Tuesday 18 December 2012

Tommy's ghost vs CSIS, update

An update on the case between Canadian Press reporter Jim Bronskill and the government of Canada/ CSIS. If you recall, this is the case over whether CSIS and Library and Archives Canada need to open up the documents in Tommy Douglas's now very old security file.

I won't go over all the details here except to say that the case is going to live on, thanks to an appeal by Bronskill. A more general overview of the case is here.

CSIS and LAC really are out of touch. Even the the National Post's Kelly McParland is on to them. Read him on the gaping holes in the logic used by CSIS to argue why it can't release the documents:

So if it’s not Douglas that needs protecting, it must be CSIS. Again, Douglas has been dead for a quarter of a century. If CSIS is still using spy techniques that old, maybe it’s time they updated them a tad. I suspect there was little in the 1986 RCMP spying arsenal that the Russians, Chinese, or whoever it is we consider “the enemy” hasn’t figured out. Exploding pens? Invisible cars? Look, don’t tell CSIS, but Roger Moore isn’t even James Bond any more. 

Sunday 16 December 2012

Why can't I walk across the farmers' fields?

One of the benefits of being married to someone who isn't from 'here' - from Canada that is - is that you sometimes get to see how odd we Canadians are. Now, my wife is only English so we're not talking about exotic realms of difference, but differences there are.

Take 'rights of way' for example - or the absence of them. We now live in the country, amidst the farmer's fields that came to look this way at some point in the mid 19th century (not too far from where Susannah Moodie roughed it in the bush). If we want to go out for a walk, we have a couple of acres ourselves. It's good for the kids to play hide and seek, but not exactly the kind of acreage for a long ramble. The only other option is to walk up and down the rural roads, the lines separating the sections and farms. It's all quite nice but it's not at all how one would walk in England.

If we lived in Leicestershire or Devon or anywhere in England, we wouldn't be nearly so respectful of private property. Instead we would traipse through farmer's fields, next to cows (and hopefully not bulls), climbing over fences using the stiles that are put up by the farmers (sometimes grudgingly) to make our lives easier. The farmers may not always like the groups of hikers gallivanting across their property, but that's the way it is. These are the rights of way - the ancient rights of way. This is how people have walked in the past, getting between villages and across the country. They weren't put there for modern nature lovers and fresh-air enthusiasts. But we can use them now, all the same.

But in Canada... not so much.

There might be some of these rights of way. People do have, theoretically, riparian rights-of-way - that is the right to walk along the edges of the water. But try heading up to cottage country and doing this on a July weekend and see how long it takes before you're greeted by shouts and threats.

We may be, in so many legal ways, a British country. But our colonization happened, mostly, far too late for any of these traditions to take hold before they were wiped away by modern capitalism.

Of course, there were 'rights of way' so to speak. There were others who had used the land before. But the founding of Canada was built purposefully across these other, more ancient ideas of the land and how it could be used.

And so we're left with the right angle and the rural route. It is one telling example of the Canadian stunted landscape and past. We're left with a contemporary politics that posits aboriginal ideas of landscape vs the modern Western rationally-controlled, privately-owned landscape. We're left with these bizarre dichotomies between the supposedly so antithetical ideas of nature of the settler and the colonized.

And yet, and yet, the dichotomies have more to do with the timing of colonization. It has more to do with the enforced forgetting that comes with colonization. It is the opposite of what those cultural political scientists used to say about the New World - Louis Hartz and his ilk. For them, it was all about fragments of old world culture, cut off from their original context, and heading in new directions. Yet, here it seems more likely to say that the opposite happened - in a more Turnerian fashion - that the new world context meant forgetting and obliterating the past because the past wasn't 'ours', it wasn't the ancient traditions of the right culture. Yet, when it came to the land, the settlers had in fact their own ancient, dare I say, aboriginal, conceptions of the landscape. And these, by virtue of the very fact of removal, of going outside of their original context, were not brought to the new world.

Year by year, decade by decade, as the train and then car came to shuffle people about, the very idea of 'rights of way', the notion that people's private property hadn't, in the old world, been only 'their' property, slowly disappeared, an idea no longer relevant because it was no longer lived.

Now it's a foreign concept, something to be discovered on a trip to England. Or something that someone's English wife could point out, again and again: a reminder of the exotic Canadian reality; a recognition of the wide gulf of our not-so-common language and history.

Monday 10 December 2012

Moore on Parliamentary Democracy

Let me chime in my support for what Christopher Moore has said about how parliamentary democracy ought to work.

On his always insightful blog, he comments on how the Australian government was forced by parliament to modify how it was going to vote on the issue of seating the Palestinian Authority at the United Nations. The prime minister and cabinet wanted one thing; the parliamentary majority wanted something else. The government had to change.

That, folks, is parliamentary democracy. It's not always pretty. It's not even always especially democratic. But that's what we have - or ought to have.

In Canada, our parliamentary majorities don't even do this much. And if you want a background primer (or some Christmas reading) Christopher Moore has you covered on that front too. Check out his not-so-new but still extremely relevant book, 1867: How the Fathers Made a Deal. No, he's not paying me to say this...

Wednesday 5 December 2012

Canadian History for the Holiday?

Reading through the Globe's list of recommended reads for the year, I was struggling to find much Canadian history.

Interpreting history generously, these are, according to the Globe, the best Canadian history titles of the year:

Pinboy: A Memoir by George Bowering

The Complete Journals of L. M. Montgomery: The PEI Years, 1889-1900, ed by Mary Henbely Rubio and Elizabeth Hillman Waterston

The Pursuit of Perfection: A Life of Celia Franca, by Carol Bishop-Gwyn
Working the Deadbeat: 50 Lives that changed Canada, by Sandra Martin
That's it for Canadian history, and mostly we're talking all about memoirs/biography! Not a history book amongst them. Really? Are those all the good history books published this year? What do you think? Any other suggestions we can give to the Globe?

On a better note, they do give a few great ideas for non-Canadian history including one that is on my wish list: Modris Eksteins, Solar Dance: Genius, Forgery and the Crisis of Truth in the Modern Age.

Monday 3 December 2012

Cundill Prize goes to ...

The Cundill Prize for history this year has gone to Stephen Platt for his book Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom:  China, The West, And The Epic Story of The Taiping Civil War. [See here.]

This is a prize worth paying attention to. Started a few years ago, and based at McGill, it goes to great works of history from any region or time period. From the people who have been nominated and who have won over the last few years, the committees seem to reward great books written by smart people who are both stretching themselves and their field. These are academics who are writing books that are much more than academic books. 

Personally this year I was hoping for Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began but it was knocked out when they moved from the longlist to the shortlist. 

I can't imagine why they don't have me as a judge....

Friday 30 November 2012

When eyeballs are diglycerides: McHistory unravelled

Did you ever wonder about the history of that Big Mac you're eating? I mean, not just the history of the food itself (whose beef is this anyway) but about the whole process whereby you came to be eating something that tastes the same in London and South Dakota and Grand Falls.

Ian Mosby writes a great essay on our unease with industrialized food production, and the difficulties that a company like McDonalds has in grappling with this unease. See the essay on Active History here.

Tuesday 27 November 2012

Who is the real Assassin?

Why did the Globe use editorial space to attack a video game? Have we gone back to the 80s where Space Invaders and Pacman are going to destroy the souls of children? No, it turns out it's more about national history.

Tom Peace writes a thoughtful piece over on Active History about the Globe's attack on the video game Assassin's Creed III. And, in one way (though not in others) he matches what Jack Granatstein has written in the latest edition of the Dorchester Review in an essay titled 'Harper, History and the Historians.' (alas, not online) Granatstein strikes a more sympathetic tone, but doesn't leave Harper unscathed. He also picks up on Peace's point that if you are going to say you want to celebrate history, then this requires supporting the institutions that facilitate research. You might not always like what the researchers find, but it's the institutions - the archives and libraries - that really matter.

Without them, we're stumbling in the dark, fumbling for light switches, and jumping at shadows.

Thursday 22 November 2012

They paved paradise and put up a Conservation Community...

Ok, it's not exactly historical but I love Stephen Bocking's post about recent trends in suburban advertising. It helps that I've seen the signs he's talking about. See it here.

Tuesday 20 November 2012

The history of the Grey Cup

Allen Levine, the most recent biographer of W L Mackenzie King, has turned his hand to more sporting matters today in the National Post. See here for his account of the history of the Grey Cup.

Friday 16 November 2012

Quantum History Take 2

An interesting comment via email from Helen Forsey about my post the other day on Quantum history (responding to Neil Turock's Massey lectures). She writes:

Very brave of you to raise this, but I am wary. I caught the last part of the same lecture, and Turock's suggestion that the "quantum" future "may even change who we are" (I think that's the quote)as human beings gives me a sick anxiety in my gut. I may be misunderstanding, but I think fiddling with the essential nature of humanity (or of our fellow creatures) is both dangerous and fundamentally wrong. It smacks of those among space enthusiasts who want us to pursue the frontiers of outer space instead of taking on the responsibility of caring for the Earth, our home. Our record of tampering with nature is not a shining one. Such science has deep roots in patriarchal arrogance, and it has already brought us to the brink. As feminist Dorothy Dinnerstein has written, such prospects "smell vile" to me.   
I confess that I hadn't thought about any of what Helen says. I was taking his words in another direction - not in turning us into a different, more techno centred kind of humanity - but in actually making us more aware of reality as it really is. The world works in certain ways that we find almost impossible to understand.

I certainly share the distrust of those who see possible solutions in space and technology that are only about avoiding the real humanly/politically created problems of here and now (ie so many responses to global warming). But I was taking Turock in a different direction. That is, the discoveries of physicists seem to ask us to confront our limits as humans, the ways in which we are incredibly limited, irrational, and unable to really understand the world. So I read his perhaps overly rosy language about the quantum future in this light.

But still. Quantum history anyone? Is anyone actually applying this stuff to the humanities? If time isn't linear; if can be seen as a spatial 4th dimension, how does this affect the writing of history?

I asked these questions to three great historians and smart people the other day over drinks. I received kind, bemused expressions. Maybe I really am out in left field on this one....

Wednesday 14 November 2012

Jerry Bannister Tonight

If you're around Peterborough, please do join us tonight for Trent University's 2012 W L Morton Lecture to be given this year by Jerry Bannister.

The title of the talk is 'The Tourist Gaze Reconsidered: Heritage, Politics, and Memory in Atlantic Canada.'

In my mind, Jerry Bannister is one of the reasons why early modern 'Canadian' history is where the good stuff is happening right now. Perhaps I'm just an envious 20th century historian, but I can't help but notice that this is the field that is coming up with so many original ideas, and insights. When I find myself at the CHA, these are the panels I want to go to.

See all the details about the lecture here.

Quantum History?

Listening to Neil Turock give the second of his Massey Lectures last night on "Our Imaginary Reality", I kept thinking that there must be something historians could/should do with what he was telling us. Over the last few years I've been a mild dabbler in reading about developments in physics but essentially I'm a scientific idiot: I never even took high school calculus.

Still, it seems to me that given that quantum physics has so much to do with time - with telling us that the way we understand time is entirely wrong - then historians ought to be listening.

Anyone have any ideas? I did a quick google on history and quantum physics but only came up with works on the history of the discipline.

Don't get me wrong. There have been so many wrong turns in applying science to history (Read anything by an evolutionary biologist/psychiatrist as an example - who needs causation, context or explanation? It's that way because of evolution!) But quantum physics seems like it might be different, that if we truly understood it, we would be obliged to rethink everything.

Right now though, it only makes my head hurt.

Thursday 1 November 2012

Wanna bet this isn't about racism and sexism?

Have you been following the story about the Queen's U history professor Michael Mason who was facing disciplinary charges because of some of the allegedly sexist and racist remarks he said in class? Margaret Wente jumped on the bandwagon  yesterday (of course), writing a column about it here.

Today I see the Globe is noting (here) how other Queen's professors have backed him up. The line from today's story which nicely sums it up is that he:

faced possible discipline after he admitted to using a series of racial epithets while lecturing, but maintains he was directly quoting others from historical documents to expose and criticize the overt racism that was prevalent after the Second World War – which he says is a common technique. He also directed the term “mistresses” at female students, but explains he only said he hoped those taking the class would become “masters and mistresses” of the material.

But I think the real clincher came in Wente's column when she noted his age, 74.

How much do you want to bet that this whole controversy has nothing to do with the what he said in the classroom, and really is about the university just using the opportunity provided by some student complaints to finally shove out the door a professor who perhaps they feel has been there too long? Who knows (I do not) but perhaps there are personality issues? In academic politics there usually are.

But I am almost certain that what the newspapers are pointing out isn't the real story.

Wednesday 31 October 2012

Book Launch for Eugene Forsey, Canada's Maverick Sage

I'm looking forward to the book launch for Helen Forsey's book about her father, Eugene Forsey, Canada's Maverick Sage. It is  next Tuesday 6 November 2012 at Trent University in Peterborough. You can get all of the details here.

But if you're too lazy for a single click (we all have those days) then it's at 5PM at the Lady Eaton College Senior Common Room. All are welcome.

Forsey was an incredibly fascinating man. I've blogged about him here, here,  here, and and and ... well you get the picture.

Be there!

Tuesday 30 October 2012

Holy F#$! Library and Archives Canada!

In the vein of 'in order to serve you better, we are reducing our services', here's the announcement from Library and Archives Canada on the elimination of the program (the vital, important, dare I say 'Nation Building' program) to loan out LAC material across the country (thanks to Marcel Fortin and Ian Mosby on twitter for this):

End of ILL ServicesInterlibrary Loan (ILL) services at Library and Archives Canada (LAC) will end in December 2012. Users ofLAC's current services should note the following dates:
  • November 13, 2012:
  •  End of loan requests from international libraries.
  • November 16, 2012:
  •  End of renewals. All items loaned after this date will be non-renewable.
  • December 11, 2012:
  •  End of loan requests, location searches, and ILL-related photocopying services.
LAC's ILL listserv (CANRES-L) and Canadian Library Gateway also will be archived in December 2012.
LAC will continue to facilitate interlibrary loan activities among other institutions through the ILL form in AMICUS, and through ongoing administration of Canadian Library Symbols.
Through our modernized service channels, LAC will emphasize increased digital access to high-demand content. LAC is working with Canada's ILL user community in order to inform this approach to accessing the institution's unique holdings
You'd think that a party that has spent so much time complaining about the monopolization of cultural and other resources in Ottawa might have some sense at least of the irony of what they are doing.

Michael Ignatieff on Harper the potential fascist...

Does the title sound extreme? Perhaps, but read John Ibbitson's column on a recent Ignatieff speech here.

Michael, Michael, why were you not a better politician....?

Monday 29 October 2012

Halloween as Drag Show

Check out this great little 1973 CBC show about drag queens at Toronto's Club Manatee in the early 1970s. The video is below and taken from the CBC digital archives here. I saw it referenced on the great Canadian Gay and Lesbian Archives site here.

Dates, dates, and more dates...

From speaking notes of Hon. James Moore, Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages, on announcing the new Museum of Canadian History.

'2012 has already been an eventful year for Canada. This year, we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Canadian Coast Guard, the 40th anniversary of Paul Henderson’s goal in the ’72 Summit Series, the 100th Grey Cup, the 100th Calgary Stampede, and the Bicentennial of the War of 1812.
Next year, we will recognize the 100th anniversary of Canada’s first Arctic Expedition.
In 2014, we will celebrate the 200th anniversary of Sir George √Čtienne Cartier’s birth, the 150th anniversary of the Charlottetown and Quebec Conferences, and the 100th anniversary of World War I.
In 2015, we will mark the 50th anniversary of the Canadian flag and the 200th anniversary of Sir John A. Macdonald’s birth.
And, in 2016, the 175th anniversary of Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s birth, the 175th anniversary of the union of Upper and Lower Canada, and the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in Canada. All leading, of course, to Canada’s 150th birthday in 2017.'

Ow! My head hurts. But I can't help but notice that he forgot one - ie 1982 - our Constitution and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms!

Friday 26 October 2012

Globe Drive does history, sort of...

Here's a version of history from a little article/quiz in the Globe Drive section. Who says there's nothing to stereotypes?

The full article is here. But here's the section you might find funny:

7) In what decade did you first get your driver’s licence?
a) The 1930s. I drove down to the office and gave the guy a bottle of Canadian Club. Then he gave me my licence.
b) The 1950s. I went to office and swore not to be a communist or engage in creative thought. Then they gave me my licence.
c) The 1960s. I had it handed to me on a silver platter, like everything else.
d) The 1970s. You had to go to the office and say, “Disco sucks.”
e) The 1980s. I did a line of coke with guy at the Copa. Turned out he worked at the Ministry of Transport. It was excellent.
f) 1990s. I had to give blood and a urine sample. Then an MRI and a personality evaluation. Then I was on triple double secret probation for seven years.
g) 2000s. I currently have a Learners Level 3 Probationary Permit, which allows me to look at cars. I’m hoping to get my Learners Level 2 Probationary Permit next year, which will allow me to drive if I’m accompanied by three adults and an over-bearing step-parent. If all goes well I should get my full driver’s license by the time I’m 65.

Thursday 25 October 2012

Tina Loo on Unfinished History

Tina Loo has a thoughtful post over on Active History, thinking through some of the ways history teaching has changed over the last few decades. It is the death of Eric Hobsbawm that gets her thinking about how his once fresh and exciting ideas (as well as those of E P Thompson and Natalie Davis) have become a little bit 'humdrum'.

She's saying (but for different reasons) the same kind of thing that I wrote in an article called 'After Inclusiveness: The Future of Canadian History.' There I was reflecting on how the once radical calls for change in the profession had, in Canadian history, now become mainstream common sense.

Loo worries that the danger with 'this manifestation of boredom [with once exciting radical approaches/subjects] is that it threatens to foreclose the analysis of power that social historians started.'

I partly share her concern. But I'm not entirely in agreement with the prescription. It seems to me that part of the problem of the 'history from the bottom up' paradigm was that it was all about agency and power, struggle and resistance. In practice it was used by those who too readily assumed that there is/was a simple version of what good historical changes were, about what kinds of power ought to operate, etc. It assumes (though this is only a purposeful, useful generalization) that there is someone in the past with whom we should now identify.

Thinking through my own research from the past summer, I just can't agree. I spent a lot of time reading Conservatives from the late 1940s and 1950s lamenting the changing world in which they were living. To them, Canada was radically changing: we were losing the British tradition, popular forms of culture like the TV were taking people away from reading, the state was increasingly taking on more and more power and was being corrupted in the process. Now, personally, I don't identify with much of this. But I could understand that what their letters were telling me (though not really me, of course, they were writing to others!): for them, the world as they understood it was changing radically.

Arthur Meighen, still alive in the 1950s but how
much at home in this 'conservative' decade?
source: www.parl.gc.ca
Yet if we look to the history from the bottom up historians version of the 1950s this is nowhere. We might get some of this from the British World historians - the switch away from Britishness in Canadian identity. But historians who write about this period talk of it as conservative and regressive. Others disagree and find some currents for change bubbling away under the surface (feminists, labour organizers, human rights advocates, etc). Yet none of this really relates to what many Conservative Canadians were thinking in the period. It's the interests of later historians reinterpreting the period for themselves.

In other words, if we are moving on from bottom up social history, and if some of this has lost its lustre, it is not only a question of something being lost. There is also the chance for gain as well, to see what this approach didn't get. And the concerns of Conservative Canadians in the early 1950s are never going to be the stuff of exciting bottom up history. But to think of them as 'the powerful' is equally untrue. Their world really was changing, under conditions not of their choosing. It's what Marx said (men making history but not under conditions of their own choosing) but not what his later historian friends care too much about.

Tuesday 23 October 2012

Calling the technically inclined

Ok, so perhaps this isn't quite the typical use for the blog, but I'm wondering if anyone out there knows a technically inclined friend, who might be a programmer, who can help.

I'm switching databases that I use to store my research. I've been using Microsoft Access but this isn't available for my new Mac. I would like to test out Filemaker but need to get the material in Access over to Filemaker. It's not, for me, a straightforward process. And from what I've been reading, it might even involve writing a program to do it. Any ideas?

I know that Zotero is probably even better but I don't think it will take in my data from Access. Perhaps for the next book...

Friday 19 October 2012

And you thought this was only about postmodernism....

It turns out that academics who do complex mathematics can be a lot like academics who do complex critical theory. At least, they can both fall for the same hoaxes. Paul Taylor over at the LRB blog writes of how the journal Advances in Pure Mathematics seems to have fallen for a hoax similar to the one that Alan Sokal played on the journal Social Text. That is, they took seriously an article that was nonsense - but nonsense that sounded familiar.

See it here.

Well, at least it couldn't happen in history. Could it? I do wish someone would try.

Did Roman Girls Giggle?

I love it when historians ask and, better yet, answer these kinds of questions.

The Cambridge ancient history and classics professor, and fun blogger, Mary Beard does just this over on her blog A Don's Life. See it here.

Thursday 18 October 2012

New History and New Media

It used to be (before I started this blog) that I mostly felt inadequate because I couldn't keep up with all my journal subscriptions. I had long ago given up on reading all the books I wanted to read. But I still harboured this thought that I might get to browse all the journals I subscribe to and at least read the articles and book reviews that caught my eye. That dream has faded.

Now, I can also feel inadequate (and perhaps you can too) by looking at all the new work that is being done in the digital humanities. Just take a look at the incredible resources at the Roy Rosenzweig Centre for History and New Media.  

Or perhaps that would be too much. Don't read it all. Just look at one tiny amusing site they have called Sidelights.

It's a website with a few fascinating accounts of amusing episodes from the past. You can read about 'Who Invented Body Odour' or how the First World War changed the way we blow our noses. 

Now, that's my kind of history!

Thursday 11 October 2012

What is History? Still

If you haven't yet read E H Carr's classic little book What is History? do so now. Go to amazon or abebooks or the nearest used bookstore (don't worry, they'll almost certainly have a copy) and buy it.

To start, you could read some interesting posts over at Richard Brown's Looking at History blog on exactly this top. He has two posts on Carr's book in his thread of posts on the subject of writing history. See all of that thread here.

But mostly just go out (right now - why not? what else are you doing?) and read the book.

Wednesday 10 October 2012

Must-reads for Wannabe Mad Men

Just in case you've been feeling all retro watching Mad Men and are hankering after a bit of the early 60s swanky life, Jenny Diski over at the London Review of Books blog has something for you. Read it here.

Thursday 4 October 2012

Tommy Douglas/Jim Bronskill Update

An update on Canadian Press reporter Jim Bronskill's case to have Library and Archives Canada and CSIS release more information from the security file on former Saskatchewan Premier and NDP leader Tommy Douglas.

I confess that I'm having a heck of a time working out the ruling made Wednesday in this case. It appears that the judges technically ruled in favour of the government. But it also seems that the judges accepted some of the logic that would make LAC and CSIS release more information, particularly the idea that they must consider the historical value of material they are releasing.

See this story on the ruling at the Winnipeg Free Press

Friday 28 September 2012

If they spied on Tommy Douglas, what else might they do?

That's the question CSIS and the federal government don't want you to ask: if the RCMP and then CSIS spied on Tommy Douglas, the founder of our Canadian health care system, and someone Canadians voted as the 'Greatest Canadian', then what else might they do?

The latest episode in the saga to get the RCMP/CSIS file on Tommy Douglas is set to take place on 3 October 2012. That's when the appeal of an earlier decision regarding the Douglas file is set to be heard.

The case was set in motion by Canadian Press journalist Jim Bronskill who complained that the version of the Tommy Douglas file that he received under an Access to Information Request had been too heavily edited. This kind of cutting is typical in ATIP requests and the most common reason given for not disclosing information is the one used in this case, security concerns.

Bronskill queried how a file that is so old (this one dates back almost 70 years, though it apparently goes up until Douglas's death in 1986) could actually threaten Canada's security.

Jim Bronskill, Canadian Press
For the latest information on the case, see this Winnipeg Free Press article.

The case is incredibly important - CSIS knows it, the government of Canada knows it, and everyone interested in this nation's history (as well as civil rights) ought to pay attention. The way in which Library and Archives Canada routinely accepts CSIS deletions of material under ATIP requests is a joke. So too are the many reasons given for blanket refusals to give Canadians information about their nation's history.

A great many technical reasons (and even some seemingly reasonable moral arguments) will be brought out to argue why the government should have as much leeway as possible to delete and black out materials. Most of them, especially dealing with materials more than 30 years old, will be entirely bogus. This is simply CSIS trying to extend and maintain its powers to decide what we get to know about what it does - even to implausible and illogical lengths. It is also about trying to hide things it has done wrong in the past - to keep its history clear of the many black marks that might show up if anyone actually got to see what happened.

Of course, maybe I'm too suspicious. But the only way we'll know is if we actually get to see the documents. Good luck Jim Bronskill! (see his twitter account here for updates)

Monday 24 September 2012

The Age of Fracture (and Canadian Politics?)

Were the Liberals really the party of the twentieth century? Was the government party really only the governing party for Canada at a particular historic moment that now seems to have ended?

Increasingly people are answering these questions with a 'yes' and 'yes'.

As to why this might be so, there isn't much agreement. But historian Kenneth Dewar has published a wonderfully insightful little essay in the Halifax Chronicle-Herald that uses the ideas of historian Daniel Rodgers (in his great book Age of Fracture that I talked about here) to explain how Canadian politics is changing.

Dewar is especially insightful in explaining how the politics of today are different from earlier decades but also, perhaps, similar in some respects to the era of John A.

Well worth a read here.

Thursday 20 September 2012

Who wants to be equal?

A very useful snapshot of the history of income inequality in the United States is posted over at The Past Speaks by the multi-faceted historian Andrew Smith. Might make good reading for Mr. Romney or really anybody who can pay $50,000 to eat rubber chicken and a bad speaker.

Tuesday 11 September 2012

What if?

What if....? 

I remember my former colleague, the great historian of Latin America James Dunkerley, once saying that asking the question 'What if?' was the English historical equivalent to French theory. Yes, the French might have great philosophers and critical theorists, but for some English historians it's enough to ask, 'Yes, but what if such and such had happened?' 

Over on his blog Roderick Benns draws our attention to a great little 'what if' scenario that the Globe recently wrote about:  'what if Canadians had elected their prime ministers according to the American system? What would have happened?

See his blog post here and the Globe article here.

Personally, I wish we would all stop considering the American system and spend a little more time understanding (and obeying!) the parliamentary democracy that we actually have!

Friday 7 September 2012

Calling all artists interested in history

Here's a fascinating project to make graphic works of history. The call comes from a group called the Graphic History Collective and they are seeking:

"activists, artists, academics, and designers to participate in the
Graphic History Project, a project about graphic activism. Our
intention is to produce new politically relevant graphic histories to
help inspire resistance and action. We are looking for pitches for
short--10 pages max--graphic histories of peoples' resistance by 21
November 2012. Projects do not have to be completed until 2013."

I'm guessing that they're not interested in resistance of the Tea Party kind.

See the website at

Wednesday 5 September 2012

Who is the Quebec Electorate?

If after reading the above title you're wondering why I've suddenly lost even the slight grasp on English grammar that I once had, let me say that I'm not alone. But I'm not speaking really about grammar. Didn't you know that there is such a thing as the Quebec electorate? Don't worry there's also a Canadian electorate and an Ontarian and a Nova Scotian electorate. This is the person (plural but also amazingly singular) who sits down before an election and decides that a particular party should get power. They/It then casts votes (many votes but let's not let that get in the way of saying it is just one result and one will at work) that will put party x into power and toss out party y. It also decides, this singular/plural electorate, that a particular party (let's say the PQ in Quebec) should 'win' the election but only barely, so it should only get a minority government. The electorate is all knowing and all powerful. It may consist of millions of individuals but it makes this decision unilaterally with a single thinking mind and will.

If you think I've lost my marbles, you are absolutely correct. But I'm not alone.

This is the only conclusion that one can possibly draw from the way Canadian journalists (and not only Canadian journalists) talk about elections in this country. We learn today that the Quebec electorate wanted Pauline Marois and her PQ party to win the election, but that they weren't so certain about how much power they should have. (We are reassured every other minute that support for separatism is at an all-time low.) So the Quebec electorate decided to just give the PQ a minority government.

What an amazing feat. Here I was, a simple historian of Canadian culture and politics, with only the barest grasp of the way parliamentary democracy works, thinking that a whole slew (millions) of Quebecers voted yesterday with a whole bunch of different intentions. I would swear that there were quite a few Quebecers who wanted the PQ to form a government, even a majority government. There were even many who still wanted the Liberals to do the same. And there were others who wanted to vote for Quebec Solidaire and the CAQ. But apparently individual decisions matter not at all. Once an election is done, the many individuals with many competing views become transformed into the electorate.

This is, of course, utter rubbish, and dangerous rubbish at that. It is one of the most undemocratic features of our contemporary political discourse. It is what lets parties that get only a smattering of votes (say the 32% of the PQ or say the 40% of the national Conservatives or the 40% of the Liberal majorities before them) to rule as if the Canadian or Quebec or whatever electorate really wanted them to be in power. To hell with the majority of other people in the population who wanted something else. They become meaningless once someone has 'won' an election.

And more importantly, their representatives in parliament, the members of parliament, become merely part of the opposition, creatures who get in the way of the government and that most important creature of all: the singular/plural mystical creation of journalits: the electorate. All hail the electorate! Now get out of the way so it can do its job.

Wednesday 29 August 2012

old newspapers, without the inky hands

Dan Melleck has put together a pretty comprehensive list of digital newspaper archives. He gathered information, partly from subscribers to the listserv H-Canada, and has published them on his blog.

So if you're in the mood for serious research or just an amusing trawl through the Canadian journalistic past, take a look at his blog here. (Although the blog is called 'Drug History Canada' I'm pretty sure it's safe for teenagers - even daily over many years!).

**** UPDATE *****

An updated list of the above papers, with some modifications is here

Monday 27 August 2012

The Age of Mackenzie King

The Age of Mackenzie King

I see that Labour/Le Travail has now made available my article on the scandal that greeted the publication of the The Age of Mackenzie King in 1955. You can see the table of contents of the issue here, and click at the right to download the PDF.

Friday 24 August 2012

The Academic Herd


Thomas Peace writes a thoughtful reply (here) to my earlier blog post, ‘Drinking one too many on the historical playground’. The debate is over the kinds of language academics use in talking about early colonial North American history. It’s also, from my perspective, about how the way academics work puts them out of touch with both the rest of the world (sometimes with good effect as Peace suggests, but sometimes not) and with the actual history they study.

Let me say that Peace appears, from all I can see, to be a thoughtful, careful scholar. When he says that the recent trends in aboriginal/colonial history are all grounded in empirical research, he is certainly right. And his own work certainly falls into this category.

It is, though, disingenuous to claim that the debate we’re having is between those with more insight into the realities of the past (the current academics) and those who don’t understand the past (the general public and, I suppose, me).

The reason that the history of colonial British and French North America is presented as it is does not solely come from new empirical research. Academic historians now regularly downplay the importance, and the power, of the European colonial powers. They regularly emphasize the agency, power, cunning and intelligence of aboriginal populations. The impact of colonialism is said now to be much more drawn out, to not have had as immediate of an effect as previously thought.

All of this is partly based on new research – research done by Peace himself but also by many other scholars in the field, including the detailed and important work by John Reid that Peace highlights. But it’s not only the research that leads to this assessment.

There are two other key elements at work: politics and academic trends.

Academics tend to reward originality only when it comes in bunches. For the last few decades, there have been rewards (and general acceptance for) work that has built on the key insight that the power of the European colonial powers was not as significant as previously thought. These kinds of insights have rebalanced the field, and filled in gaps in our knowledge.

They also fit with the kinds of politics that are ongoing in the broader society, and particularly with regard to aboriginal peoples. An emphasis on the capacity of aboriginal peoples, their claims to statehood, as first peoples, as carriers of legitimate and worthy cultural traditions, all played out in a context where the legitimacy of treaty obligations and the legacy of colonial era treaties and documents really matter – all of this adds to the history a political saliency. It matters – it can matter – what is found in this remote history. We just have to turn the situation around to see just how much it matters. A historian who argued that particular aboriginal groups were not as culturally, economically and politically self-sufficient would face significant criticism. Someone who argued that a particular aboriginal group did not have the same characteristics as we might associate with being a ‘nation’ would find that there work became politically sensitive and dangerous. This particular past might be long ago, but it is not remote.

And it strikes me that this is why the academic debates and language are now so far out of whack. We have rebalanced the debate only to see it tip far to the other side. This is what I mean about academics having their heads in the clouds. Because we’re so caught up in our own debates, and because these debates are so caught up in contemporary politics, there is very little incentive (and indeed many dangers) in setting the balance right again.

Fifty years ago the general impression one would have taken from much academic and popular history of early Canada was of daring explorers leading the foray into new lands, creating a new nation out of the wilderness. The  academic researchers were more inclined to show the warts of such explorers and settlers, but the emphasis on the Euro-North American past was the same.

Now, the general impression one draws from reading the history of early Canada is of incompetent, corrupt and weak European settlers and travelers, not making much headway in what was mostly aboriginal space. Gone are the laudatory examinations of the ingenuity of the European adventurers and the cultures they helped to create. In their place, we have laudatory pieces on the amazing technology, local knowledge and capacities of aboriginal peoples.

At the end of his post Peace says that  Canada and the United States are legacies from Europe that had to overpower, though not destroy, all other societal alternatives’. But the overall trends in scholarship over the past couple of decades leave one perplexed as to how this could happen. How could such powerless societies, so hampered by limitations on their power ever actually achieve anything? I can’t count the number of times I’ve been in academic audiences when everyone has shared a private joke about the incompetence or naivet√© of some colonial official who just ‘didn’t get it.’  

Why do historians shy away from talking about the capacity of Europeans to extend power over time and space? Is this only because of new empirical research? Is this about scholarly objectivity? In part, yes.  But that's far from the whole story.

My sense is that academics no longer have the confidence or willingness to take the same approach to Euro-North Americans because to do so would make us uncomfortable. If we talked about Euro-North American society in the same way we now talk about aboriginal peoples, we would have to extol the capacities and resilience of those who we now are uncomfortable in claiming as the creators of the nations we inhabit. We are the guilty inheritors of nations whose past we don’t want to own. So instead of owning up to this, academics fret about making sure the language we use is certain to show how limited European power was in the early history and how much more complex the process really was on the ground.

This isn’t empirically wrong. It is even part of a much-need rebalancing. But it is incomplete. The real history is, to use that term all academics love, so much more 'complex.'

Monday 20 August 2012

Drinking one too many on the historical playground…


Over at Active History Thomas Peace writes about his walk back in time, in two ways, at his local history museum. Apparently the tour guide not only gave them a history tour, he also was a bit of a relic himself, talking about the settlement of the area by Europeans who had come to the “savage wilderness inhabited only by Indians.”

This would be more than a bit odd – certainly if not prefaced by a comment that this was how settlers often saw the situation.

Odder, though, is that Peace goes on to say that although most academics don’t use this kind of language anymore, the language historians do use is still troublesome. He draws from an article by James Merrill in the latest issue of William and Mary Quarterly. Sadly, though, what he and Merrill argue is evidence of just how out of touch academic historians can become.

Apparently, ’[w]ords such as precontact/postcontact, discovery, and prehistory have been generally regarded as historically inappropriate for the study of Native history’. This is news to me.

Discovery is pretty obvious – though certainly one could still talk of the discovery of the Americas by Europeans. It may not have been news to those in the Americas, but it certainly was to Europeans (though when and by whom the discovery was made are still intriguing questions).

Are pre-contact and post-contact outdated? Are we now suggesting that the contact experience had no impact on aboriginal societies? Or the Europeans who came to the Americas? I’m sure Spanish historians (and surely those interested the history of the Spanish treasury) would be as baffled by this as I am.

It gets much worse, though, when you start to get to the heart of the matter.

Peace writes how ‘Merrell suggests that words and phrases like hunting territory, occupied, controlled, and settler can have implications that place Native and European societies on an unequal historical footing.’

I had to reread this a few times to make sure it really said what I thought it did. Are we really now going to circumscribe our language so as not to talk about inequality in the past? Has our desire to have everyone get along, and make sure everyone plays nicely on the historical playground gone so far that we are now going to pretend equality? I know that the major thrust in aboriginal history over the last few decades has been about emphasizing aboriginal agency, in trying to see the many ways aboriginals were not ‘only’ victims. But surely the ‘only’ part is key.

The last time I looked, Europe wasn’t colonized or settled or controlled by Iroquois traders, missionaries and adventurers. Surely there is a middle ground here between racist talk of savages and the kind of ‘head-in-the-cloud’ academic speech suggested in this post?

Peace goes on to make many more relevant and important points – notably about the problems of writing history only with a view from the present (so the troubles of writing the history of Pre-Confederation Canada as if these places that became Canada were already destined to become so).


But ultimately there really were ‘settlers’  who really did ‘colonize’ North America. The nations that were created here – including the universities that were established – really did come out of this process of colonization. So Peace’s complaint that the history of this place is written from the Atlantic seaboard  (ie from a European perspective) is off the mark. We need to recognize that aboriginals saw the history of settlement, and much else, differently. This was at the beauty of Daniel Richter’s great book, Facing East from Indian Country.

But the reality is that the societies that were created - the economy, politics and culture - really did come from the Atlantic Seaboard (speaking metaphorically as it’s not universally true geographically). Surely, that is what is at the heart of the justified aboriginal critique of their much damaged place in contemporary Canada. The clash really was, overall, between ‘unequal’ societies, and the societies that emerged were European in nature (if radically altered by the local sitaution -  pace Turner et al .). 

To try to change our history to suit contemporary politics is ludicrous and silly. Don’t rewrite the past – do something about the present.

Friday 17 August 2012

Arthur Meighen on Objectivity

After yesterday's post about the politics of academics, I come across this reference today in a letter from former prime minister Arthur Meighen to Eugene Forsey. The two had been decrying the way academics in the 1950s focused so much on objectivity and being 'unpartisan' (Meighen's word). Meighen writes:

'That word "objective" also is run to death, and many a pursuer has lost his breath in chasing it.'

You likely couldn't say the same now. Standards of "history" do change.

Personally I still see the usefulness of the term, though I find myself heading in its direction at a comfortable jog rather than an all out sprint.

Thursday 16 August 2012

Would professional historians give us a John A Macdonald parkway?

The Tories in Ottawa are busy renaming roads and buildings after Conservatives from the past, the latest example being the renaming of the Ottawa River Parkway as the Sir John A Macdonald Parkway.

I don't personally mind this particular naming. I was, though, struck by the comments of Scott Reid, a Liberal adviser, who criticized the move. In this Globe story yesterday, he decried the partisan nature of these kinds of public monuments. He even claimed to not have liked it when the Liberals did the same kinds of things on behalf of Wilfrid Laurier when they were in office.

What is the solution?  

Apparently Reid thinks that handing the whole thing over to a panel of professional historians would make it less political. What an amazing idea!

Don't get me wrong: I'd be all in favour of this kind of proposal. Anything which gets historians more involved and interested in public memory and commemoration - and less focused on adding lines to the cv - is good. But less political? Hardly.

Historians might be less partisan. Certainly, most professional historians I know try to keep their partisan affiliations out of the classroom and (at least directly) out of their writing. But politics is what history is all about. Aside from MPs and the ravenous group of 20 something uber-partisan ministers aids, I think it would be hard to find a group of folks who are more political than historians. Good or bad, that's just the way it is.

Wednesday 15 August 2012

The not so everyday, everyday history: Gin and Tonic

What a great post by Jay Young over at Active History on the oh-so-complicated history of drinking a 'gin and tonic'. See it here.

It's a pleasure when someone points out the complex history that underlies something as prosaic, if pleasant, as a mixed drink.

Tuesday 14 August 2012

Pedestrians and Drivers - near the beginning

I came across this comment on the tensions between drivers and pedestrians in a Ralph Connor novel from 1928, Treading the Winepress [Perhaps I'll do another post on Connor himself as I've been writing about him lately and many are unlikely to recall one of Canada's most famous writers - and geniunely so - who is now forgotten].

Here is Connor as narrator on drivers and pedestrians:

'There is a natural antipathy between the motorist and the pedestrian. The antagonism is rooted in the whole social system of our day. To the pedestrian, the motorist is a plutocrat and parasite, a burden upon the toiling masses, and a menace to their very existence, more especially when they walk abroad to take the air. To the motorist, the pedestrian is a mere trap and snare, and, as well, a cumberer of the king's highway; a thing to be removed. Hence, the shrill honk of the motor horn, a signal which the unwary pedestrian must heed with the utmost despatch and without parley, fills him with impotent wrath. It is vain to argue with a motor car hurtling through space, and it is infinitely better to be alive, wrong, than dead, right.' (p. 21)

I love the way this captures so much of road culture before cars were commonplace and entirely accepted. There is still a sense here of motorcars as luxury goods, of oddities of the rich and pushy. It is almost, now, as if he is speaking of bicyclists and pedestrians on walking trails - the shared space, having to move away for the silly cyclists who come hurtling down the pathway, ringing their bells and daring those in their way not to get out of it.

Friday 3 August 2012

An NDP/Liberal Prime Minister?

In all the talk over the last year of whether the Liberals and the NDP should or shouldn't merge into one party, I haven't heard anyone mention one curious incident from the past that bears something of a resemblance to the present scenario: the possibility that a CCF leader might take the helm of the Liberals.

It was widely rumoured in the 1940s that Mackenzie King wanted to swallow his CCF adversaries (as he had the Progressives in the 1920s) and that his widest mouthed attempt may have been an 'unofficial-official' query to then CCF leader M J Coldwell to see if he would be willing to be King's successor.

I need to get more details on the story but one second-hand account I have read suggested that Coldwell was approached by two people, likely the Winnipeg Free Press (and very Liberal) journalist Grant Dexter and a Liberal cabinet minister close to King (likely Brooke Claxton). Coldwell was asked to come into the goverment as a minister immediately (probably as Minister of Labour - the same way King had first come into cabinet, and we all know what King thought of 'coincidences'). Then, when King finally retired, Coldwell would replace him.

How true all of the details are I don't yet know but I am most convinced by former Conservative prime minister Arthur Meighen's analysis of the scenario. Meighen's response was:

'I have never had the least difficulty in analyzing King's purpose in having Coldwell approached. It was to use this process of flattery and reward to get him coralled and thereafter rendered helpless. He had not the least thought of having him as a successor.'

This sounds like the Mackenzie King I know. Swallow your enemies whole - all in the greater interest of the nation of course...

Thursday 26 July 2012

All Hail the Governor General, Lord Dictator of Canada?

Some of you might have seen references to a 'public opinion' poll about Canadian attitudes towards the monarchy in Canada (including the Governor General and the Lietenant-Governors) put out by a group calling itself Your Canada, Your Constitution. (See here and here)

It's a seemingly well-intentioned group that is, nevertheless, spreading some pretty ludicrous ideas about the nature of parliamentary government.

The questions in the survey included:

Question 1
Under Canada's current Constitution, the British Monarch together with an appointed Governor General (Lieutenant Governors for the Provinces) have the following decision-making powers:

-  To approve or reject any law passed by our elected politicians;
-  To determine when elections are held;
-  To chose Canada's Prime Minister and the Premier of each province after an election, and;
-  To determine when Parliament and Provincial Legislatures are opened and closed.

To what extent do you agree or disagree with the British Monarch and Governor General and Lieutenant Governors having these decision-making powers?
-  Strongly agree
-  Agree
-  Disagree
-  Strongly disagree
-  [Do not read] Don't know/refused

Question 2
Do you think that these decision-making powers of the British Monarch and Governor General and Lieutenant Governors should be¦
-  Set out in clear rules that are enforced by the Supreme Court of Canada.
-  Given to a person in a new position who is elected by Canadians.
-  Both
-  Neither
- [Do not read] Don't know/refused

Alas, the fact that this questions entirely overstate the actual powers of the crown in Canada seems to either have been entirely missed by the organization - or deliberately suppressed.

But I'm not the best person to speak on this. Here are some details from a press release put out by Helen Forsey (part of which is also mentioned in the Katie O'Malley blog above)


Ompah, Ontario – "Canada's ailing parliamentary democracy has just suffered another blow, in the form of this appalling survey," says Helen Forsey, daughter of the late Senator and constitutional expert Eugene Forsey. She is commenting on a recent poll by a new "educational charity", Your Canada, Your Constitution (YCYC) about the supposed powers of the Crown in our political system.

The survey began with a sweeping misrepresentation, and at no point touched base with reality. It stated, falsely, that our present Constitution gives four far-reaching and outrageously dictatorial "decision-making powers" to the "British monarch," the governor general, and the provincial lieutenant governors. Then it asked two thousand Canadians whether or not they liked this imaginary tyranny.

Naturally, most did not.

"Anyone who knows anything at all about our parliamentary system knows that the powers of the Crown are miniscule," says Forsey, whose recent book, Eugene Forsey, Canada's Maverick Sage, delves into these questions. "In a very few extremely exceptional circumstances, the 'reserve powers' of the governor general and the lieutenant governors can be important, but even then they are hedged around by restrictions and practical limits that make them subject always to the will of our elected representatives."

For example, contrary to the statements in the survey, the governor general has no power to reject a law passed by "our elected politicians" in Parliament. (The provincial lieutenant governors may, in rare cases, "reserve" a bill, but then it is up to the federal government – made up of elected politicians – to make the final decision. In practice, it is hard to imagine this kind of federal challenge to a provincial law.)

The survey's assertions about the other three royal "powers" are just as wrong-headed, says Forsey.

"This kind of pernicious misinformation plays straight into the hands of those in power who would love to keep us barking up non-existent trees. That way they can on ignoring, abusing and destroying the democratic rights and protections that our Constitution actually does provide – mechanisms of parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy that have evolved through centuries of popular struggle and citizen vigilance."

"Despite good intentions, YCYC is doing a massive disservice to Canadians by circulating this ludicrous caricature of our constitution. I fail to understand how Harris/Decima can have agreed to be a party to such a gross distortion of reality."
"We have real tyrannies to deal with these days," said Forsey, who, like her father, has a history of vigorous opposition to the abuse of power. "As citizens, we cannot afford to waste our energies on imaginary ones."

The facts about our system of government are set out in the Library of Parliament's booklet, How Canadians Govern Themselves, written by Senator Forsey and now in its eighth edition, in print and on-line: www. parl.gc.ca/About/Parliament/SenatorEugeneForsey/book/preface-e.html