Thursday, March 30, 2017

Histories of the history of Vimy Ridge

"No matter what the constitutional historians may say, it was on Easter Sunday Monday, April 7, 1917, and not on any other date, that Canada became a nation"
         ---  D.J. Goodspeed, military historian, 1969

"Victory at Vimy only happened because, in 1917, Canada was already a nation  -- one that could raise, equip, and send overseas a fighting force with the leadership and esprit de corps of a national army capable of fighting the Vimy battle."
          --- Christopher Moore, occasional constitutional historian, 2017

"The year 2017 is the 150th anniversary of Canada’s Confederation. It is also the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge during the First World War.  ... The two events are in curious competition as founding myths."
         ---  Amy Shaw, reviewer and historian, 2017

The centenary of the Vimy battle is just over a week away, and for once it seems there actually is one of those edifying historical discussions the country is so thinly provided with most of the time.

In the Literary Review of Canada, just out, Amy Shaw reviews Tim Cook's Vimy: The Battle and the Legend which covers both the events of the battle and the "legend" that grew up around it. Shaw is troubled by the claims made for Vimy, but finds that Cook "plays down the role of officialdom in shaping the collective memory. His argument hinges on the grassroots nature of myth making" and indeed on the role of art, from Walter Allward's monument to recent novels like Jane Urquhart's Stone Carvers.

It's too bad Shaw and the LRC did not also include in the review essay The Vimy Myth by Ian McKay and Jamie Swift, which I have been reading recently. It's an exhaustive accounting of ideas about war-making and nation-making in Canada, and a sustained frontal assault on "Vimyism."
By Vimyism we mean a network of ideas and symbols that centre on how Canada's Great War experience somehow represents the country's supreme triumph ... and affirm that the war itself and anyone who fought and died in it should be unconditionally revered and commemorated -- and not least because it marked the country's birth.
Friday night in Toronto, historian Eric McGeer speaks at Yorkminster Park Church on the topic “On Vimy’s Storied Hill” and the theme “Vimy Ridge made Canada – but what have Canadians made of Vimy Ridge?” (Facebook details here.) Referring to McKay and Swift, the friend of this blog who is one of the organizers of the talk suspects "Eric will want to challenge some of their positions in his talk."

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Breakfast for ConstitutioNerds

We are amused.

Wednesday morning I'm honoured to be joining a group of constitutional history geeks for a breakfast at the University of Toronto. This is about as nerdy-historyist as I can imagine: the event.celebrates the 150th anniversary of royal assent to the British North America Act, 1867. (March 29 was a Friday that year.)  Should be fun.

The rest of you, celebrate in your own fashion.

Update, same day.  I learned over brecky about  -- crowd sourced constitutional publishing.  A consortium of scholars has undertaken to scan and place online all the texts of all the "confederation debates"  -- every official discussion not just of confederation 1867 but also of every province later joining or not joining confederation, and of each treaty negotiated with and by First Nations. The crowd sourcing part is that volunteers are invited to transcribe the texts that are now available online into searchable digital text, which will then become a permanent searchable database.

Now, of course, another way to mark Canada150 would be to have your university or institution invite me to give my "Living Tree" lecture, as McMaster is doing next week.  Slots for the fall still available.

Quality of the bacon-and-eggs conversation:  I was recommended two must read recent books over breakfast, neither of them specifically about Canada or confederation. I found when I returned home that the Toronto Public Library (a more reliable source than University of Toronto Libraries, I have learned in recent years) has both books available only as non-circulating reference titles. And Chapters/Indigo only lists one of them available for order in hardcopy form.  That's sophisticated.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Book (well, Poster) Notes: Useful Charts' Timeline of Canadian History

We have been in touch before with Matt Baker -- Ph.D, expat Brit, former school teacher in Sri Lanka, designer, and entrepreneur of the Vancouver-based chart and poster business Useful Charts.
I have found that in early grades, visual materials tend to be incorporated often. However, once a person reaches the higher grades, learning becomes almost exclusively based on reading texts and listening to lectures. There is often very little visually-based material available on more advanced subjects, particularly in the humanities.
Happily, Useful Charts now has its Timeline of Canadian History published and on sale. And he's sent along a review copy:
Too often, the story of Canada is told in a strictly linear fashion: First Nations, followed by New France, then British control, and finally confederation. But for a country as large as Canada, this presents a skewed version of reality. What I aimed to do in creating this timeline was to show what was happening in various regions separately but simultaneously.
Having seen the real thing, I'd say a smallish reproduction, as above, doesn't do justice. The real thing, 24x36 with bright eco-friendly colours on card stock, is appealingly browseable and gets a lot of info down  -- from "The Iroquois Confederacy can likely be dated to...."  to "2014: Parliament Hill shooting" --  without seeming cluttered. $19.95 (cheaper when bundled.) .

Saturday, March 25, 2017

L'affaire Potter and the new Potter book

Thoughtful words on Andrew Potter's resignation from McGill Institute for the Study of Canada from Joseph Heath at In Due Course.

We've disagreed on this blog in the past, but that wasn't a firing offence, for sure. Good luck to Andrew Potter whatever he chooses to do next.

And this looks more interesting that the controversial column:  the new book he has co-authored with a crew of scholars, and very sceptical about "electoral reform" it would seem.

History of "But it's so important for the kids!"

 Canada: Story of Us:  "Here's a shocker: Loyalist Laura Secord was born in the US."

John Doyle of the Globe and Mail looks at the CBC's Canada150 project "Canada: the Story of Us," and sighs:
An opportunity has been missed with this glossy, featherweight, politically correct concoction.
...What we create in art, popular or lowbrow, is actually the real “story” of us. But for grown-ups, which Canada: The Story of Us clearly is not.
The best the CBC can do for history during Canada150 is the local franchise of an international project that has previously done American and Australian version.  I had some glancing contacts with some of the local staff in 2015, and, though they were well-intentioned (and constrained), I was not left eager for more involvement. ('Course I was pretty sceptical of "Canada: A People's History" too, and was rather pleasantly surprised.)

"Canada: The Story of Us" premieres Sunday night on the CBC Newwork. Doyle does notice that there are a lot of actors and not many historians of Canada in the program, but if critical reaction follows his, it will be "historians" who take the rap, most likely.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Blair Stonechild, Histories of reconciliation

Last night in Toronto, Blair Stonechild, historian at the Indigenous University of Canada in Regina, was in Toronto talking at St. Joseph's Chapel on the University of Toronto campus about "Reconciling with Indigenous Spirituality," and referencing his recent book The Knowledge Seeker: Embracing Indigenous Spirituality.

I've been reading more about the treaty relationship and control of resources and sovereignty than about spirituality as elements in the reconciliation that is needed. Stonechild didn't directly address the connections between the two. It's complicated.  But he impressed a large audience last night.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Prize Watch: The Cohen

The Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing has announced a shortlist.  It's a prize for political writing, named for a popular MP, but the juries like to take a broad view of what constitutes politics.  Of their five books this year, one looks like racial issues, one legal journalism, and one history, and only two are politics narrowly defined. But hey, category creep happens with many prizes, and juries do as they will. Everything is political, I guess. And nice to see Ian McKay and Jamie Swift in there for their reconsideration of Vimy -- a book I was expecting but had not realized was even published.
Here is the Cohen's own shortlist presentation.
Kamal Al-Solaylee for Brown: What Being Brown in the World Today Means (To Everyone)
HarperCollins Canada

"Thoughtful and refreshing, Brown has a chance to become a made-in-Canada intellectual landmark."

Christie Blatchford for Life Sentence: Stories from Four Decades of Court Reporting – Or, How I Fell Out of Love with the Canadian Justice System (Especially Judges)
Doubleday Canada

"An unrelenting critique of a cloistered branch of government."

Ian McKay and Jamie Swift for The Vimy Trap: Or, How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Great War
Between the Lines

"An authoritative, sometimes indignant debunking of ‘Vimyism.'"

James McLeod for Turmoil, as Usual: Politics in Newfoundland and Labrador and the Road to the 2015 Election
Creative Publishers

"McLeod’s quirky, intricate account has much to teach about Newfoundland."

Noah Richler for The Candidate: Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, Doubleday Canada

"With candour, humour, and fascinating detail, Richler lures us into the world of political candidacy."

Blogger Helen Webberley comments from Auz:
I am particularly interested in Noah Richler's book, The Candidate: Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail.
I am assuming the topic is as relevant for Netherlands, France,
Australia, Germany and the USA etc as it is for Canada. I am also
assuming that once the prize is awarded, the books will be distributed to book sellers around the world.
From your mouth to God's ear, Helen!

Monday, March 20, 2017

History of vote buying

These stories about vote-buying in the Conservative Party leadership race -- the O'Leary team that accused the Bernier tearm now being accused itself -- must be the oldest of old news.  It's a vote-buying contest, ain't it?  The candidate whose team buys the most "memberships" (ie, votes) gets to pick the winner.  That's the way all mass-party leadership races work  It's the way they are supposed to work.

Complaints that some team has bought too many votes ...?  Doesn't that just mean they are going to win? And once they have the leadership, who would be able to sanction them for ... winning?

Historical question: given that no leadership race has been free of these allegations, has any leadership race winner ever been sanctioned for committing or condoning irregularities in the accumulation of memberships?

History of Chuck Berry

A minor classic, in which the lyrics are all Cajun, but here somehow the beat starts to go all Mexicali. Chuck is paying the white-boy backup band minimum wage, no doubt.

You might prefer Johnny B. Goode with Bruce and the E-Street Band.  Vas-y, Johnny, vas-y.

An appreciation by Bill Wyman, who turns out NOT to be the Stones' bassist.  It goes to show you never can tell.

Friday, March 17, 2017

History in the market

Yesterday Active History published a Canadian Historical Association document that takes note of the perceived unsuitability of history degrees in the job market and proposes a number of solutions.
As instructors of History who benefit materially and intellectually from the thousands of students who attend and participate in our courses every year, it is incumbent upon us to make the link between a History degree and history-related jobs more obvious for students, employers and the wider community.
It is good to see academic historians responding to the challenges of declining enrolment and declining prestige for History departments. There surely is no quick or simple solution, but  the purposes of historical education need always to be interrogated and justified, and no doubt this new stimulus will encourage that process.

(Good also to see Active History, an initiative launched by a self-starting group of bright young historians, become the default venue for circulating this kind of critical self-examination within the profession.)

But critical self-examination does not go very far in the CHA committee's proposals. Instead of a deep examination of a historical education and its links to the wider culture, they open with proposals for better marketing:
a communications plan or promotional campaign to encourage greater awareness among students, parents, professors, the media and employers about the skills developed through a history degree and how these skills can be applied in the job market.
... plus renaming courses to look more attractive, plus working with career development centres, and so on.

Later sections of the report, on what professors could do, and what students could do, are thin: professors could urge students to get career advice, students could create "media analysis reports" or business case studies.

Well, yes. Marketing has its place. But what's missing here is any call for a serious, critical self-examination by history departments of what they do and how they teach, particularly how they teach undergraduates.  (Surely if they want history students to create media analysis reports, they might have recommended that departments become innovative in the kinds of assignments they provide, not put the expectation on students themselves)

When I visit history departments, I meet lots of smart, dedicated hardworking faculty, and lots of smart motivated students too. But I find that departments are still largely oriented around the doctoral mindset.  For history departments, the real history student is one who is moving toward that kind of long term, intensely specialized primary research project. And the real history professor is one who then gets to research and teach his or her special subject, more or less forever. History departments still look like places mostly oriented around the convenience of individual faculty members, who are enabled to do what interests them.

Doctoral work is important, and justifiable, at least for that small cohort of students who will go on to be the professors for the next generation.  Beyond that, do history departments really have goals and objectives at all? Do they really have identifiable plans for what services they hope to provide to their students and to society? Or serious, measurable programs by which to evaluate how they are delivering on those plans?

Image source

Update: March 20:  An academic friend who wishes not to be identified asks what I mean by "measurable results in terms of history departments’ services to students and society," referring me to projects in other countries that put academic knowledge under political control.

Well, I'm not convinced that public institutions like universities should be immune to political accountability. But in this case I was not advocating for more outside control of how history departments teach history.

Having worked outside large organizations all my life, I'm hardly up on the literature. It's just that writing several substantial institutional histories has gradually persuaded me that managed institutions tend to be more successful than unmanaged or poorly managed institutions.

Frankly, I take it for granted that most undergraduate education in the humanities in Canada is terribly inadequate to what students need and deserve. And it strikes me that academic departments lack the management tools to address that problem meaningfully. A departmental campaign to identify and implement ways to better teach undergraduates might well make unwelcome demands on individual faculty members, but that need not imply outside control. If faculty managed academic departments more, they might be less susceptible, not more, to being managed from outside.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

This month at Canada's History

The new Canada's History, just reaching subscribers, has a Vimy feature, with a new piece by Tim Cook.  Also Mathieu Drouin and others on Montreal's 375th anniversary, and Mary Carpenter on the dark legacy of residential schools among the Inuit.

For my own column this issue, I talked to Lori Chambers of Lakehead U and Elise Chénier of Simon Fraser about their recent study of the gender of prize-winners at the Canadian Historical Association awards.
The group of women historians attending the 2014 prize-giving of the Canadian Historical Association all noticed the same thing. “We all kind of looked at each other,” recalled Elise Chénier, who teaches oral history, sexuality, and modern Canadian history at Simon Fraser University. “Are we just noticing this – or is this year a fluke?” she said to Lori Chambers of Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, who has written substantial histories of adoption law, women’s property law, and other matters.

What had they noticed? That it seemed men were winning all the big prizes.
My brief column draws on the longer analysis, "Still Working in the Shadow of Men?," which they and Anne Toews wrote for the Journal of the Canadian Historical Association (Vol. 26 #1 -- as yet only available to subscribers).

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

History of fiction bigotry

Steven Beattie offers a vivid example in the Globe and Mail recently:
Fiction and history share a symbiotic relationship. Though the latter provides the raw material for the former, it is often fiction that has the stronger claim on truth, if “truth” is to be understood as emotional or affective, as opposed to baldly factual. Fiction, by definition, traffics in “alternative facts,” and is transformative; by approaching history through the prism of story and technique, the fiction writer is paradoxically able to access deeper wells of understanding about our relationships to the world and to each other.
Alternative facts, really?  A lot of fiction writers will know this is nonsense, I think. They share Roger Ebert's dictum about movies: "it's not what the movie is about, it's how it goes about it."  Film-making or story-making, it is about the craft. Well-made stories persuade us, not to believe, but only to suspend disbelief.  A story is supposed to feel true, but that does not make it True, only persuasive.

Beattie, on the other hand, is arguing that if the shells are moved about with enough skill, then the guy who says the pea is under this particular shell must be telling us the truth.

This is a faith, not a critical stance. It's a claim that fiction is the superior form of writing, by definition, and all others are lesser. It is fictionism, not criticism, and it's ultimately a form of bigotry.

Nonfiction, just to be clear, should never expect a reader to suspend disbelief. If it "reads like a novel," you should probably distrust its claims. Nonfiction doesn't achieve truth, but it is the genre where claims to truth can best be compared and evaluated.

I have started collecting examples of this "fiction is true; history/nonfiction is not" ideology.  There must be a million out there, as the fictionist ideology is thriving these days.  Contributions of fresh examples would be welcomed.
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