Friday, October 15, 2021

Prize Watch: the GG nominations

 Not a lot of history in the Governor-General's Literary Award shortlists this year, apart from a couple of indigenous life writings in the nonfiction category.  But what is at least as notable is the number of small Canadian presses among the nominated works, compared to the dominant foreign owned houses.  

It's small Canadian houses that take chances on local, explicitly Canadian experiments in fiction, prose and poetry while the big international houses look for internationally marketable titles, perhaps.  And clearly the juries are responding more to risktakers and experimenters than to the marketable-concept books right now.  Good.

Canadian history wars on the American radar

History News Network is an American website that daily publishes a substantial amount of original commentary by historians, as well as reprints of history-related stories from other publications. It tends a little too much to politics-over-history for my taste. Also it's very Planet America: very much an American worldview that shapes its historical coverage. Nevertheless, il a le grand mérite d'exister, as someone once said in another context.

So it is good to see Ian Rocksborough-Smith, who teaches at the University of the Fraser Valley in BC, offering Americans a news report on "Canada's own history war." It's a report on how the Canadian historical profession is grappling with truth and reconciliation questions. It focusses on the Canadian Historical Association's Canada Day declaration and the criticism promptly levelled against it. It provides copious links, and takes note of the "1619" controversy, so as to give American readers some context.

Partisans on either side of that debate may find things to quibble with in the piece.     

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Prize Watch: Could the Balsillie Prize revive Canadian nonfiction? (tl;dr: Probably Not)

Recently Canadian publishers Ken White (of Sutherland House) and Dan Wells (of Biblioasis) have lamented the monopolization of the nonfiction marketplace by memoir. Wells (who also runs a bookstore) mourns the death of "research-based nonfiction" and links it to foreign control of Canadian publishing.

“As a bookseller,” he says, “I can tell you that of the 5,000 Penguin Random House titles that I sort through for Canada in a six-month period, maybe there’s one work of Canadian history or researched non-fiction.

“If I wanted to, I could fill eight to ten shelves every six-month publishing season just with the major American history and politics titles brought into Canada by the multinationals. But in the course of a year, I have a hard time keeping my Canadian history shelf fresh.

For his part, Ken McGoogan, the arctic and exploration historian, argues that the solution to the crisis is to split nonfiction book prizes into memoir and research-based categories. White also grumbles about the dominance of memoir in recent nonfiction book prize awards.

It's true: memoir is having a moment (though White and McGoogan are in error in reporting that all the nominees for the Writers' Trust Weston Prize are memoirs -- of the five, one is a travel book, another an essay). But memoir's moment has been earned. Memoir writers have been doing innovative things in literary craft and also in their willingness to tell bold and risky new stories. These are fresh idioms; recent "research-based nonfiction" is hard pressed to show equivalents. (Yes, I can think of exceptions.) And memoir's rise, though it has been a terrific thing for nonfiction literature, will crest as the appetite for revealing personal stories begins to be sated among readers and for prize juries. Other nonfiction genres will have their chances to reassert themselves.

In any case, prize money is no way to create an environment for well-written trade market nonfiction in history, science, politics, current affairs, and the rest. Prizes are like lighthouses: they cast a bright light, but you can't study by their intermittent flash. It's grant and foundation funding that will make big, serious, deeply-researched nonfiction feasible -- and as long as those funds are restricted in Canada almost entirely to university-based scholars, the niche for trade market writers to research and write about Canada will remain very small. (University-based scholars do produce vast amount of research-based nonfiction, but the proportion that is attractive to non-specialists is vanishingly small.)

In light of all this, consider the jurors and nominees for the new Balsillie Prize, a new award for "comprehensive and thoroughly researched nonfiction books by Canadian public policy specialists." It's funded by tech billionaire Jim Balsillie and administered by the Writers' Trust. It pays $60,000 to the winner. The first short list has just been announced.

The Writers' Trust, presenter of the new prize, is the pre-eminent non-governmental supporter of literary writing in Canada through its prizes and other programs. But it's hard to see literary standards being determinative in its first awarding of the Balsillie Prize. There's barely a glance at literary merit in the criteria for the new award. The jurors -- Samantha Nutt, Taki Sarantakis, and Scott Young -- are all estimable public policy experts, but none, I think, has a reputation as a writer. (Nutt has written a book, but books are unmentioned in their biographies.)

The nominees for the 2021 Balsillie Prize are

Dan Breznitz for Innovation in Real Places: Strategies for Prosperity in an Unforgiving World from Oxford University Press.

Gregor Craigie, for On Borrowed Time: North America's Next Big Quake from Goose Lane Editions

André Picard for Neglected No More: The Urgent Need to Improve the Lives of Canada's Elders in the Wake of a Pandemic from Random House.

Jody Wilson-Raybould for 'Indian' in the Cabinet: Speaking Truth to Power from Harper Collins.

I wish them all well. But it seems that so far the Balsillie Prize honours the public policy concerns of its funder more than the literary-nationalist aspirations of the Writers' Trust and the writers and publishers who worry about the state of nonfiction. Does the Balsillie do something different from the Writers' Trust's Shaughnessy Cohen Prize in Political Policy, which has always taken a very broad view of "political"? There is also the Donner Prize for Public Policy books.

Does this new award really address the Writers' Trust commitment to literary excellence? Or answer the call of White, Wells, and McGoogan for prizes that will support the careers of dedicated nonfiction writers? (A researcher, two journalists, and a politician are the writer nominees for the Balsilllie). And of Canadian-owned publishers like Wells and White (one Canadian-owned house among the publisher nominees)?

To answer the pleas of White, Wells, and McGoogan, the solution is not a war against memoir, nor a plea for more sub-categories of nonfiction prizes. What is needed is an ecosystem of foundation grants for professonal nonfiction writers in Canada -- something richly evident in other countries (read the acknowledgments of big trademarket nonfiction books from the United States or Britain), but mostly unknown here.

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Book Notes: Osgoode Society issues The Laws and the Land by Daniel Rück

The Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History is presently shipping to members the annual book in its series of legal history publications. This year it is The Laws and the Land: The Settler Colonial Invasion of Kahnawà:ke in Nineteenth Century Canada by Daniel Rück.

UBC Press, the publisher, reports:

Daniel Rück reveals increasingly powerful and aggressive colonial governments interfering with the affairs of one of the most populous and influential Indigenous communities in nineteenth-century Canada. What he describes is an invasion spearheaded by bureaucrats, Indian agents, politicians, surveyors, and entrepreneurs. Although these invasions were often chaotic and poorly planned, Rück shows that despite their apparent weaknesses they tended to benefit settlers while becoming sources of oppression for Indigenous peoples who attempted to navigate colonial realities while defending and building their own nations.

You may not be a legal historian, but books selected for the Osgoode Society collection   have a good track record for winning the CHA Prize and other historical awards; you might want to be aware of them.   

Thursday, October 07, 2021

The idea of accountable leadership returns

Nice to see Andrew Coyne taking seriously the decision of the Conservative Party caucus in Ottawa to adopt the Reform Act's rules by which to assert the MPs' authority to remove the party leader whenever they deem it expedient and 20% of caucus steps up to trigger a vote.

I very much doubt the Conservative decision will trigger a "revolution," but it's a step in the right direction. (Regular leaders of this blog will be only too familiar with the reasons why. Newcomers can search the labels leadership or parliament for explanations why parliaments cannot function effectively unless party caucuses can hire and fire their leaders).  Indeed, Coyne acknowledges that much remains to be done.

Only when caucus also has the power to elect a new leader will the balance between caucus and leader have been more fully restored. Too radical? It’s no more than the way Westminster systems are supposed to work – the way our system did work, for much of our history.
Indeed, it’s no more than the way democracies are supposed to work. In a democracy, leaders govern with the consent of the governed. But a Canadian party leader, though he holds the power of virtual life and death over caucus members, is chosen by an altogether different group, the fabled “grass roots,” many of whom join just long enough to vote for a leader and then are gone.
In recent years, Coyne has tended to neglect these arguments and to propose that proportional representation is the only way to revive Canadian politics. But in Canada leadership autocracy is a greater problem than misalignments between party support and party seats. Since MMP  --the only form of proportional representation likely to be enacted here -- would actually enhance leadership power by enabling leaders to appoint their hacks and flunkies to the House of Commons, it's good to see the Globe columnist returning to his older enthusiasm. 

The columnist Dale Smith speaks constantly of "the (garbage) Reform Act" because it attempts to legislate what should need no legislation -- the MPs' inherent power to control their leaders-- and because it sets high thresholds for the initiation of caucus reviews. True enough.  But baby steps, baby steps.  Let MPs assert a little authority, and the appetite will grow with the eating.  Things are only impossible until the become inevitable. 

(The caucus of Japan's ruling LDP recently removed and replaced its leader in a process that took a few weeks, cost nothing, and will likely assist the enduring success of a party that changes leaders frequently and rarely loses power.  It's how real parliaments function worldwide.)  

Thanks to Andrew Stewart who reads the Globe closely so I don't always have to!

Vinland Map, dead again

Explorers and discoverers are thoroughly out of fashion these days, I know. But the field retains its interest, and I still keep an eye out. And it seems the discovery that the so-called "Vinland Map" is a forgery has been getting made every decade or so since soon after it was itself discovered.

The Vinland Map, rappellons, is a map purported to be from the 1440s that presents Europe but also all of the North Atlantic, including a very detailed Greenland, and a largeish island southwest of there that broadly shows coastlines much as described in various Norse sources.

Well, this time, apparently it's permanent. It may be from the 1920s, but no later.

Now, an interdisciplinary research project undertaken by archivists, conservators and conservation scientists has proven that the map is fake once and for all. Far removed from the 1440s, the analysis of metals in the map’s ink revealed that the document was actually forged as early as the 1920s.

Friday, October 01, 2021

History of Academic Freedom

The New York Times reports that historian Beverley Gage, who runs Yale University's Program in Grand Strategy, in which students "immerse themselves in classic texts of history and statecraft, while also rubbing shoulders with guest instructors drawn from the worlds of government, politics, military affairs and the media," has resigned because of Yale's willingness (indeed, contractual agreement) to let wealthy, ultraconservative donors influence the program's curriculum and even control the hiring of faculty.

As universities have become more than ever committed to fundraising, with the most prestigious universities bringing in the most money, academic freedom comes to resemble what they say about freedom of the press: it mostly belongs to those who own one.

History of what gets attention

 "Hiding in Plain Sight" by Kathleen Mackenzie and Sean Carleton, published the other day by Active History, is more evidence that the refrain "It was never reported... It's not in the history books..."It was all covered up" has never been very accurate.  It has not been about having the evidence, but about paying attention.  

"Hiding in Plain Sight" surveys the detailed reporting on the terrible mortality of residential schools that was published in prominent newspapers and magazines... in 1907.

“Startling rate of mortality" ... "Of a total of 1,537 pupils reported from fifteen school, 7 per cent are sick or in poor health, and 24 per cent are reported dead.” ... "The remarkable mortality of the children from tuberculosis and the unsanitary condition of the schools."

What's changed is the ability and determination of Indigenous peoples across Canada to capture the conversation and make the rest of us pay attention.  And maybe the willingness to pay attention, too, a little.

Thursday, September 30, 2021

National Day of Reconciliation

It's the National Day of Reconciliation in Canada today, a good thing but very much a thing in the making still.  A public holiday for federal employees, but emphatically not a "holiday." An event very much driven by Indigenous agency, but one in which non-Indigenous people are either to take the lead or, well, not to take the lead.  This will all take some evolution

I heard Murray Sinclair the other day saying Reconciation is essential for non-Indigenous Canadians; the onus is on them.  And I see what he means.  But in recent months one notices, beneath the politenesses and the gentleness and the accommodation frequently given us by indigenous people, there has been breaking through signs of the deep, deep anger and bitterness among indigenous peoples at all that has been done to them by Canada, by us.  That will not go away easily; Indigenous people do need to be reconcilied to us if we are to make progress, and that will not happen quickly.

No answers here. But I do suspect in the long run reconciliation hangs not on residential schools, or missing and murdered indigenous women, or boil-water advisories, or statues, painful and urgent as those and other recmatters are.  Reconciliation depends on a treaty implementation to a degree few Canadians have yet contemplated: one that understands the treaty relationship as one based on sharing, and in which sharing mean that creating a situation in which indigenous governments have a tax claim upon Canadian territory and resources that enables them to function independently, to be accountable to their own communities, and to provide a decent subsistence at least to all their people.  At that point serious reconciliation on the other matters becomes conceivable.

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Book Notes: Becoming Vancouver

There is some buzz lately in trade-market Canadian publishing about the limited and declining stock of big, researched nonfiction trade books about Canada appearing these days: history, public policy, science writing, the works. The renewed foreign takeover of Canadian publishing is a problem. The surge of popularity of memoir is also pointed to.  But also noted is the  increasing reluctance of Canadian nonfiction trade writers to commit themselves to long arduous research and writing projects when, bluntly, there's never enough money in it.  Academics talk endlessly of their "underfunding," but by comparision with the trademarket and freelance community, they are lavishly supplied with salaries, grants, and other supports.

Fortunately, there are still bright spots. One is Becoming Vancouver, the big, bright, smart illustrated history of Vancouver by (full disclosure: my friend) Daniel Francis, from Harbour Publishing. 

The first of its many virtues is the model it presents for how to take indigenous history seriously in a book that cannot help being mostly about non-indigenous colonization, settlement, and development. Francis starts with indigenous nations, place names, and individuals throughout the area that is now called Vancouver, so that when the settlers and developers do arrive, they come to and make changes to, not an empty space, but a real inhabitated place. I only wish this section was longer, but it has a lot to show historians about how we need to proceed. And since non "white" people are now most people in Vancouver, this new history has no trouble continuing to give significant and appropriate scope to all the communities that might earlier have been marginalized in civic histories but are now seen as fundamental.

It is a non-boosterish civic history, for sure ("Not surprisingly for a place that prides itself on its setting, Vancouver has always been about real estate.") But it is also striking how thoroughly Francis manages to centre Vancouver in his story. There is remarkably little provincial, national or international politics and events, and somehow the story remains clear even when it is always focussed on the city itself. The book is well and unobtrusively annotated and indexed. 

Francis, the former editor and principal writer of The Encyclopedia of British Columbia, among many other works, knows his subject well and covers it both briskly and (to my eye) authoritatively: indigenous basis, mill town, railway colony, imperial bastion, blossoming "world city," and home to a civic-planning philosophy called "Vancouverism" -- which I suspect is really only thought of a a "philosophy" by Vancouverites, but well, read Francis's version and see for yourself.  

Thursday, September 23, 2021

This month at the Literary Review of Canada

Quite a few historians reviewed or reviewing in the current Literary Review of Canada. (Many items are limited to subscriber access)

Historian Donald Wright reviews a couple of books on environmental policy: Fossilized: Environmental Policy in Canada's Petro-Provinces by Angela Carter, and Solved, by former Toronto mayor David Miller, on cities' responses to climate change.

Journalist John Cruikshank reviews historian Eric Sager's Inequality in Canada: The History and Politics of an Idea along with Share the Wealth, by Gauvin and MacEwen. The former he calls a history of the idea of (economic) inequality; the latter is policy advocacy.  And Elaine Coburn reviews Joan Sangster's Demanding Equality: One Hundred Years of Canadian Feminism.

Historian Christopher Dummitt reviews historian Peter Price's Questions of Order, which might be called a sceptical history of the idea of confederation. A good deal of the article addresses what Dummitt calls the moral panic of historians attempting to address Indigenous/Canadian issues in ways Dummitt disapproves.

John Baglow reviews Ravi Malhotra and Benjamin Isitt's biography of early British Columbia radical Eugene Thornton Kingsley, Irene Gammell reviews a biography of Hanako Muraoka, the Japanese translator of Anne of Green Gables, and Marisa Grizenko reviews a biography of Joichim Foikis, Vancouver's "official" Town Fool of the 1960s.

Malcolm Gladwell's The Bomber Mafia has provoked its own firestorm of criticism among specialist historians of the air war during World War II, but Jack Granatstein's review is mostly admiring.  

(I was sorry to see Granatstein digging up in this review the old canard that the 1992 CBC documentary film "The Valour and the Horror" was marred by "many factual errors."  I've long ago discarded the material, but I well recall the historians' brief (not Granatstein's) where the widely-cited numbered list of "factual errors" include things like "the script has a typo on page X" and many more saying in effect, "I don't agree, so this is false." The Senate hearings that sought to coerce the CBC into spiking the documentary was not a shining moment for the Canadian historical profession, with some noble exceptions.)

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

This month at Canada's History -- The Beaver resurfaces

Canada's History
remains Canada's History, but even some of its principals admit regret over the extinction of the title The Beaver ten years ago. In the current issue, editor Mark Reid announces that once a year The Beaver will return as a supplement within Canada's History, particularly focussed on Indigenous perspectives and the territory known as Rupert's Land. 

So inside this month Canada's History, The Beaver includes Wabi Benais Mistatim Equay (Cynthia Bird) on the 150th anniversary of Treaties One and Two and Michelle LaVallee on "The Indigenous Group of Seven," the notable group of artists behind Professional Native Indian Artists Inc.

Canada's History also asserts its steadily rising stature in this issue. An opening-pages acknowledgment of generous donations to its Editors' Circle alludes to the Canada's History Society's growing financial strength. A note on new Governor General Mary Simon suggesting how the Society plans to work with her suggests its influence and connections.

And the contents are strong too. Don Cummer on Canadian wartime POWs (the cover story), profiles of the musician Mary Bembrick and the artist Mary Riter Hamilton, a nice travel piece on D'Arcy McGee's Ireland, lots of letters, a substantial set of book reviews and notes, terrific illustrations....  Subscribe like you oughta, even if I'm not in this issue myself.

Deep history - the thing that fell on Tall-el-Hammam

How often does a history blog get to use scary images like this?

Ancient cities destroyed by fire are a common enough find for archaeologists. But excavators at Tall-el-Hammam, north of the Dead Sea in what is now Jordan, have determined that the catastrophe that obliterated their site 3600 years ago involved a fire hotter than the inside of a volcano. It fused materials in the ruins into diamond-hard fragments and flung chunks of debris into the next valley. Nearby communities, including historic Jericho, 22 km distant, were hit by a shockwave that toppled the walls and set the town ablaze.

After its destruction, the community was not rebuilt, and the area around it seems to have been uninhabitable for about 600 years after. The researchers report in The Conversation 

It appears that the culprit at Tall el-Hammam was a small asteroid similar to the one that knocked down 80 million trees in Tunguska, Russia in 1908. It would have been a much smaller version of the giant miles-wide rock that pushed the dinosaurs into extinction 65 million years ago.

But it was big enough. Tall-el-Hammam, they conclude, is a human settlement from early historic times that took a direct hit from an asteroid and was entirely obliterated. They speculate about preserved memories of the event in Middle Eastern culture: 

It’s possible that an oral description of the city’s destruction may have been handed down for generations until it was recorded as the story of Biblical Sodom. The Bible describes the devastation of an urban center near the Dead Sea – stones and fire fell from the sky, more than one city was destroyed, thick smoke rose from the fires and city inhabitants were killed.

Other settlements destroyed by extra-terrestrial impact have been found,  they acknowledge, but those relate to an impact about 12,800 years ago that seems to have had global consequences. Poor Tall-el-Hammam is a real disaster-movie scenario: one city, one asteroid, boom. 

I note happily that the principal author of the article in The Conversation is Christopher Moore, a new entry among my occasional discoveries of my doppelgangers doing cool things. 

Update, September 23: The Tall-el-Hammam article appears in the American edition of The Conversation, not the Canadian one that comes up by default in Canada. The Conversation is an international consortium of national blogs subsidized by universities. They publish only accredited academics on matters of public interest. History is not one of the subject headings in The Conversation. In Canada, Active History seeks to fill something of the same academics-writing-for-the-public role for historical subjects.


Monday, September 20, 2021

History of the 41st --oops, 44th -- 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.

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