Friday, May 24, 2019

Prize Watch: CHA Best Scholarly Book Shortlist

The Canadian Historical Association has released its shortlist for the Best Scholarly Book prize (formerly the John A Macdonald prize) for 2019.  Winner of this and its other awards to be announced at the CHA annual meeting in Vancouver in early June.

Nominees are
  • Le Piège de la liberté: Les peuples autochtones dans l'engrenage des régimes coloniaux par Denys Delage et Jean-Philippe Warren  Boreal.
  • Panser le Canada: Une histoire intellectuelle de la commission Laurendeau-Dunton par Valérie Lapointe-Gagnon (Boreal 
  • Flesh Reborn: The Saint Lawrence Valley Mission Settlements through the Seventeenth Century by Jean-François Lozier McGill-Queen's)
  • Flax Americana: A History of the Fibre and Oil that Covered a Continent by Joshua MacFadyen (McGill-Queen's)
  • Give and Take: The Citizen-Taxpayer and the Rise of Canadian Democracy by Shirley Tillotson (UBC Press).

History of music, issues of appropriation

Years ago we happened on a Dave Amram jazz concert outdoors at Toronto's Harbourfront. We stopped to watch. After some impressive presentations of, well, of jazz music, Amram declared, "Now we are going to play some of the classical music of North America."

What's American classical music?  A pause, and what erupted was a drumming circle, and "hi-yé" chanting, as if we had stumbled into a pow-wow.  It did not look as if any indigenous musicians were in the ensemble, or I don't recall any permission being cited. But hearing Indigenous music presented outside of any specifically First Nations cultural context, with absolute persuasiveness as Music, as the art form it undoubtedly is, was profoundly persuasive and memorable to me. I grasped in a way I never had that indigenous music is not only a sort of tribal flag to be waved. It's a serious musical form too. Shoulda known, no doubt, but it was precisely because it was out of context that it was so persuasive a proof.

It turns out, I now find, Amram had worked with Lakota, Cheyenne, and other Indigenous musicians -- notably Floyd Red Crow Westermann as this profile notes
Amram seems to have taken a lesson from practically everything -- even the inauthentic Philadelphia mariachi bands. "I understood that you couldn't just barge into another culture, but approach it in the same way as you do with Bach or Shakespeare," he says. "You spend a lifetime to understand and live it."

That's his approach toward Native American music. He learned from the late Floyd "Red Crow" Westerman, a Sioux musician and activist. "I remember I was practicing a song and trying to get it right, and Floyd said, 'It takes 12 years to learn a song,' " says Amram. "Every idiom you learn is a lifetime of study."
Which brings us to last week's Indigenous Arts Awards, which was boycotted by several Indigenous artists over a charge of appropriation brought by Inuit musicians against the Cree singer Cikwes, who included Inuit throat singing in her recent album.

I've heard enough throat singing to know it is a unique and legitimate musical form. I like the idea that it could make its way out in the world and that both its origins and its intrinsic merit would be widely acknowledged.  But there are the power issues here. If an Inuit artist picks up a guitar or an African singer takes up opera, no one feels cause to be offended. But a marginalized, disempowered culture that sees one of the few things not already stolen from it being appropriated -- no wonder it finds itself violated.  (Make your own analogy to pipeline construction)

Sometimes it's better to seek forgiveness than permission, goes the saying.  But sometimes it's better to make sure about the permission first.  Somewhere in here, Greg Younging's rules apply.

Nunutsiak News reports two Inuit songwriters won awards at the IMA -- and the comments section takes up the controversy in true comments-section style.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

This Month at Canada's History

My subscription copy of Canada's History arrived today. For the first time in about 25 years, I don't have a column or article. But I'm still there. Look at the masthead when your copy arrives, and you will find I appear as "Contributing Editor." 

Editor Mark Reid has been tweaking the magazine format, as editors should. He proposed recently that instead of a 600-word column in every issue, I switch over to writing substantial features, a couple of thousand words or more. I was ready for that switch, and indeed my first feature is already submitted. I'll have features frequently, but not in every issue. 

At most magazines, "contributing" editors are non-staff writers who contribute material regularly, and are also available to consult as needed on future issues, contributors, topics, and so on.  Since I've been doing that informally, I thought I might as well claim some real estate on the masthead as well. 

Meanwhile, June-July at Canada's History has much on D-Day for the 75th anniversary.  Plus Mariana Valverde on Canada's start on legislating an end to LGBTQ discrimination. More exploration of the statues-and-monuments controversy. The annual summer history reading suggestions. And much more, in the mag itself (Subscribe!) and at the website.

Friday, May 17, 2019

History of paying for museums

Monet, Arrival of the Normandy Train (image from AGO)
In Toronto the Art Gallery of Ontario recently generated substantial buzz with its announcement of free admission for all visitors 25 and under and a $35 one-year pass for all others (compared to a basic single price of $19.50, and annual memberships over $100).

I salute this project. It will make the AGO, already a lively place, livelier this coming year, and I hope it proves financially feasible serious over the year's test. It also reminded me of all the countries where major public galleries -- and even more, museums and historic sites -- are FREE FREE FREE. I was on about this ten years ago, and I experienced it again recently at the wonderful National Archaeological Museum in Dublin. I thought there about how expensive we in Canada make a family visit to the Royal Ontario Museum, the Museum of Civilisation, or Parks Canada's historic sites.

Speaking of the AGO, we went to see its "Impressionism in the Age of Industry" exhibit last month (it's over now).  Liked the paintings, and was, well, intrigued by the captions. It has been the AGO habit in recent years to strive to place all its exhibits in historical context, as if the artists it shows were all socio-cultural documentary artists. Well, this whole exhibit was about the age of industry, so the commentary made sense. Indeed this historical context stuff ought to appeal to me; it's the kind of interpretation I would try to do myself, probably.

But every time I read about how Monet or Caillebotte were demonstrating their awareness of class difference, and gender oppression, and the transformative power of capitalism, I found myself thinking, okay, but can't you say anything about how they put paint on canvas, or the artistic traditions they were adapting or rejecting?

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Greg Younging and the history of Indigenous writing

Greg Younging, 1961-2019
He wasn't precisely a historian, but he was doing something historic, I thought. I was sorry to read recently of the death of Greg Younging (formerly spelled Young-Ing). Greg was a member of the Opsakwayak Cree Nation of Manitoba, for much of his life a publisher and editor with Theytus Books and En’owkin Centre in Penticton. BC., and a sometime academic. 

What he was constantly about was building up Indigenous writing in North America. That was creativity-building, as poet and editor, but also infrastructure-building.  His recent book Elements of Indigenous Style: A Guide for Writing By and About Indigenous Peoples was one example. (Note the ambition in the allusion to Strunk & White, The Elements of Style). But so was his energetic campaigning, in Canada and globally, for creators' rights and particularly for the legal recognition and protection of TK, traditional knowledge.

Given the explosion in Indigenous writing, publication, and public expression of all kinds, Greg's capacity building work was very much in at the creation.  There's a fuller obit here.

From a CBC "Unreserved" profile: Younging's list of five common errors of Canadian publishing.  Consider how it applies to Canadian history writing and publication:
  • That non-Indigenous people can write about Indigenous communities and interpret their culture through their own perspectives.
  • That because Indigenous people are modern, they are no longer authentic. Editors assume that "when Indigenous peoples participate in modernity, they are turning their backs on their ancestors."
  • Indigenous people are written about in the past tense, when they are in fact very much alive and thriving.
  • That Indigenous literature is a subcategory of CanLit.
  • That publishers have the right to publish traditional stories — a trend Younging sees in children's literature.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

History of legal history

Went down last night to a dinner celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History and its inspirer/founder, former Ontario Attorney-General (and Chief Justice and much else) Roy McMurtry. Since the Society has access to the Law Society's stately Osgoode Hall and its dining room, the legal-tome-lined Convocation Hall, they do put on an elegant event. More impressive, even, was the mass of working lawyers the event attracted, men and women who understand (often having been persuaded by Roy McMurtry) that supporting a legal history society can be both a cultural pleasure and a kind of professional responsibility. Also in attendance: a few lively tables filled by us historians who have contributed to and benefited from the Society over the years.

Many examples were given at the dinner of the good work the society has done in forty years to stimulate legal-historical research and to create venues for publication,  (As the Society's editor-in-chief likes to say about the entwining of law and history, "There are two kinds of historians: those who do legal history and know they do, and those who do legal history but have not realized it yet."

Recently I have my own little testimonial to the good work the Society can do in that area. I agreed some time ago to write up Archer Martin, a past chief justice of British Columbia, for the Dictionary of Canadian Biography: the usual 1500 words or so for the usual hundred dollars or so. Well, I know his career pretty well.  Then I confirmed that the British Columbia Archives holds a large collection of Martin's personal and professional correspondence, and since Martin was famously cranky and combative they seemed to obligatory reading.

Except my spending a month or two researching in Victoria on the DCB's hundred bucks seemed... well, impractical.  Happily, some consulting in the legal history community (thanks, Hamar) and with BC Archives and Museum (thanks, Lorne and Sally) confirmed that it would be perfectly practical to hire someone there with a iPhone and some organizing skills to photograph a collection of the relevant materials and send it to me to research at home and at leisure.

Now I'm pretty sure SSHRC and the Canada Council and every other granting agency I could think of would take a year or two to say no to a request for a small subvention to assist that process. Enter the Osgoode Society, which administers the Theodor Kerzner Research Grants (endowed by another lawyer-member of the society) to provide smallish amounts in support of legal history projects.  Voila: in a very short time I had some funds. I hasten to say it doesn't feel like a subsidy to me: seems to me the real beneficiaries will be some student on the Island, and the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, and, you know, Canadian scholarship.  Nevertheless, I suddenly have new cause to appreciate the existence of the Osgoode Society. (And thank you, the late Theodor Kerzner -- whom I never met.) Do other professions have comparable organizations?


Monday, May 13, 2019

History of the Senate and Senator Beyak

New Senate (literally: it's the new temporary location in the East Block) 

I'm on the record recently as arguing the new trying-to-be nonpartisan Senate is a good thing and in keeping with its founding principles.  The suspension the other day of Senator Lynn Beyak for her "refusal to remove racist letters about Indigenous people from her website" suggests a new angle to that.

In the old days, when the prime minister appointed his or her loyal supporters to the Senate in exchange for their permanent absolute loyalty, there would have been a demand for Senator Beyak's party leader to boot her out.  And of course whenever a party leader is involved, only two issues matter: what might the issue do to the leader's public standing, and is there a challenge to the leader's authority?

Instead, the Senate seems to have take the grown-up position that they don't need to ask the boss to issue a diktat, they can can consider the issue and take appropriate action as a body.  As they have done.  But it is a bit weird too: the Conservative Party and the Conservative party caucus in the Senate are agreed that we should go back to the old way of prime ministers should go back to the old habit of purely partisan appointments, and yet in this case they let the Senate take the lead -- as if they believe it should be an independent self-managing body.  Cannot have it both ways, one might think.

The recent poll a senator took on attitudes to the Senate changes provoked the Conservatives to complain it is a misspending of public money. Accusing the Senate for spending public money -- on anything -- has always been a pretty safe line of attack. But it's hard to resist thinking the Conservative Senators are also peeved by evidence the poll provides of how unpopular is their party's plan to go back to the old party-hack Senate:
The poll found that only 3.4 per cent of the 1,000 people surveyed by Nanos on the phone and online between March 29 and April 1 said future governments should "go back to the previous ways of appointing" senators, while 76.7 per cent said future governments should retain the changes made by the current government.

Friday, May 10, 2019

First Last Spike History

Today is the 150th anniversary of the completion of the first transcontinental railroad, at some place in Utah.  (What, you thought the CPR was the first.)  Lawyers, Guns, and Money is on the story, incidentally noting the nefarious role of TransCanada Pipelines (currently changing its name to plain TC) in criminalizing infrastructure protests.

Book Notes from all over

1.  I share the now seemingly pervasive view that CBC's Canada Reads contest is an abomination of a books program, one where people scream at each other about absolutely the wrong reasons to read books and normally eliminate all the good books as fast as they can.

But I've been reading Max Eisen's memoir By Chance Alone, which won Canada Reads earlier this year. You know, somehow they picked a good book this year. (Probably for the wrong reasons.)

By Chance Alone is an account of how Eisen's family were swept into the Nazis' Final Solution, of which he was the only one to survive. In the amazingly calm and dispassionate way the book evokes Eisen's horrific youth in Auschwitz (and before and after), it reminded me disturbingly of Edward Metatawabin's residential schools memoir Up Ghost River. 

2. Last Sunday, the Toronto Star's Katie Daubs had a long powerful story about pioneering racialized and minority nurses at Toronto's Women's College Hospital school of nursing.  I was impressed to see how much the article drew on Kathryn MacPherson's Bedside Manners:: The Transformation of Canadian Nursing, 1900-1990. Which I actually thought was a recent book -- it's is from 2003.

3.  I take a special interest, but I sometimes think that legal history is an extraordinarily productive field these days.  A couple of recent signs. Constance Backhouse who produced a huge and impressive biography of Supreme Court Justice Claire L'Heureux in 2017 now brings out a double biography, Two Firsts: Bertha Wilson and Claire L’Heureux-Dubé at the Supreme Court of Canada.  My friend Constance is not the only feminist legal historian in Canada by any means, but if she was the field would still be thriving. 

And Harry Arthurs, legal scholar, former president of York University and much else, has produced a memoir, Connecting The Dots: The Life of an Academic Lawyer.  It sounds, well, a bit routine, but Harry Arthurs once wrote an essay about professional self-governance and ethical responsibility among lawyers that was somehow both serious and laugh-out-loud funny.  (Laughter: mine). It was called "Over Niagara Falls By Bridge and Barrel: The Perils of the Profession in Ontario and New York,"  Some of his other, equally serious essays on legal matter make title allusions to dead parrots and the climbing of Kilimanjaro that Monty Python aficionados will catch at once.

4.  Everyone who goes ape shit every time the CBC-Television attempts to do something about Canadian history might find ammunition in Recasting History: How CBC Television Has Shaped Canada's Past by Monica MacDonald (forthcoming).  Among its topics, sez the blurb, is "the role of professional historians, as journalists emerged not only as the new producers of Canadian history on CBC television, but also as the new content authorities." Sounds about right. May be interesting to compare reviews by journalists and historians on that one.

Note that, of these books, I have read only Eisen and the L'Heureux-Dubé bio.  Mention here, as they say, does not preclude future review.

Monday, May 06, 2019

History of Ireland

Visiting Ireland recently, I was reading Ireland's historical magazine, and I was entertained to see that it was debating much the same topic as was recently aired in Canada: too much or too little political biography? 

David McCullagh, an Irish writer/broadcaster/biographer contributes a piece to the most recent History Ireland, reflecting on how some years ago he said  "Who needs a new book about Dev?" and ended up writing a two-volume biography of the very man, Irish revolutionary, politician, and president Eamon De Valera. (This is not the David McCullough who writes a similar kind of American political biography.) 

There is an interesting struggle, I gathered, in current Irish political historiography.  Much honour -- and not a little hagiography, goes to those who launched the Easter Rebellion of 1916, and opened the first, illicit Irish Parliament, the Dail, on January 21, 1919 -- a date recently chosen as Irish Independence Day. De Valera stands among them, though he seems to have avoided much of the actual fighting -- and therefore lived long enough to be President of Ireland into the 1960s and an architect of the conservative, poor, and priest-ridden Ireland that only began to change in the 1970s and 1980s. The only vivid thing I know of De Valera is that someone said that when he smiled, it was like moonlight on a tombstone -- which rather makes me want to read the biography.

But there is a good deal of opinion now that those men's ideology  -- armed struggle and the need for an independent Ireland to be sanctified by blood and not to be sullied by political negotiations -- nowadays plays directly into the hands of those who shot Lyra McKee last month. 

The importance of that debate was brought home to me by Historical Walking Tours of Dublin, a terrific endeavour, all of whose tour leaders are history graduates, mostly engaged in graduate studies at Trinity College Dublin.  If you are going to Dublin, this is the tour to take. Does any university history department in a Canadian city have anything like it?

Prize Watch: Donner Prize to Courchene, Indigenous Nationals

The $50,000 Donner Prize for Public Policy books was awarded the other day to economist Thomas Courchene for his McGill-Queen's book, Indigenous Nationals, Canadian Citizens: From First Contact to Canada 150 and Beyond.  The book is previously unknown to me, but it sounds like he has been reading some history, which is always praiseworthy.  Review may follow....  And I would say the whole shortlist this year looks impressive, tho' less historical.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Blog on hiatus (Top o' the mornin' to you)

The blogger is hitting the road. Blogging will be slim to none until about May 6. 

Deep history news

Paleontological star John Hawks muses here on recent discoveries of what is might be a previously unknown human or hominin species. Found on the Philippine Islands and dating to some 67,000 years ago, it is a human line that links to the Denisovan ancestry previously identified in Siberia. Such finds all show how archeology and DNA analysis are rapidly splitting the long-held Sapiens/Neanderthal dichotomy in early human evolution into a rainbow of human predecessors, and not only in Africa. Hawks is also intrigued by the frequency of recent fossil discoveries on islands, which suggests some seagoing ability at a much earlier period of hominid prehistory than anyone expected. Complicated!

Meanwhile a humbler application of new DNA tools. A woman who immigrated to Newfoundland in the early stages of English colonization there seems to have had a minor genetic anomaly that is now widespread in the Newfoundland population and almost nowhere else. It was tracked by DNA analysis, but researchers there think genealogists might actually be able to identify the specific person involved, except that early records tend to be much better at naming men than women.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Truth and Reconciliation Notes

In response to Call to Action 67 of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission:
We call upon the federal government to provide funding to the Canadian Museums Association to undertake, in collaboration with Aboriginal peoples, a national review of museum policies and best practices to determine the level of compliance with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People and to make recommendations.
the Canadian Museums Association has struck a Reconciliation Project Council, which it describes as "a 15-member representative, cohesive and influential team of experts in indigenous culture and museum practices" to oversee a comprehensive and inclusive process of consultation and information gathering leading to a national review of museum policies and practices in this regard.
And the Department of Heritage has announced "substantial financial support to the CMA to assist."
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