Tuesday, October 13, 2015

On the Toronto Carrying Place

The leaves say Time for Change

On a beautiful Thanksgiving weekend in southern Ontario, we went walking north of Toronto. The sun was bright, the temperatures shirt-sleeve, and the fall colours hitting their peak.

This tree above stands just over one of the branches of the Humber, hence not far from the Toronto Carrying Place, the ancient trail from Lake Ontario to the Holland Marches and thence on to Lake Simcoe and Georgian Bay. After attending the Carrying Place seminar a couple of weeks ago, I've been reading about it in a couple of books:

The recent one is Glenn Turner's Toronto Carrying Place, built around an account of his own walk from south to north.  As he underlines while doggedly trying to follow the trail, most of it is absolutely gone under urban and suburban development and the habit of putting new roads on top of old routes.
"The Carrying Place was part of the centuries-old network of trade routes that led from the St. Lawrence Valley into the Upper Great Lakes and the Canadian Northwest. It was an alternative to the more traditional route up the Ottawa River and was particularly useful to the peoples living north and south of Lake Ontario. Though technically a portage, the Toronto Carrying Place was too long to easily carry a canoe. Travellers were more likely to abandon their canoes at one end, and make or obtain new canoes at the other end."
The slightly old account is my friend the late Heather Robertson's Walking into Wilderness, which starts at the same place but continues north of the Carrying Place itself to include the Georgian Bay end of the route. It offers less of the walking/canoeing experience and more of the broad historical context of south-central Ontario history and prehistory, the fur trade, etc.

Glenn Turner frequently notes how little the Carrying Place registers in the modern landscape north of Toronto -- an observation doubtless applicable many other places across Canada. We are lucky to have so much substantial, published local history to help out.

Friday, October 09, 2015

Fiction Bigotry takes a hit: historian wins the Nobel Prize in Literature

Okay, Svetlana Alexievich, the 2015 Nobel laureate in literature, is not a tenured prof somewhere, and the journalists say she is a journalist because she interviews people.  But a historian has just won the Nobel for Literature.

Titles like Zinc Boys: Soviet Voices from a Forgotten War, Voices from Chernobyl, and Enchanted with Death (a history of suicide) make clear she has been documenting history all along.  Indeed she has been practising oral history. She's an active historian, even, particularly since the government of  her homeland Belarus (she writes in Russian) has censored and persecuted her for not hewing to the approved versions of history.

Alexievich has said of her work that when man and the world have become "so multifaceted and diversified,” reportorial documentation is the best means of representing reality, while “art as such often proves impotent.”  

But the idea that good writing is fiction dies hard. Now that she has won the Nobel, Wikipedia declares her books are "novels."  Of War's Unwomenly Face, an oral history of Soviet women's war experience, it writes, "This novel is made up of monologues of women in the war speaking about the aspects of World War II that had never been related before." Can CBC Books be far behind?

Here's a little appreciation from (journalist) Philip Gourevitch, who is also the source of the quotation/paraphrase above.

Thursday, October 08, 2015

The politics of wind

Wilfrid Laurier's advocacy of the "sunny ways" approach to politics was based on a fable of Aesop:
The Wind and the Sun were disputing which was the stronger. Suddenly they saw a traveller coming down the road, and the Sun said: "I see a way to decide our dispute. Whichever of us can cause that traveller to take off his cloak shall be regarded as the stronger. You begin." So the Sun retired behind a cloud, and the Wind began to blow as hard as it could upon the traveller. But the harder he blew the more closely did the traveller wrap his cloak round him, till at last the Wind had to give up in despair. Then the Sun came out and shone in all his glory upon the traveller, who soon found it too hot to walk with his cloak on.
In Prime Minister Harper's niqab crisis, his approach is very much the wind's version:  using power to blow those head coverings away.  Can't help thinking that in effectiveness as well as decency, the sunny way is going to do better here.

A quick search suggests I ain't the first to see the analogy with Prime Minister Harper's inclination to confrontation and division..Some guy called Justin Trudeau was on to it eighteen months ago
What I want you to take away from that story is the essence of what Laurier meant when he used the term “sunny ways.” 
It’s a story about persuasion being superior to force.
'Course when Laurier raised the sunny ways approach in regard with French-language rights in Manitoba, the result was the denial of those rights in the province for most of a hundred years. So it's complicated!

Image and info:  Skelton, Life of Laurier. Fable source: Tales With Morals.

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

History of Roy McMurtry

Went down last night to Osgoode Hall in Toronto to eat beef tenderloin in honour of Roy McMurtry, who was being recognized for his role in founding the Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History. Mary Stokes has the deets here, but worth repeating that the hundred books in legal history the society has published since the late 1970s have transformed the field and provided a vital publishing venue for lots of historians.

And his memoirs (with Rosemary Shipton) are a terrific read, on legal history and much else.

Prize Watch: the GG shortlist in nonfiction And the Weston prize awarded

Not a ton of history in the nonfiction shortlist for the Governor General's Award this year (and no big, readable, lively studies of confederation, ahem, not that I'm owed). I have not been compiling my own shortlist for notable histories this year, so I'm not sure what I might have added. Any noms out there?

Michael Harris's controversial anti-Harper biography Party of One is probably the newsiest title on the list. David Halton's Dispatches from the Front, about his father the CBC war correspondent Matthew Halton, is the most strictly historical, though Armand Garnet Ruffo's art-historical Norval Morriseau: Man Changing into Thunderbird is in there too.  See the full lists here.

The French language nonfiction list takes more note of history with a big botanical history, two different books on women writers in Quebec history,and a biography of journalist-politician Honoré Beaugrand.  And Roch Carrier's Montcalm and Wolfe earned a nom for Donald Winkler who translated it into English.

Meanwhile Rosemary Sullivan's biography Stalin's Daughter took the big-dollar Hilary Weston nonfiction prize last night. I was once on a jury that gave Sullivan a GG, so I can believe it's a good book.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

This month at Canada's History

Cover this month at Canada's History is Prince Rupert of the Rhine, "Canada's Warrior Prince." I confess he still kinda strikes me as some Eurotrash princeling whose appointment as titular head of the new Hudson's Bay Company was probably just a patronage thing. But Carolyn Harris makes the best of Prince Rupert's grim history, and maybe you are more into royals than I am. Read it and judge for yourself.

There's also Cec Jennings' piece on how (some) women had the vote in early Canada, were deprived of it, and got it back a century ago. Bill Moreau has a story I'd never heard before: the regular locust inundations that were part of Prairie history more or less forever until they suddenly... stopped.  And have never returned because...?

James Careless looks at hauntings.There's an interview (listen from here) with Jean Barman, whose John A. Macdonald Prize from the Canadian Historical Association for French Canadians, Furs, and Indigenous Women in the Making of the Pacific Northwest we somehow failed to include in our prize watch features. Plus Campobello Island, Nova Scotia lighthouses preserved, flour sack couture, and as they say: much more.

My column this month is about Truth and Reconciliation, inspired mostly by a reading of Edmund Metatawabin's residential schools memoir Up Ghost River. And hey, they have included an excerpt from my Three Weeks in Quebec City about how the confederation makers at Quebec carefully designed the Senate not to challenge the authority of the representative House of Commons.

And a letter noting that my Magna Carta piece from the previous issue failed to note Magna Carta's two visits to Hamilton, Ont, in 1984 and 1990. Quite right, and mea culpa --and the 1990 tour included Calgary as well.  Magna Carta, by the way, is just starting its Toronto run at Fort York Visitor Centre, before moving on to Edmonton. 

Monday, October 05, 2015

The Active History turn

After the turn to social history, the turn to critical theory, and various other observed or claimed "turns" in historical practice, is the turn to Active History upon us?

Mostly known as the name of a website and a couple of conferences, "Active History" also makes a useful label for serious historical work that goes beyond the classroom and the scholarly publication to engage with wider audiences, serve other communities, and explore other media. The term also nicely gets away from academic/non-academic, academic/public, scholarly/popular and other tired oppositions. And judging by the attendees at the Active History conference this past weekend at Huron College, London, Ont, the idea is working for a remarkably diverse group of historians.

It may be time. A half century of so of remarkable growth in numbers of professional, fulltime academic historians meant they could explore the wonders of being numerous enough (and securely enough established) to spend most of their careers, if they chose, talking with and writing for each other almost exclusively.  Now that's got old, and it seems a caucus within the academy is intrigued by the potential for working with wider communities or reaching additional audiences. Even more, the reality for vast numbers of students -- that there will be no secure academic jobs or that the campaign for them ceases to appeal -- is redefining how historically-trained young people see their career aspirations. And the success of public history programs in attracting excellent students and placing them in interesting jobs also continues to redefine the sense of what or who a historian can be.

May there always be a place for pure scholarship. And of course there have always been activist historians with wide interests and wide audiences, with political or cultural engagements. But I wonder if the young scholars who came up with the idea of Active History a few years ago will come to be seen as harbingers of a new ecology of historical practice.

Anyway, good conferences produce big thoughts, no?

Friday, October 02, 2015

Bring me the head of Christopher Moore

In the thoughtful and well-stocked exhibit "1867: Rebellion and Confederation" that the Canadian Museum of History opened last winter, the talking heads of Eric Bédard, Charlotte Gray, and me are featured on screens distributed through the hall, offering brief comments on the thirty year period 1837-67 that are featured. The Museum has started posting bit of these on its blog, starting with this, in which the still above suggests poor Charlotte is physically pained by the question "Who was the most important of the founding fathers?"

Thursday, October 01, 2015

History of Syrian Canadians

Son of the West
At Active History, Sarah Carter reflects on some old stock Canadians, the early Syrian settlers of Saskatchewan:
Arab settlers from Syria/Lebanon arrived in Western Canada starting well over one hundred years ago. They settled throughout the West but there was a significant cluster of Arabs in southern Saskatchewan on arid marginal land in the heart of Captain John Palliser’s infamous triangle that he identified as an extension of the Great American Desert. Most were from eastern Lebanon and they included Muslims and Christians.
Chickpea production in Saskatchewan, introduced by Syrians in the 1930s dustbowl, promises to make Regina the next hummus capital of the world, she says.

There are hummus capitals? As they used to say in the north end of Sydney, Cape Breton (another hotbed of old stock Middle Eastern Canadianism), "Are you serious?"  "No, I'm Lebanese."

Old jokes aside, terrific article. We could cope with some more Syrian-Canadians, no?

Image: from Active History.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

History gets active in the United States

Democratic Party presidential aspirant Bernie Sanders, responding to the Black Lives Matter campaign against police killings of black Americans, recently declared that the United States was founded "on racist principles."

To which the rest of the world would probably have said, "Duh!"  But the Princeton University historian Sean Wilentz, a strong supporter of Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton, responded with a New York Times op-ed declaring that it was not so and proclaiming that the idea of the United States founded on racial slavery is "a myth."
Yes, slavery was a powerful institution in 1787. Yes, most white Americans presumed African inferiority. And in 1787, proslavery delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia fought to inscribe the principle of property in humans in the Constitution. But on this matter the slaveholders were crushed.
Turns out that in the United States, the history blogosphere lives. There has been an outpouring of online responses from historians to Wilentz's argument.  The blog We're History, by a collective of Americanists, has been all over it, and at History News Network, Matthew Pinsker offers Wilentz's initial response to his critics and links to other Wilentz statements on slavery and the constitution -- as well as to Pinsker's own blog posts on how to teach the subject and the controversy.

Wilentz attributes opposition to his position mostly to
scholars and activists on the left who are rightly angry at America’s racist past.
and he may be right that the history bloggers who have seized on the issue are not a representative sample of the political affiliations of all American historians. And few of his critics have access to the op-ed pages of the New York Times, probably.  Still good to see the liveliness of the HistBlog down there and the engagement of historians in live issues.

Photo: from We're History

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Pere Charlevoix returns

On est ravi de voir que Charlevoix, blogue (bilingue) de la Nouvelle-France, vit encore. Et avec de bonnes nouvelles:
As of early September, Archives Canada-France has risen from its ashes, with a new interface and under a new name: Archives de la Nouvelle-France.
Follow @CmedMoore