Tuesday 30 April 2013

History of the Canadian North: Now!

Ken Coates and Bill Morrison have written one of the best blog posts I have ever seen, over at Active History, about the need to do something to help preserve and tell the recent history of the Canadian north. I'll just direct you over to the site here

I hope some journalist picks up on this thoughtful and important post. It could make for a great story to give particular meaning to all the more general talk about cuts to Library and Archives Canada.

Wednesday 24 April 2013

Will Thomas Mulcair be the new Robert Stanfield?

While the shadow of Pierre Elliott Trudeau hovers over his son, Justin Trudeau, the NDP should probably be thinking about a different ghost: Robert Stanfield.

Stanfield was the man who was going to be prime minister if it hadn’t been for Trudeau, Sr. In the mid-1960s, Canadian politics seemed to have sunk to an all time low. The minority governments of Lester Pearson, from 1963-65 and 1965-68, were wracked in bitter partisan feuding with the fiercely partisan and stubbornly popular John G Diefenbaker.

It all sounds very familiar to the way we complain about politics today. If the frustration is slightly milder now in the time of a majority government, the pessimism remains.

In retrospect, the Pearson years produced a great deal of constructive policy, including universal health care, the Canada Pension Plan and the reformed points-based immigration system. But Canadians at the time thought that politics was broken. The aging Pearson seemed out of touch and adrift. Diefenbaker was a political berserker who many in the Tory party increasingly wanted to get out of the way. There was even a Cold War sex scandal – the Munsinger affair – that left everyone feeling dirty.

At the end of an internal war spurred on by Dalton Camp, the Progressive Conservative party chose a new leader. That man was Robert Stanfield.

Stanfield was everything that Diefenbaker was not. Dignified and progressive, statesmanlike and kind, Stanfield was a successful, updated version of their opponent, Lester Pearson. He may not have won the Nobel Peace prize, but the lustre had long since faded from Pearson’s international glory. Stanfield’s record four majority governments in Nova Scotia had their own shine. That was the hope of 1967.

Enter Pierre Trudeau, and everything changed. The new hope of Bob Stanfield’s election as leader was swept aside by Trudeaumania in 1968.

Mulcair just might be the NDP version of Bob Stanfield. He too was groomed for the present. He too seemed to be, and might still be, just what the NDP needs to get them into power. This is not the 1960s, and the reigning prime minister is not Lester Pearson. When Mulcair was made leader only a short time ago, the thinking was that the NDP didn’t need a dignified, hopeful statesman. They needed someone who could go toe-to-toe with Stephen Harper. Next to Harper’s tough, attacking style, Mulcair won’t cringe. He’s a brawler himself. He’s a centrist Quebec politician, certain, it’s hoped, to keep the new Quebec base happy even as he fights his way into other political territories. Mulcair is the NDP’s answer to Harper. He’s the right man for the time.

Or is he? Perhaps the NDP are beginning to worry that history might come close to repeating itself, that their ‘right man for the job’ will become the ‘almost’ right man for the job. Bob Stanfield, redux.

It’s not so much that Justin Trudeau is his father’s son, or even that they share a name and a healthy dose of DNA. It’s the timing: the sense of dissatisfaction with politics as it is, the lack of hope, the lack of inspiration. If Justin Trudeau is unclear on policy, or if he’s inexperienced, this may not matter so much. He just might be able to match the mood of the time. That is what really matters, as all of those inexperienced NDP candidates in Quebec found out in 2008 when they were swept into office on the power of Jack Layton’s charisma.

As for poor Robert Stanfield, he stayed on as Conservative leader until 1976. He had other chances to become prime minister. But he likely always thought back to 1967 and what might have been if it hadn’t been for that other Trudeau, that new man for a new age.

Monday 22 April 2013

The poor children of historians... I'm talking about actual kids - not books, the metaphorical children. I talk about my kids all the time in teaching history. For some all too obvious reason, when I'm lecturing and searching for analogies, the first that come to mind are about the three kids under six with whom I spend most of my life. Well, them and people from the past. Dead people. What's not to compare?

There's a lovely article from Eric Hobsbawm's daughter on her father, his death, and her time with him over at FT magazine.

It did make me think about my kids in at least one way. She talks about her father's love of books - any books - anything to read at all - telephone books, recipes, whatever. That just about describes me (and my wife who reads about 2-3 times as much as me - amazing given that I pretty much spend as much free time as I can with a book). We've been getting these pamphlets home from my daughter's school about the ways to encourage reading. They say useful things like to make sure that they see you reading.

Except, of course, how the hell is this possible? Now, don't get me wrong. My daughter is already reading, and my two younger boys sit and pore through books, laboriously turning the pages and peering, peering down at the pictures. They do it all the time. But my kids barely ever see ME reading. How could they? All they see is that every surface in the house is covered with books and copies of The London Review of Books and The Literary Review of Canada and Granta and... and... . But as for us reading them? We're too busy cooking, doing laundry, and playing lego.

I do think about the books a lot though. Book, books, words... lots of thinking. Maybe that counts.

Monday 15 April 2013

A Tim Horton's Bumpkin Among the Laurentian Elite

The famous 1967 photograph says it well. Lester Pearson is in the right foreground, smiling, exuberant. In the background are three future prime ministers of Canada – Trudeau smirking with John Turner and Jean Chretien looking on. The happy Liberal family in its youth. They are all so young, so confident. This amazing photograph says a good deal about the kind of country Canada became from the 1960s onward. Love it or hate it – and there are plenty on both sides – modern Canada was made by the four men in this photograph.

I don’t spend many days sharing coffee with prime ministers. Yet here I was last Tuesday in a room where you couldn’t walk from the croissant tray to the coffee urn without bumping into a right honourable so and so. All those Orders of Canada pins shining on lapels, familiar faces from newspapers or television. Likely half the people there had their own entry in the Canadian Who’s Who. I was the Tim Horton’s bumpkin at the living mausoleum of the Laurentian elite.

The event was a one day conference celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the election of Lester Pearson’s government in 1963. It was put on by the newly established Centre for Contemporary International History at the University of Toronto.

It was truly a room of yesterday: gray hair, walkers, canes and bow ties. There were some young folks:  students giving us our name tags, security guards looking threatening. There were even a few people who weren’t white. There was more than a handful – though no more than a few handfuls – of women. It really was the Canada of 1963.

There wasn’t much dissent. Lorna Marsden, former president of Wilfrid Laurier and York Universities, gently pointed out Mr. Pearson’s seeming indifference towards the establishment of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women. There was Stephen Azzi, of Carleton University, noting how lonely was Walter Gordon’s economic nationalism in the Pearson cabinet.

This was a conference of appreciation and fond regard. There were references to critics on the left and the right of Pearson’s foreign policy. The critics weren’t present.  But even if the conference could have been a little less cosy,  it’s hard not to acknowledge the importance of what was being celebrated. The Pearson government was a turning point in modern Canadian history.

When Lester Pearson was elected, Canada was an illiberal rump of a country. Mackenzie King’s government was Liberal, but liberal only when absolutely necessary and only when the electorate led it there by the nose. Kennedy’s America  was the bright beacon of hope in North America. No one then could have imagined that several decades on young Canadians would assume that Canada has always been the more tolerant, progressive country. The transformation was imperfect, incomplete; it has its jagged edges, its unfinished business. But a transformation it was.

The accomplishments of the Pearson government give a good indication of how many things we now take for granted were created in this era. This included social welfare measures like universal health care, the Canada Pension Plan, Canada student loans, aids to provincial welfare programs. It included measures of social justice such as limits on capital punishment, the new points-based immigration system, and the establishment of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women. It especially included moves towards building a united Canada like the establishment of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, the new Canadian flag. It’s an impressive list. It would have made Mackenzie King vomit.

Add to this just a few of the measures put forward under later Liberal governments: Trudeau’s seminal Omnibus Bill, which decriminalized homosexuality and birth control and began the process of legalizing abortion; the liberalization of divorce law; and of course the repatriation of the constitution with the all important Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It was that document that pushed liberal reforms under later governments. The Mulroney and Chretien governments could step back and watch the courts expand equality provisions to more and more Canadians, letting the judges do what would have been much harder for nervous legislatures to achieve.

All of this adds up to the creation of a Liberal and liberal Canada. It is exactly the Canada that Stephen Harper and the Conservatives want to take apart – at least as much as they can. That the Charter enshrined so much of this liberalism in our political DNA means that their destruction can only ever be partial – at the edges of certain measures, taking away the teeth and the force of liberal rights that have been guaranteed in principle. It’s why we hear all the time about Canada’s Economic Action Plan and not Canada’s social action plan.

The event was a time-machine back to a different era. Yet it was precisely the people in the room who made Canada a place quite different than it had been before the 1960s – multicultural, bilingual, liberal. The Canada created by the four prime ministers in the photograph opened its doors – though not all its doors, even today – to more and different kinds of Canadians.

There is a lot more to be done, but this record is something any ordinary Tim Horton’s bumpkin can celebrate. 

 Photo Credit: Duncan Cameron, Library and Archives Canada, Pa-117107

Thursday 11 April 2013

John Turner as Don Draper?

Did the folks at Mad Men base the character of Don Draper on Canada's own John Turner?

It's a ludicrous question and the answer has to be no. But I stumbled on some old videos of Turner from the 1960s on the CBC Archives, and when you watch these, you could almost think you were watching Don Draper in Canadian drag.

There's the same solid good looks, the suit comfortably worn, the confidence - a young man, of the establishment, but also an up and comer, someone who seems promising. Very different from Trudeau. He's far too clean all around. There might be much more going on under the surface, but it's the surface that counts. Another video notes how the Liberals were calling him the Kennedy of Canada.

I saw Turner in person on Tuesday at the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the election of Lester Pearson's government, put on by the new Centre for Contemporary International History at the University of Toronto. He is more than a little older now. It was good to go back and see the videos of the younger man.

And here's the mystery that I understand isn't even solved in Paul Litt's new biography of Turner (which I haven't read yet): was there romance between Princess Margaret and the young John Turner? That's what the newspapers in British Columbia were saying in the late 50s when the princess visited the province.

Who says Canadian history is boring - royalty and Mad Men in one post!

Photo Source: CBC Digital Archives

Bora Laskin and 1982, a few decades later

It's nice to see a historian making the news for his research. Frédéric Bastien's book La Bataille de Londres is everywhere these days - spurring the Supreme Court to action, putting the federal government on the defensive, and giving ammunition to the PQ government in Quebec. 

It's hard to know if the fuss is really worth it. 

It seems that Bora Laskin, chief justice on the Supreme Court of Canada at the time, talked to sources in both the British and Canadian governments about what was happening in the court's deliberations. The issue was whether Trudeau needed to go back to the negotiating table with the provinces or whether he could simply repatriate the constitution simply by action of the federal government alone. 

I haven't read the book yet but from what the newspaper stories are saying (and saying), Laskin simply told them that the court was divided. Bastien calls this a 'coup d'etat'. Really? Seems more like it suggests how Ottawa and government in general, actually works. These people know each other. They speak, informally. 

If the book has evidence that the government pushed the judges in a certain direction, this would be something more significant. This would be something to be worried about. But telling us that people in high places speak to each other.... Not exactly profound unless, of course, you're upset about the outcome of those negotiations and are a sovereigntist and want any excuse to open up old wounds which, to some, don't seem old at all. 

Having said that, it has now been more than 30 years. Let's open up the documents. The 30 year rule has been observed. Let's see what the records show.

Monday 1 April 2013

Great Canadian April 1st jokes

The CBC archives has put up some great Canadian April Fool jokes. They include one that I particularly like - an interview with Sheila Copps about how the government is changing the clock at the top of the Peace Tower to digital. To show how Canada was keeping up with advances in modern technology, don't you know!

See it on their website here.