Monday, September 20, 2021

History of the 41st federal election

Can't show you my vote,
but this was my pencil
I've long disliked election "campaigns" that mostly mean leaders jetting about the country seeking media soundbite exposure, and this year I seemed more than ever to avoid the whole thing:  never saw even a clip of the debates, fast-forwarded through the ads, skimmed the newspapers.  

But that does not mean I'm avoiding the election.  

Election results are important. They do a lot to shape what the country will do and not do in the coming years.  I was happy to vote this morning; I never miss the voting part.  And without paying much attention during the campaign, I still know well enough what the salient issues are, where the parties stand , who the leading characters are, how the "strategic" vote plays out . In this as in most other elections, I could have voted the day after the election was called, and it would have been the same vote.

The 35 days and millions of dollars seem mostly about goosing the turnout a little and trying to shift the votes of a fairly small number of undecideds or not-much-interesteds.

But go to vote.  It ain't the campaign that matters, it's the election.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

History of Quebec in French newspapers

On September 13, to mark the anniversary of the fall of Québec in 1759, Le Devoir published a survey of how the French defeat was reported in French newspapers of 1759.  Late in 1759, in fact. Detailed accounts only began to appear in Paris on the first of December.  

It's the start of a series in cooperation with the Bibliothèque Nationale, to present documents of French views on Québec through the centuries. 

Friday, September 10, 2021

History of Confederation at the Confederation Centre for the Arts

Robert Harris, "Local Stars"

Stopped briefly in Charlottetown on Thursday during our brief visit to Prince Edward Island, and we visited the replica at the Confederation Centre of the room where the Confederation Conference was held . I had not realized the Confederation Conference chamber in Province House (the legislative building in Charlottetown) is closed along with the rest of the building for a major renovation. Rumour has it the building's sandstone materials from the 1840s have been more-or-less turning to sand.  The is replacing it for the time being.

Anyway, the replica and presentation at the Confederation Centre for the Arts in Charlottetown is charming, interesting, and forward-facing in acknowledging the failings of the confederation makers and incorporating reference to women, Indigenous nations, and others excluded from the process. Historians may be in conflict, but the heritage industry is moving forward.

Travel note:  the inspection and paperwork required at entry to Prince Edward Island is both extensive and very efficient. It included a mandatory fast-result covid test, which we took at the bridge, having driven in from Moncton airport.  And since PEI has had zero Covid deaths and maintains vigorous contact tracing for every case, being in PEI feels like being on Covid holiday: some mask-wearing by store clerks, very little by anyone else beyond Ontarians and others totally habituated to it.  More places are closed because its the post-Labour Day slow season than due to covid issues. 

Also:  it is very beautiful in Prince Edward Island.  Also, I swam in the ocean.  Also we liked the Robert Harris exhibit currently on at the Confederation Centre. 

Saturday, September 04, 2021

Blog on hiatus

 We're off to New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island on family matters for ten days. Blogging will be slim to none -- unless I can't resist tormenting you with travel notes.

History and the novel

I admire Hilary Mantel's novel Wolf Hall immensely. I'm less admiring of some recent claims of hers that seem to suggest it is both a novel and something other than a novel.  

Historians have previously expressed concern that the books are seen as fact by some of their students.

It is not a worry Mantel has much time for. “I stick as closely as I can to the historical record. You won’t go far wrong if you want to know about Thomas Cromwell by reading those books.

“It is not a locked box to which only historians have the key. ...
Historians, Mantel suggested, had done a poor job until Diarmaid MacCulloch’s “great biography came along as a sort of complement to the work I’ve done in fiction.”

The implication seems to be that novelists and nonfiction writers are doing much the same thing, that a historical novel, done well, can also replicate what a nonfiction treatment of the same subject can do. 

But the jobs are incompatible. The novelist imagines a reality, and tries to evoke it so vividly that it seems real. If that is successfully done, if the novel feels true, it succeeds. Agreat novel imagines reality brilliantly. You can judge if a novel is great, but it is a fool's errand to try assessing its evidence, how it weighs its evidence, and its conclusions from the evidence against whatever is known about the real characters and situations it evokes. But it is impossible to test imagination for accuracy. 

I've heard it argued that nonfiction is about facts and fiction about "truth." But nonfiction is not facts. It's a search for the truth, an endless search, based on the incomplete and possibly misleading evidence, You are entitled to form conclusions about the work's accuracy by assessing its sources and its interpretations from them.

As I've said before, Hilary Mantel has written a great novel about Thomas Cromwell in which he is a hero, and Peter Shaeffer wrote a great play about him in which he is a villain. But it's not a question of which one is right and which wrong.The greatness of their fictions does not depend on the literal truth or accuracy of their interpretations. Even if you wanted to judge their accuracy, fiction by its nature doesn't provide the materials for the task. 

If you want to seek the truth of events, study events. If you seek ways to imagine realities, read (or write) fiction. They are both worthwhile endeavours, but not interchangeable.

I still think Wolf Hall is a terrific novel  (I was less struck by its sequel Bringing Up the Bodies, perhaps because Wolf Hall seemed entirely original, and the sequel more of the same. I have not read The Mirror and the Light.) If I wanted to pursue some conclusion about the hero/villain status of Thomas Cromwell and his antagonist Thomas More, I should probably start with the MacCullough biography Mantel recommends,



Friday, September 03, 2021

How to run a leadership race

Mr. Charisma step down
(History news seems to be in the doldrums these days.  So a little more politics, but not about the Canadian election. Not directly, anyway.)

After a year in office, Japanese prime minister Yoshihide Suga announced he will not be a candidate in the Liberal-Democratic Party vote on party leadership.

The choice of the new party leader and prime minister will be determined by members of the LDP caucus in the lower house of the Japanese parliament -- though most news reports don't go into this aspect of the race in any detail.  

The new leader will be chosen by September 29.  A general election must be called by November.  Prime Minister Suga is unpopular both for Covid response failures and disappointment with the handling of the Tokyo Olympics.  But it is also noted he is "deeply uncharismatic" and, at 73, cannot hold the support of the younger backbenchers in his party.

Note: a Japanese leadership contest takes a couple of weeks, costs nothing, and ensures the accountability of the new leader to the parliamentary caucus. Japanese political culture is not the same as Canada's, and prime ministerial leadership is much less fetishized there. That system has worked pretty well for the LDP.  Its party leaders come and go pretty rapidly -- it's a very efficient system for getting rid of failing or unpopular leaders like Suga -- but the party has remained in power pretty much steadily since the restoration of parliamentary democracy in 1945. 

Do we really do better with unaccountable leaders, sheeplike backbenchers, and leadership races that take years, cost millions, and mostly involve the massive competitive buying of votes (called "memberships")? 


Thursday, September 02, 2021

History of Political Consultants: nobody knows anything

These days, it's generally accepted that cabinets are -- and should be -- no more than the PM's implementation team, and caucuses needed only when a House vote looms. The Leader is everything.  But consultants to the Leader have godlike powers in Canadian politics. Even when they lead Paul Martin to electoral disaster in 2006 or Stephen Harper there in 2015, they generally turn up selling the same services in party leadership races, in provincial or urban politics, or as private sector pollsters, pundits, and advisors. It's a good gig. 

You would think no organization would have access to more or better professional strategists, consultants, opinion analysts, and such than the Liberal Party of Canada. One has to assume the election call this summer was strategized to death. 

And then the election was called. And it turned out all this expensive expertise knows ... nothing, more or less. Not that this election is over, but if the consultants had known the day before the election was called what they know now, they might have had second thoughts.

Which does make you wonder: If the old arbiters of decisions like elections -- i.e., cabinet ministers and caucus members -- still held influence, would they have known any better?  Would actual working politicians have picked up better than the opinion researchers and strategists that Justin Trudeau is not as loved out in the country as the PMO calculated he was? 

They could not do much worse, so far at least. 

If the campaign continues on its current trend, a lot of MPs and cabinet ministers will find themselves out of a job, a fitting reward, maybe, for their passivity and non-involvement. Consultants, on the other hand, have a vested interest in always recommending the election call, and there's not much risk to them.  For them, the more elections the better -- it's where the strategists, consultants, and pollsters really make money. And if their guy loses, well, a lost election generally leads to a party leadership race, starting a new cycle and even more work for them.

Thursday, August 26, 2021

A New Synthesis for Canadian History

[This post follows up on some previous ones, notably Commemoration and History of August 20, History of the Hunger for History of August 18, and On Genocide from August 12.]

A few days ago, in the post titled "Commemoration and History," I noted how Britain, to name just one example, is struggling with the need to reinterpret its narrative of history and commemoration as once secondary and minority populations stand up to assert their place in national narratives.

Beneath our feet, that kind of earthquake seems to be taking place in Canadian historical narrative. It may, in fact, be comparable to what happened in the 1960s.

Prior to the 1960s, it was common and acceptable to write surveys of Canadian history in which French Canada (at least for the post-conquest period) could be briefly summarized as a folkloric remnant, committed to small farms, large families, traditional ways and the leadership of the Catholic Church -- and otherwise largely ignored in surveys of the Canadian economy, society, politics, and culture.  French Canada did not play a prominent role in shaping Canadian events, and English-Canada's historians picked up on that cue. 

As Quebec asserted and reinterpreted its place in the national story in the 1960s, there was fierce resistance from some leading anglophone Canadian historians (Donald Creighton comes to mind) against conceding greater place and greater respect in their Canadian synthesis to the francophone parts of the Canadian nation. On the other hand, there were also anglophone historians (Ramsay Cook comes to mind) much more inclined to apply themselves to the history of Quebec and to participate in shaping a new Canadian narrative more inclusive of, more engaged with, French Canada. Critical to the making of the new narrative, however, was a tremendous surge of new francophone historians fiercely critical of the old Canadian synthesis and taking the lead in creating materials for a new one -- even if that was not precisely their intention.

Is that what we are seeing now? There is a new assertion from Indigenous peoples of the northern half of North America. Among other things, it attacks the traditionally marginalizing treatment of First Nations by Canada and by the Canadian historical narrative. It demands a much larger place in the Canadian historical narrative for the reality of settler-indigenous relations throughout Canada's history.  

In response, there are non-Indigenous historians taking an interest in re-integrating Indigenous matters into the Canadian narrative. And a rising wave of Indigenous historians and scholars are taking the narrative into their own hands, and creating the materials from which to reshape the history of Canada.

Yes, there are historians whose work had a place in the old synthesis who regret seeing it crumble, or fear that subjects they have devoted themselves to will become be neglected or even disdained, or have been offended by criticism of the narrative they helped create.  Who wants to be framed as an accomplice to genocide?

I don't think the traditional subjects will disappear. We are still going to need confederation scholars, and biographers of John A. Macdonald and Egerton Ryerson and Bishop Grandin.  "Canada" is not going to be cancelled, because it is going to have to be a partner in whatever "reconciliation" takes place.  

But our historical images of it are shifting. As historical images do....       

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

CanHist conquers Russia

Anyone going to the 8th Canadian Studies Conference being held by the Canadian Studies Centre at St. Petersburg State University, Russia, from September 30 to October 1, 2021?

No? Me neither. (Pending possible Zoom arrangements, anyway.)

But the conference will launch the Russian-language edition of The Illustrated History of Canada, I learn from Professor Yuri Akimov, director of the Centre, who has supervised the translation. He reports The Illustrated History of Canada will be the first book of Canadian history to be translated into Russian since the works of Stanley B. Ryerson were translated in the Soviet Union of the 1960s.  (Can this be true? Information would be gratefully received.)

Happily the Illustrated History remains available in English in a handsome (and much updated since 1987) edition from McGill Queen's University Press. Its French and Spanish translations also endure, as far as I know.

Of its authors, only Graeme Wynn, Arthur Ray and I endure. Craig, Ramsay, Desmond, and Peter, vale.

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Not the Tour de France

My friend the legal scholar and historian Marty Friedland has a grandson, Mikey. This spring, for his own mental balance and to raise funds for the Canadian Mental Health Association, Mikey Friedland decided to ride a bike from the B.C./American border to Tuktoyaktuk on the edge of the Arctic Ocean.  No entourage, no support vehicle, no support teams at every stop, but Mikey turns out to be a deft hand as a filmmaker, an engaging character on screen, and a cyclist not daunted by distance and other challenges.

He's now a long way down the road, and his videos about what it's like to cycle solo across a great many parallels of latitude are appearing regularly on YouTube.  Check them out to follow his progress and the fabulous terrain he is moving through. If you feel moved to send a dollar, tell him the History News sent you. That's the first in the series above and at this link  

Monday, August 23, 2021

Book Notes: Janigan on equalization and federalism

Several years ago, the journalist Mary Janigan began to take an interest in the historical background to some big questions about how the Canadian federation actually functions.  In Canada's History, back in 2013, I profiled her and a book of hers with the provocative title Let the Eastern Bastards Freeze in the Dark. It's about regional alienation and federal-provincial power struggles, and her analysis goes way back before the recent decades of conflict over Alberta's oil. It emphasizes early twentieth-century attempts to accommodate the rise of western Canada to a full(er) share in Confederation. It was a daunting topic -- she joked that her agent and publisher said, more or less, "a book about whaaat?..." -- handled in bold, vigorous and confident fashion.

Janigan, now with a Ph.D. in hand, is back with a second book, The Art of Sharing. This one is on another potentially daunting subject: the history of  financial tensions within the Canadian confederation. She goes back to the 1920s again, but the book highlights the history of equalization payments since their beginnings under John Diefenbaker in 1957. I still have not read it, but it gets a very positive review in the current Canadian Historical Review (requires subscription) from Douglas Brown.  Equalization, Brown notes:

was to proceed with a relatively generous program of funding by the federal government alone, drawn from tax revenues collected by the federal government in all of Canada, made to those provinces with a below average fiscal capacity. It did not require any formal agreement by any province, and the funds would be without condition. These principles continue to be applied today, despite the misinterpretations of political leaders such as Alberta Premier Jason Kenney. As Janigan so nicely puts it at the end of her book, in 1957, it amounted to an “unnoticed revolution”; providing no-strings cash to the poorer provinces enabled all provinces to afford national social programs, including health care.

If I understand Brown's summary correctly, Janigan demonstrates that Australia (and the United States), faced with regional disparities of their own, opted for centralization, placing health care and other fundamental social programs under federal jurisdiction. Equalization (and other joint-spending programs) enabled Canada to retain broad provincial jurisdictions, through federal funding rather than full federal control. 

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