Thursday, May 13, 2021

New at the DCB: Fernand Rinfret's habits

 The latest DBC biography -- of Fernand Rinfret, journalist and politician, brother to a chief justice of Canada, and Mackenzie King's Secretary of State in the 1920s and 1930s -- is a tease. We learn King appointed him to the cabinet despite deploring Rinfret's "bad habits" which would destroy him -- but the biography will not even speculate as to what the habits were.

A reader may notice that Rinfret is reported to have literary tastes and abilities, loved the opera, holidayed in sunny California (where he died at 56), and had a brief and childless marriage in his youth.  Are we supposed to take a hint here?  I know nothing of Rinfret, but I've wondered in the past about the DCB's seemingly nudge nudge wink wink approach to possibly gay subjects. Is this another?

This month at Canada's History

Lots of expertise in this month's Canada's History, lively and readable too. Medical historian Christopher J. Ruddy considers historical clues for a post-pandemic Canada. Art historian and connaisseur of forged Krieghoffs Jon Dellandrea reports on his adventures with Canadian art forgeries and Canadian art forgers, and there's lots of real art and artfake side-by-side to test your eye on. The great editorial cartoonist "Aislin" (Terry Mosher) looks at his great predecessor Duncan Macpherson -- with copious illustrations.  

Lots of reviews. notably Victor Rabinovitch on Mary Janigan's Art of Sharing, a history of equalization payments, Grace Morgan's Beaver Bison Horse, and Bill Waiser's In Search of Almighty Voice. Plus travel notes, miscellanies and more. I pine a little at an issue with nothing in it from me. But Moore's to come.

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

History of statues, history of commemoration: Charlottetown

Charlottetown city council has agreed to recontextualize a statue of John A Macdonald, in consultation with Indigenous partners:
The change is one of several recommendations by Indigenous groups on Prince Edward Island that were adopted by city council Monday night by a vote of 8-1..... 
Indigenous groups wrote to council in January recommending several changes to the statue, including that the city install a new plaque describing more of Macdonald’s story, including his role in the creation of the residential school system.

This approach -- "nothing about us without us," as the indigenous meme goes -- seems the right one. Better to broaden interpretations than to dig in around old ones -- or simply make them all disappear.


Wednesday, May 05, 2021

History of the Census

Historians and genealogists a century from now will be grateful: the 2021 census is in progress.

To mark the event, Canada's History online is featuring my recent article "Making it Count," on the first census taken in what is now Canada: the 1666 Rolle des habitants of New France. It's about the making of the census ordered by Jean Talon, but also of its remaking in the late twentieth century by the historian Marcel Trudel, who made his own tally -- and increased the names on the census by twenty-five per cent.

Prize Watch: Radical Housewives

The Canada Council, in what seems like an extraordinary dereliction of duty, abandoned the Governor's General's Literary Awards last year, because there was a pandemic on, and apparently they had never heard of Zoom or anything.  Well, there still is a pandemic, but they have finally announced a finalists' list for the 2020 awards, and they promise winners on June first.  The full list is here, but there are no books that might be categorized History in the Nonfiction category, which tilts to memoir.

But the University of Toronto Press announced that Julie Guard's Radical Housewives: Price Wars and Food Politics in mid-20th Century Canada is the winner of the Errol Sharpe Prize of the Society for Socialist Studies.

Friday, April 30, 2021

Random notes

  • The latest from the Dictionary of Canadian Biography features one of those people who weren't even well known in their own time but still deserve to be in the DCB, in this case Vénérande Robichaud, an Acadian woman who died in 1936 at the age of one hundred, in the home she had lived in all her life, leaving behind among her possessions letters from her grandmother of the same name, a survivor of the deportation of 1755. (The DCB includes her too.)
  • I notice that some time recently the little counter in the right-hand column ticked over 1.6 million views since 2010. I have never taken these counts too seriously but I do appreciate all of you who really do view and read.
  • April 27th was the two hundred and eighth anniversary of the American attack on what is now Toronto.  No, I had not noticed either, but Andrew Stewart had. He sent this photo of "The Approach," a new painting [only partly shown here] by marine artist Peter Rindlisbacher, depicting the approach of the American forces aboard the fleet of Commodore Isaac Chauncey. 

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

History of Climate change II: a role for historians?

I read recently that the authoritive history of climate change studies is The Discovery of Global Warming ("this book is a history of how scientists came to imagine [climate change]") by Spencer R. Weart, an American physicist who retrained as a historian of science.

Browsing through Weart's Discovery, I find the quotation above is very precise. Weart's book is entirely about scientists.

Briefly, Weart reports that the role of greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide, in keeping the earth's surface warm -- and the potential of their absence to bring on glaciation -- was established by John Tyndall in 1859. But most considerations of climate change continued to look to sunspots or orbital fluctuations. The possibility of human influence was discounted until the 1950s, when some California weather scientists and geochemists began to consider the possibility of human contributions to carbon-dioxide production. Concern about a human-driven rise in global temperatures were widespread enough by the 1990s to produce the Kyoto Accords on the reduction of carbon gas emissions. But conclusive confirmation of human-caused climate change, Weart reports, had to wait until 2001, with the publication of the famous "hockey stick" graph of global temperatures over a thousand years. The first edition of his book appeared in 2003.

Weart notes that a lack of communication of scientists in different diciplines long impeded research into the subject of climate change and its causes. What strikes me is how his book lacks any suggestion of communication between scientists and historians.

Historians have long been aware that climates change. The "little ice age" of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was familiar to European historians, and equivalant shifts had been observed elsewhere in the world. The French historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie published "Histoire et Climat" in the journal Annales in 1959. His Times of Feast, Times of Famine: History of Climate Since the Year 1000 first appeared in French in 1967, drawing on many indicators from historical sources  (such as centuries of data on the advance and retreat of viable agriculture in the French Alps) as well as scientific sources (such as ancient tree ring analysis). 

Today environmental history thrives. Historical studies often make large speculations that climate change, including human-caused climate change, lay behind all sorts of historical changes. Did the population decline and consequent reforestation that followed the Black Death cause the Little Ice Age? Maybe. Did worsening climate doom the failed European settlement efforts in North America before 1600? Worth proposing. 

Now, Weart is probably right to assume that the scientists had to find their own way to measure global warming and its causes.  Historical studies could and did document changes in climate over time, but they did not identify causes for such changes. But a certain ambition for history was always there.  Emmanuel LeRoy Ladurie was part of a generation of historians who argued that history, far from being dependent on other disciplines, should be "the federative discipline," the one that brought the work of scientists, social scientists, and other scholars together to produce greater understanding.

Weart's book, a history of science with no interest in the history of historical studies, does not give support to that argument, let us say. There is no sense that historical studies did much to provoke the scientific curiosity about the causes of climate change that developed after 1950. So is environmental history -- history generally, if you like -- "federative?" Or mostly dependent?


Tuesday, April 27, 2021

History of climate change I

The Atlantic
has an eye-opening article about (yawn) the price of construction lumber. Sure, the pandemic has encouraged people stuck at home to start renovations and home-addition projects. And housebuying by the millennial (or baby-boom echo) demographic is also increasing demand. And this all comes just as timber stocks of construction timber are declining in the Pacific Northwest, particularly British Columbia. Lumber that used to cost $384 now goes for $1104.

Production troubles in the B.C. forests rose with the pine beetle invasion that killed 60 per cent of the merchandisable pine across 18 million hectares of the province in the last two decades. Pine beetles achieved that feat because warmer climates in British Columbia mean they are not killed off by winter frosts anymore. Less pine timber: prices rise.  

BC loggers have been furiously harvesting those stands of dead timber before they becomes unusable. But the massive forest fires of the last couple of seasons have been concentrated in those same vast stands of dead and pitch-soaked forests. What drove the forest fires? Mostly, climate change. So the salvage harvest is coming to an end, and a long decline in slowgrowing B.C. timber stocks is setting in. More price rises.

“There are people who say, ‘Climate change isn’t affecting me,’” Janice Cooke, a forest-industry veteran and biology professor at the University of Alberta, told me. “But they’re going to go to the hardware store and say, ‘Holy cow, the price of lumber has gone up.’”

History of climate, no wonder it's a growth field. 

Friday, April 23, 2021

Invading the Legislature, 2021 and 1849

Hadn't thought of this one. But at Borealia, Dan Horner compares the January 6 invasion of the United States Capital building in Washington, DC, to the April 25, 1849 invasion of the Parliament of the Province of Canada in Montreal (when the building was destroyed).  Indeed, it works.
The actions of the Tory crowd once they reached parliament also bore a marked resemblance to those of Donald Trump’s supporters at the American capitol in January. The intentions of these Tory rioters were clear. Unable to assert themselves as victors in the democratic process, they sought to intimidate their rivals and cast doubts on the legitimacy of the colony’s political institutions. They chanted and hollered, sang and threw stones. Finding little in the way of security after their political allies in parliament had shot down calls to summon the troops from the garrison, they made their way into the building and on to the floor of the legislature, where they interrupted the business of parliament that was still in session, shouting and shuffling papers on the desks of parliamentarians.

Updated, April 26: From Wikisource, a reminiscence of the 1849 riots from Alfred Perry, the man who claimed to have led the mob to the Parliament and personally started the fire that destroyed the building.  (Thanks to Russ Chamberlayne)

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Book Notes: Rough Justice

Flanker Press, Newfoundland's leading trade book press, recently sent me a copy of Keith Mercer's recent book Rough Justice: Policing, Crime, and the Origins of the Newfoundland Constabulary, 1929-1871.

Mercer's book is an institutional history commissioned and supported by the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary Historical Society (as the first of at least two volumes, no less). It's also a serious, from the ground-up, constable's-eye view of justice, authority, and the policing of early Newfoundland, with some serious comments to offer on Newfoundland historiography.

Take dog control. Mercer notes it has been argued that the frequency with which dog control legislation was brought down by Newfoundland authorities is evidence of the ineffectuality of law -- rule-making as a substitute for enforcement.

Mercer offers a table from a typical year,1865: 827 dogs shot by constables under the Sheep Act. 256 in St John's, 174 in Harbour Main/Brigus, 65 in Carbonear, 60 in Trinity, and so on. That's just part of one year, with not all districts reporting. The scale at which dogs were killed was astounding, Mercer writes. "In St John's Chief Magistrate Carter reported that constables shooting dogs with guns in the city was dangerous but happily no serious incidents had occurred." (Can we expect a dog's-eye view history of Newfoundland sometime?)

Mercer offers context for this unforgettable historical detail. In the 1860s efforts were being made to expand the Newfoundland economy beyond fishing to agriculture, and particularly to grazing.  An Agricultural Society reported in 1865 in the past five years no less than 4000 sheep had been killed by dogs, 1630 around Brigus alone.  Dog control in other words, was a prerequisite to development, and there was no one but the Constabulary's men to carry it out  - which they evidently did.

So Mercer makes the whole thing not a lurid anecdote (well, not only a lurid anecdote) but a window into the complications of law and policing when a handful of constables were practically the only agents of authority anyone saw.  And that kind of sharp eye for how Newfoundland society and government operated is evident all through the book.  It even explains why, in the early 19th century, anyone who was a publican, that is, held a license to sell liquor to the public, was also ex officio a constable responsible for keeping order in the neighbourhood.  The lovely strangeness of the past.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Prize Watch: The CHA Prizes

The Canadian Historical Association recently posted notice of the nominees for its historical prizes for 2021 

Shortlisted for the CHA best book prize are five books, only one of which, Heidi Bohaker's, got any notice here (but it was good notice):

Heidi BohakerDoodem and Council FireAnishinaabe Governance through Alliance (University of Toronto Press for The Osgoode Society, 2020)

Paul-André DuboisLire et écrire chez les Amérindiens de la Nouvelle-France (Les Presses de l’Université Laval, 2020)
Patrizia GentileQueen of the Maple Leaf: Beauty Contests and Settler Femininity (UBC Press, 2020)

Brittany LubyDammed: The Politics of Loss and Survival in Anishinaabe Territory (University of Manitoba Press, 2020

Eric W. SagerInequality in Canada: The History and Politics of an Idea (McGill-Queen's University Press, 2020)

The full lists of nominees in all categories, as well as recognition for last year's winners, are available at the website.

Monday, April 19, 2021

History of Cabinet

Here and there in the coverage of the Ontario government's flailing attempts to avoid blame for the province's new wave of Covid infections come mentions of the Ford government holding cabinet sessions that go long into the night, or cause scheduled press conferences to be delayed for hours while they wrangle.  

We tend to assume that the modern government cabinet is mostly a political irrelevance. Serious political stratagizing and decision-makers involves a leader and his or her strategists and spin-doctors, with the cabinet and caucus gettng their instructions later. 

But somehow one can imagine Doug Ford being strengthened and reassured by his cabinet, who doubtless tell him that the doctors and scientists on the pandemic advisory panels are pointy-headed theorists who don't really understand things, whereas they themselves just talked to a businessman or a town councillor back home who said blah blah blah. Ford alone with knowledgeable people might be swayed, but in cabinet it's collective ignorance that gets reinforced.

I'm generally an advocate of real parliaments, where cabinets are accountable to legislatures and caucuses and leaders are accountable to all three.  But sometimes even in our debased parliaments, I guess sometimes the worst are full of passionate conviction.  And it show.

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