Monday, November 30, 2015

Book Notes: Backhouse on Beavers

Globe and Mail shows some love for westcoast writer Frances Backhouse's history of beavers and us, Once They Were Hats: In Search of the Mighty Beaver.
“A traditional knowledge of the beaver is the birthright of every Canadian.” This observation of Horace T. Martin is the epigraph to Frances Backhouse’s fascinating and smartly written Once They Were Hats: In Search of the Mighty Beaver. Backhouse, an author and journalist whose previous books include the gold-rush story Children of the Klondike, successfully shares that birthright with interested Canadians of every stripe in a thorough account of the tirelessly industrious beaver’s past, present and possible future – from the animal’s prehistoric ancestors to its potential role in mitigating the mounting effects of climate change.
Horace T. Martin turns out to be the author of Castorologia (1892), a book possibly only Backhouse has read!

Friday, November 27, 2015

History of conversational Wendat

The poet Robert Bringhurst, translator of the surviving Haida epics, once proposed that every North American poet should learn one indigenous American language and undertake some translations, so that the cultural heritage of the continent could begin to be appreciated. ('Course he also got accused of cultural appropriation, so it's not without complications.)

I'm not aware of a comparable call for indigenous language learning by Canadian historians. But John Steckley is doing his best to make up for the rest of us. Otherwise seeming your basic white guy from southern Ontario, Steckley understands and studies both Wendat and Anishnaabe -- profoundly different languages. As Tehaondechoren, he is an adopted member of the Wyandotte nation of Kansas.

His new book Instructions to a Dying Infidel, is a translation from Wendat. More complications: the text was originally produced by 17th century French missionaries, at a time when it was common enough for newcomers to Canada to learn the local language. Its purpose was to assist Jesuit missionaries in bringing about deathbed conversions to Catholicism. Apparently this is its first translation into a European language.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

History of military history

Who gets republished after fifty-three years?

Well, the late G.W.L (Gerald) Nicholson, for one.  McGill-Queen's is reprinting his 1962 work Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914-1919: The Official History of the Canadian Army in the First World War.  Nicholson (1902-80), a high school teacher turned WW2 soldier, became a Canadian Army official historian in 1943, and eventually the only one to whom Charles Stacey entrusted authorship of a volume in the Second War official history.

Then, since the First World War official history (planned in 8 volumes) had foundered, Nicholson sat down and whipped off his own one-volume version. That's the one being republished.  How will a survey from over fifty years ago stand up against the rivers of dissertations and monographs that have come along since?

Actually, the republication is a sign of the strength of Canadian military history. Jack Granatstein's 1998 call in Who Killed Canadian History? for much more work in Canadian military history has surely been amply answered. Canadian history in general is, well, still not quite dead yet, let's say, but military history surely thrives, with institutional support at the War Museum and the Forces' Directorate of History, strongholds in the universities, vigorous aid from agencies such as Historica, the Vimy Foundation, and the Juno Beach Foundation, and until last month, anyway, passionate encouragement from the government of Canada. And along with events and anniversaries, the books flow forth. Indeed, this fall McGill Queen's also offers The Embattled General: Sir Richard Turner and the First World War, a biography by William F. Stewart.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Meet the new boss, cont'd.

A pertinent observation about the recent "mandate letters" given to cabinet ministers by the Prime Minister's Office:
What is most striking, and should be disturbing, about the mandate letters is the presumption of Justin Trudeau issuing orders to cabinet ministers. The letters have been described in the press as his ‘marching orders.’ Their tone is grossly condescending: ‘I will expect you….’
The Prime Minister has no legal or constitutional authority to issue orders to cabinet ministers.
observes John Pepall. (Update: Debatable? The PM does have authority to recommend cabinet appointments to the Governor General, and presumably the power to appoint -- and remove -- gives the PM an authority over cabinet ministers.

Columnist Susan Delacourt, however, thought that mandate letters for the cabinet were not enough. She wanted similar orders to be issued to the Liberal MPs as well --  in the name of democratic renewal, no less!
Why not mandate letters for the 150-plus MPs who didn’t get sworn into cabinet too? The Samara organization, devoted to democratic renewal, has been urging for years that MPs need better job descriptions.
Trudeau’s marching orders to cabinet leave no doubt about the style of government he wants to lead. For that to work, the MPs not in the cabinet will need to have their jobs defined that way too.
Surely it is the responsibility of MPs to issue the prime minister and cabinet ministers with mandate letters, not the other way round.  "We constitute the majority of the elected representatives of the Canadian people.  In exchange for entrusting you with office and keeping you there as the government of Canada, we will expect you to...."

Image: Toronto Star.  H/t: Dale Smith

History of museum appointments

Don Butler at the Ottawa Citizen notes that shortly before calling the election, the Conservative government extended the term of Mark O'Neill, its appointee as director of the Canadian Museum of History.  O'Neill was appointed in 2011 and his term did not expire until June 2016 (but he could reasonably expect to have some assurance about his future before the term actually expired). He was re-appointed until 2021.

The appointment was one of a slew of extensions and early re-appointments undertaken by the Harper government shortly before the election. Unlike many of the re-appointees, O'Neill serves "at pleasure" and his appointment could be theoretically be cancelled at any time.

Monday, November 23, 2015

History-blogging as forbidden?

Odd conclusion of panelists at large American conference of American Academy of Religion:

Pushback is instant, as here:

And here:

History in fiction

Despite occasional requests, we don't follow historical fiction much here, fiction coverage being (relatively) extensive -- and anyway, too often tending to encourage the "no one reads history past high school" attitude among literati who should know better.

An exception, however, for two current publications.

First, from my friends Steve Pitt the writer and Roderick Benns the publisher, a new book in Fireside Publishing's curious series of young-adult novels on the imagined mystery-solving gifts of future Canadian prime ministers.  After previous novels featuring youthful John Diefenbaker, John A. Macdonald, R.B. Bennett, and Arthur Meighen, Fireside launches its first  second future Liberal and "most requested" subject, a young Pierre Trudeau mystery by Steve Pitt called The Wail of the Wendigo: An Early Adventure of Pierre Trudeau. (Update, Nov 25: Roderick reminds me of the 2013 publication of the young Paul Martin story, Showdown at Border Town.)

Second, a new novel by travel writer, historian, essayist Ronald Wright.  Wright came to attention with his Latin-America travel books Cut Stones and Cross-Roads and Time among the Maya, and consolidated his big-history chops with Stolen Continents and A Short History of Progress, and all of these were widely published and influential.

In recent years, he has turned to fiction as well, and his new historical novel, The Gold Eaters, has been drawing pretty terrific reviews, as in the New York Times this weekend.

Its protagonist is a young Quechua, Waman, colonized first by the Incas and then by the conquistadors. He observes the Spanish conquest of the Inca world. The novel clearly draw on  the themes of imperial conquest and cultural disaster emphasized in Stolen Continents and much of Wright's nonfiction, and it is pitched as "literary fiction" rather than "young adult," -- though the lines increasingly blur.

Possibilities for your "I only read fiction" children, students, friends?

Friday, November 20, 2015

This Month at Canada's History

Canada's History won a COPA gold last night for the webmail newsletter on Magna Carta (featuring my article from the print mag) sent out to e-subscribers a while ago. Now I did not really realize there was a Canada's History webmail newsletter and I did not know there were COPA awards until I heard about this nomination recently. But publisher Melony Ward and I scarfed poutine and partied with the Canadian Online Publishing Awards crowd last night at the Phoenix in Toronto.

That's Melony taking the bow above on behalf of the whole Canada's History digital team.

Meanwhile this month's Canada's History, now out to subscribers and newsstands, has Joel Ralph's feature article on Canadians in the Battle of Britain (great cover and images), plus Inuit explorers, the 50th anniversary of Beryl Fox's Vietnam doc "Mills of the Gods," and sorcery in New France.  My column is about, more or less, how to pronounce Kw'ik-w'iyà:la -- read it to see what I'm getting at.  And in the letters column, a little exchange about putting a date on Canadian nationhood.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Same OLD story: history of urban renewal

Went down yesterday to an overflow press conference with Toronto mayor John Tory and a crowd of other politicians and urban planning luminaries.  They were announcing "Project: Under Gardiner," a clever and not very costly plan ($25 million, donated) to turn the space under the downtown Gardiner Expressway, always accepted to be a grim godawful unuseable wasteland, into a urban playground. Landscaping, cultural amenities, bike and pedestrian walkways, all placed under the sheltering five-storeys-above roof provided by the highway, will now turn the Under Gardiner into "back yard and front room" for the 70,000 people who already live in the vertical city that has blossomed in the former industrial zone and transportation corridor on the west side of downtown.

Although the presser was held in a (spacious, convenient, well-appointed) space at the recently opened Visitor Centre of Fort York National Historic Park, and although speakers did allude to the potential of the fort's green spaces for dog-walking, cycling, kite-flying and the like, almost none of the pols and planners on the podium mentioned how the historic space has in fact been the prime mover in reconceptualizing the once-blighted space around it. For about 20 years people associated with the fort, foreseeing the new residential population about to settle in the area, have worked to make the fort the key identifier (Fort York Neighborhood, @FortYork, etc) of the new community, and also to maximize the value of the historic property to community values and community life. The Fort York campus is the largest green space in the community and the central node of the new non-car connections in the area, and the Visitor Centre is both an architectural asset and the best place for the community to gather (as at the press conference).  With no loss of its historic significance, Fort York has "suddenly" moved from being stuck in a peripheral wasteland no one wanted to visit to being the jewel of one of the hottest new neighborhood in Toronto.

This is not unique or strange or odd. It is always historic sites and heritage architecture - and the derided buffs and geeks who value them -- that lead in the preservation and then the rehabilitation of undervalued urban spaces.  Even when the planners and architects take the credit.

Photo:  Project: Under Gardiner, via Globe and Mail

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

History of October nineteenth

That was fast. UBC Press has produced Canadian Election Analysis,  a free-download e-book collection on the October 19 federal election.

I was struck by a line or two in Jamie Gillies's piece, "The Presidentialization of Executive Leadership in Canada (at p. 39, bolding added by me):
Power and authority over government decision-making has shifted from cabinet and Parliament to the prime minister and a group of unelected officials that work directly for the Canadian executive in a very concentrated and centralizing way. In this regard, presidentializing leadership is compounded by the weakness of Canadian party mechanisms that force executives to bend to Parliamentary caucus will. This makes removal of party leaders by cabinet and elected members more difficult than other Westminster democracies.
He says it began in the Pierre Trudeau era, which is poli-sci speak for "in the mists of antiquity" or "since time immemorial." It began long before Trudeau pere.  But a decade ago, a sentence like Gillies's last one was simply unthinkable among political commentators.  Actually, they said so all the time: leadership accountability to caucus is "unthinkable in Canada," I was told again and again. No one favours doing anything about it yet, but the idea begins to enter the discourse.

Monday, November 16, 2015

History of the Labrador Creative Arts Festival

Wednesday marks the opening of the 40th Labrador Creative Arts Festival, and it's such a great event that I have to note the anniversary. The festival brings writers, painters, dancers, musicians from all genres, mostly but not exclusively from Atlantic Canada, into Happy Valley-Goose Bay for a week each year. The artists, billeted with local families, tour schools around Labrador all week, and then the students come to Goose to present plays they have been creating all year -- sometimes works from the canon but mostly scripted by the student-actors themselves and rooted in local experience. It's an extraordinary educational and theatrical project in a community that understands it has to make its own cultural experience, and I still feel privileged to have been one of the visitors (as a children's author) in 2010, my only extended visit to Labrador.

I vividly remember a presentation of Romeo mak Juliet by the Innu students of Natuashish.  They did it in vernacular English, not the Shakespeare text (or Innu), but it was set in Natuashish and the sense of rival community factions making life miserable for the young people was powerful as hell.

I also remember eating cod, caribou, and even Canada goose, not as some kind of cultural experience but just a part of ordinary meals since, given the cost of food, everyone hunts and fishes.

Also that the community of North-West River is locally pronounced "Striver."

I don't think many historians get included in their artist selections.  But I'd go back like a shot.  Rock on, everybody.

History of victims and monuments

This month's Literary Review of Canada has the usual abundance, including a review of Charlie Angus's Children of the Broken Treaty by me. The really interesting writing turns up in the letters column.

In last months' LRC, the Toronto novelist and critic Antanas Sileika contributed an essay defending the plan for a monument in the heart of Ottawa to the victims of communism ("Why should we deny their suffering and their right to remember it?")  and attacking the anti-anti-communism he saw behind it, in which he saw anti-communism being dismissed as a "ploy to disguise the actions of Nazi collaborators."

This month the letters page has remarkable responses to his essay from three writers, Myrna Kostash, Janis Kulyk Keefer, and Erna Paris, all of whom have been deeply involved in issues of war, ethnicity, ideology, and memory in and of central and eastern Europe. All disagree fundamentally with Sileika, but on various grounds. Seleika offers a brief reply, and I found the whole exchange on a complicated question admirably argued.

Sadly, though, Sileika's assertion "no one reads history after high school" goes unchallenged throughout. Kulyk Keefer may think it's a good thing, even: only fiction really counts.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Timely scholarship: on using crises to undermine the law

The perk of being a member of the Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History is you get a handsome book in the mail once in a year.  This year's 'members' book' arrived the other day: Canadian State Trials Volume IV: Security, Dissent, and the Limits of Toleration in War and Peace, 1914-1939, edited by Barry Wright, Eric Tucker and Susan Binnie.

I admit, I was thinking it might be one for the bookshelf more than the night table.  A valuable series, glad it is being done, a bit remote from most of my historical preoccupations, probably.  But I started browsing in it.  For all its scholarly distance, it is remarkably timely reading

Patricia McMahon has a chapter on "Conscription and the Courts: The Case of George Edwin Gray, 1918."  In a nutshell: the government had passed legislation introducing conscription, and the legislation included a detailed appeals process by which conscripts could seek exemption. But there were a lot of appeals and a serious manpower crisis. Instead of amending the legislation, the government simply abolished all appeals by order in council. A court in Alberta found that the order in council was ultra vires; a government cannot simply cancel its own legislation.

Enter George Gray, a conscript,
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