Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Recent polemics in Canadian history UPDATED

Do you need a polemical exchange in your historical life now and then?  My attention has been drawnto a couple of them recently.

One is "Gramsci's Guide to Vimy Ridge" by C.P Champion. It's an attack on The Vimy Myth by Ian McKay and Jamie Swift (and their earlier work Warrior Nation too).  In the first line McKay and Swift are denounced for pursuing "a seething and repetitive vendetta," and it pretty much continues that way.  The debate here is about Vimy and about views on the meaning of Canada's First World War.

I had thought, after watching the Vimy commemorations last spring, that the Vimy debate was pretty much over, and the McKay/Swift position had won decisively.

It was impressive to me how every historian who participated in the Vimy commemorations made a point of disavowing the claim that "Canada was born at Vimy." The claim remained on the lips of broadcasters and politicians, maybe, but used to be standard among military historians too, and it no longer is. Surely this was the heart of the Vimy Myth, and I give much of the credit to McKay and Swift for having helped put a stake in it.

Indeed, Champion, while wishing to reopen the debate, accepts the new consensus that Canada was not "born at Vimy," but remains furiously opposed to the anti-war and anti-militarism conclusions McKay and Swift draw.

The other historically-rooted polemic, now a couple of months old, is "For Future Use," Richard Jago's "obituary" for Conrad Black. Black is very much not dead, and Jago acknowledges that from the start, but he notes that newspapers often prepare and file advance obits.  Borrowing that model, he speculates what ought to be in preparation for Black.  The specific impetus for Jago's review of Black's career is the commentator's attitudes to Indigenous peoples, which he explores in detail.  These may have been exemplified in Rise to Greatness, Black's history of Canada -- the one that begins with the Viking explorations.

Attacks on Jago have probably been more widely circulated than the original piece.

Update, November 2:  Andrew Baldwin comments:
Whatever Christie Blatchford may think, I find the idea of writing fake obituaries of living Canadian figures one disapproves of hugely appealing and I plan to start my fake obituary of David Dodge shortly.

However, I was put off by Jago's scorn for Black's various of the pre-contact Native population of this country as 100,000, 200,000 or 300,000. The estimates may not even be contradictory, as the beginning of contact can be defined in different ways, spanning centuries. If Jago is such a big expert on Canada's Native population, why didn't he set the record straight. What are the best estimates of the Native population at the time preceding the Viking settlements, in 1492? when Jacques Cartier sailed up the Saint Lawrence, and so forth. There are probably a lot of Canadians like me who don't know much about Conrad Black, and know even less about Native demographics, but take an interest in both. 
Love your blog! Keep up the great work!
Best estimates seem to be that all estimates of indigenous populations in the Americas pre-1492 are unreliable, as they depend on how early and how widespread were the waves of early epidemics. The estimates rose enormously as understanding of the impact of those epidemics grew a generation ago, and then, it seems, some pushback developed, arguing lack of evidence for the largest estimations. 

But there seems to be continuing support for a population estimate of 10 million or more in North America north of Mexico, and for approximations from 200,000 to 2,000,000 across what is now Canada with particular concentrations on the west coast and in the Great Lakes-St Lawrence region.  See the survey and citations in this Wikipedia essay  and this piece in The Canadian Encyclopedia.

Short version:  populations pre-contact were a lot larger than post-contact. 

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