Thursday, December 18, 2014

Anne Kingston on collapse at the LAC

... in the current Maclean's.  She's talking about:
the apparent disconnect between vibrant projects such as Halifax’s new public library and fault lines evident in public school libraries’ decline and the growing inequity of access in rural communities. Nowhere is this erosion more glaring than the disgraceful state of LAC
Image: Macleans.

History the Brits like

The British Longman History Today History Prize is for history books on any subject, but the jurors do seem to lean local.  Still, this shortlist is testimony to the wealth of history writing and publishing going on over there (particularly considering it has to be a first or second book, and "accessible").

Have been cobbling together my own notes on notable recent history books. Suggestions welcomed.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Parliamentary democracy in Alberta?

Ramblin' (Wild) rose  -- go for it.
No one should be starry-eyed about the political experimentation that goes on in Alberta.  I mean, who can take seriously a polity that doesn't even have a sales tax and has lived for generations on pissing away the oil royalties? Albertans live the same boom-bust cycle as the global petroleum market -- and blame the east in the bust phases, usually.

But they do experiment politically, and that has to be an inspiration when you contemplate the constipated state of political process in much of the rest of the country. Two recent Alberta political stories have appealed to me.

First the current one: the mass removal of much of the Wildrose Party legislative caucus, including the leader of the opposition, Danielle Smith, to the government party and the government benches.  Colby Cosh of Maclean's describes what's going on. What I like about it, natch, is that we see a group of MPs asserting that they are responsible actors, they have powers, they can act. This is not a merger of two parties negotiated by two leaders and their teams of apparatchiks, later to be ratified in some rigged-out mass party vote, and blindly obeyed by the cattle in caucus. This is a caucus of members strategizing about where they can have the most impact -- for their constituencies, for the province's interests as they see them, for their own political prospering too, no doubt.

The second, equally interesting experiment has been the backbench muscle-flexing that started a bit earlier within the (pre-Wildrose) Conservative party caucus. Apparently the government brought in a foolish bit of authoritarian, anti-gay, and generally impractical legislation, Bill 10. And it was stopped in its tracks, initially by opposition pressure, but then by the refusal of significant parts of the government caucus to stand loyally behind the goof-ups in the premier's office.

Now, it's complicated, because the Wildrose MLAs joining the government are apparently those who attacked it the hardest on Bill 10.  But that's the charm too. It seems plausible that part of the appeal of joining the government caucus right now is the lesson that you don't have to support the government to be in the government caucus.  The ex-Wildrose gang now in the PC ranks may be joining the government benches partly to flex their muscles more effectively when the government does dumb things. When you are on the government benches, you can change the government.

In other words, a little touch of parliamentary democracy may be coming to the Alberta legislature, courtesy of a growing number of members who don't see why, just because they got elected, they should hand over their brains and their influence to the hacks in the leader's office.

Meanwhile in Japan: there was an recent, very fast, very suddenly-called general election. The prime minister, Shinzo Abe, won a majority.  This was odd, in the Canadian perspective, (if anyone here ever paid attention to how parliaments work outside Canada) because Abe already held a majority. Indeed, he leads the LDP, which has governed Japan most of the time since the Second World War.

Abe called the election, not to fight the opposition, mostly, but to fight well-entrenched dissidents in his own party. In Japan the LDP is mostly always in power, like the Cons in Alberta, but Abe faced so much opposition from within his own Finance department and its supporters in his caucus that he could not implement the economic reforms he is convinced Japan needs desperately. The general election was held to strengthen his hand against the rivals in his own party. It seems to have worked.

Imagine Stephen Harper calling an election in an effort to prevent, I don't know, Tony Clement, from keep doing whatever Tony Clement was doing. Okay, don't, it's impossible. But you would know that cabinet ministers and MPs were NOT just a gang of cheerleaders for the boss.

Alberta may be becoming different. The Alberta Conservatives are going to win, anyway, maybe forever, so the best place for dissident ideas to position themselves... is inside the government caucus, where dissidents, it now seems, can actually accomplish things.

Here's what central Canada thinks of the Wildrose move. Yup, politicians failing to kiss ass to the party structures and the party bosses cannot be tolerated, writes Tim Harper in the Toronto Star.

Do you know that barbed line in the poem by Sylvia Plath: "Every woman loves a fascist." In Canada it seems to be every journalist and commentator who does. The only thing we hate more than the democratic deficit and the friendly dictator is anyone trying to do anything about it. But I'd say if Alberta starts to break out of that ice age, good on 'em.

Maybe the inevitable outburst of parliamentary affirmation in Ottawa won't come from Michael Chong's Reform Bill, but on the wildrose-scented breeze coming from Alberta. MPs don't actually need a Reform Bill to authorize them to act.

[slightly revised December 18]

What's at the local museum lately?

I sleepily heard someone on morning radio today talking about a Jane Austen Christmas dinner recreation being featured at one of Toronto's preserved historic houses.  Goose pie! And it was so quickly sold out that they had to add another sitting.

I don't see that event listed here, but I'm as ever charmed and impressed by the range of activity that does go on at the historic sites and places in my city and doubtless around yours too.  Nice to hear they are popular too, given the temptation around here to spend the holidays in a chocolate-and-holly family stupor.

But I think I will bestir the gang for The Lost Dhow, an exhibit at the new Aga Khan Museum in Toronto -- a story which sounded pretty terrific when I read about it on some history blog years ago.

Go do something historico-cultural this holiday.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

History of the future of this blog

The small but self-sustaining bloggy site is a thing of the past: if you’re not getting 20-30 million unique visitors every month, and don’t aspire to such heights, then you’re basically an economic irrelevance. Advertisers won’t touch you, you won’t make any money, and your remaining visitors will inexorably leach away as they move from their desktops to their phones.  
                                                                                               -- some guy

Monday, December 15, 2014

History of the battle of Lamalcha

With all the emphasis on war and the military history of Canada from the government of Canada, Daniel Francis gives us a glimpse of a corner of Canadian military history that maybe isn't much covered, the battle of Lamalcha on Kuper Island, BC, in 1863:
When the people would not (or could not because he wasn’t there) give up a suspect, Lascelles opened fire on the village. Villagers returned fire with their muskets from concealed positions on shore, killing a 16-year-old sailor named Charles Gliddon. He was the only British serviceman killed in action in BC. After a prolonged firefight, Lascelles withdrew the Forward to the mainland opposite Kuper Island. The best account of the incident claims that the “Battle of Lamalcha” was the only tactical defeat ever inflicted by a tribal people on the Royal Navy, though “defeat” might be a little strong given that the British returned the next day to find that the people had all fled and the village was ultimately destroyed.
New to me, and the whole thing is well worth reading.

Friday, December 12, 2014

History blog reaches mainstream media

No, not mine.  HNN, the US-based history blog that delivers a daily feed of historical and political commentary by historians, is now picked up and distributed online by the Time magazine.
This post is in partnership with the History News Network, the website that puts the news into historical perspective. The article below was originally published at HNN.
Time, of course, is much reduced from its glory days.  Still and all...

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Chong's Reform Bill in committee

William Hayes (@gr8wightweh) recommends MP James Rajotte's speech in support of Michael Chong's much amended private member's bill, intended to return some authority to Parliament and some accountability to ministers, and currently in committee. One could wish Rajotte had a few Canadian arguments instead of trotting out Winston Churchill again. But I guess the Canadian tradition of parliamentary authority seems pretty remote to anyone sitting in the House of Cammons. 
To review the reform act itself, it proposed three main reforms: restoring local control over party nominations, strengthening caucus as a decision-making body, and reinforcing the accountability of party leaders to their caucuses. The purpose of these reforms is to strengthen Canada's democratic institutions by restoring the role of elected members of Parliament in the House of Commons.
The proposals in the reform act would reinforce the principle of responsible government, something I will return to over and over again in this speech. It would make the executive more accountable to the legislature and ensure that party leaders maintain the confidence of their caucuses, something that has existed since Parliament began.
Samara, which posted the speech text, notes concern that the bill will die on the order paper when the election is called.

Update, December 12:  Meanwhile, a potential candidate highlights what skills a candidate really needs these days --  mostly ass-kissing.
I didn’t think it was a good idea. I’m too independent, I told my Grit friends Dennis Mills and Catherine Davey. I’m a writer, and – while a Liberal and a liberal – I haven’t ever hesitated to criticize my party when it deserved it. I’m a contrarian, I told him. I’m incapable of being deferential to authority – ie., I’ve never been good at kissing powerful behinds.  
He's probably right about being a terrible MP, but not wrong about the skillset. No doubt lots of others with the qualifications will step forward.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

A bleg -- loyalist scholarship

[bleg = blog/beg]

I've been asked to look out for someone doing loyalist-related scholarship. Small consultation possible, very minor fee. Recent PhD or publishing in the field, maybe...  If you could suggest a name or volunteer, email me -- address at right.

History of Torture

Two things about that torture report:
International law prohibits the granting of immunities to public officials who have engaged in acts of torture. This applies not only to the actual perpetrators but also to those senior officials within the US Government who devised, planned and authorised these crimes.
 --- B. Emerson, UN Rapporteur on Human Rights
Each State Party is required either to prosecute torturers who are found in its territory or to extradite them to other countries for prosecution  --United Nations Convention on Torture
Update, December 12:  Full text of the report downloads here

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Another anniversary -- maple leaf flag at fifty

Bob Harper draws my attention to the upcoming (February 15, 2015) fiftieth anniversary of the Canadian flag, and to his website exploring its history.
Matheson had refined the flag design, taking out a bend in the leaf’s stem. He insisted on the whitest white and the purest red (not tending toward the Union Jack’s orange or the Stars and Stripes’ purple). He tested the flag in a wind tunnel to be sure that even when flapping in a strong breeze, the flag’s stylized 11-pointed maple leaf would be recognizable. In fact, the number of points visually multiplies as wind speed increases.
 Image: The Flag Store

Friday, December 05, 2014

6 December 1989

I don't teach much, but twenty-five years ago, in 1989, I was teaching a New France course at U of T. On the morning of December 7, I had an in-class exam to administer first thing in the morning.

Commentary on the news from Montreal had barely begun, but what had happened at an exam room at the Ecole Polytéchnique the night before was giving me the horrors at the prospect of walking into a mixed class and just starting to hand out test questions.  So I said something, and the visceral moan or rumble that came back from the students really brought home to me how immense and awful this whole thing was and would become.

We took a moment of silence, and then I did hand out the questions. I soon wished I'd encouraged more response -- I was only doing the exam because it seemed obligatory, and I don't know that the students cared so much what they were marked on. That anniversary still touches me personally the way some of the other terrible events don't.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Canada's Historic Action Plan

There's a new Heritage Minute out. I was kinda pleased to see it was a hockey story, about the Winnipeg Falcons.

I appreciated that, because recent additions to the Minutes, with the exception of the John A. Macdonald and George-Etienne Cartier commemorations, have all been on military themes. The Minutes often used to be quirky and surprising. They liked to go to odd corners of Canadian history and culture. It didn't seem too preachy.  I was sorry to see them become so single-mindedly devoted to drum-beating patriotism -- now that they depend so much on government subsidy.  A nice hockey story seemed like a declaration of independence. Who were the Falcons?

Turns out the hockey minute is really another war minute. It's how the Falcons, the team that won Olympic gold in 1920, did it for the teammates who didn't come back from Flanders.  (Other teams in contention included the United States, France, and Belgium. No lost comrades there, I guess.)

There used to be an arm's length principle in public funding for art and culture: the funders of culture should not get to determine what gets produced. But that has been going by the boards. Funding is tough to come by, and where's the harm in a little compromise? But gradually all our independent historical and heritage agencies begin looking like government advertising.

The Dictionary of Canadian Biography now seems to be on a sound financial footing, thanks to federal support. And look, they have opened special units on what: multiculturalism?  immigration? First Nations?  No, it's the First World War, the War of 1812, and wartime Prime Ministers. This isn't going to ruin the DCB, but one can guess where the choices were coming from.

Government sponsorship has long been important at Historica, custodians of the old Heritage Minutes and producers of the new ones. Canada's National History Society recently accepted $500,000 a year over three years from the government of Canada. It's to help with the kid's magazine Kayak, the History Awards, the annual History Forum, and the society's online portal. Sounds good  (yes, I freelance regularly for the society's magazine, which is not specifically targeted but will no doubt benefit). And there it is: the portal will ramp up its coverage of "our democracy, the First and Second World Wars, the flag, national symbols and Prime Ministers."

Is a theme emerging here?