Saturday, October 19, 2019

The small truth in the big lie

During the 2015 federal election, Stephen Harper declared that if he won the most seats, he got to be prime minister again.  Many journalists and pundits said, no, actually whoever can reliably hold the confidence of a majority of MPs in the House of Commons gets to be prime minister. Now Andrew Scheer has repeated the same claim.

Both Harper and Scheer know perfectly well it is not so. Both have long experience in working the rules of the parliamentary system, and Scheer, as Speaker of the House, actually enforced them for many years.

But they are kind of right in recognizing that Canadians do run our elections as much as possible like presidential contests -- Justin and Andrew and Jagmeet and Liz, who's it gonna be? -- and therefore it makes a kind of crude sense to assume that most seats (seats being the tally markers) ought to win. "Those MPs who fill the seats are all nobodies, right, how come they get to have an opinion on this?"

By playing to folk wisdom about elections, both Scheer and Harper claim a kind of populist cred and set up a possible future folk grievance, while also pre-emptively delegitiming any alliance that might successfully keep them out. 

2019 Cundill Prize shortlist

The Cundill Prize, the Canadian-based, big $$$, international history prize
announced its shortlist in Toronto on October 16. The list is indeed short (as shortlists should be): just three books, all by women historians.
Mary Fulbrook, Reckonings: Legacies of Nazi Persecution and the Quest for Justice, published by Oxford University Press.
Jill Lepore, These Truths: A History of the United States, published by W. W. Norton &, Company (US)
Julia Lovell, Maoism: A Global History, published by The Bodley Head (in the UK),  and Knopf (in the US)
Winner to be announced November 14 in Montreal.

I don't know if this proves that the Cundill Prize is succeeding in its intent, but over the years I have been moved from time to time to read the winners and even some of the nominees for the prize.  I've generally been glad I do, even when many of them were 750 page books on subjects of world history that I knew nothing about. 

Lepore is a Harvard prof but also a contributor of marvellous essays to the New Yorker, and her book has been a widely reviewed bestseller in the United States. The other authors and books are less well known.  Most years one or two books on the Cundill list have achieved some trade market success, but the jurors are generally willing to give the prize to serious academic works on fairly obscure topic when they feel like it.  Good thing too. (This year one  --at least! -- of the jurors is a sometime reader of this blog, but no inside information has come this way. )

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

History of Voting and Residence

Chicago friend of this blog Mark Reynolds has a commentary up at the CBC News site, arguing that expat Canadians like himself should NOT have the voting rights recently granted to them.
Citizenship requires investment. Democracy is people together deciding how they, within the boundaries a mari usque ad mare, should govern ourselves. Giving non-residents the vote is roughly akin to giving people the right to tell their former roommates how to set their thermostats. It is the difference between deciding with and deciding for.
His argument for the link between community and voting may also, without his stressing it, be applicable to proportional representation, another process by which votes are divorced from locality.

Update, October 17:  Alan B. McCullough demurs:
Mark Reynolds’ metaphor - Giving non-residents the vote is roughly akin to giving people the right to tell their former roommates how to set their thermostats. - is weak. Roommates are typically renters; Canadians, whether living in Canada or elsewhere, are co-owners. And, like the PM says, a Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian.

Wikipedia needs more Canada -- the edit-a-thon returns

I've been meaning to draw attention to the Wikipedia edit-a-thon that Jessica Knapp and Krista McCracken are hosting for Wednesday, October 23, aimed at enlarging the cohort of experienced Wikipedians who can help build the Canadian history content there.  All the details are on this Active History postActive History itself has been pretty busy over the holiday weekend too.

I've never done much on Wikipedia myself, but it's true that there are a good many CanHist topics where the Wikipedia entry is a "stub" if there is one at all.  So have at it.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Payback's a bitch: university presses threatened by open access

I think of myself as a trade book writer, but I've had some books published by academic presses. And now I am getting emails asking me to respond to a survey by Canadian university presses on the subject of open access publishing.

Apparently the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences  has proposed that the Awards to Scholarly Publications Program (i.e., the federal subsidy money offered to scholarly publications) will only be available to Open Access publication, that is, works that upon publication are made available in digital form at no cost to anyone who wants them.  SSHRC, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council has advised the Association of Canadian University Presses "that the policy change will not be accompanied by additional funding."

Now the university presses are sending emails to their authors declaring [I'm quoting from the email of one large Canadian university press]:
most if not all of the 40-50 books a year the ASPP fund would not be submitted to them [by us, the university press] because we could not afford to lose the sales resulting from such a policy.
The emails, I guess, are to advise their academic authors to panic.

Goes around, comes around.  The universities, vigorously supported by the Canadian Association of University Teachers, have been leaders in the campaign to normalize "free copying," when it means that universities can take pretty much anything they want and call it "fair dealing."  The university and schools community in Canada has been pretty successful, even getting the Copyright Act changed for their benefit.

Now the federal government's agencies are saying, hey, if you can take anything you want, how can you justify asking others to pay you for what you offer? If you take it for free, you ought to give it away too, no?

Now the academic presses see the consequences. They'll be out of business, pretty much, or trying to turn into trade-market publishers. Or more likely, they will go the way of the open access journals, and turn to vanity publishing.  Open access journals, which give away their work "free," in order to save university libraries from having to pay for subscriptions, typically change the authors they publish many thousands of dollars to have a piece published.  Presumably if you want to get a history book published with an academic publisher, you had better be prepared to get your university to pony up an estimated $28,000 to have the university press publish it and give it away.

I don't live by academic publishing, so I'm ignoring the questionnaire.  But if you do, you should consider it carefully.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Prize watch: Chalmers Prize for Jonathan Vance

The Champlain Society has announced the 2019 winner of its Chalmers Award for the past year's best book on Ontario history is Jonathan Vance of Western University for his book A Township At War, his microhistory of one Ontario community's experience of the First World War.

The award will be presented at the Society's AGM in Toronto Saturday, November 2, at which the society will also be launching its own 2019 publication, “Opposition on the Coast”: The Hudson’s Bay Company, American Coasters, the Russian-American Company, and Native Traders on the Northwest Coast, 1825-1846 by Barry Gough.

Wednesday, October 09, 2019

This month at Canada's History

My private theory has long been that you really know you are a historian of Canada when Chris Moore calls to talk to you for a Canada's History column he's working up. (Sorry if I missed a few of you over the years!) After delivering that column on historians and historical issues for every issue of The Beaver and then Canada's History literally for decades, I did not have a column in the August-September issue.

With October-November's issue, I'm back on a new basis. I've stopped doing the column and I will instead be contributing feature articles regularly. Canada's History marks the change by adding me to the masthead as Contributing Editor.

I have to say I'm pleased with the first of those feature pieces -- and thank you, friends who have emailed me to share their enthusiasm. "The Ballots Question" looks closely at the Liberal leadership convention of 1919, just one hundred years ago, and how it made William Lyon Mackenzie King party leader and soon-to-be prime minister.
[Sidney Fisher, another leadership candidate] went to the Rideau Club, Ottawa’s fabled centre of power and intrigue, to have lunch with two old Liberal barons: Allen Aylesworth from Toronto and Senator Raoul Dandurand from Montreal. If both he and King ran, Fisher said, they would split the vote. Fielding would win. He proposed to drop out and nominate King himself, seconded by Ernest Lapointe, the MP who had led the Quebec delegates in revolt against Gouin's machinations.
No, counselled Dandurand. Two Quebec MPs nominating Mackenzie King might spark an anti-Quebec backlash that would help Fielding. Let Aylesworth, not Lapointe, second the nomination. It would show the Quebeckers that King had serious support in Ontario and could win. Aylesworth had left public office because he had become deaf, and Dandurand did not dare shout out this proposal to him in the Rideau Club dining room. He scribbled it out on a scrap of paper, and Aylesworth scrawled an emphatic Yes.

Suddenly King, dull, pedantic, and fussy as he was, had solid support in the Quebec and Ontario delegations and with the Laurier loyalists elsewhere. The next morning, he led from the first ballot and hung on to beat Fielding narrowly on the third.
The intrigue and hoopla of that convention prefigured how all future leadership races would operate -- a tradition unique to Canadian politics. The 1919 convention also demonstrates a point that this blog's regulars may recognize. King instantly grasped that being selected by a mass of party members meant he was freed from accountability to his MPs, and from the party members too, since he never held another convention until he retired in 1948. 

It's a lively issue. Charlotte Gray on the 90th anniversary of the Persons Case and its complicated legacies. [Update, same date: today the DCB publishes the biography of Frank Anglin, who wrote the Supreme Court decision on the Persons Case: he does not come out well on it.] Philippe Mailhot on the roots of the Metis resistance 150 years ago. Tarah Brookfield on sixties pacifists.  And, as they say, much more. Subscribe, print or digital.

No more column from me. But with any luck I'll be calling on you about a feature I'm working on. 

Tuesday, October 08, 2019

New history podcast

Eugene Forsey
Christopher Dummitt, historian at Trent University in Peterborough, announces he's launching a podcast.  It's going to be "1867 and All That," an audio-history of Canada 1837 to 1885, produced wit the support of Trent. Chris says:
The goal is to do some pretty fun storytelling about some of the most important parts of our political history. And it’s aimed at people who like history but aren’t professional historians (though my guess is that some historians who like political history will find it fun too).
The program doesn't actually launch until January 2020, but there's a teaser up. (That's the Apple App Store)

Chris also has an article in the current Canadian Historical Review on Eugene Forsey and the fall of the term "Dominion" from Canadian usage.  In it, he returns to Carl Berger's 1970 book The Sense of Power and endorses its argument that in 19th century Canada, "Imperialism was a form of nationalism."  Funny, I went back to that book some time ago and concluded (again) that it is a good, important book but no, imperialism really was a form of colonialism.

Sunday, October 06, 2019

Debating genocide history at the LRC

The October Literary Review of Canada has a lot of election commentary. It   also has substantial coverage of indigenous issues, notably a debate on the word genocide.

I much admire the historians Donald Smith and J.R. Miller for their groundbreaking work over several decades introducing the profession and the public to indigenous history, residential school matters, treaties, and much more. But their essay, "No Genocide," is not their best work. Indeed, they get their heads handed to them by indigenous judge and scholar Harry S. Laforme in his essay "Yes, Genocide".

Smith and Miller limit genocide to the effort to kill a people, rooting that definition in the United Nations Genocide Convention of 1948. They call the 1848 1948 definition "the only definition that permits productive debate," and wave away "cultural genocide" as a recent blurring of firm lines. Canada wanted to assimilate indigenous peoples, they argue, hence genocide does not apply. "If Canada had wanted to destroy them, it would not have devoted so much to trying to turn them into Euro-Canadians....  Assimilation should not be confused with or equated to genocide.'

But Justice Laforme demonstrates what Smith and Miller do not address: the 1948 convention was intended also to outlaw cultural genocide, "the deliberate suppression or elimination of a culture." Only the opposition of the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand kept that prohibition out of the Convention in 1948. The concept returned in the 2007 UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, to which Canada adhered in 2016: "Indigenous peoples and individuals have the right not to be subject to forced assimilation."  Assimilation is a form of the legal definition, in other words. Cultural genocide cannot be ignored. LaForme concludes:
This debate matters, but it's over. Those colonial descendants -- and any others -- who continue to argue that Canada's relationship with Indigenous peoples has not been one of 'cultural genocide' either favour tepid language or are ignoring the truth. 
It's a good and useful discussion.  LaForme wins.

Friday, October 04, 2019

History and Politics

This isn't a partisan blog.  You have never seen an electoral prediction here, and certainly no electoral endorsements, in all the time it has been running.

But there is one party in the current Canadian election that has me thinking -- historically, I hope, not trying to be a pundit -- about the role of one of our major parties in how we deal with the world we live in.

This came to me after I opened the door the other day to an election canvasser seeking support for the local Conservative Party candidate.

"Not going to find any support in this house," I said and then, without really expecting to, found myself saying "I don't know how anyone can support the Conservatives and look themselves in the mirror these days."

Then I thought I had said enough to this poor guy, and wished him luck or something. He seemed quite willing to back away from the door, actually. People put up with a lot for their party loyalties.

This was right around the time of the students' climate strike.  It underlined, not that it was unclear previously, that deciding how to respond the climate crisis is the great issue of our time. In a strange halting kind of way the world is beginning to accept that.  even if we are not exactly taking decisive action.

But the Conservative Party of Canada? Its standout policy on climate issues is a pledge to cancel the federal climate carbon levy.  The day of the students' climate strike Andrew Scheer announced a highway building policy, because better highways would... save energy and reduce emissions.

I'm not keen on their indigenous policy, their ambiguous position on minorities and immigrants, their spending and tax policies, or even their Senate policy. (Back to patronage? Srsly?)  But it's the climate issue that really has me thinking about reality-based policy making.

You know that line about conservatives standing athwart history yelling stop?   It does seem relevant to this election.

Wednesday, October 02, 2019

History at the G-G Literary Awards -- not so much

It's award season and the shortlists for the Governor-General's Literary Awards came out this morning.

The nonfiction list confirms history is very much out of fashion. The slim memoir rules. Some obscure volumes here, even allowing for the anonymity of nonfiction in Canada.

The outlier here is Alan Walker's Fryderyk Chopin, a huge, American-published, authoritative biography of the musician, much admired in the worldwide music press, actually. Walker is a retired McMaster University professor, who has also written a life of Franz Liszt.  It's an outlier because this is a big academic biography and, you know, a history, almost, a massively researched literary biography.  Write well enough, historians, and you might be noticed 

Dan Werb's City of Omens: A Search for the Missing Women of the Borderlands, is an epidemologist's story of his study of deaths and disappearances in Tijuana, Mexico, published in the USA, and I would say largely unknown in Canada, though the author's citizenship makes him eligible.

The other three are more straightforwardly memoirs:  Naomi K Lewis's Tiny Lights for Travellers, about her Holocaust-survivor grandfather; Brian Harvey's Sea Trial: Sailing After My Father; and Don Gillmor's To the River: Losing My Brother, a suicide memoir.  Gillmor is the only known writer here, I'd say. He's published by PenguinRandom. University of Alberta Press (Lewis) and ECW Press (Harvey) both count as small-presses in this company.

I'm inclined to trust the jury who have read the books and made bold judgments not much influenced by the book-buzz machinery. But it's hardly an affirmation of nonfiction publishing in the country when most of the books they plumped for are out of country or almost out of sight.

Monday, September 30, 2019

Globe&Mail on statues and reconciliation in Kingston

I recently noted here an impressive public event in Kingston, in which Charlotte Gray, Lee Maracle, and I were invited to discuss what to do about John A. and his statues, before a lively and engaged audience of some 500 at Kingston's Grand Theatre.

Turns out we got the Globe's Eric Andrew-Gee thinking about it.  (The Globe has an active paywall, but this opened for me.)  Like him, I was impressed by the range and seriousness of the City of Kingston's project to assess its statuary and its responsibilities.  The presentations Lee, Charlotte and I gave were not a one-shot thing, but part of an ongoing consultation. We all -- audience, speakers, stakeholders, city --benefited from that.
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