Monday, September 26, 2016

Book Notes: Some new Canadian history


Peter McLeod of the Canadian War Museum launches Backs to the Wall, published by Douglas and McIntyre.  A sequel to his Armageddon (about the Plains of Abraham campaign), Backs to the Wall examines the Battle of Sainte-Foy of 1760, when the remaining French forces in New France sought to retake Quebec City.

Lori Chambers launches A Legal History of Adoption in Ontario, 1921-2015, from the Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History and University of Toronto Press.  Adoption must be almost as old as childbirth, but adoption legislation in a major Canadian province has been around less than a century.  Chambers's laws-and-courts-centred account of adoption in law enters a dialogue with a small library of adoption history studies by Veronica Strong-Boag, Karen Dubinsky, Karen Balcom, and others scholars.

Friends of  the late Burnley "Rocky" Jones, the Afro-Nova Scotia activist, Black Panther, lawyer, are launching Revolutionary: An Autobiography, published by Fernwood Books.
"Born and raised in Truro, Nova Scotia, Burnley “Rocky” Jones is one of Canada’s most important figures of social justice. Often referred to as Canada’s Stokely Carmichael, Jones was tirelessly dedicated to student movements, peace activism, Black Power, anti-racism, women’s liberation and human rights reform. He was a leader in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, brought the Black Panthers to Canada, taught at Dalhousie and founded his own law firm.
"This autobiography tells the story of Jones’s inimitable life and his accomplishments.
But it also does more. It illuminates the Black experience in Nova Scotia, it explains the evolving nature of race relations and human rights in recent Canadian history, and it reveals the origins of the “remedial” approach to racial equality that is now practised by activists and governments.

Friday, September 23, 2016

History of the Senate: Kirby and Segal


There is a new and potentially important report by former Senators Michael Kirby and Hugh Segal on how to make the changing Senate work under the conditions of greater senatorial independence that seem to be taking shape. "A House Undivided" can be read in its entirety here, and the authors provide a summary in this Globe & Mail op-ed.

I must first say the report does not reflect at all well on the use by Canadian leaders of political history to advise the political present. The authors starat by telling us that the Quebec Conference (October 1864) preceded the "more famous" Charlottetown conference of September 1864.  (The author of Three Weeks in Quebec City quietly sighs.) Segal and Kirby also sustain the widely held notion that John A. Macdonald created confederation single-handedly, as almost all of their historical quotations on the intentions of the founders are his.

So, history more as support than illumination.  But in fact, Segal and Kirby still manage to display a very clear and sensible understanding of the Senate's purposes, limits, and possibilities as established in 1864-7.

In their report, this prominent Conservative and prominent Liberal wholeheartedly endorse the prospect of a non-partisan Senate. Their project is to begin setting out procedures by which a Senate without formal party structures would operate. No doubt there can be debate about their specific proposals, but these seem very promising. They argue that without constitutional amendment the Senate could organize itself to run its formal procedures by establishing regional (rather than party) caucuses, whose members would choose their own "Convenor" or manager, with Senators remaining free to also caucus in issue-related or even partisan assemblages as well, if they chose.    

That kind of Senate, they argue, could learn how to operate legitimately as a chamber of "sober second thought" (Macdonald) or "court of revision" (Alexander Mackenzie) substantially free of inappropriate influence from the Prime Minister's Office or the political parties.

Kirby and Segal sketch out scenarios by which a formally weak but respected independent Senate could work alongside the House of Commons in pursuit of better legislation and better public policy. They propose that the Senate would actually enhance its utility if it unilaterally abandoned its power of absolute veto in favour of a six-month's veto (as it currently has on constitutional changes).  They also suggest the net-worth and age requirements for Senators should be abolished -- while retaining the regional-based property requirement.  

Luther: In the beginning was the word



So you were thinking 2017 would be noted for the 150th anniversary of Confederation, or the centenary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, or, say, women voting in a Canadian federal election.

There are competitors.  In Wittenburg, it's all about Martin Luther nailing his Ninety-Five Theses to the church door in 1517, and somewhat inadvertently launching the Protestant Reformation:
Thesis 86: "Why does the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build the basilica of St. Peter with the money of poor believers rather than with his own money?"
The nailing to the door part may be a legend, sez Wikipedia, but next year Wittenburg (pop c.6000) is going to be all over it.  Wittenburg, Nova Scotia, maybe not so much.



Thursday, September 22, 2016

This month at Canada's History


It's kind of Indigenous month at Canada's History for October-November, now reaching subscribers. The cover story, explores pre-contact technologies such as the bow and arrow, and their frequent superiority over introduced tech such as the flintlock muzzle-loading musket.

There's a special feature on work by young Indigenous writers and artists, growing out of Historica's Aboriginal Arts and Stories project.

My own column profiles John Steckley, southern Ontario white-guy anthropologist, who learned first the Ojibwa language and then Wendat too, mostly from 17th century texts, just 'cause he felt it was part of the job. (Update, September 26: Today at Active History, Steckley offers some thoughts on concepts present and absent in the Wendat language.)

Timely:  an excerpt from the new book Finding Franklin by Russell Potter.

Also, a lively feature by Nelle Oosterom, who interviewed three Wilfrid Laurier scholars on their nicely varied perspectives on the former prime minister.
Réal Bélanger:  "While he said he was sympathetic to Aboriginal claims, deep down he shared the view of many others regarding the need to civilize Canada's Aboriginal peoples, whom he called "savages," as did everyone in those days.
André Pratte:  To me his "sunny ways" was his greatest legacy... I just hope that the fact that it's used today by one politician of one political party does not taint it by a partisan perspective because to me ... the sunny way is the only way to maintain Canada as a united project of a diverse group of people.
Roy McSkimming:  When he was in Arthabaska practising law, there was a ritual, usually in the afternoon, when he would rise from his desk and say to his law partner, Joseph Lavergne, "Joseph, if you will permit me, I will go and visit your wife."
And, as they say, much more.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Review: Moore on Macfarlane, Constitutional Amendment.


A review of Emmett Macfarlane, ed., Constitutional Amendment in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016.

One of the essays in this collection starts with the observation that in Canada, “constitutional amendment is not only difficult; it is also exceedingly complicated.” One might almost say the same about this book. No easy reading, but interesting reading on a subject no one had really taken up in this detail, it seems.

Hasn’t the rule on constitutional amendment been straightforward since 1982? Isn’t it just seven-and-fifty, meaning the federal parliament needs the assent of seven provinces representing fifty percent of the provinces? (For a few special cases, unanimity rules: the federal parliament and 100% of the provinces.)

Sure, it’s politically difficult, given the trading-fish-for-rights proclivities of first leaders. You can’t propose anything without dealing on everything. But complicated?

Well, yes, it turns out. Seven-and-fifty ain’t the half of it, according to the lawyers and scholars in this volume.

There is the question of what’s constitutional. The Harper government thought a change in Senate term lengths and appointment procedures could be routine parliamentary business. No, said the Supreme Court, it’s constitutional: 7-and-50, please. (And for abolition, unanimity.)  And on what the Harper government took to be the routine appointment of a new Supreme Court judge, the Supreme Court decided that even a small initiative on how the Supreme Court Act was interpreted became a constitutional matter. The Court has virtually constitutionalized the Supreme Court Act, hitherto simply an act of parliament.

That is, the government may think some things are not constitutional changes, but the Supreme Court may be inclined to say they are. And if it does, well, they are. Will there be implications for Prime Minister Trudeau’s plan to ignore the unwritten rule that one Supreme Court judge must come from Atlantic Canada?  Dennis Baker and Mark Jarvis regret that the scope for “informal constitutional action,” around and about the edges of what is constitutional, may now be close to zero -- and they explore some workarounds they still like. 

Then there is aboriginal affairs. There’s nothing on the subject in Part V of the constitution, the amendment rules. Other parts of the constitution do affirm aboriginal and treaty rights – but could a 7/50 federal-provincial agreement authorize a constitutional amendment undermining those? Well, there is another section asserting that there will be no amendment affecting aboriginal status without a conference in which First Nations would participate. But that’s not in the amendment rules, and doesn’t impose unanimity either. So what prevails?

Then there is Quebec. It, like all the other provinces, had no veto over constitutional amendment in 1982. But in 1986 1996 the federal government agreed not to support any constitutional amendment affecting the provinces unless all five major regions supported it, in effect giving Quebec, British Columbia, Alberta, and Ontario veto power, despite the formal rules in Part V. Somehow the 7/50 rule was being amended, but unilaterally, instead of by Part V’s stipulation of unanimous consent. Was that legal?

These are not all the constitutional complications Macfarlane and friends explore. But ‘nuff said, I think. Constitutional amendment is complicated as well as difficult.  And you need to be a constitutional scholar of meticulous dedication to follow all the ways it is.

One of the things making constitutional change politically difficult is the horse-trading, “fish for rights” tradition, in which a province will refuse consent to a change just so it can hold out for some unrelated perk or pork. But if the others refused to be blackmailed on a single-issue proposal where there is popular consensus, that could be faced down -- if we give up the expectation of mega-constitutional change as in the 1980s and 1990s.

Some constitutional amendments still seem to me uncomplicated (and maybe not even so difficult, once we are ready). Abolishing the monarchy and establishing a Canadian head of state is set down as one of the biggees, requiring not 7/50 but the unanimous consent of Ottawa and all the provinces. Nothing, again, about the First Nations, although they often posit their unique relationship with the crown against the settler governments that are in their faces all the time.

Well, I’m good with unanimous consent on that matter of a Canadian head of state, and would happily include aboriginal consent too. It’s a big important change. It ought to be done seriously. Anyway, the fact that we can abolish the monarch whenever we are ready, while the monarch cannot abolish us at all, nicely sets out the republican realities in which we live. Once we are ready and once we tell the governments we are ready, voila, it should be neither difficult nor complicated.

Prize Watch: Cundill noms


The Cundill Prize, the big money Montreal-based international prize for historical writing, announced its 2016 (not very) long list. Six titles:
Mary Beard, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (Liveright Publishing Corporation)
Robert J. Gordon, The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living since the Civil War (Princeton University Press)
Thomas W. Laqueur, The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remain (Princeton University Press)
Philippe Sands, East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
David Wootton, The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution (Stuart Proffitt)
Andrea Wulf, The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World (Alfred A. Knopf, John Murray Publishers)
Six titles.  Two women authors.  Probably more Eurocentric than some recent lists.  History of science, cultural history, economic history, classics, a little politics....

One of the things I admire about the Cundill lists is frequently I have never heard of most of the nominees. This year I've actually read most of one of them (SPQR kinda disappointed me by the end) and am roughly familiar with a couple of others from reviews and discussions. Still, there looks to be a lot of new stuff here, if you like big challenging histories.

The jury meanwhile seems to be getting more "democratic:" i.e, fewer historians. I'm probably okay with that in principle, at least:
  • Timothy James Brook, Republic of China Chair, University of British Columbia;
  • John Darwin, Professor of Global and Imperial History; Director, Oxford Centre for Global History , University of Oxford;
  • David Frum, Senior Editor, The Atlantic;
  • Anna Porter, Co-founder, Key Porter Books

Monday, September 19, 2016

Syria in Toronto



Syrian war-and-peace and the attendant humanitarian disaster are in the headlines. 25.000 31,000 Syrians are finding new homes in Canada. In response, the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto announces "Syria," opening in October.  It looks like a spectacular display, not avoiding current crises but drawing on the rich historical, artistic, and cultural resources of that ancient country.  Exhibit, speakers, concerts, films, events -- it's a lavish and ambitious package.

That's exactly the kind of substantial, provocative, engaged programming we should expect our major museums to be launching regularly.  Kudos to the Aga Khan for stepping up.

Meanwhile the Royal Ontario Museum has?  A highly promoted promo for the glassblower Dale Chihuly.  And recently, an exhibit on tattoos borrowed from a European museum.  Sheesh.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

New History podcast: It's About Time


Ancestry.ca, the online genealogy company, announces the launch of a new history/genealogy podcast: It's About Time.

The content seems to be produced by the global Ancestry operation, not the Canadian one.  But if you consume podcasts the way some people I know do, you might take an interest - and let me know.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Book Notes: Watt on Fraser floods, Sweeny on Montreal


In the Fall 2016 Maisonneuve, just reaching subscribers, there is a terrifying, can't-put-down article by journalist Heather Ramsay on what's going to happen in the Fraser Delta of B.C. the next time the Fraser has a really serious flood. [Will add link to the article when the mag's website has it]

The article draws creatively on a work of history I'd not heard of: High Water: Living With the Fraser Floods, by historian K. Jane Watt, published in 2006. It is a study of the history of Fraser River floods from prehistoric experiences of the Sto:lo Nation through the major flood of 1894 to significant oral histories of the 1948 flood.

There was not exactly a major publisher behind High Water. It was published by the Dairy Council Historical Society of British Columbia.  But that year it won the Lieutenant Governor's prize for the best BC historical writing of 2006.  And judging by the material Ramsay draws from it, it has the goods on what a really big Fraser flood has done and will someday do again.
The Lower Mainland experienced the very worst the river had to offer in 1894.  The Fraser crested at an incredible 7.9 metres....
Counting Agassiz, Chilliwack, Abbotsford, Mission, Maple Ridge, Port Coquitlam, Pitt Meadows, Coquitlam, Surrey Delta, and Richmond, more than two million people could be affected by the coming flood. 
 Don't say we were not warned.

Meanwhile Urban History Review, via Erudit, via H-Canada, has a useful review of Robert Sweeny's Why Did We Choose to Industrialize? Montreal 1819-1849, published last year by McGill-Queen's.  It was hardly ignored  (won the 2016 CHA's John A. Macdonald Prize, only for the best book in Canadian history) but it never got much notice here, and the UHR review, by Dan Horner, give a good sense of what is so good about it.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The Valour and the Terror


Terror's helm, photographed by Arctic Research Foundation

I was getting sceptical about Search for Franklin II, where the PR seemed to be endless but the actual research plan seemed to be meagre and cloaked in confidentiality.

But they did it.  They found HMS Terror, and with it puzzles to delight another century of Franklinologists.  (How did it get there? Why wasn't it crushed? Who?  Until when? And who will seize the credit in the end?) Chapeaux to them all, as the Tour cyclists say., and particularly to the Parks Canada people, who do this work even when it is not newsworthy.

The best place to follow this may be Russell Potter's Visions of the North blog, already on it -- and with comments by David Woodman.  The Guardian Online seems to have news exclusives -- but these days googling "Terror" on a news website doesn't lead very efficiently to the Franklin ship.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Independent MPs versus MPs with influence


It was almost twenty years ago, in 1997's 1867: How the Fathers Made a Deal, that I started making the case that the essential democratic deficit in Canada is in the political parties. I posited that until party caucuses of MPs (MLAs, MPPs, MNAs etc, in the provinces) asserted their authority over party policy and over the hiring and firing of party leaders, parliamentary government in Canada would continue to be held hostage by autocratic and unaccountable leaders pending far distant general elections.  (Here's a summary of my case, from 2001)

I was NOT being entirely original (sorry, I had omitted the vital negative there). I drew on some comments by political scientist John Courtney of the University of Saskatchewan, and from copious examples in other parliamentary democracies, and from ancient Canadian parliamentary history. But it was not a popular idea in Canadian discourse, to say the least.  When I floated my case at a Study of Parliament Group conference in Ottawa in 1998, it was as if I had mooned the room. -- not just disbelief, but real shock. (Actually, in retrospect, my favourite public speaking event, evah.)

The situation has not changed much in Canada. (See my 2012 take on orthodox scholarly opinion here). And several parliamentary democracies around the world have moved toward the Canadian system. (See the current situation of Jeremy Corbyn, unsupported by most of his Labour MPs in Britain but still defiantly holding the leadership)

But there are straws in the wind sometimes, vague suggestions that MPs should not be such cattle, that parliamentary accountability really is linked to leadership accountability, that these interminable billion-dollar leadership "races" are hardly models of appropriate political process.

Here is Susan Delacourt in the Toronto Star, lauding a Toronto Liberal backbencher who has voted against Liberal government bills a number of times in the past year.
He hasn’t been afraid to vote against his party — at least 15 times, by his own count, over the past year. On issues such as assisted dying, decriminalizing marijuana and whether to condemn Daesh (also known as ISIS or ISIL) for genocide, the 32-year-old lawyer turned politician has unapologetically parted ways with his own governing Liberals. He says it hasn’t got him into any trouble, at least not yet.
So, progress? Well not much. It's clear that Delacourt's approval is still limited to the lone MP who occasionally takes a charmingly eccentric stand on matters that don't matter.  And Erskine-Smith seems to accept that role himself
“If I were voting against the budget or our election platform, I think that would be a major concern. But exercising free votes on issues … in response to constituents’ concerns in many cases, I don’t think anyone has an issue with that.”
What we need more than that, however, is a backbench MP who is willing and able to organize the Ontario subcaucus of Liberal MPs, say, or the anti-TPP subcaucus of Liberals, or the fiscally-conservative subcaucus of Liberals, with a view to actually influencing the decisions of caucus on a whole range of substantive issues -- or even, when it comes to it, on sustaining or replacing the leader of the party.

Parliamentary democracy needs, that is, not occasional symbolic acts of independence by individual MPs, but actual assertion of influence by groups of MPs -- sometimes in voting against their government's bills, when needed, but more crucially in working to shape party and government policy within a caucus willing to make decisions and expecting the leadership to carry them out.

Not too much sign of that, yet.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Trump 1917?

Was Robert Borden Canada’s Hillary Clinton or was he its Donald Trump?
At Active History, Elsbeth Heaman poses a question not much heard during this American election cycle.

She leads into the question with an equally provocative analogy: Laurier was Canada's Obama. Like the Obama presidency, Laurier's election and long tenure in office seemed to suggest progressiveness and tolerance and diversity in Canadian politics, she observes, but opened the door for racism and nativism as the chosen electoral vehicles of his opponents, leading to a powerful strain of anti-French and anti-immigrant bigotry in the Borden years. 

So, Canada's Trump?  The piece is worth reading. And makes me think someone could do well to reassess Carl Berger's dictum that in Canada imperialism was a form of nationalism.  More likely, it was a form of nativism.  Or colonialism.  Or racism.
 
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