Thursday, May 28, 2020

History of Canadianizing the world's Parliaments

Dominic Cummings is a very Canadian figure, though that probably would not occur to him, and he's British. He is the political consultant who more-or-less runs Boris Johnson's government. Previously he was the behind-the-scenes director of the Leave campaign in the Brexit referendum, played by Benedict Cumberbach in the movie that followed. 

It's still somewhat unusual in Britain for an unelected spin doctor to hold such power. But to followers of Canadian politics, Cummings looks a lot like familiar Canadian figures like Kory Teneckye, David Herle, and Gerald Butts  -- that is, unelected consultants who hold more power than MPs or cabinet ministers so long as their client is in power.  

In a Canada-style parliamentary world, one where the leader is everything and political consultants make the leaders -- something Britain is rapidly becoming --  a Dominic Cummings can be top dog.

Except, maybe not. Suddenly he is in trouble. In March, while actually coming down with Covid-19 (he survived), Cummings defied strict British regulations, promulgated by Johnson's own government, against unnecessary travel. He secretly roamed on personal and family errands between London and Durham in the north of England, and many people were exposed to him.

Since the news got out, public outrage over rule-makers who exempt themselves from the rules has been intense. Until now, Cummings has seemed too important to the Johnson government to suffer consequences. He has been vigorously defended by the prime ministerial team, which has tied its own credibility to his.

Except. Turns out there is still some spine in British backbenchers.  Johnson is a recently elected prime minister with a large majority.  But right now enough Conservative backbenchers have revolted over the Cummings scandal to put their party's majority at risk. The Guardian:
Johnson’s former political secretary [now a loyal-hack MP] laid out a political truth: “No 10 won’t budge, so calling for DC to go is basically declaring no confidence in PM.”
And many of his fellow MPs, not so hackish, said, okay. let's do that.
More than 35 MPs have so far gone public to call for Cummings to go. However, even the rebels admit they need the number to increase before they have any chance of success. “There’s no chance of No 10 listening to us until it’s closer to 80,” said one MP. Though they already have almost enough MPs to wipe out Boris Johnson’s majority were any vote to take place, they feel they need this higher number to show it’s a rebellion that won’t peter out if a few people fall into line.
Johnson is likely to win this struggle and perhaps Cummings will hold on to his job. But that such a challenge to the leader could surface among party MPs will be shocking to most Canadian politicians observers, and consultants. Farces like the Conservative leadership "race," decided already by which consultant-run campaign has invested the most in the purchase of party memberships, still set the (abysmal) standard of Canadian political accountability. 

Couldn't happen here.  Pity.

Update, same day:  Just for laughs, here's Boris on the same topic 11 years ago.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

This month at Canada's History

Lead story in the May-June 2020 issue of Canada's History is Daniel Francis's article "Booze," on the tangled history of Prohibition in Canada and why it failed
As the years passed it became conventional wisdom that prohibition was a classic case of the cure being worse than the disease. The jury is still out on whether it succeeded in reducing the consumption of alcohol.
Also two lavishly illustrated art history essays, one built around Mark Reid's interview with McMichael Gallery director Ian Dejardin about the enduring appeal of the Group of Seven, the other Nanette Martin's story on an earlier artist somewhat eclipsed by the Group, Homer Watson.

Andrew Findlay provides a backgrounder on the long history of T'silqot'in nation's struggle to defend its territory and have its title to land recognized.  A prairie mosque, Christopher Dummitt's new podcast, DNA testing's risks, and much else.  Not least the oddest photo I'm seen in a while. Apparently in 1942 a group of reenactors dressed up as German soldiers and drove military vehicles through the streets of Winnipeg giving Nazi salutes and waving swastikas -- as a War Bonds fundraiser!  Would not be allowed today, I'm thinking, and we don't even have a war on. 

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

History of Fiction Bigotry

I admire Margaret Atwood enormously. She's rarely wrong. But I was disappointed by a line in her recent G&M review of The Equivalents by Maggie Doherty. The review is both a vivid bit of memoir and an introduction to what sounds like a valuable book on the 'fifties origins of second wave feminism. The disappointing part is the first six words of this paragraph:
The book reads like a novel, and an intense one at that: the characters include Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, both of whom would become key writers of their era, both of whom would die by suicide; Maxine Kumin, who would go on to win a Pulitzer; Robert Lowell, who taught Plath and Sexton, and was already hailed as the founder of “confessional” poetry; Tillie Olsen, whose Institute stay would result in her best-known book, Silences, about the forces that kept women from creating; and Betty Friedan, soon to publish The Feminine Mystique, which would galvanize hordes of discontented women who’d tried and failed to be Stepford Wives.
Even without having read the book, I'm pretty sure it does not read like a novel. It's a serious archives-based history of The Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study, which became a home for these women and others. As such, it's most unlikely that it is built on fictional techniques such as interior monologue, imagined dialogue, or invented scenes. That is, it does not read like a novel at all.  Characterization, scene-setting, drama, tension -- these things do not make a book "like a novel." 

What Atwood means by "reads like a novel," I think, is that it is well written and interesting to read. What she seems to assume, in other words, is that good writing is fiction and fiction is good writing. If good writing is found elsewhere, it is "like a novel," a sort of failed novel.

In other words, those six words are an example of fiction bigotry, the belief that only fiction is good writing, and all literary techniques (even those that began in nonfiction writing) are essentially fictional. Any writing that seems "good" must aspire to be fiction.  

Once you are alerted to this, you see it everywhere. "Reads like a novel" is one of the signs to look for. Another is the affirmation that nonfiction is facts, but fiction is "truth." Since I keep meaning to start a list, maybe this example is Number One. Nothing like starting at the very top.  

Monday, May 25, 2020

Selma Barkham, explorer, 1927-2020 RIP

The Globe and Mail has a very good obituary article on Selma Barkham.  I was going to say "Selma Barkham, historian," and she's entitled to the descriptor, but really she was kind of sui generis -- as the article makes clear. A remarkable life.

I recall seeing her once at a conference in Ottawa, describing the very detailed information she had on a 1565 Basque shipwreck in Red Bay, Labrador, and asking if anyone in the room had the kind of marine archaeological expertise she needed. At the end of the session, I watched Robert Grenier, Parks Canada's head of marine archaeology, heading for the front of the room as if shot from a cannon. I presume that was the start of the excavation of the San Juan and its preservation at Red Bay, a historic site I am happy to have visited.

Photo credit: Michael Barkham, via G&M.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

History of pandemics

In the Coastal First Nations newsletter Talking Stick, Hilistis (Pauline Waterfall) notes the times created by Covid-19 are not exactly "unprecedented" for First Nations:
To subscribe to this notion is to deny or negate the previous pandemics that First Nations peoples have experienced historically. In 1780-82, 1831-34, 1862-63, 1888-89 smallpox epidemics had catastrophic impacts upon First peoples in B.C. and across Canada greatly reducing previous numbers of people who didn’t have immunity against this dreaded disease.
Image:   A Nax Nox mask depicting smallpox. Photo from the Museum of Vancouver archives. Catalogue number: AA 84, reproduced in Talking Stick.

History of plus ca change...

From the DCB's newly posted biography of Phillips Thompson, labour journalist and socialist intellectual of the late 19th century:
When he testified in November 1887 before the royal commission on the relations of labor and capital, chaired by James Sherrard Armstrong, Thompson maintained that rapid increases in the cost of rental properties in Toronto had brought “considerable hardship upon a good many of those who have only fixed incomes or salaries.”
He reasoned that before a millionaire “could have any chance to utilize his business talents, he must first have a society with all the highly complex agencies and instrumentalities of commercial life, in which these qualities can find free scope.” Because he owed his success to society, his wealth was therefore a resource that belonged to society, and its people had “the right to step in and put a limit upon accumulation..."
The DCB is currently inviting readers to nominate their five favourite DCB biographies:
We invite you to send us the names of your favourite personalities – no more than five – and briefly tell us your reasons. From time to time, we will post your answers on our website and share them on social media.
Nominations can be sent to

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

History of the RCMP

Maclean's, "Canada's newsmagazine," has shared the decline in visibility and influence experienced by Time and Newsweek and similar publications around the world.  It's now mostly a digital publication.  But it's worth saying that Maclean's weekly online issue often offers solid journalism and commentary, making it almost unique in Canada for longform inquiries about matters not quite as topical as the day's headline.

Case in point: two recent Maclean's articles that excoriate the way the RCMP in Nova Scotia handled the mass killings at Portapique.  One is by veteran journalist and RCMP critic Paul Palango, the other by commentator Stephen Maher.  I have not seen anything to match these in the daily press or CBC News, though The Guardian is now on the story

My experience, if it has taught me anything, is the RCMP is adept at pulling at heartstrings during and immediately after an event, like they have over the past two weeks. We are told that there will be a time and place to discuss these issues, but that time never really comes. By then, it’s all old news and time to move on, they will say.
Even now, without all the details in, it has become clear to me that the Nova Scotia massacre encapsulated all that has been and continues to be wrong with the current structure, ethos and performance of the RCMP.
Who years back coined the phrase "the world's only souvenir police force" to describe the RCMP?  (Daniel Francis, maybe?) Palango would likely agree:
The RCMP prides itself in being a national police force, but it’s not really a national police force, like say in France. It’s actually a federal police force that rents itself out to the provinces and territories outside Ontario and Quebec. Even then, the only urban areas it polices are Moncton, N.B., and the suburbs of Vancouver—and even there, it’s about to lose its local detachment in Surrey.
The fatal conceit of the Mounties is that every Mountie can do any job, policing is policing. There is no magic. [....]

However, working on organized crime and counter terrorism is akin to the difference between cricket and baseball. Both have bats and balls, but they are fundamentally different games.

Update, same day: Francis sets the record straight:
I’d love to take credit for the souvenir police force – which I used in National Dreams – but it was coined by my pal Stephen Osborne, founder of Geist magazine, in his essay “Pile of Bones” in Geist July/Aug 1994

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

History of DNA history

Shawnadithit: still dead
I was a little creeped out recently by a recent CBC-News headline: "Thought to be extinct, Beothuk DNA is present in living families." It smelled a bit of, not exactly pseudo-science, but surely the misapplication of scientific data to historic and cultural questions.

DNA was recently harvested from teeth preserved from the corpses of two of the last known Beothuk individuals (sort of creepy in itself). According to a Memorial University biologist, that DNA matches DNA in living individuals. Therefore, trumpets the news headline, the Boethuk are not extinct.

Two things. One, the Beothuk nation is extinct. It is not coming back. Two, the Beothuk did not arrive in Newfoundland from outer space. It stand to reason that they had close links to other indigenous peoples nearby, in Labrador, Quebec, and possibly the Atlantic provinces. Therefore Beothuk DNA, if accurately identified, will compare closely to existing indigenous DNA from the region. Conclusion: Having one's DNA match to an early 19th century Beothuk does not make one a Beothuk, any more than having a mix of European and indigenous DNA makes one M├ętis.

The biologist concerned seems to be aware of this, and most of his remarks are hedged. The misleading claims seem to come mostly from the reporter. But the whole process of taking an isolated DNA test result, so far unreplicated, and using it to support large cultural/historical/political claims, out of all context, as this article does, is an abuse of both science and history. 

Update, May 20, 2020:  the current Canadian Historical Review includes a review of Tracing Ochre: Changing Perspectives on the Beothuk, a collection of articles evidently sensitive to many of these issues.    

Friday, May 15, 2020

History of the SNC-Lavalin affair

Amid the appalling politicization of justice in the United States, where the Justice department declines to pursue criminal cases against friends of Donald Trump and supports the investigation of those he distrusts, we ought to remember the SNC-Lavalin scandal of early 2019 and the resignation of Minister of Justice Jody Wilson-Raybould.

Wilson-Raybould's complaint was that the prime minister's office was interfering inappropriately and for political reasons in the impartial administration of justice by her department. The responses of the elected prime minister, his hired political advisor, and the impartial head of the civil service were more or less identical: When the prime minister's office interferes, it is never inappropriate.  Since the opposition parties and much of the media pretty much shared that viewpoint, it was a pretty successful defence. 

Is this different from what is now going on in the United States?  Well in that case, the attorney-general is leading the interference rather than resigning over it.  But on the question of political interference Ralph Heintzman sees the same thing going on.  He has a point.

Whatever happened to Jody Wilson-Raybould, anyway? Right, she's an opposition backbencher. 

[It's a Globe & Mail story, and may be paywalled.]

Monday, May 11, 2020

History of the Bronze Age One Percent

The MycenaeCorp Lion Gate?
The New York Times publishes an intriguing, pretty speculative account of the collapse of Bronze Age powers such as Mycenae in Greece and Ugarit in Syria -- and concludes popular uprisings against the one-percent may have been vital factors.
Until recently, historians blamed this collapse on marauders known as the Sea People. Supposedly these Sea People sacked the cities, leaving the once-great kingdoms of the Mediterranean to be menaced by pirates or worse.
New research has challenged this whole story. Eric Cline, a classicist at George Washington University and author of “1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed,” explained that there’s no evidence of invaders coming from the outside at Mycenae, so violence must have come from within. Given what’s known about these societies, he concludes that the city’s lower classes may have gotten fed up and burned it all down. Josephine Quinn, an archaeologist at University of Oxford, agrees. “The whole Bronze Age system produces a lot of discontent,” she told me.
The story includes a shout-out to Sarah Murray, a classics professor at the University of Toronto and author of “The Collapse of the Mycenaean Economy

It’s unlikely that many of these people missed the old ways. “Were they ever concerned about whether the king was adequately supplied with fancy jewelry and ostrich eggs from Egypt?” Ms. Murray asked. “I’d bet that they were not. If anything, the demise of the palaces could have made life easier for them.”
Saddest part of the story is the contemporary takeaway: today's one percent is probably better equipped to defend its hegemony despite the current upheavals.

[21st century privilege issue: Only the digitally subscribed may be able to read this Times story. Right now those are probably more than one percent of readers of this blog, but still...]

Friday, May 08, 2020

Prize Watch: history, biography and nonfiction at the Pulitzers

American nonfiction writers gotta love the Pulitzer Prizes. They have separate honours for History, Biography, and General Nonfiction, and since it's hard to make firm boundaries between these categories, it's not uncommon for one book to be nominated in more than one category.

This year the winner in General Nonfiction, The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America, by Greg Grandin, was also a nominee in History, where the winner was Sweet Taste of Liberty: A True Story of Slavery and Restitution in America, by W. Caleb McDaniel.

In biography, the winner was Benjamin Moser's Sontag: Her Life and Work, which the jurors must found to be some book (despite Janet Malcolm's very critical review), because it won over what I thought was an exemplar of how to write biography, George Packer's Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century

Genealogy in isolation

The publicists for have been reminding me of the seminars and workshops Ancestry Canada is running during our shut-in time, covering subjects of specifically Canadian genealogical interest.  Here's deets on a couple that are upcoming. It doesn't say any Ancestry membership is required.  I kinda like the title "We Must Have Swum Over."

Date: Tuesday, May 12

Time: 10:00 a.m. EDT
Where: Ancestry Canada Facebook Page (
Session Name: Researching British Home Children
Description: From the late 1860s right up to 1948, over 100,000 children of all ages were sent to Canada from the United Kingdom. Known as the British Home Children, they are the ancestors of an estimated 10% of Canada’s current population. Join us as genealogist Gloria Tubman shares her advice and guidance on identifying the British Home Children in your family tree, and walks us through the resources available for uncovering their stories.
Speaker Biography: Gloria Tubman, herself a granddaughter of a home child, has been researching British Home Children for over 28 years and authored A Genealogists’ Guide to Researching BRITISH HOME CHILDREN.  Her areas of genealogical and historical research include British Home Children, Quebec, Ottawa Valley, and has led to research for “Who Do You Think You Are?”  She is a co-instructor of a genealogy course at the Ottawa Stake Family History Centre and a volunteer at  Genealogy Drop-In co-hosted by the Ottawa Branch Ontario Ancestors and the Ottawa Public Library.  She is a member of Ottawa Branch Council, Ontario Ancestors, and BIFHSGO. 

Date: Thursday, May 14
Time: 12:00 p.m. EDT
Where: Ancestry Canada Facebook Page (
Session Name: We Must Have Swam Over - Research Strategies, Tips and Tricks for Finding Your Immigrant Ancestors
Description: Finding your immigrant ancestors can be tricky. Join us as Cara MacDonald, Manager of Reference Services at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21, shares her research process and tips for locating those hard to find immigration records. From the "why" behind being unable to locate difficult records to effective wildcard searching and gathering information from non-immigration sources, this workshop will help take your genealogy skills to the next level.
Speaker Bio: Cara MacDonald is the head genealogist and Manager of Reference Services at the Scotiabank Family History Centre at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21. She has been employed at the museum for 12 years, providing a variety of genealogical research services with expertise in immigration records.  Cara holds a diploma in Library and Information Technology and a PLCGS in Canadian Records and Librarianship from the National Institute of Genealogical Studies. She is currently working towards her certificate in Eastern European Records.

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