatby, the former official biographer of Mackenzie King. He was speaking about how the archives used to treat professors. In the early 1960s, when he would come to work on the King papers for the summer, they gave him his own office! He could, if he liked, just go and pick up the documents off the back shelves, though he said he preferred to go to one of the archivists.

Me, I had to stop taking pictures at 5PM. That's when the reference folks go home. You can still stay in the archives until 11, but you can't take pictures. Can't be trusted, you see. They really are looking out for us, the good folks at Library and Archives Canada. I'm as grateful as a broken cup.


Monday, 1 July 2013

Canada is dead. Long live Canada


Canada has a few ghosts. Not individual spooks - collective hauntings.

Nations are imagined. We think them in order for them to be true. Benedict Anderson told us this and it's so true it's now almost a cliché to say it.

But what happens when we dream a different dream? Minds do flicker from one thing to the next. Even if the collective idea of a nation has a little more ballast, it too sways and moves, finds other moorings. We reimagine the nation.

I was thinking of this as I read Robert Fulford's acerbic look back on the era of intense Canadian nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s. Fulford particularly recalled the great George Grant and his Lament for a Nation and Donald Creighton and his grumpy anti-Americanism.

For Fulford, the silly illogic of these men is clear in retrospect. Wasn't Canada supposed to disappear, a victim of American imperialism, Liberal party perfidy and British ineptness? And yet here we still are, another Canada Day come and gone. The nation stands. Folks gather on Parliament Hill and listen to the latest pop star, endure the platitudes of the latest prime minister. In Quebec, the renters move from apartment to apartment, and in small towns like the one I live in, they wear red and white clothes, gather their kids around to look at fire trucks and tractors, and then eat some cake. Happy birthday Canada. You're still here. Where's the beer?

Only Fulford couldn't be more wrong. The Canada of Creighton and Grant is long dead. You can still sometimes see the ghostly entrails in a cranky letter to the editor, in the dreams of Tory staffers on parliament hill, and wherever you see someone flying a Red Ensign. A ghostly presence at best.

This is the Canada that celebrated Dominion Day, that admired Canada's place in the British Empire and Commonwealth of Nations, not as a kind of subservient underling (always the insult from anyone in Quebec and, as the years went by, more and more 'with-it' English Canadians) but as a nation with a British history and British traditions.

Canada is around still, but not this Canada. You'll sometimes hear hints of this, and more than that, in Harper's speeches. But even as he speaks the words, his policies are simply those of Liberal governments before him: more continentalism, more American-style liberalism, less and less of the Red Tory touch.

We don't necessarily have to bemoan this. Many might happily celebrate it. But Fulford is entirely wrong to think that just because this country with the same name still exists that it is indeed still the same country.

Canada is dead. Long live Canada.


Friday, 28 June 2013

What's in an Ngram

I'm late to a couple of games here - first the great Dusty Bookcase blog of Brian Busby, and then (via his great post on the change from L M Montgomery to Lucy Maud Montgomery)  to the fascinating, time-wasting, and somewhat useful joys of Google's Ngram Viewer.

This is the tool that graphs the appearance of terms in google's library of ebooks. Admittedly, this isn't a perfect database, but what emerges from it can still be very intriguing.

I started with something that had been on my mind, the novelist Ralph Connor. I'm waiting for an article I've written on Connor to appear in the May 2013 issue of Histoire Sociale/ Social History. So I plucked in the name of Ralph Connor and compared it to L. M. Montgomery. I had written in the article that Connor was by far the better known novelist in the early years of the century. Here's what emerged:


I thought that perhaps I was missing something so I also then included Lucy Maud Montgomery:


It's always nice to have something that you already think to be the case confirmed (confirmation bias and all). I knew from other documents that Connor had been Canada's leading author in the early years of the twentieth century, and certainly that he had been widely popular outside of Canada as well, especially in the United States. But I thought I'd do one more comparison so I compared Connor with Anne of Green Gables, thinking that this one term might have often stood in for Montgomery herself.

This probably gives the best representation, showing Connor as the more popular novelist in the early 20th century, but not by as much. And the real change came, as I suspected, in the midst of the rise of CanLit in the 70s and especially with the Anne of Green Gables films and then the Avonlea TV series in the 90s. 

Finally, I thought I'd test out the book I'm currently writing, on the afterlife of Mackenzie King. Here is how he fares: 


And here again I was pleasantly surprised to see that the mention of King soars after he dies - that it is in this context that he enters the great meaning-making machine of public memory. I was a bit surprised to see the most mentions came in the late 50s, early 60s as I thought the peak might have come in the 1970s. But I wasn't at all surprised to see that mentions start to fade away in the 1990s to today. So this argument I'm developing about the way Mackenzie King mattered to a couple of generations of Canadians in the years after he died, might not be that far wrong after all. Thank you google Ngram.