Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Book notes: Charlotte Gray on moms of famous sons

Down last night to Toronto's Massey College to help launch Charlotte Gray's latest book. Amidst all the discussion recently about how hard it has become to support the writing and publishing of big readable nonfiction in and about Canada, Charlotte's one step ahead of the trend.

Her new book Passionate Mothers, Powerful Sons is a biography of the mothers of Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt and their relationships with their political sons.  ("These women had their stories, and Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt are only part of it.") 

Canadian novelists have been more successful than Canadian historians at finding international readers and sales. But Charlotte Gray may break through. Simon & Shuster is publishing her simultaneously in Toronto, London, and New York. Given the combination of Charlotte's talents and the limitless interest in Churchill and in American presidents generally, it might just find the global market it is designed for.  

Is this a solution to the problem?... or the proof of it?  In either case, I'm looking forward to reading it.

Anyway I've been to two book launches this week, which means its officially book season.  I should start to pay some attention here to new books of interest in Canadian history

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

History of monarchy ... fading, fading.

One poll is one poll, but an endless sequence of polls all pointing in the same direction ought to mean something.

And the latest Leger poll on Canadian attitudes to the monarchy is something. When a consistent majority of the Canadian public, in all regions, in all age groups, on many kinds of questions, expresses this kind of detachment, discontent, dissatisfaction, whatever you choose to call it, about the country's relationship with the British monarchy... well eventually it has to leak over into our public discourse and our politics.

Summary hereFull text of the survey report here

Monday, September 18, 2023

History Podcasts UPDATED

The buzziest history podcast around recently -- judging by the media I see or follow -- must be "Empire," a British project of the historian of South Asia William Dalrymple (pronounced more like "Drymple" judging by how he introduces himself) and Anita Anand (the British TV presenter, not the Canadian politician). Recently their empire of choice was the Russian one, and their guest was starry historian Simon Sebag Montifiore (who uses "Sebag," not "Simon," as his given name, who knew?). Now they are onto the Raj, but still with a focus on Russia and "the great game" (as only the British would name a long cycle of imperial conquests). In the reigning podcast fashion it's chatty, funny, a bit show-offy, full of laughter and fairly superficial as history, but undoubtedly listenable.  

For a more intense, sit up and listen history podcast, I go to Patrick Wyman's "Tides of History." Wyman starts each episode with an intense little imagined scene, and then plunges directly into deep and very academic-research-driven discussions of ... well, whatever takes his interest.  He's followed the Polynesian expansion across the Pacific, Medieval Europe, the Bronze Age collapse of circa c1200 B,C., and the Paleolithic, among many other periods, with excursions into interviews of archaeologists, linguists, and whomever ever catches his interest.

CanHist podcasting? Though I'm a longtime member, occasional beneficiary, and constant admirer of the Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History, I've just learned they too are doing a podcast, "Time Immemorial," presented by two young lawyer-scholars, Preston Lim and Gregory Ringkamp. I have not listened yet, but they look to be deep-divey examinations of various Canadian and Canadian moments, generally with some legal-history aspect.  

The Champlain Society's "Witness to Yesterday," led by Patrice Dutil and Greg Marchildon, is the granddaddy of in-depth history podcasting in Canada, as far as I know. These days, they seem to interview everybody who publishes a worthwhile history in Canada (me included. Thanks, guys.)

It's a growing field and still largely uncategorized, podcasting. What history podcasts are in your earbuds? 

Update, September 19:  Meant to include:  For a real deep dive into niche podcastery by an obsessive Englishman named Andrew Hickey, try "A History of Rock and Roll in 500 Songs." (New Yorker: "his project is so vast that it can only be compared to, say, the construction of the Oxford English Dictionary.")

Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Ruth Holmes Whitehead (1947-2023): keeper of Mi'kmaw testimony

I was sorry to hear of the recent passing of two historians I knew slightly. Christopher English (1939-2023), was a historian of France at Memorial University who went to law school in mid-career  and then developed a popular and successful legal history program at Memorial. William Westfall (1945-2023), was a York University historian of nineteenth century Ontario Protestantism and wise and knowledgeable about much else too.

But I wanted to note in particular the loss of Ruth Holmes Whitehead, (1947-2023) whom I did not know at all. Without being deeply involved in the topic, I usually found that the richest and most insightful material on the Mi'kmaq of Atlantic Canada often came from Whitehead. Almost all her publications were compilations of Mi'kmaw oral testimonies, though often backed up with archival references to previously recorded material. 

I rather assumed she was herself Mi'kmaq. The brief author biographies in works of hers have called her a "Mi'kmaw scholar" or "Mi'kmaw historian and ethnologist" -- which is rather ambiguous -- and I called her that myself in print at least once. 

But the rather scant obits of her I have seen note her birth in South Carolina and her career in Nova Scotia, particularly at the Nova Scotia Museum, in ways that seem to make clear that she was not indigenous. (Glad to be corrected here)  I don't think there is a "pretendian" issue; the misunderstanding was mine.  And the material she collected and published will endure. 

Update, September 18:  I'm not trying to make this an obituaries blog, but ... death happens.  My X/Twitter feed this weekend was full of grief for University of New Brunswick historian Elizabeth Mancke, gone too soon and much mourned, it is clear.  She helped inspire the Borealia website, I understand but as yet no formal obits or profiles have turned up there or from UNB.

Monday, September 11, 2023

(Pleasures of) the History of New France

An attractive thing about the history of New France is how deep back it goes, at least among Canadian subjects. Indigenous history goes way farther, obviously, but not with the same wealth of documentation. If you like a subject to research where you are definitely in a foreign country where they do things differently and there are lots of sources to show you just how, New France fits -- even for 21st century pur-laine Quebeckers, I'd say.

I was reminded of that by a recent post on the Query the Past blog that reviews a couple of micro-studies by Gaston DeschĂȘnes, one that examines Canadien responses to the American revolutionaries' invasion of the St-Lawrence corridor in 1775-6, and the other on the same subject during James Wolfe's invasion of 1759. There are abundant studies of the political/military aspects of both conflicts. What DeschĂȘnes sought to do was see what local sources might add to the big story.  

What he has able to do, apparently (I'm reading Patrick Lacroix's review, not the originals), is tease out as much detail as possible on who among the francophone population got involved in these conflicts, where exactly they stood in their communities and, for the 1775-76 conflict, at least, which of them joined the American cause and (possibly) why.  Given the nature of those local sources in New France/Quebec, diligent research makes it possible to find out quite a lot about even the most obscure individuals. Good to see that kind of work still goes on in New France studies.

I once tried to consider why in 1813 loyalist John Crysler became a hero of Canadian resistance to another American invasion, while his first cousin Adam Crysler was hanged for giving armed support to the same invaders. Let's just say the New-France/Quebec files (parish records and notarial files in particular) seem a lot more detailed on local communities and obscure individuals than the Upper Canadian ones.  

Friday, September 08, 2023

Obituary: Peter C Newman, connoisseur of power

The cap always looked silly.
The Globe and Mail offers two obituary essays on Peter C. Newman, who died yesterday: one by historian Allan Levine, the other by journalist/publisher Kenneth Whyte.  

It's the historian who defends Newman the historian (gift link) in regard to the Hudson's Bay histories that were Canadian bestsellers in the 1980s. Allan Levine is right, I think, to record the pettiness and insecurity with which the academic community attempted to belittle Newman's historical work. it was not an edifying spectacle. And his account of how he worked successfully with Newman for decades is illuminating. 

But I think Ken Whyte is on the right track to pass over the HBC books with the comment, "The series leaves something to be desired as history" and to focus on Newman's journalism, his real work.

Newman's genius was in interviewing. How he got seasoned businessmen and veteran politicians to imagine that he was on their side and could be trusted with the most damning admissions -- which he always went right ahead and published -- continues to be mysterious and astonishing. Newman/Nixon might have been better than Frost/Nixon.  

His focus was always power (he incorporated himself as "Power, Inc."), and I think that is what sank his histories. The subjects were all dead -- he could not talk to them.  And in a way, he could not take them seriously, because being dead, they had lost all power for him.

I only had one extensive interaction with Peter Newman. The year I chaired the Writers' Union of Canada, Newman was invited to give the Hugh MacLennan lecture (always on "A Writers' Life." and given at the Union's annual meeting, held that year in Kingston). The series, inaugurated by MacLennan himself in 1987, comes with a notable fee and has attracted most of Canada's leading writers, most of whom have clearly been honoured to talk about their writing with other writers and the general public.

Before the speech, we took Newman to dinner at Chez Piggy: myself as chair, novelist Audrey Thomas, our ED Penny Dickens, and Pierre Berton. Pierre was his usual genial expansive self, companionable with everyone. Newman clearly wished he was anywhere but there, and spoke to no one but Pierre, leaning over throughout the dinner to whisper to him as if to exclude everyone else.  

The speech he gave later was probably the weakest MacLennan Lecture ever. He must have had some assistant cobble together a string of old chestnuts about writers and writing from a dictionary of quotations. But his stature as a writer was respected --he got a substantial ovation. Then he skipped the reception -- he had a car waiting to take him home.  

I concluded Peter Newman was a complete asshole. I have not yet seen the obituary that either refutes that (I have met people who defend his character). Or says it out loud.  

Thursday, September 07, 2023

History of higher education, and federalism

Ontario colleges -- students from India provide more $$$ than Ontario

HESA higher education blog, back from summer break, documents how Ontario's college now base their budgets on operating as immigration facilitators instead of being, you know, a public education system educating the public.,

It turns out that Indian students not only contribute twice the amount of money to the college system, on aggregate, that Canadian students do, they also contribute slightly more than does the Government of Ontario.

Education, healthcare, seniorcare, housing, urban government -- is there any area of jurisdiction where the provincial governments are taking seriously the matters that are their basic constitutional responsibilities?  

Thursday, August 31, 2023

1931 Census of Canada ... coming, coming

The complete 1931 census of Canada, with copious details of interest to historical researchers, genealogists, and many others, was released to Library and Archives Canada June 1, 2023.  It's available.  

But it's not yet available available.  

You cannot yet put in a name and have the data pop up, either on Library and Archives Canada web presence or at online commercial services such as  That will first require completion of a lot of digitizing and organizing. Involvement of the commercial services in this process will speed the process beyond what the LAC budget would permit.

LAC has posted and is updating a pretty good state-of-progress page on the making-available of the 1931 data.  Pending the digitizing process, you cannot yet search Grannie's census data just by typing her name in a search box. Did she own a radio? That was a new question on the 1931 census.  

You can now look at any particular page of the census as filled in by the census-taker.  But, for the time being, you need to know the province, district, sub-district and so on in which a persons in whom you are interested lived in 1931.

LAC hopes that as early as this fall users will be able to run digital searches by name using the LAC Census Search. And presumably in the participating commercial genealogy sites too.

The Discover Blog -- official blog of the LAC -- has been posting useful information about how to use the 1931 census data as available now and as will be eventually.  Odd detail:  people on reserves were not enumerated with other Canadian residents.  A separate Reserve census was taken alongside the other one.  The data are available -- just not on the same pages as their non-reserve neighbours.

My family was not in Canada in 1931 (or 1941 or 1951, for that matter). But there are a bunch of 1931 people I'm looking forward to running through an Ancestry search ASAP. 

Update, September 1Helen Webberley comments from Melbourne, Australia:

My mother’s first cousins left Russia for Winnipeg in 1925 and the same time as the rest of the family came to Melbourne. Even though I am sure Winnipeg was not a major city at the time, I will look forward to learning more about  their lives in 1931.

Winnipeg not a major city then?  It had a population of c130,000 and growing rapidly, large industrial base, key service depot of the CPR, centre of the grain trade, gateway to the golden west....

On the other hand I see Melbourne had already exceeded a million in population by then.


Wednesday, August 30, 2023

Local history in architecture; and big men to fear

Art of Bartoletti: mermaid on seahorse confronts mollusc

Dave Leblanc, who writes the Globe and Mail's "Architourist" column, has an entertaining piece on strange statues that decorated the forefront of some apartment buildings in an otherwise not very artsy corner of Toronto  -- the work of a little-known sculptor named Alfi Bartoletti.  

What I really liked is the abundant credit Leblanc gives to the Etobicoke Historical Society and its volunteer members Neil Park and Denise Harris, who guided and informed his search for the sculptures and the sculptor. Leblanc concludes the account of his visit: 

And, as I open my car door to leave, I remind myself that local historical societies do amazing work, and they are deserving of our support.

Well said, Architourist. Put "historical society" in the search box at top left of this blog and you can see a few occasions when I have had similar thoughts. Nice to see the idea making its way in the national media. 

Speaking of the Globe, I've been reading Big Men Fear Me, Mark Bourrie's biography of George McCullagh, who in the 1930s bought up the papers that would become The Globe and Mail.  I had not realized how bizarre the paper's origins are. McCullagh was an unstable high-school dropout who made a fortune in a very brief career as an investment broker. (Where are the customers' yachts? as they say.)  In his short career as proprietor of the newspaper, McCullagh made it the vehicle for a lot of crazy causes and ideas. 

Imagine today, if some rich crank took over an important social media news site! Somehow the Globe survived to become the respectably gray thing we know today. 

The author of Big Men Fear Me at times seems to share his subject's odd views about "the Left" ("It's likely she wasn't a Communist, but she did like some of their ideas, like old age pensions and unemployment insurance."), but he provides a lively read on a subject worth attention.  McCullagh was new to me -- though I can see good reasons why he fell into the obscurity Bourrie laments.

Monday, August 28, 2023

History of abusing the Canadian head of state

 A relative of mine sometimes sends me links to articles in the National Post, that he thinks will enlighten me and that I generally find appalling. But arguing about politics has kept both of us happily engaged for decades now, so I put up with it.

One recent article (I guess I must link to it) he mercifully did not send me, but which really is appalling, is a screed of abuse aimed at Governor General Mary Simon. For what? For spending taxpayers' money while representing Canada at home and abroad.  The article throws around words like "luxury," "infamous" and "buckets of cash," without ever acknowledging that the Governor General never spends one cent.  All her travel and all her expenses are authorized, directed, and paid for by the Government of Canada.

And such travel by Canada's head of state is valuable and important. Does the Post imagine the guy in Buckingham Palace is going to represent Canada when he travels the world? 

I have previously noted the history of Canadians complaining of the cost of our country having its own head of state -- it goes back a long way.  But the Post piece sets a new low in hackery. The paper should content itself with sticking to the climate change denialism that fills most of its pages.

(Hat-tip to Ottawa journalist Dale Smith, who took note of this nonsense.)

History of Charlevoix and tourism

I'm just back from a brief holiday in Quebec and particularly the Charlevoix region. Happy to report, there is an excellent recent guidebook to that region, published by my friend David Mendel of Quebec City's Mendel Tours.

The Charlevoix district runs from Baie Ste-Paul to Tadoussac.  It is all spectacular and charming and full of places to visit or just gaze upon. The guidebook's focus, however, is on the town of Malbaie and -- since the Mendel Guide's interests always emphasize architecture -- the remarkable resort homes built around Malbaie in the nineteenth and early twentieth century by wealthy Americans and English-Canadians. One regular was the historian George Wrong, who wrote a big book nearly a century ago about the Scottish-Canadian seigneurs of the region.  

As it happened, the little auberge we stayed at stood in the midst of these stately mansions, and I learned  a lot about them from the Mendel guide and its superb photography.

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