Wednesday, February 22, 2017

History of loner MPS

Eric Grénier and the CBC have done an elaborate quantitative analysis to determine which MPs dissent from the party line most.  And find out what you already knew, that none of them do very often.  The "most free" of MPs votes with the leadership 87% of the time.

But of course they are asking the wrong questions, and encouraging the wrong behaviour.  Parliament doesn't need a bigger gaggle of cranky lone wolf individualists who will cast one lonely vote against the party consensus once in a while. There are always a few cranky egomaniacs in the House of Commons.

What parliament needs is backbenchers with influence. What Grénier's team ought to be looking for is the MP who, when the party leadership is about to do something dumb -- or evil -- can rally the caucus to stand up against the direction being given by the leader's office.  A backbencher who votes against a party motion is just someone who loses a vote.  A backbencher who can work a change in the party consensus? Now he or she is performing a useful service for the country.

Sadly, that sort of behaviour is not even a category that Grénier or the CBC acknowledge as existing, let alone trying to measure. True, if they could and did measure, they would probably come up with a number close to zero.  But reporting it might actually start to change it.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Outing History

Among the recent new entries in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography is one for Robert Home Smith, d.1935, the Toronto lawyer, financier, real estate entrepreneur.

Smith has a park named for him not far from where I live, because he was the developer of the large, rather exclusive residential tract along Toronto's Humber River known as The Kingsway. He also established the Old Mill tea room (now conference centre) on the river, partly to draw traffic to his then rather remote neighbourhood.

The entry has a word-sketch of the man:
A tall figure, Home Smith was a “veritable Adonis,” one contemporary said, deliciously funny and charismatic, and, whatever his hearing disability, intensely sociable....
Though outgoing, Smith could be an extremely private man, one who left tantalizing anecdotal trails. Business and recreational trips to Britain, Mexico, Washington, New York, the Caribbean, and resorts in Tennessee and the Carolinas were undertaken quietly; his friendships, mainly with building and engineering types, were never ostentatious; invariably he explained his bachelorhood with dismissive good humour....  He left his entire estate to an associate, lifelong bachelor Godfrey Stanley Pettit.
I had come across Home Smith in some legal history research years ago. Having seen essentially the same info covered in the DCB excerpts above, I informally put him in my (imaginary) file: Historic Canadians Who were Probably Gay.

I think that is what the DCB is hinting, too, with the "lifelong bachelor" and "tantalizing anecdotal trails."

Which raises a nice question of historical practice: how discreet or forthcoming should historians be about the possible sexual orientation of historical figures who were not forthcoming on the subject in their lifetimes? To put it another way, consider how hard it would be for a historian of sexuality to go through the DCB and find the gay or possibly gay Canadians, even when there are hints and suggestions.

Friday, February 17, 2017

History of fascism

Like a lot of people, I think, I've been a little cautious about the easy "Trump/Fascist" equation.  It becomes too easily an "We don't like him/he 's on the Right, therefore...." statement.

But worth reading is this Lawyers Guns & Money appreciation of some recent comments by two very solid historians, Timothy Snyder and Richard Evans, both of whom know a lot about those ur-fascists of the 1930s.  Some of the very specific details they offer are, ah, thought-provoking. Evans:
Hitler … did not rule, for example, through a Cabinet. He didn’t use the accepted institutions of government. He had a clique of people around him, Goebbels, Hermann Göring, and so on: a whole group of top Nazis who were his cheerleaders, really. They’re the ones who do the work. Within just a few years, the Cabinet didn’t meet at all. It’s just a very informal way of ruling that of course leads to a lot of chaos, because competencies are not clearly defined and there are a lot of rivalries within Hitler’s group of leading Nazis that prove often counterproductive. It’s interesting there again to see how the civil service, that’s the administration at every level, really, did not provide a very serious resistance to the orders that came down from above.
Image:  from LGM

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

History of Deep Roots

When I saw an image of Tyrone Tootoosis, the Cree cultural leader who died recently, I thought, "Gee, that guy looks like Poundmaker."

Then they put up this photo of Poundmaker, and explained that Tootoosis actually is of his family.  It actually is not that long ago.

Star-Phoenix has a story about Tyrone Tootoosis's life and work.  Cree Literacy Network has more.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Hans Rosling 1948-2017 RIP: data guy

Hans Rosling died the other day.

He was just the best presenter of data ever. We should all aspire to this.  I never regret not working in some big organization, except just once in a while when I see the toys like these available to be played with. How come nobody but Hans Rosling does!

Black History Month: Joe Fortes

Today's Dictionary of Canadian Biography feature is Sherry Edmunds-Flett's biography of Joe Fortes (b 9 February 1863), the man who once taught most of Vancouver to swim -- and who today is remembered by a waterfront fountain and a Vancouver steak and seafood restaurant
Known to be clean, sober, and an expert mixer of cocktails, he was most famous, however, for his volunteer work as a swimming instructor and lifeguard. He was a common sight at English Bay beach, where he taught thousands of children to swim. It was not until around 1897 that the city, in recognition of his services, put him on its payroll as a lifeguard; at some point he was also made a special police constable. He reputedly saved more than 100 people from drowning, including many children and several adults, among them John Hugo Ross, who would die in the sinking of the Titanic.

History of peacekeeping

Fear not, mon ami. Justice and freedom will come to North Carolina.
Media outlets are reporting that the Canadian government is delaying sending a peacekeeping contingent to the embattled African nation of Mali,

But in this insecure world, peacekeeping remains important. Canada needs to consider its responsibility to protect when a country to which we have long had ties of amity and trade is plagued by:
  • constant street violence, often provoked by police forces out of control
  • a Muslim minority targeted by a Christianist government that accuses it of disloyalty;
  • a politicized judiciary, many of whose members are unapologetically loyal to the ideology of the governing party.
  • endemic ethnocultural strife and semi-official discrimination based on skin colour and/or linguistic background.
  • women denied basic healthcare, kept out of high office, and frequently demeaned by the head of state and senior officials.
  • government officials complicit in illegal detention and rendition of immigrants, even in the face of valid court orders. 
  • voters' lists that have been manipulated and legislative seats ruthlessly gerrymandered for partisan advantage by the governing party.
  • a head of state dubiously elected but supported by a compliant legislature, and intent on wielding personal authority unrestricted by traditional political norms or the rule of law.  
In light of such circumstances, does Canada have a responsibility to at least consider inserting a peacekeeping force, simply to restore order, re-establish the rule of law, and prepare the way for free and fair elections?

I'm not talking about Mali.  I'm talking about the United States of America.

Hey, you know they would do the same for us whenever they thought it necessary.

Monday, February 06, 2017

What's the view from your window today?

In one of my favourite rooms in the world: the third floor reading room at Library and Archives Canada, with the magnificent view across the mighty Ottawa to ... well, to some pretty ugly federal office buildings and a paper plant, but still...

They have not digitized everything yet, but this online research thing must be taking hold. Total attendance in the room this morning: five.

Friday, February 03, 2017

Historians against heritage?

Tear down these walls?

At Active History, urban historian Richard White argues that it is because he is a historian that he opposes most forms of heritage preservation regulation in cities.
Why then do we want to preserve and inhabit the homes that Edwardians built?
First of all, we do not, really. Owners of these charming old houses knock out walls to create fewer bedrooms (for smaller households), build bathrooms on every floor, increase the size of water-supply pipes, park (multiple) cars on front and back yards, build decks for al fresco dining, punch holes in walls for windows, insulate like mad, re-wire to permit greater electricity consumption, and so on – all of which is permissible because Heritage Conservation District designation, according to provincial law, prohibits the alteration of “any part of the property, other than the interior.” So the truth is that we want our houses to look like, but certainly not to function as, they did a hundred years ago. As a historian who knows and cares about the past this all seems a little dishonest.

Thursday, February 02, 2017

History of electoral systems

Gotta say the Trudeau government looked good on electoral reform yesterday. Surely breaking a dumb promise is better than going ahead with it.

The blog Routine Proceedings has links to a lot of commentary.  Here is part of one I liked, which reminds us that proportional representation is not proportional to us, it's proportional for the political parties, which achieve proportionality by getting to appoint their own representatives to the legislatures:
PR generally weakens the connection between elected officials and local ridings (in some cases, doing away with the concept of ridings altogether) and so serves to consolidate power in the PMO, especially at election time, when ranked candidate lists are compiled in the proverbial smoke-filled rooms.
My own view is that the best kind of electoral reform would come from within the parties themselves: democratizing the nomination process so that grandees no longer can block impassioned activists and iconoclasts who challenge the party line.
Some of the Liberals' other promises could use some attention, however: reforming Bill C-51, for instance, or developing a Home Care plan.

Black History Month: Tales from the 2.9

Apparently 2.9 is the percentage of Black people in the Canadian population-- whether their origins and identity are Caribbean, African-American, Afro-Canadian, Nigerian, Somali, South African, the whole diasporic range.

Last year Casey Palmer launched a website called Tales from the 2.9 to post daily during February, which is Black History Month here  Tales is not really focussed on history, more on Black Canadian achievement and experience in general.  But it's a lively site, based on a lot of interviewing, and looks to be active throughout .

Here's one response from last year's daily tales,when a standard question to his interviewees was about Black History Month:
Black history to me when I was younger was all about the culture. I grew up in the 80’s RnB and soul, 90’s hip-hop era. Hip-hop was conscious. Artists like Public Enemy, KRS 1 and the Boogie Down Bronx, X Clan, Brand Nubian; and great female artists like MC Lyte and Queen Latifah were the teachers of black history.
And another:
Anytime I think about Black History Month, I tend to think about why schools don’t teach about Canadian Black History. I can’t believe that all this time, everyone was having tea meetings or skipping rope. Why isn’t Canadian Black History taught here or mentioned? We only learn about the major stories, from Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Mandela or slaves escaping to the North.
Take a look or 2 (.9) during February.

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

I'm canvassing for the Heart and Stoke Foundation February campaign

This blog doesn't sell stuff, doesn't hit you with ads, doesn't ask for financial contributions.

But once a year, I use a little of the space here to canvass for the Heart and Stroke Foundation's annual appeal. I invite you to go to my personal Canvasser's Page here, and consider a donation in any amount.

Of course, all the money donated goes directly to the Heart and Stroke Foundation's campaign, not to me or to this blog. You can be anonymous or acknowledged, and a tax receipt can be issued directly from the page.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

History of Storytellers: Doug Gibson's Canada150 tour

For 2017, publisher turned performer Doug Gibson  (see here talking of the diplomat and memorist Charles Ritchie) is launching his third national tour performance/lecture project: stories of great Canadian writers from 1867 to 2017.
Usually, in each decade only one novelist or short story writer in French and one in English will be chosen. Inevitably, this means that the show will be controversial (“How could you possibly leave out X from the 1980s?”), but Doug Gibson will be happy to provoke spirited debate about our best authors. And while the show will be in English, everything on the screen, such as book titles, and their titles in translation (“Kamouraska and Kamouraska , you say?”) will be bilingual. We all may learn more about our great French authors, and about our epic Haida storyteller, Skaay, revealed to us by Robert Bringhurst.
 Shows will tour from May to December, and they invite contacts from show bookers as well as audiences.

Book Review: Kevin Plummer on Chamberlin, The Banker and the Blackfoot

We have a guest review by Kevin Plummer, former pillar of Toronto's Historicist blog, now living in New Westminster, BC., and author of Toronto Lives: Biographical Sketches from the Historicist Archives

J. Edward Chamberlin, The Banker and the Blackfoot: A Memoir of My Grandfather in Chinook Country (Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2016)
reviewed by Kevin Plummer

J. Edward Chamberlin's hope in The Banker and the Blackfoot is that, to find a path to reconciliation in the present, we can look to the past. In the Foothills of Alberta, in the years between 1885 and 1905, Chamberlin finds a period of promise, when, as he puts it, "many people, native and non-native, tried to fashion a commonwealth in Chinook country that would accommodate Blackfoot sovereignty and new settlement and would give life to the spirit of the treaty made a few years earlier" (10).

At the centre of Chamberlin's account is the friendship between the author's grandfather, Jack Cowdry, a newcomer, and Crop Eared Wolf, a prominent Kainai (Blood) warrior. A prominent citizen at a time when Fort MacLeod—standing at the convergence of important transportation routes until being by-passed by the railroad—was a bustling town, Cowdry founded a bank, published a newspaper, established a ranching business, and served a couple of terms as mayor during his 26 years in the Foothills. Crop Eared Wolf, already famed as a warrior and horse-thief, would succeed his father, Red Crow, as head chief of the Bloods in 1900.

Upon first meeting on a Fort MacLeod street in the spring of 1885, the two individuals used a mix of words and hand signs to bridge language barriers, finding some common ground in conversing about horses. From that encounter, they forged a decades-long friendship. They shared life's joys—like a comical anecdote about the pair pulling up surveyor stakes to preempt settler incursion on reserve land—and consoled each other over the passing of loved ones.

The Banker and the Blackfoot shows how, by focusing on the seemingly modest stories of local—and even family—history, a skilled historian can illuminate much larger issues of national concern. At its worst, local history is mere civic boosterism that celebrates first settlers, early businessmen, or founding politicians in an unconscious act of erasing the contemporaneous presence of First Nations. Instead, Chamberlin intertwines these histories, showing the Blackfoot's active role in a changing Foothills region as Fort MacLeod was coming of age. In this era of Reconciliation, local historians should follow this example and engage more fully with the impacts had, and perhaps continue to have, on First Nations.

With the intention of focusing on the "people who are not included in the standard storyline" (308), Chamberlin places the Blackfoot, adapting and resisting, at the centre of Foothills history and city life in Fort MacLeod. To the influx of newcomers and the disappearance of the buffalo, they brought "centuries of craft and culture and statesmanship into conversation with new realities and new imaginings" (127). They signed, and upholding, a peace treaty as an alternative to war and, in many cases, adapted to ranching. But the treaty was never agreement to relinquish "their heritage—their religion, their language, their customs, their land" (179).

And, even faced with broken treaty promises, the "social engineering on a national scale" (290) of the Indian Act, and the malice of petty bureaucrats, Blackfoot leaders like Crop Eared Wolf fiercely resisted assimilation or isolation. Stories, both traditional and those adapted to their new circumstances, offered "an imaginative centre" (276) indispensable to efforts to maintain traditions and their sense of identity. "It was stories—boasting and toasting, civil and ceremonial—that sustained Blackfoot pride," Chamberlin writes, "and nourished Blackfoot prosperity during the dangerous years after the destruction of the buffalo" (362).

The nature of storytelling and its importance to humans' sense of self across cultures is a central theme in The Banker and the Blackfoot, and Chamberlin diverts into discussions of Oscar Wilde, John Keats, Huckleberry Finn, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Matthew Arnold among others. Chamberlin departs from the central narrative for long periods, and a few tangents—like one into virtual reality—don't seem essential. The book is at its strongest when these discussions are grounded in the specifics of MacLeod and the Foothills, and when Cowdry and Crop Eared Wolf are front and centre.

Importantly, Chamberlin moves beyond the written record to explore storytelling in "writing without words" (8) like beaded belts or carved and painted masks. In this case, the primary object of study is a ceremonial quirt, a riding crop with braided leather tail and decorated in traditional Blackfoot iconography, carved by Crop Eared Wolf and given as a gift to Chamberlin's grandfather. Having the quirt read by a Blackfoot ethnographer at the Glenbow Museum and by a Blood elder, Chamberlin is able to recount Crop Eared Wolf's life and the celebrated exploits in war parties and horse raids it records. It provides a way of recovering Crop Eared Wolf's voice—and keeping the book from being entirely through a settler lens.

Chamberlin characterizes Fort MacLeod, in its early days, as "a good place—not perfect, but full of promise" (236). He acknowledges that the Foothills were home to their share of cattle-rustlers, ne'er-do-wells, and residents with retrograde attitudes towards First Nations. But he focuses his attentions on more positive experiences of those, like his grandfather, who sought understanding and good relations with their Blackfoot neighbours, like the missionary who admiringly considered Blackfoot songs and stories in an early speech for the town's literary society, or the merchants who welcomed Blackfoot customers because they knew their businesses depended upon their purchases with annual Treaty Day payments.

However, Cowdry, Chamberlin's grandfather, does seem exceptional. On the town's incorporation in 1892—at which time he was elected its first mayor—Cowdry insisted that "fort" be dropped from its name. "This territory and this town are not the frontier," Cowdry is quoted as explaining, "but a homeland we are trying to share with the Blackfoot, with whom we have signed a treaty. Macleod is a treaty town." (240) A post-script Chamberlin doesn't mention is that such sentiment was forgotten by 1952, when the name reverted to Fort MacLeod, presumably as a means of celebrating one aspect of its history—while simultaneously erasing other aspects.

In time and on the strength of federal immigration policy, of course, more settlers poured into the Foothills. Where earlier ranchers and merchants often recognized "that their lives and livelihoods depended upon cooperation with the Blackfoot" (42), the newcomers didn't see themselves as treaty peoples. It was—and it remains—easier to see the promises of the treaty were something for the government, not average citizens, to address. The solidarity of an earlier generation was lost.

Although it perhaps falls outside of Chamberlin's focus on positive relationships which can serve as a model today, it feels like there's something crucial that is being under-explored. If there was indeed a critical mass of allies among the MacLeod population, why wasn't there more success in educating newcomers about their own lived experience of cooperation and friendship?

Cowdry certainly tried. He ran for mayor again in 1898 specifically because he was distressed by the rising tide of discriminatory attitudes towards his friends as many townspeople desired to keep the Blackfoot out of town because they were Indian. Whether in his role as banker, mayor, or rancher, Cowdry believed "that he could do something, however modest, to make his town, and the territory, a good place to live for everyone," Chamberlin writes. "A place where everyone's stories mattered, as long as they were told with craft and conscience" (234).

Cowdry is certainly a role model we can learn from today. But how many more of his fellow townspeople instead took their cue from the Gazette newspaper, whose editor, Charlie Wood, promoted "the stereotype of primitive savages and civilized Christians" (280)? And if, with time and changing demographics, some mixed marriages were dissolved so the men could seek new wives, how deep did that early sense of solidarity really go? Chamberlin hints in passing at the pressure to comply with colonialist norms, but doesn't fully grapple with whether or why some of these early allies broke their word.

Stories and storytelling were central to the Blackfoot's sense of place. But, in time, their stories came to be eclipsed by the stories of the newcomers. Whether in novels like The Virginian, Frederick Jackson Turner's frontier thesis, cowboy songs like "Home on the Range," or Buffalo Bill Cody's reenactments of battles on the American plains, the settlers' stories perpetuated a dangerous and false contradiction: that the plains and foothills were simultaneously empty, unproductive, and ready for settlement, yet full of dangerous, uncivilized Indians needing to be controlled with a firm hand. The false contradiction—Chamberlin labels it as "sheer idiocy" (217)—nevertheless became the story newcomers told themselves, effectively erasing First Nations presence and justifying all manner of bureaucratic interventions in their lives.

And Chamberlin offers a powerful example of why the loss of one's stories can be so devastating in the real world. A significant contributor to the trauma and violence of residential schools was that this system "changed the stories, and the storylines, that had held First Nations communities together for generations and had been hard won by their ancestors and hard-wired into their consciousnesses. To change the story was to change the languages and the lives and the livelihoods and the lands...and to replace them with ones they couldn't believe." (274) That system's victims, he argues, were violently robbed of their autonomy to imagine, and build, their own world.

Chamberlin's grandfather accepted the quirt from Crop Eared Wolf, not really knowing why it was given. But Cowdry did not see it as a mere curio or trophy to display on a shelf, but rather a burden of responsibility to a friend. "And the gift signalled something else, my grandfather thought, something about respecting the promise of the past in order to redeem the future. It marked a moment when he realized his friend knew that the future they believed in was in danger of being lost; and the gift was a reminder that together they not forget the promise" (253-254). Cowdry kept the quirt close after moving to Vancouver in 1911 and later into the nursing home where he died in 1947. And, in his very worthwhile The Banker and the Blackfoot, Chamberlin, who inherited the quirt from his grandfather, seeks to continue to honour that obligation and share their experience to inspire action towards recovering the word and spirit of the prairie treaties.

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