Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Frederick John Thorpe RIP (1925-2018), public service historian


Fred Thorpe, who had a long career with the historical services of Parks Canada and the National Museums of Canada, died recently in Ottawa.  I like how his published obituary gave, among the usual details, a nice precis of his historical research
His doctoral thesis at the University of Ottawa , which in turn formed the basis of a monograph on French metropolitan fortification in Newfoundland and Cape Breton [...] argued that the great expense of these works was warranted because they defended the cod fisheries from interlopers (read British) and richly supplied the home market with a major source of protein, to say nothing of supporting the country's dependence on valuable international trades in codfish.
This obituary information is considerably more accurate than what you would learn from the current text of the Canadian Encyclopedia's entry on Louisbourg, which directly contradicts Thorpe's (and my) findings, though.it remains credited to me.

I confess I also remember Fred Thorpe because one of my francophone colleagues at Parks Canada was under the impression that this then-senior official had the surname Fredthorpe, and once memorably greeted him "Bonjour, Monsieur Fredthorpe" -- which became somewhat legendary for a while.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

George Brown Days 7: Dear Malcolm Cameron


I should work up one or two substantial pieces about George Brown before his 200th birthday November 29, but other things interfere.  More correspondence, instead, and another aspect of Victorian moral principles.

Apparently this letter exists in George Brown's handwriting, but there is no confirmation it was actually sent,  The intended recipient is thought to have been Malcolm Cameron of Sarnia, lawyer, temperance advocate, Clear Grit radical turned political independent, and a frequent rival of Brown's.  It is published in Careless, Brown of the Globe Vol 1.  Thanks again to Russ Chamberlayne.

27th February, 1857
Globe Office Toronto

My dear Sir:

It is said here that your mercantile affairs are irretrievably embarrassed, and that you are quite disheartened about it. I yet trust the case may be exaggerated, but fear there is some truth in it. You may doubt it, but I assure you nothing that has happened in a very long time has grieved me more and I have been thinking ever since I heard of it whether I could not be of service to you in your difficulty. I have had my own pecuniary trials here and in the States, but have I trust got over them; also I am vain enough to believe I have learnt that by experience which might now serve you. If you think so, I am at your services for a few weeks in any part of the country. Don't give way to despondency--from the little I know, you can retrieve matters. The only way in such cases is to look the worst right in the face and go at it with the determination to be at the bottom of it--not to cover up--and to do our duty in the sight of God. There are often circumstances which one has to regret, in lookingback, by which perhaps friends suffer. Well, that can't be helped for the past, but the thought of it should only invigorate us to fresh efforts to make amends in the future.

This letter, perhaps rude, perhaps impertinent, may displease you or may produce mere contempt for the writer. I can't help that--I have done my duty and I never did a duty with more sincerity or good feeling. Had I not looked on you as we met in King Street the other day as a rich and prosperous man I would certainly have tried to make friends again. I am not going, even at this moment, to say I do not think you did very wrong in past transactions, but I will say that a knowledge of your sanguine temperament and the effect of a similar temperament on my own actions, ought to have made me at least less harsh. Politics I believe hardens men's hearts worse than anything else.

You may answer this or not, as you like--but I trust whatever you do, you will at the worst give me the benefit of doubt, and throw this letter into the flames and forget it.

Were I in Sarnia, and oppressed, I would seek first to have my mind at rest in God's sight. And as Christian fellowship strengthens one much I would seek the sympathy of my friend, Reverend MacAlister. How easy do trials become when the mind and affections are fixed on things of eternity and we feel that all here is a passing show--may end tomorrow--will end soon. Do you wonder at my writing this? I wonder myself--but thanks to a long- suffering God, I feel it somewhat.

Yours very truly,
(Signed) Geo. Brown

Monday, November 19, 2018

Canada History Week

Did you know this is Canada History Week?  Me either.  Now I do.

Historica Canada has some new videos and other info on the theme Science, Creativity, and Innovation.

Prize Watch: Cundill Prize to Maya Jasanoff


A trend in historical writing?  Two of the nominees for the $78,000 Cundill Prize in History this year were cultural histories that combined a biography of a novelist with an exploration of the historical milieu in which they wrote.

The winner, announced in Montreal the other night, was Harvard historian Maya Jasanoff for her book, The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World.
Neither Conrad nor anyone else was thinking about climate change in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when he wrote his most acclaimed novels.
But many of the issues he tackled have endured. Conrad, as Jasanoff tells it, was a witness and a participant in globalization. He was a migrant, during a time of mass migration, when a hundred million people were on the move, but before there were closed borders and even official passports.
And he witnessed the pushback to globalization, with the emergence of border controls and rising xenophobia, terrorism and the fear of the other. This, just as East European Jews were emigrating to London and France. He also observed the growing fear of what Jasanoff calls “political undesirables” — the anarchists in London, for example, as seen in Conrad’s The Secret Agent. That novel, published in 1886, has been called the archetypal novel about terrorism, and was often cited in the weeks following 9/11.
“Conrad went through global openness, which created winners and losers and created dispossession,” Jasanoff said — of non-whites and the worker class.
Jasanoff's previous book was Liberty's Exiles, a study of American loyalists "in a revolutionary world."

Notes on the Cundill short list here.

George Brown Days 6: Dear Egerton Ryerson UPDATED


Ryerson
One of my favourite George Brown anecdotes is one I previously published on this blog more than a decade ago:  a revealing moment in the history of Victorian morality:
On his sixty-fifth birthday, 8 March 1868, Egerton Ryerson, the founder of Ontario's education system and a man of deep Christian faith, contemplated his mortality. He decided that before his inevitable end he should settle his relationships with all the people he had been in dispute with. At the top of that list was editor and politician George Brown, who, he reflected, was the only person with whom he had had really personal disagreements
So he wrote to Brown that day and said, "I wish to assure you of my hearty forgiveness of the personal wrongs I think you have done me in the past…."\
Brown replied the same day. "I am entirely unconscious of any ‘personal wrong’ ever done you by me, and have no thought of receiving forgiveness at your hands."
Brown lived another twelve years, Ryerson fourteen. There was no further correspondence.
Update, November 20:  It gets better. Allan Williams, who consulted his personal copy of  C. B. Sissons, Egerton Ryerson His Life and Letters, to confirm the details -- "I had heard of old books in which the pages were uncut, but didn’t know I had one myself. Some of the pages towards the back of the Sissons book had never been cut, including the pages containing this story, and so I had to cut them myself." --  advises me that while Brown wrote his reply the day he received Ryerson's letter, he delayed more than two weeks before sending it. "Was he having second thoughts about the unforgiving tone or simply letting poor old Ryerson stew?" Allan wonders.

To me it indeed suggests Brown was capable of prudent reflection before going ahead with his original response. Who knew?

Allan also confirms there was indeed further correspondence. Ryerson responded promply, "taking the opportunity to detail all the grievances which he had left out of the original letter. There the correspondence ended."
Historical skill rediscovered: cutting bound pages 




Wednesday, November 14, 2018

George Brown Days 5: Was GB a bigot?

I deny not that in this protracted contest words were spoken and lines were penned that had been better clothed in more courteous guise.  But when men go to war they are apt to take their gloves off, and assuredly if one side struck hard blows the other was not slow in returning them....
It is the incumbent duty of the reform party, dictated as well by their most cherished principles as by justice, and good policy, that a full share of parliamentary representation according to their numbers, and generous consideration in all public matters, should be awarded to the catholic minority [in Ontario]... This the reform party has done voluntarily, gladly, without condition, although a vast proponderance of the catholic electors will in all probability cast their votes in the coming contest against our candidates and for our opponents.   (George Brown, letter to the Roman Catholic Committee, March 1871, arguing why Catholics should support the Reformers rather than the Conservatives)

In those recurring three cornered debates about the great man of confederation -- was it John A?  Was it Cartier?  Was it Brown?  -- one of the knocks on Brown is often his bigotry.  An important figure, surely, but disqualified by his intolerance for francophones and for Roman Catholics, goes the argument.

I'm not really a Brown scholar. From time to time, however, I have followed up sources that are cited a proof of the allegation: things he said or printed about Irish Catholics, or French Canadians, or the Catholic Church hierarchy

He was extremely hard on the Catholic Church for sure, assailing it for "priestcraft and state-churchism" and for coercing Catholics to follow the political dictates of their bishops. And he was hard on French-Canadians, and indeed famously on "French-Canadianism."  He also clearly feared in the 1840s and 1850s that the migration of large numbers of Irish Catholic refugees to British North America would undermine his Reform constituency by bringing into the body politic large numbers of illiterate, priest-dominated settlers hostile to most British political ideas and institutions. None of these views was welcomed by Catholics, Francophones, or Irish immigrants.

But his criticisms were usually expressed as charges that French-Canadians and Irish Catholics were too much driven and controlled in their politics by their priests and by leaders approved by the hierarchy -- a strong accusation but within the bounds of political discourse, surely. In his insistence that the Catholic Church should stay out of politics, Brown, it often strikes me, was about a hundred years ahead of his time. He was accused of being a francophobe for asserting views about the separation of Church and State that every Quebecker seemed to adopt about 1960.

I do not want to go too far here.  Brown undoubtedly grew up with 19th century British prejudices about the Pope and France and Ireland  -- developed from times of the Spanish Armada to James II to Napoleon -- as a great permanent threat to the "rights of Englishmen," and those attitudes found a receptive audience in British North America.

So... I'd welcome contributions:  citations to the Globe, or parliamentary debates, ore letters, or whatever that strike readers as evidence of bigotry.

A different criticism of Brown next...

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

George Brown Days 4: On Political Correctness

...if their sensibilities are so nice that what does not suit them must be held as insulting -- they must just be insulted accordingly....
 The Globe,Tuesday April 2, 1850
Not much into trigger warnings, the old Globe.

Monday, November 12, 2018

The end of the First World War?


I'm glad the war is over.  Meaning no disrespect, but I found the Remembrance Day that marked the end of four years of the First World War centenary a bit of a relief. Canada's centenary observances since 2014 have been impressive and often moving, and they probably reached wider than I might have guessed four years ago. But I think we are getting ready to let the First World War pass into history, to become like the Napoleonic Wars or some other distant conflict: interesting, full of drama and event and historical significance, but capable of being considered a bit less personally now.

The First World War did leave an enormous shadow over the 20th century. And new media and the digitalization of old sources have recently made it possible for almost anyone to immerse themselves in the specific details of the life and service of practically any soldier of the Great War, and even his or her family and community too.

But it should be growing remote. The Civil War remains a live issue in the United States after more than 150 years, but that's because its driving issue, race, remains alive. Some Serbians, I hear, continue to obsess about some medieval battle their ancestors lost in what is now Kosovo. But what issue of the First World War remains live today? Grief alone seems not enough any more. The orphans of the war are now few, the loss and devastation becoming distant, the grief less personal. Maybe we can start to let it go.

I happened to be reading Toby's Room, a recent novel by British Booker Prize winning novelist Pat Barker, much of whose writing concerns the First World War.  And I began to find the endless fascination with the war dead of 1914-18... just maybe a bit much. Toby has been dead a long time.

Can we start to leave the First World War to its historians?

Update, November 13:  Pushback from Helen Webberley in Auz:
Au contraire. I think the lessons of the War To End All Wars are
probably more relevant now than at any time since 1933-45. Today
we have national leaders using the same language of hate and racism
as they did in 1914 - Jair Bolsonaro in Brasil, Donald Trump in
the USA, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Matteo Salvini in
Italy (currently Interior Minister), Viktor Orbán in Hungary etc etc.
And Alan B. McCollough:
I have attended most Remembrance Day ceremonies at the War Memorial in Ottawa since the mid-70s. During the 1980s and 1990s there were often anti-war protestors there; sometimes they were noisy but generally the crowd accepted their presence without showing much support. Since 9-11 I have not seen protestors and the numbers in attendance have, in my opinion, grown. The crowd this year was as large as any I remember.

I have no close link to the war although my mother had a cousin who was killed in France in the first war and my father was in the air force in the second war. I attend partly as a matter of respect and partly as a sort of civic duty like voting in election even when I don’t care for any of the candidates. Attending is an act of solidarity.

The protesters in the 1980s saw the ceremony as a glorification of war. For some it may have been but increasingly the emphasis has been on remembering the human costs of the war and strengthening the sentiment “Never Again.”

You ask “But what issue of the First World War remains live today?” In the recent ceremonies in Paris President Macron spoke of the rise of nationalism in Europe as the reawakening of old demons. The European Union was, and is, an attempt to neutralize the effects of nationalism and prevent general European wars. So far it has been successful but allowing the memory of the war to drop out of the public consciousness does not seem likely to strengthen the EU or to reduce the dangers of chauvinistic nationalism.

I won’t leave the war to historians just yet.
Fair enough. But I think of the Second World War as being better "for thinking with" when it comes to these issues.  Was not the First World War mostly about loyalties to monarchies and empires, often transnational?  I know, its's complicated.

Friday, November 09, 2018

George Brown Days 3: Talking to Americans

George Brown's advice about what the United States needs from us:
...when you get hold of a Yankee, drive it home to him; tell him his country is disgraced; wound his pride; tell him his pure institutions are a grand sham; send him home thoroughly ashamed of the black blot on his country's escutcheon. In steamboat, or railroad, or wherever you are, hunt up a Yankee and speak to him faithfully; there is no other man so sensitive as to what others think of him.
This is actually from an anti-slavery speech Brown gave in 1852.  The disgrace was slavery, which would endure another dozen years. But in these times,  it has a contemporary ring, except maybe for the sensitive part..

H/t Russ Chamberlayne

Thursday, November 08, 2018

History at the Writers' Trust Prizes: Christopher Paul Curtis


It was not all memoir in the noms for the Hilary Weston Nonfiction Prize awarded by the Writers' Trust last night, but indeed not much history again, and Elizabeth Gray's memoir was indeed the winner. (It's the Charles Taylor Nonfiction Prize, I think, that has rewarded  historians in recent years: Richard Gwyn, Tim Cook, Ross King....)

But writing about the Canadian past came up in the Vicky Metcalf Award -- given for a body of work in literature for children.  The winner was Christopher Paul Curtis, honoured for his admired and popular novels about the black experience in Canada in the nineteenth century.

Curtis, in his acceptance speech, described his thirteen years on an autobody assembly line in Flint, Michigan, writing on his break periods  -- not a common historical or writerly apprenticeship any more, I guess.

(My fave among the literary bunfights of fall, the Writers's Trust Awards. Writers getting honours and casth in a room full of writers, what's not to like?)

George Brown Days, 2


I think we will make what remains of November into George Brown Days around here.  Not that other coverage will cease but we'll try to have a little something, praising or critical, pretty regularly in the run up to his 200th birthday November 29.

Let's start with Andrew Coyne's tribute to Brown from the spring of 2017:
It was Brown who first championed, in the pages of the Globe, the idea of a federation of the provinces of Upper and Lower Canada, conjoined since 1841 as the single, though decidedly not united, province of Canada, as the solution to the impasse and instability that had enveloped its politics. He it was who committed the reborn Reform party, cobbled together out of various political factions — moderate Reformers, Clear Grit radicals and Lower Canadian Rouges — to the same proposal, and it was his motion, and the report of the all-party committee he chaired, that led to the idea being adopted by Parliament in 1864.

Wednesday, November 07, 2018

Canadian thoughts on the elections down south


Be glad that the confederation makers wisely made the upper house appointive (hence weak) and not elective.  It was a crucial blow for representative democracy. Both the Canadian and American Senates are wildly unrepresentative, but the American one holds vast and illegitimate authority.  17% of the population: 50% of the Senate.

Remember the Dominion Elections Act of 1920? It may have been Robert Borden's mea culpa for the atrocious gerrymandering of the wartime election of 1917. But it means that for almost a century Canadian elections have been run by an independent commission. Compare the horror show across the border.

If it is still this close after two years of Trump in office, Trump is not an aberration or a fluke.  He's the true voice of a vast proportion of the American people.  Stay home.

George Brown bicentennial: I


Birthday boy
Don Smith of Calgary reminds me: George Brown, journalist, controversialist, statesman, confederation-maker, is approaching his two-hundredth birthday, November 29, 2018.

Brown does not have the press-agent John A. had for his 200th in 2015 -- but then John A has his own troubles these days.

How to mark Brown's bicentennial?

If you have a George Brown achievement, anecdote, quotation or image to share, I'd be glad to receive your suggestions.

I'll try to add a few of my own between now and then.

Book Notes: Crean on Wong



Down the other night to the Gladstone Hotel -- inspiration for my favourite Paul Quarrington barroom rockers -- for the launch of Finding Mr Wong by my friend Susan Crean. 

Mr Wong (1895-1971), born in Taishen, China, came alone to Canada around 1911, paid head tax, and became, eventually, live-in cook and houseman to Crean's grandparents in Toronto's Forest Hill, and one of the pillars of Crean's childhood experience of the world. Crean, whose long career in writing and activism gives honour to that often derided phrase social justice warrior, tries in this book to do justice to Wong and through him, all the isolated bachelor immigrants who constituted the houseboy population of Canada.  She takes to her childhood, to his retirement rooms in Toronto's Chinatown, to her own later visits to his home village, weaving a history of Canadian class and race and policy-making throughout.

Our host at the Gladstone, Marc Glassman, is impresario of the Pages Unbound nonreading series. He explains that he often finds "readings" a rather 19th century in style, hearkening back to a time when many people had little actual access to books.  At his events he prefers conversation and complementary performances: in this case an interview with Crean by Carianne Leung, sociologist and equity scholar.  But we began with the Donald Quan jazz trio, improvising something that combined Chinese sounds and rhythms with allusions to "Danny Boy" or "Crofters' Lament" from Crean's Scotch-Irish heritage. They were kind of making it up as they went along, with much nodding and signalling between the players, but at one moment the flute player would put down his flute and take up the bagpipes, or Quan would cease shifting between keyboard and guqin zither and pick up a fiddle.  It was quite extraordinary as an contribution to the collision of cultures that is Crean's theme.

Not your average history book launch, is all I'm saying. 


Friday, November 02, 2018

Google workers: time for fire in a barrel?


Reading about the worldwide protest by Google employees by the misbehaviour of their bosses, I couldn't help thinking:  It's dramatic and colourful to whip up some Twitter protest in which staffers make a well publicized event for an hour or so. 

But to really produce change in their workplaces, surely the serious way to organize is to Organize.  Google with a union (or Tesla, or name your new behemoth) would be something new (and old) in the world.  And you know, might actually lead to actually changes in working conditions, as opposes to a Twitter protest with a lot of likes.  I know everything is ranged against that, but these are smart ambitious, conscious people, and they already have one style of organization down.

Local history in Toronto


Went down last night to the launch of Fort York Stories, an anthology of articles from Fife & Drum, the half-newsletter, half-history journal that has been coming from the Friends of Fort York for 25 years. It 's edited by Adrian Gamble, a history Ph.D candidates at York University, and includes articles by, among others, me.


The event made me glad again for the local historical societies I have joined over the years, for while I have never really worked in local history, what I pick up from the people who do very powerfully grounds me in the communities in which I live.

Ground me in politics too:  Friends of Fort York have had a vital part in the revitalization of the Fort York neighbourhood, once a bleak post-industrial mess, now a densely populated highrise community beside the lake, for whom the Fort's green spaces and public facilities are back yard and living room for all the 750 sq foot dwellers.
 
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