Monday, June 26, 2017

This Minute was brought to you by...

The latest Heritage Minute is a heartstring-tugger about the Vietnamese migration to Canada in 1979-80.

It  works, but it also renews an old concern about the Heritage Minutes. The Minutes are expensive, and some years ago Historica, which now runs the Minutes project, began seeking public funding for them.  Well, it's the Canadian way. But there began to be conditions: that the minutes met public policy objectives.

So during the Harper years, the Minutes tended to be about war, or hockey, or war and hockey, plus a couple of political ones for the anniversary years. Now the government has changed, and the new minute is about diversity and Canada as a national welcoming immigrants.What began as quirky Canadiana begins to look like PR for the messaging of whatever government is in power.

A million years ago I wrote a little piece about the early Minutes inspired by broadcaster Patrick Watson and produced by the Bronfman Foundation. Those minutes had agendas too, but enough of them were nicely offbeat and even a little bit oppositional -- spunky women confronting patriarchy, like that.
Some Minutes put a lump in your throat, but many are not reverential at all. There's a scene with Queen Victoria that makes a jokey reference to a tea commercial -- pity! Kate Nelligan, playing a very glamorous Emily Murphy, sketches out the Persons Case with sophisticated sarcasm. And the Minute on McLuhan -- imagine them doing him! -- hints at his ideas without closing off the possibility he may have been a bit of a loony too. For Minutes like these, one can forgive the earnestness of the St Louis de Riel Minute or the corporate backpatting of some others.
Not sure we will see that style in the Minutes again.

Book notes: Guides to the Parks and Historic Sites

We ticked off our first national parks visit on the weekend -- though only to Rouge River Urban Park right in Toronto. They were having a special event, so we did not even have to show our Canada150 free pass for the year.  But still.

I found there that the Parks Canada Official Guide to the Historic Sites of Canada, and its Official Guide to the National Parks of Canada are now published by an American magazine, National Geographic, in association with a German-owned publisher, Penguin Random House. Welcome to the borderless Canada of Chrystia Freedland and Monique Joly!

'Tother hand, they are pretty good guidebooks, with succinct accounts of each park or site, and Frommer-type info about getting there and accommodations and food, and terrific design and photography. Maybe a few historical quibbles for specialists, but you wouldn't be happy without that possibility, would you? Authorship is not credited, but I was told the writers are all Canadian, and there are long lists of acknowledgments at the back.

I'm hoping to make more use of both books in association with that free pass this summer.  (Family boast: one of my daughters was doing some online quiz thingy:  how many of these 160 Canadian places have you been? With locations as various and unobvious as, say, Nelson, BC, and the West Point lighthouse on Prince Edward Island, she scored 42% and I'm claiming the championship for her. We deserve our free pass!)

Friday, June 23, 2017

Book Notes: Miss Confederation, the Mercy Coles diary

Mercy Anne Coles -- the Jane Austen of confederation, maybe. Newly out from Dundurn Press is Miss Confederation, Anne McDonald's edition of the 1864 diary of Mercy Anne Coles, during the critical weeks of Canadian constitution-drafting.

The diary has been a historical source at least since Donald Creighton quoted from it in the early 1960s. This is the first publication of the complete diary: Charlottetown to Quebec on to Montreal and across Canada West to Toronto and Niagara Falls, and including the long trip home via the war-torn United States. Regina-based playwright and novelist Anne McDonald gets beyond the glimpses the diary offers of leading politicians.  She gives the whole text a close and sensitive reading of the perspective of a young, marriageable women whose politician father gives her entree to the social and political circles around the Quebec conference.

But you don't have to believe this blog when I say good things about it. You can read the introduction to Miss Confederation by some guy called Christopher Moore. Better still, read the whole thing.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Happy National Aboriginal Day

Apparently it is an official holiday, but only if you live in the Northwest Territories

Crisis no crisis in BC

Lorne Sossin makes sensible observations on the political crisis in British Columbia -- mainly by noting that it is not really a crisis at all. Yeah, there will be some uncertainty for a while, but the procedures of parliamentary democracy are perfectly capable of dealing with a situation where there may be no clear majority government and therefore no autocratic leader to make things simple and clear for commentators.

I particularly admired Sossin's point on parliamentary conventions:
Some have claimed there is a rule barring modern day Speakers from using their tie-breaking vote to pass a new law. But no such rule exists. ...
Parliamentary conventions form out of practice — and reflect a principled pragmatism. They are not written in stone and should not be treated as if they were. Conventions guide the daily work of lawmaking, but only those which continue to adapt to changing circumstances remain relevant. They are not tailored for every situation, nor should they become roadblocks to the will of the legislature.
Some of the political scientists who equate parliamentary conventions with constitutional requirements -- that they alone get to define -- should read and ponder. A convention is a practice that helps a legislature function smoothly -- and is accepted by the members of the legislature.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

History of Canadian journalists, Al Jazeera, and Qatar

What's this new Middle East confrontation, the one between Qatar and most of the other Arab and Sunni states of the region?

Tony Burman, the Toronto Star foreign affairs correspondent and former CBC broadcast honcho, argued the other day it's a campaign to silence Al Jazeera. Burman is not exactly an outsider here; he's a former managing director of the English service of Al Jazeera, the pioneering radio and television network supported by the rulers of Qutar.

It is particularly the English language service of Al Jazeera, the part Burman worked for, that has given the network its reputation in the west for impartial and penetrating journalism on Middle Eastern and world affairs. So to western readers, the confrontation with Qatar, when defined as an attack on Al Jazeera, seems above all an attack on a free press and an information culture.

But I've been reading The Marriott Cell, Egyptian-Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy's terrific and very readable book (with fellow Canadian Carol Shaban) about his imprisonment in Egypt and how he was eventually freed with the support of a lot of journalists, a lot of Canadians, and Amal Clooney. Fahmy ran Al Jazeera English in Cairo, and was jailed and abused by the al-Sisi military government of Egypt and its courts on charges his network was actually a front for propaganda in favour of the banned Muslim Brotherhood.

Fahmy is vehement and persuasive about how his Al Jazeera English was doing fair and objective journalism in the wake of the military coup that removed President Morsi and the Brotherhood from power in Egypt. But he does not say the same about the rest of Al Jazeera. He makes clear, in fact, that he believes what really got him into trouble was the way the Arabic-language services of An-Jazeera appropriated his English-language journalism and turned it into Arabic-language Muslim Brotherhood propaganda that it broadcast into Egypt.

That is why Fahmy, now free and in Canada, is suing Al-Jazeera for the way its actions endangered his life and freedom -- and his journalistic reputation for impartiality-- as one of its employees.

This backstory, brought out in The Marriott Cell -- for those of us who don't follow every detail of Middle-Eastern broadcasting politics -- does not in any way excuse the military government of Egypt for its arrest and abusive treatment of Fahmy and many other journalists (and many opponents of its regime as well!) But it did help explain to me -- rather better than Tony Burman's column does -- why the Sunni autocrats threatened by the Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood are displeased by Qatar and its broadcasting network. Fahmy's book suggests Al-Jazeera, apart from the English service, is hardly the model of journalist objectivity it has come to be thought of in parts of the world community.

Burman acknowledges that Al-Jazeera gave voice to opposition forces like the Muslim Brotherhood, but generally portrays it as "the voice of the voiceless":
In a region where censorship was the accepted norm, Al Jazeera challenged the establishment elites and, for the first time, brought a wide diversity of perspectives into Arab living rooms. This included radical and Islamist voices, as well as viewpoints from Israel.
Fahmy, who suffered for Al-Jazeera's actions, makes at least some of the network's actions seem a good deal less admirable. I picked up The Marriott Cell in Vancouver recently, and it kept me engrossed all through the flight back to Toronto.

Digital searches in legal oral history

Down to Toronto's stately Osgoode Hall yesterday for the AGM of the legal history organization The Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History.  Among the news (to me) items was a reminder that the Society's large collection of oral history interviews in legal history, some dating back forty years, is now digitally searchable online. Many of these interviews, I can testify from my own use, are long, rigorous, and relevant to much that lawyers (and legal historians) get involved in. The Society is rapidly removing a backlog of unprocessed interviews, and all but a few still-closed interviews are available through the Archives of Ontario and can be delivered by pdf to interested researchers.

The Society also gives prizes. A notable one yesterday was the presentation of the one-year Roy McMurtry Fellowship to recent Ph.D. Dennis Molinaro of Trent University, to support his groundbreaking and newsworthy work (see here and here) in security and intelligence history, including the revelation of the "Secret Archives" of security papers never transferred by the Crown to Library and Archives Canada.  Actually, Molinaro was also announced as winner of the Society's Peter Oliver Prize for the best published work in legal history by a student. (I should pay more attention at meetings: find the true winner here.  Molinaro won last year)

And Constance Backhouse of the University of Ottawa spoke on the Society's forthcoming book, her biography of Supreme Court Justice Claire L'Heureux-DubĂ©, to be published by the Society this fall.  If you were a member, you would be getting one in the mail.

Friday, June 16, 2017

What is a twitter conference?

Short, I guess. Really brief papers.  Spare a thought for all those conference-goers who always write a 50-minute paper for their 20 minute slot!

Actually, I haven't a clue.  But Active History is organizing one for August 24-25.  "Beyond 150: Telling Our Stories."  They promise "to diversify the historical narrative and uplift marginalized historical perspectives."  Deets are here.

History of Sgt Pepper at Fifty

For the fiftieth anniversary of the release of "Sgt Pepper\s Lonely Hearts Club Band," (and the inevitable release of an overblown multi-album remastering, etc; promo above), this guy has come up with a ranking, from #213 to #1, of every recorded Beatles song.

And nearly every song title sparks an "I know that one" response -- not only, I suspect, from those who remember where they were when they first heard "Sgt Pepper" on the car radio. I think the compiler is too susceptible to MacCartney's cheese over Lennon's toughness, and inevitably the whole list is highly contestable.  But fun how the suspense builds ("Rain" made the top 10?), and with lots of videos attached.

Speaking of anniversaries, it was Eric Hobsbawn's hundredth birthday the other day, and it turns out he has the same birthday as me  (though quite a lot of years earlier!).  Here's an appreciation.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Book Notes: memoirs of William Howland

In the United States, it's almost a historiographical joke, the sheer number of Founding Father (plus Lincoln) biographies that pour forth from the presses every season.

In Canada we might get a new biography of John A. Macdonald every fifty years or so, but that's about it. So it's good to be able to take note of newly-published information on a minor, but interesting, confederation politician who has never had a biography beyond the DCB.

Dare to Do What is Right: William Howland Remembers The Birth of Canada and Life in the 1860s is an annotated edition of the manuscript memoir Howland wrote shortly before his death at 95 in 1907. Howland, the only American-born politician among the confederation-makers, had prospered as a miller and merchant just west of Toronto and was a Canada West Reformer in the confederation coalition. In 1865 he and William McDougall broke with George Brown and remained in what was rapidly becoming John A. Macdonald's Liberal-Conservative government. For this he was pilloried by the Toronto Globe and the Reform Party, but rewarded with a dignified retirement: appointment in 1868 as lieutenant-governor of Ontario.

The publication is the work of Michael Freeman and published by the Toronto-area historical society The York Pioneers. Howland gives, natch, a Howland-centred version of all the controversies he was involved in, but with many interesting details.  The everlasting debate on the confederation-makers' intentions for the Senate should be enriched by Howland's account of the London Conference:
During the stay of the delegates in England a question which caused more discussion than almost any other was the mode of appointment of Senators. Some Members of the Imperial Government actually laughed and ridiculed us for entertaining the idea at this time of day of proposing the appointment of a portion of the legislative body. Sir Leonard Tilley, Mr [McCully] of Halifax, Mr. McDougall, and myself were opposed to the method proposed and one suggestion which we made was that Senators should be elected for eight years and from very large constituencies from a high qualification. This plan had succeeded in bringing out prominent and good men to form the former legislative council [of the Province of Canada]. However the position and view of Quebec* stood in the way and we only got a provision giving a little elasticity by leaving it to the option of the Government to add a few of the principles. In this connection I regret very much the loss of my private papers, where I kept an accurate statement of the proceedings of the delegation. 
None of this is corroborated by the official notes on the London conference (and "I could prove it if I only had my papers!" has a familiar ring).  But the official notes are very sketchy, and Howland's memory sounds plausible.

*Where he writes "the view of Quebec," btw, I'm pretty sure he means, not "the view of the province of Quebec," but "the view of the majority at the Quebec Conference" where the appointive process was settled on.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Allan Greer at Five Books

Russ Chamberlayne recently drew my attention to Five Books, an ambitiously curated site where experts are invited to choose, ah, five books (duh) in their field and to discuss them in an interview. They have a substantial collection in their History category

Their range is global, from a (not exclusively) British perspective. In a recent Five Books on "Saints," I noted one of those chosen by Simon Yarrow was Allan Greer's Mohawk Saint, his study of the life and afterlife of Kateri Tekakwitha (d. 1680).

Other than that, however, Five Books seems unaware of Canadian history as a concept or indeed of Canadians as contributors to knowledge. No Canada, no Quebec, no fur trade or Inuit, etc, among their categories. There is, however, "Ice Hockey"  (well chosen by sports journalist Bruce Dowbiggen) and there is "Arctic" (with zero CanCon).

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Parliament at the Literary Review

The June 2017 Literary Review of Canada includes my review of two books on parliamentary reform: Turning Parliament Inside Out: Practical Ideas for Reforming Canada’s Democracy, edited by sitting MPs Michael Chong, Scott Simms and Kennedy Stewart; and The Unbroken Machine: Canada’s Democracy in Action by journalist and blogger Dale Smith.

The review is currently subscribers-only online. But there's a pretty good summary of the whole in the title the review gave it: "A Very, Very Modest Proposal; Can a microscopically small-ball approach accomplish political reform?" 

I liked both books for considering that parliament -- rather than say, the constitution or the electoral system -- can be a plausible site for reform. But they might have pushed that idea farther.

Also:  Bob Rae on the Air India tragedy/crime, and Dylan Reid on Richard Florida's second thoughts on "the creative class," but not much on the CanHist front this time.

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Banking anniversaries: Bank of Montreal and Canadian Imperial

In Canada's 150th year, the Bank of Montreal is marking the 200th anniversary of its own founding in 1817 and the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce notes the 100th 150th anniversary of the founding of its earliest components in 1867.

Both banks mostly have contemporary-oriented media campaigns and public-interest projects, in the same way that Canada150 is only peripherally about 1867. The Bank of Montreal is a bit more ambitious about its history this year, with a word-and-pictures book and a peer-reviewed academic history, both by Lawrence B. DeMussio, being published by McGill-Queen's this year. CIBC's historical production this year is a 20 page web-based publication, but CIBC has a long track record in publishing volumes on its own history, with a firm history by Victor Ross that appeared in 1920 and several further volumes having appeared up to 1995, and its corporate history website is substantial.

A completely different anniversary: Dan Francis notes the achievement of woman's suffrage in British Columbia in 1917 -- along, he notes, with prohibition. Women's suffrage has lasted, however.

Monday, June 05, 2017

History of CanLit: Elaine Dewar's The Handover

Avie Bennett
Maclean's draw attention to investigative reporter Elaine Dewar's recent book The Handover: How Bigwigs and Bureaucrats Transferred Canada’s Best Publisher and the Best Part of Our Literary Heritage to a Foreign Multinational.

The "best publisher" in the title is McClelland & Stewart, and the foreign multinational is the Penguin Random House (Canada) empire. (Note: I have active titles under M&S and under other PRH imprints, too.) Avie Bennett, the wealthy Torontonian who took over Jack McClelland's debt-burdened house and lavished both attention and money on it, eventually set up a complicated sale/disposal process when he retired, the outcome of which was eventually to make M&S, the flagship CanLit publisher, into an imprint within a foreign company's Canadian operations. Bennett's deal, in which the University of Toronto had a small, awkward role, and its consequences seem to be the heart of Dewar's book - which I have not yet read.

The consequences certainly run deeper than M&S. In recent years governments abandoned all seriousness about requiring Canadian ownership of major cultural assets, and all the largest Canadian publishers quickly become part of multinational publishing corporations.  The publishing aspect of the CanLit revolution that began in the late 1960s has pretty much run its course.  Once again, Canadian-owned publishing is mostly a small-press world. Dewar's book is published by Biblioasis, a small literary house in Windsor, Ontario.

Talk among writers of fiction and nonfiction is about editors who are as Canadian and as dedicated as the authors, for sure, and who swear they make their own editorial decisions and are not under New York's thumb -- but suggest they would be more interested if the new book had more "international appeal" or if the settings were a bit more "North American" rather than Canadian.  Or just are not so interested in that Canadian story, what else have you got?

Avie Bennett, a protagonist in Dewar's story, it would seem, died last Friday at age 89. To the extent I knew him, he struck me as a businessman who became a terrific and dedicated publisher, and as a man who used his wealth well and wisely. But even at the time, handing over M&S to Random House, or to the University of Toronto, or to any combination of the two, never seemed to me likely to work out well. That seems to be what Dewar's tenacious reporting has proven.

Image: University of Toronto

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