Friday, February 15, 2019

Black History from the United States

I've been busy enough, but mostly I post when something seems worth posting.  A ten-day hiatus on posts to this site makes me think CanHist must be in the doldrums right now. Amirite? Not much doing in the way of major publications, to my knowledge, and not many interesting news breaks, either, 'tseems.

Recently I volunteered to receive an advance reading copy of Separate: The Story of Plessy V. Ferguson, and America’s Journey from Slavery to Segregation by the American journalist Steve Luxenburg  (pub. date February 12)  Unfortunately it's a digital copy with every page massively watermarked  "Property of WW Norton Not for Distribution," which makes it practically unreadable -- and indeed I have not read much of it. 

But it's pretty impressive: a vivid 600 page narrative around the events that provoked the landmark 1896 law suit in which the American Supreme Court declared that "separate but equal" facilities for whites and non-whites were perfectly acceptable and did not undermine the equality rights of black Americans. Plessy was launched by a committee of black New Orleanais who hoped to see the endlessly ramifying discrimination against newly freed ex-slaves stopped dead by a successful suit against the "Whites Only" cars of American railroads. The Supreme Court voted 7-1 against Plessy (and the one vote opposed was no triumph of rights-talk, either), and segregation rules for another half century and more.

Wikipedia reports that Plessy is widely regarded as one of the worst decisions in U.S. Supreme Court history. (But Brett Kavanaugh is just getting started.)

Who in Canada is even trying to write big books like these?  And who would buy 'em if they did? 

Tuesday, February 05, 2019

At Policy Options on leadership accountability

Regular readers will be familiar  (wearily so?) with my views on parliamentary leadership accountability and the need for backbenchers to hold leaders, including prime ministers, to account --and when necessary to be prepared to fire them and choose their replacements.

This is just to say that if  you want to share these views with your friends, colleagues, and your elected representatives, you no longer have to link to posts from this blog  (or send them a copy of 1867: How the Fathers Made a Deal, not that that is a bad idea).  Link 'em to the prestigious, authoritative, (and proof-read) online magazine Policy Options, which has just this afternoon posted my "Proportional Representation Won't Solve Canada's Accountability Problem."

Monday, February 04, 2019

Something to read for Black History Month

Black History Month seems to be working. Cecil Foster's They Call Me George: The Untold Story of Black Railroad Porters and the Birth of Modern Canada isn't quite published yet, and already it's listed as out of stock at Biblioasis, the lively little publishing house in Windsor that has begun venturing into historical nonfiction.

The title sounds... ambitious. But the excerpt in the Globe and Mail last Saturday argues effectively that the porters were not just a remarkable community of labour. As almost the only organized black network in Canada for a long time, they launched campaigns for non-racist immigration policies and civil rights for African-Canadians.
Following the Second World War, Mr. Grizzle and his fellow porters fought to create a new Canada by embodying a citizenship that reflected the diversity and dignity of humanity itself. They battled to normalize what is now routine, and even taken for granted, in our daily living: Black workers holding a wide range of jobs, including civil-service positions, and black people from Africa and the West Indies immigrating and becoming citizens of Canada.
We should always remember this was not a fight they were sure to win. We should also not forget that Canada wasn’t originally intended to be a multicultural society. Official multiculturalism was a fluke of history, and some thought of it as democracy gone wrong. Against great odds, the sleeping car porters sacrificed themselves and all they had, figuratively speaking, to put a stick in the wheels of a Canada headed in a different direction. The train porters turned Canada black, brown and a host of other shades. Yet this important piece of Canadian history has yet to be fully told.
More on black history and Black History Month in Canada: Black History Canada
Photo: CN Collection, Museum of Science and Technology via Globe & Mail

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Would anyone bribe an MP?

Why would anyone try to bribe an MP?  They are, after all, the only people in the country with no political opinions of their own, having accepted that their job is solely to be cheerleader and mouthpiece for whatever the leader advocates.

So I was dubious, to say the least, at Maclean's journalist Scott Gilmore's recent argument that then-ambassador John McCallum was compromised by all the trips he took to China when he was an MP.  These were straight-up parliamentary junkets, exchanges between parliamentarians around the world, and many MPs participate in them.  It seemed like a reasonable thing to encourage. I only regretted that MPs never seemed to learn anything from all the parliaments full of lively, fiesty backbenchers routinely holding their leaders to account.

But the subsequent comments from McCallum, the ones that got him fired from the ambassadorship, really did sound like advocacy for the Chinese point of view at times, and his persistence after being warned to stop diverging from Canadian policy, did make you wonder if an MP really had fallen too wholly in love with China during all those subsidized trips.  He wouldn't have learned much about feisty backbenchers in China.  So did China sell him on the glories of its economic progress?  The Toronto Star quotes diplomats who suspect McCallum was effectively "wooed" -- not bribed -- by China.  So were all those MP junkets funded by China a good investment too.

Since the biographies rarely note this, I will mention that John McCallum was a historian at the start of his career, the author of a good book called Unequal Beginnings about the role of agriculture in funding the shift to industry in 19th century Ontario but not so much in Quebec at the same time. As an academic, he helped secure funding for McGill's Institute for the Study of Canada, sez Wikipedia.  I guess international trade economics,  Royal Bank chief economist, and politics took him away from 19th century farm economics

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Your Heroic Historians Update

Dutch historian Rutger Bregman went to the World Economic Summit at Davos and asked the assembled billionaires why none of their conversations about making the world a better place involved raising taxes on rich people.
“I hear people talking the language of participation, justice, equality and transparency but almost no one raises the real issue of tax avoidance, right? And of the rich just not paying their fair share. It feels like I’m at a firefighters conference and no one’s allowed to speak about water.”
Update, February 1.  I'm hero-worshipping this guy more and more, as I read his biography.  Thirtish, a child of the great recession of 2008, studied history at university but found it too "cloistered." Turned to journalism that allowed him time to think and write, wrote a book called Utopia for Realists that got him invited to Davos, only discovered when he was there that he had to call all these billionaires to account.

Monday, January 28, 2019

It's just a movie: history at the cineplex

Terrific movie, but...
Journalists have some odd ideas. Simon Jenkins in The Guardian online is furious that they make movies about history that are not... exactly historical.

He fulminates against Vice, Brexit: The Uncivil War, The Favourite, and Mary Queen of Scots. Of the latest Churchill movie, he says,  "The embellishments in Darkest Hour would have done credit to Russia’s Mosfilm or Mao’s China." Of The Favourite's assault on "poor, dignified Queen Anne," he laments:
"The director of The Favourite, Yorgos Lanthimos, remarked casually that “some of the things in the film are accurate and a lot aren’t”. What is a history student to make of that?"
Well, that it is a movie! It's a drama. You know, like a story. It's not even a documentary.  If you want to know history, read some history.  Frankly, a history student who hasn't grasped that isn't a history student. Or even literate.

Fiction works by its own rules; it has to work as fiction. It doesn't document reality. It creates a imagined reality. Readers "suspends disbelief" -- which means they know what they read or watch is not true but join the pretence, in search of empathy, of entertainment, of imaginative constructions of human behaviour, whatever.

History and nonfiction and journalism are different:  you get the writer's judgments and arguments about events, and you get the evidence on which they make those judgments. Histories are not the raw truth, either, but they do seek it. You can debate with a history, you can struggle with it, you can at least seek to form a credible account of actual past events.

A novel or drama may be well made or badly made, but arguing about its truthfulness is just missing the point. It's just a movie, Simon.

Jenkins needs to reread Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons along with Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall. One is a great play in which Thomas More is a hero and Thomas Cromwell is the darkest of villains, and the other is a great novel in which Thomas Cromwell is a hero and Thomas More the darkest of villains. They cannot both be true, and we should not expect either of them to be. But they can both be literature.

Update, January 30:  At History News Network, Bruce Chatwick admires this revival of A Man for All Seasons. Dairmaid McCullough's recent biography Thomas Cromwell: A Life is reviewed here.

More update, same day:  Chris Raible links us to History Today, where 16th centuryist Suzanne Lipscomb argues that the film Mary Queen of Scots, is "no bad" (as my old Scots great-uncle would say, mostly about Scotch whisky):
In fact, when it comes to historical detail – bar a little massaging of the timeline and putting into vision what only happened by letter – it is pretty good. Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie are well cast as Mary and Elizabeth, respectively. The broad brushstrokes of the story are correct and most of the details that people will suspect to be historically inaccurate are, in fact, not: the strange attempt by Elizabeth to marry Mary to Robert Dudley; the marriage between Mary and Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley, who really was a drunken bisexual, found in bed with musician David Rizzio; the spectacular assassinations – they’re all true.
Lipscomb goes on to suggest sympathy for what infuriates Jenkins: that dramas and novels do tend to flatter contemporary sensibilities: they favour spunky young women confronting patriarchy, heightened gender and racial tolerance, and so on. Where drama builds on empathy, history can explore the profound differences that may alienate us from the past.

And one more update, January 31:  Turns out there is a website, History vs Hollywood, devoted to exploring the differences between Hollywood movies and the historical situations they dramatize.  I'm not endorsing its reliability, but it's a bit of a giggle. 

LAC documents a holocaust that might have been

Library and Archives Canada got some international attention the other day when it announced acquisition of a Nazi-era book, once held in Adolf Hitler's personal library. that documented the Jewish population and organizations of Canada in disturbing detail.
"This information would have been the building blocks to rolling out the Final Solution in Canada," said LAC curator Michael Kent.
Creepy stuff. The book was produced in 1944, which means Nazi plans for the conquest of Canada were becoming extremely fantastical, but the intention is clear. It occurs to me that I know people who may have been children in 1944, but would have been part of this catalogue.

Many Holocaust museums will not acquire Nazi materials, apparently, but it seems absolutely appropriate for LAC to have ensured that it holds a copy of this work.

Image: CNN 

Thursday, January 24, 2019

This Month at Canada's History: judging John A

On the cover this month: Lee Maracle, Frederic Boily, Charlotte Gray and I weigh in on John A Macdonald and what do to with those statues, that reputation.

Lee Maracle: "My grandfather, Chief Dan George, is probably the most painted and photographed Indigenous man in Canadian history, but there is no monument to his work toward reconciliation that took place long before the TRC or the closure of the schools.... The former chair of the TRC, Murray Sinclair says we should stop arguing about whether schools should be named after Sir John A. Macdonald and start thinking about how to honour overlooked Indigenous heroes.  I am up for that."  (Read more Lee Maracle here.)

Also in the issue: a Canadian survival guide, how groundhogs replaced bears as weather predictors, and the life and achievements of Louise Armaindo, pioneer bike racer.  Full details here.  Subscribe.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Histories we need, histories we get

Leduc #1, 1947
The other day I found myself having more than a little agreement with Toronto journalist David Olive's argument that Alberta is largely to blame for its current economic troubles and pipeline obstacles:
Failure to diversify has been a surrender of Alberta’s economic sovereignty and cause for repeated punishing hardship.
The lack of forward planning in Calgary, head office of the Canadian oilpatch, is inexplicable. Over the past decade, Alberta ramped up its heavy oil production on the assumption, ludicrous in hindsight, that matching additional pipeline capacity would materialize as if by magic to get that additional landlocked oil to world markets.
It's Olive's argument that Alberta economic policy making for about seventy years has relied on little more than pumping and shipping crude oil, to the neglect of sound fiscal planning, environmental challenges, and First Nations rights, while the province has simultaneously neglected development of specialty petrochemicals, agriculture, technology, and other promising sectors that would have diversified the provincial economic base in preparation for the inevitable price busts and the inevitable depletion of the resource and the markets for it.

It's a case with force. But it's also a historical argument. And I wished, not for the first time, that we had a big readable, reliable history of Alberta's oil and what it has done to the province and the country all these years. I know of some good small studies, but nothing on the order of what we need and deserve, in order to think about these questions wisely and historically.

If I'm missing the vital work, let me know!

On the other hand, sometimes we do get what we need. Witness this excerpt from law professor Kent Roach's new book Canadian Justice, Indigenous Injustice: The Gerald Stanley and Colten Boushie Case. Powerful scholarship, clear and vigorous writing, sound and sympathetic judgements ... it looks like a very valuable work on an urgent public policy issue. It's newly out from McGill-Queen's.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Lessons in backbench power... from Guyana

While Britain awaits the Brexit vote, in which every MP's vote is both vital and unpredictable and the party leaders seem almost as much spectators as everyone else, news comes to Canada of another country where parliamentary proceedings are actually interesting. 

In Guyana the government, in power since 2015, was defeated on a non-confidence vote. One of its own backbenchers voted no confidence along with the opposition, and given the government's one-seat majority, that was enough. 

Okay, the MP, Charrandas Persaud, has since fled to Toronto -- to teach backbenchers here about political courage, hopefully -- and his party has both kicked him out and started recall proceedings to get him out of parliament altogether.  So Guyanese parliamentary processes have some shortcomings.  But they have made a start.

Monday, January 14, 2019

History of Voting

Journalist Dale Smith questions the Supreme Court of Canada's recent decision that it is unconstitutional for Canada to remove the right to vote in federal elections from Canadian citizens who have resided outside Canada for more than five years.

The majority in the case focuses on Charter issues. They find the individual right of a non-resident to participate outweighs the interest of Canada in connecting voting to residence, and see no great problem in potentially large numbers of voters who don't live anywhere in Canada. Smith:
To reiterate – we vote for local representatives. We don’t vote for parties, or party leaders, no matter what we may have in mind when we go into the ballot box – we mark the X for the local candidate, end of story. For an expat, it’s not the connection to Canada that should be at issue – it’s the connection to the riding, because that’s how we allocate our votes. The dissenting judges got that, but the majority and virtually all of the commentary I’ve seen on the matter ignored it, despite it being the first principle of our electoral system.
My occasional reading of SCC decisions in my legal history work has left me with a very great respect for Supreme Court judges and how they manoeuvre through the thickets of constitutional interpretation. But on this one I think Smith, and the dissenters (and the Ontario Court of Appeal, which was overturned here) have a point.

Smith is essentially arguing on the principles of the 1867 constitution, now called the "Constitution Act, 1867," which sets out principles of parliamentary democracy. The judges here, however, are interested almost exclusively in the Charter, which sets out individual rights vis-a-vis governments.  It's as if lawyers and judges and many other Canadians kinda lost interest in much of the original constitution, once they had the shiny new Charter to work on.
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