Tuesday, March 21, 2023

This month at Canada's History

The tiger and the beaver? -- who'da thunk.

The standout article in the April-May Canada's History must be Madhuparna Gupta's essay "Bonds of Empire." It considers how Canada and India "emerge... as two sides of the same coin, united by the common threads of European colonial heritage" over hundreds of years.

For much of those hundreds of years, many Canadians would have ranked themselves as part of the "white Commonwealth" and co-rulers of the Empire  -- quite different from the subject peoples of India. Gupta skillfully subverts that position with surprising comparisons: from the monopoly trading companies that took charge of things on both continents to the similarities she finds between the Rebellions of 1837 here and the Sepoy Rebellion, aka the First War of Indian Independence in 1857, there.

She makes fascinating material of Canadian nonentities like Lord Minto and Lord Willingdon, who as Governors General of Canada stand for little more than a lacrosse cup and an arts prize, but who as Governors General of India wielded despotic authority in trying to prevent steps toward Indian independence. She notes a shared history of military service fuelling nationalist stirrings in the twentieth century, and the shared parliamentary history since 1947, and the tide of immigration from the subcontinent to Canada in the last half century.

It's subversive in the most polite way, and brilliantly extends Canadian history to include a million and a half Indo-Canadians.

Also in the issue, Alan MacEachern on Green Gables during the Second World War, Robert Chaulk on the wreck of the "Atlantic," Julian Sher on the Canadian who captured John Wilkes Booth, lots of reviews, news items, and commentary. I'll be back in the next issue with a feature article related to Prince Edward Island's sequicentennial of Confederation 1873-2023. Subscribe.  

Online, Madhuparna Gupta and Stephen Bown discuss colonial connections with CH senior editor Kate Jaimet.  

Monday, March 20, 2023

History of Heroes and Villains

Next Sunday, my friend Neil Ross and the Tour Guys team are premiering their new Toronto walking tour: Canadian Heroes and Villains.

"What we have found in Canada is that because we are essentially three founding cultures -- First Nations, French and British -- heroes of one cultural group are often the villains of the others – and vice versa, through successive waves of immigration."

Sunday, March 26 @ 2pm.

Meeting point: North east entrance, Queen's Park subway station.

End point: City Hall

Time: 90 min.


Policy Options on making a better parliament

Policy Options, the (free) online magazine of the Institute for Research in Public Policy, has recently been publishing a series of essays on "Making a Better Parliament." The introduction:  

It starts with choosing to “do” politics in ways that don’t reinforce the masculine blueprint.

Sadly, that is about the most ambitious proposal its big thinkers have come up with. 

I'm sympathetic to changing the masculine blueprint, sure. Then what? When I read on and see the solutions provide by the contributors, it's hard to see any pathways to real and significant change.

The contributors are against the masculine blueprint, against hyper-partisanship, against the inability of MPs to get their own bills considered,  They are for digital participation in parliamentary sittings, for better working conditions, for making MPs' constituency newsletters more widely available, and for better data on minority representation in the House and Senate.  Well, sure.  (Not so sure on the benefits of digital parliaments, actually.)  

As to thinking about how parliamentary democracy is supposed to work, how it has worked in the past, how it actually works in other parliamentary countries, and what specific ways Canada suffers by ignoring the norms and principles? Identity politics is not going to do any of those things.
It is to weep. 

Friday, March 17, 2023

Book Notes: Glenn on Bowell

I have been slow in getting to Ted Glenn's A Very Canadian Coup: The Rise and Demise of Prime Minister Mackenzie Bowell 1894-96. I was already grumbling about the use of the word 'coup' in his title when the book appeared in September 2022. Even before that I was intrigued by the way Bowell was becoming one of our most written-about prime ministers -- let along having his own lively twitter account. Now, thanks to publicist Heather Wood and Dundurn Press, I've caught up on the book itself.

Glenn's book is the best of the recent crop of Bowelliana, if attention to detail is what matters. He draws extensively on previous historical work on the political history of the period. He has gone through not only the House and Senate Hansards but also on the archived papers of the participants. Most important, he seems to have scoured every possible newspaper from the time and the very extensive parliamentary coverage they provided. His level of detail on the last years of the Macdonald-era Conservative governments in general and on Bowell's term as prime minister seems to me unmatched.

I would not mind if the term "coup" were adopted here just for the sake of a lively title. But Glenn seems to accept it as a valid description.  But how can a prime minister's agreement to resign upon losing his majority in the House of Commons can ever be defined as a coup d'etat? (Oxford Canadian Dictionary: coup d'etat: noun, a violent or illegal seizure of power). Given how widely Canadian political scientists, commentators, and even historians accept that there was once was a prime ministerial coup somewhere in the unplumbed bowels (haha) of the Canadian political past, an account that clarified this question could have been useful in knocking that delusion firmly on the head.

That omission shines a spotlight on many intriguing aspects of Canadian politics in the 1890s that cry out for more reflection.  

  • The end of Bowell's tenure in office came when he discovered that most of his caucus and many of his cabinet ministers would not support his plan to deal with the Manitoba Schools Question.  One might think that a historian who accepts that removing a prime minister from office is an illegal seizure of power might have wondered why the 1890s prime minister could not simply give his ministers and caucus their marching orders -- the way a 2023 prime minister would. The power (and the willingness) of the 1890s caucus and cabinet to take such action might have provoked reflections on why parliamentary government then worked so differently from the system we live with today.  
  • The Manitoba Schools Crisis that doomed Bowell has been called (in a source cited by Professor Glenn) "one of the most divisive issues ... ever to challenge the Canadian nation." The Manitoba government, with strong support from a Protestant and Anglophone electorate, blatantly violated the constitutional rights of the French and Catholic populations of the province. The minority did not get much support from the courts, partly because the Manitoba Act permitted the aggrieved parties to appeal for redress to the federal government as well as the judiciary. Bowell, who felt Canada was compelled to provide such redress, fell victim to the same Protestant-Anglophone political consensus that supported the Manitoba government. Canadian courts did not restore the constitutional rights of Franco-Manitobans until the late twentieth century. One might wish Professor Glenn's book, instead of encouraging notions about coups, might have undertaken   some reflection on the intersection between law and politics in our constitution then and now, or at least on what this particular crisis meant to francophone Canadians across the country, then and after. 
  • Even minor details might have been addressed more thoughtfully. Why did Governor General Lord Aberdeen (and his wife) feel so entitled to it was their role to decide so much on behalf of the self-governing Canadians? Even their British masters told them to leave the decision-making up to the politicians. Is it significant that the Liberal government of Alexander Mackenzie in the 1870s fought back against the governor general's interference, while the Conservative cabinet, larded with the knighthoods they gave each other, hesitated to defend Canadian autonomy against "the British connection"? 

And so on. Surely much of the interest of any 19th century Canadian parliamentary wrangle is how the politics of those days was governed by precisely the same rules and laws and even customs as today, and yet operated completely differently. It is in taking the differences seriously that we can learn a lot, not only about the nineteenth century, but about the twenty-first.  

There is a lot of material for reflection in A Very Canadian Coup. I'm grateful for detaile studies like Ted Glenn's on such topics. But maybe the author of this one might have reflected more in the issues he raises.    

Sunday, March 12, 2023

A Short History of Time (Changes) WITH NEW COMMENT


I like the time change. It's going to be brighter tonight. We are blessed by changing seasons in Canada, and the time change enhances that: winter nights get dark earlier, summer nights stay bright later, the way it ought to be in our subpolar latitudes. If your circadian rhythm gets a bit off for a day or two, take a nap.

I can't help thinking people who oppose time changes are likely the ones who oppose vaccination and masking and signs that warn you to be careful on the ice. They probably resist anyone setting a time mandate. If they cannot establish their own time, at least the govmint should be prevented from setting it.

There was an op-ed against time changes in the Toronto Star yesterday. It suggested if you like longer evenings you should get up earlier, it and breezily declared, "There is a great degree of agreement that we should abandon the time change altogether."

The author is described as a "retired solutionist." Wondering what a solutionist might be, I found this:

This fixation with all things tech, the idea that every difficulty we might come across can somehow be ironed out with a technological solution, has recently been dubbed solutionism.

Sounds about right. A simple fix for everything.  

Update, March 17:  Jared Milne responds: 

I just caught your piece on clock changes, and I resent the implication that just because I don't like it I'm on the level of anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers (jokingly, of course.) It just seems like a silly, pointless exercise that doesn't contribute anything of value.

The whole 'get some extra daylight' rationale doesn't make sense in much of Canada. Living near Edmonton, I'm used to waiting for the school bus or driving to or from work when it's still pitch-dark at 7:00 AM or 4:30 PM even with the time changes. Not to mention that according to Wikipedia Saskatchewan and the Yukon don't use it at all, and with the way daylight works up north it's entirely pointless in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut.

So, does it make more sense in other parts of the country?

All good points, for sure. I should acknowledge that my perspective is shaped by, among other things, being an old geezer who does not often have to get up early in the morning but still likes a long summer evening.  And Jared is right that that anti-vax stuff is a mean joke.  

 I find myself thinking of how much latitude may influence views on this. Anywhere from Florida down to Rio, day length does not vary so much between winter and summer, but my latitude 44 perspective on winter darkness  is not the same as Jared's at latitude 54.   



Saturday, March 11, 2023

John Ralston Saul on the national holiday we'll probably never have

The burning of Parliament -- in 1849, fortunately not in 2022

March 11: in 2020 it was the day the global pandemic was declared, same day I had the surgery that saved me from prostate cancer, just as the surgical wards began cancelling surgeries by the thousand. So for me, a good day.

Also in 2023 it is the 175th anniversary of democratic government in Canada. In the Globe and Mail, John Ralston Saul has published his almost annual urging that Canada grasp the importance of the achievement of what then called responsible government.  It came first in Nova Scotia, as he notes, but in a lone province it might have been abandoned almost unnoted. The adhesion of the Province of Canada (ie, Ontario and Quebec, more or less) gave it a chance at spreading and becoming entrenched.  Not without violent challenge, as Saul describes. 

The first bill the new Reform majority got through Parliament was a law to encourage, protect and support immigrants. A torrent of reforms followed: public schools and universities; toll-free roads for the poor; a professional civil service; official bilingualism; municipal democracy; independent judges. Both legal codes were rewritten. It was a waterfall of legislation designed to create a fair and just society. What they put in place are the legal and social foundations of Canada today. And all of this was done in just three years.

With each reform, the elites became increasingly upset. They eventually occupied the centre of the national capital, in Montreal. Mobs attacked Parliament in scenes of brawling as the MPs fought back. A gas lamp was struck by a rock and suddenly the Assembly was on fire. In the morning, only a shell remained. Canada’s largest library and archives were lost in the flames.

I've written about John Ralston Saul's campaign around March 11, 1848 before.  It's still vital.


Thursday, March 09, 2023

Book Notes: Phillips, Girard, Brown, History of Law in Canada II

By being a member of the Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History, you help support the publication of legal history in Canada (and other activities) and in exchange you receive "the annual book," one from the three or four the society produces in a typical year.

Last November I attended the Society's annual gathering and the launch of the History of Law in Canada Volume II by Jim Phillips, Philip Girard, and Blake Brown. But recently I realized my copy was not just delayed in the mail. It evidently was not coming at all. So I inquired. Turns out I neglected to renew my membership last year, so I wasn't entitled. I had to pony up forty bucks to get one.

At the launch (at which I guess I was technically a gatecrasher), I was thanked as one of the anonymous pre-publication reviewers. The authors had managed to guess who we were, and both Douglas Harris and I had agreed to be outed. So after all the work involved in reviewing a book so authoritative about everything in its vast field of study, I feel I did a lot for a book I ended up having to buy. (On the other hand, I saved on the membership dues.)

Nevertheless. I now have got a copy of Volume II, and I am very happy to have it. In their printed acknowledgments, the authors thank the (then still-anonymous) reviewers for "just what authors want -- half a page of generous and enthusiastic praise and many further pages of corrections and perceptive suggestions." Reading it now in handsome hardcover rather than messy pages, I want to deliver some more of that enthusiastic praise. This is a very good book. And important far beyond the cloisters of legal history. 

Volume II covers the years 1867-1914, and an important theme is how much the founding of the Canadian state involved the imposing of Canadian law (or the making of new law and institutions) to replace previous ones throughout the "dominion." These innovations mostly remain in being, and no political historian and no general historian of Canada should be unaware of this history of law as state-making. The fifty-page summary of the constitutional history in Chapter Two is a remarkably clear, vivid, and thought-provoking overview. This and the succeeding chapters, which give the legal framework of practically any question you can imagine asking about Canadian history in that period, ought to make the volume an indispensable reference.

Volume II is also groundbreaking among survey histories and reference works for how completely it has integrated indigenous history and law into the narrative, not as some woke acknowledgment but as fundamental grounding. In a hundred and fifty pages, Part Two, "Indigenous Peoples and the New Dominion" focusses a legal lens on treaty-making, the prairie resistance, the Indian Act, the reserve system, the criminalization of culture, education and assimilation, and a host of conflicts between enduring indigenous law and the new system.

And much more.  There are many short summaries that will tell any historian what they need to know on, say, the legal background of corporate power, of labour rights, of property law, of family law, of civil rights....

Philips, Girard, and Brown have another big volume in the works to complete this history. And since the 800 pages of Volume II appear just four years after the 900 pages of Volume I, it probably won't be too long a wait for III. But II may prove to be the essential, and ground-breaking, one of the three, the one you keep on your short, close-at-hand shelf. Somebody should give this book a prize.   

Best nonfiction: Canada holding its own

For its twenty-fifth anniversary, Britain's Baillie Gifford Prize for nonfiction has launched a contest to determine the "best of the best" with a shortlist from among its twenty-five winners. The six shortlisted authors include one British writer, three Americans -- and two Canadians, Margaret Macmillan for 1919 and Wade Davis for Into the Silence.

On a related topic, I've updated March first's post about historians writing fiction to add a new comment.

Wednesday, March 08, 2023

Book Notes: Wanda's War

Recently I had a piece published in the Literary Review of Canada about writing the histories of individuals who pretty much left no record of themselves. I did not realize then that my friend Marsha Faubert was about to publish a book that is dedicated to precisely that task.

Faubert's Wanda's War: An Untold Story of Nazi Europe, Forced Labour, and a Canadian Immigration Scandal (from Goose Lane Editions) explores the lives of her Polish-Canadian mother-in-law and father-in-law, Wanda and Casey (Kazimierz) Surdykowski during and after the Second World War. They left a few photographs, but mostly they did not talk about the war, or their lives in Europe, or coming to Canada. 

Wanda's War explores how Wanda survived first the Soviet and then the German invasion of Poland and ended up a forced labourer in a factory camp in Germany. Meanwhile, Casey, then unknown to her, had been seized by the Soviet forces after they invaded eastern Poland in 1939. He was shipped off to serve as a forced labourer in a Siberian forestry camp. From there, he followed a very implausible path (which the book explains) to becoming a soldier in the Polish Division fighting alongside British and Canadians in Italy. My own father, serving in the British Army in Italy, must have been nearby at times; he remembered how everyone felt safer when the Polish Division was nearby, because no German attack was going to get past the Poles. 

At the end of the war, both Wanda and Casey became "displaced persons," unwilling and unable to return to Soviet-occupied Poland, unwanted most other places. Wanda reached Canada via a bizarre scheme through which a Canadian businessman was permitted to bring young Polish women from refugee camps to be cheap labour in his factory in rural Quebec. Eventually she fled to southern Ontario, and saw her mother and siblings also reach North America. Casey benefitted from the grudging respect the Western Allies paid to the military service of the Free Polish Army, and was able to join a group of his fellow soldiers being accepted into Canada. He got to Kitchener, Ontario, in the late 1940s, where he met and married Wanda and where they spent the rest of their lives. One of their sons met Marsha Faubert in law school, which is how she became daughter-in-law to Wanda and Casey, who have since died.

They didn't willingly talk about any of their nightmarish wartime history. But Marsha Faubert has pieced together a remarkable amount of information both about them individually and about the world-historical events through which they lived. From family genealogy to pre-war Polish rural society in Eastern Europe, to gulags and slave labour camps, to the military history of World War II, to the intricacies of postwar immigration and adjustment, to the politics of memory, she has got it all in one story.

There's a book launch for Wanda's World tomorrow at Baka Gallery Cafe in Bloor West Village, Toronto. Goose Lane is promoting it on Facebook, so I guess they would not mind if a few of the sophisticated audience of this blog joined in.

A book launch, a real in-person book launch! Imagine.



Monday, March 06, 2023

Does the Maclean's Magazine Archives still exist?

Some years ago, Maclean's magazine made something of a promotion of the availability of its entire archives online -- you could subscribe for a modest fee. I found it pretty useful a number of times. Since 1905 Maclean's has published a lot of on-the-spot reporting on Canadian matters.

Recently a look at the Maclean's archive site turned up "404 - Not Available" notices and warnings of dodgy links. Meanwhile, the Internet Archives holds pretty much the same collection, unlimited access, with similar searchability. And no doubt larger libraries will also offer accessibility, at least to older issues. Maybe you don't want to subscribe to the Maclean's one any more.

George Manuel in Manhattan

The New Yorker must have a huge number of subscriptions in Canada, but Canadian subjects very rarely attract attention from its editors and writers. (I recall a profile of Miriam Toews a few years ago.) Recently, however, a Canadian did earned some coverage, when a somewhat sceptical article on the global movement to unite indigenous people credited the origins of the movement to George Manuel.

To understand the origins of a global Indigenous identity, we need to turn to the activist networks that formed in the nineteen-sixties and seventies. And this means turning to George Manuel.

Born in 1921 in the Shuswap territory of British Columbia, Manuel started to think seriously about a global Indigenous identity in 1971. He was then the president of the National Indian Brotherhood, a young organization representing Canada’s two hundred and fifty thousand officially recognized “status Indians.” When the Canadian government arranged for a delegation to go to the South Pacific to learn about the Maoris’ place in New Zealand, Manuel was invited along as the representative of Canada’s Indigenous peoples. [....]
What struck him about his unofficial tour was that the Maori were engaged in the same struggle. They, too, were an Indigenous people fighting a white Commonwealth nation for land, representation, and cultural survival: “What we are doing here in Canada is a part of a world wide movement for cultural autonomy and aboriginal rights of native people.”


Wednesday, March 01, 2023

The secret dreams of historians UPDATED

There's a podcast called Tides of History, hosted by an American, Patrick Wyman, that I hear sometimes. It follows the host's interests, but tends to come back to ancient history and archaeological evidence. Multi-hour examinations of the Polynesian Expansion or of the Bronze Age Collapse, for instance. Its shows tend to be pretty deep dives, featuring longish interviews with scholars you have never heard of.

The other day I was surprised to see an announcement of a freestanding episode in the series with the teaser line:

Every historian I know has a secret dream of writing historical fiction, but few ever do it. Dan Jones, a longtime friend of Tides of History and an outstanding historian, has actually done it: Essex Dogs, his fantastic debut novel about a group of soldiers during the Hundred Years' War, is out now. I talk to Dan about writing historical fiction and what it can...

They do? (Have that secret dream, I mean.) Can't say I do. And if I were to write a novel (I won't), I imagine it would be contemporary and not historical.

(Have not listened to the podcast or read the novel mentioned. May do yet.

Update, March 2:  Helen Webberley responds from Australia:

I would like to offer the opposite position. I was writing a historical blog post (on Canada as it happens), drawing on primary sources as is appropriate for proper historians. But the events were so improbable, I actually thought I had written historical fiction.

Update, March 9:  Russ Chamberlayne:

Your March 1 (sorry, March 01) post on historians writing historical novels seemed to doubt that many do. Could there be more of them that write creative non-fiction instead?

Creative non-fiction has been a literary genre for so long that many practitioners will be aware of the grant money. But for those who aren't, here's the web site of the $40,000 Whiting Creative Nonfiction Grant, from the New-York-based Whiting Foundation. It's for those already in possession of a contract (or will be by the April 25 grant application deadline) with a Canadian, U.K. or U.S. publisher. Other grant possibilities (contract or no) are listed at the bottom of the page.

"Creative non-fiction refers to all non-fiction and mixed genre writing shaped by literary sensibilities, devices, and strategies."  -- Betsy Warland, Breathing the Page: Reading the Act of Writing. I'd be okay with historians doing more of that, sure.  

Friday, February 24, 2023

Hard Histories at the History Forum

In Ottawa next week?  You might take in Hard Histories at the 15th Annual History Forum sponsored by the Canada's History Society on Friday March 2.

Museums, educators, researchers, and heritage organizations are increasingly seeking ways to address difficult and sensitive historical topics in a respectful and inclusive manner. Topics such as colonialism, genocide, and other forms of injustice and violence can be contested or traumatic and it can be challenging to know how to approach this content appropriately.

How can we initiate respectful and productive conversations about hard histories? How can we acknowledge past injustices against traditionally marginalized communities, while also recognizing the agency and dignity of all individuals involved? How can we empower audiences to confront the ongoing legacies that have resulted from these histories?

The Canada’s History Forum features presentations from experts in a range of fields that explore best practices for dealing with difficult history in museum exhibitions, public programming, teaching, and research.

Speakers include Afua Cooper and David  A Robertson.  Admission is free but registration is required.  Details right here.


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