Wednesday, June 16, 2021

History of Maori Antarctica

Maori carving at New Zealand's Scott Base, Antarctica

"Discovery" is mostly out of fashion these days, but Smithsonian Online has a nifty story up about the possibilities of a Polynesian discovery of Antarctica a thousand or so years ago.

They are not pulling artifacts out of the melting ice, but they are compiling extensive oral testimonies that broadly fit a pattern of Polynesian seafaring expansion from the south Asian islands throughout Polynesia to Hawaii, possibly South America, and New Zealand.  

Oral histories kept by Māori tribal groups Ngāti Rārua and Te Āti Awa tell of an explorer named Hui Te Rangiora who led the vessel Te Iwi-o-Atea to “a foggy, misty and dark place not seen by the sun,” finding summits that “pierce the skies” but are “completely bare and without vegetation on them.” Beyond describing Antarctic icebergs, the narratives include what appear to be references to marine mammals.

Coldwater voyaging in open boats, even to iceberg territory north of the southern continent, is surely a substantial expansion of the Polynesian range. On the other hand, the article cites evidence on the authority of oral traditions -- included the research of Mi'kmaq scholar Stephen Augustine of Cape Breton University on oral record-keeping.

Image: Smithsonian Online.  

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Prize Watch: CHA Prize to Brittany Luby for Dammed

The Canadian Historical Association has been announcing the prizewinners for its annual awards in many fields of history. 

Brittany Luby has been named winner of the 2021 CHA Prize for Best Scholarly Book for Dammed: The Politics of Loss and Survival in Anishinaabe Territory, published by University of Manitoba Press. Dammed studies hydro-electric power and indigenous society in the Treaty Three [2] region of northwest Ontario since the Second World War. The citation says its "portrait of postwar hydroelectric development powerfully challenges the dominant narrative of universal post-Second World War prosperity in Canada." Dammed is at once treaty and indigenous history, environmental history, women's history, industrial history... and political.

Luby is a descendant of one of the leaders who negotiated the sharing agreement that became known as the NorthWest Angle Treaty of 1873, and a professor at the University of Guelph. Her research for Dammed was undertaken with support from the Anishinabeg of Dalles 38C Indian Reserve.

The full list of this year's prizes announced and yet to be announced is available at the CHA website

Monday, June 14, 2021

Parliamentary oddities

In Israel, some alarm is being expressed at the deal made by the partners in the new Israeli government, by which the new prime minister, Naftali Bennett, will only be prime minister for a couple of years and then will yield to one of his coalition partners, Yair Lapid, who actually controls more seats than Bennett does. A New York Times op-ed suggests this must be a constitutional revolution and a Bad Thing  Surely a prime minister has to be The Boss, no?  Prime minister is another name for president, isn't it, and there has to be a president.

In Northern Ireland, the government leader, Arlene Foster of the Democrat Unionist Party (read, Protestant, pro-union with Britain), did not oppose a bill to end conversion therapy, and her infuriated caucus found that intolerable and removed her from leadership. They then chose her cabinet colleague Edwin Poots, who is mostly famous for believing the Earth is 6000 years old. But Poots wants to be party leader without being government leader, and he designated another cabinet minister, Girvan by name, to be first minister. But under the Good Friday agreements, the opposition party, Sinn Fein (read Catholic, pro-union with Eire) is entitled to name the deputy first minister.  And amidst the bizarre doings at the DUP, it says it will refuse to make that appointment -- and thereby bring down the government -- unless it gets a bunch of its own demands met. (Sounds like the DUP should say sure, force an election. Anything else means letting one party choose the other's leader, which would be strange even in Northern Ireland.)

In Canada, a Green Party MP who was too pro-Palestine for the Greens has switched to the Liberal Party, apparently on the theory that the Liberals will be more tolerant of unorthodox behaviour from backbenchers. (!)  It has been suggested she should not be allowed to change parties without standing for re-election, as if she represented the Greens and not the constituency.    

It's amazing how people (I was going to say political scientists, but the rot goes much further) always want to invent into existence all kinds of rules to prevent parliamentary processes from functioning. In working parliamentary systems, a prime minister is anyone the governing caucus will support -- for as long as they choose to support him or her. So Bennett and Girvan are perfectly plausible prime ministers). A caucus consists of any MP that wants to be a caucus member and is accepted by the other caucus members. It ain't statutory -- and conventions are habits, not statutes.

Update, June 15: Now the council of the Green Party is considering initiating the possible removal of their recently elected leader.      

Friday, June 11, 2021

History of Feedburner

 Is Feedburner a thing for any of you? I have been getting emails like this:

I saw that you're still using Feedburner for email subscriptions on Google announced that they will terminate it soon, so it's time to look for an alternative.

I myself have never had any connection to Feedburner, never used it myself, have only the barest understanding of how it works, not very interested. 

But I understand it could be used by readers as a way to receive content from this blog. (Feedburner and Blogger, the software behind this blog, are both Google-owned.) If that describes you, you may consider looking for an alternative  -- as you probably already know, since this whole topic suggests you are more internet-savvy than I am.  

Wednesday, June 09, 2021

History of Upper Houses

 At the American mag The New Republic: an argument for the abolition of the United States Senate:

People talk of reforming the Senate in this way or that. But that’s hopeless. There’s only one conclusion here. Before the Senate kills democracy, we must kill the Senate.That’s right. Kill the Senate. It shouldn’t exist. Or maybe it can exist, but only as a toothless and meaningless body, like the British House of Lords.

The argument does not extend to suggesting just how the United States should go about the abolition.  Meanwhile should we give a little consideration here to the confederation-makers of 1867, who grasped how to make sustain democracy by making the Canadian upper house "toothless and meaningless" more than a hundred and fifty year ago?

Hat-tip to History News Network, which provided the link. 

Monday, June 07, 2021

David Gagan, historian 1940-2021 RIP. Mary Allodi, art historian, 1929-2021 RIP

David Gagan, historian of nineteenth century Ontario died recently. He is perhaps best known for Hopeful Travellers: Families, Land, and Social Change in Mid-Victorian Peel County, one of a 1980s cluster of highly quantitative social histories of the urban and rural demographics, economies, and social structures of nineteenth century Canada -- a historiographical style that seems to have lost favour since then. Gagan also had a long career as an academic administrator around the country.

One of the things Hopeful Travellers demonstrated was the mobility of early Canadian rural settlers. Far from taking up a piece of land and settling in to spread their descendants around the neighbourhood for generations, they moved and removed often in search of advantage, and developed what Gagan suggested was a southern-Ontario inheritance pattern to facilitate that process. I once asked both David Gagan and Graeme Gibson, author of a novel about 19th century Ontario called Perpetual Motion, if they knew each other's work. They did not, but their themes, like their titles, overlapped. I did not know David well, but I remember an evening at the Gagan home in Burlington that started as a social gathering and turned into a long historical debate. I recall David, Brian McKillop, and I think Doug McCalla, blur on the others, and have no memory at all of the topic, but it was much enjoyed by those of us involved, probably quite tedious for others trapped there.

Update, June 8:  Alan McCullough writes:

I never knew David Gagan but I was influenced by Hopeful Travellers and the quantitative social history which he used so well. His case for the mobility of rural settlers in Ontario was also true of settlers in Dufferin Municipality, Manitoba, in the 1870s. Some Dufferin settlers were born in Ireland, farmed in Ontario for several decades and then moved to Manitoba with their adult children. And some of the Dufferin settlers, born in Ontario, made further moves to farms in Saskatchewan and Alberta in the early 1900s.

Mary Allodi, who also died recently, was a longtime curator at the Royal Ontario Museum and a pioneering student of Canadian art history, central to almost all art-history matters in Canada for about half a century. 

I once consulted on a ROM initiative to repurpose a collection of historical Canadian silverware, ceramics, furniture, and other objets d'art, housed at an isolated location on the University of Toronto campus, to become part of a Canadiana gallery in the main building. Mary Allodi was a senior curator, perhaps emeritus then, but very much involved.

I had been hired through the exhibits planning staff of the ROM, and was initially unaware of the turf wars that prevailed between them and the curatorial staff. Exhibits wanted to create a chronologically-based set of rooms that would take visitor through the main periods of Canadian history -- an attempt to redress somewhat the ROM's appalling neglect of Canadian history, a plan of which I much approved. This, I began to learn, was strongly resented by the specialist curators, who liked having all the silver in one room, all the ceramics in another, and so on. 

It hardly does justice to Mary Allodi's contributions that my one recollection of her is her fierce disapproval of the whole project, including the consultant brought in to work on scripts and text panels. She may have won in the end.The new gallery was created, but disappeared in the next renovation project undertaken at the ROM.  

I remain proud of one small contribution to the embattled project. As the period rooms were being laid out, I managed to persuade both sides that the ROM's "Death of Wolfe" by Benjamin West would be better placed not at the end of the New France section but at the start of the British Regime section. 


Monday, May 31, 2021

Local Service

I've been a member of my local historical society for longer than I can remember, though not the full forty years of its existence. 

I've never worked extensively in Toronto history, but through the West Toronto Junction Historical Society I have learned a lot of local history, got to know my neighbourhood, made friends, and made some contributions to help maintain an organization that is entirely volunteer. WTJHS has advocated for historical and architectural recognition, educated and entertained the public, introduced remarkable speakers and conferences, trained people in house and family research, maintained a publicly-accessible archives, published several well-received historical works, run webinars.

It's also a part of the community, even a pillar of the community. Every time I do something with or for the society, I have a nice sense of being part of the fabric of civil society.  It's one of the reasons I don't have to bowl alone.

This is to say, you ought to consider being part of your own historical or heritage society wherever you are. It's also to mention that the WTJHS is looking for some volunteers right now, to join its executive.  In particular, it's looking for a president.

If you happen to live in or be connected to the west side of Toronto, would you like to be president or something?  Info on the WTJHS here.  

History of Quebec's provincial constitution

The Quebec government of Premier François Legault intends to amend the Canadian constitution to make French the only official language of the province. Not through one of those Meech Lake horsetrading extravaganzas -- just an ordinary bill to be passed in the provincial legislature. Morceau de gateau, as we say in English.

This both is and is not constitutional, shall we say. Provinces can indeed amend their own provincial constitutions in most regards. (It's in Section 45.)  This power was actually secured for the province by Ontario's reformers of the 1860s. They were determined to come into confederation without an upper house in their provincial parliament.  As you may have noticed, Quebec and every other two-house province eventually followed their example, via s.45.

But at the same time, the constitution has, the Supreme Court likes to remind us, "an architecture." It hangs together. You can't produce one line out of context to overrule the fundamental principles the constitution provides. The disallowance section doesn't permit Ottawa to cry "Zap, cancelled!" to legislation properly passed by provinces sovereign in their own jurisdiction, and s.121 doesn't mandate free trade absolutists to abolish any province's business regulation that annoys them. 

So there's a sorta-kinda-possibly legitimate way for Quebec to pass Bill 96 and declare French the only official language of Quebec; it's just putting some words into the provincial constitution, no? But there is also the constitution itself, way outside the amendable provincial part, that establishes certain fundamental rights for both English and French in both Quebec and the federal jurisdiction. Section 41 confirms that any change to the status of the French or English language requires unanimous consent of Ottawa and the provinces, and section 45 (see above) is subject to section 41. Quebec's Bill 96 actually says it is. 

So it sorta kinda isn't a constitutional change.

Provinces shouldn't pass feel-good provincial laws that produce constitutional clutter, and politicians should probably say so. But I'm persuaded by Paul Wells's recent explanation in Maclean's that if Quebec's bill amends the constitution, it still hasn't amended the constitution. 

In constitutional amendments as in much else, you get what you pay for. Work and patience and accommodation buy solidity. Stunts buy stunts.


Sunday, May 30, 2021

History in a diary, and tweets: Samson on Barry

 In the Atlantic Canadian magazine Saltwire, John DeMont offers a profile of historian Daniel Samson and his long study of the diary of nineteenth century farmer and philosopher James Barry of Pictou County Nova Scotia. 

“The big story of his life,” Daniel Samson, an associate professor at Brock University, who is writing a biography of Barry, told me, “is that of a man in search of an intellectual relationship with the world and struggling to find it in Six Mile Brook.”

Six Mile Brook, if you don’t know, is a part of Pictou County that Samson describes as being “just a brook, a river, a harbour, a gulf, and an ocean away from the colonial metropoles of London and Glasgow.”

Samson has been offering frequent samples from the Barry diaries on Twitter.  I have mixed feelings about Twitter and only visit it occasionally, but tweets like these almost redeem the medium:

Thursday, May 27, 2021

Robin Fisher on statues and memories

At The Ormsby Review, a nuanced reflection on statues and memorials and the taking-down thereof, by British Columbia historian Robin Fisher.

When I came to British Columbia, after learning and writing about Maori/pakeha history in New Zealand, I was stunned at the absence of Indigenous people from the historical writing on this province. There were exceptions like Wilson Duff’s Indian History of British Columbia, but the silence of historians was deafening. With the supervision of Wilson Duff and the help of others, I tried to make a contribution to changing the received view of British Columbia history and the role of First Nations people. My second supervisor, Margaret Ormsby, was not always happy with my conclusions, particularly about colonial figures like Joseph Trutch who led an assault on First Nations lands and cultures. Other colleagues thought better of my efforts when, to my amazement, my first book as an historian was awarded the John A. Macdonald prize in Canadian history.

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Book Notes: Macfarlane on Senate reform

I asked UBC Press for a copy of Emmett Macfarlane's new book Constitutional Pariah: Reference re Senate Reform and the Future of Parliament fearing the worst. Books about the Senate frequently have me rolling my eyes, books by political scientists in particular.

This one's actually pretty good.  

Macfarlane has grasped, as did the Supreme Court in 2014, that an elected Senate, or one appointed by the provinces, is a terrible idea.That's always a good start -- indeed, the essential precondition to saying worthwhile things. Furthermore, his book provides a clear and vigorous account of the last few decades of debates over the Senate, particularly the 2014 reference to the Supreme Court about what changes Parliament can make to the Senate without seeking constitutional amendments.  

It turns out that Macfarlane has inside testimony here. He describes (has this been reported before?) how he was consulted about Senate reforms by then opposition-leader Justin Trudeau. Macfarlane advised Trudeau -- before Harper's reference to the court -- to consider committing to the appointment of non-partisan senators. (He assumes others were consulted, is modest about his own influence, and emphasizes it was a professional consultation, not a partisan contribution.) 

The book repeatedly declares that Trudeau's decision to create a non-partisan Senate produced "the most significant reform of the Senate, perhaps of Parliament itself, in Canadian history." He argues that the new and increasingly non-partisan Senate has been working pretty well, and has a good chance of getting better as times goes on.

The Senate, actually, is only one of two concerns of the book, the other being the Supreme Court's ideas about the constitution. Macfarlane makes a case that the Supreme Court's declaration that parliament cannot make even minor (possibly "housekeeping") changes without constitutional amendment sets too high, indeed too paralyzing, a standard. And he considers that the court's stress on discerning the "architecture" of the Constitution sets a fuzzy principle that gives too much latitude to the judges. I thought that was the best part of the reference decision -- but he's the constitutional scholar, and he may have something here.

Some historical quibbles. He declares a parliament without a upper house was "inconceivable" to the confederation makers, but future prime minister Alexander Mackenzie argued for just that in the confederation debates of 1865. George Brown's reply -- that by making the senate appointive by the federal government he had pretty much secured what Mackenzie wanted -- could give Macfarlane a valuable clue to what the confederation makers were thinking at the time.

For Macfarlane still struggles to determine just what the overarching purpose of the Senate (partisan or non-partisan) really is, and he criticizes the Court for failing to address that conundrum. Is it defending provincial or regional interests? Or holding the Commons to account? Or protecting minorities? Or what? Actually, the judges seemed pretty clear on that question. The only overriding requirement of the Senate for 150 years has been that it be weak. Our punditti still have a blind spot about that, I fear, and the court's message has not yet sunk in. 

Close readers of my own constitutional histories will grasp that I agree with Macfarlane, and with the Supreme Court, when their arguments sustain ideas I had put forward previously, and not when they don't. But since neither cites me, I won't be held responsible. 


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