Monday, January 21, 2019

Histories we need, histories we get

Leduc #1, 1947
The other day I found myself having more than a little agreement with Toronto journalist David Olive's argument that Alberta is largely to blame for its current economic troubles and pipeline obstacles:
Failure to diversify has been a surrender of Alberta’s economic sovereignty and cause for repeated punishing hardship.
The lack of forward planning in Calgary, head office of the Canadian oilpatch, is inexplicable. Over the past decade, Alberta ramped up its heavy oil production on the assumption, ludicrous in hindsight, that matching additional pipeline capacity would materialize as if by magic to get that additional landlocked oil to world markets.
It's Olive's argument that Alberta economic policy making for about seventy years has relied on little more than pumping and shipping crude oil, to the neglect of sound fiscal planning, environmental challenges, and First Nations rights, while the province has simultaneously neglected development of specialty petrochemicals, agriculture, technology, and other promising sectors that would have diversified the provincial economic base in preparation for the inevitable price busts and the inevitable depletion of the resource and the markets for it.

It's a case with force. But it's also a historical argument. And I wished, not for the first time, that we had a big readable, reliable history of Alberta's oil and what it has done to the province and the country all these years. I know of some good small studies, but nothing on the order of what we need and deserve, in order to think about these questions wisely and historically.

If I'm missing the vital work, let me know!

On the other hand, sometimes we do get what we need. Witness this excerpt from law professor Kent Roach's new book Canadian Justice, Indigenous Injustice: The Gerald Stanley and Colten Boushie Case. Powerful scholarship, clear and vigorous writing, sound and sympathetic judgements ... it looks like a very valuable work on an urgent public policy issue. It's newly out from McGill-Queen's.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Lessons in backbench power... from Guyana

While Britain awaits the Brexit vote, in which every MP's vote is both vital and unpredictable and the party leaders seem almost as much spectators as everyone else, news comes to Canada of another country where parliamentary proceedings are actually interesting. 

In Guyana the government, in power since 2015, was defeated on a non-confidence vote. One of its own backbenchers voted no confidence along with the opposition, and given the government's one-seat majority, that was enough. 

Okay, the MP, Charrandas Persaud, has since fled to Toronto -- to teach backbenchers here about political courage, hopefully -- and his party has both kicked him out and started recall proceedings to get him out of parliament altogether.  So Guyanese parliamentary processes have some shortcomings.  But they have made a start.

Monday, January 14, 2019

History of Voting

Journalist Dale Smith questions the Supreme Court of Canada's recent decision that it is unconstitutional for Canada to remove the right to vote in federal elections from Canadian citizens who have resided outside Canada for more than five years.

The majority in the case focuses on Charter issues. They find the individual right of a non-resident to participate outweighs the interest of Canada in connecting voting to residence, and see no great problem in potentially large numbers of voters who don't live anywhere in Canada. Smith:
To reiterate – we vote for local representatives. We don’t vote for parties, or party leaders, no matter what we may have in mind when we go into the ballot box – we mark the X for the local candidate, end of story. For an expat, it’s not the connection to Canada that should be at issue – it’s the connection to the riding, because that’s how we allocate our votes. The dissenting judges got that, but the majority and virtually all of the commentary I’ve seen on the matter ignored it, despite it being the first principle of our electoral system.
My occasional reading of SCC decisions in my legal history work has left me with a very great respect for Supreme Court judges and how they manoeuvre through the thickets of constitutional interpretation. But on this one I think Smith, and the dissenters (and the Ontario Court of Appeal, which was overturned here) have a point.

Smith is essentially arguing on the principles of the 1867 constitution, now called the "Constitution Act, 1867," which sets out principles of parliamentary democracy. The judges here, however, are interested almost exclusively in the Charter, which sets out individual rights vis-a-vis governments.  It's as if lawyers and judges and many other Canadians kinda lost interest in much of the original constitution, once they had the shiny new Charter to work on.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Historical Societes and Civic Society

Lambton House, not in January
Went down to Lambton House on the edge of the Humber River in west Toronto last night to hear the annual Howland Lecture of Heritage York. "York" is a former small city now amalgamated into the City of Toronto. Its local historical society, having played a key role in preserving Lambton House, a 1847 inn and only survivor of a mid-19th century milling complex where Dundas Road crosses the river, continues to be active in the community. The Howland lecture commemorates William P. Howland, miller, businessman, and politician, once the builder and owner of the inn.

The Lambton Lecture is usually on a historical topic, but last night's topic was "It’s Up to Us: Taking Action to Protect the Humber" and featured a Toronto city councillor, Gord Perks, and Heather Marshall of the environmental lobby TEA, Toronto Environmental Alliance. Their presentation was somewhat about issues in the Humber watershed, but mostly about how to advance progressive environmental policies in the face of a complacent city government and a hostile provincial government.

Cold raw night, uncommercial location, post-holiday lull with the Leafs on TSN and the usual cornucopia on Netflix. Still the place was packed, SRO. In fact, York Heritage has an active membership and most of its events are well attended. Last night's topic drew out a supplementary crowd of people with political and environmental bent, and suddenly they had a hit on their hands.

Who else does this kind of thing? It struck me once again how much local historical societies all over the country are prime elements in a thing often said to be collapsing, civic society. They have space, often in the buildings they have preserved. They have activist members with community and political links. They have a membership roster and promotional networks. Their historical programming is itself a contribution to community knowledge and cohesion. When they turn to civic and political issues, their instincts are for good planning, preservation of both natural and built environment, and civic accountability.

I'm not even a member of Heritage York -- I do pay dues to historical societies on either side of its turf -- and still I was kinda proud of what it achieved last night.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Fiction and nonfiction writers at the Taylor Prize

More than a decade ago (yeah, this blog goes back a ways now) I was complaining that the juries of the Charles Taylor Prize in Nonfiction were regularly dominated by novelists and fiction critics. I asked how that might be related to the fact that the prize almost always went to novelists who dabbled in nonfiction.

But about the time I was forming that critique, the Prize revamped its jury selections. With more nonfiction writers doing the judging, real nonfiction writers began winning the prize, even, eventually, some historians writing big serious history books.

Well, this year's jury is fifty/fifty on novelists and nonfiction writers, and yesterday's shortlist of five included two books by prominent fiction writers. But I think this is a pretty good list.

It certainly nods to the current consensus that creative nonfiction and memoir are pretty much the same thing. And historians will note there's not much to encourage them to dream of nonfiction prize glory anymore.  But there's pretty good writing here, interesting perspectives, and a good mix of large press and small press (i.e, titles and authors you never heard of before) too.

Winner March 4, along with a couple of other worthwhile Taylor Prize initiatives.

Thursday, January 03, 2019

Honours watch: Dumont and Vaugeois, CM

Not a stellar showing for historians, at least those writing in English, in the recent Order of Canada appointments. But Micheline Dumont, professor and scholar honoured for her work in women's and educational history, was appointed. And Denis Vaugeois, honoured for promoting history and making it more accessible.

That's him right there.
Vaugeois may be best remembered as a passionate cabinet minister in René Lévesque's PQ government in 1970s Quebec. But he was a historian before that, one of the founders in the 1960s of Boreal-Express, a lively and sensationally successful "newspaper" treating events of New France and early Quebec history as if they were news stories. And a historian after that, too, with unlimited interests and enthusiasms and a long list of publications.

One of his enthusiasms was promoting Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau.  The United States had produced a dollar coin featuring Sacagawea, famed in the US as guide to Lewis and Clark. Vaugeois delighted in pointing out that the child Sacagewea was carrying on the coin's portrait of her was in fact young Jean-Baptiste, a Quebecker and the son of a fur trader -- the only Canadian ever to appear on American money, he enjoyed saying.

Monday, December 31, 2018

What have you read lately?

At the LGM blog, Erik Loomis posts titles of 113 books he has read  or consulted in the past year that are relevant to his historical work (American labour history mostly, plus some environmental history). He particularly recommends twenty.
I read these books for my own purposes–to prepare for teaching, to keep up or catch up on the historiography in my fields, occasionally to broaden my horizons. So I do not read every word of these books, nor do I generally read for factual information. I read for preparation for my work, whether my own professional writing, to inform my blog posts, to prepare for new courses, or to think through harder questions. That often means simply being aware of the basic outlines of a book so that I can go into more detail later when I need to write about a given subject. I also included the few books on contemporary politics I read this year, since there’s not much sense separating those out from historical books given my writing. Some of these are new books, most are from the last decade or so, a few are old classics that I had either never read or haven’t read in the last decade.
This seems an admirable year-end practice for any working historian. I'm going to at least consider something similar in the next few days, though there's not much hope of any list of mine matching this one for scope or erudition. For the record I have read or consulted precisely zero of the Loomis titles so far. 

Sunday, December 23, 2018

History of Hockey on Mars

I wish I had a crater I could skate away on.

And this one, recently photographed by the Mars Express orbiter, is 80 km wide and more than a kilometer deep, solid frozen water ice all the way across, all the way down.

Image: The Guardian

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

History and Panic

Jobs for History PhDs
One of those periodic waves of concern about the imminent death of history seems to be surging.
At a Texas-based website called War on the Rocks, a pair of international studies professors predict that the historical profession is committing suicide... by not teaching enough international studies, mostly.  They stress the declining proportion of students who are history majors, but seemingly without correcting for all the new disciplines and specialties that have grown up in the last half century or so within the humanities and social sciences to share the load with "history" departments proper.

There is a less panicky but still concerned essay at Active History, in which CHA president Adele Perry discusses the need for historians to connect their research to communities beyond the classroom. She salutes a number of worthwhile initiatives, but finds them threatened by the "precarious situation" of young historical scholars. The precarious situation is the vast oversupply of would-be professors compared to the number of positions available for them, and the rise of insecure employment terms in universities. Tough, indeed, but I can't help noting that the essay seems to conflate "historians" with tenured or tenure-seeking history professors as if they were the same thing. No doubt the academic job market is vastly oversupplied, but the essay largely declines to notice all the historians who connect to communities beyond the classroom ... by not being in history classrooms in the first place.

I find myself more inclined to the observation of a tenured academic historian, one who can distinguish between "historians" and professors in history departments.
I’ve been pointing out that we historians long, long predated the darn universities and we will outlive them. Best job in the world, always has been, as the personal drift of many great thinkers and practitioners into the writing of history (Thucydides, Caesar, Hume, Osler…) proves. And we’ve never been more needed—but of course that’s always true.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Imagining Parliamentary Democracy

"I can honestly say that I have never voted to make a particular person PM."
Here is a post from Australia that would likely produce incomprehension and then fury in about 99% of Canadian pundits and political scientists, who are deeply committed to the principle of leadership autocracy in Canadian politics, and 100% of the odious hacks in the leaders' offices, whose careers are based upon it.

In the post, an Australian complains that one of the major Australian parties has toughened the rules, so that to remove a prime minister from leadership of his or her party now requires two-thirds support among the elected MPs of that party. (As previously,  the MPs in caucus would thereupon immediately choose the new leader/prime minister by a simple majority vote)

The Australian blogger, a citizen who distrusts all the political parties and wants to ensure their accountability, argues that this super-majority is too much of a limitation on the ability of the people's elected representatives to control governments and leaders.
Looking back over Australian political history, the most successful governments have generally been parliamentary rather than presidential, governments in which the prime minister or premier managed to control egos while giving ministers real power within the cabinet framework.

Image: Canadaland

Book Notes: Jenish on the October Crisis, 1970

I've occasionally puzzled about the scarcity of histories of the October Crisis of 1970, even mused about writing one myself. Where did that bright idea go?

Anyway, now there is a new one. D'Arcy Jenish, former Maclean's journalist and more recently biographer of David Thompson and historian of the Plains Cree, has written The Making of the October Crisis.

It's an odd title --surely the crisis itself is more deserving of attention than the "making" of it -- and the subtitle is worse. Canada's Long Nightmare of Terrorism at the Hands of the FLQ  reflects the mindset of our foreign owned publishers: that even the most Canadian of works must now be marketed to foreign audiences who will never read it. D'Arcy Jenish should not be held responsible for that.  I have not seen the book, and hope it is true that it cannot be judged by its cover.
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