Monday, November 20, 2017

The Cundill Prize goes to Siberia

In Montreal last week, the British historian of Russia Daniel Beer received the 2017 Cundill Prize for The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile under the Tsars.  It reads like a Russian novel, says the citation -- and with a topic like that you can see why it might -- and has been nominated for several book prizes in Britain.

Also nominated were Christopher Goscha, who teaches at UQAM in Montreal, for Vietnam: A New History, and American historian Walter Scheidel, for The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century.

The Cundill Prize is $75,000.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Historians at the Order of Canada

The recent list of Order of Canada appointments include Norman Hillmer  ("a leading historian of Canadian foreign policy...committed to increasing public knowledge of our nation’s past, and was one of the major players behind the creation of the Canadian Encyclopedia.") and Gregory Kealey ("has contributed to a better understanding of Canadian working-class history. A leading social historian,...  In addition, he is an award-winning author and co-founder of the respected academic journal Labour/Le Travail, which he edited for more than 20 years.)

Kealey was also on the June 2017 list of appointments, so something is unclear there, but congratulations to both.

Among writers, there's children's writer and storyteller Jan Andrews of Ottawa (sadly posthumous, as she died suddenly last summer.), And among cultural and heritage activists, Gloria Cranmer Webster, "founding director and curator of the U’mista Cultural Centre in Alert Bay, which preserves and promotes the cultural heritage of the Kwakwaka’wakw and houses a collection repatriated from the Canadian Museum of History," and publisher Linda McKnight.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Rights, representatives, referendums, rule of law

You have to be happy, I guess, about the remarkable Yes vote in Australia's mail-in plebiscite on gay marriage: more than 60% in favour -- and with a huge turnout too, though that's probably influenced by Australia's mandatory voting laws (which didn't apply in this case, but does for elections). A big popular approval for gay marriage is surely an affirmation of how opinions have progressed in the developed world.

Except that putting fundamental rights to a popular vote, where they are as likely to be denied as affirmed, is always a terrible idea. As Emma Teitel writes, it seems likely to encourage countries like Iran to hold similar referendums (where the no vote would be immense), and then smugly tell the world they are just as democratic as Australia or Ireland. Do minorities only have rights when the majority is prepared to concede them?  These referendums have more to do with the cowardice of elected representatives and the cynicism of party strategists than respect for popular mandates.

Which leads to a thought about representative versus plebiscitary democracy. I have yet to attempt a full take on Peter Russell's really admirable constitutional history of Canada, Canada's Odyssey, but one of the places he goes wrong, I think, is on the nature of representative government.  "The structure of parliamentary democracy that came with responsible government had two features that were problematic then and remain so today. One was the executive's domination of the legislature." (at 119, though it's a point he repeats frequently).

You practically have to affirm this belief to retain your card as a member in good standing as a Canadian political scientist, I guess, but it is false as history and misleading as current events.

In Canada the responsible government period was marked by the constant fall and remaking of cabinets as backbenchers shifted their allegiances among factions, and the early confederation period was the same, with John A. Macdonald's government being defeated by its own backbenchers a few months after it had won a substantial electoral majority in 1872, and party leaders (Alexander Mackenzie, Mackenzie Bowell, Robert Borden) frequently being reviewed and sometimes replaced by the parliamentarians they were accountable to.

And take a look at the world today:
  • Shinzo Abe is practically a unicorn in Japanese politics, for having been in power for five years, Japan being a parliamentary democracy where party leaders (even prime ministers) are weak, vulnerable, and frequently removed by their own caucuses.  
  • Jacinta Ardern is prime minister of New Zealand today. Six months ago she was a largely unknown backbencher, but her Labour party caucus thought its then leader was unlikely to be a winner, swapped him out for Ardern, and secured a minority government in the ensuing election.  If she fails or falters, the government caucus will review and replace her just as easily.  
  • In Britain, the death watch is on for Theresa May's prime ministership. May has been using the Brexit referendum result as an excuse for ignoring Parliament, as her executive team worked out an exit strategy that would not be submitted to the people's elective representatives... referendums trumping accountability once again.  Except the people's elective representatives, including many in May's own caucus, have proven unwilling to be ignored. They will impose parliamentary accountability for whatever deal May strikes -- and at the same time the Conservative caucus seems likely to replace May with someone who seems more competent/electable.
In other words, there are parliamentary democracies all over the world where the executive is regularly -- and appropriately -- dominated by the legislature, rather than the other way around. The fact that we currently have an aberrant version in Canada does not negate the general rule.

Update, November 17One of our Australian readers weighs in on gay rights:
This question should never have gone to a referendum. Once the new legislation had been written, it should have been presented to Federal Parliament straight away. There would have been plenty of opportunities for debate and amendments inside both the lower house and the Senate.
But now 62% of Australians voted positively, what next? We still have to see new legislation being presented in both houses and some members of Parliament will still vote against marriage equality (in a conscience vote). This could be so, even if their electorate voted 100% for marriage equality in the referendum.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

History of who is winning book prizes

The Writers' Trust annual prize giving last night in Toronto was the usual mass gathering of the local writing community, come out to drink and air-kiss and see writers receive about a quarter million dollars in prizes for writing. .

The winner in children's literature was Ruby Slipperjack, an Anishnabe writer from northern Ontario who has written several novels and stories set in that territory. The winner in poetry was Louise Bernice Halfe, the prairie-based Cree poet. Anishnabe writers Leanne Betasamosake Simpson and Darlene Naponse were nominated in the fiction and short story categories, respectively.  Last week two of the English language winners of Governor-General's Literary Awards were Cherie Demaline, who is M├ętis, and David Robinson, who is Cree.

There have been indigenous writers winning literary prizes in previous years -- Richard Wagamese and Eden Robinson come to mind -- but last night there was the feeling of a gravitational shifting, a community of writers making itself known beyond ignoring. Indigenous writing has been establishing itself for years, and publishers are seeing the talents there and the markets. Now prize juries are inclined to recognize them.

There were writers of colour and of many ethnicities among the nominees last night. But it was the sheer mass of indigenous writing power and skill that really impressed. (Not many historians among the prize winners -- the nonfiction winner was a medical doctor -- but it would be good to see as many indigenous historians being recognized when the next big set of historical prizes comes out.

Kudos to all, but I think the book I want to read first is Demaline's speculative-fiction novel The Marrow Thieves. As the world collapses, indigenous peoples are being hunted for their bone marrow, which has become the only thing that enables people... to dream.  Eeeeee.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Book Notes: Dutil and Mackenzie on the 1917 election

Ryerson profs Patrice Dutil and David Mackenzie today launch an important new book, Embattled Nation: Canada's Wartime Election of 1917.

Embattled Nation is a followup to Canada 1911, their earlier work on the general election of 1911. But 1917 is a special case among Canadian elections, undoubtedly the most corrupt general election ever held in this country. The government in power decided the great war for democracy was so important that democracy would have to be subverted in order to guarantee its reelection.

Dutil and Mackenzie document what they call "the great gerrymander," the removal of votes from (hundreds of?) thousands of women, the bestowing of the vote on a much smaller number of women expected to support the government, the calculated use of the soldiers' vote as a sort of slush fund to be applied where the government needed votes, and so on. Quantifying a great deal of previously unexamined data on the election, they establish (among many other things) that the 1917 election had the highest turnout of eligible voters of any election in Canadian history.

In the end, the authors conclude, much of the gerrymander, anti-democratic as it was, was not central to the outcome. "The Union's 'great gerrymander' had worked, but it had not been necessary. A majority of Canadians supported the Borden government and gave it a resounding mandate," they argue, presenting data to show the rigged soldiers' vote did not much effect the outcome, while the impact of the rigged women's vote is incalculable.

(Dutil and Mackenzie may understate the impact of women's disenfranchisement. "By 1917 women had won the vote in all provinces west of Quebec and there was talk of granting all women the vote federally," they write. But until the changes in election law were imposed in 1917, the provincial franchise had determined the federal franchise. Most if not all women west of Quebec did have the right to vote federally. That is, the Borden government did not refuse to enfranchise them; rather, its Wartime Elections Act specifically disenfranchised hundreds of thousands of them. See my exploration of this matter here, though more work is needed.)

That aside, the Borden government won re-election, they conclude, less by rigging the vote than by creating and exploiting war hysteria and ethno-cultural prejudices. Laurier, aged and ill, aided and abetted these divisions, they argue, by failing to create a coherent alternative. It was the profound English-French divide  -- that the Borden government actively encouraged and exploited and Laurier failed to head off -- that was the real calamity of the 1917 election, Dutil and Mackenzie conclude.
This is the story of how the country was almost lost by politicians blinded by ambition, lacking in imagination, and often paralyzed by incompetence and dithering.  Unable to create consensus, they brought their embattled nation to the brink of disaster. 
A sharp and negative assessment of the Borden government runs through this book. Borden often still gets a kind of residual credit for being the nation's war leader through the First World War, but Dutil and Mackenzie make clear how much his government's naval policy, its indifference to Ontario's anti-French educational policies, its neglect of francophone inclusion in the rapidly expanding military establishment, and its instinctive homage to imperialist sentiment made the Canadian situation consistently worse throughout the war.

A question Dutil and Mackenzie don't take up (maybe it's for their book on the next election?) is why the same government that so calculatedly manipulated the electoral process in 1917 moved soon afterwards to create the non-partisan Chief Electoral Officer and to create the institutions that have largely depoliticized both the design of electoral constituencies and the management of voters' lists ever since.  Guilty consciences?

When we see the profound and horrifying extent to which American constituency boundaries and voters' lists continue to be politicized -- and ruthlessly exploited to rig American election results -- the broad depoliticization of voting processes achieved in Canada in the wake of the 1917 federal election seems all the more remarkable. And to my knowledge, largely unconsidered and unexplained. 

Friday, November 10, 2017

One for Remembrance

What are you doing for Remembrance Day? Allan Williams draws our attention to tonight's Toronto lecture by Eric McGeer: "Passchendaele One Hundred Years on"

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Prize Watch: the Pierre Berton to Daniel Francis

The Pierre Berton Award for 2017 -- for a career in presenting Canadian history in books, film, television, and new media -- will be presented to my friend and fellow history blogger Daniel Francis of North Vancouver, a historian "both of the local and the national."  Bravo!

Daniel began writing histories of the fur trade, exploration, and Arctic whaling, He edited the newsstand history magazine Horizon Canada, and wrote the widely read (and taught) National Dreams and The Imaginary Indian, both groundbreaking works in redefining Canadian perceptions of the past. After returning to his British Columbia roots, he became one of that province's pre-eminent interpreter of west coast history, notably through his editorship of the Encyclopedia of British Columbia, but also through his journalism (particularly at Geist), and his books on everything from political biography to highways to the sex trade to prohibition. 

The Berton will be presented to him at Rideau Hall in Ottawa in a couple of weeks, along with awards in history teaching and other fields sponsored by Canada's National History Society, and also the CHA's previously announced John A. Macdonald prize, given this year to Sarah Carter to Imperial Plots: Women, Land, and the Spadework of British Colonialism on the Canadian Prairies, published by University of Manitoba Press.  All the details here.

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

George Brown: the speech he never gave...

Well, actually, it's the speech I never gave.

Last month I was approached by members of the University of Toronto history department about Eminent Victorians, a series of talks on 19th century Canadian political figures, co-sponsored by the department and held at the university. Would I give the inaugural talk, on George Brown, on November 7?

I was agreeable. Except they had also decided on the honorarium to be paid. I explained I only work for universities for honoraria if the amount matches my (modest) fee scale.

Sorry, they said, the amount was fixed; they could "not afford" to change it.

I don't think there is a talk about George Brown tonight at the University of Toronto. I'm sad to say my thoughts on him remains unwritten and unpresented.

Monday, November 06, 2017

History in the obits

He then prepared a history of Labatt's Breweries, but internal corporate politics blocked its publication.
That's a line buried in the recent death notice for Albert V. Tucker (1923-2017), longtime historian and administrator at York University's Glendon College. Some minor contretemps, long papered over, now made public by the courage (or bitterness) of the heirs and friends?

I was noting recently the great scholarly and historical value in commissioned histories. But scholars, particularly academic scholars, need to be tougher, need to be more ethically alert, really, in taking such commissions. When you take on a piece of scholarship, you have an obligation to publish (subject to independent quality review) and the commissioning agency must understand and respect that. Allowing a commissioning agent arbitrarily to bury historical work, seems... well, let's just say a failure of scholarship. And that principle should apply whether the commission comes from a corporation or even an academic body. (Years ago, a commissioned history of Osgoode Hall Law School at York was spiked because it did not polish the faculty apples brightly enough; no doubt other cases could be found).  I trust the next, forthcoming, history of Labatts will have a better fate.

In the same batch of death notices: Mary Beacock Fryer (1929-2017), a prolific historian particularly on loyalist history and Ontario local history. I knew her slightly in the 1980s when I was publishing some loyalist studies myself, and understood she was a self-taught enthusiast. I admired her work without knowing anything of her actual credentials, but perhaps the death notice offers a little footnote to a history of women's experience in academia in the not-so-distant past. Because it reports  she went to Britain in the 1950s to earn a masters in historical geography, after which she was "a librarian and teaching assistant in the University of Toronto Geography department."

Saturday, November 04, 2017

History of Scandinavia at the Royal Ontario Museum

Thor's Hammer Pendant  (ROM)
Blog has its privileges.  The other day I was an invited guest at the media preview for Vikings, the new exhibit that opens at the Royal Ontario Museum.

The signage for Vikings shows an armed-to-the=teeth longship surging through Toronto Harbour, CN Tower and the city lights in the background.  But the show itself eschews almost all the traditional Viking derring-do, the Skoal! and the Odin! and the horned helmets.  Here's what the Globe critic thought.

Indeed it might have been entitled Recent Findings of Medieval Scandinavian Economic and Social History. The exhibit began with Swedish museums, and draws heavily on recent excavations of settlement sites around the Scandinavian countries.  Particularly featured is material from the townsite of Bjorko, which is not a coastal site on some Atlantic fjord, but located on an island in a lake on the Swedish mainland north of Stockholm. It was a centre of trade, but not exactly one's idea of a Viking homebase.

The socio-economic contexts are lovingly described and many of the artifacts are remarkable.  But on the whole its a calm, serious, not-quite-austere display -- much to my taste, maybe lacking in blockbusterism except in the title. All credit to the ROM for taking it on those terms.  The ROM has also added a supplement about Norse contacts with Canada, which is fairly rote for those who know the state of the question, but does include THE bronze pin and THE spindle whorl, which at one time were pretty much the sum total of Norse artifacts from the L'Anse aux Meadows site.  I'd only ever seen them in pictures before.

Pop culture cred: The exhibit explains briefly the meaning of the Norse concept "Ragnarok."  It refers to the end of the world, which is probably why it works well for the superhero flick that just opened.  The ROM show will have less explosions for sure.
Follow @CmedMoore