Thursday, February 22, 2018

Bliss on Banting at the DCB

I see that this week's featured biography at the Dictionary of Canadian Biography online is of Frederick Banting, who died 21 February in 1941. It is by Michael Bliss  -- who continues his long record as a productive, publishing historian despite being dead for most of a year.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Book Notes: Johnson's Battle Royal

"King of Canada. Mummy, must I?"

David Johnson, the author of Battle Royal, a new study of monarchical versus republican ideas in Canada, describes himself as a "pragmatic monarchist," but he writes as a sentimental one too. His book is full of lush descriptions of the pageantry of royal weddings, coronations, and tours. At one point he uses the odious Edward VIII as an example of the "modern, philanthropic monarchy" (he does later acknowledge the Nazi associations). He lavishes chapters on the intricacies of "crown privilege," because the subject can be made to inflate the power and importance of the royalty -- though really crown privilege is just executive privilege, and the issues are essentially the same in republics and monarchies. He argues monarchy is better because the Queen is a bigger celebrity than any governor general -- though on that metric Canadians ought to prefer foreign Olympians over our own, too. He consistently takes monarchical positions seriously while often finding republicans "quick to pounce" with quibbles and objections.

Though his thumb seems to be on the scale at times, Johnson does strive for balance, faithfully following a monarchist interpretation with (a slightly less fervent) analysis of republican ones. The most valuable chapter of the book may be the ninth, "Quests and Quagmires: Republicanism meets Constitutionalism." His argument here is that a Canadian republic is "impossible." The Canadian constitution sets a high threshold for changes to the monarchy: unanimous consent of the Canadian government and all of the provinces. Professor Johnson dismisses suggestions for getting around this requirement, and concludes that since unanimous consent has never been secured for any constitutional amendment since the establishment of the amending formula in 1982, the monarchy is immune to change. George must follow William who will follow Charles who will follow Elizabeth, and so on forever, he concludes. Case closed.

I think Johnson is right about the unanimity rule. It is a high threshold, and it ought to be. Establishing a Canadian republic with a Canadian head of state is an important change, It needs to be treated with appropriate seriousness and the proper constitutional procedures.

But Johnson is wrong, I think, to argue that difficult means impossible. Ending the monarchy in Canada by formal constitutional change is one of those things that will only be impossible until it becomes inevitable. Johnson acknowledges that polling in Canada generally runs republican, and has for quite a while. As that sense becomes consensus, there may simultaneously be an erosion of the belief that popular, specific changes to the constitution can always legitimately be held hostage by premiers with local concerns about fish or employment services.

Johnson's chapter shows how little attention Canadian thinkers and scholars have yet paid to the details and issues of the republican transition. Searching for republican "positions" on constitutional matters, Johnson is reduced to quoting the press releases of Citizens for a Canadian Republic. Now I admire the efforts of CCR and have at times been consulted by them. But CCR is essentially a handful of well-meaning citizens, hardly equipped to be presented as the authoritative research institute on the constitutional aspects of republicanism. 

What Johnson presents most clearly in Battle Royal is how much work remains to be done on the ways and means of creating a situation in which the Canadian state has a Canadian head of state and no longer needs to borrow a foreign one. The republican option requires research papers, conferences, publications, and discussions, to flesh out the widespread Canadian doubt about a foreign and monarchical head of state with realistic, pragmatic, practical paths to change. Canadian monarchists have clearly been better organized, better funded, and more calculating in these matters.

If that work were being done, then we might have something resembling a battle royal. The evidence from Johnson's study is that it has hardly started yet.

From the Literary Review of Canada, some previous thought in this area.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Active History on history of jury selection

My theory is that blogs mostly evolve their mandate; it's hard to assign them one.

If I understand the origins of the website Active History, it hoped to link historians to public policy questions and provide useful historical perspectives on current events when needed.

I'd say the mandate it has evolved is a bit different than that. Not that that is a bad thing. But sometimes AH really hits the original target.  Blake Brown's essay on the history of jury selection in Canada was powerfully enlightening to me in the wake of the Gerald Stanley/Colton Boushie trial last week, and ought to be useful to future policymakers too.

I found myself troubled by another legal, or legalistic, aspect of that trial. If we are going to get, someday, to a real nation-to-nation relationship between Canada and First Nations, then there is going to be a First Nations judicial system in some form yet to be imagined, let along implemented. And then, when a Canadian man shoots a Cree man, how will the jurisdiction be determined?

Friday, February 16, 2018

History of head of state elections in South Africa

President Ramaphosa
I was delighted to observe the richly deserved removal from office of South African President Jacob Zuma, but a little puzzled by how the presidency seemed to be completely in the gift of the African National Congress party, as if he were merely a party executive and not the President of the nation and people of South Africa.

South Africa has a particular variant of parliamentary democracy, in which the national legislature elects a president from among its own members.  The president thereupon must resign from the legislature and becomes an executive president, with both real and ceremonial powers. It's the election of president directly by the legislature that gives the majority party the freedom to name and remove presidents without much regard to opposition parties or the will of the population.  The apartheid struggle, and the ANC's large majorities since, have conditioned it to blur party, state, and nation, in this and other matters.

I take note mostly because when Canada transitions to a republic, a key choice to be made will be how to select a governor general, and what powers that office will hold. There are lots of cautionary examples around the world. 

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

History of El Historiador

My Spanish is limited. I had never realized that the Spanish word for historian is historiador, historiadora.  I liked the term immediately for its echoes of toreador and luchador. That historical work is and should be a struggle -- and with faintly heroic overtones -- seems true to my life.

In Havana Vieja, the Office of the Historiador is everywhere. For about forty years, the City Historian, Eusebio Leal Spengler, has also been the principal entrepreneur in preserving, restoring, and putting to productive use the built environment of the district.

The City Historian's holding company owns many of the buildings in the old city. It generates revenue from rents and tourism businesses, and recycles it into more of the preservation activities that are evident throughout the area.  Last week that all seemed a heroic achievement to me. The staff of the Historiador even sweeps the streets -- as the logo at right shows -- and hey, getting rid of the trash is also a good historical activity.

Update, Feb 16:  Russ Chamberlayne draws our attention to Bennett Freeman's article "History of the Present: Havana," in the journal Places, which explores (amid much more) President Batista's plan, just before the revolution ended all his plans for Cuba, to rase Havana Vieja to build a new financial district.  It's worth noting, perhaps more than Freeman does, that Havana's decayed urban fabric is not a consequence of Castro's rule alone, but was already well advanced in the Batista years, as any reader of Our Man in Havana will recall.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Blog hiatus

Blogging has been a little intermittent in January, for rather boring reasons.  It's about to get slower.  The blogger is going south for a couple of weeks and expects not to blog at all or very little.

Back in mid-February.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

History of political leadership again

Patrick Brown had an undistinguished tenure as federal MP, but his success in raising funds and selling memberships allowed him to become Ontario leader of the Conservative Party in one of those vote-buying orgies called leadership conventions. Now that he has been brought down by allegations of sexual harassment, the buzz seems to be that nobody actually liked him much anyway and the party might do better with someone else leading it in the June 2018 election.

But the extra-parliamentary party executive has decided to go ahead with another leadership convention, against the will of the caucus of MPPs -- you know, the elected and accountable representatives of the people. Who will buy the most votes this time? 

A rare glimmer of wisdom has come from one backroom Conservative, Thom Bennett of Ottawa:  
“I am at a total loss as to what the thinking could be that our executive would tell our elected MPPs — those soldiers who are putting their name in front of the electorate time after time — to screw off, we run this party,” Bennett wrote.
“The executive knows why they overruled our elected representatives — and it has nothing to do with letting the members have a say in the new party leadership."
In Britain, meanwhile, where pressure grows on Prime Minister Theresa May, senior MPs are said to have told her she has three months to improve her performance or be removed. There the procedure is clear and simple:
A formal vote of no confidence in May would be held if Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the backbench 1922 committee, receives letters from 48 MPs demanding a contest. He alone knows how many letters have been submitted, but Tories said this week that more had been dispatched in the wake of this month’s chaotic reshuffle, which left many MPs confused and frustrated.
Leader accountable to the caucus, caucus accountable to the voters. And caucus members actually know the candidates (in or out of caucus) and have some expert judgment on who might make a good leader. With their seats and careers on the line all the time, they have some incentive to do a good job. (Few of them supported Patrick Brown in his leadership run in 2015.)

Update, January 29:  Paul Wells dismisses armchair theorists
Armchair political theorists sometimes lament the fact that Canadian political parties lack a formal mechanism for replacing their leaders through a simple vote of their parliamentary caucus. Caucuses used to pick and depose leaders just like that, on short notice and with no appeal to the broader party membership.,,,
On Wednesday night, observers were quick to note there is no such mechanism, either formal or traditional, in the Ontario PC constitution for deposing a leader who doesn’t want to go. I believe we’ll soon be reminded no formal mechanism is needed. Politics is the art of the possible: leading a caucus that will not have you is not possible.
It's not clear who Wells is referring to, as almost no Canadian experts or commentators have ever supported caucus control of leadership selection and removal. (Peter Aucoin did halfheartedly; Andrew Coyne used to  Update: Dale Smith does!). Outside this blog, support for keeping leaders independent of caucus has always been virtually unanimous.

Wells has put out of his mind such minor figures as Jean Chr├ętien, staying on as prime minister when his caucus was united behind Paul Martin, and Brian Mulroney, unable to accept his time was over until it was much too late for his party to rebuild and forcing all his MPs to lose their own seats for his convenience.

But the political orthodoxy is with Wells, and with the Ontario Tory apparatchik who said:
"This is a democracy, and we must all have a say in who we vote as our leader."
But it is not democracy when the electorate is self-selected and purchases its votes. And it is not accountability when the electorate that chooses the leader dissolves as soon as the vote is taken.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

History of histories we'll never read

Chris Raible recently shared a link to this Guardian story arguing that historians need to step up and explain things to the rest of the world:
Social scientists find themselves publicly confronting the social dynamics and technological disruptions that have led to our changing politics and society.
But historians are almost entirely absent from this conversation [...] This irrelevance is largely self-inflicted. Too many historians still think that engaging with the public means they’re compromising the integrity of the discipline.
I guess, yeah, maybe.

I was struck recently by the wide press coverage of Sharon Bala's first novel The Boat People, a drawn-from-the-headlines imagining of the experience of those who occasionally arrive off Canadian shores in some rusty ship crowded with escaped migrants of some disfavoured refugee community.  What really struck me was how much reviewers and interviewees wanted the novel to be reportage, to be history, want it to explain what was going on.  In this Sunday Edition radio interview, Bala had to insist, no, she had written a novel; it would have been too hard to write nonfiction on this subject.

But wouldn't it be good if some historian of immigration would do that hard work, and write a researched and contextualized account built around the Sun Sea passengers and their encounter with Canada?  It started me imagining all the other books we don't have, books between history and journalism, between research and narrative, on subjects of historical importance and public interest.

In the current Canada's History, I regret in passing the thinness of the historical literature on thirty years of free trade and NAFTA. And it has often occurred to me that there is still no substantial readable historical analysis of the October Crisis of 1970. And I cannot think of one big accessible history of Alberta's oil and what has done to and for Canada since the Leduc find of 1947.  Even the big social/cultural history topics -- history of medicare, history of feminism, history of treaties and indigenous dispossession -- where there actually is quite a bit of good solid scholarship available, have not been spinning off trade market books capable of starting the kind of buzz that Bala's novel seemed to ignite recently.

I'm not blaming anyone; I haven't written these books either! The conventions of academic career building and the economic realities of trade market publishing in Canada both work against anyone being encouraged to write them.  But there is room, you know, there is room. 

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Book Notes: Johnson on the Canadian Republic

David Johnson is a professor of political science at Cape Breton University and not the former governor general of Canada (who has a "t" in his surname).  So Johnson-no-t's book Battle Royal: Monarchists v Republicans and the Crown of Canada just out from Dundurn Press, is not quite as controversial at it might have been.

According to the jacket blurbs, Canada has "a strong republican movement" and "an equally vibrant monarchist movement," and Johnson promises a dispassionate analysis that he intends to be helpful to all.

Pub date is Feb 13, but ther's a launch in Sydney today that includes a monarchist vs republican debate and local CBC liver coverage.  Thought control centre of the universe, indeed!

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

This month at Canada's History

Gettin' topical in the February-March Canada's History. The possible death of NAFTA provoked my column "Passing the Bucks."  Based on a reading of Smart Globalization and a conversation with one of its editor-contributors, Dimitry Anastakis (Andrew Smith being the other), the column considers whether the era of "hyperglobalization" we have seen in recent decades may be collapsing under its own weight.

A spectacular cover (I'd show it, but it ain't up at the website yet), "Vinland Vikings: the Mysterious Norse Settlement Found," leads to a sober and persuasive essay about Norse visits to the Gulf of St. Lawrence region, contributed by Birgitta Wallace, the fruit of a lifetime's scholarship on the subject. Plus Second World War letters, praise for Saskatoon, polio in the Arctic.

And much more, including (why have a blog if you cannot plug your friends once in a while?) an enthusiastic review of Anne McDonald's Miss Confederation, and a curious back page photograph submitted by Hamar Foster.

There's a strong excerpt from a book I had been meaning to take note of here, Cecilia Morgan's Travellers Through Empire, which follows indigenous Canadians who visited Britain between 1770 and 1914

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