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.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

The most interesting archive website ever?

Dr. Thomas Neill Cream

A few questions you'll find answered on the McGill University Archives website:

Did a McGill student accidentally kill Harry Houdini?

Did 'Jack the Ripper' attend McGill University?

Am I a descendent of James McGill?

These questions are all answered at the website (here) on the very short list of FAQs. It makes for quite a change from the usual list of questions archives staff they think they might have to answer (ie how much does it cost to make a photocopy?). But maybe they really were/are frequently asked!

Monday, 16 July 2012

Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre on Jewish wartime refugees

A fascinating story on the CBC the other night tells of a new exhibit at Vancouver's Holocaust Education Centre about a little known group of wartime Jewish refugees. For more details see here

You can listen to the CBC radio story about the exhibit  here

The first interview is very interesting but I must confess I was a little blown away by the second interview, of Rabbi Erwin Schild, who survived Dachau and is the author of The Very Narrow Bridge: A Memoir of an Uncertain Passage .

The interviewer asked him what he no doubt thought was a basic and obvious question, 'What was it like in Dachau?' How the hell do you even begin to answer something like that?! Perhaps the journalist is working on other seemingly reasonable questions like 'What was it like when they killed your parents?' or 'What was it like at residential schools?'

But to his credit, Schill didn't hesitate and began (oh where to begin?) to answer the question.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Norman Bethune and the Canadian frontier

An amusing story in yesterday's Globe just got better.

Yesterday the Globe reported (here) on the oddity of the Conservative government funding the building of a historic centre devoted to the Canadian communist Norman Bethune. Bethune has, of course, been seen in China as a relatively significant figure, and it seems the Conservatives want to both cash in on tourist dollars and perhaps win favour with some in the Canadian Chinese community.

But today historian Larry Hannant writes in to offer something of a correction. While the journalist had talked about the abrupt break of Bethune's 'transition from comfortable Gravenhurst to wartime China' Hannant clarifies: 'In 1890, when Bethune was born, Gravenhurst was the frontier, a rough timber-milling town on the front lines of the historic assault on the massive Ontario forests. Bethune's capaity to rough it and innovate in harsh conditions was nurtured there - and in Blind River, Aylmer, Sault Ste Marie and several other northern Ontario towns he called home in his first two decades.'

My own favourite sort-of account of Bethune is the portrait that is said to be of Bethune in Hugh MacLennan's great novel, The Watch That Ends the Night.

Canada's Maverick Sage

An amusing anecdote from the archives about someone who refused to listen:

In a letter from Eugene Forsey to Arthur Meighen in 1949, Forsey tells Meighen about a visit he made in the midst of the 1945 election to the journalist Charles A Bowman. I'll let Forsey tell the story:

'In the 1945 election, Walter Mann (CCF Federal candidate) and I went to interview him [Bowman], in the hope of getting favourable publicity. Walter, who knew the old boy before, gave him a short outline of our views. When he'd finished, Bowman bleated at him: "It's such a pity the CCF doesn't propose to do anything about the banks." Walter replied, "Well, Mr. Bowman, as I've told you many times, the CCF proposes to nationalize the banks." "Yes. It's such a pity the CCF doesn't propose to do anything about the banks." Walter repeated what he had just said. "Yes. It's such a pity the CCF doesn't propose to do anything about the banks." After this had happened four or five times, Walter just looked at me and gave up.'

Forsey is, as I've said before, a delight.

Incidentally, for a longer and stronger dose, do look to his daughter, Helen Forsey's new book Eugene Forsey: Canada's Maverick Sage from Dundurn. See here

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

The Glorious Promise of Transnational History

Who would want to be a Canadian historian these days? It's a question that comes to mind in looking at recent trends in academia today. It's not enough anymore to want to study the nation's past. Job ads for university professors frequently now call for someone who teaches Canadian history from a 'global perspective' or someone how is a 'transnational' Canadian historian. That is if universities will hire any Canadian historian, even of this modified form.

This only follows up on intellectual trends (with the emphasis here on trends) about the glories of studying  anywhere (but especially little Canada) from a transnational perspective. The nation is so very 20th century. I have even been blamed for jumping aboard this bandwagon because a book that I co-edited contained a number of essays celebrating just this thing - the glorious de-parochialization of Canadian history. That an editor could disagree with the some of the essays in the collection (and could still consent to publishing them) doesn't seem to have occurred to a few reviewers.

But where will this all lead?

One example is in the June issue of the Canadian Historical Review where we find an article by Geoff Read and Todd Webb titled ' "The Catholic Mahdi of the North West": Louis Riel and the Metis Resistance in Transatlantic and Imperial Context.'

Read and Webb take that very familiar figure of Canadian history, Louis Riel, and give him an up-to-date transnational spin. (for background see the DCB entry here) The article essentially looks at Riel's second uprising in 1885 and asks what international newspapers had to say about it. It's a potentially interesting question, and might provide a new angle. But, of course, in typical academic fashion, that's not how it's sold. Instead we're told from the outset that previous scholars have 'neglected' this international aspect, that it has 'passed largely unnoticed'. It's always polite in academic articles to set yourself up this way - set out the sins of the past that you will now correct.

But what does this internationalizing of Riel tell us? Does it give us some dramatic new telling of Riel and the Metis? After all, if previous historians have neglected the international Riel, they must have missed something significant. Does this article force us to rethink what we thought we already knew? Well, no.

We are told that 'For Canadians, and especially Metis Canadians, it is surely of interest that Louis Riel was a media sensation in the the transatlantic world.' This reminds me of the time when a prime time US television show made a Newfie joke on air. Upright politicians righteously demanded how on earth this could ever have happened. But then This Hour Has 22 Minutes did a skit which showed several Newfoundlanders sitting around watching TV. When they heard the joke, far from being offended, they leapt up into the air, celebrating the fact that someone had just mentioned Newfoundland on American TV. It seems that when we internationalize Canadian history, parochialism can't be entirely done away with...

We're also told that because Riel was discussed in international papers or, as the authors have it, 'That he operated within North Atlantic and imperial contexts' means that historians should 'if not necessarily rethink their interpretation of Riel the man, revise their view of his significance.' Ok, then, more of what was already stated above. 'Hey, they mentioned our guy in London, and in Paris! Now, I really know Riel is important!'

Then we're told that other countries made what they wanted with him, that they interpreted Riel and the uprising along the lines of political conflict in their own countries. This can perhaps be shelved under the heading 'No need for research to discover this.'

And then, finally, we learn that neither the Metis or Riel ever really got to speak for themselves in the international press. This is certainly notable, but hardly surprising.

Why should I pick on these two historians? They are probably decent blokes who have done and could still do great work.

But the wider implications are disturbing. We are told again and again that we need to reimagine Canada in an international context (as if no one did this before). This, it would seem, is theoretical sophistication. This is the kind of thing that SSHRC evaulators are looking for. And yet, here is one of the places it leads - to an article that crosses all the trendy "t's" and dots the transnational "i's" and yet, even by its own authors' admission, tells us essentially nothing that should make us change our interpretation of the main events in our nation's past.

Friday, 6 July 2012

Politicians of the past

A good review in the Ottawa Citizen of Peter Waite's biography of R B Benett. (see it here.)

In the review William Watson wonders how politicians got on better in days gone past.

He's partly right, though he is commenting here on Mackenzie King and R B Bennett. Choose a different combination - perhaps King and Meighen - and you get a very different chemical reaction!