Monday, March 25, 2019

Poor neglected prime ministers?

I have occasionally mused that it would be impossible to find a subject in Canadian history about which the phrase "Too little is known about X" would be a risky or controversial claim. But if I were making a priority list, I don't think "X = lives of the prime ministers" would ever have come anywhere near the top.

So I was bemused by J.D.M. Stewart's long argument in the Globe & Mail this weekend that the dearth of prime ministerial biographies is a historical crisis of national proportions. The field, after all, is rich enough that Stewart himself was recently able to make a neat little contribution in the form of explorations of prime ministerial pets, sports, and avocations. Even while reading the piece, I was able to make a pretty long list of all the biographies Stewart fails to mention, from Allan Levine's recent Mackenzie King biography to pretty much every Laurier biography by a francophone author (Réal Belanger, André Pratte, Laurier LaPierre....)

And if we are going to have more in the political history field, surely there is much to be written on non-prime ministerial figures. David Wilson's two volumes on D'Arcy McGee is the most acclaimed Canadian political biography in decades, and surely there are figures like him at least in need of attention as the guys at the top.  Right now, a study of Gerald Butts might be more revealing than one of Justin Trudeau, and surely that could be projected into the past as well.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Historian makes difference: Grandin's End of the Myth

“The End of the Myth” has a shadow theme. How is it, Grandin wants to know, that the symbol of America was once a boundless, beckoning frontier and today is a dark and forbidding wall?
That is from the New York Times review of The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America by Greg Grandin, history professor at New York University, previously the author of the prize-winning Fordlandia and other books on large themes.  This new book seems really to have touched a nerve, presenting a large, sensitive, plausible interpretation of where the United States of Donald Trump stands today, based on a profound historical understanding of where it has come from.

The Toronto writer Rick Salutin writes today:
I had an older friend, dead many years now, who spent the chaotic 1940s in China. That decade there blended revolution, civil war, a war with Japan and World War Two. He said that once, hiding under a bridge as bombs exploded all around, he came upon a pamphlet that illuminated the pandemonium. It actually made sense of it, and he felt grateful.
I feel this way about Greg Grandin’s recent, End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America. I don’t think I’ve marked and highlighted a book as much since my undergrad days, when far too many volumes looked like that.
Can history enlighten us in difficult times?  Yeah, maybe, sometimes. And this Guardian review of Tim Mackintosh-Smith's Arabs: A 3000 Year History may be drawing to our attention another example.

Speaking of Arabs, Toronto's Aga Khan Museum this week opens an exhibit marking the fiftieth anniversary of the moon landings. What's that got to do with a museum of Middle Eastern and Islamic history and culture, you want to say at first glance.

It is the moon, dummy, you think only the West looks at the moon? Evidently the exhibit is a remarkable exploration of the moon in Islamic science, art, and culture over the millennia.  The Aga Khan's ability to startle and reorient makes it the best museum in Toronto over and over.

[Full disclosure: haven't read either book or seen the exhibit. Not yet, anyway.]

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Conference news: Nonfiction writers in Vancouver

The annual conference of the Creative Nonfiction Writers Collective, the country's leading organization devoted to the craft of nonfiction prose, will be held on the UBC Campus in Vancouver June 14-16.

Writers attending include Darrel J. McLeod, author of Masaskatch, winner of the nonfiction GG last fall; recent memorists Elizabeth Hay (All Things Consoled) and David Chariandy (I've Been Meaning to Tell You), and essayist extraordinaire Helen Humphreys, who will give the keynote.  Plus Alicia Elliott, Charlie Demers, Alanna Mitchell (SeaSick), Cheline Knight, Monique Gray Smith, Lindsay Wong, and others.  Master classes, manuscript evaluations, nonfiction as theatre, and more.  Plus me in various supporting roles, as I'm one of the organizers.

Details and registration (some sessions open to the public)  at the CNFC website.

This Month at Canada's History

Bloody Saturday, by Noam Gonick and Bernie Miller, unveiling soon on Main St.
In the new issue of Canada's History, just reaching subscribers, James Naylor looks at the Winnipeg General Strike -- a hundred years ago this spring -- as a triumph of worker organization and a lasting inspiration for progressive forces in the Canadian west. There's also a note on the Graphic History Collective's new work 1919 A Graphic History of the Winnipeg General Strike, and a walking tour of General Strike landmarks. My own column looks at the strike from 2019, when appeals to fear, demonization, and ethnocultural prejudice still live in world politics.

Elsewhere Joel Fishbane examines the creepiness of Toronto's 1920s "stork derby" through its impact on one mother caught up in it. Michael Dupuis writes of Helen Slayter Lacon, who survived the Titanic and then the Halifax Explosion, and Joe Calnan considers the batteau, the vessel that made the St. Lawrence passable around and above Montreal in the centuries preceding the era of locks and canals.

Good set of book notices, too. Jessica Duncan's essay, an excerpt from Symbols of Canada (a new anthology edited by Michael Dawson, Catherine Gidney and Donald Wright) interrogates the place of the indigenous canoe in the settler imagination. Lyle Dyck reviews two new Franklin expedition books, and Daniel Francis reviews a west coast rum running history. Other reviews look at Toronto's Ward, the Spanish flu epidemic, First World War hockey players, and the growing number of book ads by trade and academic publishers extends the book coverage.

As Canada's History prepares to enter its own hundredth anniversary years, my own role at the magazine will be changing some. For news on that: subscribe.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Book notes: Chop Suey Nation

Interesting to see how food history has become a way to address diversity issues in Canadian history. Latest example I keep hearing about is Chop Suey Nation, a recent consideration of the Chinese restaurant in Canadian culture(s), by journalist Ann Hui.
Hui, who grew up in authenticity-obsessed Vancouver, begins her journey with a somewhat disparaging view of small-town “fake Chinese” food. But by the end, she comes to appreciate the essentially Chinese values that drive these restaurants—perseverance, entrepreneurialism and deep love for family. Using her own family’s story as a touchstone, she explores the importance of these restaurants in the country’s history and makes the case for why chop suey cuisine should be recognized as quintessentially Canadian.
 Image: Here, via Google Image. Search Google Images for "chop suey" and there are scores of photos -- and no two look alike!

History of leadership "races"

I'd rather talk about cutting minimum wages
A representative for Jason Kenney, when questioned about putting up a dummy candidate to undermine a rival in the contest for leadership of Alberta's United Conservative Party, said everything the Kenney team did was:
perfectly normal in a preferential ballot election and was within the rules of the 2017 UCP Leadership Election.
He's probably right. As always in Canadian political party leadership races, federal and provincial, the real scandal is what's legal. After all, when the point of the contest is that the side which buys the most votes wins, corruption is pretty much baked in. 

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Dutil on John A at Yorkminster Park

March 29, the Yorkminster Park Speakers Series in Toronto features Patrice Dutil, recently the impresario and host of my podcast appearance at Witness to Yesterday. From the announcement:
The reputation of Canada’s first prime minister has declined dramatically over the past decade. He has been accused of being a racist and of masterminding a genocide against the indigenous people. In this presentation, Dutil will review Sir John A. Macdonald’s claims to fame and address the condemnations that have been levelled against him.

Thursday, March 07, 2019

History radio

Found myself talking today with my new friend Geoff Currier of CJOB 680 in Winnipeg about why Canadian Attorneys-General are always members of cabinet (In Britain they never are), and what the struggle between Jody Wilson-Raybould and the Prime Minister's Office says about Canadian attitudes to prime ministerial power.

You can catch our conversation here, and find my part by scrolling to the 48:00 part of the podcast.

History for Women's Day

Friday March 8 is international women's day. Worth noting: the UBC Press series Women's Suffrage and the Struggle for Democracy, under the general editorship of Veronica Strong-Boag: "a powerful reminder that greater inclusion in our democracy is not a foregone conclusion."

Recently published in the series is Our Voices Must be Heard: Women and the Vote in Ontario by Tarah Brookfield. Joan Sangster's survey, One Hundred Years of Struggle: The History of Women and the Vote in Canada, appeared a year ago. Volumes on the suffrage struggle in the Prairie provinces (by Sarah Carter) and in Quebec (by Denys Baillargeon) are coming in 2019, and other volumes farther out will cover British Columbia (Lara Campbell), Atlantic Canada Alberta (Heidi MacDonald) and Indigenous women (Lianne Leddy).

Monday, March 04, 2019

In Which I Briefly Return to the History of New France

Jumonville Glen in autumn
The Champlain Society runs both an online document publishing forum, Findings/Trouvailles, and a podcast, Witness to Yesterday, and and today I have a little corner of the history of New France in both of them. The document here is the casualty list of the 1754 skirmish at Jumonville, the first skirmish of the Seven Years War, and the podcast here is my discussion with Patrice Dutil of why it is of interest.

This month at the Literary Review of Canada

The Jan-Feb Literary Review of Canada is available now in both print and digital form, and includes some notable historical content: Judy Fong Bates' very positive review of Susan Crean's Finding Mr Wong, (previously noted by us here), Suanne Kelman's equally positive review of Allan Levine's Seeking the Fabled City (ditto), Brian Stewart on D'Arcy Jenish's The Making of the October Crisis, and former immigration minister Chris Alexander on new books about the Scottish clearances. Plus Carol Goar on homelessness, David Malone on China policy, Susan Swan on truth in fiction... it's a strong issue.

This is the first issue brought to the press by new editor Kyle Wyatt, who will take responsibility for subsequent editions. Previous editor Sarmishta Subramanian had an admirable ability to find global perspectives from contributors whose names were as non-white and non-male as her own (and she was also willing to publish me). Subramanian left suddenly last fall, and in the new issue, the only name that suggests an of-colour identity is Fong Bates. I hope this is not a matter of  policy at the magazine, but am glad that they continue to publish me: I have an essay on the Senate coming in the next issue. 

Book Notes: Quebec Conference of 1864

McGill-Queen's recently sent me a copy of its handsome new essay collection The Quebec Conference of 1864, edited by Eugénie Brouillet, Alain-C Gagnon and Guy Laforest, which includes my essay "A Big Group in a Small Room: Parties and Coalitions at the Quebec Conference." The book is the English-language equivalent of La Conference de Québec de 1864: 150 Ans Plus Tard, published in 2016 by Presses de l'Université Laval. Both are the fruits of an impressive conference held in Quebec City in the fall of 2014, with a large attendance of  francophone and anglophone scholars of confederation, of which I was happy to be one.

Does this happen much: conference papers published in both English- and French-language editions, with all the papers translated for one or the other? Anyway, the papers reflect an impressive diversity of views among the participants: including Confederation as "the completion of a conquest," as the project of London financiers, or as virtually "an imperial fiat," to assertions of and attacks upon the Macdonald/Creighton centralizing vision, to assertions of Canadian autonomy vis-a-vis London, of provincial autonomy vis-a-vis Ottawa, and of confederation of a multicultural "union without fusion."

Publishing note: each press sent me the usual academic press contract, which I would paraphrase as "the contributor surrenders all conceivable rights in perpetuity throughout the universe, in exchange for which the press promises to do whatever it pleases with the work." In each case, I sent back a note stating that I declined those terms, but was glad to permit the press to publish this work in this specific edition.

Neither press responded, but both included my essay -- carefully edited, and with Laval going to the trouble of having it skillfully translated, for which I am most grateful. I have long been puzzled by the willingness of scholars to surrender their works on almost any terms, and mention my experience here only to hint how it suggests that academics could transform the terms of academic publication any time they chose to.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Talking to Americans

Jeopardy has been having a reunion of former champions, and the combined talent has been running up big numbers by knowing the answers  -- rather, knowing the questions -- to EVERYTHING.

Until last night, when the contestants included all time Jeopardy master Ken Jennings and more recent long-run competitor Austin Rogers, and the answer given was: On this date in 1867 the Dominion of Canada was proclaimed.

Who knew the right question? Crickets. None of the competitors responded. Host Alex Trebek, good Canadian boy, was indignant, and the contestants laughed ruefully. Can't expect anyone to know that

The bit is probably online somewhere, but....

Notes and updates UPDATED

Just to say I was pretty completely wrong in the post of February 19 when I speculated that differences over SNC-Lavalin were really a pretext for a larger disagreement between Jody Wilson-Raybould and Justin Trudeau over policy on Indigenous matters.  At the time I did not expect that it would turn out that cabinet and the PMO had trampled on the obligations of the attorney general.  It's pretty clear now that the issue of the AG's independence was real and serious!

Which is also a reminder: I try to make this a blog about history, but when I do drift into politics, I ain't an insider. I may have some (historically-informed) ideas, but I don't have any insider buzz about political events

But. I am still struck by the kind of complacency about prime ministerial autocracy expressed by political scientists and commentators. Journalists last night were speculating about if and when Justin Trudeau would throw Jody Wilson-Raybould out of the Liberal party, without a flicker of realization that such measures come from the same attitude that allows prime ministerial staffers the freedom to bully and threaten a government minister in the exercise of her duty.

Not just journalists take this view. I find it comes constantly from political scientists and constitutional scholars, who deny that there is any serious problem of PMO overreach and actually cite the current crisis as proof that prime ministers are held adequately responsible in our existing politics. A striking recent example (from a skilled and hardworking scholar) is this recent blog post by Philippe Lagassé. For my complaint about another example, see here and scroll down.) They are everywhere once you become aware of them.

Update, March 4:  I've been criticizing the tolerance of journalists and scholars of prime ministerial autocracy. Let me just note that Andrew Coyne is now thinking much as I am, both about Philippe Lagassé's views and about the necessity of caucus control of leader selection (and removal):
If the system worked, it would not be the prime minister, having been credibly accused of something perilously close to obstruction of justice, musing aloud over whether his accuser can maintain her position in caucus. It would be the caucus deciding whether he can keep his.
Both he and I were writing before Jane Philpott's resignation today.

Update, March 1:  Russ Chamberlayne writes:
With the public comments last week of Privy Council Clerk Michael Wernick and Jody Wilson Raybould's mention of him yesterday, I got out Memoirs of a Very Civil Servant by Gordon Robertson, who held the Clerk position under Pearson and Pierre Trudeau. Feeling put off by the overly dramatic nature of some of Wernick's comments, I was drawn to Robertson's rational tone.

In his discussion of the Clerk's role, he makes (p 305) a point about good judgment:

"Success in it depends on judgment and confidence - good judgment on the part of the clerk, and the sure confidence of, above all, the prime minister but also of ministers and heads of departments."
He then quotes Isaiah Berlin's definition of political good judgment: "To be rational in any sphere, to display good judgement in it, is to apply those methods which have turned out to work best in it."
It's been a long time since I looked at Robertson's memoir, but when I did I was struck by his avidity for striking a constitutional deal of almost any kind, without much concern about the principles the deal would sustain or ignore, and his frustration while in retirement with Pierre Trudeau's arguments of principle when there were deals to be had at Meech and Charlottetown. I might have said Wernick's recent performance was similar. Neither Clerk was specifically partisan, both were wholly focussed on getting the government what it wanted, without much concern for the right thing.

But Robertson, quoted by Chamberlayne, goes on to wonder whether: 
 "...the balance in our government today [(ca. 2000)] does in fact 'work best in it.' An overly great concentration of power at the centre has a price with the best ministers and the most creative and effective heads of departments. They are the very ones who do not need to stay, if they find their role too limited or frustrated by central interference."
Which sounds like something I might agree with.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Befuddled by history?

Kevin Drum, a progressive blogger at the left magazine Mother Jones, is "befuddled by history" -- or maybe just by historians.  He's been informed of a new book that sets out to correct the belief that white women in slave regimes were "reluctant actors:"
The scholarship of the 1970s and ’80s, in particular, did much to minimize their involvement, depicting them as masters in name only and even, grotesquely, as natural allies to enslaved people — both suffered beneath the boot of Southern patriarchy, the argument goes.
Huh? is more or less his reaction. He's reasonably well informed about American history and racial issues, and "until five minutes ago, before I read this book review, it never would have occurred to me that white women were anything less than full partners with men in the white supremacy of the antebellum South."  Did he really miss something, he wants to know. 

His larger point, I take it, is that we historians are all too often trumpeting our work as a bold new corrective to widely-held misconceptions, when really we are simply differing from some obscure, and perhaps never widely accepted, argument or suggestion known only to a few other specialists in the field.

Yeah, maybe we do a bit.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

History of the independence of Attorneys-General

Oliver Mowat is looking down
Adam Dodek, academic and constitutional scholar, observes in today's Globe & Mail that the Trudeau/Wilson-Raybould clash has arisen because in Canada the Minister of Justice, who had a large government department to run and important parts of a government's legislative agenda to direct, is also the attorney-general, in effect the cabinet's legal counsel, bound to give the government independent legal advice.  He declares the offices create unavoidable conflicts and must be split:
The answer for why the two offices are combined is simple, if unsatisfying: That’s the way it has always been in Canada. But governments do combine and divide departments from time to time. [...]  The Justice Department and this combined role, however, has remained largely unchanged since the department’s creation in 1868, with the biggest change coming in 2006, when its prosecutorial arm was spun off into a separate office, the Public Prosecution Service of Canada (PPSC). Of course, it is this relationship that’s at the heart of the current controversy involving the PPSC, the attorney-general, the Prime Minister’s Office and SNC-Lavalin.
There is no deeper historical reason that the two jobs are fused in Canada, either. In the British parliamentary system, from which Canada inherited its governance structure, the attorney-general and the Minister of Justice (Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice) have always been two separate positions. The British minister of justice is a member of cabinet, while the attorney-general is not, although the latter does attend cabinet meetings.
I know that as a historian I have to say this, but there is a deeper historical reason. And since governance in Canada goes back before 1867, it's way back there.  Indeed, the question of splitting or uniting the two roles was extensively debated, with much legal advice sought, back to the 1840s and 1850s.  I was able to confirm this in very satisfying fashion by grabbing my copy of Paul Romney's 1986 classic Mr Attorney.

Before confederation (and after), many elected representatives of the people in British North America were men who would not have even had a vote in Britain at the time: farmers, merchants, journalists, etc. Legislative and administrative expertise was often at a premium in early legislatures. Lawyers tended to have those skills, and frequently rose to positions of leadership and responsibility.  Oddly, attorneys-general were among the few politicians with a substantial income from their political office, since their job then included actually going to court to represent the crown (and being paid for their time). As a result, AGs were able to devote more time to politics (particularly by delegating their courtroom chores to other lawyers) than most barely-paid legislators and ministers. As a result, the pre-confederation attorneys-general tended to be, not merely in cabinet, but to be premiers and prime ministers.  Such grubby details would be incomprehensible to most British statesmen of the day, of course. British North American politicians were well aware of the British example of non-cabinet AGs, but also understood the different circumstances of North American politics.

After confederation, there was another deep historical reason for the fused role of AGs: federalism. One of the vital jobs of a provincial attorney general in Canada is to determine where the province's authority ends and where that of federal government begins. As a result, right from confederation, attorneys general were deeply involved in both the policy-making and the litigation of federal-provincial relations, and the legal and political aspects were so enmeshed as to require the AG to be in cabinet, if not actually leading it.  Again, this was not a situation British politicians had to consider.

Really, none of this history need affect the question of principle that Adam Dodek addresses. In fact, mid-19th century Canadian politicians and jurists debated the question at great length and no small sophistication, all of which I could follow in some detail in Romney's book. When Canada diverges from British parliamentary norms, there are generally reasons worth exploring -- sometimes way back. And it's nice to see a case when the history book that demonstrates that is already written and in print. (I have massively under-reported here the subtlety of Romney's presentation!)

On a 21st century note: Dodek argues the attorney general should be an MP, not a cabinet minister.  But would that provide the independence required?  It is understood that cabinet ministers are bound by cabinet solidarity, but today MPs in Canada are equally bound by party solidarity. Since it is now Canadian political custom that any MP who dissents from party orthodoxy can be summarily dismissed from caucus (and probably denied renomination) by the party leader, could Canadians confidently believe an MP was a more independent AG than a cabinet minister could be?

Canadian particularities still influence abstract Westminster principles. 

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