Friday, September 19, 2014

Fort York visitor centre: one for the good guys



Went down last night to a celebration of the new Visitors' Centre at Fort York in Toronto.  In Toronto where "cut taxes/starve services/bitch about lagging infrastructure" has been the dominant voice for decades, support for history and heritage still has a guerrilla, oppositional feeling to it. Actually getting this visitor centre built felt to a lot of people there like a victory against the odds after decades of defeats and disappointments. A federal minister and various private foundation types were there, but beneath that the vibe was unmistakable: the underdogs had actually pulled one off.

Tucked between a railroad line and an elevated highway in a grim light-industrial zone, Fort York has always struggled to connect with the city.  But the area has suddenly been transformed by massive condominium development, amid a lot of smart urban design. The Fort has cleverly decided to make itself the community centre.  With 43 acres of green space, it had something to offer, and it has already become a venue for festivals and concerts.  Now its visitor centre will double as a community gathering space. Here's Urban Toronto's take on it.
The vision for Fort York is spectacular. A brilliant Fort York Visitor Centre will come to life after an engaging design competition . The concept by Patkau Architects Inc. (Vancouver) & Kearns Mancini Architects Inc. (Toronto) artfully references Fort York’s historic context on the bluff of Lake Ontario in its inspired form and use of materials, while bringing the site into striking, contemporary focus.
With its new visibility and new amenities, Fort York is also poised to become the de facto Museum of Toronto that the city has been determined never to have.  Next spring when Magna Carta makes its 800th anniversary world tour, it's the Fort York Visitor Centre that will host it in Toronto.  And the current temporary exhibits - pending enough money to put up the actual Fort York materials -- give a taste of the unseen Toronto collections that finally have a display venue.

It's a terrific building, but more it's a display of smart civic planning, in which heritage and historical values are actually shown to work hand in hand with housing development, recreation, and even traffic needs. Go see.

Elsewhere in museums, today is the opening of the Human Rights Museum in Winnipeg.  Human rights is so inherently political and confrontational that they have had their struggles.  I hope they just accept that, and go on being all confrontational and in your face, damn the protesters.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Don Smith and friends on Toronto Island


Donald Smith, Professor Emeritus and author of Mississauga Portraits: Ojibwe Voices From Nineteenth Century Canada, M. Jane Fairburn, author of Along the Shore: Rediscovering Toronto’s Waterfront Heritage and Maxwell King, Educator and member of the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation, speaks tonight on "From Menacing to Hiawatha: Toronto Island and Its People in the 18th and 19th Centuries," announced as "an evening of lively discussion on the presence of the Mississaugas in the Toronto area in the 18th and 19th centuries."  That's September 18, 2014, 7:00 p.m. at Ward's Island Clubhouse, Toronto Island.

Can't make that?  There's the Ontario Historical Society session October 23




Text Box: Along the Shore: Rediscovering Toronto’s Waterfront Heritage by M. Jane Fairburn 

Treaty of Paris invalid: Canada still belongs to France?


Charlevoix has all the details of how the brief visit of the original 1763 Treaty of Paris to Quebec City's Musée de Civilisation has provoked a Montreal lawyer into announcing his theory that the whole thing was beyond the powers of Louis XV and therefore has been void all along.  Expert opinion is unconvinced, to say the least.

More interesting, more troubling, is the other suggestion: that Ottawa actually opposed any showing of the document in Canada because... (sound of head exploding here).  

All links in French, bien sur.

Also good news: it seems the fire at the Museum the other day has not done serious damage to the collection there.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Jewish army of the Annapolis Valley


Who knew?  Kelly Shiers of the Halifax Chronicle Herald of a few days ago reports on the Jewish Legion, including future Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion,  that trained at Windsor, Nova Scotia, under British Army auspices in 1918
“In Windsor, one of the great dreams of my life — to serve as a soldier in a Jewish Unit to fight for the liberation of the Land of Israel (as we always called Palestine) — became a reality,” Ben-Gurion wrote in a letter to Windsor’s mayor three years after he left the prime minister’s job.
Hat tip to Mark Reynolds's father.  Photo: Chronicle-Herald.

Genius historians

Okay, I do get a little frisson when email comes in from the MacArthur Foundation. The rational mind knows they are not about to tell me they are giving me one of those fabled Genius Grants and vast amounts of no-strings money.  But one dreams for a moment.

It's a media release about two historians who did just get McArthur Genius Grants:  Pamela Long, historian of science and technology, and Tara Zahra, historian of European childhoods.  And I'm really pleased for them. Really.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Book Notes: Cornwell on Waterloo


Bernard Cornwell, the impossibly prolific author of the Sharpe series of historical novels (since televised, and now famous as one role in which Sean Bean did not have to die) has published his first non-fiction, Waterloo, The Story of Four Days, Three Armies, and Three Battles, in anticipation of next summer's 200th anniversary of that battle.

I could manufacture some Canadian connections here -- a slew of later Canadian governors fought at Waterloo, and the end of the War of 1812 was influenced by the fall of Napoleon, which preceded his return and his Waterloo.  And it turns out Cornwell is a Canadian "war baby," born 1944, son of a Canadian airman from Victoria and a British servicewoman.  And he's promoting the book in Toronto soon.

But it's mostly that this blog gets quite a few new book PR requests from American presses and publicists --usually for titles like "Aircraft of The Vietnam War" or "The Dining Table of John and Abigail Adams" and other items of, shall we say, local interest -- and pretty much nothing from Canadian publishers ever. So this is for Melissa Nowakowski at HarperCollins in Toronto, who took the trouble to get in touch about this title. See, it can work!

I read it, actually. There is not much new that can be said about Waterloo, except for all of us who don't know much about it. Cornwell, as you might expect, does battle well, and he is good at taking an interest in the difference between brigade and battalion or line and column, things that really help if you are trying to figure out what the hell is going on.  Seems it was indeed, as Wellington said, a damned near run thing.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Out of the canon


The New Republic wonders why "the American literary canon" has admitted so few historians.

Sunday morning the radio came on early, and the chatty morning host said Margaret Macmillan would be soon be in to talk about some of the books on Canadian history that have impressed her most. Blur of sleep and then there she was, and the interviewer's first question -- you can listen here -- was her views on how little and badly Canadian history was taught in schools. Neither of them being involved with school teaching, they had a fairly unedifying conversation, and then the host asked about the problem of Canadian history being so boring.

Okay, somebody doing the dawn patrol on Sunday morning for local radio ain't entirely the arbiter of the Canadian literary canon. But you can see the problem. Somehow everybody who comments on Canadian life, letters, culture takes it as written first that history is for children and is therefore a problem for the schools, and that it's all pretty boring anyway, isn't it. So, Margaret, you wanted to talk about....?

Funny. Books about history dominate the best seller list every year, and history is what most of our leading novelists write about, and museums and historic sites draw massive attendance, and events like the War of 1812 commemoration and the First World War anniversary pull huge coverage, and we squabble constantly about old treaties and the consequences of residential schools, and all last week the fate of some English guy who got himself stuck in the Arctic in the 1840s dominated the news cycle.  But all our journalists understand nobody is interested in history and it is only something to ram into captive schoolchildren anyway.

In the end, Margaret Macmillan did not say "Why are journalists so boring, that they always ask these same hackneyed cliche questions?" and she did get to talk about those books she liked. Christopher Pennington on the federal election of 1891, David Hackett Fischer on Champlain, and Julie Gilmour on Vancouver's anti-Asian riots of 1907. And indeed she made them all sound like pretty interesting books, without actually shoving it into the face of the interviewer that 1) none of them are kid's books, and 2) not of them have anything to do with school curriculum, and 3) WTF?

But including historians is Canada's literary canon, well, that project has a long way to go.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Michael Chong... crazy like fox, or just....



Aaron Wherry has a column at Maclean's about Michael Chong's latest compromises with his Reform Bill, the private member's bill that was supposed to empower backbenchers, freeing them from the leader's arbitrary powers and authorizing them to, gasp, hold leaders to account.

After years preparing it, Chong has changed his Reform Bill's proposals a few times since formally introducing it. Most of the changes have been interpreted as compromises, weakening the bill's import. The new changes seem like more of the same, as if the whole thing were being meddled into insignificance.

I'm not sure. Chong faces a challenge almost unknown in Canadian parliamentary politics in, oh, say the last century or so.  He has a bill in play, but he's a backbencher, not a leader.  He can't just say, here's my bill,  and know -- as a party leader does -- that all his flunkies will vote for it and all the others guys' flunkies will vote against it. As a backbencher proposing a motion in a house where backbenchers of all parties say they may or may not support it, irrespective of what their leaders want, he actually needs to put together enough votes to get his bill through. Doing a little trading in the lobby may be an essential aspect.  This is how parliamentary politics is done when the whip is restrained.

In the fuhrerprinzep (definition here) politics we live with in Canada, this is unheard of. Leaders are expected to dictate and to win; negotiating anything is a sign of weakness or capitulation. Chong, however, may be calculating it is better to get his bill through than not to. Tweaking his bill to provide what the largest number of MPs will support may be what he has to do.

Is there anything of value left in his Reform Bill?  Wherry's summary of the changes suggests Chong is putting less and less into the legislated rules on leadership powers, leaving more and more to the will of parties and party caucuses. That looks like compromise. Since Canadians assume caucuses always bend, indeed must and should bend, to their leaders' will, we assume only legally binding blackletter rules will change parliament.

Chong may be calculating that if the attitudes and behaviours of MPs and caucuses change, then everything changes. If a majority of MPs pass a bill that says they have the right to do whatever they want to in caucus, maybe some of them will actually believe it -- and start to act on it.  If they don't, all the legislated rules won't make any difference anyway. If caucuses did start asserting that leaders are members of caucus and subject to caucus discipline like other members, legislated curbs on out-of-control leaders (the kind the original Reform Bill draft provided) would hardly be necessary.

If MPs are just looking for a face saving way to surrender to the bosses, these changes will provide for that. That's not unlikely. But if they are accepting that if MPs want to take control of their caucuses and legislatures, they just have the powers already, Chong could yet have a stealth victory.


Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Franklin Heroes



I've been kinda where Dan Francis is on the Franklin mystery.  (Update: And sde Tina Adcock's survey of historian's tweets on the subject.  I remember having coffee with Ken McGooghan years ago when he was about to publish his Fatal Passage -- and I really couldn't see that many people would be terribly interested in that story.  Mea culpa, Ken (though Ken's a John Rae guy more than a Franklinite). I don't think it is just politics that has restrained my enthusiasm for the way the recent search has been promoted.

But that photo above is indeed pretty cool, as is the work that produced it. And it ain't just the locals that are impressed. One British expert says of the discovery:
Today’s announcement by Stephen Harper, the Canadian Prime Minister, that Parks Canada have located one of the ships of Sir John Franklin’s lost Expedition on the bed of Victory Strait, is the biggest archaeological discovery the world has seen since the opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb almost 100 years ago.  
The whole world owes a debt of thanks to the Canadian Government and Parks Canada for leading this search, and to the Inuit people of Nunavut who tried to help Franklin’s men and who faithfully kept alive their memories of the tragedy.
Two more Franklin heroes for me:  the Parks Canada people, my old colleagues, who struggle with both political interference and the kind of disdain that anyone "in government" has to face these days -- and still do lots of nifty research and give us some pretty terrific service on a thousand fronts.

And David Woodman, who over 20 years ago drew attention to the fact that the Inuit held most of the useful information for finding the Franklin ships, and was sustained once again by this discovery. I wrote in a 1991 review of his book  (full text of it below the jump) that it made me think an Inuit history of the Inuit would be more interesting than an Inuit history of the Franklin expedition.  But it's a terrific book and seems to have held up wonderfully well to the test of this search.

Update, Sept 11, 2014:  David Woodman gets in touch:
I too am very happy and relieved to find that the Franklin ship is, in essence, exactly where the Inuit said it was 150 years ago. Perhaps the major achievement of this find will not be restricted to the elucidation of the Franklin mystery (as interesting and important as that itself is), but this verification of oral history may cause a long-delayed re-evaluation of non-documentary historical sources in general.

Photo: Globe and Mail

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Fall books watch: Hebert/Lapierre on the referendum


The Morning After builds on a pretty terrific premise:  talk to (first, secure access to!) all the principals in the 1995 Quebec referendum, and ask them what they would have done if the result had been Yes instead of No.

I am a little disappointed that this is actually not a real oral history. What Chantal Hébert and Jean Lapierre provide is a collection of journalists' pieces based on lots of quotes from the interviewees, but with the first person quotes surrounded by a great deal of context, interpretation and analysis by the authors. It's eighteen short magazine profiles.

That is still pretty interesting. Lots of lessons, though my main takeaway so far is that Lucien Bouchard seems to have been the dumbest person in the history of Canadian politics, entertaining the most implausible post-referendum plans and having not the slightest clue what was really happening all around him.

There does not seem to be any mention in the book of what has become of the actual interview transcripts.  I hope Hébert and Lapierre are going to archive them where they will be widely available. Good as the book is, there must be lodes of gold in there, and it will only get more valuable.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Moore on WW1 in the Canadian Historical Review

Hey, it is still something to see one's work in the CHR.  In the September 2014 issue, just out, I have a short essay, "1914 in 2014: What We Commemorate when We Commemorate the First World War,"in the Forum on First World War history and historiography
Canada, not having had a debate in 1914 about entering the war, is unlikely to have one in 2014 about how a self-governing country could allow its foreign and military policy to have been made so uncritically.
Given the absence of debate, in 2014 as in 1914, about why Canada participated in the war, the commemorative impulse seems likely to be defined by efforts to empathize with the violence, danger, suffering, and loss experienced by individual Canadians caught in the war, regardless of its causes or consequences.
Other contributions to the forum by Mark Osborne Humphries, Amy Shaw, Mourad Djebabla, and Tim Cook.  

Fall books watch: Levine on Toronto

I'm looking forward to Allan Levine's Toronto: Biography of a City, out this fall from Douglas & McIntyre.  A thoughtful imaginative exploration of the city would fill a gap on the shelf, for sure.

On Saturday, the Star ran a long excerpt, focussing on the hostile attitude  that Toronto, and particularly George Brown's Globe, took to the rapidly growing Irish Catholic population in the city, particularly in the 1850s.
Almost as soon as the famine victims arrived in 1847, the Globe declared that they would be “unaccustomed to the habits and occupations of Canadians,” and that they would “sink down into the sloth to which they had been accustomed at home.” Thereafter, lurid headlines screamed about “Irish Catholics the Curse of the Land,” and “The Irish Papist a Rebel and a Judas.”
In a February 1856 editorial, Brown expressed deep concern over further Irish Catholic immigration, warning that Canada West was to be “colonized by papists,” which he compared to “as great a curse . . . as were the locusts to the land of Egypt.”
I've haven't read all of the Globe for those years, for sure, but I've read some of it. And I often find it hard to find in its pages the bigotry and prejudice George Brown is alleged to have held against francophones and Catholics in general.  Brown certainly abominated the political role of the Catholic church, from the pope down to the local parish priest, and was consistently outraged by any possibility that voters would follow the bidding of authoritarian religious leaders rather than as acting as free citizens.

But that is not the same as bigotry.  I have found it sometimes reads as if Brown was a hundred years ahead of his time in his anti-clericalism. The Globe's attacks on clerical interference in French-Canadian politics sometimes look like what the Quiet Revolution was fought for in the 1950s and 1960s. And the recent collapse of Catholic clerical authority in the wake of the exposure of how flagrantly and consistently that authority has been abused -- well, it would not have surprised the Globe of the 1850s much.

So I sometimes find myself wondering if what was labelled (by its targets) as bigotry and prejudice was more like a legitimate political critique, albeit one expressed in the vigorous and intemperate language that sold newspapers.

Levine, I would say, makes one of the strongest demonstrations I've seen, that the Globe's treatment does indeed go beyond a political critique to the fanning and indulging of prejudice.  Hmm...




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Sunday, September 07, 2014

Cartier Week, #7: The Cartier centenary

Out of his own collection, Andrew Thomson sends along scans of a couple of George-Etienne hundredth anniversary postcards from 1914



I collect old postcards and some of the gems of my collection are from the Valentine company's Cartier Centenary collection. There were about 10 of the cards, which I think were designed in the hope of repeating some of the success the company had had with the Quebec tercentenary. I have included a scan of a couple of the cards. 
Many thanks! Who knew?  (Well, Andrew Thomson, obviously.)

Vuelta a Espana "mejor que El Tour"


Ryder Hesjedal wins stage 14 at the Vuelta a Espana, powering past Oliver Zaugg in the last 200 metres on a climb that approached 20% grades toward the end.  Watch terrific video of the last 5 km from Steephill.tv here.

He's out of contention for the general classification, but coming out to play every day, in a pretty exciting Vuelta.

Cartier Week, #6

George-Etienne Cartier was born 6 September 1814 at St-Antoine-sur-Richelieu, in the Richelieu valley southeast of Montreal, where his family were grain merchants.

It seems an amazing stretch for all these mid-19th century British North Americans, not only born in mostly entirely rural milieu, but living in an entirely wind-, water-, horse-power world. Cartier is born among farmers, many of them semi-literate and practising a very traditional kind of agriculture, in a society where even a trip to Montreal would have been a substantial journey. Cartier turned fifty during the Charlottetown meetings of 1864, and by that time steamships, railroads, telegraphs, and industry were routine parts of his life and the foundation of his career in both business and politics. Strikes me that the only generation that lived through such a whole transition in human existence was the one born about a century after him, which witnessed the changes of the mid-20th century.

Even in his 1860s persona, Cartier looks back to his roots: representing rural constituents, presenting himself as the protector of traditional society and moeurs, But even in his 1814 situation, he looks forward too.  His grandfather was engaged in international commerce, even in his small local way, and had already held a seat in the new parliamentary assembly of Lower Canada.  Even in 1814 business and politics were not as absent from his world as they might seem.