Monday, November 18, 2019

History of American health

There is a heartbreaking story in a recent New Yorker that speaks volumes about the unhappy state of the United States.

As the war on abortion, on contraception, on Planned Parenthood, and on universal health insurance has taken its toll across rural America, what remains are Christian Crisis Pregnancy Centres. These are awash in money from both their churches and from state and federal funds transferred from medical/social programs, and they have become ubiquitous in the rural American landscape. They are mandated only to counsel against abortion and in favour of abstinence. But many of the good Christian women who staff them, often as volunteers, cannot help but see and empathize with the struggles of the young women who come to them, drawn by desperation, lack of alternatives, and the cash and other benefits the centres offer. 

Eliza Griswold's article, "The New Front Line of the Anti-Abortion Movement," explores how workers in and clients of these centres, awash in resources and unable to provide any of the most needed and useful services to women in regions beset by poverty, opioid addictions, teen pregnancies, and family breakdown, struggle along.

Meanwhile, a tiny factoid in a book review in the New York Times Book Review: over 14 years, 42% of 9.5 million Americans afflicted by cancer had lost all their life savings within two years of diagnosis.

Altogether, it encourages despair over the fate of this great nation, and wonder about how it got there.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Prize watch: Cundill Prize for Julia Lovell on Maoism

They gave out the Cundill Prize in History last Thursday in Montreal.   Maybe it's just my Toronto media bubble, but I saw no coverage and had to go looking.  

The winner is British historian Julia Lovell for Maoism: A Global History. The Cundill website has some brief filmed comments from the jurors about its qualities:  not just an appreciation of Mao's impact in China but also the curious histories of Maoism in places such as Peru, Indonesia, and the United States.  Indeed the jury filmclips give a strong case of the virtues of all three nominated books -- and present the jurors as the smart articulate bunch of historians they undoubtedly are. (Charlotte Gray is the lone Canadian.)

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

History by the million

I see that the little counter installed on the right hand side of this page turned over one million, five hundred thousand sometime yesterday or today.

I installed that counter in 2010 -- about six years after starting this blog -- on the understanding that there are always Googlebots and webspiders and who knows what-all browsing through the internet at any moment. So I have never assumed that numbers on the counter are a reliable indicator of actual readers attending to pages of this history blog.

The counter has been pretty puzzling to me all along, in fact. When first set up, it rattled along tallying maybe 10,000 pageviews a month until late 2014/early 2015, when it soared to a peak of 150,000 pageviews a month. And then it dropped off just as steeply to the 10,000 range once again: still astonishing to me, but hardly matching its brief glories. 

Was this just a webspider frenzy? The Russians preparing to highjack everything on the North American internet in the service of Donald Trump's installation as their man in Washington?  Some unnoticed temporary global fascination with Canadian history? Who knows?  

That left me even more dubious about the meaning of the counter's numbers. They are like like those astronomical numbers that used to be displayed at McDonald's drive-through. Billions? Really? 

But what the hell. A million and a half served at this little hamburger stand still has a nice feel to it.  

Thanks to all you real people for being some undetermined part of them.

Monday, November 11, 2019

History of western alienation

Two detailed contributions, both from westerners, have been added to the election-aftermath "Wexit" (or is it "Rednexit"?) discussion. I find Dale Smith's key point ("the world price of oil is the bigger problem for [Western Canada] right now than any amount of environmental regulation could ever be") much more persuasive than Jen Gerson's "Confederation is hopelessly broken."

But the western-alienation point that doesn't seem to get any detailed analysis in all these discussions is her offhand reference to Bill C-69 -- she writes "the latter dubbed the 'no more pipelines' bill for its byzantine restructuring of the country’s regulatory process."

It's not just that complaints against C-69 fail to note it was less some deliberate attack on the west than a revision made necessary by the Supreme Court's rejection of the inadequate consultation processes put in place by a previous federal government.  

More important is that "byzantine" is a euphemism for "respectful of treaty obligations." 

And that topic is going to be one of the toughest in all the discussions of western alienation. Pipelines (or other major resource projects anywhere in Canada, whether it is diamonds in the Territories, rare earths in northern Ontario, or LNQ in British Columbia) must now include genuine, substantial First Nations buy-in if they have any hope of proceeding. The First Nations are establishing themselves as co-owners of the resources. They can no long be ignored in the decision-making processes concerning those resources.

Boy, is that ever going to be unpopular as it sinks in. Maybe "byzantine"is not so much a euphemism as a way to paper over something few Canadians, west or east, are yet willing to face.

Military history for Remembrance Day

Every Remembrance Day, volunteers plant tens of thousands
of flags at Sunnybrook Veterans Centre in Toronto
The complaint that Canadian military history is neglected seems to have faded in recent years. (The complaint that "Canadians don't know their history" is eternal.) 

A couple of trade market military histories  have been getting attention recently. Mark Zuehlke's The River Battles: Canada's Final Campaign in World War II Italy is just out, as is Ted Barris's Rush to Danger: Medics in the Line of FireBoth Zuehlke and Barris are veteran military history authors and have been touring their books extensively.

Military history agencies and institutes around the country and publication projects like UBC Press's Studies in Canadian Military History ensure that academic military history also thrives.

Saturday, November 09, 2019

Social history in odd corners

The legal history publishing Osgoode Society (109 books in forty years) launched its 2019 books this fall.  I'd noted Connecting the Dots by Harry Arthurs previously, but since I had not read it then, I could not say anything much about its provocative themes.  Notable in it is Arthurs's reflection that he made his career in the labour law studies in the belief that a new world of labour organization and new codes of law sympathetic to the rights of labour would actually help usher in a new world.  Then, well, the world changed, and the defeat of labour movements worldwide left him wondering about the point and relevance of labour law studies in an inhospitable world more driven by power than by justice.

The other book the Osgoode Society launched this week, Wounded Feelings by Eric Reiter of Concordia, is a history of emotions, or at least a history of emotions that were litigated over in Quebec between 1870 and 1950.  It's a social history hidden within a legal history, and it's amazing what Quebeckers were ready to litigate over -- from a father and daughter offended by a breached promise of marriage, to a family grieving over a child's death, to a woman subjected to intimate sexual examination just for walking through a neighbourhood where the morality police were active, to young black men denied access to a movie theatre, to.... It's a longish book, and has a lot of stories.

Meanwhile, in the current Literary Review of Canada, there's a review of UBC historian Peter Ward's The Clean Body, a social history of, well, of being clean. Social history is based on the understanding that everything has a history, and judging by the review Ward has added cleanliness to the list of proven examples  (Update, November 18Peter Ward interviewed about this book at History News Network online.)

Wednesday, November 06, 2019

Prize Watch: Vancouver Book Prize and the Writers' Trust Awards

Rob Watt won the Vancouver Book Award recently for People among the People, an art history of Coast Salish artist Susan Point.  For the so-sad-it's-funny details, read Daniel Francis.

Main takeaway from last night's Writers' Trust prize night in Toronto may be that André Alexis is now Canada's major novelist. He's prolific, he sells well, critics admire, and he seems to be in the prize hunts constantly, as in his fiction win last night for Days by Moonlight.

Ken McGoogan was not a nominee last night, but in the drinkee-talkee part I got to congratulate him on a nice Globe review (here if they let you in) for his recent refugee history Flight of the Highlanders. Reviews are scarce enough these days to be notable anytime.

Update, same day:  meant to say, the Trust prize-giving is a great event for us Toronto literati every fall, but they should share the love and take it on the road sometimes. Have it in Calgary next year, say. 

History of Brexit, history of Ireland

Fintan O'Toole, the Irish writer who must be about the best political columnist writing these days, takes to task the odious British Brexiteers who blithely compare themselves to the IRA rebels who took the Irish Free State out of the United Kingdom in the 1920s.

They mostly advocate, he observes, that as soon as Britain leaves the European community, it should disavow any treaty commitments it may make with the EU
In all the pantomime dressing up of English Tories as Irish revolutionaries, it is easy to miss the point that what they really mean is that, once “the split” has been finalised, the withdrawal treaty will in time become unenforceable. Britain can walk away from it.
Then he really gets down to brass tacks
There are, however, two obvious problems. One is that the analogy itself is ludicrous: the EU is not an empire and it has not sent the Black and Tans to suppress demands for freedom. The other is with what Hannan, with such charming insouciance, calls “some difficulties along the way in the 1920s” in Ireland. These little local difficulties were partition, deadly pogroms in the North, a bitter civil war in the South, and the ghost of unfinished business that returned in the Troubles from 1968 to 1998. In the Brexiters’ blithe analogies, it seems that equivalent events in the decade that is to follow eventual approval of Johnson’s deal – the breakup of the union, civil disorder and violence and long-term tribal divisions – would be mere bumps on the road to English freedom.
It is all worth reading, down to the bitter ending:
Remember that if you botch the exit, the carnival of reaction may be coming to a town near you.

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

How long is a history book?

Long time coming
In a reminiscence of the historian Michael S. Cross (1938-2019), who died in Halifax in September, his student and colleague Peter Twohig recalls attending a presentation by Cross in 1983 when it was mentioned that Cross was working on a biography of Robert Baldwin.

Well, he was. The book was published in 2012.

So, a good thirty years at least. Now, Twohig's appreciation and this one from Dalhousie history department, each remind us that Cross published a lot else and did a lot else in his professional career.  I mean no disrespect here, and the Baldwin book is pretty good. (Thirty years good, though?)

Anyway, it makes me wonder what the record is for the gestation periods of Canadian history books. Anyone have comparable examples?  (There is this one, but in this case the eventually published book was not "in progress" the whole time.)

Monday, November 04, 2019

Making history at the Champlain Society

Went out to the Champlain Society AGM on the weekend, where James Gibson's publication of the annual volume was launched and Jonathan Vance was honoured for A Township at War, Chalmers Award Winner for best work in Ontario history 2019.

The AGM was told the society has nicely avoided the collapse and bankruptcy it was spiralling toward a few years ago, having restored stable membership, secured new revenues, and above all found relevant new services to provide to Canadian history, from its immense digital archive based on 120 years of publication, its various outreach projects to libraries and groups, its lively website, and its remarkable podcast "Witness to Yesterday," which not only produces an unmatched amount of original high-quality content but continues to grow its audience multiple times over ever year.

And to that end, it was gratifying to hear Patrice Dutil, co-impresario of the podcast with Greg Marchildon, announce that the all-time most-downloaded of their podcasts is... the one he and I recorded last spring.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Is the ghost of the Reform Act, 2015, haunting Parliament

Michael Chong, Conservative, ex-Harper minister, and advocate of parliamentary reform, was re-elected in the recent federal election.  That's impressive. In Canada MPs who are insufficiently servile to the leader tend to find themselves being squeezed out of caucus and denied renomination. Or they just give up and decide to spend more time with their families, giving exit interviews to Samara Canada about the futility of being an MP.

But Chong's back in the House and cheekily reminding the Conservative (and other) caucuses that back in 2015 Parliament passed his Reform Act, 2015. That legislation gave parliamentary caucuses authority under the Parliament of Canada Act to, among other things, review and remove a leader who does not meet their expectations. It also required the caucuses to vote and report on whether they intend to take up that authority. 
In an email sent to all MPs and obtained by the Star on Wednesday, Conservative MP Michael Chong reminded his parliamentary colleagues of the “legal obligations” of each caucus to vote at its first meeting on a number of questions of protocol, including what powers it has for ousting its leader. The first Conservative caucus meeting will be held Nov. 6 in Ottawa.
Chong spearheaded parliamentary reforms in 2015 that allow every caucus to, among other things, empower itself to oust the party leader. If Conservatives decide to do so, a leadership review could be triggered if 20 per cent of all Conservative MPs and senators call for it. In other words, should the caucus choose to adopt the new rules and then 30 members vote for a leadership review, a secret ballot vote would be held on whether Scheer can continue as leader.
The party caucuses have largely ignored, and probably broken, the requirements of the 2015 amendments. MPs will probably do so again  -- "What, us, wield some authority? Just because we are the representatives of the Canadian people? Naaah."  

But the ghost of the act does walk the halls of Parliament. Maybe someday someone will breathe life into it.   

Trick or treat: creepy Hallowe'en history

[This post first appeared on this blog October 31, 2006. It has been reposted from time to time :  a.Hallowe'en tradition.]

On Saturday, October 31, 1885, the Toronto Globe published a special Hallowe’en story on the pranks often committed by rowdy medical students, who went around in a gang, turning off the new gas street lights.

That night, Toronto and the Globe got more than they bargained for. The Monday edition reported breathlessly that police constable Jenkinson, making his rounds at Parliament and Gerrard late Hallowe'en night, had discovered a nude female body hanging from a meat hook outside a butcher shop. 

“Great ghosts!” the Globe reports him as saying.

The Globe writers, on behalf of Victorian decency, seems to have been genuinely horrified. “Suppose a delicate lady had to pass an exhibition of this kind. The result would have been terrible.” 

In the story, a good deal of disgust was directed toward the Trinity College medical students. They denied all culpability, though the body -- and two others found outside the school building -- had indeed been stolen from its morgue.

Police arrested an assistant at the butcher shop and some of his cronies. But on November 19, city police court magistrate Denison freed them, saying, “I’m afraid we haven’t got the right persons. I wish we had."

"Who perpetrated the Hallowe’en Outrage?" asked the Globe.

Just the candy this year, please, just the candy.

[Re the history of grave-robbing for medical research:  last week Katie Daubs of the Toronto Star had a long story on the subject.}

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Today in history: federal election produces minority government

King Byng Meighen
October 29, 1925 saw a Canadian election in which the incumbent Liberal government lost the popular vote and won substantially fewer seats than the Conservative opposition -- but remained in power, counting on the support of a third party.

The minority prime minister this time was William Lyon Mackenzie King. Eight months after this election, looming defeat in the House led King in June 1926 to request a dissolution and a new election. Governor General Byng's decision that the opposition Conservative were entitled to form a government and meet the House led to the King-Byng affair, in which King furiously attacked the governor general's refusal to take his prime minister's formal advice for a dissolution and a new election.

When King's government resigned, Conservative leader Arthur Meighen formed a government, was promptly defeated in the House, and was granted dissolution. King's campaign attacks on the governor general were popular on nationalist grounds but have not been, shall we say, much respected on constitutional grounds. In the election of September 1926, King again lost the popular vote but his Liberals secured more seats than the Conservatives and formed a new minority government, one that endured until 1930. Six different parties were represented in the 1926-30 parliament.

You may draw your own parallels to 2019 and possible 2020 events.

Prize watch: the G-Gs

Not much history to note in the 2019, Governor General's Literary Awards, but kudos anyway to the nonfiction winner, Don Gillmour, a very professional writer in a lot of fields.
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