Wednesday, January 29, 2020

History of Solitudes

J'ai serai candidate.
I don't follow French language media as much as, well, I'd like to, but even I have been struck by the differing treatment of Peter Mackay's French in English and French media. In English a lot of the coverage is "Well, it may or may not be an problem," and "He has been very busy in the private sector lately," and "He's taking courses now," and "In Quebec they criticize Justin Trudeau's French, just because he's in Ottawa."

Compare Michel David:
En fin de semaine dernière, Peter MacKay a démontré de façon éloquente que les rumeurs concernant ses progrès en français n’avaient aucun fondement. À côté de lui, Andrew Scheer passerait presque pour un académicien.*

Note that David does not write for Québecor, usually identified in English Canada by its separatist-minded owners, the Peladeau family. David's with Le Devoir.

David suggests it's a question of respect. But he does weakens his point by an allusion to the Meech Lake Accord
Ce qui avait le plus choqué les Québécois dans l’échec de l’accord du lac Meech, c’était l’absence de respect qu’il traduisait.
I have lots of respect for Quebec, but it doesn't mean I had or have to support that constitutional botch. 
* Usage note: I'm pretty sure "académicien" here doesn't translate as "academic." He's thinking of the linguistic masters who form the Académie Française.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

History of Northrop Frye

Looking up someone else in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography online, I noticed that today's featured biography is of Northrop Frye, who died on this day in 1991. (The biography itself is not new; it was posted to the DCB site in 2009.)

It turns out to be an elegant and readable biography, and provides probably the best short explanation of just what made Frye a god among literary critics. At the end I discovered it is by Eleanor Cook, widow of historian and former DCB editor Ramsay Cook, and professor emerita of English literature in her own right 

This Month at Canada's History

After having a column in every issue literally for decades, I still get a little twinge when I receive a subscriber's copy of Canada's History and there's no me in it. But I'm on the masthead and I have an article soon to appear and another in progress, so patience, patience.

This month's subscription-copy cover story offers a fashion icon, a smalltown Ontario girl who became a leading London couturier of the Edwardian era (and survived the Titanic), rediscovered by former book packager and publisher Hugh Brewster.  

Elsewhere in the issue, teacher Bill Moreau explores aboriginal Toronto, surveying the historical and archaeological traces of the intense Indigenous settlements of the Toronto region over thousands of years. Janice Cavell, historian and northern specialist at Global Affairs Canada, writes of the efforts of early 20th century Arctic venturers Peary, Stefansson, Bartlett and others to evoke into being a polar continent "an Arctic Atlantis" around the north pole. (An ice-rimed Peary is the cover on the newsstand issues). CH editor Mark Collin Read provides a long piece on the Canadians' liberation of Holland 75 years ago.  

Hilton Hassell, Pattern of Axel Heiberg, 1976

And there's a gorgeous photo spread on the Arctic artist Hilton Hassell, previously unknown to me.  So subscribe.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

History of twitterstorians

The rare times I log into Twitter, I generally want to cover my eyes and log out as fast as possible. Just cannot get with the zeitgeist of the tweet.

But the New Yorker is taking an interest in the Twitterstorians, riffing on a gathering they held at American Historical Association meetings in New York. ("Bloggers were invited too.")  Of course practising twitterstory is mostly about refuting Trumpian assertions, as even some of the most followed twitterstorians acknowledge:
He has reservations about Twitter as a teaching forum. “It’s not a deliberative space,” he said. “The real struggle for me is it’s very easy to be angry online all the time. But, if all you’re doing is yelling, there’s nothing of substance there.”
Still, there are some insights to be found: 
“In medieval times, the term for people like us was ‘remembrancer.’ It wasn’t necessarily someone who was well liked. Because they were the ones who remembered the bad times and warned people, ‘Hey, we’re about to do that again.’ So we’re remembrancers. This is what we do.”

Monday, January 20, 2020

Blogger onscreen: The Yorkminster Park lecture

The talk I gave at the Yorkminster Park Speakers Series in Toronto on Friday went well, with a substantial and lively audience (that included a major national political columnist, a senator, and some noted political scientists and historians). The hardworking team that runs the series has already posted video of the talk online.  You can see it here  -- just click on the second image down, under my name. 

Readers in the Toronto area can follow the Yorkminister series here. Clicking the "Subscribe" button gets you regular email updates on coming events. 

Friday, January 17, 2020

Survey Comments: Who Cares about Canadian History? UPDATED

[January 18:  See comments and responses below:]

I have been a little busy lately (see here  -- click on the image under my name), but I have not forgotten the results from the survey taken here last December, and particularly the comments, suggestions, and questions given in response to the final question. Here is one question a survey-taker posed (Thanks!):
Is it inevitable that Canadian history is of serious interest only to those who have themselves lived in Canada a long time?
Hmmm. The question reminds me of two memorable phrases.  

One is from a book review by Donald Akenson in the Canadian Historical Review many years ago. I forget the book in question, but the review's opening line was "Let's face it: Canadian history is boring."  Coming from someone who has written a great deal of serious, innovative, provocative Canadian history, this was somehow both funny and liberating at the time -- but also a bracing reminder of the uphill task we all face. 

The other is from Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, by Barrington Moore, Jr (no relation) a big book about, well, what the title says, that impressed me mightily a long time ago. He examines his topic only in relation to major powers, and explains this pithily:
The fact that the smaller countries depend economically and politically on big and powerful ones means that the decisive causes of their politics lie outside their own boundaries.
So, maybe it is tough. I have been reading Julia Lovell's recent Cundill Prize-winning Maoism: A Global History -- and was not surprised at all that in this global history, "Canada" does not appear in the index.  Sorry, all those little Maoist cells still hanging on.

I once wrote a piece about Canadianists who have taught Canadian Studies around the world, and their main takeaway was that in every country, students found something in Canadian history that spoke to their own national conditions. In the United States, students liked our progressive social programs. In Scotland, both federalism and Quebec separatism attracted interest. In Japan it was how to handle relations with the Americans. In New Zealand, it was comparative indigenous issues. And so on.  (Also, foreign students of Canada are much more admiring of Canada than Canadians typically are.)

It ought, I think, to be possible to create a book on some Canadian subject that created the kind of worldwide interest given to, say, Robert Hughes's book on Australia's convict settlements, The Fatal Shore  Perhaps the closest Canadian equivalents are books about the Franklin expedition, but I've always maintained that was really an episode in British rather than Canadian history. (See: Michael Palin, Erebus.) 

Suggestions from readers on this whole topic welcomed.

Update January 18Mark R. Harris responds:
certainly don’t believe that Canadian history (or literature) is only of interest to Canadian residents. I am an American citizen and a Mexican permanent resident. I haven’t read as much about Canada as I would like, because so many things compete for my reading attention, but I am interested. I recently have read Pierre Berton’s Niagara, Roger Riendeau’s A Brief History of Canada, Mazo de la Roche’s The Building of Jalna, and Frank Davey’s aka bpNichol, for example, and I am a big fan of the Group of Seven and Tom Thomson. I suppose I am unusual, but I hope that I am not unique.
And Tom Morton:
I just read your post "Who Cares About Canadian History?" and your request for suggestions for book topics that might generate interest outside of Canada.
 Amazon has a list of bestsellers in Canadian history that might already reflect international interest, for example, bestseller #1: Airplane passengers diverted to Gander after 9/11, #28 and 80: War of 1812, #48: Klondike Gold Rush, #53: Normandy Invasion, and #69: Champlain in addition to a number on Arctic exploration and Indigenous history.
 There are also works of fiction on topics in Canadian history that have had worldwide interest: Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace and Antonine Maillet's Pélagie-la-Charette, as well as the Come from Away musical that I saw last summer in London with a full house who applauded enthusiastically at the end. Bonheur d'occasion and Les Belles Soeurs and their portrayal of poverty and the working class also drew considerable worldwide interest in the past if they count as historical.

Thanks both!  Actually the international success of Canadian fiction adds to the puzzle a bit.  Wayne Johnston can write a novel about the early life of Joey Smallwood and reach an admiring international audience. Alice Munro can attract the same attention by writing about one southern Ontario county.  Can one imagine a nonfiction work with a similarly local Canadian focus having an equivalent success? 

January 20:  Alan B. McCullough comments:
Foreign students of Canadian history are much more admiring of Canadian history than Canadians are. My impression is that Canadians are admiring of their history, or at least their society - how many polls suggest we live in the best country in the world? Canadian historians may be less admiring of our history but in many cases their dissatisfaction is focussed on specific areas of interest - immigration policy, relations with First Nations are obvious examples. These are valid concerns but on balance Canadian history is a positive story. Do the foreign students who admire Canadian history focus on the larger picture rather than its parts?
 As to what Canadian stories might attract international interest, exploration is always good - think of  Francis Parkman and recent books on Champlain.  War - especially the War of 1812 with its American interest - is a possibility.
 A question - did Pierre Berton have significant international sales?
To the last question, my understanding is no, not really, not in any proportion to his Canadian audience.  I have heard that Peter C. Newman, longtime McClelland and Stewart author, moved to a branchplant publisher in hopes of international sales for his Hudson's Bay Company histories.  And that it did not work.   

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Prize Watch: Pierre Berton Prize to Sylvia D. Hamilton

Sylvia Hamilton
Note:  These prize-givings are part of Canada's History's annual History Forum in Ottawa, which is open to the public at the Canadian Museum of History on Sunday, January 19, from 10.00 am to 3.30 pm local time, and can also be followed online.  Details and registration here. 

The Afro-Nova Scotian documentary filmmaker Sylvia D. Hamilton is the 2020 recipient of the Pierre Berton Award for Popular History, Canada's National History Society has announced.

Hamilton has been making films, mostly rooted in the black experience in Nova Scotia, since the late 1980sThe Little Black Schoolhouse (2007) examines the history of segregated schooling in Ontario and Nova Scotia. Portia White (2000) is a biography of the great Nova Scotia-born operatic contralto. Hamilton also teaches at King's College in Halifax.

The Berton Award is presented by the Governor-General along with awards for excellence in teaching history, and the award for scholarly research for Shirley Tillotson for her income-tax history, Give and Take: The Citizen Taxpayer and the Rise of Canadian Democracy, previously announced at the CHA AGM last spring

Friday, January 10, 2020

Response: Levine on refugee history

Allan Levine responds to my post from yesterday:

Boat people at sea, 1979
I would greatly qualify your opening comments in your recent post “Canada’s history of welcoming refugees.” Until about the 1950s, and then in the 1970s, Canada was not exactly a haven for refugees. Most were unwanted. The list goes back to pre-Confederation with victims of the Irish Famine, followed by among others: Russian Jews escaping pogroms in the early 1880s; the Komagata Maru incident of 1914; German-Jewish refugees in the 1930s trying desperately to escape Nazi Germany, only to be confronted by the “none is too many” policy promoted by Frederick Blair who in 1936 became the director of the immigration branch. (Canada did not then have a refugee policy.) Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King followed Blair’s lead mainly because it was politically expedient to do so (there were those seats in Quebec to consider). And, after the Second World War, King and his officials made it very difficult for Jewish survivors of the Holocaust to come to Canada. As he articulated in a May 1947 speech, Canada’s post-war immigration policy was aimed at preserving the “fundamental composition of the Canadian population”—that is, white, Christian, Western European. “I wish to make it quite clear,” King declared, “that Canada is perfectly within her rights in selecting the persons whom we regard as desirable future citizens. It is not a ‘fundamental human right’ of any alien to enter Canada. It is a privilege.” That policy applied to refugees as well.

Here’s an interesting story passed on to me by Irving Abella, co-author with Harold Troper of the ground-breaking 1982 book, None is Too Many. In 1979, the two had published an article in the Canadian Historical Review based on their research for the book. They sent the article to Ron Atkey, the immigration minister in the newly elected government of Joe Clark. It came with a cautionary note: “We hope Canada will not be found wanting in this refugee crisis the way it was in the last.” At the time, Atkey was trying to figure out a proper response to the emergency precipitated by the Vietnamese “boat people” fleeing from North Vietnamese Communist rule. Canada had taken in only about 6,000 of an estimated 130,000 refugees. Atkey’s deputy minister, John Manion, read Abella and Troper’s article about Mackenzie King’s closed-door policy and passed it on to the minister with a warning: “This should not be you.” Atkey spoke to Clark about it, who agreed to a dramatic shift in the government’s position. Working with a large network of volunteers, the Conservatives opened Canada’s doors wide enough for more than 50,000 refugees to come to the country. But that was in in 1979.

Thursday, January 09, 2020

Canada's history of welcoming refugees

Given Canada's history of welcoming refugees, perhaps it is no wonder Harry and Meghan are said to be thinking of this country as their refuge from the royal family.

But we should remember that what attracts people to Canada is our commitment to tolerance and equality.  We're not so big on privilege and entitlement.  First thing we need to do is nix the dumb ideas starting to appear about making that poor boy governor general or commander in chief or leader of the Conservative Party or something. He's not even a Canadian citizen

If Harry really wants acceptance in Canada (he hasn't said so), maybe he should start by asking for membership in Citizens for a Canadian Republic  or Republic Now

Wednesday, January 08, 2020

Blogger speaks

Blog readers in southern Ontario may be interested in the Yorkminster Park lecture series (Yonge/St. Clair), where I will be the featured speaker a week from Friday, January 17.

As the blurb suggests, I will be raising themes and topics that may be familiar to longtime followers of this blog:
From Tokyo to Canberra, from Warsaw to Westminster, prime ministers are more often removed from power by their own backbenchers than by voters in general elections. In Canada, the idea of MPs wielding that kind of power shocks experts and the public alike. Today the parliamentary system thrives all over the world, but every country's parliamentary system has its unique quirks and conventions. Historian Christopher Moore, author of 1867: How the Fathers Made a Deal invites us to consider Canada's parliamentary culture in world context.
Further information on the Yorkminster Park lecture series here.

Tuesday, January 07, 2020

History is where you find it

From a little news item on inadvertent damage done to a painting in the Ontario Legislature, I learn that Queen's Park holds a version of Robert Harris's 1885 Fathers of Confederation painting, lost in Ottawa's Parliament fire of 1916.  This one was painted in 1919 by Frederick Challener, at the time a significant artist (and one who had made a previous copy of the Harris before it was destroyed).

Since the well-known copy by Rex Woods is sadly not up to the original, I was thinking this might be worth seeing (and reproducing).  Looks, however, pretty grim and brown -- unless it just needs a good clearing while the little hole recently put in it is restored.  Otherwise, we may have to stick with the Woods.  The other Challener Fathers, from 1914, is in Edmonton's Hotel Macdonald (!), according to Robert Ferguson of the Toronto Star.

Another little news item (slow day?):  Prime Minister Trudeau's new beard makes him, sez Canadian Press, the first bearded Canadian prime minister since Mackenzie Bowell.

Not exactly a good omen for Justin Trudeau, one might think:  Bowell was also the last prime minister removed from office by his own cabinet and backbench.  But looks good, I'd say. Let him keep it.

Images: Fathers from Ontario Legislature; Trudeau from Toronto Star.
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