Tuesday, October 06, 2015

This month at Canada's History

Cover this month at Canada's History is Prince Rupert of the Rhine, "Canada's Warrior Prince." I confess he still kinda strikes me as some Eurotrash princeling whose appointment as titular head of the new Hudson's Bay Company was probably just a patronage thing. But Carolyn Harris makes the best of Prince Rupert's grim history, and maybe you are more into royals than I am. Read it and judge for yourself.

There's also Cec Jennings' piece on how (some) women had the vote in early Canada, were deprived of it, and got it back a century ago. Bill Moreau has a story I'd never heard before: the regular locust inundations that were part of Prairie history more or less forever until they suddenly... stopped.  And have never returned because...?

James Careless looks at hauntings.There's an interview (listen from here) with Jean Barman, whose John A. Macdonald Prize from the Canadian Historical Association for French Canadians, Furs, and Indigenous Women in the Making of the Pacific Northwest we somehow failed to include in our prize watch features. Plus Campobello Island, Nova Scotia lighthouses preserved, flour sack couture, and as they say: much more.

My column this month is about Truth and Reconciliation, inspired mostly by a reading of Edmund Metatawabin's residential schools memoir Up Ghost River. And hey, they have included an excerpt from my Three Weeks in Quebec City about how the confederation makers at Quebec carefully designed the Senate not to challenge the authority of the representative House of Commons.

And a letter noting that my Magna Carta piece from the previous issue failed to note Magna Carta's two visits to Hamilton, Ont, in 1984 and 1990. Quite right, and mea culpa --and the 1990 tour included Calgary as well.  Magna Carta, by the way, is just starting its Toronto run at Fort York Visitor Centre, before moving on to Edmonton. 

Monday, October 05, 2015

The Active History turn

After the turn to social history, the turn to critical theory, and various other observed or claimed "turns" in historical practice, is the turn to Active History upon us?

Mostly known as the name of a website and a couple of conferences, "Active History" also makes a useful label for serious historical work that goes beyond the classroom and the scholarly publication to engage with wider audiences, serve other communities, and explore other media. The term also nicely gets away from academic/non-academic, academic/public, scholarly/popular and other tired oppositions. And judging by the attendees at the Active History conference this past weekend at Huron College, London, Ont, the idea is working for a remarkably diverse group of historians.

It may be time. A half century of so of remarkable growth in numbers of professional, fulltime academic historians meant they could explore the wonders of being numerous enough (and securely enough established) to spend most of their careers, if they chose, talking with and writing for each other almost exclusively.  Now that's got old, and it seems a caucus within the academy is intrigued by the potential for working with wider communities or reaching additional audiences. Even more, the reality for vast numbers of students -- that there will be no secure academic jobs or that the campaign for them ceases to appeal -- is redefining how historically-trained young people see their career aspirations. And the success of public history programs in attracting excellent students and placing them in interesting jobs also continues to redefine the sense of what or who a historian can be.

May there always be a place for pure scholarship. And of course there have always been activist historians with wide interests and wide audiences, with political or cultural engagements. But I wonder if the young scholars who came up with the idea of Active History a few years ago will come to be seen as harbingers of a new ecology of historical practice.

Anyway, good conferences produce big thoughts, no?

Friday, October 02, 2015

Bring me the head of Christopher Moore

In the thoughtful and well-stocked exhibit "1867: Rebellion and Confederation" that the Canadian Museum of History opened last winter, the talking heads of Eric Bédard, Charlotte Gray, and me are featured on screens distributed through the hall, offering brief comments on the thirty year period 1837-67 that are featured. The Museum has started posting bit of these on its blog, starting with this, in which the still above suggests poor Charlotte is physically pained by the question "Who was the most important of the founding fathers?"

Thursday, October 01, 2015

History of Syrian Canadians

Son of the West
At Active History, Sarah Carter reflects on some old stock Canadians, the early Syrian settlers of Saskatchewan:
Arab settlers from Syria/Lebanon arrived in Western Canada starting well over one hundred years ago. They settled throughout the West but there was a significant cluster of Arabs in southern Saskatchewan on arid marginal land in the heart of Captain John Palliser’s infamous triangle that he identified as an extension of the Great American Desert. Most were from eastern Lebanon and they included Muslims and Christians.
Chickpea production in Saskatchewan, introduced by Syrians in the 1930s dustbowl, promises to make Regina the next hummus capital of the world, she says.

There are hummus capitals? As they used to say in the north end of Sydney, Cape Breton (another hotbed of old stock Middle Eastern Canadianism), "Are you serious?"  "No, I'm Lebanese."

Old jokes aside, terrific article. We could cope with some more Syrian-Canadians, no?

Image: from Active History.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

History gets active in the United States

Democratic Party presidential aspirant Bernie Sanders, responding to the Black Lives Matter campaign against police killings of black Americans, recently declared that the United States was founded "on racist principles."

To which the rest of the world would probably have said, "Duh!"  But the Princeton University historian Sean Wilentz, a strong supporter of Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton, responded with a New York Times op-ed declaring that it was not so and proclaiming that the idea of the United States founded on racial slavery is "a myth."
Yes, slavery was a powerful institution in 1787. Yes, most white Americans presumed African inferiority. And in 1787, proslavery delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia fought to inscribe the principle of property in humans in the Constitution. But on this matter the slaveholders were crushed.
Turns out that in the United States, the history blogosphere lives. There has been an outpouring of online responses from historians to Wilentz's argument.  The blog We're History, by a collective of Americanists, has been all over it, and at History News Network, Matthew Pinsker offers Wilentz's initial response to his critics and links to other Wilentz statements on slavery and the constitution -- as well as to Pinsker's own blog posts on how to teach the subject and the controversy.

Wilentz attributes opposition to his position mostly to
scholars and activists on the left who are rightly angry at America’s racist past.
and he may be right that the history bloggers who have seized on the issue are not a representative sample of the political affiliations of all American historians. And few of his critics have access to the op-ed pages of the New York Times, probably.  Still good to see the liveliness of the HistBlog down there and the engagement of historians in live issues.

Photo: from We're History

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Pere Charlevoix returns

On est ravi de voir que Charlevoix, blogue (bilingue) de la Nouvelle-France, vit encore. Et avec de bonnes nouvelles:
As of early September, Archives Canada-France has risen from its ashes, with a new interface and under a new name: Archives de la Nouvelle-France.

Monday, September 28, 2015


Went last Saturday to a daylong event on and about the Toronto Carrying Place, which drew on the fact that Samuel de Champlain and Etienne Brulé were in the vicinity (loosely defined) 400 years ago.

Almost two hundred people at 9:00 am on a sunny Saturday morning for a history event!  And all organized by keen young people at the local historical societies of Etobicoke, Swansea, and West Toronto Junction).  There was a morning panel session in which a lot of people (including Carolyn Podruchny, John Steckley, Annie Veulleux, Christian Bode, me) talked history. But they also organized a walking program along the Carrying Place that included an original music performance by Ars Musica, related dramatic monologues from Humber Shakespeare, and an enactment of the Haudenosaunee ritual one dish one spoon (suitably adapted).  Nice to see an awareness that a history event can be more than talking at you!

Same lesson from two First Nations speakers, Gary Sault of the Mississaugas of New Credit and Amy Desjarlais of the Anishnabe. They spoke, but they also drummed, chanted, and prayed.  Don't often see a non-indigenous historian trying that! Not easy, either.

Speaking of conferences, I'm looking forward to the Active History conference in London, Ont, next week, as promoted here.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Why Stephen Harper does it... and gets away with it.

Really a prime minister
A couple of weeks ago there was some note on this blog of Stephen Harper's frequent declaration -- though it ain't so and he must know it -- that Canadians do not elect a bunch of parties, they elect a leader and a government.

So here's a silly piece in the Toronto Star, no friend to Mr Harper, about past and present politicians with beards. And in it Sandro Contenta cheerfully declares:
The last Canadian prime minister to sport a beard was Mackenzie Bowell. But voters didn’t elect him.
and that:
The last elected prime minister with a beard was Alexander Mackenzie, who took over in 1873, after John A. Macdonald resigned.
Maybe the subliminal suggestion is that the election of bearded Thomas Mulcair would also be illegitimate. But both the quoted statements betray the confusion about Canadian elections that Stephen Harper works to encourage.

Mackenzie Bowell was no less prime minister than any other, because no prime minister is elected. He led the government that had the support of a majority of members of the House of Commons at the time, and that is the credential all prime ministers hold. If Sandro Contesta wants to say Bowell was not a real prime minister, he should note that Mackenzie came to power without an election too; he too had the support of a house majority before ever taking his party to the polls.

Pierre-Elliot Trudeau, Paul Martin, Kim Campbell, Paul Martin, John Turner... just a few prime ministers who, like Mackenzie and Bowell, took office without first winning an election.

We were saying a couple of weeks ago that Stephen Harper knows better.  But when so many journalists and commentators are determined to believe the same fallacy -- that prime ministers are elected -- you can see why he continues to work with it.

Friday, September 25, 2015

That Review of Canadian History Books WANTS YOU

I've been doing a little planning and organizing about how to marshall the talents of the readership here to run more notices about recent and noteworthy books in Canadian-interest history.  And that continues. More news to come, I hope.

But in the meantime, the fall book season is upon us, and something needs to be done.  So:  a pitch to readers of this blog who might consider doing book note reviews here. If interested, take a look below the jump.  If not, move along!

Cundill Prize shortlist

I've become a bit of a fan of the Cundill Prize, which gives $75,000, no less, to pretty much the best history book in the (English-speaking) world.  It aspires to be, if not the history Nobel, at least the history Booker, you might say.  I've been tempted into reading one or two winners from previous years, and they've been impressive: history of Christianity, history of China, suitably enormous topics.

If you have a yen to get into an enormous and erudite tome on some historical world you never contemplated before, the shortlist may be just what you need.  And 2015's is announced:
  • Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History (Alfred A. Knopf)
  • Susan Pedersen, The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire (Oxford University Press)
  • Claudio Saunt, West of the Revolution: An Uncommon History of 1776 (W.W. Norton & Company)
  • Stuart B. Schwartz, Sea of Storms: A History of Hurricanes in the Greater Caribbean from Columbus to Katrina (Princeton University Press)
  • Bettina Stangneth, Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer (Bodley Head)
  • Nikolaus Wachsmann, KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps (Little, Brown/Hachette)
This year I've actually read one of them! Beckert's Empire of Cotton was one of my "books of 2014," in fact.  The other nominees will have to be pretty strong to keep up with that one.

Jury this year is historian Chad Gaffield, gadfly David Frum, publisher/writer Anna Porter, plus Harvard historian Maya Jasanoff and Brit diplomat Anthony Cary

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Borealia, blog on early Canada

The restaurant: they do a thing with mussels in a steamy globe that is historic

Daniel Francis draws my attention to Borealia, a new group blog dedicated to the proposition that Canadian history pre-confederation really is worthy of (more) attention.  Word!

Google Borealia, and despite the difference in spelling, so far the blog is getting killed in the rankings by Boralia, the very hip, very wonderful, and rather expensive small restaurant on Ossington Street in Toronto dedicated to eating Canada. They do a tasting menu that offers high-chef allusions to pemmican, maple syrup, Red Fife wheat, Winnipeg goldeye, Malpeque oysters, cedar-planked salmon, and generally whatever seems indigenous and terrific in Canadian diets of the past.  (I was going to factcheck some Louisbourg reference in the menu, but the staff was busy and now I've forgotten anyway.)  They ought to cater every CanHist event ever held.

Meanwhile, link and push Borealia the blog up the rankings a bit!

Follow @CmedMoore