Monday, July 16, 2018

The Tour a week in



No Canadians in the Tour de France this time, instead of the two or three that has become common recently. And Chris Froome's drug-clouded Sky Team favoured to win, and few enough colourful rivals waiting in the wings. All the teams taking on new colours and new names, so it's hard work to figure who is who.  And kind of a dull opening, with many long flat stages that had even the usually discreet commentators talking about "a procession" rather than a race.  I miss Ryder Hesjedal

If only for the reputation of Grand Tour cycling, Chris Froome should never have been allowed to compete in this spring's Giro while under investigation for serious drug allegations. I was heartened by the way the Tour de France was about to keep him out -- when the results of the investigation came in.

And he was cleared. Not by some dodgy cycling panel but by WADA, the World Anti-Doping Agency, which surely had no reason to go easy or to fudge the results. It looks like Froome, who has lived with asthma all his live, did not exceed the regulated limits for his medication (which has no known stimulative properties anyway) during last year's Vuelta a Espana.  So he is a legitimate contender again.

With all that, a Tour fan simply has to buckle down for the long term.  The terrain for the first week wasn't conducive to exciting racing, but it surely hallmarked the lush, rich beauty of rural France.  You cannot help but notice, watching the Giro and the Vuelta, that Italy and Spain, for all their beauties, are in many parts hot, arid, rugged, and impoverished places. But France: the Tour always makes it look like paradise. Lush fields, flourishing agriculture, beautiful rivers and lakes,  breathtaking chateaux and villages at every turn.  I'd watch for the travelogue alone.

And in a slowish opening week, at least you get to sort out the teams and contenders, to find some promising new faces to watch for, and to figure out where the team strengths and weaknesses.  It's a rest day today,  and Tuesday they are into the mountains.  Sad to see Mark Cavendish, for a few years unbeatable in a sprint finish, slowly losing the twitch muscles that used to give him such acceleration.  Nice to see the numbers of South American riders, all terrific climbers, increase.  Could Awesome Lawson Craddock become the American hero the Tour has needed ever since that guy who cannot be spoken of anymore was exposed and banned?  And did I say I miss Ryder Hesjedal?

TSN, which took over the Tour broadcasting in Canada, has abandoned it again.  (Cycling coverage on television always did better on minor networks like Outdoor Life, which didn't really expect big numbers.) But tech takes away and tech giveth. The Sportsnet network is offering the whole Tour on its digital channel. For a month's subscription we can watch the whole tour whenever we want on the laptop, and to hell with whatever rival sports dominate the box. World Cup?  Wimbledon? Baseball All-Star Game? Ha.)

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Historians at the Order of Canada: Robert Bothwell


I've been meaning to note that the late June announcement of appointments to the Order of Canada included Robert Bothwell, the prolific history professor at the University of Toronto -- and my editor in the Canadian history series he edited with Margaret Macmillan that includes my Three Weeks in Quebec City (not that that's the reason for the honour!) 

Here's Bothwell's career from the Canadian Encyclopedia.  Congratulations!

Photo credit:  Monk Centre, U of Toronto.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

History of a move, and of business organization


Since about February, blogger and spouse have been in the process of buying a new home, selling the old home, and organizing a downsizing, a staging, a sale, a purchase, a move, and all that goes with those processes. We actually find ourselves owning both the old property and the new property for a couple more weeks, which means -- this all happening in Toronto -- we are temporarily either rich beyond our wildest dreams, or just more in debt than we ever expected to be at this stage of life. (Mostly the latter.)  It is all remarkably complicated, And time-consuming.

Hence the lighter than usual productivity at this blog over the last few months and particularly the last couple of weeks.

I don't think a history of this move will be forthcoming.  But several times I found myself reflecting on the history of business organization.

We used a smallish real estate agency, about ten people altogether.  We used a local moving company, where the leader of the moving crew had his family name as the logo on the truck. We used a two person law office. All of these were superbly organized, courteous, prompt in executing, and always completely in command of what they had to do.

We also used a major bank (let's give it the initials RBC) for the bridge financing we needed, and a telecom giant (initials BELL) to shift our internet/television from old address to new. The property finance kid at the bank was prompt and competent, and the tech who came to do the telecom installation seemed like a master to me.

But getting the bank's remote Closing Centre simply to hit Send on the crucial financing documents very nearly sank the whole transaction, and finally had us more or less occupying the bank manager's office and refusing to move until we got confirmation that our lawyer had received what she needed.  And the effort it took to get the telecom's service centre to actually make the booking for a tech visit and then ensure that the tech department actually knew about the booking, and...  well, I don't even want to go into it.  Blogging might have been more active had we actually had an internet connection for several days there.

In the history of business organization, the large corporation has decisively beaten the small local one in almost every field. But if that is the case, how is it that the small ones still work so well, and the big ones so badly?

There are still a hell of a lot of unopened boxes around here, and still at least one major banking/legal transaction to bring to a close. (The one scheduled to obliterate all that debt!)  So no promises about the pace of blogging in the near future, but I'm becoming hopeful.  Hey, it's July and we haven't even mentioned the Tour yet.  Stick around.

Move, if it's right for you. We're glad we did.  But don't underestimate the complications!

Update, July 12:  Archivist Charles Levi notes that among the fields not yet dominated by large organizations is librarians.  I tried to counter with the size of the Toronto public library system (not that I have ever found it inefficient, quite the contrary) but Charles insists that because of its branch structure.


Monday, June 25, 2018

New Heritage Minute: LGBTQ history



I've meaning to draw attention to -- well, I've been meaning to watch -- the new Heritage Minute on LGBTQ history.  Well, now I have and there it is above, if you have not yet. Nice.

But I cannot help but note again that during the Harper government years, Historica's Heritage Minutes tended to be about hockey or war, or hockey AND war. Under the Trudeau government, they tend to be about Chanie Wenjack, refugees, multiculturalism, and gay rights.  Well, I prefer the greater diversity of the recent ones, for sure.

But the Minutes are principally funded by the federal government nowadays, and it's troubling to see how closely the Minutes' editorial choices track the political priorities of the parties in power. What happened to the arm's length principle? Can't help thinking the minute-makers had more freedom of expression years ago, when the money came from the Bronfman Foundation.

Government direction of popular media treatments of history: "Another part of our heritage"?

Friday, June 22, 2018

Champlain podcast on prime ministerial power


The blog of the Champlain Society has been cross-posting me every so often lately, which is extremely nice of them, and the least I can do is counter-plug,

I'm not an earbuds guy, and don't follow podcasts much. Audio is so slow! And so linear! In the time it takes a couple of podcasters to clear their throats and introduce themselves, I can skim scores of blog posts and stop on the interesting ones.

But for you with your ears on, the Champlain Society's CanHist podcast "Witness to Yesterday" must be pre-eminent in the field of talking Canadian history.  There is lots to choose from at the site, the production quality is high, and the people doing it are both knowledgeable and enthusiastic about what they do. And they range widely across Canadian history from new research to classic publications of the Champlain Society.

Substantial too. I broke my rule today and listened to Greg Marchildon and Patrice Dutil, together the backbone of "Witness to Yesterday," discussing the long history of prime ministerial power in Canada, drawing on Dutil 's 2017 book Prime Ministerial Power in Canada. Marchildon and Dutil each have both academic cred and civil service experience, and they put it to good use in a 35 minute conversation.

I do have a little bone to pick with their argument, however.  One of Dutil's goals is to undermine the argument that centralization of power is a recent thing, mostly a creation of the first Trudeau prime ministership.  Dutil makes a strong case that Canadian prime ministers have always been strong, right back to Macdonald in the 1860s.  It's an idea that has been picked up and circulated, as in this review by former top civil servant Mel Cappe.
I argued .... that the evolution of this phenomenon was important, but it was not new. Rather, I noted, it could be traced back to Trudeau père and the advent of a centralizing PMO that had the likes of Marc Lalonde, Jim Coutts, and Tom Axworthy continuously accruing power to “The Centre” and changing the dynamic of decision-making in government. Turns out I was wrong. As Patrice Dutil, a capable historian and scholar of public administration, shows in Prime Ministerial Power in Canada: Its Origins Under Macdonald, Laurier and Borden, those trends should be cast back [to the beginning of Canadian governance].
Implicitly there is a critique here of the "friendly dictator" and "democratic deficit" analysis of Canadian politics, which argues that prime ministers have relatively recently become able to act without restraint. No, goes the counter-argument, it's always been that way; it's implicit in how parliamentary democracy.

Dutil and Marchildon argue in the podcast that prime ministers have always had very broad powers. And they are right, to a degree. But listening to the podcast makes clear that they are talking about administrative power. Macdonald, Laurier, all the successful prime ministers, were indeed able to shape the senior civil service to their favoured structure, and often to control or circumvent the power of cabinet ministers over their own departments.

Fair enough.  But that's administrative power.  I'd still argue that the accrual of political power to the prime minister and the staff in his or her office is a relatively recent -- and dangerous -- development.  Early Canadian history abounds of examples of cabinets and caucuses restraining the policy preferences of prime ministers and party leaders, and even of removing party leaders who  become unacceptable. These days? Not so much, and that really is a historic change.

Still, a terrific podcast you might add to your playlist.

Update, June 23:  And here's a new one, with Greg Marchildon talking to Dennis Molinaro about the origins of the security state in Canada.


Wednesday, June 20, 2018

History of blogs


At the blog Crooked Timber, John Holbo laments "The world needs more blogs."  The bloggers, it seems, have gone to Twitter everyone.  Or Instagram, or podcasting, or...  The internet does eat its children.  Holbo writes:
Remember when there were blogs? Ah, those were the good old days. Whenever I see we haven’t been watering CT properly with fresh posts, I feel ashamed.
and solicits suggestions for blogs still worth following.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Book Notes: Stewart on prime ministers


J.D.M. Stewart, quietly renowned as the most prolific correspondent the Globe & Mail has had since Eugene Forsey retired from the field, goes long-form: he has published a book. The  praise from the Globe's John Ibbitson that the back jacket gives to Being Prime Minister -- "a trove of trivia treasures," it says -- seems sort of accurate and also slightly diminishing. When it comes to PMs, Stewart wants the human dimension:
"How did they travel?  What pets did they have? How did they treat others?  What was life like at home? What were their pastimes?"
From Borden's love of golf to Mackenzie King's love of dogs, Stewart delivers a chatty 300+ pages looking deeply into the private avocations, daily habits, and personal inclinations of the prime ministers. Anyone needing to lighten up a monograph with a vivid characterization of a prime ministerial quirk should keep Being Prime Minister at hand.

Stewart also asked each ex-prime minister he interviewed which other prime ministers they would most like to dine with. Most picked Macdonald and Laurier.  Paul Martin on Macdonald: "I would like to see if I could convince him to change his mind about Indigenous Canada."

Quite possibly, I'd say (though Stewart does not).  Macdonald was an opportunist.  He said hateful things about Asian-Canadians when they were profoundly unwelcome among his constituencies, but today he would understand them as a large and useful voting bloc and would court them relentlessly.  He'd be similarly prepared to tailor his views on Indigenous Canadians to the zeitgeist.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Doing the galleries in Ottawa


Visitors in the History Hall central rotunda, on the giant Canada map

We made a quick trip to Ottawa earlier this week, partly social, partly to see the "new" (well, new since last July) History Hall at the Canadian Museum of History.

I think I like it.  It is pretty serious, more rewarding to those who like to read text and scrutinize the contents of exhibit cases than those who like a full-size stuffed mammoth or a recreated fortress wall looming up ahead of them at every corner.  But what the hell:  when you go to the National Gallery, you don't expect endless showbiz to make it fun for the kiddies; you expect to look at Impressionist masterworks or the best of the 19th century Royal Canadian Academy painters, with serious text panels talking about brushwork and colour sense.  Why shouldn't our historical galleries also be able to be thoughtful and challenging to adults?

Well, because museum bean counters concerned with visitor stats and length-of-stay data drop dead in a faint at the thought. But that's their problem.

The History Hall is not constantly telling us that Canada is and always has been a hellhole of oppression and sexism. But it consistently raises serious issues of indigenous title, of the evolving status of women or workers, of tensions between French and English or between the state and minorities, in a way that I thought was consistently interesting and respectful. It's immense too. Douglas Cardinal's swirling layout covers a vast amount of space: Canadian history matters, it says.  Well done, museum team, I'd say. I'm glad I got a chance to see it.

Comfort's Tadoussac: better in the original, but I love this one
We also dropped in to the National Gallery to see their show about Impressionism.  It's a great building, the National Gallery. (So is the Museum of History, for sure!) The Impressionist show is based on the collection of a Danish philanthropist of the early 20th century. He had Monets and Manets and Renoirs and Pizarros, but if you have been to MOMA or the Musee d'Orsay, you begin to see the Dane's collection is not the very best of the Impressionists, but mostly lesser works more of interest to specialists than big-wow seekers.

By contrast, I thought the Indigenous and Canadian Collection just down the hall really did deliver the big wows. They really do have the best of Canadian art, from aboriginal works through 18th century colonial efforts to the late 19th century Canadian Academicians, and right down to the 20th and 21st century stars.  I had not been among the Gallery's Canadians for years, and it impressed the hell out of me. There had been some damn interesting painters working in this country, and for a long time. 

Canada's History also took a recent look at the new History Hall.

Images:  History Hall (me)  Tadoussac: NGC

Friday, June 08, 2018

Two cheers for dictatorial prime ministers


As if this were not a depressing enough morning in Canadian politics, here comes the June issue of The Literary Review of Canada with an essay by Paul Wells explaining why the friendly dictator is just fine and really it's what we all want and need, and in any case hallowed by centuries of tradition.  Wells is reviewing a new book by Ian Brodie, political scientist and former chief of staff to Stephen Harper.  Brodie opens his book
with a commonly heard claim about prime ministers, one I heard many times before Harper held the position and still hear about his successor: “Canada’s prime minister is a dictator.”
To that claim Brodie, citing Liberal apparatchik Eddy Goldenberg, mostly says, Sure.
To the claim that the PM is a dictator, the three possible responses are, “I agree, and it’s awful;” “No he’s not;” and “Sure he is, and what of it?” In these early chapters, at least, Brodie leans heavily on the third response.
Well, Brodie and Goldenberg would, wouldn't they? When your whole role in politics depends on the fact that you stand (all unelected) at the right hand of the dictator, you had better. Indeed, Brodie declares -- and Wells believes him -- that current Canadian politics follows a form many centuries old
My time in politics filled me with awe and wonder at the form of government we have inherited from our ancestors
It bears repeating that the awesome and wonderful point of parliamentary democracy as it developed over the centuries is constant accountability.  A prime minister is part of a collective government, and that collective -- the cabinet -- is daily accountable to the elected representatives of the people. Prime ministers are removed in mid-term when necessary (see Spain the other day) and backbencher force changes to unpopular policies (see the Brexit pains of Theresa May). Somehow, Canada has developed a "parliamentary" "democracy" in which none of those qualities has endured, and yet Wells and Brodie glory in our continuity of an imagined tradition.

Well, the historical illiteracy of most political scientists is well established, so we should not be surprised at Brodie. The depressing part is how Paul Wells takes Brodie's case as proof of "how well the system works."

Next, I guess, he'll return to explain how reducing elections to little more than celebrity gossip is also a good thing.

If this is the best our journalists and political scientists can offer, there really are dark days ahead.

Thursday, June 07, 2018

Urban archaeology in Toronto UPDATED



A couple of years ago, a condominium construction dig in the high density neighbourhood at the intersection of Bathurst Street and Fort York Boulevard in downtown Toronto unearthed the remains of an early 19th century cargo ship sunk or buried at that site when it was wharfside Lake Ontario.

Since then the remains of the hull have been stored at nearby Fort York, and now a team of marine archaeologists from Texas A&M University are in town to analyze them.
Carolyn Kennedy, a nautical archaeologist from Texas A&M and team leader, said the cargo ship likely would have moved goods across Lake Ontario as the Town of York, as Toronto was then known, grew in size. ...It tells us about the very beginnings of the city of York, the city of Toronto. These merchant vessels probably would have been the bread and butter of trade at that time. They would have been like the trucks that we have now," she said.
Update, June 16:  Fort York will host a presentation by the archeological team on the ship remains and their project.  Fort York Visitor Centre (250 Fort York Blvd, Toronto), Thursday, June 21 6.00 pm.
 
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