Monday, September 08, 2014

Fall books watch: Levine on Toronto

I'm looking forward to Allan Levine's Toronto: Biography of a City, out this fall from Douglas & McIntyre.  A thoughtful imaginative exploration of the city would fill a gap on the shelf, for sure.

On Saturday, the Star ran a long excerpt, focussing on the hostile attitude  that Toronto, and particularly George Brown's Globe, took to the rapidly growing Irish Catholic population in the city, particularly in the 1850s.
Almost as soon as the famine victims arrived in 1847, the Globe declared that they would be “unaccustomed to the habits and occupations of Canadians,” and that they would “sink down into the sloth to which they had been accustomed at home.” Thereafter, lurid headlines screamed about “Irish Catholics the Curse of the Land,” and “The Irish Papist a Rebel and a Judas.”
In a February 1856 editorial, Brown expressed deep concern over further Irish Catholic immigration, warning that Canada West was to be “colonized by papists,” which he compared to “as great a curse . . . as were the locusts to the land of Egypt.”
I've haven't read all of the Globe for those years, for sure, but I've read some of it. And I often find it hard to find in its pages the bigotry and prejudice George Brown is alleged to have held against francophones and Catholics in general.  Brown certainly abominated the political role of the Catholic church, from the pope down to the local parish priest, and was consistently outraged by any possibility that voters would follow the bidding of authoritarian religious leaders rather than as acting as free citizens.

But that is not the same as bigotry.  I have found it sometimes reads as if Brown was a hundred years ahead of his time in his anti-clericalism. The Globe's attacks on clerical interference in French-Canadian politics sometimes look like what the Quiet Revolution was fought for in the 1950s and 1960s. And the recent collapse of Catholic clerical authority in the wake of the exposure of how flagrantly and consistently that authority has been abused -- well, it would not have surprised the Globe of the 1850s much.

So I sometimes find myself wondering if what was labelled (by its targets) as bigotry and prejudice was more like a legitimate political critique, albeit one expressed in the vigorous and intemperate language that sold newspapers.

Levine, I would say, makes one of the strongest demonstrations I've seen, that the Globe's treatment does indeed go beyond a political critique to the fanning and indulging of prejudice.  Hmm...

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