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.