Monday, January 23, 2017

This Month at Canada's History


The Feb-March Canada's History is now reaching us subscribers. Saskatchewan lawyer and writer Garrett Wilson looks at Sitting Bull's "visit" to Canada in 1876-77.  There's a profile of Pauline Vanier based on her letters.  There's new artwork on Frog Lake, Alberta and the troubles there in 1885. There's a nice bit about touring Red Bay, Labrador, plus book reviews, comments and sidebars galore.

My own column is about Colonel J.B. Maclean and the long history of his Maclean's magazine, now reaching another in a long series of crisis point with publisher's decision to suspend most print publication and emphasize digital distribution. Canada's History also does digi -- but still offers hardcopy too.

There's also a brief tribute to Rolph Huband, 1929-2016. Rolph Huband was legal counsel to the Hudson's Bay company and eventually a vice-president and corporate secretary, first in Winnipeg, later in Toronto. He was also a visionary. He conceived of having the HBC's vast archives donated to the Archives of the Province of Manitoba, where they have ever since been a keystone of the collection and the basis of a great deal of historic study of "Rupertsland."  At the same time, he oversaw the donation of the Bay's also extensive artifact collection, including the entire replica ship Nonsuch, to the Manitoba Museum, creating another invaluable historical/museological resource.

Rolph Huband OC
The Bay got a handsome tax credit for these donations. With them, Huband oversaw creation of the Hudson's Bay History Foundation. And, since it had become odd for a retail department story company to be publisher of a historical magazine, Rolph Huband spearheaded the creation (and endowing) of Canada's National History Society which became publisher of The Beaver.

For these achievements and many other he was appointed to the Order of Canada in 2003.   He died last fall and the Globe published this obituary.

Blog changes coming

A housekeeping note.  The design and layout of my website have been pretty much unchanged since about 2001, to the despair of my web designer, and this blog layout has been static since about 2004.

We are at last working up changes that should acknowledge advances in technology and design. Since the plan is to link website and blogsite more completely, there will be at least a change in look to this blog, and maybe an address change too.  Fear not, loyal readers; we'll keep you forewarned

Meanwhile, a words for the time:
As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.
                     -- H.L. Mencken, 1920
(Something so appropriate must be apocryphal? Quote Investigator and Snopes have a 1920 newspaper column source for it.)

Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Diefentrumper


Denis Smith has been writing about Canadian politics for pushing sixty years, since 1959, indeed. Rock's Mill Press has just brought out an anthology A Dissenting Voice, with selections from that impressive run.

The essay that really hit me between the eyes this weekend is Smith's introduction to a re-edition published in 1973 of Peter C. Newman's 1963 classic of political journalist, Renegade in Power: The Diefenbaker Years . Read this and listen for the echoes:
Newman's thesis about Diefenbaker is, briefly, that ... he was a disappointing "renegade in power - a renegade both to his own cause and to the greater aspirations of the nation he was meant to be governing"; that he might have succeeded if he had taken the advice of the civil service instead of the "political hacks who sought his favours"; that he had "not the least inkling of what he wanted to do when he achieved that high office, and was rendered impotent by the magnitude of the claims its places on its incumbent:" that he cultivated his mystery and isolation and was "preoccupied with... personal stature"; that he always distrusted the establishment and never tried to understand...; that he was administratively inept...: that he could not accept responsibility himself, and constantly found it necessary to shift blame and humiliate his colleagues."
Smith did not accept every aspect of Newman's analysis  -- the "least inkling" part above being one -- and some of his own additions of Diefenbaker are relevant here:
Our task of understanding him is complicated by the existence of a carefully cultivated stage performer. Much of the time, John Diefenbaker was a dramatic performer of great skill... taking and giving great pleasure in the performance... Perhaps we can only know the performer.... The dramatic success may be the real triumph of John Diefenbaker's career.... Dief the public figure was not genuine but a work of art.
By the time he took the party leadership, he was a confirmed outsider, sensitive and lonely in his isolation from the ... establishment, but also conscious that he might use his outsider's status for political advantage.... His outsider's status was a dangerous asset, however, because the cultivated resentment, the jealousy, the distrust that it required could easily overreach themselves...  When his possession of office required magnanimity, he could not manage it.... There was no restraint in it.
Was John Diefenbaker just Donald Trump????

Americans are not outward looking enough to contemplate the possibility that they have resurrected John Diefenbaker to be their new president.  If they were outward-looking, they would never have created President Trump in the first place.

And so they will miss the little sign of hope that Denis Smith left for us in 1973:
John Diefenbaker's career was a spectacular failure.... The government was quite quaintly inept, unable in its confusions even to disguise its ineptitudes...  For the liberal opposition, which expected ten years in the wilderness..., the government's self-inflicted collapse was an unanticipated gift.

HOPE!


Update, January 24:  Denis Smith writes:
Thanks for "The Diefentrumper." I hadn't quite noticed the similarity myself.
and:
Your neat ending of 'Hope!' is more than I can share at the moment, though I hope you are right. Dief's acts in his little sideshow couldn't make much difference to the world. Trump's already do.
Denis Smith, I might note, wrote the major Diefenbaker biography Rogue Tory   And it's  worth stressing the major Dief/Trump differences.  Similar in their self-absorption, their insecurities, their lack of insightor strategic planning -- but Diefenbaker within his limits meant well, respected social norms, and genuinely did aspire to make his country better.  Trump.... nah.

As to hope, President Obama said you don't need to hope when things are going well. It's in the tough times that it comes in handy.

Friday, January 20, 2017

History of dawn in the Canadian winter



Something you notice, going to Edmonton, Regina, and Saskatoon in mid-January. There may be mild weather and snow melting everywhere. But you know you are in the real Canada when it's a month past the solstice, and at 8.30 dawn is just breaking through in the south-east. This ain't the Arctic Circle or anything, but living at latitude 44, you forget....

I was talking last night to a lively crowd at the University of Regina.  Today I'm at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon.  Looking forward to it.

Photo credit

Monday, January 16, 2017

Margaret Evans on the life of women academics


Margaret Evans
Beth Robertson has some reflections on women in academia at Active History

Which reminds me.  I recently needed a little detail about the Mowat administration in Ontario, so I googled Mowat and Professor Margaret Evans, his biographer.

Up came, pretty high on the list, an obituary notice for Margaret Evans, who died, unnoted by me at least, late in 2014... at the age of 100. On the subject of the careers of early women academics, whoever drafted the funeral home obit knew a thing or two.
Attending University during the Great Depression, and being told that her education was a waste because, being a woman, she would get married and then not use it....
...After little more than eight years of marriage, and left with three young children to raise, in addition to returning to work, she also returned to the University of Toronto full-time for a year to do research for her PhD, graduating in 1967. Her thesis has been cited as "the most important work on late nineteenth century political life in Ontario".
Margaret Evans later served as head of the history department at the University of Guelph, the first woman in such a position in Ontario, it says.

Image

Friday, January 13, 2017

History of immigration and identity



I came across "Once An Immigrant," a charming and kind of incoherent documentary about Canadian identity by the actor Peter Keleghan (also charming), on the Ceeb last night. (You can watch it here.) Keleghan's parents immigrated to Canada in the 1950s. His father turns out to be Stanislaus Krakus, an immigrant from Poland, a Canadian citizen for half a century or so, and convinced this is the best country in the world. Canada is far better than anywhere in Europe, he says, although he's not without some of the scars of spending much of his life as a disdained minority. He's thoughtful, but he's tough too.

In the film, Peter Keleghan takes most of his cues from his mother (at 93, she's even more charming!). She's the Keleghan of the family; son Peter took her name in place of his and his father's when he began an acting career. She (and most of her siblings) left Ireland  in the 1950s, but she still identifies as Irish, still holds an Irish passport, calls Ireland "home." She seems to have had a good life in Canada, but implies she would be gone in a shot if she could get her children to go "home" with her.

Keleghan mostly buys into this as normal and appropriate. In the film he travels with her to Ireland and dutifully pays homage to most of the Irish myths. Back home he organizes and films a backyard lunch with a big crew of actor friends, all immigrants or first generation (Raul Bhaneja, Elvira Kurt, Grace Kung, Ted Dykstra...) and urges them to acknowledge their "home" ties against their Canadian ones.

I was rather glad to see that several of them resisted  On the whole, I found myself irritated by his mother's position -- to the extent one can be irritated by a charming nonagenarian being happily reunited with family. Where does she get off playing the tourist here in the country where her family has done so well, pretending her real home was elsewhere?

I was even ambivalent about her stated reason for refusing Canadian identity and citizenship.  Being Irish and bathed in Irish national mythology, she won't swear allegiance to the Queen of England. She says she'd become a Canadian in a heartbeat if we would only take the Queen off the money.  Well, I can see some force in that critique of Canada's failure to assert its own nationality forcefully enough. But given the disgusting way the Irish have so often treated each other in the past century, I do find this holding a grudge against the English begins to seem a bit old.

I don't think my own immigrant family was ever this conflicted:  all Canadian citizens the moment we were eligible, never had a thought of living elsewhere or identifying as anything but Canadian, I would say. But then we had the privilege of identifying as being of British origin (chosing that more than Irish or Scottish, though we had those options), and probably faced a lot less of those outsider issues that someone Polish or Irish or Jewish or Chinese did. Hmmmm.

Funny documentary moment:  Keleghan, pondering the immigrant identity, muses on how, having inherited all those immigrant insecurities, he naturally grew up desperate for security and prosperity.  "So you became an actor?" his friends all shout at once.

(As I finish this, I find that "immigration," "identity" and "nationality" are all labels I have never previously used to tag entries in this blog.  Hmmm to that too.)


Thursday, January 12, 2017

History of the black president


Most interesting thing I have read on things Americanah since the election is Ta-Nehisi Coates's long essay for The Atlantic, "My President Was Black"

You can read the whole thing here on the magazine's site. I started with the online text, but after a while I realized it was going to be a long read. For that reason and others, I wanted an actual copy of the magazine in hand.

When's the last time you bought a magazine at a "newsstand"? It's not that easy any more to go out and buy a single copy of a magazine. Cost me over ten bucks too.  Still, glad I did.

Coates makes one powerful point with his long opening scene of crowds of hip-hop artists and other black musicians arriving at the White House one night for a concert. Black Americans will no doubt find themselves invited to the White House in future, but it may be a long time before they feel so much at home"
The ties between the Obama White House and the hip-hop community are genuine. The Obamas are social with BeyoncĂ© and Jay-Z. They hosted Chance the Rapper and Frank Ocean at a state dinner, and last year invited Swizz Beatz, Busta Rhymes, and Ludacris, among others, to discuss criminal-justice reform and other initiatives. Obama once stood in the Rose Garden passing large flash cards to the Hamilton creator and rapper Lin-Manuel Miranda, who then freestyled using each word on the cards. “Drop the beat,” Obama said, inaugurating the session. At 55, Obama is younger than pioneering hip-hop artists like Afrika Bambaataa, DJ Kool Herc, and Kurtis Blow. If Obama’s enormous symbolic power draws primarily from being the country’s first black president, it also draws from his membership in hip-hop’s foundational generation.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

History of leadership


Elections wonk Eric Grenier has a longish piece at CBC News sorting out how the Conservative Party and the New Democrats are organizing their leadership contests.  Shorter version (that he won't give you): the "rules" are notably different but always byzantine and ever-changing. Both parties are using the race to finance themselves. The "races" are still essentially vote-buying contests.

I recall, by way of contrast, the New Zealand process last month that picked a new party leader (for the governing party, hence a prime minister) in about three days, with perfect accountability, and a budget of zero.

Michael Chong, who used to work to make leaders accountable to MPs, is in the thick of the Torypalooza, and he is proposing all kinds of new rules to compel Parliament to do this and to do that.  Dale Smith is right to take him down on all of them. All these problems would be solved by MPs taking control of the party caucuses. All they need in order to do that is to hire and fire their own leaders, without regard to the extraparliamentary party's love of long, slow, expensive, incomprehensible, corrupt leadership "races."

Monday, January 09, 2017

Book Notes: The Bank of Montreal at 200



Canada and Vimy Ridge and the Maple Leafs are not the only institutions with anniversaries to mark in 2017.  The Bank of Montreal, founded 1817, is older than any of them, and while it wants to be "BMO" these days, it evidently does have an historical sense. Its bicentenary is being marked by a history by Laurence Mussio, business historian at York University, published by McGill-Queen's with the support of the bank.

History of the decline of the Globe & Mail


The complete text of Saturday's op-ed pages:
  • the centrepiece is Margaret Wente's complaint about how hard it is to use an iPhone and to have young people patronizing her.  
  • Above her, a worry piece about Justin Trudeau by some guy who was influential in the 1990s.
  • Below her, a sneer at Barack Obama by some guy who was important in the 1980s.  
  • Opposite, a full page editorial complaining that official commemoration of Canada's 150th anniversary is "pork."
What century are these people in? The fake-news onslaught confirms how important credible news will be, but that's gonna be hard to find in this nostalgia fest paper.

Update, January 10:  Jerry Bannister writes from Halifax:
Happy New Year. Just wanted to say that you hit the nail on the head with your piece about the Globe.

Friday, January 06, 2017

History of serious monarchists


Last month a National Post columnist opined about the "pathology" of Canadian republicanism.  You know, don't even talk about it, no daylight on magic, something like that.

The opening paragraph complains that we should not even have polls that ask Canadians their opinion on monarchy or if they like the idea of a Canadian head of state.
On Boxing Day, polling giant Ipsos released a year-end poll for Global News surveying Canadian opinion about the monarchy. If you’re a serious monarchist you are of two minds about this sort of thing. You recognize the necessity of occasionally taking the pulse of the institution, just as a human of great age will have their vital signs measured from time to time. You also know that to present the Canadian monarchy to the public as a free choice, a fashion we can discard when it suits us, has the effect of encouraging republican fantasies. (emphasis added)
 Actually the Post columnist has it precisely backward.  The Constitution Act 1982 makes it clear that Canadians have the perfect freedom and a clear constitutional process to follow, whenever they do conclude that the British monarchy is indeed "a fashion we can discard."

It's a high threshold. A fundamental change to the office of the monarch would require the unanimous agreement of the federal government and all the provinces.  But that would be a substantial change in Canadian government and practice, so it should not be taken lightly or on a narrow base of support.

Still the constitution of Canada is clear. We can abolish the monarchy whenever we choose.  The monarch cannot abolish us at all.  A more succinct definition of popular sovereignty can hardly be imagined.

(I do acknowledge it was disconcerting to read of the Queen's illnesses over Christmas and New Year. Even "serious monarchists" should know the monarch has no exemption from mortality, but a world in which the Queen of England does not reign remains hard to imagine.  Long may she reign... in Britain.

Thursday, January 05, 2017

The birthplace of confederation... in Fredericton?


The terrific and prolific New Brunswick journalist and author Jacques Poitras is intrigued by the campaign of the New Brunswick government to have us all come to New Brunswick this Canada150 year to "celebrate where it all began."

Confederation began in New Brunswick? Poitras looks into it a bit, and hey: it's Donald Creighton who authorised the claim.
The very first line of historian Donald Creighton's seminal 1964 book The Road to Confederation says: "It was the enthusiasm of Gordon of New Brunswick that gave the movement its real start."

That's a reference to Arthur Hamilton-Gordon, who became lieutenant governor of New Brunswick in 1861.

"I suspect someone in the New Brunswick government must have come upon that line in the book and said, 'Hey, there's a slogan for us,'" says historian Christopher Moore, author of 1867: How the Fathers Made A Deal.
 Poitras remains a bit sceptical:
Everyone knows that Charlottetown was the birthplace of Confederation. It said so on Prince Edward Island's licence plates and on signs leading into the city. Sir John A. Macdonald is even depicted on one of the city's craft beers.
New Brunswick might respond that it was a founding province, when Prince Edward Island wouldn't even join.

I kinda like how an anniversary can spark a bit of historical controversy on idle questions like these. And for the record I'd be happy to spend a bit of the summer in either province. But if New Brunswick doesn't blow its own horn, no one else is likely to do it for them.

And I do like the notion of someone in the New Brunswick promotional office sitting in the library reading The Road to Confederation. Or possibly they were even reading me in their classes at Mount A or wherever, since I noted Creighton's first line in my own book.
 
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