Tuesday, July 05, 2022

Patrick Watson (1930-2022) and Irving Abella (1940-2002) RIP, two different historical practices

No one in the last fifty years introduced more Canadians to glimpse of the history of Canada than Patrick Watson, who died the other day at ninety-two. Watson, quite apart from his glittering career as a pathbreaking broadcaster and documentary filmmaker, was also the inventor of the Heritage Minute.  Tell me you -- and your family, and your friends, and you kids -- have not seen them a million times.

I profiled Patrick Watson once. He told me the germ of the Heritage Minute was his time as a juror on a one-minute film festival held in association with Montreal's Expo 67.  He came away with a sense for how much could be achieved in a very short film. When the Bronfman Foundation sought his advice on a Canadian heritage-promotion project, he instantly said "one-minute movies" He would insist on movie techniques for the Heritage Minutes, even at great expense: strong production values, good acting and costuming, high-quality lighting and sound, original music, even the use of 35 mm instead of TV film. Above all, he insisted on what he called "compressed narrative" -- a very brief story that  could stand, even benefit from, repeated viewings.

A quite different historical life ended almost simultaneously with the death of Irving Abella, deservedly known as the author of None is Too Many, the history of Canada's resistance to Jewish refugees before and during the Second World War. None is Too Many was not only groundbreaking scholarship but also perhaps unmatched in Canadian historical scholarship for its direct impact on public policy and social attitudes.  Its publication influenced the Canadian government to accept the Vietnamese "boat people," which set a pattern for expanded Canadian welcome and acceptance of refugees.  

Beyond None is Too Many, Abella was a productive labour and social historian at York University from his start there in 1968, the author of Coat of Many Colours, a history of Jews and Judaism in Canada, and the founder of the first program of Jewish studies at a Canadian university.

Thursday, June 30, 2022

Honours watch: Order of Canada recipients

Not a lot of historians on the Canada Day list of Order of Canada appointments.  Most notable, perhaps, is Germaine Warkentin, who is a professor of English, I believe, but has written and edited a great deal of exploration literature and other historical materials over many decades.  

Also Peter Russell, notable political scientist, advisor to Governors-General, and recently author of a vast historical survey, Canada's Odyssey: A Country Based on Incomplete Conquests.  ("Based on what?" I said at first, but came to admire it a lot.)

Among writers, notons David Waltner-Toews, poet and writer, expert on ecology and health too, and children's writer Jan Zwicky. 

Speaking of Canada, I'm inclined to honour Canada Day tomorrow. Not everyone will, but Canada exists as a vehicle in which we can strive for better things.Wear red.  Barbeque something.  Take the day off. 

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

History of museums

I've been following remotely the quarrel over a new British Columbia Museum, which has now led to cancellation of the current plans. The issue is well covered by Daniel Francis here, and I share his feelings right down to the "royal" part. 

Though I might add: at least they have a BC Museum to fight over in BC.  In Toronto, we have an Ontario Museum, which I love dearly and have supported for decades, but it's not about Ontario at all! Consider the possibilities!

New Nonfiction prize

Writer/editor/publisher Ken Whyte, formerly of the National Post, Maclean's and Saturday Night, is now publisher of Sutherland House, a Toronto-based publishing house focussed on nonfiction. Whyte has long expressed concern about a crisis in Canadian nonfiction publishing. To summarize the problem, he quotes Biblioasis publisher Dan Wells:

We’re at a point in Canada’s history where it’s never been more important to tell our stories to ourselves, and to hold people in positions of authority accountable. And we have never been in a worse position to do so. Our market is dominated by foreign multinationals and the multinationals see Canada as too small a market so they don’t invest in substantial researched Canadian nonfiction.

In recent years, several respected Canadian nonfiction writers have declared they are choosing to write on "international" topics or to exit the field entirely, due to the unlikelihood of getting any reasonable recompense for their time and talent writing about Canadian public policy, science and natural science, cultural issues, history, etc. So it's a real problem. In response, Sutherland House announces the Sutherland House Prize for Nonfiction:

We are establishing an annual prize for the best nonfiction book project, open to both new and experienced writers. The winner will receive a contract for publication with Sutherland House including a $10,000 (Can.) advance.

The prize will emphasize works of narrative nonfiction that require substantial research or subject matter expertise. It will be awarded to a work in progress, either a well-developed proposal or a first-draft manuscript....  We expect most of the entrants and prize recipients will be Canadians but we are opening the award to writers anywhere in the world.  

I do note that the prize money is actually not prize money but an advance on the income an author will earn from sales of their work. But that in itself reflects the state of Canadian publishing now. It's a worthwhile initiative. 

On this theme:  the Creative Nonfiction Collective will launch its 2022-23 members' webinar series October 1 with Charlotte Gray in discussion with Whyte and Wells on this very topic.  Details to follow

Image: from SHuSH 154 

Monday, June 27, 2022

Book Notes: Wardlaugh and Ferguson on Rowell and Sirois

I like to think the range of my interests in Canadian historical topics has been pretty broad. But for quite a long time, I might have said that a Venn diagram would show no overlap whatsoever between "Christopher Moore's Historical Interests" and "the Rowell-Sirois Royal Commission on Dominion Provincial Relations."

I kinda thought I knew the commission met in the 'thirties, failed to solve the depression (or improve federal-provincial relations!), and was swept into irrelevance by the war and then by postwar prosperity. And that seemed to suffice.  Now my Venn boundaries are shifting. 

I'm finding Robert Wardlaugh and Barry Ferguson's The Rowell-Sirois Commission and the Remaking of Canadian Federalism pretty interesting. Evidently Rowell-Sirois did not end the depression or produce love and harmony among the first ministers. But it did train a generation of policy-makers, and the ideas it spawned did indeed have profound impact on federal relations. 

Not right away. But by the late 1950s and early 1960s, they argue, "the commission recast ideas about the foundations of the federal system and the nature of government in ways that would be at the core of public life for the next forty years." I think they are right.  Equalization, medicare, and the provinces' ability in that era to begin launching big initiatives in education and social services were belated consequences of ideas floated by the commission.

Mary Janigan, whose own books first sparked my interest in these matters, also thinks Wardlaugh and Ferguson are on to something. She reviews them in the current Canadian Historical Review (paywalled). She says it's a "superb analysis" and "their prose is a delight." And she emphasizes the longterm impact. Guided by Rowell-Sirois:

Politicians moved their focus from rigid constitutional boundaries to deals that benefited the general welfare. Under the tax rental deals with the provinces, which extended from wartime to 1962, Ottawa collected key provincial taxes in return for a portion of the proceeds and compensatory grants for the poorer governments. Equalization, which passed in 1956, redistributed federal revenues to poorer provinces, formally ending the fiction of provincial equality. The report aimed for a new era of “full employment, social welfare, and trade liberalization,” which was based on “Keynesian fiscal policy and the so-called welfare state” (310). In effect, the commissioners “rose above the conventional views of their time” (303) to focus government policy on the welfare of all citizens through redistribution. This important book rescues that contribution from obscurity.

I'm still working through this big, serious book, so I'll refer you to Janigan's review, or Wardlaugh and Ferguson directly, for the full story. But they are expanding my categories already.

Saturday, June 25, 2022

Christopher Armstrong (1942 -2022) RIP And Ray Argyle (1930-2022) RIP

Christopher Armstrong, longtime history professor at York University, died recently in Toronto.

He was a prolific scholar, the author (or co-author, often with H. V. Nelles) of histories both heavyweight (The Politics of Federalism) and lighter (The Revenge of the Methodist Bicycle Company), or financial (Blue Skies and Boiler Rooms: Buying and Selling Securities in Canada), or urban (Making Toronto Modern), or environmental (The River Returns: An Environmental History of the Bow), or cultural (The Painted Valley: Artists Along Alberta's Bow River, 1845-2000).

Here is a clip of him from four year ago, remembering his late colleague and fellow YorkU historian Ramsay Cook.


On the obituary theme, I might also note my friend Ray Argyle, who after a long career in journalism and in his consulting firm Argyle Communications, engaged himself writing a remarkable diverse range of mostly historical books on whatever topic appealed to him, from Canadian political campaigns to ragtime music to the liberation of Paris to George Holyoake and the founding of Humanism. He died the other day at the age of 92, and I don't doubt he had at least four more books in mind.  

I particularly liked The Boy in the Picture, a little book about Edward Mallandaine, the little guy who squeezed himself into the great Canadian photo, the driving of the last spike, right behind some guy with a hammer. Ray as a kid in Creston, B.C. met Edward Mallandaine as an old man.    

History of the Canadian crown

The Prince of Wales has told Commonwealth leaders that keeping the Queen as head of state ... is “a matter for each member country to decide”.

Charles made the comments during the opening ceremony of a summit of Commonwealth prime ministers and presidents in Rwanda. He said he believed such fundamental changes could be made “calmly and without rancour.”

About the time the future king made this acknowledgment, I came across an old note in my files. Its from a twenty ten-year-old column by Chantal Hébert (Toronto Star, October 5 2012):

It is mostly in the margins that political branding is most effective these days and the Conservatives have proven particularly adept on that front. In the process, they have turned their party into a monarchist vehicle. But who speaks for the growing legions of Canadians who have no British roots and no inclination to see their country as a natural part of the anglophile compact that so recently spearheaded the misguided war on Iraq? It is hard to think of a stance that would go a longer way to reconnect the federal Liberals with Quebec and with many of the constituencies that make up the New Canada than the offer of a strong post-monarchy vision of the country.

This was published about six months before Justin Trudeau took up the leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada. But if Hébert was trying to offer him a policy hint, his strategy geniuses evidently missed it.

Maybe an opportunity for the next one? 


Monday, June 20, 2022

History of Better Living Through Tech

As part of the recent Creative Nonfiction Collective online conference, I took part in a Zoom workshop by Omar Mouallem, the dynamic young Edmonton writer and journalist and founder of Pandemic University. " Organized Chaos" was a presentation on research tools and practices for writers. While listening, I was following some private Chat conversations among some, ah, older writers, not quite so digi-savvy as Mouallem.  

"Whenever I start a new writing project, I like to open a lot of folders," said Mouallem early on, screenshotting a view of his laptop with a bunch of digital folders lined up. (From the Chat: "A lot of my folders are cardboard.")  

He referred to Scrivener, spreadsheeting almost anything, mapping research locations with Google Maps, and using CiteFast, a thing that turns turns URLs into customized bibliographic citations (Chat: "He's never heard of index cards!") 

Then he demonstrated writing in a notebook with a pen -- except the pen was digital and the notebook uses special paper. When you are finished scribbling your notes, you plug in the pen, and somehow you get a word-processed text of all that you just scribbled down. (Chat: "Then you plug in the pen?")

But maybe the most comprehensive "head-explodes" responses was after he asked if we knew about about Otter.ai.  Ten years ago, he said, when he started doing these workshops for journalists, people always asked about a tool to make automatic transcripts from digital recordings. You know, you interview someone for an hour, and then you face days playing back the sound on your little digirecorder and trying to type out a useable transcript? Well, there never was much of a solution to that. Now there is.  

"If you have a heap of digital files of audio interviews you created over the years, you might look into Otter.ai, he suggested. (Chat -- and this time it was me: "Okay, if you don't see me at the rest of these sessions, it's just that I have to go talk to Otter for a while.")

I did. It does the first few transcriptions free, in about fifteen minutes, and I had 'em lined up in no time.  I need to do a little wrangling the Otter, but there are transcripts. I did not have to do them by hand myself, or by hiring someone. I'm hooked.

Had some headblowing experience of your own with some of these technologies?  Share.

Friday, June 17, 2022

History of Canadian Soccer

The red shirt is our Alphonso Davies, just sayin'.

The Guardian has published its ranking of all the teams that will participate in this year's World Cup of soccer. Canada is #16.  The tournament's top sixteen will make it out of the first round and move to the (you guessed it) Round of 16, which is sudden death, any team can win any game.

16) Canada

A little-known quantity at this level having previously qualified in 1986, Canada will fancy letting their clutch of top-class talent loose on ageing Belgium and Croatia sides in Qatar. Alphonso DaviesJonathan David and Cyle Larin are capable of troubling anyone. A dispute about prize money has caused ructions this month and John Herdman, their excellent English manager, will hope distractions are kept to a minimum.

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Book Notes: Wilson on them Fenians


Went downtown yesterday to join the launch --

-- how pleasant to be able to write that again! Haven't been to an in-person book launch since probably the fall of 2019, and it feels too long --

-- of my friend David Wilson's Canadian Spy Story: Irish Revolutionaries and the Secret Police, newly out in a handsome edition from McGill-Queen's.  Among the speakers was David's friend and mentor Donald Harmon Akenson, who made the case for David being among the half-dozen best historians in the country. He also declared this book is not "definitive," because definitive means a subject is wrapped up and all further interest in it will cease.  

Apparently Canadian Spy Story is not that. I haven't read much beyond the acknowledgments yet, but 'tseems part of the argument is that Fenianism was not just a few American-based raids across the border, but a deeply Canadian movement with many adherents in many places.  

It's clear from the acknowledgments that he has mastered the mature scholar's strength -- deploying an army of loyal graduate students out to research scores of knotty problems that arise in the course of a big complicated book project.  

David admitted that the book appeared somewhat behind schedule. He said the fact that he has been general editor of the Dictionary of the Canadian Biography while writing it might have been a factor in that. (Ya think?) 

Thursday, June 09, 2022

History of troublesome priests

Fallon: Obey!
The weekly new-biography mailing from the Dictionary of Canadian Biography has featured in the last two weeks two really horrifying clerical lives, at least for any reader from a background of secularism, moderation, tolerance, and the separation of church and state: Michel-Thomas Labreque (d.1940, biography by Gaston Gagnon) and  Michael Fallon (d.1931, by Pasquale Fiorino).

"Throughout his life Labrecque suffered from an immense and obsessive fear of freemasonry and liberalism, which promoted secular public schools and the separation of church and state." As bishop of Chicoutimi, he called the possible arrival of some non-francophone labourers “a national and religious danger” for his diocese. He forebade his parishioners from even attending Liberal party rallies, since Laurier "was a traitor to his religion and his nationality." Of him Gagnon writes, with nice understatement: "Certain personality traits – such as irascibility, impulsiveness, and authoritarianism – revealed themselves to be quite the opposite of those of St François de Sales, whom Labrecque looked to as his guide."

Michael Fallon was an Irish Catholic from Ottawa who managed to be both a British imperialist and an Irish nationalist. Also, "he felt strongly that French Canadians ought to place loyalty to the Church above loyalty to their language and culture." He was at once a supporter of separate schools for Ontario Catholics and a fierce opponent of French-language instruction for Franco-Ontarian Catholics. In 1912 he helped bring about Ontario's anti-French Regulation 17, in the process earning "the lasting enmity of French Canadians across the country." Upon his death a colleague acknowledged, “Bishop Fallon failed at times in patience and meekness."  

I mean, one knew people like this existed and prospered, but reading these two lengthy biographies in sequence really rubs your nose in it.

Update, June 12:  I thought of my title above as a clever allusion to the complaint by Henry II that led his knights to go murder Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury.  But apparently the original version of the phrase was "Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?" (sometimes revised as "meddlesome" or "troublesome," according to Wikipedia).  "Turbulent" would work for these guys, too. And this update allows me to add that the DCB entry does mention that some of Fallon's francophone parisioners actually discussed assassinating him.

Wednesday, June 08, 2022

History of the Monarchy, again

Jared Milne writes from Alberta apropos of a recent post

While I respect Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth for handling her duties with dignity and class, I'm no fan of having our head of state reside in a foreign country. I'd rather we have a fully Canadian head of state, but I realize just how tall an order abolishing the monarchy would be. Constitutional requirements aside, here's a piece by Plains Cree writer Doug Cuthand on a First Nations view of their relationship with the Crown and why he doesn't think First Nations people would support abolishing it. (I vaguely recall Governor General Mary Simon saying something similar about the Inuit's relationship with the Crown too.)

A point very much worth addressing by anyone in favour of a Canadian head of state! 

(Lemme first say: I don’t follow the Star-Phoenix, but it’s striking how often Doug Cuthand columns turn up in my various media feeds.  And I can understand a First Nations inclination to diss Canada a little by asserting an indigenous right to deal with the real boss in England.)

But I also note that indigenous views on the monarchy vary. It's not hard to find indigenous commentators for whom the Crown represents nothing but colonialism. When Prince Charles dropped into the NWT recently, there was talk of reparations owed and respect to be paid. Indigenous activists tore down a statue of Queen Victoria in Winnipeg in 2021. and the Metis National Council president was among those who have spoken of the need for the Queen to apologize for residential schools, both as Queen and as head of the Anglican Church.  

Amidst this diversity of indigenous viewpoints, I was impressed to hear Murray Sinclair declare he does not agree with focussing responsibility on the Queen personally.  

Sinclair, former chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commissioner, said efforts to extract an apology from the Royal Family to account for what a government did might change little and could complicate the issue.

"It would bring them unnecessarily into the area of politics and then we're getting into a whole different controversy," Sinclair said.

"It will just detract from and distract us from the very important conversation we need to have about what can we do to change the way that we are, the relationships that we have."

The Queen and her predecessors long since delegated all authority and responsibility for indigenous relations to the Canadian state. Sinclair seems clear that it is the Canadian state that First Nations must hold to account. The monarchy, that is, is largely irrelevant to this as to most other Canadian issues. We talk of "the Crown" and "the government" interchangeably, but Sinclair is aware of which one actually matters to reconciliation and to treaty implementation. 

This is a good moment to stress that all discussions of how to replace the monarchy in Canada must presume full participation from First Nations.  

The constitution requires all provinces to consent to any constitutional change involving the monarchy, and I would say the Assembly of First Nations (or other appropriate indigenous bodies) would also have to be part of that consensus for it to be credible. It would be hopeless to proceed otherwise. Same thing when we get to a selection process for a Canadian head-of-state: full indigenous participation required. Actually, having indigenous confirmation of a head of state, with ceremonials drawn from Indigenous rites, would be pretty cool for Canada.  

But we would have to make some serious progress on reconciliation and treaty implementation to get or deserve that kind of indigeneous participation and consent – so I’d say it would be a double win!

History of commemoration on indigenous territory

This -- permanent inclusion of indigenous representation at the Historic Sites and Monuments Board, in keeping with Call to Action 79 of The Truth and Reconciliation Commission -- seems both like a worthy idea and awkwardly overdue.

There is, of course, the other approach to be maintained: direct negotiations between First Nations as landholders with agencies such as Parks Canada about appropriate commemoration on First Nations lands. But the two approaches can work simultaneously. 

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