Saturday, June 16, 2018

Book Notes: Stewart on prime ministers

J.D.M. Stewart, quietly renowned as the most prolific correspondent the Globe & Mail has had since Eugene Forsey retired from the field, goes long-form: he has published a book. The  praise from the Globe's John Ibbitson that the back jacket gives to Being Prime Minister -- "a trove of trivia treasures," it says -- seems sort of accurate and also slightly diminishing. When it comes to PMs, Stewart wants the human dimension:
"How did they travel?  What pets did they have? How did they treat others?  What was life like at home? What were their pastimes?"
From Borden's love of golf to Mackenzie King's love of dogs, Stewart delivers a chatty 300+ pages looking deeply into the private avocations, daily habits, and personal inclinations of the prime ministers. Anyone needing to lighten up a monograph with a vivid characterization of a prime ministerial quirk should keep Being Prime Minister at hand.

Stewart also asked each ex-prime minister he interviewed which other prime ministers they would most like to dine with. Most picked Macdonald and Laurier.  Paul Martin on Macdonald: "I would like to see if I could convince him to change his mind about Indigenous Canada."

Quite possibly, I'd say (though Stewart does not).  Macdonald was an opportunist.  He said hateful things about Asian-Canadians when they were profoundly unwelcome among his constituencies, but today he would understand them as a large and useful voting bloc and would court them relentlessly.  He'd be similarly prepared to tailor his views on Indigenous Canadians to the zeitgeist.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Doing the galleries in Ottawa

Visitors in the History Hall central rotunda, on the giant Canada map

We made a quick trip to Ottawa earlier this week, partly social, partly to see the "new" (well, new since last July) History Hall at the Canadian Museum of History.

I think I like it.  It is pretty serious, more rewarding to those who like to read text and scrutinize the contents of exhibit cases than those who like a full-size stuffed mammoth or a recreated fortress wall looming up ahead of them at every corner.  But what the hell:  when you go to the National Gallery, you don't expect endless showbiz to make it fun for the kiddies; you expect to look at Impressionist masterworks or the best of the 19th century Royal Canadian Academy painters, with serious text panels talking about brushwork and colour sense.  Why shouldn't our historical galleries also be able to be thoughtful and challenging to adults?

Well, because museum bean counters concerned with visitor stats and length-of-stay data drop dead in a faint at the thought. But that's their problem.

The History Hall is not constantly telling us that Canada is and always has been a hellhole of oppression and sexism. But it consistently raises serious issues of indigenous title, of the evolving status of women or workers, of tensions between French and English or between the state and minorities, in a way that I thought was consistently interesting and respectful. It's immense too. Douglas Cardinal's swirling layout covers a vast amount of space: Canadian history matters, it says.  Well done, museum team, I'd say. I'm glad I got a chance to see it.

Comfort's Tadoussac: better in the original, but I love this one
We also dropped in to the National Gallery to see their show about Impressionism.  It's a great building, the National Gallery. (So is the Museum of History, for sure!) The Impressionist show is based on the collection of a Danish philanthropist of the early 20th century. He had Monets and Manets and Renoirs and Pizarros, but if you have been to MOMA or the Musee d'Orsay, you begin to see the Dane's collection is not the very best of the Impressionists, but mostly lesser works more of interest to specialists than big-wow seekers.

By contrast, I thought the Indigenous and Canadian Collection just down the hall really did deliver the big wows. They really do have the best of Canadian art, from aboriginal works through 18th century colonial efforts to the late 19th century Canadian Academicians, and right down to the 20th and 21st century stars.  I had not been among the Gallery's Canadians for years, and it impressed the hell out of me. There had been some damn interesting painters working in this country, and for a long time. 

Canada's History also took a recent look at the new History Hall.

Images:  History Hall (me)  Tadoussac: NGC

Friday, June 08, 2018

Two cheers for dictatorial prime ministers

As if this were not a depressing enough morning in Canadian politics, here comes the June issue of The Literary Review of Canada with an essay by Paul Wells explaining why the friendly dictator is just fine and really it's what we all want and need, and in any case hallowed by centuries of tradition.  Wells is reviewing a new book by Ian Brodie, political scientist and former chief of staff to Stephen Harper.  Brodie opens his book
with a commonly heard claim about prime ministers, one I heard many times before Harper held the position and still hear about his successor: “Canada’s prime minister is a dictator.”
To that claim Brodie, citing Liberal apparatchik Eddy Goldenberg, mostly says, Sure.
To the claim that the PM is a dictator, the three possible responses are, “I agree, and it’s awful;” “No he’s not;” and “Sure he is, and what of it?” In these early chapters, at least, Brodie leans heavily on the third response.
Well, Brodie and Goldenberg would, wouldn't they? When your whole role in politics depends on the fact that you stand (all unelected) at the right hand of the dictator, you had better. Indeed, Brodie declares -- and Wells believes him -- that current Canadian politics follows a form many centuries old
My time in politics filled me with awe and wonder at the form of government we have inherited from our ancestors
It bears repeating that the awesome and wonderful point of parliamentary democracy as it developed over the centuries is constant accountability.  A prime minister is part of a collective government, and that collective -- the cabinet -- is daily accountable to the elected representatives of the people. Prime ministers are removed in mid-term when necessary (see Spain the other day) and backbencher force changes to unpopular policies (see the Brexit pains of Theresa May). Somehow, Canada has developed a "parliamentary" "democracy" in which none of those qualities has endured, and yet Wells and Brodie glory in our continuity of an imagined tradition.

Well, the historical illiteracy of most political scientists is well established, so we should not be surprised at Brodie. The depressing part is how Paul Wells takes Brodie's case as proof of "how well the system works."

Next, I guess, he'll return to explain how reducing elections to little more than celebrity gossip is also a good thing.

If this is the best our journalists and political scientists can offer, there really are dark days ahead.

Thursday, June 07, 2018

Urban archaeology in Toronto UPDATED

A couple of years ago, a condominium construction dig in the high density neighbourhood at the intersection of Bathurst Street and Fort York Boulevard in downtown Toronto unearthed the remains of an early 19th century cargo ship sunk or buried at that site when it was wharfside Lake Ontario.

Since then the remains of the hull have been stored at nearby Fort York, and now a team of marine archaeologists from Texas A&M University are in town to analyze them.
Carolyn Kennedy, a nautical archaeologist from Texas A&M and team leader, said the cargo ship likely would have moved goods across Lake Ontario as the Town of York, as Toronto was then known, grew in size. ...It tells us about the very beginnings of the city of York, the city of Toronto. These merchant vessels probably would have been the bread and butter of trade at that time. They would have been like the trucks that we have now," she said.
Update, June 16:  Fort York will host a presentation by the archeological team on the ship remains and their project.  Fort York Visitor Centre (250 Fort York Blvd, Toronto), Thursday, June 21 6.00 pm.

Wednesday, June 06, 2018

Yellowhead Institute launches today

The Yellowhead Institute, which declares itself to be the first fully indigenous think tank in Canada, launches today in Toronto.
The Institute is a First Nation-led research centre based in the Faculty of Arts at Ryerson University in Toronto, Ontario.
Outside of First Nation political organizations, activists, or academics, there is no national entity bringing an evidence-based, non-partisan, and community-first perspectives to the discussions. This is a glaring absence in First Nations ability to organize and mobilize to protect their rights and jurisdiction. The Yellowhead Institute aims to address this gap.
The Institute takes its name from William Yellowhead, an 18th and 19th century Ojibwa leader in what is now Ontario (DCB biography here), but it proposes to have national reach. Indeed, one of the talking points of executive director Hayden King is how commentary on indigenous matters in Canada continues to be dominated by non-indigenous experts.  Calling up a think tank from the list of resources is a reflex action for journalists and producers looking for a quick comment. Clearly the Yellowhead aims to put its people on those contact lists.

The Institute intends to offer "critical and accessible resources for communities in their pursuit of self-determination." and it launches with a flurry of reports and research papers. The key one may be today's special report Canada’s Emerging Indigenous Rights Framework: A Critical AnalysisFrom the overview:
Justin Trudeau ran on an election platform of changing the relationship between the Crown and Indigenous peoples in Canada. Trudeau promised a new nation-to-nation relationship based on the recognition of Indigenous rights, respect, cooperation, and partnership. Over halfway into his mandate as Prime Minister, some clarity is emerging on the scope of that nation-to-nation relationship. In February 2018, Trudeau announced the development of a new and transformational Indigenous Rights, Recognition and Implementation Framework.
Since then, a suite of legislation and policy has been rapidly deployed. It includes fiscal policy, omnibus legislation, changes in negotiations for land and self-government, two new ministries of Indian Affairs and dozens of tables, working groups, MOUs, and related government initiatives. 
Yet, there is scarce comprehensive analysis on the meaning and trajectory of Canada’s approach.
Our report finds that the Rights Framework expresses a clear and coherent set of goals, which revolve around domesticating Indigenous self-determination within Canadian Confederation. These goals have been ordered into legislation and policy in a manner that guides First Nations towards a narrow model of “self-government” outside of the Indian Act. [emphasis in original]
Good luck to the Yellowhead Institute and its focus on "policies related to land and governance."  Is it significant that it launches within Ryerson University rather than one of Toronto's larger and older and richer universities? If some philanthropist has a million bucks ready to give to a worthy institute, this could be the one.

Friday, June 01, 2018

Book Watch: CHA Prizes

The Canadian Historical Association Book Prize has been awarded at the CHA Annual Meeting in Regina. The CHA website is still calling it the John A. Macdonald Prize, but you can make your own edits of that if you wish.

Anyway it's an stellar list this year, topped by a book that historians are going to continue to read and grapple with for a long time.  Here's the full shortlist, and then the winner.  From the link you can also find all the other prizes -- kudos to Eric Adams and Jordan Stranger-Ross for two awards on a single article!
The Sir John A. Macdonald Prize is awarded to the non-fiction work of Canadian history judged to have made the most significant contribution to an understanding of the Canadian past:
SHORT LIST in alphabetical order
E.A. Heaman, Tax, Order, and Good Government: A New Political History of Canada, 1867-1917. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017.
Susan M. Hill, The Clay We Are Made Of: Haudenosaunee Land Tenure on the Grand River. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2017.
Jeffers Lennox, Homelands and Empires: Indigenous Spaces, Imperial Fictions, and Competition for Territory in Northeastern North America, 1690-1763. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017.
J.R. Miller, Residential Schools and Reconciliation: Canada Confronts Its History. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017.
Cecilia Morgan, Travellers through Empire: Indigenous Voyages from Early Canada. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017.
E.A. Heaman, Tax, Order, and Good Government: A New Political History of Canada, 1867-1917. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017.


Thursday, May 31, 2018

The accuracy shibboleth in historical movies

It's a movie

A friend suggests that since I'm not a fan of movies about historical events, I will like this essay by British historian Anthony Beevor,  Beevor, with a new book to promote, seeks to shock, I think, by dissing canonical films like Saving Private Ryan and Schindler's List
For a long time now, my wife has refused to watch a war movie with me. This is because I cannot stop grinding my teeth with annoyance at major historical mistakes, or harrumphing over errors of period detail.
Actually Beevor's essay makes me grind my teeth, and for the same reason I sometimes claim to dislike dramas about history.  He insists they have to be true -- and the filmmakers insist they are true.  Neither side seems willing to admit that a drama is a drama.  It doesn't have to be literally true; it just has to work as a drama.

So Beevor shouts at Saving Private Ryan (okay, he likes the opening slaughter) for not including the British role in D-Day and for offering a melodramaic story about a handful of guys trying to save one other.  It's a MOVIE, Beevor, it's a fiction, it needs plot and character; the author gets to pick and choose.  If you want relentless historical accuracy, read a book or watch a documentary.  Fiction and nonfiction both have their place, but they work by different rules.  If all you want to do is argue about historical accuracy, stick to nonfiction.

He's right that movie promoters should not announce that every historical drama they release is absolutely historically accurate in every detail (except all the parts they made up). They should defend their right to create fictions, and to be judged by the success of their drama, not by the "accuracy" of a made-up story. 

But historians should accept that fiction is fictional, and judge it by fictional criteria, rather than tediously insisting that every big-screen drama be fact-checked and footnoted like a doctoral dissertation.

[Thx, Andrew Stewart]

PS. My wife and I do watch movies together, including historical movies. We thought "Dunkirk" was a decent film, I think, and even if I had known of Beevor's complaints about the altitude of the fighter planes, I can't see I would have cared much.  It's a drama.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

History of smart people doing dumb things with good intentions

The Canadian Historical Association, meeting in Saskatchewan, has voted to remove the name of John A. Macdonald from its premiere prize, the one for the year's best work in Canadian history.  In the name of the good cause of reconciliation, though removal of names and statues was not one of the long list of projects the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has put forward as useful steps toward that goal.

Naming this prize for Macdonald has always seemed a bit odd, since he was not a scholar or a historian and did not donate the prize himself.  So there may have been a more appropriate name to be found all along, and indeed the CHA will now simply call it the CHA Prize. But removing the old name punitively....  Well meant, but not wise, I'd say.

[Hat tip to Allen Levine for the link.]

Monday, May 28, 2018

More history of rigged elections: has someone noticed?

Veteran political consultant and commentator Robin Sears is shocked to learn that selection processes for MPs in Canadian political parties are dodgy things:
[Disgraced former leader Patrick Brown] is also right to say that political parties have demonstrated they cannot be trusted today to run their own nominations processes with rules they themselves set, and ones they clearly sometimes ignore — like paying for someone else’s party membership.
Astonishing it nonetheless is, to have a conservative politician call for state intervention in the private affairs of a political party. Brown said that reflecting on the messy nominations processes he witnessed, he has concluded that, “ … it is time for Elections Ontario to manage this part of our democratic process.” (!)
The news that people buy and sell party memberships by the bushel whenever a constituency nomination or a party leadership strikes Sears like a thunderclap, according to his telling of it.  It is as if he has never seen this kind of thing before!

On the other hand, he is noticing, and he does acknowledge. It is a start.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Giro d'Italia update: Is Simon Yates on something?

Could this be dodgy?
It's hard to follow a race that takes five hours a day in the snippets of a minute or two that is all most North Americans can glean about the Giro d'Italia, now in its final week. I found myself watching one bit of slightly more extended coverage in which the commentary was in Basque.

But what what one can see, it has been a lively tour, notably for the remarkable prowess of Simon Yates, a Brit riding for an Australian team.  Coming in, the question seemed to be whether Chris Froome could win a third consecutive Grand Tour (after winning the Tour de France and the Vuelta a Espana last year). Instead Froome has looked pretty mortal, and Yates has looked superhuman, pulling away from the pack on the steepest hills and "putting time into" everyone.

This is pro cycling. I cannot help remembering Floyd Landis, an American rider in the post-Armstrong years, who one day made a phenomenal ride, putting himself ten minutes ahead of everyone and pretty much guaranteeing a Tour de France win. All the commentators were saying, "This is amazing," "This is unprecedented," I can hardly believe it."

A lot of the viewers, meanwhile, were saying "Landis must be on drugs."  And the night of his big victory he was duly tested and disqualified.

Yates's victories, looking so dominant and coming from a good but not previously front-rank rider, make me wonder. Gonna be some testing and reviewing going on, mebbe.  Particularly since Froome, riding for the once anti-drug Sky team, is himself riding while under investigation for his own dodgy use of certain medications in the Vuelta last year -- with many suggesting he should be under suspension rather than continuing to ride.  Cycling: will it ever clean up its act?

But in a time trial the other day, Yates, who is more a big-hill specialist, lost a bunch of time to his rivals.  And the next day both Froome and Tom Dumoulin, last year's Giro, winner, gained time on him on a mountain stage. Just a couple more big hills to go, and Yates's lead is down to half a minute or so. Put aside the druggy suspicions, and it's pretty good competition.

Michael Woods, the Canadian contender, has suffered from illness and a nasty crash and is dropping down into the 20s in overall ranking. Forty-one year old Svein Tuft, meanwhile, does heroic leadouts and such, and ends up pretty near last overall. Guillaume Boivin hasn't won a sprint yet.

Update, same day.  Stage 19, the "queen" stage of the race with monster mountains, turned everything upside down.  Simon Yates cracked spectacularly 80 km short of the finish and came in 79th on the day, and is now 17 overall, an enormous 35 minutes behind the new leader.

And the new leader is ... Chris Froome.  Froome has been looking stronger in recent days, and today stormed out to a Landisian solo lead and came in far ahead of everyone, to leap from a distant fourth place overall to the Maglia Rosa, first place by half a minute, and very good odds of winning this Giro in Rome on Sunday.  One for the highlight reels, and for the drug testers too.

Update, May 28:  I'm not the only one remembering Floyd Landis. The reaction of George Bennett, another cyclist in the race, when he heard the results on Friday:
“Did Froome stay away? No way. He did a Landis. Jesus!” His reference was to Floyd Landis’s astonishing comeback to win at Morzine in the 2006 Tour de France, which set up the American as, provisionally, the overall winner, until a positive test for testosterone was announced.

History of blog reading and privacy

I receive a little notice from Google:
As a courtesy, we have added a notice on your blog to help meet these regulations. The notice lets visitors know about Google's use of certain Blogger and Google cookies on your blog, including Google Analytics and AdSense cookies.
As a courtesy! As a courtesy?  Well, readers in the European Community, including Britain so far, have the legal right to be informed if any cookies or data analytics are applied to them as a result of opening this website. I personally use no cookies and undertake no privacy-testing gathering of data on readers in Europe or anywhere else. But Google does.

If you access this blog (or any other Google can see) via its (France) or (Germany) sites rather than or, the Google-created notice about cookies should be visible already.  If you use the North American entry points, the notice will not be be visible -- but Google will still be gathering data.  I don't enable AdSense (Google's process for placing ads on blogs), so that should not apply, but data analytics....

I've added a note at left.  Govern yourselves accordingly. 
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