Monday, March 08, 2021


 Tom Bergbusch writes:

I only email you because it is impossible to praise your posts in comments!

I thank you for alerting us to the publication of Le régime seigneurial au Québec: fragments d’histoire et de mémoire, which I shall certainly acquire.

I recall that Marcel Trudel, I believe in volume 2 of Mythes et réalités de l’histoire du Québec, briefly mentioned a colleague who continued to receive payments by former seigneurial tenants! It may be in another book in the series.

Another excellent post.

Your encouragement is warmly appreciated, Tom -- as is the mention of a Trudel work I don't know of. 

But I do publish comments! I'm doing it right now. I just ask that comments be emailed. One click to start a comment, one more to send the email. 

I continue to be disinclined to commit endless time and effort to policing the masses of spam that an open comments system produces. Also, consider how much non-spam drivel (no, not from you!) piles up in the comment sections of blogs and news sites that allow open commenting. When we want that, there's Twitter.     

Sunday, March 07, 2021

Wigs in Newfoundland (a contender for top ten most insignificant historical queries, but still....)

Around the internet, I can find various statements (eg, Wikipedia here) that judges and lawyers in Newfoundland and Labrador ceased to wear legal wigs in court in 1949. Not impossible, but Newfoundland administered its own courts both before joining Canadian confederation and after, so there's no obvious causal relationship to be drawn from that date. Above all, I have seen no reliable source referenced for this or any other date. 

Can anyone come up with a source for the end of official wig-wearing in Newfoundland courts, in 1949 or some other date? An amendment to the Judicature Act? A resolution of the Law Society? A rule of court from the Chief Justice? Or (quite possibly) just evidence of a gradual shift in legal habits court by court.

All useful evidence gratefully received and acknowledged. 

Thursday, March 04, 2021

The seigneurial regime in the twentieth century

At the Borealia site for early Canadian history, Olivier Guimond offers a fascinating review of Benoît Grenier (dir.) (coll. Alain Laberge et Stéphanie Lanthier), Le régime seigneurial au Québec: fragments d’histoire et de mémoire (Sherbrooke, Les Éditions de l’Université de Sherbrooke, 2020). The book, by a seigneurial scholar and a group of his students, explores the survival of seigneurial influences in Quebec long after the abolition of the seigneurial regime in 1854 and down into the present.

The abolition of seigneurial tenure in Lower Canada came with significant compensation for the seigneurs for the loss of their landholdings and rents.  (As with slavery in British possessions, where owners were compensated for the loss of their "property" at the time of abolition.) In some cases, the continuation of payments by former seigneurial tenants continued into the late twentieth century.

Apart from the ongoing payments, the book's exploration of survivals and memories seem perhaps to emphasize positive and sentimental memories of seigneurial society.  But the whole study seems to be a remarkable report on the depth of history in Quebec.     

Naming in law and naming in contemporary history

Yesterday Ontario judge Anne Molloy convicted the Toronto van murderer who ran down and killed ten pedestrians on a Toronto street, in a judgment that recommends that his name not be used. The judge referred to him throughout as  "John Doe." Molloy argues that since the murderer's motive was fame, it was appropriate not to reward him with more fame. 

Today his name has been widely published in the media. So there is pushback to her recommendation.

 It's not a new issue. Years ago I blogged an item on the anniversary of the murder of female engineering students at the Université de Montréal in 1989, partly because I happened to be administering an exam to a history class the morning after the shooting and retain a vivid memory of the collective sense of shock and horror felt in the class. I got an email in response, urging me not to give the convicted murderer the celebrity he wanted. It seemed persuasive then; it still does.  

Today I see criminal law practitioners argue in the media that the courts' role is to hold people accountable, and accountable requires naming. It is also suggested that Molloy's decision will create precedent for people convicted of crimes to avoid accountablility by demanding the same treatment the van killer got. But surely declining to name is a choice, not an obligation.

Not naming comes up in legal history, too. Some years ago, when I wrote a history of a British Columbia court, I included detailed accounts of ten cases that illustrated how the court had worked over the decades. One, a fairly recent divorce case, illustrated how courts have come to deal with family property and support questions. It was only after the book was published that I had second thoughts about having used the divorcing parties' full names (as, indeed, my source, the published case report, did.) The still living individuals' names were not important to my story. I was only using their case as an example of evolving legal practice in family law. I could have anonymized them and spared them perhaps unwanted scrutiny of their particular marriage. 

Thinking about that, I learned about "anonymous citation," in which legal scholars writing about case law in legal journals and the like may refer to still-living parties as "A" and "B" or "John Doe" and "Jane Roe" to spare them unnecessary publicity. If I wrote another court history, I'd likely follow that trend wherever the circumstances seemed right. 

So lawyers are already exploring ways in which prudence and consideration can lead to withholding names -- not as censorship, not as a restriction of free speech, but as courtesy and sound judgment.  Writers of contemporary history, as well as journalists covering sensational crimes, may sometimes want to consider following that lead.

Wednesday, March 03, 2021

History of um, invented video

Students tell you you need to provide more film in your history classes? Allan Levine has posted an oddity:  a video of Prime Minister Mackenzie King from 1943.

Except it's actually a still photograph. A new version of deepfake technology turns it into a sort of animation: subjects turns their heads, give a sort of smile, repeat. It comes from the "Deep Nostalgia" project of a DNA genealogy company called My Heritage.  People who have been dead for decades or centuries -- your relatives or celebrities, anyone you have a still photo of -- can now be turned into little home-movie GIFs  

I find most of the examples I have seen, King included, deeply creepy in that "uncanny valley" sort of way, but there seems to be a fair amount of enthusiasm for the technique. Whadda you think?  

I'm having some trouble posting the King "video" here. You can see examples from MyHeritage here. And even Allan's King video post on Twitter seems to be resist being copied here, but try the link and decide if you love or hate it. 

Friday, February 26, 2021

History of the streets of Paris (shorter than you'd think)

Since there's not much else going on, and you haven't been going anywhere lately, how about a short tour of historical Paris in just eight minutes. The boulevards, the monuments, the people, the pigeons -- everyone loves Paris, non? This one is just speeded up a little:

 (Claude Lelouch, "C'etait un rendez-vous" (1972)

And a little background, si tu le veux.

Monday, February 22, 2021

this month at the LRC: moi! (and some others)


Much good material in the Literary Review of Canada for March, but I have to start off with myself.  They let me do a group review of the finalists for the 2020 Cundill Prize in History, a global prize for the best works in history published in English, Prize-giving was in December; review published in February! 

I get to write about: William Dalrymple's The Anarchy, about how the East India Company -- a "Walmart with armies" -- conquered and wrecked India in the late 18th century; and Camilla Townsend's Fifth Sun, an exploration of how indigenous annals, written in the western alphabet but using the Nahuatl language of the people we call the "Aztecs," recorded the Nahua's own history from a couple of centuries before Cortes's conquest to the century after; and Vincent Brown's Tacky's Revolt, an account of rebel slaves in 8th century Jamaica that draws on everything from cutting-edge historical techniques to graphic-arts treatments of cartography to turn the focus from the enslavers' accounts to the otherwise unrecorded rebels.

These are three histories of colonization, but also three histories about what historians do, or can do.  I recommend the review, if I may: (For the moment you may have to be an LRC subscriber; it's paywalled.) 

Dalrymple, from an aristocratic Scots family, evokes oppressed India. Townsend, a white professor raised in New York City, seeks the Nahuatl beneath the overpowering narratives of their conquerors. Brown, an African American scholar and filmmaker raised in San Diego, California, explores the intricate loyalties of eighteenth-century Africans enslaved in the Caribbean. In the twenty-first century, when many argue that no one from privilege can or should speak for the colonized and oppressed, some might ask if these are all case studies in appropriation.

Townsend gives the best reply. She emphasizes, even embraces, the difficulties of cross-cultural understanding. She suggests, in not quite so many words, that in writing history, what we call cultural appropriation is unavoidable and essential. Even one’s own ancestors of two hundred years past are almost unfathomably strange to anyone alive today. If historians will not make the effort to bridge the chasms, who will? History, Townsend does say, is exciting not in spite of these challenges but because of them. The Nahuatl annalists, she declares, wanted posterity to hear them, and they said so clearly in their writings: “Do we ourselves not become both wiser and stronger every time we grasp the perspective of people whom we once dismissed?”

Also in the March LRC: Jack Granatstein on Margaret Macmillan's War -- a terrific review, though I can't buy the initial special-pleading whine about how military history gets no respect, and Canadians hate their own history, and all that. Heather Menzies on a Metis poet's effort to find her ancestors in scraps and tags of evidence. Mark Lovewell on the recent dramas at Rideau Hall. Bruce Campbell looks into Alberta's current travails. John Lownsborough reads the diary of 19th Century CPR builder Dukesang Wong. And more...   


Friday, February 19, 2021

History of the Plains Cree and Freedom of Information

The Writers' Union of Canada announces that David A. Robertson is the winner of its Freedom To Read Award for this year. Robertson, of the Swampy Cree Nation, is a prolific author of graphic nonfiction on indigenous history, culture, and current events, including 7 Generations: A Plains Cree Saga, and Betty: The Helen Betty Osborne Story, and The Chief: Mistahimaskwa.  

What got him the Freedom to Read Award was having several of his works featured on "not recommended" lists by provincial and local educational authorities in Alberta.  Here's his own statement on that from the Freedom to Read website: 

In the fall of 2018, I learned of a book review website created by Edmonton Public Schools. The website listed books to weed out of school libraries and classrooms. The books were primarily by Indigenous writers. My graphic novel series 7 Generations: A Plains Cree Saga—a four-part epic that follows one Cree family over three centuries—along with several other books were “not recommended” for use. For 7 Generations, the reviewers had multiple concerns: “The graphic novel series contains sensitive subject matter and visual inferencing of abuse regarding residential schools"....

More evidence that graphic art as a historical teaching and storytelling form is exploding, much of it below the (or my) radar, and First Nations artists are becoming leaders in the field. And "comics" still have a subversive edge to them, 'tseems.  

Thursday, February 18, 2021

History of the future of academic history programs

Notes and portents about the future of history teaching and of universities themselves seem to be everywhere these days.

At Active History, Jeremy Milloy writes about precarious employment for historians in Canadian universities under the ominous title "I Think It's Time For Us To Give Up."

In the face of reports that enrolments in history programs have been declining faster than in any other of the major disciplines, an op-ed at History News Network argues that what is required is a "New Deal" to provide employment for historians if the universities cannot or will not.

Meanwhile looking beyond history programs in isolation, John Naughton, in The Guardian, writes about an article published way back in 1995 predicting that

while new technologies were likely to strengthen research, “they will also weaken the traditional major institutions of learning, the universities. Instead of prospering with the new tools, many of the traditional functions of universities will be superseded, their financial base eroded, their technology replaced and their role in intellectual inquiry reduced. This is not a cheerful scenario for higher education.”

Naughton, who began teaching online through Britain's Open University decades before Covid and Zoom, observes that universities have remained largely oblivious to this issue, and budget on the assumption that they can continue to charge students and taxpayers large amounts for credentials that can be cheaply and efficiently earned elsewhere.

And to the sound of people all over the country saying, "What, universities can go bankrupt?" Laurentian University in Sudbury declared itself insolvent and sought protection from its creditors.

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Book Notes: Thompson on Mackenzie King as "the third man"

I was not aware until recently of Neville Thompson, a retired history prof from Western U who is the author of a shelf of books, mostly in British and European history, now including The Third Man, a study of the three-cornered relationship between Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, and William Lyon Mackenzie King before and during the Second World War. It is published today, and I've been reading it courtesy of a review copy from Sutherland House publiist Sarah Miniaci.

My impression has been that historians have generally treated King as the wannabe in this group, a sort of headwaiter at occasional meetings between the British and American leaders. Thompson makes a case that such is a serious misreading.

King knew both Roosevelt and Churchill much better and longer than either of them knew the other. In Thompson's telling, King had stronger relationships and more influence with both of them than has been thought. He gives substantial evidence for the view that King significantly facilitated and sometimes influenced the vital Roosevelt-Churchill relationship, not least by usefully interpreting each to the other on several occasions.

Thompson is impressively well-informed about British, American, European, and Canadian politics in the mid-twentieth century and can constantly flesh out minor details, drawing on seemingly every memoir and biography of the period ever published. A key source for him, however, is Mackenzie King's own diaries, which he employs constantly to cover King's encounters with the other leaders back to 1900. King's notes enable him to flesh out what British and American scholars have often covered in regard to Roosevelt and/or Churchill without drawing on King's diary.

It's an impressive and readable book on what might seem a well-trodden topic, and Thompson's confident familiarity with the period and its people makes for engaging reading. It's marred, unfortunately, by way too many small failures in copyediting and proofreading. Sutherland House, a welcome new venture in Canadian publishing, may need to up its game in that regard.

The underestimation of Mackenzie King, not exclusively by non-Canadians, is also demonstrated in a recent review by the Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw of a Canadian film, "The Twentieth Century" by Matthew Rankin. If Bradshaw is accurate, the film "satirises the country’s stolid colonial traditions" and portrays King as "subservient to the British colonial establishment" and "a properly pompous and pointless Canadian prime minister." Well, it's only a movie; directors can say what they want.

But if you are at all susceptible to this kind of self-hating Canadianism, Thompson's book could be a useful corrective. One of The Third Man's themes, in fact, is King's endless, skillful, and effective campaign to keep Canadian wartime policy as free as possible from Churchill's imperial aggrandizing and Roosevelt's new American empire. King, indeed, was one of the reasons Churchill failed to keep his promise not to preside over the breakup of the British Empire.

Active History recently posted Sean Graham's interview with Neville Thompson about The Third Man.

James Eayrs (1926 -2021), political scientist, and Wayne Roberts (1944-2021), labour historian and social activist, RIP

The Globe and Mail has a fine obituary for James Eayrs, who in his day was pretty much the leading Canadian political scientist and prominent media commentator, as well as being the one that historians all seemed to read on political history.

A prolific and influential author in the field of 20th-century Canadian foreign policy and diplomacy, his multi-volume In Defence of Canada won the Governor-General's Award for Non-Fiction in 1965. He was co-editor, along with Robert Spencer, of the International Journal for 25 years. In recognition of his remarkable academic work he received numerous grants, lectureships and fellowships both in Canada and abroad, including the prestigious Canada Council Molson Prize in 1984. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, and in 1985 was appointed an officer of the Order of Canada.

In later life, Wayne Roberts emphasized his social activist and food policy studies and campaigns more than his historical work, and he was long prominent in left wing circles around Toronto. But at the start he was part of the new labour history community that pioneered ways to emphasize the social history of labour and working people over the institutional study of labour organizations. Here's a Wikipedia entry.   

Monday, February 15, 2021

Bradburn's Local history

Every Sunday lately the Toronto Star has enlivened its "Together" section with a quiz on Toronto history.  Props to Jamie Bradburn, who produces the column.  He draws on a seemingly limitless knowledge of local history matters. (I've lived in T.O. quite a while, but I flame out on his quiz every week.)

Which East York road is named after the founder of Laura Secord chocolates?
Thanks to its historical association with the production of roses, which community is known as “Flower City”?


Bradburn used to write most of the "Historicist" articles for the Torontoist blog, and I was regularly amazed about the amount of deeply researched history that went into every week's .

Follow @CmedMoore