Tuesday, September 26, 2023

This month at Canada's History


In recent years, Canada's History has been providing an impressive amount of indigenous-created content -- as well it should, but still notable.

This month, essays on the kayak by Noah Nochasak and on the Numbered Treaties of the West (and northern Ontario) by Wabi Benais Misratim Equay (Cynthia Bird).  Plus fur-trading women of New France by Sienna Vittoria Lefebvre, World War I photographs by Carla-Jean Stokes, and Nobellest Ernest Rutherford of McGill University by John Hardy.  

Charlotte Gray reviews Hugh Brody. Victor Ravinovitch on the Winnipeg General Strike, and many more reviews of the new books.

Subscribe .  No, nothing from me this month.  Mais j'arrive, j'arrive.    

History of the Bloodlands

I haven't very often taken cues from Twitter/X for posts here and given X's situation, I'm likely to do so less in future. But, regarding the national embarrassment over who was honoured in the House of Commons during Ukrainian President Zelensky's recent appearance there, I was struck by an X commentator who posted, more or less:

Wouldn't it be useful to have someone around Parliament who knows some history?

I happened to see the television news coverage the night of the tribute, and I was, well, surprised a little, to hear the Speaker of the Canadian House of Commons honour someone for having fought against Russia during the Second World War. 

Canada was an ally of Russia during the Second World War; Russia was fighting on our side. And fighting against the Soviet Union in eastern Europe at that time did necessary mean assisting the perpetrators of the Holocaust (at the very least). 

Beyond that, I find the whole situation both tragic and murky. Anyone with a glancing familiarity with, say, Timothy Snyder's Bloodlands, knows there were no good options for people seeking to defend themselves and their communities in the territories contested by Nazi Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union during that war. Not everyone who resisted Stalin's murderous legions was a Nazi.

Did none of those considerations cross any minds among the planners of the event on the Hill? Surely Canada can give all possible support to today's Ukraine without venturing into black-and-white distinctions about loyalties and alliances in that place at that period.

Monday, September 25, 2023

History of one Social Crediter

Jill Lepore, a history professor at Harvard who is more prominent, perhaps, as a New Yorker staff writer, has been back in the archives lately. She was looking into the papers of J.N. Haldeman, a little remembered Canadian who was politically active in Saskatchewan in the 1930s and later became national chairman of the Social Credit Party. In 1950 he moved his family to South Africa, where he became a vigorous supporter of apartheid and white colonialism and an "antisemitic conspiracy theorist" and pamphleteer.

His pamphlets, the ones she can find in the archives at least, attacked  

Jewish bankers, Jewish intellectuals, philanthropic foundations run by Jews, communists, Black leaders, and anyone who supported the overthrow of colonial rule in Africa.

He warned against a “collectivist-internationalist” conspiracy -- “from Kennedy to Kenyatta” -- that was attempting to impose 

national health insurance and various pharmaceuticals (including fluoride in the water, another conspiracy), all of which he considered “anti-Christian infringements on human liberties.”

Three things interest Lepore about J.N. Haldeman. One, he was Elon Musk's grandfather. Two, she thinks Elon's new biographer should not have passed over Grandpa's views as merely "quirky."  

And third, she observes that Haldeman's writings about malevolent conspiracies taking away the freedoms of decent white people were typewritten, copied in small mimeographed batches, seen by almost nobody, and destined to become extremely scarce. (One sees why the biographer missed them, maybe.) Today, she muses, Haldeman would be able to post them on X and the like  -- where they would live forever and find an international audience of like-minded people and the politicians who cater to them.  


Friday, September 22, 2023

Book Notes: Taiaiake Alfred About the Land

Kahnawà:ke Mohawk philosopher and political strategist Taiaiake Alfred speaks online next week about his new book It's All About the Land, which argues 
how the Canadian government’s reconciliation agenda is a new form of colonization that is guaranteed to fail.
The book, a collection of speeches and essays, is forthcoming from University of Toronto Press. The talk is next Thursday September 8 at 1.30 pm EST, on the LinkedIn Live platform.

History of the war on "woke" history

In an Ottawa Citizen op-ed, Donald Wright, historian and president of the Canadian Historical Association, rejects Pierre Poilievre's crusade to save the Canadian past from "erasure." 

All of this is to say that culture wars are tiring, divisive and ultimately destructive, when what we deserve is an honest recognition that history is complicated, and always has been. And that’s a good thing, because no one wants to live in a society where there is only one version of the past.

Thursday, September 21, 2023

Followers in Toronto may be interested in the list of events recently announced for the Yorkminster Park Speakers Series for 2023-24.  The speakers include a substantial array of historians and history-adjacents: genealogist Heather Mctavish Taylor, Professor Jan Grawboski, who is persona non grata with the Polish government for writing true histories of Poland, music historian Barbara Dickson, Don Loucks, historian of Toronto workers, and historian of Newfoundland Professor Peter Neary.  

Launching the series tomorrow is my friend Ron Brown, the geographer and historian of all things notable in the Ontario landscape built and natural. 


Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Book notes: Charlotte Gray on moms of famous sons

Down last night to Toronto's Massey College to help launch Charlotte Gray's latest book. Amidst all the discussion recently about how hard it has become to support the writing and publishing of big readable researched nonfiction in and about Canada, Charlotte's one step ahead of the trend.  She's gone for more supportive marketplaces

Her new book Passionate Mothers, Powerful Sons is a biography of the mothers of Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt and their relationships with their political sons.  ("These women had their stories, and Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt are only part of it.") 

Canadian novelists have been more successful than Canadian historians at finding international readers and sales. But Charlotte Gray may break through. Simon & Shuster is publishing her simultaneously in Toronto, London, and New York. Given the combination of Charlotte's talents and the limitless interest in Churchill and in American presidents generally, it might just find the global market it is designed for.  

Is this a solution to the Canadian book problem?... or the proof of it?  In either case, I'm looking forward to reading it.

Anyway I've been to two book launches this week, which means it's officially book season.  I should start to pay some attention here to new books of interest in Canadian history

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

History of monarchy ... fading, fading.

One poll is one poll, but an endless sequence of polls all pointing in the same direction ought to mean something.

And the latest Leger poll on Canadian attitudes to the monarchy is something. When a consistent majority of the Canadian public, in all regions, in all age groups, on many kinds of questions, expresses this kind of detachment, discontent, dissatisfaction, whatever you choose to call it, about the country's relationship with the British monarchy... well eventually it has to leak over into our public discourse and our politics.

Summary hereFull text of the survey report here

Monday, September 18, 2023

History Podcasts UPDATED

The buzziest history podcast around recently -- judging by the media I see or follow -- must be "Empire," a British project of the historian of South Asia William Dalrymple (pronounced more like "Drymple" judging by how he introduces himself) and Anita Anand (the British TV presenter, not the Canadian politician). Recently their empire of choice was the Russian one, and their guest was starry historian Simon Sebag Montifiore (who uses "Sebag," not "Simon," as his given name, who knew?). Now they are onto the Raj, but still with a focus on Russia and "the great game" (as only the British would name a long cycle of imperial conquests). In the reigning podcast fashion it's chatty, funny, a bit show-offy, full of laughter and fairly superficial as history, but undoubtedly listenable.  

For a more intense, sit up and listen history podcast, I go to Patrick Wyman's "Tides of History." Wyman starts each episode with an intense little imagined scene, and then plunges directly into deep and very academic-research-driven discussions of ... well, whatever takes his interest.  He's followed the Polynesian expansion across the Pacific, Medieval Europe, the Bronze Age collapse of circa c1200 B,C., and the Paleolithic, among many other periods, with excursions into interviews of archaeologists, linguists, and whomever ever catches his interest.

CanHist podcasting? Though I'm a longtime member, occasional beneficiary, and constant admirer of the Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History, I've just learned they too are doing a podcast, "Time Immemorial," presented by two young lawyer-scholars, Preston Lim and Gregory Ringkamp. I have not listened yet, but they look to be deep-divey examinations of various Canadian and Canadian moments, generally with some legal-history aspect.  

The Champlain Society's "Witness to Yesterday," led by Patrice Dutil and Greg Marchildon, is the granddaddy of in-depth history podcasting in Canada, as far as I know. These days, they seem to interview everybody who publishes a worthwhile history in Canada (me included. Thanks, guys.)

It's a growing field and still largely uncategorized, podcasting. What history podcasts are in your earbuds? 

Update, September 19:  Meant to include:  For a real deep dive into niche podcastery by an obsessive Englishman named Andrew Hickey, try "A History of Rock and Roll in 500 Songs." (New Yorker: "his project is so vast that it can only be compared to, say, the construction of the Oxford English Dictionary.")

Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Ruth Holmes Whitehead (1947-2023): keeper of Mi'kmaw testimony

I was sorry to hear of the recent passing of two historians I knew slightly. Christopher English (1939-2023), was a historian of France at Memorial University who went to law school in mid-career  and then developed a popular and successful legal history program at Memorial. William Westfall (1945-2023), was a York University historian of nineteenth century Ontario Protestantism and wise and knowledgeable about much else too.

But I wanted to note in particular the loss of Ruth Holmes Whitehead, (1947-2023) whom I did not know at all. Without being deeply involved in the topic, I usually found that the richest and most insightful material on the Mi'kmaq of Atlantic Canada often came from Whitehead. Almost all her publications were compilations of Mi'kmaw oral testimonies, though often backed up with archival references to previously recorded material. 

I rather assumed she was herself Mi'kmaq. The brief author biographies in works of hers have called her a "Mi'kmaw scholar" or "Mi'kmaw historian and ethnologist" -- which is rather ambiguous -- and I called her that myself in print at least once. 

But the rather scant obits of her I have seen note her birth in South Carolina and her career in Nova Scotia, particularly at the Nova Scotia Museum, in ways that seem to make clear that she was not indigenous. (Glad to be corrected here)  I don't think there is a "pretendian" issue; the misunderstanding was mine.  And the material she collected and published will endure. 

Update, September 18:  I'm not trying to make this an obituaries blog, but ... death happens.  My X/Twitter feed this weekend was full of grief for University of New Brunswick historian Elizabeth Mancke, gone too soon and much mourned, it is clear.  She helped inspire the Borealia website, I understand but as yet no formal obits or profiles have turned up there or from UNB.

Monday, September 11, 2023

(Pleasures of) the History of New France

An attractive thing about the history of New France is how deep back it goes, at least among Canadian subjects. Indigenous history goes way farther, obviously, but not with the same wealth of documentation. If you like a subject to research where you are definitely in a foreign country where they do things differently and there are lots of sources to show you just how, New France fits -- even for 21st century pur-laine Quebeckers, I'd say.

I was reminded of that by a recent post on the Query the Past blog that reviews a couple of micro-studies by Gaston Deschênes, one that examines Canadien responses to the American revolutionaries' invasion of the St-Lawrence corridor in 1775-6, and the other on the same subject during James Wolfe's invasion of 1759. There are abundant studies of the political/military aspects of both conflicts. What Deschênes sought to do was see what local sources might add to the big story.  

What he has able to do, apparently (I'm reading Patrick Lacroix's review, not the originals), is tease out as much detail as possible on who among the francophone population got involved in these conflicts, where exactly they stood in their communities and, for the 1775-76 conflict, at least, which of them joined the American cause and (possibly) why.  Given the nature of those local sources in New France/Quebec, diligent research makes it possible to find out quite a lot about even the most obscure individuals. Good to see that kind of work still goes on in New France studies.

I once tried to consider why in 1813 loyalist John Crysler became a hero of Canadian resistance to another American invasion, while his first cousin Adam Crysler was hanged for giving armed support to the same invaders. Let's just say the New-France/Quebec files (parish records and notarial files in particular) seem a lot more detailed on local communities and obscure individuals than the Upper Canadian ones.  

Friday, September 08, 2023

Obituary: Peter C Newman, connoisseur of power

The cap always looked silly.
The Globe and Mail offers two obituary essays on Peter C. Newman, who died yesterday: one by historian Allan Levine, the other by journalist/publisher Kenneth Whyte.  

It's the historian who defends Newman the historian (gift link) in regard to the Hudson's Bay histories that were Canadian bestsellers in the 1980s. Allan Levine is right, I think, to record the pettiness and insecurity with which the academic community attempted to belittle Newman's historical work. it was not an edifying spectacle. And his account of how he worked successfully with Newman for decades is illuminating. 

But I think Ken Whyte is on the right track to pass over the HBC books with the comment, "The series leaves something to be desired as history" and to focus on Newman's journalism, his real work.

Newman's genius was in interviewing. How he got seasoned businessmen and veteran politicians to imagine that he was on their side and could be trusted with the most damning admissions -- which he always went right ahead and published -- continues to be mysterious and astonishing. Newman/Nixon might have been better than Frost/Nixon.  

His focus was always power (he incorporated himself as "Power, Inc."), and I think that is what sank his histories. The subjects were all dead -- he could not talk to them.  And in a way, he could not take them seriously, because being dead, they had lost all power for him.

I only had one extensive interaction with Peter Newman. The year I chaired the Writers' Union of Canada, Newman was invited to give the Hugh MacLennan lecture (always on "A Writers' Life." and given at the Union's annual meeting, held that year in Kingston). The series, inaugurated by MacLennan himself in 1987, comes with a notable fee and has attracted most of Canada's leading writers, most of whom have clearly been honoured to talk about their writing with other writers and the general public.

Before the speech, we took Newman to dinner at Chez Piggy: myself as chair, novelist Audrey Thomas, our ED Penny Dickens, and Pierre Berton. Pierre was his usual genial expansive self, companionable with everyone. Newman clearly wished he was anywhere but there, and spoke to no one but Pierre, leaning over throughout the dinner to whisper to him as if to exclude everyone else.  

The speech he gave later was probably the weakest MacLennan Lecture ever. He must have had some assistant cobble together a string of old chestnuts about writers and writing from a dictionary of quotations. But his stature as a writer was respected --he got a substantial ovation. Then he skipped the reception -- he had a car waiting to take him home.  

I concluded Peter Newman was a complete asshole. I have not yet seen the obituary that either refutes that (I have met people who defend his character). Or says it out loud.  

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