Monday, June 05, 2023

Julian R.D.J. Gwyn 1937-2023 RIP, scholar of Atlantic history

This one is personal. At the very origins of my historical career with Parks Canada, I wrote an article entitled "The Maritime Economy of Ile Royale," my first publication, in fact. And no time later, Julian Gwyn, professor of history at the University of Ottawa, economic historian of Nova Scotia and much else, enthusiastic consultant to the Louisbourg reconstruction project, breezed into my office at Louisbourg, told me the article was terrific and that I should immediately proceed to graduate studies with him at the University of Ottawa.

Which I eventually did. Except he was on sabbatical the year I was there, so he did not supervise my thesis, and we became friends instead. We even published a little book together, in French, no less.

That was Julian -- endlessly active in historical work, keen to make connections, quick to make things happen, a generous mentor and encourager (while also being no mean polemicist). That most of his career he was about the only Canadianist seriously engaged with the economic history of eighteenth and nineteenth-century Atlantic Canada seemed to spur rather than inhibit all that activity.

Julian retired years ago and became a gentleman farmer in rural Nova Scotia, and we didn't see him often.  Things I learned from his obituary:  he had a notable military career in his youth; he joined half the historical and cultural organizations in eastern Canada; he had more more wives and more children than I knew; his full name was Julian Reginald Desgrand Jermy Gwyn, which tell all one needs to know about his British roots.

Thursday, June 01, 2023

History on pod: Parks Canada ReCollections

Slight hiatus there, what with some work things, the Writers' Union AGM online on May 24, and departure the next day for the Creative Nonfiction Collective in-person (and hybrid) conference in Halifax.  How good to be actually going somewhere -- and the conference rocked.

And then last Sunday on the flight home I began to feel unwell, and when I got home my Covid test was positive. The rest of the week has been a bit of a blur, and blogging fell sharply down the priority list (sleep, Paxlovid, sleep), but I can confirm that Covid has not gone away.  Blogging should resume herewith.

In other business, Angela Duffett of Parks Canada got in touch to draw my attention to Parks Canada's new blog ReCollections, a history and archaeology podcast exploring aspects of historic sites research and interpretation from around the country.  It launched in April, and now offers segments from half a dozen sites.

I'd say ReCollections is still finding its feet.  One might expect a natural audience would be among those already with some interest in Canadian history and archaeology, but ReCollections scripts seem to assume no one knows anything (""What you may not know is that one group of Norse explorers were the first Europeans to set foot in North America,") while simultaneouslly plunging pretty deep in the details.  And the big-voice AM radio type announcer/narrator sounds a little at odds with its material.  

But people want podcasts, and ReCollections has lots of scope to find its voice or voices.  Episodes tend to run 30 to 45 minutes, and they are tight -- avoiding that fifteen minutes of material in an hour and twenty minutes of chatter that sometimes the podcast norm.  Take a listen.  

Friday, May 19, 2023

Going down east

Looking forward to connecting with historians, memoirists, biographers, and all the rest at the Creative Nonfiction Collective Writing True conference next week.  In person.  And in Halifax.  

History of "woke"

Conservative academic/journalist Andrew Potter catalogues in the substack The Line why he abhors design changes in the new passport: “The lengthy list of apologies for past transgressions; the acceptance of Canada as a genocidal state; allowing the country’s 150th anniversary to be turned into an orgy of national self-hatred; ordering national flag to fly at half staff for an entire summer while blithely ignoring, for months, the factors that went into that decision; letting 24 Sussex turn into a ruin; the obscenely casual, almost sabotaging, attitude toward the appointment of a governor general; the general indifference to the Crown, the Royal Family, and what it symbolizes.”

A 20-something I know opines: “I love when he lists all the good stuff Trudeau’s done. As a Canadian nationalist I support every one.” (Try rereading that list with a positive tilt.)

I'm far from being a twenty-year old, but I'm with the kid on this one. It's depressing how often "History" is assumed to be on the side of the reactionaries. 

Meanwhile, Parks Canada is considering revisions to the texts of almost ten percent of the more than 2000 heritage plaques it maintains around the country. So, for instance, old plaques at fur trade posts will now give more recognition to the indigenous role in the trade. It's part of Parks Canada's response to Call to Action #79 of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission ("to develop a reconciliation framework for Canadian heritage and commemoration").  Frankly, it sounds like this could be routine maintenance anyway: how many historians would not consider reassessing things they wrote fifty years ago when they were being republished?

Yet people who should know better -- including a former Parks Canada VP, Heritage Conservation quoted in the article -- declare "a new woke perspective is being imposed on what was formerly an apolitical ... process."  Yeah, right.

I'm an old Parks hand myself (Historic Sites Branch, natch), and I've often noted Parks Canada's long held grasp of "commemoration, not celebration." The first of my (very few) ventures into drafting text for plaques was at Louisbourg, when a plaque about James Wolfe was being reviewed to make it a little less "Rule Britannia" in spirit.  Parks Canada, from administering sites like the Plains of Abraham (and Batoche) has long had opportunities to consider the pitfalls of picking sides, and it's good to know that process continues.

Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Moore talks: about the monarchy

We have not yet seen the Charles III twenty-dollar bills, but the black-bordered toonies are circulating. I got this one when I returned my empties at the beer store. Which does suggest they are not all becoming collectibles.

Also, mark your calendars: 

June 22: Special meeting with Christopher Moore: Should the British monarch remain Canada’s head of state?

Christopher Moore leads a group discussion at an in-person meeting at St. John’s Anglican Church, corner of Humberside Ave. and Quebec Ave. at 7 pm.

This meeting is in a hybrid format with Zoom available for those who prefer not to attend in person. We would appreciate feedback after the event on whether this arrangement works for you.

Advance registration will be required to participate on Zoom. Details will be found here closer to the date. 



Monday, May 15, 2023

This Month at Canada's History: Explorers, Confederation, Mi'kmaw Rights, Immigrant History


This month at Canada's History you can choose your cover image.  They have done a split run.

The newsstand cover -- if you can find a newsstand -- relateds to Ken McGooghan's article "Ships of Misfortune" on Jens Munk, one of a long unhappy history of navigators trying to find a Northwest Passage. Social media friends of Ken are already noticing that the image of Munk on the cover looks very much like Ken himself. Canada's History's new podcast supplement has Ken in conversation with senior editor Kate Jaimet.

My own feature story "Confederation or Bust" is inspired by Prince Edward Island's observance of its 150th anniversary of joining confederation in 1873. It's a story less of constitutional negotiations than of land wars, railroad crises, and the remarkable and ultimately tragic career of Island reformer George Coles.  

Maybe for the first time in non-indigenous media, I also took up the question of what the Mi'kmaq Nation of Atlantic Canada (and by extension other First Nations) thought and did about Confederation. That's in the article as well as in the podcast supplement (about to be posted) in which Kate Jaimet talks with Mi'kmaw scholar and law professor Cheryl Simon and me. From the article, Mi'kmaw concerns about Confederation's potential impact on indigenous rights:

The Mi'kmaq Grand Council -- a centuries-old governing body -- raised funds to send a delegate, Peter Cope, to meet with British Colonial Office officials in London. In 1926 Mi'kmaw elder Joe Cope recalled how Peter Cope was assured that as long as any Indigenous person "remained a True Ward of the English Government, so long his treaty rights would be respected and adhered to.  No bye-law can ever alter or change his Treaty Rights and Privileges."

The "subscription cover" this month features a memoir by the Canadian artist JJ Lee -- seen here with a photo of her grandfather, about four generations of her immigrant ancestors' experiences and the art she is creating about them.

And reviews, letters, notes, a visit to Baie St-Paul, and more.  If you subscribed like you oughta, it would be on its way to you.

Friday, May 12, 2023

History and Historians in the news

Jamie Bradburn and I sat on a heritage-award panel a while ago. Since then I've been following with admiration his public history activities around Toronto: a weekly quiz in the Toronto Star, various interventions into heritage protection matters, research, writing, public speaking, a substantial web and social media presence....  One of his gigs is for TVOntario's webmag TVOToday, where he writes lively deep-dives into the history of anything that might be topical Ontario news.  

One of those essays made the news cycle flutter a bit the other day: a piece called "The Right to Hold People to Ransom" about how in 1999, for pennies on the dollar, a Conservative government of Ontario gave a private consortium a 99 year lease on the newly built Highway 407. The consortium has been jacking up the highway tolls ever since, so that what was built to be a truck bypass around Toronto has become an mostly-empty bespoke freeway patronized mostly by the Mercedes and Lexus suburbs, while the trucks (and anyone else who is the least cost-conscious) continues to clog the 401 that parallels it farther south.

This all happened in 1999, note: perfect grist for Bradburn's historical mill. It trended, however, because long-term giveaways are newsy again in Ontario. Today another Ontario Conservative government is proposing an equally monstrous deal: a 95-year lease of the waterfront park called Ontario Place to businesses with big construction plans for the site. Highway 407 cratered Mike Harris's credibility beyond recovery. We'll see what giving away the lake does for DoFo -- beyond assuring the generosity of his grateful friends. 

Meanwhile, kudos to Jamie Bradburn for spotting the parallel just when the public needed an apt historical analogy. TVOntario is controlled by the Ontario government; I hope this little brush with fame doesn't lead to retribution against him. 

The reverse of Bradburn's smart history is the dumb history hoo-ha that erupted simultaneously. Every ten years or so, Canada designs a new passport. Tis time the historical images that formed the background of many pages of the current passport are being replaced with nature images and landscapes and such. 

Suddenly it's the death of history again."Trudeau's culture war erases Canadian history" screams seemingly every culture-warrior commentator in the Globe & Mail, and J.B.M. Stewart (who teaches history and should know better), and (natch) Pierre Poilievre.  


Thursday, May 11, 2023

History of Canada and the American Civil War

Filmmaker and writer Julian Sher, who had a lively piece in the April-May 2023 Canada's History on a Canadian corner of the American Civil War, has also had a series of articles in the Globe and Mail on a similar topic.  He's a little more confrontational in the newspaper pieces, which expose Canadian complicity in the Confederacy's pro-slavery secessionist campaign.

He does makes a strong case for the pro-slavery views and support for the Confederacy of more than a few prominent Canadians. But I thought the series a little one-sided (as an editor titled it: "The American Civil War was Canada's Fight Too. And We Were on the Wrong Side."   It did seem to skimp on coverage of serious reasons why British North America had concerns about a heavily-armed United States with strong and enduring annexationist views regarding the provinces to the north. (He does acknowledge there were abundant Canadian supporters of the Northern cause, if briefly.)

So I was pleased to see a couple of letters to the editor making precisely this point, one signed by Alan McCullough of Ottawa, a friend of this blog. 

Sher's most vivid story of a Canadian Confederate ally concerns prominent Torontonian George Denison, who spared no effort to support the south and the cause of slavery.  Good to see the DBC Denison entry has this covered well, and notes that Denison's southern loyalties ruined his chances for military preferment in Canada. (There's still a Denison Avenue in downtown Toronto.)

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Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Book Notes: Malloy on Parliament

The political scientist Jonathan Malloy, who has a new book called The Paradox of Parliament, had some opinions in the Globe and Mail last weekend that I'm still pondering. It was, I guess, a sort of defence of Canada's parliament against critics and reformers.   

Parliament has two core functions. One is representation: Canadians elect 338 MPs and governors-general appoint 105 senators to speak for the nation. But the other is decision-making: To move from talking to actually getting things done, legislators need to organize into teams, with hierarchies and leaders to steer the way. There is a natural and long-standing tension between these two functions, and parliamentarians straddle them every day.

Malloy defends Parliament's decision-making ability -- "On a collective basis, Parliament arguably works well, if imperfectly" -- and dismisses the "well-meaning half-measures" of parliamentary critics as misguided. "Most parliamentary reform efforts focus on the representation function, trying to find ways to empower individual MPs to operate more independently."   

Well, someone is misguided here. A core function of Parliament neglected in Malloy's 'representing/deciding' duality is accountability. In a parliamentary system, the executive is necessarily given vast authority. What can prevent the executive from becoming a four-year dictatorship is constant accountability to the legislature. And it is not individual MPs but caucuses of MPs, particularly the majority caucus, that can bear most of the weight of holding the executive accountable on a day to day basis.

The parliamentary reform proposals sneered at by Professor Malloy do not in fact propose empowering individual MPs. There probably are enough egomaniacal self-promoters in Parliament already. Rather, they speak for reestablishing some accountability in Canadian parliaments by empowering caucuses, not individual MPs. They proposes that caucuses -- formal groups of MPs -- are the proper focus of decision-making, and that leaders must be accountable to caucuses, not the other way round. (On this point, see The Reform Act, 2014.)

Now, it is true we are not accustomed to seeing caucus power in Canadian parliaments. Professor Malloy argues the "iron-fisted party discipline" of our legislatures is really just the norm for how parliaments must decide things, "with hierarchies and leaders to steer the way," He hand-waves away evidence from other parliamentary countries where caucuses often wield substantial power over leaders, and decision-making, and representation.  

Many political scientists are skilled in analyzing statistics, constructing surveys, and doing data management. That doesn't always translate into thinking clearly about how parliaments can, and sometimes really do, work. 

Note: haven't read the book yet.

Monday, May 08, 2023

Obituary: Mathews, Reid, McKenna RIP

Brian McKenna, historical filmmaker

Haven't done any obits for historians for a while, but time catches up on us all eventually, and suddenly there's a few. These three are all more "adjacents" that straight-up historians, but still...

Robin Mathews (1931-2023) was an English prof, poet, playwright, and theatrical impresario, but he's historical for his campaigns in the 1960s and 1970s for "the Canadianization movement" -- the idea that there should be some preference for Canadian academics in Canadian universities, rather than just having American deans hiring all their American proteges to come up north for a while. "He was a distinctive Canadian icon and is regarded as a Canadian nationalist par excellence," says his obituary, which rather suggests his heyday passed quite a while ago, doesn't it. Tant pis.

Dennis Reid (1943-2023), starting about the same time as Robin Mathews, was a great and pioneering historian of Canadian art at the National Gallery and the Art Gallery of Ontario, and later taught art history at the University of Toronto. The catalogue he produced for the fiftieth anniversary exhibition of the Group of Seven remains a standard reference, as does his Concise History of Canadian Painting, never out of print since 1973. His 1984 AGO exhibition "From the Four Quarters: Native and European Art in Ontario, 5000 BC to 1867 AD" was "the first time two artistic traditions, Native and European, can be seen integrating and influencing one another."

Brian McKenna (c1945-2023) is the only one of these I knew personally (a little). He was a longtime CBC documentary producer based in Montreal, and made many investigative programs for The Fifth Estate and other series. He was perhaps most committed to the big, elegantly-filmed historical documentaries he made on moments in Canadian history. Of those, the most remembered is surely "The Valour and the Horror" from 1992, a three-part series on Canadians in the Second World War that was seriously hated by many prominent veterans of that war, many Canadian Senators, and too many of the country's military historians, who formed common cause in what I thought was a disgraceful attempt to have the film permanently erased from memory. He confronted that attack gracefully and rather successfully: in 2007 he received the Pierre Berton Award in Popular History.

I wrote one of my early columns for The Beaver, now Canada's History, in defence of McKenna and his team and "The Valour and The Horror," and actually got one academic to say, "Well, these artsy-craftsy types get very concerned with their freedom of speech...," which I thought pretty much typified the quality of the opposition to the film. McKenna got in touch, and we talked a time or two in Montreal about some of his pending historical film projects.  I admired him greatly, but I think what we mostly learned from some thoughts I drafted for him was that I don't seem to think like a film maker.

Photo: Montreal Gazette

Thursday, May 04, 2023

History Speaks: Levine on Jewish Toronto

Next Wednesday, May 10, Winnipeg's prolific historian (and novelist) Allan Levine, author of a history of Toronto and a history of Canadian Jews, speaks in Toronto on "The Jewish Experience in Toronto" It is part of the Yorkminster Park Speakers Series -- a series that has welcomed quite a few historians, including me, in recent years.  If you are not in Toronto or unable to attend in person, it is available as a live webcast.


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