Friday 25 May 2012

The CHA joins the blogosphere

The Canadian Historical Association has officially joined the blogosphere. Inspired (or really dismayed) by the cuts to Library and Archives Canada, the CHA has started up a blog called Vox Historicus. See it at


 Oh, how the mighty historical profession has fallen ...

Looks like I was too quick of the mark. After doing some latin rethinking, they decided to quickly rename it Vox Historica. You can see it at:

Wednesday 16 May 2012

The War of 1812 Commemoration Caravan rolls on...

If you are looking for an intelligent analysis of why Canada has been invaded by a cultural caravan of War of 1812 commemoration junkies (and even if you weren't looking, but now are just curious), then you can find it in a great post over on the activehistory blog. Ian McKay and Jamie Swift offer the best contextualization yet of the phenomenon. See it here.
And then look for their book in the fall with Between the Lines (for details see here).

Forsey on the filibuster

What can the past tell us about the current controversy over the Conservative government's massive budget bill which is much more than a budget bill?

Here is Eugene Forsey writing in 1982. A Mr Westell had complained in the Ottawa Citizen about the 'constant warfare' in the House of Commons. Westell was saying what one finds some saying today, about the need for more decorum in the house, about the terrible partisanship of political debate.

Nonsense, said Forsey, in a letter to the editor of the Citizen. He suggests that perhaps Westell wasn't old enough to recall Laurier or Borden or Meighen or even King or Bennett, but that parliament was just as divided in their day. Forsey recalled fondly watching 'Arthur Meighen, from 1922 to 1925, day after day, week after week, disembowelling Mackenzie King and his Government....' And surely Diefenbaker, between 1963 and 1967 didn't sit 'in the House with his lips bottoned, or opening them only to utter buttered platitudes or twittering remonstrances..'

So on the practice of filibustering, here is Forsey again: 'Mr. Westell's idea of what Parliament should do between elections is nonsense, and subversive nonsense. It would give the Government almost carte blanche between elections. It would substitute plebiscitary democracy for parliamentary democracy. Parliament, between elections, has not simply the right, as Mr. Westell concedes to "scrutinize" and "criticize" administration and legislation, it has the duty to fight to the limit of the possible and the proper, any legislation which, in its judgement, calls for such action. This duty, of course, falls chiefly to the Opposition, and it can involve, on rare an dextraodinary occasins, obstructions, filibustering.'

In other words, 1) don't construct false and nostalgic ideas about the better days of politics, and 2) recognize that parliamentary government is all about debate and argument.

Canadians elect a parliament, not a government. We don't tell the MPs who aren't with the party in the majority to just go home - better luck next time. We'll see you again in 4 or 5 years, and in the meantime, we'll just call on you when we need to speed up our application for a passport. There's a little more to parliamentary democracy than that.

Friday 11 May 2012

Deja vu - 1926 and 2011?

Sometimes, the echoes from the past are eerie. Here I am today reading letters between Eugene Forsey (see my earlier post) and Roger Graham, historian and biographer of Arthur Meighen. The two men are talking about the King-Byng controversy back in 1926. King was leading a minority government that was in the process of being censured by parliament over a scandal. Roger Graham is noting how a later defender of King claimed that King was requesting to dissolve  parliament and have an election in 1926 (and not face the verdict of parliament) because he wanted a 'strong, stable government'.

Ring any bells? Replace King with Harper and change the years, and you this ought to sound familiar. Here is Graham on the issue:

'I'll wager King was not thinking of the need for a strong, stable Government when he asked Byng for a dissolution! Anyway what does "strong, stable Government" mean? I suppose that's for the P.M. of the moment to decide so that whenever the going gets rough in Parliament and "stability" is threatened he can hold out the threat of dissolution. Once "strength" and "stability" are achieved it is foolish, no doubt, to hold further elections because the stupid electorate might create weakness and instability.'

Graham was writing in 1962 about 1926. Surely, writes the historian of Mackenzie King, focusing on the numbers, those similar, similar numbers, that must be significant.

Thursday 10 May 2012

The Whimpy Kid of Confederation

Once again, I’m late on an issue, but it came back across my computer screen and hence my mind today, so here goes:

Michael Ignatieff just can’t buy any respect. Last month journalists and commentators heaped scorn on his comment  that  Quebec separation was a logical outcome of the way things had gone in federal provincial relations over the last several decades.

How could Ignatieff say these kinds of things? Doesn’t he care about Canada? And doesn’t he know that support for sovereignty is lower now than in a long time? These were the kinds of responses he got – gut reaction anger, indignation, etc, etc. (for criticisms, see here and here)

Yet what really did Ignatieff say? He said what many historians of modern Canada have shown – that the process of continuing to devolve powers to the provincial level, to continue to give up national control over all kinds of programs, is exactly what the sovereigntists want. He suggests that this continual denial of national responsibility for all kinds of issues, has allowed Quebec to achieve  virtual sovereignty. Canada and Quebec, he said, are already practically two different countries.

Is this assessment wrong?

This may hurt, but surely it’s also a pretty fair assessment of reality. When I heard the comments, I thought, ‘Oh, finally, Ignatieff is back on form.’ He’s no longer a politician, so he can finally start to call a spade a spade.

I recall having a conversation over drinks with a PQ strategist at a conference in London several years ago. He essentially gave me the same line. They were going to go for one tiny point after another. Nothing, on its own, would be big. But in the end, the province would be essentially separate. It is only a continuation of Quebec strategy since the 50s (from health insurance and old age pensions to foreign policy and childcare). Ultimately, the risk of actually separating, once all this was achieved, would be minimal. He said this with the most irritatingly, smug smile on his face, as if I was an idiot for thinking that a) the plan wouldn’t work and b) this wasn’t a good and inevitable idea.

So what does everyone do? They jump on Ignatieff for telling it like it is. What should we really be doing, if we really want Canada to survive intact? We should be demanding that the national government actually act like a national government, that it actually take on policy for the whole country. But then, of course, the target would not be Ignatieff. It would be the current government in Ottawa that, despite is ‘tough’ reputation, is in actuality acting like the whimpy kid of Confederation: refusing responsibility, giving up powers, withdrawing from areas it could arguably claim to control, and giving away tax powers and resources with which it could do things on a national level.

This is the issue that some opposition party ought to grab hold of: the ‘whimpyness’, for lack of a better term, of the Harper government. It constantly backs away from fights with the provinces, withdraws from any responsibility, and refuses to actually speak up for Canada.

Alas, though, with the NDP now courting Quebec and the Liberals in nowhere land, we truly are left without a national political party.

Monday 7 May 2012

Stand Up for History, and for Archives

The Canadian Historical Association, among others, is urging us to stand up for the funding of the most essential tools to the study of history in this country: archives.

Read more below:

Dear CHA Members,

The full ramifications of the recent budget are only beginning to be understood but it is clear that in choosing what to fund and what to cut, the Harper government has gone to war against history, heritage, and ultimately Canada. 

The Executive of the CHA has met and considers these cuts to be grave threats to our archival institutions and our ability to use those as historians.  Quite simply, if carried out, the tools we depend on as historians, journalists, creative writers and artists, to preserve and share our national memory will be crippled.  New resources will not come to light, the digital tools that make our work lighter will not be developed, and existing archival resources will not be protected.

So far two of the key attacks on the past come in the elimination of the budget for local archives and the total elimination of the Canadian Studies program.

First, see the letter from Lara Wilson, chair of the Canadian Council of Archives to Minister James Moore, on our website at The total $1.7 million budget for the National Archives Development Program, which has supported over 800 local archives for 26 years is gone. 

Second, as of May 1st, the entire program “Understanding Canada” from the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, which has supported Canadian Studies programs outside of Canada has been eliminated.  This program gave very modest support to associations in countries around the world that focus on Canadian Studies, and will result in most of these associations being unable to function.
This government is cutting the funding that Canada needs in order to know itself and be a united country as well as a country that is known and understood by others around the world.  We understand the economy is slow and the government is in deficit we note that it continues to spend on its priorities.

The executive has endorsed the letter from the Canadian Council of Archives and encourages all our members to email to Minister Moore, Minister Baird and Prime Minister Harper as well as your local MP to ask for the restoration of the National Archives Development Program and the Understanding Canada Program.   Bonus points if you still have energy for a letter to the editor of your local paper or a relevant blog. 

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s email is:

Heritage Minister James Moore’s email address is:

Foreign Minister John Baird:

Follow: CCA_Archives
Hashtags: #NADP ; #archives

Thursday 3 May 2012

The foresight of Eugene Forsey

I'm spending my time these days reading through the letters of Eugene Forsey. Who was Eugene Forsey? It's a complex answer for he was a unique man: he was a key intellectual on the left in Canada in the middle of the 20th century. He not only played a key role as a CCF thinker and intellectual, but he was a labour intellectual, someone who was a researcher for Canadian Labour Congress. But if you think you have him pigeon-holed, you're wrong. He was also a good friend of the Conservative prime minister Arthur Meighen. He was a British Canadian, with an emphasis on both of those terms, someone who failed to see a contradiction in them. The Conservatives under various leaders kept trying to get him to run for office. They did appoint him to the Board of Broadcast Governors after Diefenbaker won in 1957. But then Forsey later ended up as a Liberal Senator, largely I think because he agreed with Trudeau's approach on the constitutional question. He was, as I say, a unique man.

Here's Forsey at my institution, Trent, (one in from right) with a young Margaret Atwood (not to forget T E W Nind on left and Louis Haminsky on the right!)

In reading his letters, I'm reminded of how the past is always with us, but especially so in our politics.

Here is Forsey (in a letter to the editor of Saturday Night in 1951) explaining why it would be a bad idea to appoint a Canadian born Governor General: 'The appointment of a Canadian will throw the office into the whirl-pool of national politics and sectional, racial and sectarian feeling. The French-Canadians will insist, most reasonably, that every second, or at the very least, every third, Governor shall be a French-Canadian. The Irish Roman Catholics will insist on one of their number once in so many times. The various Protestant denominations will want their turn. The Maritimes will jib at a succession of "Upper Canadian" Governors. The Prairies will want their turn. So will British Columbia. Indeed, it may well prove that each individual province will press its own particular claim. One would think we already have enough of thiskind of trouble without deliberately inviting more.'

Of course, Forsey was exactly right - only the kinds of identities to be represented spread out to include more than religion and region.

But most importantly he was right, earlier in the letter, when he said it would cheapen the postion and make it impossible for the GG to act independently, to truly exercise his/her authority [ok, I added the 'her].  This is exactly what happend over the prorogue scandal. Michaelle Jean was doomed if she gave Harper the prorogation, but even more doomed if she didn't. She didn't have the room to move because she's nothing more than a patronage plum and pawn.

You don't have to be a great lover of British Canada to see that the position of GG is now in betwixt and in between. It hangs on to the vestiges of the British parliamentary model, simply replacing a token Canadian in place of the former British aristocrats. No one would accept a British aristocrat telling a Canadian prime minister what to do. But the nationalization didn't go far enough to confer enough authority on the (unelected) GG to actually exercsie the very few, but fundamentally important, remaining reserve powers of the Crown.

The consequences for Candian democracy are as profound as they are obscure. There are hardly any checks left on the authority of a prime minister with (or even without as we saw) a majority government. As the current government daily runs roughshod over the parliamentary process, it's one more thing to worry about...

Tuesday 1 May 2012

Harper's history lessons

Ah, the creativity of our great and glorious leader Stephen Harper! Many Canadians are now tweeting history lessons about the NDP, following in the slippered footsteps of Harper the historian.  Check out the twitter feed #HarperHistory or more details here

In case you missed it, over the last week Conservatives of all stripes have been giving history lessons about how the NDP can't have a view on the war in Afghanistan because 73 years ago it didn't want to go to war against Hitler.

J S Woodsworth

Fact check: It was J S Woodsworth who headed a political party of a different name (ie the CCF not the NDP) who voted against going to war. But it was only Woodsworth who voted this way. The rest of the CCF voted to go to war. M J Coldwell then took up the leadership of the CCF in the Commons. If you're interested in Woodsworth - and why not, he was a fascinating man - take a look at the biography by Kenneth McNaught. Buy it or be cheap and read parts on Google books here.

Here are some of my favourites from the twitter feed:

'"The NDP refused to come to the aid of men when Mordor invaded Gondor."

"The NDP shamefully stood by in the fight against plaque and gingivitis."

"The #NDP didn't even support the fight against the Death Star!"

"The NDP were the 2nd gunman on the grassy nole "

"Sarah Palin can see the NDP from her house"