Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Book Notes: Some recent history from UBC Press


Veronica Strong-Boag, A Liberal-Labour Lady: The Times and Life of Mary Ellen Spear Smith.  A biography of "British Columbia’s first female MLA and the British Empire and Commonwealth’s first female cabinet minister" who "strove to shift Liberal parties leftward to benefit women and workers, while still embracing global assumptions of British racial superiority and bourgeois feminism’s privileging of white women."

Ronald Rudin, Against the Tides: Reshaping Landscape and Community in Canada’s Maritime Marshlands  The campaign in the 1940s to preserve the dykelands originally created by Acadian settlers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries -- and some of the consequences.

Robert A.J. McDonald, A Long Way to Paradise: A New History of British Columbia Politics How British Columbia became "Canada's most fractious province."

Adam J. Barker, Making and Breaking Settler Space: Five Centuries of Colonization in North America  "From the imperial colonization of Turtle Island in the 1500s to contemporary contexts that include problematic activist practices by would-be settler allies."

Walter Bagehot on the Republic of Barbados, proclaimed November 30, 2021

If hereditary monarchy had been essential to parliamentary government, we might well have despaired of that government. But accurate investigation shows that this royalty is not essential; that, upon an average, it is not even in a high degree useful. 

                  -- The English Constitution (1867)

Saturday, November 27, 2021

Have blog, will travel

Andrea Eidinger, who ran a lively and informative blog called Unwritten Histories for quite a while, but let it lapse about a year ago, tweets to say she has been hired as head of the Library and Archives Canada website, where the blog was also informative but generally pretty dull in the past.  

Congratulations! We look forward to improvements. 

Update, November 29: In writing Saturday's brief note, I had not realized the scope of the task Andrea Eidinger takes on at LAC. Today's Toronto Star has a long story about the controversy over offensive and selective content on the Library and Archives website, particularly with regard to Indigenous topics. 

I have noted in recent years that in seeking digitized documents via the Archives website, I'm often first redirected to expository narratives about what the Archives judges I should know or want to know about Canadian history. I never found these attempts at making the Archives into a kind of teaching museum very useful. I rather thought they diverted from the Archives' real job of facilitating access to its documentary collections.  But once an institution has a public-facing online presence, the pressure to serve a large public -- and to keep the hit-rate up -- must be constant. In the always-online world, the relatively small community of researchers seeking documentary sources is now only one constituency for an archives.         

Friday, November 26, 2021

Prize Watch: the Balsillie and the Chalmers and the GGs

The Inaugural Balsillie Prize for Public Policy books went to Professor Dan Breznitz, who holds a chair in Innovation Studies, for Innovation in Real Places: Strategies for Prosperity in an Unforgiving World (Oxford University Press), which, the citation says, explains the difference between invention and innovation. 

Ken Whyte, who attended the award presentation, reports the betting at the dinner was on either Gregor Craigie for his book on earthquakes or Andre Picard for his book on eldercare. But Breznitz's theme does sound closer to the interests of prize donor Jim Balsillie, who presided. Whyte's description also suggests the event managed to be a writing prize-giving ($60,000) with no pesky writers involved beyond those who were there ex officio. 

Meanwhile The Champlain Society announced earlier this month that its Chalmers Award for best book on the history of Ontario will be given to Brittany Luby for her terrific book Dammed: The Politics of Loss and Survival in Anishinaabe Territory which previously won the Canadian Historical Association best book prize. Luby discusses her book with Greg Marchildon on the Society's podcast series.

The Governor General's Awards, for which I have a soft spot, were also announced recently, The nonfiction winner, This Red Line Goes Straight to Your Heart: A Memoir in Halves by Madhur Anand, is a family history, "an innovative, moving account of three generations of a South Asian Canadian family as they negotiate time, history, memory and loss"



Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Canada History Week

Apparently, it's Canada History Week.  Enjoy, I guess. 

Book Notes: Graeber and Wengrow on The Dawn of Everything

Practically every periodical I look at in print or online has lately been enthusing about the new "history of everything" by David Graeber (and David Wengrow) called The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity.

Recent histories of humanity tell us that the hunter-gathering stage was a pretty good one for some hundreds of thousands of years. Then came the development of agriculture: fundamental to human "progress" but also, for most peoples who made the transition, a pretty bad trade. With agriculture, argue the big theorists, came population growth, diversification, and social organization -- but also ten thousand years of overcrowding, overwork, poverty, hierarchy, and oppression, with plagues thrown in. Jared Diamond made this case compellingly in Guns. Germs, and Steel, but others have followed the path. Even in a small way me, in my young readers' history of the world, From Then to Now. 

In The Dawn of Everything, apparently, Graeber and Wengrow marshall a lot of anthropological evidence to argue that both kinds of early society were a lot more diverse than the simple model above allows. They find agricultural societies that were not hierarchical and oppressive, and non-agricultural societies that had urban forms and complex social structures without hierarchy and oppression, and even societies that shifted back and forth from one mode to the other and never got into the agriculture trap, if it existed. From the publisher's blurb:

If humans did not spend 95% of their evolutionary past in tiny bands of hunter-gatherers, what were they doing all that time? If agriculture, and cities, did not mean a plunge into hierarchy and domination, then what kinds of social and economic organization did they lead to? What was really happening during the periods that we usually describe as the emergence of "the state"? The answers are often unexpected, and suggest that the course of human history may be less set in stone, and more full of playful, hopeful possibilities, than we tend to assume.

Graeber is famous for his previous book Debt: The First 5000 Years, that demolished the economics profession's highly rationalist and abstract images of debt and money. Debt (like this new book) draws on anthropological fieldwork and theory to create a more human and compelling vision.  I confess I found Debt a bit smart-ass and clever after a few chapters, stronger for casting doubt on widely-held clich├ęs than for building a really coherent argument.

And maybe The Dawn of Everything, a search for happy anarchists in the distant past as models for happy anarchists in the present and future, is a bit the same. But it's catching eyes.      

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

History of grip, losing of


Recent news from The Guardian on how parliamentary politics works in Britain.

Conservative MPs are increasingly worried about Boris Johnson’s competence and drive ... and [he] was accused of losing his grip over a series of key policies.
Nervousness among Tory MPs about No 10 intensified after one Downing Street source told the BBC there was “a lot of concern inside the building about the PM … it’s just not working”, adding that the “cabinet needs to wake up and demand serious changes otherwise it’ll keep getting worse.”
Another Tory MP referenced the process by which MPs can submit letters of no confidence to the chair of the 1922 Committee, Graham Brady, saying: “It might not only be Father Christmas’ postbag filling up towards the end of the year – Sir Graham Brady could find he needs a bigger one too.”
Today's headline: "Boris Johnson is not unwell and has not lost his grip, says No 10." Ouch!

These parliamentary reckonings, driven by the governing caucus, make a startling comparison with Canadian politics. It's fair to say that Jason Kenney, Justin Trudeau, Erin O'Toole and other Canadian leaders have all been suspected of "losing their grip" in recent weeks or days. But the most that happens in Canada is that there is talk about having a mass party conference some time in the far future, so that anyone who buys a vote can have a say in the leader's future and in the choice of a successor.

There is a great gathering of MPs in Ottawa today for a Speech from the Throne. But when Canadian MPs are generally accepted as having no part to play in making policy, holding leadership to account, or chosing better leaders, it's really hard to see what they are there for beyond the dignified rituals.

What's even more odd is how oblivious are Canadian MPs, journalists, and political scientists to this sort of backbencher stirring, although it's the parliamentary norm around the world. When anything remotely like this happens in Canada, they don't encourage accountability, but start mewling about revolts and coups, and demand that the leader apply a strong hand to put down disobedience.  

A dissenter from that chorus: Andrew Coyne. As he put it in a recent column, "There’s a word for a system that demands unanimous support for the leader, and it isn’t democracy."

(It's true that the rare and unsuccessful caucus revolts here seem most often to be the work of cranky, egomaniacal anti-vaxers, flat-earthers, and conspiracists, who mostly give backbenchers a bad name. But still...)

Thursday, November 18, 2021

Kathleen Moore's History of 1955

Today is the one hundredth birthday of my dear mother Kathleen Lennox Moore, though she died in 1999 and isn't here to see it.  Recently I've been browsing in a diary she kept nearly each day for the year 1955, in a small book with room for just a few sentences each day. My parents, recent immigrants from Britain, were settling into life in Nelson, British Columbia with three children between 4 and 8, the youngest being me.

I have sometimes thought about my parents in those years, leaving their homes, crossing the ocean, having to find a new home and work and a community, all with small children underfoot. What delights me about the diary is how it presents them having a ball. The diary begins in January, about seven months after my mother arrived in Nelson with us, to join my father ("Vin"), who had gone ahead. I'm excerpting heavily here, but these entries are pretty typical.  

2 Sun Went to Mrs. Tawse for tea this afternoon. Got Vin to drive me as I didn’t want to drive on these bad roads. Mrs Tees there too.

4 Tue Back to school. Skated for an hour in the afternoon. Chris really improving and went for a few steps by himself.

5 Wed Went to see "White Christmas." Very funny film but evening out spoiled for me by bad roads. Don't think I'll go out at night until they're better.

14 Fri Drove to school to get some practice for next week. [My father was going out of town.]
 20 Thu Called to see the Tawses for a little this afternoon.

22 Sat Jack and Marjorie came in the evening and we played scrabble. Helen Fairbank called to ask us to their place next Saturday night.

29 Sat Feeling rotten myself but dosed myself well and felt better by evening. Went to the Fairbanks at Harrop. Ruth and Blake Allen also there and Jerry and Daisy Lee. Played bridge for a bit.

5 Sat Vin and I at Janie Stevenson's at night. Netta and Les Gansner and Ted and Agnes Baker also there and Dave Scott. Played bridge for a time.

8 Tue Blake Allen called in to ask us up for a game of bridge on Friday night. Bulganin succeeded Malenkov as the big chief in Russia.

9 Wed Went on to Nelson to shop. View from ferry down lake like something out of a technicolour film. Asked Irene and David Tees along in afternoon.

11 Fri Went up to Allens at night. Main road good but slippery up by their house. Had a good game. Called to see the Tawses for a time in the afternoon.

17 Thu Did some shopping and went to see the Williams before going home. Went to see "Caine Mutiny" but found it disappointing. Blake and Ruth in for coffee afterwards.
22 Tue Vin off to Trail again but back by 5 o'clock. Rotary Golden Jubilee party at night. Quite a "do"! Went to Gansners first. Got home about 2.30.

24 Thu Woke to find about ten inches of snow. Went to Nelson in the afternoon and Chris skated.

27 Sun Having peaceful Sunday lunch when phone rang. Horrabin from Vancouover wanting Vin down there pronto. To confirm tomorrow. Have decided we will all go.

28 Mon Snowed without stopping all day and think we're probably mad to think of motoring to Vancouver.


1 Tue Set off from house about 9 am. Sun shining. Roads a bit snowy to Castlegar. After that good and sometimes blacktop. 

Her diary entries give me a wonderful sense of a generation who had been children in the Depression and young adults in the Second World War and who, having survived both, felt like they had suddenly been handed the world and would make the best of it. Well, good for her.  She always had an adventurous streak. 

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

History of the monarchy

Regal hats -- still a thing

Barbados has just elected its first head of state. Sandra Mason, the current Governor General of Barbados, was elected by a two-thirds majority of the island nation's upper house and House of Assembly. She becomes President of Barbados on November 30, at which point Barbados becomes one of the republican members of the Commonwealth of Nations. Barbados followed all its constitutional provisions for making changes to the monarchy, without otherwise changing its parliamentary form of government (though a constitutional review is planned).

Friday, November 12, 2021

History of higher education

I don't have any particular interest in the history of higher education, but some time ago I got put onto Alex Usher's blog about higher education matters, and when he touches historical aspects of that subject, he's invariably saying things that are new and interesting. As in his recent two-part (but brief) comparison of higher education in Canada and the United States, which starts here

Thursday, November 11, 2021

History of remembrance

Last spring the father of friends of ours died. It wasn't unexpected; he was almost one hundred and his health had been failing. In his obituary, which he had helped to draft, it described how as a young man he had served in the Canadian navy, and had survived cold, gruelling, dangerous corvette duty in the North Atlantic. It went on to declare that he felt that having earned him a place at Toronto's Sunnybrook Veterans Hospital and residence in his last years had made all that worthwhile.  

A lot of those veterans remained pretty selfless.

And good to know that for all we hear of veterans forgotten and neglected, some at least do get the care and attention they deserve. Sunnybrook has planted 30,000 flags on its lawns for Remembrance Day: some the standard maple leaf, some based on an indigenous design.

You can donate to the Sunnybrook Foundation's Raise a Flag campaign here.

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Book Notes: (Illustrated) History of Canada, Russian-language edition

Just received, and one of about two copies in Canada: the new Russian-language edition of The Illustrated History of Canada, edited (and with an epilogue) by Yuri Akimov of St. Petersburg State University in St Petersburg, Russia.

I think it must be called The History of Canada in Russian, because they did not include the illustrations in this handsome hardbound edition -- just page after page of beautiful Cyrillic script, of which I cannot read a word. Even my own name looks mysterious to me.

Just to recoup, the original English language text was first published in 1987 by Lester and Orpen Dennys of Toronto, was a bestselling success that fall, has been revised several times, has never gone out of print (now published by McGill-Queen's University Press), and now exists in French, Spanish, and Russian translations. 

The general editor of the original work was Craig Brown, with chapters by Arthur Ray, Christopher Moore, Graeme Wynn, Peter Waite, Ramsay Cook, and Desmond Morton, with illustration research by Robert Stacey.  Of that group, sadly, only Rae, Moore, and Wynn survive. Graeme and I attended a lively book launch for the new translation at St. Petersburg U in September, though only via Zoom, unfortunately.

There is a story that John A Macdonald once attended a lecture by the Governor General at McGill University, and since he was addressing a learned audience, Lord Dufferin gave his address in Greek.  The next day a Montreal newspaper reported that His Excellency had given the entire speech without a single error or solecism. "How could the reporter know that?" asked a friend of Macdonald. "Because I told him," said Macdonald.  "But you don't know any Greek!"  "Ah," said Macdonald, "but I know a little about politics." 

Knowing a little about diplomacy, I am happy to report that this new translation is also entirely without error or solicism. Congratulations to Professor Akimov, and thanks to Elena Kulevas and Anne Mattson Gauss of the Canadian Embassy in Moscow for seeing that a copy reached me.  Long may it thrive. 

History of Reconciliation

I didn't see much notice of a recent Ontario Court of Appeal case beyond this Canadian Press story in the Globe and Mail. But what it says sounds like where this much-talked-of thing called reconciliation is going and has to go.

Whitesand FN (a litigant)
The case is called Restoule v Canada (full text of the OCA decision here). It concerns territories covered by what are known as the Huron-Robinson and Superior-Robinson Treaties of 1850.  According to the newspaper summary, the court found that the derisory $4 a head paid annually by the Crown to the First Nations involved (an amount unchanged since 1875) in no way fulfills the treaty agreement "to share the resource wealth from the territory"

"To share the resource wealth from the territory." More or less forever, First Nations elders, leaders and scholars across Canada have declared that the treaties they made with the Crown were negotiated as agreements to share the land and its wealth. More or less forever, the Crown has declared that the treaties were surrender agreements -- the land and its resources passed once and for all to the Crown. 

In the last few decades, indigenous and non-indigenous historians have been affirming and documenting in a flood of studies that the First Nations' interpretation is the accurate one. Restoule is another piece of evidence that the courts, while gamely insisting that these matters would be better solved through negotiation than litigation (fat chance!), are moving to an overwhelming and irresistable affirmation that the First Nations (and lately the historians) have been right.  As Restoule says, "an agreement to share the resource wealth from the territory."

Exactly how to share the resource wealth is not determined in Restoule, and quite likely the Supreme Court of Canada will want the opportunity to weigh in on many aspects of this case. But sharing the land, sharing the wealth is coming. First Nations are co-owners of their treaty territories, entitled to a share of the (immense, duh) wealth it generates, and entitled to use that share to support indigenous self-government within their territories.  

When that actually comes to pass, we can talk about reconciliation happening. 

Meanwhile, the almost simultaneous budget statement of the Government of Ontario proposes to commit a billion dollars to build a road that will give mining companies access to the minerals of the "Ring of Fire" region (in Treaty 9 territory north of the Restoule locations) in blithe confidence that Ontario owns everything there and can do what it wants with its resources while giving no serious attention to Treaty obligations as the courts are beginning to interpret them. On the Crown side, reconciliation remains a very long way away.  

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