Friday, November 27, 2020

History of Art and Media: the Death of Wolfe in New York


If you are one of those who got the digital New York Times subscription as soon as the pandemic and the lockdown left you craving information -- or even if you've been a lifer there -- you may have noticed the Times' current story/display about Benjamin West's painting "The Death of Wolfe" (paywalled, I've no doubt).

The analysis may be somewhat familiar to anyone who's taken a Canadian art history class. But the Times package is still a pretty impressive demonstration of what online media can turn a newspaper story into: a collage of text and images that just flows up your screen.  

As far as I know, there's no particular hook or anniversary or current analogy behind the story; they just felt like doing it, I guess.  A little CanHist, done up elegantly in the Big Apple.

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Prize Watch: Pierre Berton Award to Stephen High

Daniel Francis, a recent past winner of the Pierre Berton Award for popular history, scooped me in noting that Stephen High, oral historian at Concordia University, is this year's winner of that prize.

Here is Professor High's citation from the Canada's History Foundation, which administers the prize. 

The Foundation also announced its awards for history teaching, community history projects, and scholarly research.   

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

History of Intelligence, and Canadianists: Behind the Enigma

Spare a thought for historians who are Canadian but who are not Canadian historians -- in the sense that the history they practise is something other than Canadian history. They get little of the attention from Canadian media, sparse as it is, that Canadianists may aspire to -- even here at Christopher Moore's History News.

Lauren Perruzza at Raincoast Books in Vancouver cleverly subverted this situation recently by sending me a copy of Behind the Enigma: The Authorized History of CGHQ, Britain's Secret Cyber-Intelligence Agency by John Ferris.

Ferris has lived in Calgary and taught history at the University of Calgary for decades, and he's the author of many books and articles, but his field is British and world security and diplomacy for the most part, So his work is not much covered in Canadian historical media, such as it is. 

(And since Behind the Enigma is published in Canada by Raincoast and elsewhere by Bloomsbury, both trade publishers rather than academic presses, it may not even reach academic review circles with ease. It also lacks, I might say, a couple of useful features common in academic-press books, such as a table of abbreviations, desperately needed here, and page-range numbers at the tops of the endnotes pages, always a boon to the reader of an annotated work.)

T'other hand, Behind the Enigma has some contributions of interest to Canadians -- beyond honouring its Canadian (if not Canadianist) author. For one thing, it's good to see that security and intelligence studies have definitely reached the stage that authors no longer need even to debunk that historical novel passing as history called The Man Called Intrepid by the Canadian journalist William Stevenson, in which a Canadian named William Stephenson was credited with winning World War Two pretty much singlehanded by his application of an intelligence coup called "Ultra" that enabled the breaking of the Germans' "Enigma" coding system. Ferris is actually something of an Ultra sceptic, suggesting it was important part of Signals Intelligence but not that important in the overall war effort. 

The Western Allies won the war primarily because of command and power -- the quality of forces and commanders and the scale of resources - and secondarily because of intelligence.

Good to be reminded of that. Enigma is an important topic here, but 'Intrepid" and Stephenson don't even make his index, which seems accurate and appropriate.

There's a more serious Canadian context of this work. It's impressive that Ferris is able to bring an intelligence history -- an official intelligence history -- down to the close of the 20th century, with cogent things to say about the Falklands conflict, for instance, and even about counter-terrorism more recently. But where are the official histories of Canadian intelligence agencies?  If Britain's MI5 and CGHQ can open their files and commission historians to interpret them, why can't their Canadian counterparts?

I'm not a Security and Intelligence historian, and had not even realized there is a world in which "Sigint" and even "Siginters" are accepted as nouns. This does not pretend to be a review  -- but I'm glad I got a chance to look at Behind the Enigma.


Tuesday, November 24, 2020

This Month at Canada's History

Just reaching subscribers, the December 2020 Canada's History has as its cover feature a terrific story by Nathan Greenfield on artist and war artist Molly Lamb Bobak. Also -- who knew? -- Ted Glenn finds a Canadian connection for Lawrence of Arabia.  And a lively excerpt from Janice Forsyth's new book Reclaiming Tom Longboat: Indigenous Self-Determination in Canadian Sport.  

My own article this month considers historians' contribution to Canadians' understanding of what reconciliation means. It's called "Finding Reconciliation"  and the tag line is

Are non-Indigenous Canadians ready to concede that we all live on land meant to be shared? Our historians suggest that we should be."

Plus lots of features, and a heap of reviews that starts with Bob Rae on WPM Kennedy, a visit to historic Steveston and, in the Holiday Buying Guide, a survey of the rich supply of CanHist the publishers are making available this year.  If you subscribed like you oughta, you'd already have it in your hands.

Friday, November 20, 2020

Prize Watch: Wesley Pue Prize to John Borrows

The W. Wesley Pue Prize in socio-legal studies is not exactly or necessarily a history prize, but the topic may be of interest to readers here, and some will know Wes Pue's contributions to the legal history of western Canada and Britain and more widely. Also, I think Wes Pue is the first and only personal friend of mine to be honoured with a book prize in his name, so.

The Canadian Law and Society Association has announced the winner of the W. Wesley Pue Book Prize in Canadian Social-legal Studies for 2019.

The winner is John Borrows for Law’s Indigenous Ethics. The citation says:

In its use of Anishinaabe stories and methodologies drawn from the emerging field of Indigenous studies, Law’s Indigenous Ethics makes a significant contribution to scholarly debate and is an essential resource for readers seeking a deeper understanding of Indigenous rights, societies, and cultures.
John Borrows is a member of the Chippewa of Nawash First Nation and a professor of law at the University of Victoria. 

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Netflix history: chill out, it's television drama

(The CBC National News, also confused about fiction and nonfiction)

British journo Simon Jenkins is again furious that the television series "The Crown" is behaving as if it were a drama or something.

The royal family can look after themselves, and usually do. I am less sure of history, and especially contemporary history. The validity of “true story” docu-dramas can only lie in their veracity. We have to believe they are true, or why are we wasting our time?

Spoiler alert. We don't have to believe they are true. We have to believe they are fiction. Because they are. "The Crown" is a drama, the imaginative creation of its writer Piers Morgan, its directors, and its actors. They are not documenting reality. They are creating a story and putting all their efforts to making it feel true. That's what fiction is: an imagined reality.

Evidence-based documentarians, including journalists and historians, need to stop complaining that fictions are "untrue", and start insisting on the difference between fiction and nonfiction.  Fiction is the genre that creates imaginary realities, and if it does so well, it succeeds. Nonfiction is the one that explores what's true and what's not, by presenting evidence and arguments for (and against) what's likely true -- arguments a reader can engage with and assess. Nonfiction isn't simply truth, for truth ain't that easy to find. But it's a search for truth. Imagining possible truths -- that's fiction's strong suit. 

"The Crown" is either a triumph of the imagination, or it isn't. And if it is, it's time well wasted, as they say. But squabbling about whether it is true or not demeans the truth itself.

If I may quote myself from the last time I read Simon Jenkins indulging in the same confusion:

Jenkins needs to reread Robert Bolt's "A Man for All Seasons" along with Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall. One is a great play in which Thomas More is a hero and Thomas Cromwell is the darkest of villains, and the other is a great novel in which Thomas Cromwell is a hero and Thomas More the darkest of villains. They cannot both be true, and we should not expect either of them to be. But they can both be literature.

Jenkins, however, doubles down, holding up Wolf Hall as the model of true fiction.

Most novelists go to great lengths to verify their version of events, as Hilary Mantel does. 

Umm, no. Hilary Mantel goes to great lengths to make her version of events feel true.  Which it is why it's a terrific novel. 





Tuesday, November 17, 2020

The New Dictionary of Canadian Biography

The Dictionary of National [i.e., British] Biography was first published in 1885, and was completed in 63 volumes in just fifteen years. They published quite a few updates and supplements during the twentieth century, and then went whole hog on the New DNB, starting in 1992. The intention of the new DNB was to completely replace the Victorian original and its updates with a whole new work. By the time the New DNB was complete in 2004 (60 volumes in print and online), it had changed its name to the Oxford DNB

At the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, going since 1966 and fifteen volumes in so far, the intention seems to be different. The aim there seems to be just one DCB in perpetuity, with a sort of continual rewriting of individual entries as historical knowledge changes.  

So recently the DCB published a new Pierre Radisson biography, with Radisson scholar Martin Fournier replacing American historical novelist Grace Lee Nute as the author. And last week the DCB released a new version of its entry on the Mi'kmaq leader Membertou:

Today we are pleased to announce a completely new entry for Membertou (d. 1611), Micmac (Mi’kmaq) chief, mainly known as the first chief of a First Nations community to be converted by Roman Catholic missionaries. After re-examining what is known about his life, however, one realizes that it cannot be limited to that single spiritual dimension.

You can still read earlier versions of the entry on Memberbou in the "Document History" section of the online DCB (though the earliest provided is a 1979 revision of the original). There one can still find original biographer Lucien Campeau's declaration, 

The fact that this Micmac sagamo was the first Indian to receive solemn baptism in New France remains his principal claim to distinction. 

For 2020 Stephanie Bereau revises that to: 

He is mainly regarded as the first chief of a First Nations community to be converted by Catholic missionaries. After examining what is known about his life, however, one realizes that it cannot be reduced to that single spiritual dimension. Membertou was indeed a sagamo whose personal and diplomatic qualities visibly impressed the French to the point that, on his death, he was accorded the honours reserved for men of high rank.

This still seems a Membertou as seen by the French rather more than a Membertou as his own community would have understood him. But it presumably means that rather than let the DCB gradually become entirely an artifact of the late twentieth century, its editors and contributors will be at work forever producing an eternally revising DCB for endless new generations of readers. 

Image: from the DCB.



Saturday, November 14, 2020

Comparative history of constitutions, UPDATED

Observing the travails of the American political scene faced with a head of state disinclined to surrender office, constitutional scholar Eric Adams argues that the "least democratic" elements of the Canadian constitution might be our best protection in analogous circumstances. 

By "least democratic elements," he means the Crown, noting that in Canada the head of government is not the head of state. A prime minister who attempted to defy the will of parliament can be removed by the Crown, i,e,, the Governor-General.

He's right, but I fear monarchists may misunderstand him and surround his argument with a lot of blather about how we Canadians can always dutifully rely on the protection of a wise foreign queen or king. 

Adams also doesn't note the unsatisfactory situation that the governor general, the head of state we would need to rely on in a crisis, is effectively appointed by the prime minister. Canada really needs to establish a selection process for GGs that gives that office the status and independence it may one day require.  

Updates, November 16:  Randall White comments:
Greg Barns, executive director of the Australian Republican Movement during the 1999 referendum, and a still enthusiastic republican who spoke to us [the group that became Citizens for a Canadian Republic] in Toronto way back now (and recently did a counterweights piece on the 1975 Palace Letters in the Land of Oz) has just published an interesting piece on anti-monarchy protests in Asia.  

I found his last paragraph especially striking: "When the Prime Minister of Australia wants to appoint a new governor-general, is it not humiliating that he or she has to write to London to get permission to make that appointment? While each monarchy differs, they all share one thing in common -- they undermine the relentless quest of humanity for equality."

Actually I'm not as keen as Greg Barns seems to be on giving a prime minister even more authority to appoint governors general.  Who's working for who, after all?

Alan McCullough weighs in too:

Eric Adams's opinion piece, “The least democratic aspects of Canada's Constitution may provide the best defence of our election process,” is legal theory with little consideration of how the Canadian system has worked. Since King/Byng no governor general has publicly refused the advice of a prime minister. This includes MichaĆ«lle Jean who had a plausible, if weak, case for refusing Stephen Harper’s request for prorogation in 2008.

Based on past form, it is very unlikely that a governor general would remove a rogue prime minister. This would be especially true if the prime minister still retained the support of parliament. If the prime minister controlled a majority in parliament the governor general would have no alternative government to call on.

Parliament should be the first line of defence in removing a rogue prime minister but, as you have pointed out, political parties in Canada are pretty much in the prime minister’s pocket. Relying on a rogue prime minister’s own party to remove him/her would be a risky proposition. We have seen how in the United States a Republican dominated senate refused to convict a Republican president who deserved to be removed from office. The same might well be true in Canada.

If a prime minister lost control of parliament but refused to give up his/her office, then a governor general might be forced to take the unprecedented step of dismissing him/her. Because many civil servants, members of most police forces and the military, many lawyers as well as members of parliament swear an oath of allegiance to the Queen of Canada, not to the prime minister or to parliament, the dismissal might morally and legally free those who have sworn the oath of allegiance from any obligation to support the prime minister or even to remove him from office.

And an update from Randall White:

I’m sure Greg Barns is not in favour of giving a prime minister even more authority to appoint governors general. I can see how his last paragraph might be read this way. But he’s just alluding to current practice, not any future reform.
In the 1999 referendum in which Greg played such a key role, the “question on the republic put to electors ... was whether they approved of: A proposed law: To alter the Constitution to establish the Commonwealth of Australia as a republic with the Queen and Governor-General being replaced by a President appointed by a two-thirds majority of the members of the Commonwealth Parliament.”

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Pandemic history


Okay, maybe pandemic history does have things to teach us, despite what I was saying recently.

This woman seems to have had the basic rules pretty well figured out in 1918.

Image:  Toronto Star.  (You can donate to the Star Santa Claus fund from this link too.)

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Prize Watch: The Chalmers to Radical Ambition

The Champlain Society has announced that this year's winner of the Floyd Chalmers Award for the best book in Ontario history is Radical Ambition: The New Left in Toronto by Peter Graham with Ian McKay.

From the citation:

Radical Ambition is a remarkable compendium of the ferment on the left in Toronto from the 1960s to the mid-1980s. It probes the imaginative prefiguring or performing of a better world by dozens of alternative presses, theatres, dance troupes and artists’ collectives. It explores the way social workers, teachers, librarians, and lawyers questioned standards of their professions that preserved privilege and precluded change.  

Canada's History Gift Guide


Canada's History offers its 17th annual Holiday Book and Gift Guide.  Many books, including many new to me, some giftie things, and some merch. The bowtie is back.

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