Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Regrets/no regrets: Hebert and Coyne on 25 years since Meech Lake

Eleven white guys in a room
I kinda missed the 25th anniversary of the ending of the Meech Lake constitutional amendment process last week. I was always of the Michael Bliss opinion. "It will be a disaster if it fails. And a disaster if it passes," was his take, shortly before it failed. But the failure we could get over, I thought, while we'd be stuck with the success forever.

Chantal Hébert, rather to my surprise, regrets the failure.  Andrew Coyne, in a column that may have been inspired by hers, charts some of what we would have been stuck with, including annual first ministers' meetings on the constitution and the economy. Constitutionally required. Forever.

I do remember the last day of the Meech Lake siege. That day I was in a long meeting with Janet Lunn.  We were planning The Story of Canada, and kinda hoping there would still be one when it appeared. Other than that, I was not very engaged.

When The Story of Canada did appear, the country was in the midst of the referendum on the Charlottetown Accord. I don't know if the national angst and anxiety that referendum produced is well remembered; I'm not much for putting things parliaments should handle to referendum, but that one certainly did command the national mood for a while.

It also did wonders for our book promotion. In the midst of all that national stewing, here we were with a big, bright, colourful, lively kids-and-families history of Canada that said, "Hey, there's some pretty great stories here."  Reviewers, interviewers, readers practically fell on our shoulders and wept in gratitude.

Those now-distant crises also started me, until then mostly a daily-life, ordinary-people, social-and-economic historian, thinking that maybe somebody ought to be looking at the historical origins of our constitutional conundrums.

Maybe I owe Brian Mulroney something.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Three Weeks in Ottawa

Today Peter Robb of the Ottawa Citizen and I do an AMA on Three Weeks in Quebec City and constitutional history.  With some contemporary excursions, too:
Q. Do you think Macdonald, Brown, Tupper et al would like the Senate of today?
A. The Senate might not surprise them, but none of them cared much about it. It’s the Commons that would shock them. In their day, parliamentarians made and unmade governments, shaped policy, and held leaders closely to account. They even made constitutions, as at Quebec City. As party leaders, those three men might enjoy the untrammeled power today’s leaders wield. But as parliamentarians they would gape in amazement at how today’s MPs seem so disinclined to exercise the great powers and responsibilities they hold as the elected representatives of the people of Canada.

Friday, June 26, 2015

History of proportional representation: why it always loses UPDATED

Marie Bountrogianni... says reform would stand a better chance of gaining popular approval today. Bountrogianni, now dean of continuing education at Toronto's Ryerson University, says many more Canadians tend to go online for information now, which would make it easier to explain a new way of voting and to build support.... "So I think there would have to be an education process of some sort, and then a vote." (John Geddes, "Fixing the Vote," Maclean's, July 6/13 issue, p.21, not currently online, it seems)
I am regularly struck by how consistently supporters of proportional representation think and talk like this.  PR is not an issue to be debated, it's just something you have to educate the peons about. I don't doubt there are arguments for proportional representation, but its advocates generally lose the debate because they fail to hear or recognize that there are arguments against and issues to consider.

The most salient, I think, is that proportional representation is not proportional for us, it's proportional for the political parties.  Essentially we would give our votes to one or other of the parties, and they would appoint their representatives to the legislatures. In a political culture where the autocratic rule of parties over legislators is already becoming a crisis, the blindness of PR advocates to this issue is going to kill them again, while the Bountrogiannis are setting up their re-education camps ("You disagree with giving even more power to the parties? But let me explain it again, a bit louder.")

Update, June 29:  Writing about PR seems like clickbait: I rarely do, but it always attracts commentators.

The responses are considerably longer than my original post, so I've put them below the jump.

History of CanCult: Dave Godfrey 1938-2015

Quill and Quire reports the death in Victoria of Dave Godfrey, avant-garde novelist, publishing impresario, literary entrepreneur, and a key figure in the blossoming of Canadian writing and publishing in the late 1960s and 1970s.  He went on to be a software entrepreneur, a literature prof, and latterly a winemaker.
“In the decade after 1967, Dave Godfrey was a powerhouse in Canadian writing and publishing,” says Dennis Lee, who in 1967 co-founded House of Anansi Press with Godfrey. At the time, Anansi, which was instrumental in publishing early work by Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Atwood, Graeme Gibson, and Matt Cohen, was located in the basement of Godfrey’s rented house on Spadina Avenue in Toronto. “The energy he brought to the mannerly literary world – for a time, it looked as though he would go on hatching a new press every couple of years – was like a force of nature,” says Lee.
Margaret Atwood has described agreeing to join the board of House of Anansi, "not knowing it was house of vice, murder, intrigue, blood all over the floor (laughter)." Lively times, long gone.

Prize Watch: Molson Prize to Constance Backhouse

The Canada Council announced yesterday that the Molson Prize (social sciences and humanities) will go to Constance Backhouse, law professor, legal historian, and feminist scholar.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Moore on Macdonald in the Canadian Historical Review

My thoughts on Macdonald at 200, a collection of essays edited by Patrice Dutil and Roger Hall, and Canada Transformed: The Speeches of John A. Macdonald edited by Sarah Gibson and Arthur Milnes, are the lead review in the June Canadian Historical Review, available today to subscribers.
Canada Transformed: The Speeches of Sir John A. Macdonald is a bicentennial project by a Kingston-centered group of Macdonald admirers, and I momentarily quailed at having to plough through 450 pages of Victorian oratory. No fear. Most of the speeches here are not formal platform orations but drawn from the House of Commons Debates. Full of lively exchanges between Macdonald and his opposition critics, they should inform anyone with an interest in workaday 19th century politics.
Once I understood I needed a new password -- the damn thing wasn't just mindlessly rejecting me -- I found the new interface for the online edition of the CHR pretty welcoming. You could mostly find things on the old one if you knew what you were looking for, but the new one makes an issue more browseable.

Dundurn Press is offering Macdonald at 200 with Ged Martin's recent short biography as a "two book bundle."  Canada Transformed is from McClelland & Stewart

Monday, June 22, 2015

History of Pride

In Toronto, it's Pride Week.  A couple of related historical posts.

Image: Canadian Gay Lesbian Archives, via The Champlain Society

History of Father's Day

 What my sophisticated children got the old man for Father's Day

Bright amber colour; appealing aromas and flavours of green apple, vanilla, caramel and ginger; medium-intensity with weighty alcohol, the finish is fruity and medium in length.
 Irish pot still whiskey, $48.35 for 750 ml at the LCBO in Ontario.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Justin Trudeau's reforms: all there but the important one

Paul Wells in Maclean's fears reader boredom, but goes on to list in considerable detail Justin Trudeau's proposals for electoral and parliamentary reform. Which Wells rather admires:
Do fans of democratic reform have a single itch that Justin Trudeau didn’t promise to scratch this week? I can’t think of any.
Well, I can. The only democratic reform that much matters in Canada today is parliamentary reform: making leaders accountable to the House of Commons, which in practice means restoring their accountability to their parliamentary caucuses. Zip nada on that in Trudeau's package.

Wells notes that every new prime minister comes in with a program of democratic accountability and generally goes on to accrete more power in the prime minister's office. The whole spectacle of a party's absolute leader declaring "Give me absolute power and I will restore democracy" demonstrates the absurdity of all these election-eve promise packages that leaders present on the democratic deficit.

The one vital democratic reform in Canada today cannot come from the top down, since what is required is taking the top down from the pedestal. Parliament will start to work better when MPs of all parties begin using the power they already have to make leaders accountable to them. And they are not likely to start doing that until we start telling that they can. And should. And betray their obligation to us as long as they don't.

On the question of electoral reform, the Liberals are coy about just what they mean. But there's no commitment to proportional representation -- which would concentrate even more power in the leaders' offices.


Champlain in Sudbury

Sudbury is the capital of the Ontario francophonie, and to mark the 400th anniversary of Samuel de Champlain's visit to northern Ontario, Sudbury's local paper The Star has been running a series of long and lively essays on Champlain by local teacher and artist John Grubber. This one was the second. The fourth is scheduled for tomorrow.

Champlain never actually got to the great meteoric basin of Sudbury, but an enactment of his voyaging was recently undertaken on the town's shores.

Later this summer and fall various stages of Champlain's (and Etienne Brulé's) movements about Ontario will be noted in other locales, including at the mouth of the Humber not far from me in Toronto. All history is local.

John, I should say, works in a lively graphic-novel idiom for his own Champlain illustrations:

Image: Sudbury Star (top) and John Grubber's facebook pages (below).

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Waterloo+200, June 18, 1815

British historian Andrew Roberts, who has a book out on the subject, argues it would have been better for Europe if Napoleon had won.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Much travelled Magna Carta

I thought I was pretty much done with Magna Carta news, but here's something new to me.  I'd reported -- hey, I'd been told -- the current visit of MC to Canada was its second ever. Not so:
The fascination with Magna Carta lingers, as witness the thousands who came to see the Lincoln Cathedral copy (one of only four surviving originals) on its two trips to Canada in 1984 and 1990. 
That's from a review by McMaster University's John Trueman of J.C Holt's book Magna Carta in the Canadian Journal of History (April 1993), recently sent to me by my occasional correspondent Edward Smith. (Thanks!) The 1984 visit was to McMaster University in Hamilton, organized by the University, the Rotary Club and the city of Hamilton.  Toronto Public Library holds a copy of the four page guide to Magna Carta produced by the McMaster history department for that visit.

I happened to meet someone last Friday who reported seeing Magna Carta in Calgary "when he was in school." That may have been the 1990 visit mentioned in Trueman's review.[UPDATE: Magna Carta was on show at the Nickle Art Museum in Calgary in February 1990. Thanks to Tim Foran, ex Calgary schoolkid, now historian at the Canadian Museum of History, for the info and for this link ]  Note that the earlier visits were of the first, 1215 iterations. The Brits aren't letting those ones out of the country this year.

Help me out here: have you spotted Magna Carta on previous visits to Canada, or seen record of such?  Let me know: cmed[at]sympatico.ca anytime. At the moment historical memory seems to go back to 1215, but not to the 1980s and 1990s.

Image: Wikipedia.  Just to go a bit medieval on you:  each Magna Carta was written on a sheepskin parchment, and each one came from a particular sheep.  So some are square, some in portrait layout, and some landscape, like the one above. There's increasing scholarly interest in just who made each copy and where.  Were the parchments prepared before the June 15, 2015 meeting and all sealed in a batch at Runnymede?  Or serially copied in scriptoria around England and somehow provided with the necessary royal seal eventually?  Seems more the latter.  

Monday, June 15, 2015

Magna Carta and museums

Update June 16:  As part of a series of Magna Carta related articles, National Post today reprints an (abridged) version of my Canada's History piece.

Today (give or take a few calendar revisions) is the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta June 15, 1215 at Runnymede, England.  I happened to be at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau on Friday and took in the handsome little exhibit Magna Carta Canada has produced for its Canadian tour (also coming to Edmonton, Winnipeg, and Toronto).

While those rights are celebrated, Krista McCracken at Active History asks about the role museums and archives do play and might play in the residential schools reconciliation project.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Truth and reconciliation: how aboriginal lives matter

Alan McIntyre considers the stolpersteine, "stumbling blocks," inserted in German sidewalks to recall victims of Nazism, and the lack of equivalent memorials to the still mostly anonymous victims of lynching in the American South. How and where will all the dead of Canada's residential schools be memorialized?  It's pretty sure they will be, sometime, somewhere.
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