Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Prize watch: nonfiction GG for Bill Waiser

The 2016 Governor General's Award in nonfiction goes to University of Saskatchewan historian Bill Waiser for A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan before 1905. From the jury statement:
"From its first page, Bill Waiser’s A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905 surprises the reader with its reconsideration of Canada. In a sweeping blend of narrative, historical detail, and compelling images, Waiser refocuses the country’s story by putting Indigenous peoples and environmental concerns in the foreground."
Since Waiser also wrote Saskatchewan: A New History, the history of the province since 1905, he has pretty much got Saskatchewan covered.

The rush to war, 1914: Canada and Australia

There seems to be some buzz in Australian historical circles over Douglas Newton's Hell Bent: Australia's Leap into the Great War.

I don't know if Newton is being read by Canada's military and political historians. (I have not read it myself.) The mystery Newton explores -- why the political leaders of the "white dominions" were so much more eager than their British counterparts to rush into war in August 1914 -- has to my mind never been sufficiently seen in Canadian historiography as a question worth exploring.  Here's a summary of Newton:
London’s choice for war was a very close-run thing. At the height of the diplomatic crisis leading to war, it looked very much like Britain would choose neutrality. Only very late in the evening of Tuesday 4 August did a small clique in the British cabinet finally engineer a declaration of war against Germany.
Meanwhile, Australia’s political leaders, deep in the throes of a federal election campaign, competed with each other in a love-of-empire auction. They leapt ahead of events in London. At the height of the diplomatic crisis, they offered to transfer the brand-new Royal Australian Navy to the British Admiralty. Most importantly, on Monday 3 August, an inner group of the Australian cabinet, egged on by the governor-general, offered an expeditionary force of 20,000 men, to serve anywhere, for any objective, under British command, and with the whole cost to be borne by Australia — some forty hours before the British cabinet made up its mind.
Australia’s leaders thereby lost the chance to set limits, to weigh objectives, or to insist upon consultation.
I rather diffidently raised similar questions in a comment in the Canadian Historical Review's 2014 feature on the First World War, but I'm hardly a specialist in the matter.  And that piece did not provoke much response among those who are.

The subsequent issue of conscription is not raised in Newton, evidently, but Australia, like Canada, soon encountered enlistment problems, as the local-born in both countries soon proved less committed to the crusade than the British emigrant populations.  Much scope for comparative study, one would think.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Canada's History to launch Treaty Relationship webinar

Canada's History Society, publishers of Canada's History Magazine, announces a Treaties and the Treaty Relationship webinar series aimed at teachers and students, and launching October 26. The series is run in collaboration with the Treaty Relations Commission of Manitoba, and will run bi-weekly until March 2017.
This initiative is a public education strategy for kindergarten to grade 12 that includes teacher resource guides and the opportunity for educators and students to hear from members of the TRCM Speakers' Bureau. These speakers share information and promote conversation to foster an understanding of the historical and contemporary issues that relate to treaties. These presentations speak to both the Canadian and First Nation perspective of treaties.
Online registration here.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Prize Watch: Berton Award for Merna Forster

Historian Merna Forster, director of the University of Victoria's Great Canadian Mysteries Project, and entrepreneur of heroines.ca  -- but particularly notable recently as the force behind the successful campaign to put some (non-British, uncrowned) women on the Canadian money -- has been named the winner of the 2016 Pierre Berton Award for Popular Canadian History. The Berton doubles as the Governor General's Award in Popular History, and will be presented by David Johnston at Rideau Hall on November 28.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

L'effet Berthiaume at Library and Archives Canada

Quill and Quire reports on the rebirth of LAC as a cultural commons in Ottawa under the leadership of Guy Berthiaume, with the return of events, speakers, seminars and other previous victims of austerity.
In years past, the library was a hub for major literary and cultural events, from book launches to exhibitions and concerts. Its ground floor buzzed with activity. Now, following six years of austerity measures that saw massive budget cuts and a hold on new acquisitions, LAC is once again becoming an animated place and a force in the arts community.
How LAC is doing as an archives also matters, shall we say.  But this is important too.

Hat-tip Fred Stenson's Scoop.it 

Whale history

Historian Daniel Francis reviews Mark Leiren-Young's The Killer Whale Who Changed the World, which explores the unintended consequences of the 1964 accidental live capture of "Moby Doll":
Moby Doll’s time in captivity was brief but it was a transformative event in the history of the BC coast. It marked the beginning of a remarkable change in public perception and scientific understanding. This is the real subject of Leiren-Young’s book and the reason why he argues that Moby Doll “changed the world.” Able to get close to an orca for the first time, people began to recognize that it was a peaceable, intelligent animal, not a fearsome monster.
The review appears in The Ormsby Review, a new initiative in British Columbia historical journalism named in honour of the mother of British Columbia history, the late Margaret Ormsby.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

History of architectural criticism

Speaking of political correctness, can it really be true that the Ottawa Writers Festival made Charlotte Gray disavow her description of the Library and Archives Canada building as "bleak"??

(It still ain't the Taj Mahal of archives, let us say.)

Update, October 25:  Frank Rockland points out LAC is currently hosting "Icons of Knowledge," an exhibition from Harvard University on architecture and design symbolism in national libraries around the world.

Discover Canada to be corrected, politically?

To be politically corrected?
Peter Van Loan, the unsavory Harperian attack dog, has reinvented himself ... as a historian, or at least a twitterstorian.

Rumours that the Liberal government was planning a rewrite of the citizenship orientation book Discover Canada provoked Van Loan to denounce a "Liberal war on history." To fight it, he launched what has become a daily tweeting of Canadian historical events, Tory-slanted (heavy on John A. and the monarchy) but mostly just random historical moments and anniversaries.  Such as:

Sadly, Van Loan may be sort of right about Liberal history. Sources suggest that politicos in the Immigration Ministry are working on tweaks to the Discover Canada text -- as written some years ago by political types in the previous government's Immigration Ministry.

I'm not against edits and tweaks to the material in the booklet that is intended to orient immigrants preparing to seek Canadian citizenship. But the government has historians and researchers capable of doing this.  Canadian history, particularly official history, ought to be depoliticized as much as possible. Historians being asked for input on the latest rewrite should not cooperate without assurances that professional rather than political standards are being maintained in the process

Monday, October 17, 2016

1066 and all that

The other day they re-enacted the Battle of Hastings for its 950th anniversary. Despite the Brexit vote and all, the invaders still won.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Prize Watch: History of Literature

Gotta say I was pretty chuffed to hear of Bob Dylan being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Sure it is an unconventional choice, but who has contributed more fresh language, more fresh images, more fresh idiom to the culture over the last fifty years?

Here's me rooting for him eighteen months ago.

Besides, we need to get over this idea that real literature only comes in the form of made-up book-length prose narratives.  Strike a blow against fiction bigotry, Nobel people!

One downside: it has sure put a spike in Leonard Cohen's chances.  Here's the New Yorker, in a long Cohen profile just published, getting Dylan and Cohen to ponder on each other.

Meanwhile, here's the New Republic explaining just last week why Bob Dylan will never win a Nobel Prize
Bob Dylan? Despite being beloved by people who don’t know anything about the kinds of writers who actually win the Nobel Prize for Literature, Bob Dylan is not winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. If Dylan does win, I will eat my copy of Blood on the Tracks.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Prize Watch: Charles Stacey Prize to Cook and Reid

The 2014-15 Charles P. Stacey Prize for distinguished Canadian contributions on conflict and society, awarded every second year by The Canadian Commission for Military History and the Canadian Committee for the History of the Second World War, has been awarded:
  • to Tim Cook of the Canadian War Museum (his second Stacey Prize) for The Necessary War: Volume One of Canadians Fighting the Second World War
  • and to Richard M. Reid of the University of Guelph for African Canadians in Union Blue: Volunteering for the Cause in the Civil War.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Maclean's ranks the prime ministers

Needed a better barber, maybe
Maclean's, or more precisely, historians Norman Hillmer and Stephen Aziz for Maclean's, has organized another of those rank-the-prime-ministers studies.  It appeared in the magazine --print and online -- last week. A hundred and twenty-three responses were tallied from "academics and journalists who are experts in history, politics, international relations and economics."  So you may be among the participants.

(I'm not, actually.  Norman Hillmer kindly invited me to participate when he did one of these ten years ago, but I was busy, a bit dubious about the whole exercise, and frankly not very sure who I'd rank where among a lot of PMs I was neither well informed about or terribly interested in.  So I declined -- and my choice has been respected.  If I did not play, I shouldn't criticize the results, I guess, but what the hell. This time the 123 responses came from 187 invitations, it says.)

This year the poll has separated the long-term PMs from the short-termers.  Among long-term leaders, it's Mackenzie King, Laurier, Macdonald, Pierre Trudeau, and Pearson filling the top five - so mid-twentieth century Liberalism is doing pretty well in academic eyes.  Macdonald dropped among young respondents, and Trudeau dropped sharply among Quebec respondents.

Big misjudgments?  Louis St-Laurent right behind the top five, hmmm.  And I'd say Alexander Mackenzie deserves to be higher than second from the bottom among the long-service PMs.  Sure, he only served one term, and he tends to be treated as hopelessly out-maneuvered by John A.  But the first ever Liberal government did important things: the secret ballot and electoral reform, civil service reform, bringing Prince Edward Island into confederation, planning western expansion and land treaties, and standing up to presumptuous governors-general and British officialdom.  Historians who can see the merit in the short serving John Thompson should take another look at Mackenzie.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Capturing Hill 70 and the state of Canadian military history

UBC Press has just released Capturing Hill 70: Canada's Forgotten Battle of the First World War, edited by Douglas Delaney and Serge Durflinger, and with contributions by seven other Canadian military historians.

I know because I just received a copy, and I received a copy because I read it in page proof and supplied a backcover comment. I called it "a meticulous work of battle history" and said it "showcases all the strengths of Canadian military history today."

Still sounds about right to me.  By August 1917, a competently led battle on the Western Front was a weird mix of complicated, mathematical engineering and insensate horror.  Capturing Hill 70 does not neglect the latter, but the 'meticulous' part is how its authors analyse the former: how staffs organized "battle procedure," the slide-rule calculation of artillery fire plans, the logistics of ammunition supply, even the application of railroad and tramway technology to casualty evacuation.  It ain't trumpets-and-drum history, but it casts a powerful spotlight on modern warfare a century ago, and it is well done.

The only part of Capturing Hill 70 I didn't much admire was the "Forgotten" in the subtitle, and the undertone grumbling here and there that suggests that military history in Canada 1) is neglected, 2) has not had enough written about it, 3) is insufficiently memorialized, and generally 4) doesn't get the respect it deserves.

This has been a theme of military historians at least since Jack Granatstein wrote Who Killed Canadian History? And maybe they need to get over themselves.  (By the way, Granatstein contributes a superb article here on manpower issues and the conscription crisis behind Hill 70, with the vital data powerfully deployed in a short space.).

Let's be clear.  There is a substantial corps of good, well-trained, well-organized and productive military historians in Canada. They have lots of access to publication, and they are prolific. They have access to notable centres of military history, not only in universities but at the War Museum, the forces' Directorate of History, the military colleges, and various private foundations. The bookshelves are full of military history, and the documentary films pour forth unceasingly.  These complaints of neglected and forgotten military history have a poor little rich kid sound.

I'm talking here about military history, but the same applies to a lot of Canadian history fields and subfields.  Any historian can make a case that his or her particular specialty deserves more respect and attention and should have had more published about it.  Frankly, it's pretty much always a waste of time. If you think your subject is understudied, then do your work. And stop bitching.  You probably have it pretty good.      
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