Friday, July 16, 2021

Blog on hiatus


You will have to amuse yourself for a week. I'm outa here. 

Tour de France wrapup 2021

Tadej Pogacar looks unbeatable for the last competitive day, and should cruise into Paris in yellow on Sunday. Mark Cavanagh, having survived all the big hill stages, looks a good bet to win the final race on the Champs d'Elysee, and also take the record for the most stage wins in the history of the tour too. And today Canadian Michael Woods, no longer having a change to take the best climber points competition, withdrew from the Tour to start preparing his Olympic road race attempt.

So this wraps the Tour coverage. 

Except to say that when I was looking into the team called Israel Startup Nation, the one that Woods has been leading, I came across this surprising story about the "secret Jewish history of the Tour" -- which goes back to the very origins of the competition.

As the article says, "The Tour has its origins in the Dreyfus Affair which divided France between 1894 and 1906."  Whaah?

Thursday, July 15, 2021

History of cockatoos and panics and American journalism

Andrea Mantegna's Mantua Madonna ... and bird

I try not to consume too much American media, because it is easy to get drawn into the crazy down there as if it were the norm. But that mighty media machine does provide a lot of good material too.

Case 1 is a story in the New Yorker about an art history scholar in Australia studying works of the Italian renaissance artist Mantegna, who was active in the late 1400s, and seeing in one of them a small but very detailed image of a cockatoo -- a bird native to Australia and some of the islands around New Guinea.  

How did a cockatoo get to Mantua in 1496? is the burden of the article.  (There's another, it turns out, in a volume from the 1240s belonging to the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II.)  And the answer, simple when you think about it, but very nicely laid out in Rebecca Mead's article is ... trade. Well before 1000 CE, there was quite a lot of sea trade between China and Southeast Asia and westward to India and on to the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea ports.  Luxuries were a significant driver of trade, useful in the exchanges between princes and aristocrats that facilitated trade.  

So why not a cockatoo? It's our Eurocentric it-all-starts-with-Columbus that fools us into placing Australia beyond an unreachable horizon before 1492. Columbus, remember, wanted to get in the trade opportunities of "the Indies" -- because he knew they already existed! The desire to trade, the article's experts aver, can be a more important driver of history than the dreams of adventurers or the ambitions of monarchs. (Cod and the new found land, sez the Canadianist.)

Case 2 is from The Atlantic: Chris Heath's "The Truth Behind the Amazon Mystery Seeds."  Remember last year there was a media sensation/panic about lots of people receiving mysterious and unsoliticted little packages of seeds ... from China!  Covid contagion? Political subversion? Ecological attack? Commercial scam? What is this thing and What Must Be Done? I won't say much about Heath's discoveries because they are worth discovering for yourself, but the exploration is both amusing and enlightening, and nicely twisty. Let's classify it as a case study in the history of rumours and panics, and yes, the wierdness of trade. 

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

This month at Canada's History: renaming British Columbia

Ry Moran thinks it's time to change the name of British Columbia to ... well, something else.  That's just one of the powerhouse articles in this month's Canada's History, now reaching subscribers and newsstands.

B. C. is beautiful., without a doubt. But it's not British. In maintaining that myth we continue in the erasure, not only of the erasure of the complex histories of multiple Indigenous nations but also of the lives and histories of the countless migrants from around the world who have played an instrumental role in the foundation of this place. 

Also, Charlotte Gray honours Chief Isaac of the Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in, and how his people faced the massive invasion of "Klondike" (read: "Tr'ondëk") by the gold rush miners of 1898. Her story is also about how she failed to give that story sufficient attention in 2005, when she wrote Gold Diggers. 

Environmental historian Alan MacEachern explores the Canadian exploits of American rain maker Charles Hatfield in the 1920s  -- and how irrigation, rather than success, gradually made the rainmaking craze obsolete.

There's an excerpt from the diaries of railroad builder Dukesang Wong. And much more, including lots of reviews and notices, including gay history notes, criticism of me in the letters column, and a tribute to the late historian of Quebec, my old colleague Jacques Lacoursiere

Monday, July 12, 2021

Book Notes: Butcher on visiting the National Parks

Marlis Butcher's Park Bagger: Adventures in the Canadian National Parks recounts the author's travels to every national park in Canada, save the one that was created just as she finished the book -- and she has plans for that one too.

I am the true Canadian park bagger, having visited every one of our national parks. Rocky Mountain Books just published my book Park Bagger - Adventures in the Canadian National Parks, in which I "share the park experience" with my readers. There's a chapter on each and every park - even a short bit on our newest park.

Thaidene Nene NP was opened late in 2019. Unfortunately next to no one from outside the NWT has been able to visit since the COVID-19 shut-downs. So I keep rebooking my visit to that park.

I don't know Marlis, but I'm honoured that she discovered a 2017 post from this blog (long forgotten by me) that looked a little dubiously upon another park-visit collector.

National Historic Parks (and sites) seem to be beyond the purview of this book -- with reason, as there are about 250 of them against 49 nature parks. I've seen a fair few of the historic ones, but not 250. The American National Geographic published a good guide to them some years ago. 

Saturday, July 10, 2021

The Tour: Woods on the podium

After starting horribly amid a chaos of crashes and injuries, the Tour de France has become lively, competititve, and unpredictable. The super-Slovenian Tadej Pogacar (roughly "Tah-day Po-GAH-chah") remains the leader. In most years his almost five minute lead would be immune to challenge, as these days dominant riders and teams can usually impose control on events. But this year, contenders seem to gain or lose five or ten minutes with reckless abandon, and the top ten places change hands violently almost every day.  Pogacar himself looked about to lose a big handful of minutes on the long mountain stage to Tignes last week. He got the time back before that stage ended with the kind of roaring comeback that one remembers from the druggy days of Lance Armstrong et al.

Meanwhile, Canadian Michael Woods, put out of the quest for overall leadership by early crashes, has been distinguishing himeself by joining breakaway groups on almost every hilly stage. He has not won a stage yet, but there are lots of little intermediate climbs for which points are awarded. By winning those regularly, he today earned the King of the Mountains polka-dot jersey, one of the four leadership prizes of the Tour (yellow=overall lead in time elapsed, green = sprinter points, white = best rider under age 25). Woods's is the first jersey win by a Canadian in many years.   

There is an Everest's-worth of mountain climbs coming up this week, and Woods has rivals close behind.  No guarantee he'll carry the jersey all the way to Paris.

The remarkable Mark Cavendish keeps winning all the sprints, and he is now tied with the immortal Eddie Merckx with 34 each. He could take the 35th on the Champs d'Elysee in Paris next weekend. 

Friday, July 09, 2021

History of the Reputation of History

Journalist Jeffrey Simpson was recently quoted in the Literary Review of Canada as finding 

the idea that Canada’s past has been a sad saga of widespread oppression, racism, and other forms of discrimination with few redeeming virtues to celebrate ...  is the prevailing discourse in university hist­ory departments toward Canada’s past, and a strong narrative of the Canadian Museum of Hist­ory, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, and most contemporary authors about Canada’s past.

On the other hand, most recent discussion of residential school deaths and other atrocities include the rote declaration that "it has been left out of the history books" and "it is not taught in the schools."  We seem to have two diametrically opposed conventional wisdoms prevailing simultaneously -- neither of which is flattering to those who write about Canada's past.

It's evidence, perhaps, that a lot of people don't read much history ("history is boring... I'd rather learn from a novel," etc.) and don't pay much attention to what goes on in schools or universities. For what it's worth, my own children, now adults but both products of the Toronto public school system, recall hearing a good deal about treaties and residential schools in their school days.  

Indigenous studies has been one of the liveliest areas of historical scholarship in recent years, by both indigenous and non-indigenous writers. Jeffrey Simpson finds there the obsession with oppression, racism, and discrimination that he disapproves of in contemporary historical writing and museology. But progressive critics can only see neglect and underrepresentation of these same topics.  Disparagement of history and historians seems likely to continue from both sides. 

Wednesday, July 07, 2021

History of Allen Willie

The Dictionary of Canadian Biography's weekly online biography today offers the life of an eight year old boy, Allen Willie, who was born in 1928 on the Nautley Reserve in British Columbia and died nearby with three friends on January 1, 1937 while trying to escape from Lejac Indian Residential School and return home. 

It's not a new biography -- it was first published some years ago -- nor the only one recording the death of a residential school child -- Actually, I misinterpreted a reference, and it may be. See also on this subject, the Peter Bryce biography 

Tuesday, July 06, 2021

Fernand Ouellet 1926-2021 RIP UPDATED

Fernand Ouellet, one of the most respected and most controversial of twentieth-century Canadian historians, died the other day. His books included the Histoire économique et sociale du Québec, 1760-1850 and his honours the Order of Canada, the presidency of the Canadian Historical Society, and the Governor General's Literary Award.

Ouellet was respected for having led the introduction of quantititative histoire economique et sociale, on the model of the French Ecole des Annales, into Canadian history and particularly the history of Quebec's late eighteenth and nineteenth century. An enormously hard worker and productive writer, he dug out masses of archival data on any subject he touched, and filled his books with quantitative evidence.

He was controversial because his analyses dismissed traditional clerical versions of Quebec history that essentially blamed everything on the Conquest and the English -- and because he also rejected all the new nationalist interpretations that arose in and helped to shape the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s. "The social, not the national," drove history in Ouellet's world. The social explanations he found for Quebec's nineteenth century difficulties in modernizing its economy and its society squarely placed the causes in francophone society, not conquest. Not, shall we say, a popular position in the new Quebec.

Le Devoir's obituary article, by Jean-Louis Bordeleau, cites the work of Ouellet and his critics and offers memories and reflections from several historians of 19th century Quebec. It notes he was one of the scholars who moved to Ontario universities to escape pressures on their scholarship from the academic establishment of the time. He died in Toronto, having concluded his career at York University. 

A long time ago in Ottawa, Fernand Ouellet supervised my master's thesis, which was indeed quantatitive and economique et sociale. He was a supportive supervisor, though very preoccupied with his own work and therefore inclined to advise by example. He actually found the thesis worth publishing, but we were both stymied by the traditional establishment at Les Presses de l'Universite d'Ottawa, where even Fernand Ouellet's support could not overcome the refusal to even consider a master's thesis for publication. Eh bien.

I found him a private man, perhaps shy (though not in historical controversies), and more easily animated by his own researches than almost any other topic. We did not remain in touch after I graduated, and I rarely saw him at historical events in Toronto. Sad to say, I was not even sure he was still alive until I saw an obituary in a Toronto paper

I have often found useful an interpretation of Quebec politics I once heard from Ouellet. In Quebec, he suggested, the really interesting struggles are usually not between English and French but between Montreal and the rest of the province. And in the long run, whatever the argument, Montreal's view generally prevails. On that line, I would guess that Montreal will not long support the anti-hijab and anti-human-rights movement that is trending currently, and that eventually the province will follow Montreal.

Update, July 12, 2021

Le Devoir follows up its obit for Fernand Ouellet with a long appreciation by his colleagues Yves Frenette and Martin Paquet. It's hard to imagine any English-Canadian publication being interested in providing this kind of consideration of the ideas of any Canadian historian.

Friday, July 02, 2021

The tour -- it's okay to uncover your eyes again.

 Okay, so after the crashes of Bretagne, the Tour de France 2021 is back on its wheels.  Much to watch, and not with your eyes covered.

Mark Cavendish, the most exciting sprinter of recent times, was almost out of cycling the last several years, with physical ills and clinical depression, and rumours that he might return at age 36 were scoffed at.  He came back saying he loves the Tour so much he'd be happy just bring bottles of water forward (from the support cars to the key riders). Instead he has won two stages in rip-roaring edge of the seat fashion, leads the points competition, and seems to be having a hell of a good time.

It's true he's much helped that Caleb Ewen (the new me, Cav called him at the start of the Tour) went out with injuries.  It would have been great to see these two go head to head, and Cav's two victories would have been more contested, to say the least, had he been facing Ewen.  But now Cav has 32 lifetime Tour stage victories, and is just two away from the alltime record for stage wins -- 34, achieved by Eddie Merckx when a top cyclist could win mountain stages, time-trials, sprint stages and every other kind of stage, much unlike today's specialists-only regime. 

Today, stage 7 was supposed to be a dull "transfer" stage, a long day riding from western France (beautiful Loire valley chateaux yesterday!) toward the Alps.  Instead the peleton somehow let the maillot jaune and several other contenders get away in a break -- which never happens, when a few seconds is life and death -- and actually let them stay away right to the end. I meant to take a quick glance and blew the whole morning. Once again the standings are turned upside down -- and the mountains loom.

Michael Woods, effectively eliminated from overall victory on the first day by crash delays and injuries, has let himself get far behind the leading contenders in total time. But he never was a very likely overall winner, and lying back gives him opportunities to choose his day and go for stage wins on the mountain days that will suit him best.  So his options are good. Meanwhile Montreal's Hugo Houle placed twelfth overall today on the very long, very gruelling, very hotly contested stage, and is beginning to present himself as a potential grand-tour strongman, though this year he's as likely to burn himself up leading out the more prominent members of his Astana team on the big hills to come.  Roll on. 

And of course, France looks lovely every day. In the other Grand Tours, Spanish and Italian landscapes sometimes seem rocky, dry, and bleak by comparison to lush and varied France -- though I must admit this year's Giro, wheeling through Tuscany and parts of central Italy just north and south of there had me drooping a bit.  Is this a sports event or a travelogue?  Who cares?

Update, July 7:  Woods has not won a stage yet, but he contends.  And it's just been confirmed that Guillaume Boivin, Hugo Houle (named most combatitive rider yesterday for animating a long breakaway), and Woods, the three Canadians in the Tour this year, will be the Canadian entries in the Olympic one-day road race in Tokyo soon after the tour concludes.

Alison Prentice 1934-2021 RIP

Alison Prentice, a historian of education in 19th century Ontario and a founder and leader of modern women's history in Canada, died recently in Victoria. 

Among much else, she co-authored the groundbreaking first edition of Canadian Women:A History (1988) and Creating Historical Memory (1998), a history of  historical writing by Canadian women from the 19th century pioneers to 1970. For her contributions to scholarship and women's history she was honoured with the Order of Canada and with the Alison Prentice prize in women's history of the Ontario Historical Society.

I recall interviewing her for a Beaver magazine profile about the time Creating Historical Memory was published, but a better review of her career is surely her "Life in History" memoir entitled "Winding Trails" for the Canadian Historical Review, 2012.

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

The Tour

Rider Tony Martin, at left, hits the sign held into the roadway by the fan in yellow,
precipitating a crash that will bring down most of the peloton.
Okay, this has not been a great week in which to try to recruit fans to grand tour cycling. The first several days have had such a storm of horrible crashes as to make the standings largely a lottery on who happened to sustain the least damage and delay.  

The fan above, still being hunted by French police, caused the first one, but many of the others were just products of too many riders seeking advantage on roads that are too narrow, too wet, too twisty and too crowded for any reasonable degree of safe competition. Even amid some glorious scenery and some truly heroic feats of riding, one still feels a bit of a ghoul just to be involved with the slo-mo replays of the carnage. Things will improve as the tour leaves the Brittany terrain, and the peleton sorts out serious contenders from also-ridings.  But too many good riders are being smashed up to excuse the management of this year's competition.  

History of referendums

In the Globe and Mail, constitutional scholar Eric Adams demolishes the constitutional pretentions behind Premier Jason Kenney's proposal to hold an Alberta referendum this fall on the alleged "unfairness"
of the federal government's equalization payments program. 

Mr. Kenney cites the Supreme Court of Canada decision in Reference re Secession of Quebec to argue that if a majority of Albertans vote to remove the principle of equalization from the Constitution, it would create a “binding obligation” on the Government of Canada “to negotiate that amendment with the province in good faith.”

“That’s the theory behind the referendum,” the Premier explained.

The theory is wrong.

Not just wrong, in fact, but so ludicrously wrong, so evidently offered in bad faith, as to expose the demagogic intent behind the Kenney government's wish to manufacture a populist mandate in order undermine the democratic and constitutional structures of Canadian governance. 

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