Tuesday, August 19, 2014

John A Macdonald, walking the walk

This Saturday, August 23, at the kind invitation of the Sir John A 2015 committee of Kingston, I'm going to be taking part in the John A Macdonald walking tour. Coordinator Gordon Gower assures me that his team of costumed animators will do all the hard work of entertaining guests on the walk. As featured Guest Tour Leader  (in the footsteps of luminaries ranging from Chief Justice of Canada Beverly McLachlan to Kingstonian Don Cherry), I just get to drop in comments here and there along the route. 2 pm and 4 pm walks, and I'm looking forward to it.

Some time ago, when I wrote a Canada's History column about conflicts over commemorating John A's bicentennial (does one mention the prairie genocide, the head tax?), Ann Stevens of SirJohn 2015 wrote a little piece about that for their website.

Info and tickets here. One former prime minister sez it's the best walking tour in the country.

This month at Canada's History

.... the issue now reaching subscribers leads with Mark Collin Read's "What it's Like," an array of eyewitness stories about notable events, from Wolfe's death, featured on the cover) to a kid being removed from Africville in a dumptruck.  To my eye, it's very effective.

There's a confederation package too, with our sometime contributor Anne McDonald providing "Daughters of Confederation," about the unmarried daughters and sisters who attended the Quebec Conference 150 years ago this October. Text is here, but you really need the visuals in the print edition. My own piece is "Foundering Fathers" -- which wants to tell you the confederation-makers did pretty well, despite all the condescension of generations of politicians and historians. I'm here to tell you they were democrats, they were not ignorant colonials, and even their Senate plan was smarter than you think. Excerpt here.  And Phil Koch looks at Winnipeg's new Museum of Human Rights and the people behind it -- though maybe I could have used a little more context on the fierce controversies about it that we have been reading about.

If you subscribed like you oughta, you'd already have it.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The constitutionality of the prime minister

Constitutionalize these guys?
Andrew Smith links to an article in a journal called Public Choice arguing that societies with higher levels of "trust" have shorter constitutions, and vice versa.  Canada's constitution ranks as short.

A historian may respond by thinking: 1) some political scientists seem to have a lot of time on their hands; 2) there is probably a historical dimension that is not being considered here, that is, more recent constitutions are surely longer than older ones, and that may be due not to declining levels of "trust," but to the ever-growing number of public-policy and constitutional law specialists who want to get their oar in whenever a new constitution is to be drafted. E.g., the Canadian constitution as revised in 1982 is substantially longer than the 1867 one.

He also notes, as evidence that "Canada’s written constitution is silent on some of the most important features of the political system " that the job of prime minister is not even mentioned in the Canadian constitution.  

True, it wasn't, but one might argue that the office of prime minister (and premier in the provinces) does not have a constitutional role and does not rate mention.  The office with constitutional significance is the Governor-General (or Lieutenant-Governor) in Council, i.e., the cabinet. The constitutional functions of the cabinet are very carefully laid out in the British North America Act.  If truly collective leadership were a practical thing, there would be no need for a prime minister at all, so why clutter up the constitution with reference to one?  

One might further note that the 1982 revisions to the BNA Act did in fact constitutionalize the office of prime minister. Sections 35.1 and 49 of the Constitution Act, 1982 each refer to the requirement for constitutional conferences "composed of the prime minister of Canada and the first ministers of the provinces." The constitutional role and function of these first ministers is otherwise entirely undefined. 

But the idea that it was a good thing to make executive federalism and the first ministers' conference (a fundamentally anti-parliamentary process) into constitutional institutions in Canada strikes me more like a symptom of sloppy thinking than of declining levels of public trust. 

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

How's the war(s) going?

If you are still following the War of 1812+200, it's still out there. The British have just opened their siege of Fort Erie, Upper Canada, still held by the Americans despite their recent reverses on the Niagara Peninsula. The White House is soon to burn. Peace negotiations have recently begun at Ghent in Belgium.

That other war much in the news lately will go quiet for Canadians for a while. Now that we are through August 4, 1914+100, the war doesn't really start for Canadians until next spring, with the second Battle of Ypres and the first massive Canadian casualties.

Not so for the Europeans. In August 1914, the French army lost about 75,000 killed, more than Canada would lose in the entire war, and the other European powers were not far behind. That's just the western front, with all kinds of conflict in the Balkans, the Russian front, and even Togoland, occupied by Britain and France in August 1914. As they say, war has always been a reliable way of teaching young men geography.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Notches: History of Sexuality blog

Notches, new to my bloglist (at right), is a recently launched international collaborative blog on the history of sexuality, with some significant Canadian participation.
Notches was established in order to get people inside and outside the academy thinking about sex and sexualities in the past and in the present. It has a number of regular contributors, who consider the history of sexuality in its broadest sense: the way it is connected to the history of gender, society, politics, economies, and cultures, and the way it informs current issues.

Monday, August 11, 2014

History's half million

The little counting device at right ticked over 500,000 sometime this past weekend.  Half a million (in the four years it has been counting) is a derisory number for any seriously ambitious big-media web presence.  But it's close to half a million more than I expected when I started doing this in 2004, and the pace of increase seem to be growing.  And for our little specialist realm, it seems kinda substantial to me (even allowing for web-crawlers and other bogus total-builders).

I hope not to take the numbers game too seriously, but I am grateful for the evidence that there are those of you who do take an interest.  Thanks.  And come again.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Why the Canadian government marked August 4th so modestly

Poppies fill the dry moat of the Tower of London
Wait three years and see.

In western Europe the commemorations of last Monday’s anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War were vast. The 900,000 ceramic poppies being deployed around the Tower of London may have been the most poignant, but everywhere there were heads of state, international participation, and mass crowds.

It was a lot more modest in Ottawa: a ceremony at the National War Memorial, a speech by the prime minister at the War Museum, not much more. Indeed, a large government involvement was not necessary; public interest and media coverage have been substantial, without much official pump-priming. The respectful and mournful coverage in the media has been skillful and appropriate.  Still, for a government much committed to celebrations of historic events that appeal to it, particularly military ones, the modest official participation this past weekend suggests a certain policy choice.

At the Department of Canadian Heritage’s commemoration website, you can see what the policy choice is. What Canada really plans to commemorate is Vimy Ridge.

It is not just that Vimy, a Canadian victory, is more appealing to politicians than August 1914, the date that marked the suicide of western civilization (in Prime Minister Robert Borden’s words). The Vimy Ridge hundredth anniversary coincides with the 150th anniversary of Confederation. The official plan to conflate the two, indeed to militarize the founding of the Canadian nation. As the Department of Canadian Heritage website puts it, Vimy Ridge “saw Canadians defend the values upon which our country was founded - freedom, democracy and the rule of law.”

The Canada 150 planning is predicated on the assumption that despite Confederation in 1867, Canada really became a nation in 1917: “In 1914, Canada entered the war as a dominion that was in some ways seen as a mere extension of Britain overseas. By 1918, Canada had earned a separate signature on the Peace Treaty signifying that national status had been achieved.”  

1914 loses importance because the meaning of the war is Canadian nationhood, and in this version, Canada wasn't a nation in 1914. I’m not suggesting a Harperian conspiracy here. Indeed the government is following mainstream historical interpretation. It is a commonplace of our survey histories and our specialist military histories that “Canada was formed in 1867 but forged in the Great War” and “the Great War signified Canada’s coming of age.” Both these quotations are from Tim Cook (a fine historian), but examples abound.

The consequence of this emphasis on the military origins of Canadian nationhood circa 1917 is a minimizing of both the state of Canadian nationhood in 1914 and of confederation itself.

How many times in the last week have we read or heard that “Canada as a British dominion” was “automatically at war” when Britain declared war? It is technically true, sure. But Canada was an autonomous state in 1914. Had the Canadian state and Canadian people decided to contribute a corporal’s guard, or no forces at all, to the war effort, that would have been Canada’s policy. Canada's enormous sacrifices in the war were entirely the choice and decision of Canada and of Canadians.

That the phrase “Canada as a British dominion” is so widely used as if synonymous with “Canada as a British colony” is why the term dominion went out of favour in Canada decades ago. But here it seriously misstates history. Canada, as a dominion within the British empire, was entirely free to choose whether it participated in the First World War or not.

It is true that Canadians after 1914, and as a consequence of Canada's war experience, did decide to start acting as a country with the right and duty to determine its own foreign and military policy. But Canada did not "earn that right" at Vimy Ridge. It had it for at least fifty years before that.

The discussion we need to have in Canada as 2017 approaches is about the soundness of this meme that has Canada remaining a colony until 1917 and “becoming a nation” or “earning" the right to act as one, thereafter. In 2017 we can emphasize Canada's origins either as a military achievement or as a political one. If the main thing we commemorate in 2017 is the 100th anniversary of Canada "becoming a nation" by military exploits, what is there to commemorate about the political achievement of 1867?

I'm on the side of the political achievement of nationhood, for sure. I don't believe Canadian nationhood was achieved by the men who died on Vimy Ridge, or that that is what they fought for. But I fear not only the government of Canada but much of our historical community may be on the other side of that argument.

(A longer version of this thesis will appear in my contribution to the Canadian Historical Review's Forum on the First World War, forthcoming this fall.)

History of birthplace to deathplace

People have been moving around the world a long time. Map the birthplaces and deathplaces of famous people and you get ... well, the migratory patterns you might expect.  As is beautifully animated here.

Can't help thinking that by charting "known" people, even en masse, the animation emphasizes migration to cities and misses the massive movements of people who did not become prominent, like the many millions who migrated (willingly or not) to pass their lives on a piece of farm property in a new land but are completely neglected in this method.

Still, the graphic animation of mobility is still pretty cool. Even for us with colour-blindness issues.

Via YouTube -- and The Dish, which also has a critique.

Monday, August 04, 2014

How to remember the First World War

Cursing and sobbing and thinking of the dead was Robert Graves's way:
Armistice night hysteria did not touch our camp much, though some of the Canadians stationed there went down to Rhyl to celebrate in true overseas style. The news sent me out walking alone along the dyke above the marshes of Rhuddlan (an ancient battlefield, the Flodden of Wales), cursing and sobbing and thinking of the dead
                                                                                --- from Goodbye to All That.


Friday, August 01, 2014

We are all treaty people

Having marked the 250th anniversary last October of the crown's side of the fundamental treaty relationship agreement underpinning Canada, the Royal Proclamation of 1763, it's only fitting to note that today is the 250th anniversary of the Treaty of Niagara, in which many of the First Nations in the lands newly claimed by the British crown in North America made treaty with the new power.
“The Treaty of Niagara played a significant role in shaping this country and is still relevant today. We expect respect, recognition and implementation of our mutual perspectives and interpretation of our treaty relationship with the Crown on an ongoing basis, as intended by our ancestors who originally entered into treaty 250 years ago.”
                                                - Stan Beardy, Ontario Regional Chief, Chiefs of Ontario
Ontario government notice here.  Chiefs of Ontario here -- image from COO site.

The CHA on the latest Parks Canada cuts

uniform for the beaver underground
 From Voxhistorica, its letter to the minister:
Limiting the hours of operation, the personalized services offered to visitors and the production of teaching materials projected in the current budget cuts threatens key components of the long-term work of the Agency. As professional historians, our members know that without these foundations, the specific commemoration activities that have been given new funding by the government, sums that are far superior to the savings generated by the cuts, will have less of an impact on the historical knowledge of Canadian citizens.
But you can buy sweats and T-shirts now.  (Actually I kinda like them.)

Thursday, July 31, 2014

History of Ideas: Bernie Lucht

Bernie Lucht, longtime executive producer and moving spirit at CBC Radio's Ideas for many years, retires today:
Most of my CBC life, as you know, has been at Ideas, a program I was privileged to be associated with for forty-one of my forty-seven years. It is a program I love deeply. Only a public broadcaster could have provided the fertile ground for Ideas to grow in; only a public broadcaster can nurture and sustain everything else we do.   

Bernie must have been pretty new to Ideas when I first pitched an idea there. His predecessor as executive producer said, "We did a survey of Canadian history a few years ago. Is there something new to say?" But they produced it and several others later, and yes, there were new things.

I tell myself that helped lead to a lot more history-driven docs at Ideas, most of them by other people and much better than mine, as people realized what I had: that in long form radio you could interview contending scholars, get Canada's best actors to enact dialogue drawn from original sources, use the amazing sound resources in the CBC archives, layer in period music, and do subjects that were probably unfilmable and in ways print alone could not reach. 

Ideas has a vast archive of historical material, most of it readily available online, including recently Margaret MacMillan on World War One, and Jung Cheng and Kristie Miller on the Empress Cixi and other women "behind the throne." Also, Lucht's own ideas on "Where ideas come from."

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Maclean's: What if they did the First World War over, and nobody came?

Wouldn't that be the best possible outcome?

Maclean's doesn't think so.  In the current issue but not online, Peter Shawn Taylor offers "Could We Do It Again?", a paranoid screed about the heroic way that hundreds of thousands of Canadians loyally volunteered to be sent off to the slaughter -- and about how Canadians today lack the discipline and moral fibre to do the same thing again.
Any attempt to put Canada's effort in the Great War in modern perspective runs headlong into the uncomfortable question of whether we still retain that apparently boundless capacity for suffering and commitment we displayed from 1914 to 1918.  Would Canadians today answer a call to duty for a national project the size, scope, and duration of the Great War?
Kids today!

Taylor interviewed several leading historians  -- Tim Cook, Jonathan Vance, Don Drummond, John English, Jack Granatstein -- and while interviewees don't get to control what an interviewer makes of their comments, it is discouraging that none of them moved Taylor to any consideration of the notion that for Canadians to have refused to provide unlimited amounts of cannon fodder to a self-defeating participation in Europe's dynastic struggles would have been A GOOD THING.

The best he can get is John Manley, "rare eminence grise of Canadian politics," confidently predicting that kids aren't so bad and really could be roused to serve in a great national cause. But surely "Could we refuse to do it this time?" would be a better question to be asking .

Is a salute to Ready, Aye, Ready really going to be the theme of Canada's WW1 centenary? Maclean's believes it should be. Andrew Cohen seems to buy in.

Image: The Independent

Update, July 31:  Russ Chamberlayne comments:
Judging by what appeared in the Calgary Herald in August 1914, the opening of World War I elicited horror in a substantial part of the population. The Herald published poetry (a literary form long missing from opinion pages) with the most evocative titles and texts. The poem "The Wail of the Mothers" repeated the line, "Oh, give me back my son!" Elsewhere in the Herald's August pages, another poem — titled "Peace!" — began with these lines:
Great God of Peace and Love, how long shall man
Shed blood of man for paltry pomp of power,
And earth be rife with warfare, and the land
Filled with the tears of widowed hearts, that cry
To Thee in bitter agony for aid?
The paper also printed the brooding "War From Its Inglorious Side." It contained lines such as: "I was conceived in passion, hatred, envy and greed, born in the morning of antiquity, and have a genealogy whose every page drips with the red blood of murdered innocence. I lay waste the green fields and still the hand of industry."...
Remember that these clear-sighted cris de coeur were published before the reality of
slaughter became apparent. How many of us would be that perceptive and passionate

History of Golf: Cochrane on George Lyon

"A coal-heaver's swing," they said
Lawyers:  literate, curious, verbal, confident, and often with disposable income. And as a result, self-publishers in a big way, it increasingly seems. Sometimes on historical topics.

Michael Cochrane, a Toronto lawyer widely published in infobooks on family law and other legal topics, has taken up the story of George Lyon, winner of the 1904 Olympic gold medal in golf (an Olympic medal in golf?), and makes him the focus of a new book on early Canadian golf and the pre-war Canada that produced him.  See the website and preview here.