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 naiveté 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...