Monday, September 01, 2014

George-Etienne Cartier's 200th birthday 1

George-Etienne Cartier does not have the bicentennial industry that has grown up around John A. Macdonald. In Quebec he lacks nationalist cachet. In English-Canada he's often assumed to be merely the useful sidekick to the boss.

In anticipation of his bicentenary anniversary, September 6, 1814, six things about Cartier over the next six days.

1.  "A French-Canadian is an Englishman who speaks French"

It sounds like the most cringing, self-abnegating thing a Quebecker could say. Surely identity begins with the understanding that a French-Canadian is not an Englishmen.

But Cartier like to say this in England, in the presence of the Queen, of British aristocrats and gentlemen, and he surely intended the saying to discomfit them, not his own compatriots.

In 19th century Britain, British statesmen like to speak of the "rights of Englishmen."  There was not a lot of belief in universal human rights (Look where they got the French Revolutionaries, egad!). Instead, there was a comfortable understanding that the common law, parliamentary democracy, and most of the essential freedoms were peculiarly English achievements, more or less unavailable to Europeans and other breeds. There was some understanding that English colonists in British North America (and elsewhere) had carried the rights of Englishmen with them, but surely it hardly applied to colonized Frenchmen.

Here lay the radical challenge in Cartier's aphorism. He was asserting that as a Canadian, as a British North American, he (and all his fellow French-Canadians) enjoyed all the same rights of Englishmen enjoyed by anglophone British North Americans -- and by the English themselves. Among a crowd of snobbish bigoted English gentlemen, he was announcing he was their equal, with political rights equal to theirs.

Quoted in 21st century Quebec, Cartier's phrase is not likely to be well received.  Quoted in a London salon in the 1860s, it must have been confrontational to the point of being revolutionary.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Smithsonian on Kennewick skeleton again

Smithsonian Magazine has a triumphalist story about the Institution’s investigations into the bones of "The Kennewick Man,” skeletal remains found in central Oregon and dated to some 8900 years BP.

Since 1996 these bones have made almost everyone look bad. Evidence about North America 9000 years ago is precious. But local First Nations, sick of endless pillaging of their ancestors’ graves, insisted on immediate reburial of these bones. The American Corps of Engineers, wanting to avoid the whole thing, poured a million tons of rockfill over the discovery site. Archaeologists sued, judges got involved.

To overcome NAGPRA, the American law that empowers First Nations to protect ancestral remains, the archaeologists had to convince the courts, not that research on this skeleton was valuable, but that the Kennewick bones were not ancestral to the aboriginal people of the Pacific Northwest today, and therefore were exempt from NAGPRA.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

What is history?

Matt Henderson, who teaches at St. John's Ravenscourt school in Winnipeg, is investigating the question "What is History?" with his students this coming term.  As part of that project, he has been asking historians around the country to offer their own answers to his organizing questions.
I would like my students to contemplate what it is we will be doing each and every day as "historians." Throughout the year, I would like them to think about two questions:

1) What is history?
2) What is the doing of history and what does it look like?

They will be charged with researching these questions in our ten months together and will be pressed to develop their own understandings. AND, we want you as part of the discussion. What would be great, if you choose to participate, is for you to provide YOUR answers to the above questions in the next few weeks. This could be in any format -- written, audio, or video --the choice is yours depending on how you wish to express yourself. Audio (via or video would be great, as I can house these really well on our blog and the students would be engaged. Written, however, is a tried-and-true form of communication.

At the same time, the students will be reading and discussion the likes of Herodotus, Thucydides, Nussbaum, Frankl, etc. as  means to propel our discussions.
Matt can be reached by email at MHenderson [at]

I haven't answered myself yet.  Matt, should I brush up on my Herodotus first?

Monday, August 25, 2014

Anniversaries miscellany

The theatrical project that includes Sir John A 2015 in Kingston has been rocking the streets with a song-and-dance exploration of the man and his city, and I got to walk around with them on Saturday with a large and lively crowd. Thanks to all who facilitated that, and congratulations to the clever, funny, savvy, group of actors who put on the show seven days a week. Historian John Boyko also joining them soon.  Facebook photo album here.

August 23 24, I'm told, was the centenary of Winnipeg, the bear adopted by the Canadian Expeditionary Forces who became Winnie the Pooh. Thanks to the correspondent who sent me an email about that, which I seem to have deleted in a fit of housekeeping. Update:  Found it, and the link to Ryerson University's feature.  Thanks, Alison Watkin of Narrative PR.

April August 24, I'm told, was also the 200th anniversary of the burning of the White House, kinda one of the fun moments of the War of 1812 reenactments for Canadians, probably not so much marked in Washington.  But Historiann is on the story.  And, yeah, the Yanks are still sensitive about it.

September 6 will be the 200th anniversary of the birth of George-Etienne Cartier. Indeed the John A troupe are working up a special program for that.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

New online journal:

Your Canada, Your Constitution, a nonprofit research and educational foundation, announces the launch of, a monthly online journal edited by Lisa Turnbull and publishing independent commentary on:
our two main themes:- the role and method of selection of Canada’s Head of State; and,- the role of elected officials in representing constituents and the measures that hold them to account to the people whom they represent.
First two contributions:  Bruce Hicks on selecting governors general, and Paul Heinbecker on the head of state question.

Friday, August 22, 2014

That other referendum

Maybe it's the (English) Canadian in me, or the fact that many of my lowland Scots ancestors thrived on building the British empire in places like Shanghai and Hong Kong and New Zealand and Rhodesia. But I have zero sympathy for the ScotNat independence movement  -- or maybe "independence" movement, for they say they want to keep the Queen and the pound and, you know, all the useful things about being Brits.

Now, federalism, that's another matter. We should start taking the structure of the United Kingdom seriously when England has a local legislature to match the ones in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

But for a moment this piece on the History News Network brought out the rebellious Scot in me. James Winn, an American biographer of Queen Anne, uses the tercentenary of her death in 1714 to argue that since Anne was a true Scot and uniting Scotland and England "was her most significant political achievement," the Scots ought to stay with Britain in deference to her.

Anne was about as Scottish as the Simpsons' school janitor. And by 1707 parliamentarians ruled in both England and Scotland (that's why her Stuart forbears were tossed out!). Queen Anne had not much more to do with the union of 1707 than Queen Elizabeth has to do with the independence referendum of 2014.

HNN, noting that it has been going since 2001, offers links to its ten most popular articles ever. "Most looked at" does not correlate with best, I'd say, but in fact HNN does have an impressively diverse range of contributions if you go looking a bit, and even their top ten hits are not all about US presidents.  

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.