Friday 31 May 2013

Birth of a Nation - Canadian Style?

Some folks really ought to do their homework.

In my mailbox today I have an offer to buy a commemorative ring with a custom engraving saluting World War One and the battle of Vimy Ridge. The good people at The Bradford Exchange want us to celebrate 'the Birth of Our Nation' in World War One. What's wrong with that?

There is the minor fact that for Canadians who actually fought in the war, it would have been either the Great War or the First World War. But American nomenclature tends to colonize this way...

But how about the engraving on the ring: 'Birth of a Nation'? Even putting aside the doubtful historical veracity of this claim (how the real birth of the nation is the commemoration of Vimy rather than the battle itself), there is the bigger problem of wording. Did these folks at the Bradford Exchange not bother to put the words 'Birth of a Nation' into google? They should try it. They might find out that even those who want to celebrate Vimy and its importance to the Canadian nation might be a bit alarmed at the use of wording identical to a horrifically racist film from the war years - a film that celebrated the southern version of the history of American reconstruction - a history that justified the Jim Crowe south with its brutal violence and systematic dehumanizing of African Americans.

Tuesday 28 May 2013

Duffsterbucks Populism

Populism offers such easy solutions. Scandal in the Senate? Get rid of the bastards! Abolish the whole thing. It's an easy, tempting solution. No wonder political parties of the right and left (and more than a few Canadians) make this kind of argument.

The Duffsterbucks scandal certainly isn't anything new. Set aside the fact that he seems to have essentially stolen $90,000 from Canadians, and then paid it back with someone else's money, thinking this would make it alright. Hard to set aside, but let's try for a moment. Even then the case of Duffy is another example in a not at all venerable tradition of party hacks enjoying the perks of the senate and doing party business at the public's expense.

That isn't the whole of the Senate, though. There have always been good Senators and the Senate itself has always done what good houses of parliament ought to do - carefully review legislation. This is boring and dull work, a truly thankless task (and not as some have called it a la Duffy, a truly taskless thanks!).

Perhaps the best case for what the Senate could be and can be is the example of Eugene Forsey. His daughter Helen Forsey has written two stellar essays in The Hill Times reviewing debates about the Senate and what should be done. Alas, they are behind a paywall but if anyone wants a copy I would be happy to send them along.

The gist of it comes down to this great Forsey line: 

"Parliamentary government is not just a matter of counting heads instead of breaking them. It is also a matter of using them. It is government by discussion, not just by majority vote.”
Christopher Moore had a good piece on his blog about the ineffectiveness of the Senate and why that was meant to be. I'd suggest anyone who truly wants to understand the Senate's origins read this section of his great book 1867: How the Fathers Made a Deal.

Until then, dare not to be populist. Give the Senate a break, and encourage good modest reform.

As for the PMO, that's a very different matter....

(Image Source: Ottawa Citizen)

Tuesday 21 May 2013

Victoria Day - What's in a name?

I'm sure some blogger out there has given us a history of Victoria Day in Canada. Elizabeth May might want to read it. The Quebec version, over at Charlevoix makes for excellent reading on the decidedly different May holiday long weekend traditions. Not for the Quebecois a royalist holiday... (Of course, my English mother-in-law, currently in Canada, is equally perplexed at the idea of a holiday for Victoria.)

As for Elizabeth May: she has recently drawn a bit of attention by suggesting that we should rename the Canadian holiday in May as 'Victoria and First Peoples' Day'. Her heart is in the right place. It's hard, though, to imagine a less historical idea. Surely one of the points of having these holidays is that they remind us of the past. We already have plenty of politically safe holidays like Ontario's generic 'family day'. A country with history is supposed to have bizarre traditions, relics of the past the dot the calendar for reasons no one can quite recall. It's the calendar equivalent of a street-scape dotted with buildings from several different historical periods. That's called 'having history'. Not everything is the same. History ought not to be a suburb.

Oh, and someone should tell Ms May that there is already a National Aboriginal Day. If Elizabeth May wants to make that an official holiday, I imagine she'd have many more people behind her.

Monday 13 May 2013

La Bataille de Londres - take 2

Is the controversy worth it? Perhaps that's what historian Frédéric Bastien should be asking himself.

I received a message from him on the weekend from Bastien - a message which I presume to a group letter as it wasn't addressed directly to me. But it did make me look a bit more closely at the controversy generated by his book La Bataille de Londres and to the logic of his arguments.

You will recall that he has been in the news recently over the allegations that there was some kind of impropriety (putting it in my mild terms, not his) over Bora Laskin's handling of the Constitutional Repatriation case in 1981. The Supreme Court was asked to render a decision as to whether Pierre Trudeau's government could unilaterally repatriate the constitution. Negotiations with the provinces had broken down (several times). The re-elected Trudeau, in the aftermath of the defeat of the first Quebec referendum, wanted to act. If the provinces weren't playing ball, he speculated quite openly as to whether the federal government couldn't just act on its own.

This is where things get interesting. Bastien seems to show that Laskin had some informal discussions with Michael Pitfield, secretary to cabinet under Trudeau in these years. In these discussions, Bastien claims that information passed between the government and the court, breaking down the normal and expected barriers between these levels of government.

What Bastien wants is to get the fully uncensored documents from the period. As to be expected (in this or any case, alas) the government isn't cooperating.

But does that mean that Bastien is really on to something? On that, it's looking less and less likely.

Just read his most recent logic: Bastien has taken some heat for suggesting that what happened here was a 'coup d'état'. Now Bastien replies to the criticism by saying that the wording isn't is. He was merely quoting the British High Commissioner to Canada, John Ford. So far so good. Except that Ford was talking about the possibility that Trudeau might unilaterally repatriate the constitution. A very different subject. Even still, Trudeau didn't unilaterally repatriate the constitution. The Supreme Court rendered a mixed decision, suggesting that it might be possible for the government to do so, but that it would go against precedent. Trudeau went back to the table. A majority of the provinces (all but Quebec) signed on.

Now to a common view of Confedertion in Quebec - that confederation was  compact between English and French Canada - this might be a coup d'état. But it wasn't what Ford was talking about. And it wasn't, in all common sense, really a coup d'état at all.

When a historian so misrepresents and misreads evidence, it really is stunning. This isn't just a matter of interpretation. It's taking some pretty clear wording and then just misusing it. How are we supposed to trust anything else in the boo
k? Do we have to look up all the sources to see what else has been ripped out of context? Maybe not, but the doubt is sown.

Bastien may have got the headlines. But he may come to regret the publicity.

Friday 10 May 2013

A Writer's Diet?

Is your writing flabby? Can't say I'd ever thought in exactly these terms. Now I do.

Take a look at an interesting new tool at this website, established in connection with the publication of Helen Sword's books, Stylish Academic Writing and The Writer's Diet. Insert an excerpt from your own writing and discover if its in shape.

Oddly, I found Stylish Academic Writing a trifle too academic, possibly because she's addressing all disciplines. Much  more to my liking was Stephen J Pyne's Voice and Vision: a Guide to writing history and other serious nonfiction

Tuesday 7 May 2013

Conservative History

There's been much ado about Conservatives and Canadian history since last week's announcement by the House of Commons Heritage Committee that it was going to investigate the way Canadians learn their history. Probably the best summary of where we stand right now is in this CBC story.

Colin Horgan's piece at ipolitics was probably the best assessment of what the Conservatives might be up to. Emmett Macfarlane also had a sophisticated take on the merits of an investigation in the Globe.

Having said all of this, it might also be that we are thinking too much about a coordinated conspiracy. It might be that the inquiry has a good deal to do with one Conservative backbencher, Paul Calandra. And his approach might not have been the wisest, certainly not for Conservatives trying to hold on to their seats in Quebec. In many respects, it is an odd thing for the Conservatives to do. This is a party that is altogether Mackenzie King like unambitious in anything to do with provincial jurisdiction.

At any rate, I published my two cents on the issue in the Ottawa Citizen today which you can read here.

Friday 3 May 2013

The NDP and Quebec – Not a New Bad Idea

As Thomas Mulcair ingratiateshimself even further with the soft nationalist Quebec chattering classes, it’s worth recalling that this is a very old NDP practice – as old as the NDP in fact. The big 2011 breakthrough in Quebec came after fifty years of trying, desperately trying.

Reading through the letters between the great Canadian historian Donald Creighton and constitutional expert and letter to the editor bete-noir,  Eugene Forsey, gives us a funny snippet on the origins of this very un-Canadian courtship (and I say un-Canadian advisedly). 

In 1973 Creighton was in the midst of writing an introduction for a collection of essays by Forsey. He was trying to write a brief biography about Forsey and he wondered wanted to get the story straight about why Forsey, one of the founders of the CCF, had left the New Party. Here’s Forsey’s response:

‘I left the N.D.P. because it deleted from its Constitution, 76 times, the word “national”, on the ground that it “hurt and offended our French-Canadian fellow citizens” (I quote, verbatim, from the speech of the chairman of the committee.) (In 38 of the 76 places, the party substituted “federal.”)  I argued against this two or three times, twice in French, I think, once in English.  I got “turned down like a bedspread,” and left the hall.

Later in the letter, Forsey writes: ‘I have often said… that the N.D.P. Founding Convention was probably the only case in history where some thousands of people gathered to found a new national party and began by agreeing that there was no nation to found it in.’

Plus ça change…

Creighton photo: Canadian encyclopedia

Wednesday 1 May 2013

How to Gut a Book and Why You Shouldn't

In Ian McEwan’s novel Sweet Tooth, Serena Frome is in the midst of an affair with an older man. She’s learning about the more civilized forms of life – wine, cooking, current affairs and history – usually mixed together. As she pores through works of history she’s soon proud that she has learnt to ‘gut’ a book.

Every graduate student, I suspect, will know what she’s talking about – and possibly others will too. When you have a lot of books to get through, and when you need to know what they have to say, you learn how to get in and get out quickly, efficiently. What is fundamental? Get it. Then move on.

This probably isn’t easy to do. It certainly isn’t easy to teach. I’ve explained it – my guess is, fruitlessly – many times. Probably the only way you really learn is simply by reading a lot and then having to read more, and in too short a time. Necessity puts the knife in your hand; you do the rest.

There was a time when I thought like the young Serena Frome. I used to be proud that I knew how to ‘gut’ a book. Now, I’m not so sure.

I find myself lingering over books. I’m especially drawn to books that refuse to be gutted, that don’t show you, up front, what is essential. Perhaps, as you get older, reading becomes more like romance. You don’t want it all ‘right now.’ Or, rather, you might want this but you get to know, slowly, that taking the time is what makes it worth while.

Now, my ambition is something else altogether - to write a book that can't be gutted. A book that makes a reader linger. It’s a very unacademic ambition. We academics spend a lot of our time teaching students about – and grading students on – how to write uninteresting essays modelled on our own very, very explicit books. Is your thesis clear? Have you said it all in the first paragraph? Good. Now tell us again, and again, with a little bit of new evidence thrown in. Then tell us it all again at the end.

Susan Rabiner in Thinking Like Your Editor suggests a different approach. In the book she’s explaining the difference between serious nonfiction written for a trade press compared to non-fiction written for a regular academic press. Part of this comes down to writing a book that matches the reasons why people read books in the first place. Why does a reader stay with a book? She thinks a reader will linger 'as long as it promises to answer still unresolved questions. Each chapter must give the reader a sense of a deepening, more complicated understanding of the competing forces at play … If at least some of these tensions remain unresolved, and if the structure of the manuscript promises to resolve them, the reader reads on.’

That’s certainly what keeps you going in fiction. My guess is that she’s right about non-fiction as well.

It’s just not how we normally write academic history. Why not?