Monday, December 05, 2016

History of referendums

Rules of grand strategy for democracies:

  • Don't get involved in a land war in Asia
  • Don't march on Moscow
  • Don't hold a referendum on anything
Paul Wells makes the case particularly on electoral reform in Canada, but it applies pretty much everywhere.  

Referendums are polarizing by their nature. They put people on opposite sides of some question they never even thought they cared about. They offer no incentive to compromise or to make reasoned arguments. Each side’s pride gets bound up in the outcome, then its very self-definition. National referendums in Canada are deeply emotional and divisive events.

Then there are the details, technical on their face, more hell when you think about them. Would a referendum be held under the same set of rules and the same federal law, from coast to coast?....
John Ralston Saul enlarges on the thought:
 A referendum is little more than a "rumour of choice." The idea behind the mechanism, ever since its first modern manifestations two centuries ago under Napoleon, has been to replace democracy with the sensation of democracy. That is: to replace the slow, complex, eternally unclear continuity of democracy, and all the awkwardness of citizen participation, with something clear and fast which allows those in power to impose their agenda. Through an apparently simple question with a one-syllable answer, those who ask can get a blank cheque from the citizenry; that is, if they choose their moment well and come up with a winning question." - Reflections of a Siamese Twin
Clearly referendums don't always work for those in power, but even if they lose, the results of the  whole process are equally bad.

Friday, December 02, 2016

Best of (British) Histories, 2016

The Brits are good at these best of the year's books, and always put lots of British books on their lists.  This is The Guardian's best history books of the year.  I'd vaguely heard of one or two....

Update, December 5: Helen Webberley sends a comment on The Wicked Boy by Kate Summerscale, one of the Guardian nominees:
Since I tend to select history books that can be reviewed in my blog, size matters. The Wicked Boy not only tells an important piece of late 19th century history; it also has only 400 pages.

Story of Canada days #11

[Continuing a series of short excerpts from The Story of Canada, the recently republished history of Canada for kids and families that makes such a good Christmas gift.]

from Chapter Eleven: New Millennium
     Indigenous people of Canada declared that there must be no more Okas. Canada, to respect the constitution, had to respect aboriginal land. Chiefs and elders demanded that the Canadian government honour the promises made to them in treaties. They wanted to teach their children themselves in their own ways, they wanted to practise their spirituality in their own ways, and they wanted to have their lands respected. In the new century, Indigenous people were lawyers, teachers, doctors, police officers, and industrial workers. Indigenous playwrights, actors, and musicians were winning international fame. But Indigenous people of Canada were still the country’s poorest minority by far. Trying to change that, the Haida in British Columbia, the Lubicon in Alberta, the Anishnaabe in Ontario, the Innu in Labrador, and many others were asserting their rights and defending their traditional lands from occupation by loggers, miners, and oil companies.

     Canadian judges had begun to uphold First Nations claims to land and self-government. But what did those treaties Canada and the First Nations had signed really mean? Had Indigenous people surrendered their land and willingly gone to small, isolated reserves to live on welfare and charity? First Nations elders and chiefs declared that the treaties their ancestors made had been about sharing, not surrendering, their lands and powers. They wanted a share in their traditional lands: not just the fish and the game, but the timber, minerals, water, oil, and other precious resources. “We are all treaty people,” not just the First Nations but all Canadians, they declared, and the treaties meant sharing.

History of Cuba, history of Fidel

A lot of the recognition of Fidel Castro as one of the great figures of recent world history has been tempered with the acknowledgment that the United States has insisted for fifty years that he be categorized as a dictator and oppressor.

But it's hard not to notice that the consequences of Castro's authoritarian regime have included health care, education, literacy, and broad social equality for most of Cuba's diverse people:
“See this?” says Lino Espinoza, pinching the dark flesh of his forearm. “I am a black man, the descendant of slaves brought to Cuba. But I fought with Fidel. Black fighters were welcome in his army.
“And you know what I did after the revolution? I studied in Moscow and became a doctor. My friend over here was a teacher. This other man was a sports administrator. None of us would have had education, gone to university, if not for Fidel."
There are many other authoritarian regimes in Central America, and historically most of them have had the support of the United States. Most have focussed their efforts on empowering the mafia, and the feudal landholders, and the banana and sugar companies. Emphasis on mass education, health care, and social equality? Not so much, let's say.

I've never gone to Cuba.Not saying I never would, but I'm a writer, and many Cuban writers end up in jail.   But as they take him to his grave this week, I'd say Fidel Castro deserves some recognition and some respect.

Image: Huffington Post

Thursday, December 01, 2016

History Carnival 161

Okay, not everybody has gone over to podcasting yet.  I'm happy to say there were quite a few blogpost nominations coming in over the transom during November for this month's History Carnival, alerting me (and now maybe you) to blogs and historical topics we'd not otherwise have encountered

"Clergyman, Scholar, Murderer: The Rev. John Selby Watson" posted by Tom Hughes at Victorian Clerical Errors , explores the misspent life of another Victorian cad and bounder

"Where the Blue Line ends, part 2" posted by David Brooks at Friends of Schoharie an elegant piece of local history from one corner of New York state.

"Epsom House, Pontville," posted by Geoff Ritchie at On the Convict Trail, is another local history but from the other side of the world: a heritage property in Tasmania.

"One of the best Edwardian railway stations: Dunedin" posted by Helen Webberley at Art and Architecture Mostly, takes you to New Zealand railroad architecture. And another Webberley post, "Quaker chocolate companies, workers' rights, and quality housing" looks at the Quaker chocolate empires of 18th and 19th century Britain, drawing on Carol Off's history, Bitter Chocolate: investigating the dark side of the world's most seductive sweet.

"Supporting the Secret War: T-28s over Laos, 1964-1973 – Part 1: Training" posted by Jeff Schultz at From Balloons to Drones: Air Power Through the Ages takes us back to that unpleasantness in South-East Asia in the 1960s and 1970s.

"Sir Isaac Newton and the Emerald Tablet" posted by Ashley Cowie at Ashley Cowie, Scottish Historian... looks into the alchemical enthusiasm of the great scientist (and odd guy) Sir Isaac.

"Building a Wall Against Gog and Magog" posted by Yvonne Seale at Yvonne Seale: Making Women Matter... considers medieval defences against the cannibal monsters Gog and Magog.

Last spring there was debate on American blogs about whether military history is an endangered species or a too-favoured one.  That issue seems now to have been taken up in Britain.  "The Challenge of Academics outside of the Academia – A Reply to a ‘Paucity of Military Historians in University Departments" was posted by Ross Mahoney at Thoughts on Military History. and its links make it possible to follow earlier stages in the exchange.

The  blog of The Australian Women's History Network has been on fire in November, and Ana Stevenson sent in a slew of nominations:
Visiting the Recent Postings of Previous History Carnival Hosts:

I thought I'd honour past hosts of The History Carnival by seeing what they have blogged lately.  One host never posted again after hosting the Carnival in mid 2015! Some have closed, and some were inactive in November.  But here's a miscellany of November posts from past stalwarts:

"Tracing Recipes to Kill Vermin" posted by Lisa Smith at The Recipes Project, has advice from 18th century household books on getting rid of the nasties. 

 "Addressing Authority during the English Civil Wars" posted by Brodie Waddell at the many-headed monster, is part of a series on how the poor and weak have tried to catch the ear of the powerful across history.

"Reflections on the Life of John Mulvaney" posted by my old correspondent Jim Belshaw at New England's History, remembers a pioneer Australian prehistorian. (We're talking about Australia's New England, not Massachusetts etc.)

"Agreements of the People," posted by Richard Blakemore at historywomble, takes a 17th century legal history perspective on a recent British court case that considers the government's authority to trigger the Brexit without parliamentary sanction.

Just some faves and go-to's:

One of my longtime blogcrushes, Historiann -- an American who appreciates la Nouvelle France! -- has been posting excerpts from her new book, The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright.  This one is about the education of girls and women in the early 18th century, particularly in the Ursuline convent of Quebec City.  

The Clerk of Oxford mused about 7 November, which the Anglo-Saxons took to be Winter's Day, the first day of winter.

History Matters (the blog of the Brit HistMag) offers a (mostly British) The Best History Books of 2016.  Why doesn't every history blog try this, given the dire state of reviewing in the press.  Send me your nominations, I'll post 'em (email at right).

Walking around Canada with some CanHist blogs:

I know I don't see enough blogs about history from Africa, or South Asia, or Latin America, or even continental Europe. If you want to immerse in some history blogs from my Canadian turf, try these for starters.

Active History, a CanHist powerhouse, has daily essays by a wide range on historians on history and public policy issues, Canadian and international.  (Its French-language counterpart is Histoire EngagĂ©e.) A couple of recent keepers: Brittany Luby,  Kathryn Labelle, and Alison Norman on decolonizing indigenous people's names; and George Colpitts, Shannon Stunden-Bower, and Bill Waiser on the 1930s drought on the Canadian Prairies.  This month Waiser also received Canada's pre-eminent literary prize in nonfiction for A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan before 1905

Unwritten Histories started quite recently, but it is becoming essential for its lists of what's going on in CanHist online. This recent roundup is typical.

If the recent rediscoveries of John Franklin's lost ships in the Canadian Arctic caught your interest, Visions of the North is essential. "Symbols of Empire"is a recent post on painters' responses to the Franklin Northwest Passage disaster.

The blog of Library and Archives Canada regularly reports on its newly digitized collections available online, including First World War personnel records.

I decided when I started building this carnival that this is a history blog:  there would be nothing on the American elections. (And everyone I told said "Thank God!")  But if you still hanker for a fix, Jerry Bannister was provoked by those events to muse on "Why National History Matters". It was posted at Borealia and Acadiensis, two blogs from, but not limited to, Atlantic Canada

... and, in case you missed it, that "Gog and Magog" post above cleverly managed to sneak in an allusion to U.S. politics

Warm thanks to nominators: Tom Hughes, David Brooks, Ross Mahoney, Keith Grant, Ashley Cowie, Yvonne Seale, Helen Webberley, and Ana Stevenson, and to Sharon Howard at mission control. Blog on.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

History Carnival deadline looms

Tomorrow I will be putting together December 1's History Carnival, a selection of the best history blog posts from all over the world during November 2016.

Nominations are open until I post, pretty much -- just email a link to the post to me, address at right.. But if you want your favorite blog post considered among noms from around the history blogging world, time grows short.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Story of Canada days #10

[Continuing a series of short excerpts from The Story of Canada, the recently republished history of Canada for kids and families that makes such a good Christmas gift.]

from Chapter 10:  The Flying Years

"After the Second World War, Canada reopened its doors to immigrants. Instead of coming just by ship, they came by plane, to airports all over the country. And the proportion of British and northern European immigrants became lower. Southern Europeans were the first groups to grow more numerous; Italian communities expanded rapidly in the the cities during the 1950s, and Greek and Portuguese communities soon appeared.  Non-European immigrants also began to arrive. They came from the islands of the Caribbean, from India and Pakistan, from Korea and Hong Kong. Peoples of hundreds of languages and backgrounds now enriched Canad with their traditions."

"The newcomers brought their customs and beliefs with them.  Sikh and Buddhist temples stood beside Jewish synagogues or Catholic or Baptist churches, and whole sections of cities sprouted street signs in Chinese, Portuguese or Italian. Suddenly there were shops selling foods, clothing, music, books and artwork that were new, startling and fascinating to many Canadians. The 1950s and 1960s opened Canada to the tastes and styles of the world. It was becoming a multicultural nation."

Archiving the royal prerogative

In the weekend New York Times, Australian historian Julia Baird muses on how the British royal family continues to maintain a pre-1688 style notion of royal prerogative in how they use control of the royal archives to manipulate historical writing about the royal family and its role in British and commonwealth history.
Their records are exempt from freedom of information laws and the rules covering Britain’s National Archives that have traditionally allowed for the release of most government documents after 30 years.
Even for highly qualified scholars, it is difficult to gain entry to the Royal Archives, which cover two and a half centuries and hold roughly two million documents. An unspecified number of boxes and files are off limits for no stated reason, and there is no public catalog. And the process by which the keepers decide who may enter is mysterious and opaque. Researchers are left with the uncomfortable feeling that there may be material withheld, and that their quest for historical accuracy and completeness could be thwarted.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Story of Canada days: 9

[Continuing a series of short excerpts from The Story of Canada, the recently republished history of Canada for kids and families that makes such a good Christmas gift.]

Alan Daniel, "Homecoming"

from Chapter 9: Story Stormy Times

"During the Second World War, Canadians went all over the world to fight by land, sea, and air.  In 1941, Canadian soldiers sailed away to defend the British colony of Hong Kong.  After the Japanese army overran the colony, more than 500 Canadians died horribly, in battle ore in the prison camps.  Most Canadian soldiers, however, went to Britain.  The army trained there, waiting for a chance to liberate Europe.  Farley Mowat, a young soldier in the Canadian Army's First Division, wrote, "The troops fought imaginary battles in the English fields and landes until they grew numb with fatigue."  The soldiers complained about the cold and the damp and the food, and many swore that after the war they would never eat Brussels sprouts again."

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Is Reconciliation happening?

In the Ormsby Review, J.R. Miller reviews -- and draws attention to -- In This Together: Fifteen Stories of Truth & Reconciliation, edited by Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail:
"Many ordinary Canadians have also been inspired by the TRC to take up the cause of reconciliation. Among those so moved was an Edmonton-based historian, writer, and speaker, Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail, who organized a group of people to begin the work of reconciliation in their own words by creating a collection of personal essays that became In This Together: Fifteen Stories of Truth & Reconciliation."

Story of Canada days: 8

[Continuing a series of short excerpts from The Story of Canada, the recently republished history of Canada for kids and families that makes such a good Christmas gift.]

Alan Daniel, "North-West Mounted Police deliver mail to prairie homesteads"
from Chapter 8 Sunny Ways [yes, we picked that title in 1992]

"In a Cape Breton Island coal-mining town, a boy works underground, crouching in a mine shaft that runs out under the bottom of the ocean.  Since the working day starts before dawn and ends after dusk, he sees the sun only on Sundays or during the few short weeks of summer.  His lunch, a bit of bread and cheese called "a piece" always tastes of coal dust.  Coal dust has gotten into his skin so deeply that it seems he cannot get it out, no matter how hard he scrubs in the big tin tub in front of the fireplace."

Renaissance History on Fifth Avenue

Cosimo, by Jacopo Pontormo

Linda McQuaig in The Star today expresses astonishment at the American consensus that the United States is the "greatest democracy on earth" as if gerrymandering, voter suppression, a wildly disproportionate Senate, a politicized judiciary, the electoral college, and presidents more or less above the law -- plus racial discrimination and the heritage of slavery, her particular point -- were not disqualifying factors.

Crooked Timber offers a helpful perspective from history, collating links to posts that observe how much the behaviour of a new president-elect resembles that of Cosimo de Medici:
Mr. Trump loves the tension and drama of a selection process, and has sought to stoke it. A senior adviser described the meeting, in part, as Mr. Romney simply coming to pay his respects to the president-elect and “kiss his ring.”

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Story of Canada days: 7

[Continuing a series of short excerpts from The Story of Canada, the recently republished history of Canada for kids and families that makes such a good Christmas gift.]

from Chapter 7: Confederation Days

"Ten years after George-Etienne Cartier's rash promise, work on the railway had barely begun.  During the election of 1872, Sir John A. accepted money from the "railway barons," businessmen who wanted the contract to build the new line. When he was found out, he had to resign in disgrace.  The second prime minister of Canada, Alexander Mackenzie, called the railway "an act of insane recklessness."  It looked as if he was right.

"The Canadian Pacific Railway was the most ambitious railway project in the world.  It was going to cost a fortune.  Tracks had to be pushed through the rock and muskeg of northern Ontario, across the prairie, and through the mountains.  No one even knew if passes suitable for railway lines existed in British Columbia's mountain ranges.  For years, surveyors had scrambled up and down the slopes and valleys in search of a route.  The obstacles seemed insurmountable.

"Then an American "railway general" named William Van Horne became manager of the Canadian Pacific Railway...."

Macleans on Cooper's Black History

Macleans' takes note this week of Dalhousie University's new interdisciplinary  program in black and African diaspora studies led by program creator -- and Governor General's Award-winning historian -- Afua Cooper, who hold the James Robinson Johnston chair in black Canadian studies.
The presence of blacks in Canada dates back to 1604 and the Port Royal settlement. It’s this 400-year legacy, along with arts, culture and other topics, that Cooper wants to focus on. “Students will learn about the long-lasting black communities all over this country and the struggles and triumphs of black Canadians,” she says. “They faced a lot of discrimination throughout these centuries: social exclusion, segregation, segregated schools.”
James Johnston, for whom Cooper's chair is named, ain't the moneybags donor university chairs usually honour.  A native Haligonian, he was the only black lawyer to practice in Nova Scotia before the First World War (DCB biography here)

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Wilson Institute series on Confederation

The Wilson Institute at McMaster University in Hamilton is running a nine-speaker series on Canada and Confederation this winter, wrapping up with me on April 6. From their announcement:
As part of the Wilson Institute’s involvement in Canada’s 150th anniversary, this year’s Visiting Speaker Series will be devoted entirely to Confederation. However, rather than simply celebrating Canada and Confederation, we want to examine the subject within a more critical framework. We have therefore lined-up a series of speakers tackling important issues such as the impact of Confederation on Indigenous peoples, Confederation in the context of 19th century North American nation-building, and the environmental impact of Confederation.
The first three events have already been held. The next, on the afternoon of Thursday, December 1, features Marcel Martel of York University, asking “Is There Anything New and Original to say about French Canada and Confederation?” (I'm guessing, yes, probably there is)

Story of Canada days: 6

[Continuing a series of short excerpts from The Story of Canada, the recently republished history of Canada for kids and families that makes such a good Christmas gift.]

from Chapter 6: Mountains and Oceans

"Mr Deas Cans Fish:   John Sullivan Deas's parents had been slaves in South Carolina.  Young John learned the tinsmithing trade and went to the California gold rush of 1849, but then drifted north with other Black adventurers and began tinsmithing in Victoria in about 1861.

"Captain Edward Stamp had started a salmon cannery on the Fraser River not far from New Westminister.  The river ran thick with salmon every summer, and Stamp knew that, if he canned them, he could sell salmon all over the world. He hired John Deas to make tin cans. When Stamp suddenly died, Deas took over the cannery.  Soon he was running the largest canning business in the colony.  Thousands of cases of John Deas's Fraser River salmon went off to Britain every year.

"With a Black owner, Native fishermen supplying most of the salmon, and Chinese immigrants doing most of the labour it was a remarkable multicultural business.  But...."

Monday, November 21, 2016

Reminder to history bloggers

In ten days, on 1 December 2016, I'll be hosting History Carnival, the monthly roundup of notable history-related blog posts from around the world. Nominations for your favourite Hist-Blog posts of November -- from your own blog or anywhere else -- will be gratefully received here (email at right) or via History Carnival's nomination form right up until I post.

Story of Canada days: 5

[Continuing a series of short excerpts from The Story of Canada, the recently republished history of Canada for kids and families that makes such a good Christmas gift.]

from Chapter 5: The Great Northwest

"At dawn on a clear fall day, the Blackfoot people prayed to the spirit of the buffalo.  If you had been there, you would have been shivering even in your warm deerskin shirt or sift and leggings.  

"Imagine you are there....

"Two days ago the scouts went out. Last night the came back to report that the herd was near.  The best poundmakers in the band have done their work.  They have chosen the strongest willow stakes and driven them into the hard ground to form the V-shaped fence of the jumping pound.  At the narrow end of the pound is a small opening, right at the edge of the cliff.

"Your feet in their moccasins are cold as you creep through the tall frost-tipped grass. You have learned to read the land so well that you know the signs of prairie-dog holes, ant hills, and gullies.  You go silently, as though you knew every blade of grass.

"The buffalo are coming...."

Book Notes: Henri Bourassa at the Champlain Society

Members of the Champlain Society, which has been publishing handsome edited collections of Canadian historical documents for about a century, are receiving this year's volume, "Do What You Must" Selected Editorials from Le Devoir under Henri Bourassa, 1910-32. edited by Pierre Anctil and translated into English by Tonu Onu.

Bourassa's Le Devoir published editorials on everything from Laurier's electoral defeat to the evils of the modern (1920s modern) cinema to the place of French Canadians in Western Canada to the Irish Civil Wars.  In 1924 Bourassa regretted the flourishing of anti-Semitism in French Canada and (as the editor notes) his "influence clearly declined after that date [allowing] a resurgence of anit-Semitism on the pages of the newspaper during the 1930s."  In 1927 he rejected Italian fascism as any model for Canada or Quebec.

But the ones I'm browsing in right now are those in which Bourassa methodically stakes out a position on Canadian participation in the First World War, and later on conscription. In September 1914 he writes:
The only common theme ... is the nearly complete absence of any real sense of responsibility for Canada as a nation, regarding its external responsibilities and even more so its internal responsibilities.
Some, he regrets, think only of the Empire, others only of France, and others of nothing at all beyond Canada's own borders.
The onslaught of patriotic speeches and articles that have flooded the country since the beginning of the war have been accompanied by very few effective acts for the good of Canada.
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