|Canada's History Magazine||
by Christopher Moore
Robert Stacey:Detecting Canada's Art History | Trinity: Can History Save a Town? | Rereading James Gray | Conrad Black's Franklin Roosevelt | Baboons, Scholars, and Parliamentarians | What Happens to a Country without a Cinema? | Louis Robichaud: What a Premier Can Do | The West Muscles in, 1905 | Confronting the Dragons | | Electing the Senate -- the First Time | Another Prairie Giant: Who Was Jimmy Gardiner Anyway? | The Plaque Makers | Getting Your Genealogical Groove On | Michael Bliss: Histories and Principles | An Expo '67 Kaleidoscope: Ten Scenes from Terre des Hommes | Writing The National Dream | That King-Byng Thing: What Can A Governor General Do? | Searching for Century Sam: British Columbia Celebrates a Hundred and Fifty Years | Listening to the North: Dorothy Harley Eber's Oral Histories | Rising Again: Local History Gets its' Due | Reading the History of Oil and Alberta
STACEY: DETECTING CANADA'S ART HISTORY
(first published in The Beaver, January 2000)
It's a kind of detective work, he says, trying to explain both the rather extraordinary work he does and what attracts him to it. "I'm about the only freelance curator who works in both the contemporary and historical fields of Canadian art." When someone in Canada has a problem, a challenge, or an opportunity involving images of Canada's history, as often as not a call will reach Robert Stacey at the Archives of Canadian Art and Design in an old industrial building on the edge of downtown Toronto.
Not long ago, Penguin Books called Stacey about their remarkable new historical novel, Isobel Gunn by Audrey Thomas. Could he find the right historical image for the cover? Another call came from Nanaimo, B.C., where a team of citizens trying to save the historical murals in a local hotel wanted an expert's eye. Meanwhile, making the rounds at a Toronto art-auction house, Stacey looked at a portrait attributed to Paul Kane being readied for a sale, and raised doubts. Could this attribution really be verified?
Stacey outlined the problems with the Kane portrait. It is a workmanlike portrayal, but when it was done in the 1830s, Paul Kane had barely begun to paint; his known portraits from this era are crude daubs. Stacey quickly established that the documentary record linking Kane to the portrait is after-the-fact guesswork, regularly repeated but never investigated.
The auction house withdrew the portrait from sale pending further scrutiny. For Stacey, it was another example of how thin our art-historical expertise actually is, even for artists of the importance of Kane. "We have to go back and establish the facts. We have to stop relying on hearsay and do the stylistic analysis and see what we come up with."
When the Nanaimo team working to save the murals from the Malaspina Hotel called, it sounded like another in a long sad sequence -- trying to save art that hardly any one cares about. But even in a quick investigation, Stacey pointed out the kind of entwining links that he constantly finds waiting to be discovered in Canadian art.
"About 1900 to 1950," Stacey explains, "there was a golden age of historical mural-painting, a movement to get Canadian history into public places." The Malaspina Hotel murals, made in 1938 by E.J. Hughes, Orville Fisher, and Paul Goranson, have been badly damaged and are now removed from their original site. Stacey had only some photos to work from, but one in particular, showing the Spanish captain Malaspina trading with chief Maquinna at Nootka Sound in 1791, kept intriguing him.
"I kept saying, 'This reminds me of something,'" he says. Then he saw it. Paul Goranson had modeled his figures on an earlier example of Canadian historical illustration, a widely-published drawing entitled "Indians Trading with the French," by the famous historical illustrator Charles W. Jefferys. For Stacey, it was another example of almost invisible links woven all through Canadian historical art -- the more so because Jefferys is both Stacey's grandfather and one of his recurring interests as curator and editor.
"Mural paintings became unfashionable," continues Stacey, not only as art but for the attitudes they are seen to perpetuate: too many cringing native people, defeated French generals, and heroic European men. But in Goranson's painting, it is Captain Malaspina who is the supplicant and the intruder, not the powerful and magnificent Maquinna. Anyway, says Stacey, "the murals are often in disrepair or covered over, but we can't just cover the story up because it embarrasses us. We can't destroy the evidence of an artistic tradition." (Nanaimo's Malaspina University College has offered to provide a home for two of the six murals.)
The commission to find artwork appropriate Audrey Thomas's novel unleashed another of Stacey's passions. He is convinced that, even on minor projects, Canadian historical imagery deserves serious research -- and that research almost always pays off. Since Isobel Gunn is set in southwestern Manitoba about 1806, Stacey set himself not to settle for some familiar fur-trade image, but to locate artwork specifically from that time and place.
"To do this work, it is vital to have contacts in archives, to be able to talk about what is in the collections, maybe never photographed or published. In this case, someone put me on to a reproduction in an old Beaver by William Richards, a rare HBC factor who made images as well as writing reports. It was in the HBC archives -- and I had a cover.
"There is an episode in the book that has Isobel Gunn, her baby, and a man travelling on snowshoes. Richards's sketch shows exactly that, in the same region and drawn within a few years of the period of the book!"
As he talks of his detecting assignments, Stacey keeps circling back to the need for more work in Canadian art history. Again Paul Kane provides an example. Stacey and some colleagues are trying to bring about the first full-scale exhibition of Kane's original sketches. "Kane's well-known paintings are mix-and-match creations, using many elements from his field sketches. They are fictions, a romantic creation, totally unreliable as evidence and not intended as such. Only the field sketches and the field notes make it possible to reconstruct what Paul Kane actually saw in the west. Yet they have not been seen in bulk in Canada since 1848."
Universities and institutions have departments devoted to art and art history, but Stacey laments that "nobody is doing that obvious basic research. Students in the mainstream, in universities, are not being made to do it. They are doing theory. And our institutions are so downsized or demoralized that they can hardly help the ordinary user. Today the person who answers phone inquiries doesn't know and has not got the hands-on experience to know. It is harder and harder just to get access to what is already there."
Another Stacey target is the way historical art is routinely misused. "What really bothers me," he says, "is the laziness of historians, of art directors. A lot of writers use illustration in a very cavalier manner. They act as if everything were in the public domain and don't credit the artist or the source -- partly because things get swiped so often. So one sees the same images, and the same misinformation about them, perpetuated again and again."
Stacey does not lack for projects. For the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon, he is curating an exhibition of Qu'Appelle Valley paintings ("After the Group of Seven went to northern Ontario, Charles Jeffreys went to the Prairies, and he really discovered the Qu'Appelle valley as a subject for art."). In Toronto, he is assembling an exhibit of the art of Daniel Wilson. Wilson, a nineteenth-century teacher and president of the University of Toronto, was a great early Darwinian -- and a patron of Paul Kane -- but Stacey knows he was also a noteworthy, neglected artist.
With a team of colleagues, Stacey has launched an ambitious project to create an online national image bank. He intends to build the Paul Kane project into, not only an exhibition, but also a book, a film, and a digital resource. Meanwhile, the phone keeps ringing with new detecting assignments.
Can Stacey's remarkably precise and wide-ranging knowledge of Canadian art and history be sustained in a freelance career forever depending an uncertain market, I wondered. Shouldn't he be snapped up by one of our great cultural institutions? Stacey laughs ruefully. "I've been too busy to take a job. I have too many projects on the go."
©Christopher Moore Editorial Ltd, 2000
CAN HISTORY SAVE A TOWN?
(first published in The Beaver, December 2006)
everyone you met last summer just back from Newfoundland,
or talking of going soon? In my circles, it seemed that
When we were there, we stayed at a charming local inn. Ate seafood at a sophisticated restaurant in an old workshop. Took in a revue at Rising Tide Theatre. Followed Kevin Toope on his lively walking tour. Toured the reconstructed home of 18th century merchant prince Benjamin Lester and many other heritage properties. Browsed through Island crafts in the stores.
Okay, we passed on the whale-watching and kayaking, weren't there for the Historical Pageant, and walked only one of the many spectacular coastal trails. Whatever we did, the central draw was the heritage preservation district that covers two-thirds of the town of Trinity: streets, gardens, fences and private homes all evoking the distinctive look and feel of a traditional Newfoundland seaport town. Trinity is a great place just to walk around in.
But hundreds of places on the Island are no less beautiful, no less historic than Trinity. And most of those have been abandoned to nature and ghosts, or else modernized beyond recognition. What made Trinity special?
Mostly, it was a handful of people about forty years ago. In the 1950s, Walter White, a customs officer, began restoring his family's old home in the centre of Trinity. "In those days, people were going around tearing down old buildings, but a few people thought they should be preserved," says Jim Miller, who at twenty-eight is too young to remember but today is both coordinator of the Trinity Historical Society (THS) and mayor of the town. According to White's daughter-in-law, Florence White, his restoration project "was his way of saying, 'These houses are valuable,' at a time when everyone was tearing places down. He was giving by his own example the message that these homes were worth saving."
White's gesture helped inspire others. In 1964 townspeople founded the historical society. White's collection of artifacts became a museum. His (and his father's) collection of local records, some literally saved from bonfires, became an archives. "I remember Walter White, back in the 1960s, going out to abandoned communities and collecting artifacts and records," says Kevin Toope, the walking-tour impresario, whose own family came into Trinity from the abandoned outport called Ireland's Eye. "In those days, homes and their contents lay abandoned in the resettled communities. You could just pick them up." Such ideas were still strange; the THS's new museum was the first anywhere outside of St John's.
But the preservationist idea caught on. In 1969 the town was incorporated, with strong THS representation on the council. Under a new by-law passed in the 1970s, preservation of traditional architectural styles was no longer an eccentric whim. It became mandatory in most of the town, with federal and provincial grants helping to cover the costs of compliance.
With that commitment made, notable buildings were restored to period and opened to the public. Churches and cemeteries were preserved. Provincial and federal historic-sites services, archivists, and conservators provided support. As visitors began to arrive, B&Bs opened, and marine biologist Peter Beamish opened both an inn and a whale-watching business.
Early in the 1990s, theatre joined the mix. Donna Butt of Rising Tide Theatre Company was casting about, she said recently, for "a festival of Newfoundland theatre, a way to place the plays geographically and to perform them where they happen. It seemed to me we could marry a professional expertise in theatre to the people they were about."
It wasn't always an easy marriage, but soon the Trinity Historical Pageant offered a fresh take on local history, and visitors still follow actors through the streets performing scenes inspired by the THS archives. Butt and Rising Tide eventually moved permanently to Trinity and launched the full season of plays Butt dreamed of. Today Rising Tide Arts Centre occupies a modern theatre inside a new reconstruction of a long-demolished mercantile warehouse.
Trinity's crowning success may have been the rebuilding of the Lester-Garland House. Begun in 1762 by the powerful merchant Benjamin Lester, the three storey house of imported brick had been condemned as unsafe and demolished in the 1960s. "It was heartbreaking for Walter [White] when the Brick House came down," his daughter-in-law recalls. "A brick mansion begun here in 1762; that was proof that this community was not founded on mere transience."
In the 1990s, White's son David, by then mayor and head of the THS, helped see the Brick House rebuilt at a cost of over a million dollars. Much of it, including the bricks, came from friends of Trinity in the Dorset, England, town of Poole, home port to many Trinity settlers including the Lesters.
Today Trinity educates and entertains visitors and Islanders all summer and fall, but concerns remain. Not only is fundraising an endless demand but, as Kevin Toope explains, "Since our shipyards that employed 100 people closed last year, it has been hard to support people year round. People are moving away for permanent jobs. Even for the tourist economy, it is a problem. We used to have lots of post-secondary students who would come home for the summer and work in tourism and heritage. Now whole families are moving away." Florence White, who now runs the THS museum, fears that if community support falters, the whole heritage project will wither.
Last summer was the first time in over a decade that Newfoundlanders were permitted "a recreational food fishery:" five cod per person per day for just over one month of the year. Newfoundlanders took to it as if they had regained a basic human right, for without a sustainable fishery, rural Newfoundland's challenges remain huge. Tourism alone provides no panacea, even in Trinity.
Still Trinity has built something important from the vision of a few individuals: not only jobs, but cultural affirmation, artistic achievement and, for visitors like me, a historical experience unique in the world.
"Trinity was a place of big businesses and beautiful homes," says Florence White. "We want to remember that."
©Christopher Moore Editorial Ltd, 2007
(first published in The Beaver, February/March 2007)
We shouldn't believe that Canadian writing began in the late 1960s -- and historical writing even later. Recall, for instance, James H. Gray. Gray's first book, The Winter Years, appeared way back in 1966 and immediately gained a large and enthusiastic audience across the country. A vigorously written memoir-history of the Depression and a young Winnipegger's experience of it, The Winter Years became the first of a stream of James Gray histories of the prairie West.
Gray's pioneering role among popular historical writers was part of what attracted Calgary writer Brian Brennan, himself the author of several books on Alberta history, to write How the West was Written: The Life and Times of James H. Gray. In Gray Brennan saw an inspiration - someone who wrote a dozen lively Canadian histories that sold well and widely and won critical praise and many honours.
But Brennan finds in Gray not only an inspiration, but also an object lesson in the challenges of writing history in Canada. That first book? Gray actually wrote it in the 1940s and could not get it published for twenty years. Although he was both prolific and popular, he hardly made a living from his books. And both he and Brennan have wondered if you can be a successful Canadian writer if you don't live in Toronto and you write about a "region."
Like Berton, like Broadfoot, like Newman (all of whom he could claim to predate as a historian), Jimmy Gray began his writing career in newspapers. But they all came of age in or after the Second World War; his formative years were the twenties and the thirties. He had grown up in the hustle and flow of the new prairie West in the full flood of its growth -- and then saw that growth stopped dead by the Depression. He had found his subject.
Gray had left school at sixteen. "When it had become clear in 1931 that our stay on unemployment relief was likely to be prolonged, I decided to continue my education by reading my way through the public library," he once recalled. Duly educated, he joined the Winnipeg Free Press in 1935 and later ran a couple of magazines in Calgary.
What launched Gray's historical career was the cutting-off of his career in journalism. He turned to books because his strong views and independent streak did not fit well with the rise of publisher-dominated journalism. Brennan knows that situation well. He's also a refugee from newspapers; indeed, he conceived his first book in 1999 while walking the picket line at the Calgary Herald.
Brennan's biography documents Gray's many achievements, and rereading James Gray's books confirm them. All his books have terrific narrative drive, vivid characters, convincing details, and strong sentences. "He was a story-teller," Brennan told me recently, willing to create dialogue and even repeat yarns that were so good that no one should fact-check them.
But James Gray was not James Frey. Unlike the recently controversial author of the disputed memoir A Million Little Pieces, Gray was no yarn-spinner on things that mattered. He looked for big historical themes and argued out well-sustained theses.
The Winter Years evokes the hardships of city life in the depression, but it is also a history of governmental failures to grasp the relief crisis. Men Against the Desert is a history of how western farmers and Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Act officials fought back and made Palliser's Triangle not just agriculturally viable but the world's breadbasket in the 1950s. The Boy from Winnipeg, partly memoir, is mostly about the shaping of urban life on the Prairies before the First World War.
Red Lights on the Prairies and Booze, both built from Gray's own dogged research into the ill-documented undersides of prairie life, are not merely lurid stories. Gray argues that prohibition in 1914-24 broke the wide-open, hard-drinking "brothel-booze culture" of the pre-war prairies. It caused a drastic reduction in violence, crime, and family disintegration that was sustained even after controlled liquor consumption returned.
This "quintet of prairie histories I never intended to write in the first place" was followed by several more books. His last book, a substantial biography of Calgary's first prime minister, R.B. Bennett, was published by a scholarly press in 1991. To the pleased surprise of Gray, no slavish worshipper of academic history-writing, it won him academic honours.
Brian Brennan salutes Gray's persistence and his prodigious energy for research and writing, but he notes and shares two concerns Gray lived with. Can Canada sustain writers? And can a "regional" writer gain national recognition?
Brennan says "Gray didn't mind if unsuccessful or unpopular writers never made any money, but he said, 'I'm a successful writer. Why can't successful writers make a living in this country?'" (Much of Gray's income came not from books but from smart investments in Alberta's 1950s oil boom.) Out of these concerns, Gray became a founder of the Writers' Union of Canada in 1973, and he fought hard for writers' economic concerns: royalty terms, copyright licensing, lending rights. "We are still fighting those battles today," reflects Brennan, himself a Writers' Union board member. "I might not have written that chapter if it was not so interesting to me. But I'm an old newspaper guy who turned to writing books just as he did, and I too care about making a living." (Full disclosure: I too have been active in the Writers' Union, and for much the same reasons.)
Can a writer achieve and sustain national attention without living in Toronto? It would seem Gray proved you can. But Brennan, himself Calgary-based, believes "being in Calgary rather than Toronto -- that probably did limit his reputation…. Gradually he became a Calgary writer while Pierre Berton became a Canadian writer."
James Gray was ninety-two when he died in 1998. Near the end of his life, widowed and almost blind, he feared that his work, like the history it chronicled, was destined to be neglected and forgotten. Brennan describes how reassured Gray was by the republication of his principal works by the Calgary-based publisher Fifth House. Now that he joins the handful of historians who have their own biographies, perhaps his legacy is not so fragile.
Brian Brennan's How the West was Written: The Life and Times of James H. Gray was published by Fifth House in 2006.
©Christopher Moore Editorial Ltd, 2007
BLACK'S FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT
(first published in The Beaver, April/May 2004)
There is a moment in Conrad Black's immense biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt when the author considers President Roosevelt's situation early in 1939. President Roosevelt, he says, knew there would be war. He knew he would ensure the United States was drawn into that war (all the while promising to keep it out). He knew Germany and Japan would be defeated in the war, and he knew how the United States would shape the international order afterwards. "He cannot have failed to have glimpsed this destiny," write Black.
How can Black be so sure the president foresaw the future so precisely? "Roosevelt must have known all this is because there is no other plausible explanation of his conduct."
Frankly, I resist this kind of argument. No one's knowledge of the world's fate, or of his own future choices, is ever so certain. Human events are endlessly contingent, their consequences always uncertain. Extraordinary clairvoyance may seem the only explanation for Roosevelt's conduct, but his choices might have had twenty other potential explanations, if we could only discern them all.
Still, much of the power of Conrad Black's extraordinary book comes from the author's conviction that what made Roosevelt "the most important person of the twentieth century" was precisely his almost superhuman ability to see what had to be done and how to do it. Black's 1200 small-print pages are devoted to building a case for Roosevelt's "unfailing intuition," his "acute intuition," his "political legerdemain," his "intuitive political genius," his "singular political genius," his "immense political dexterity," his "almost preternatural insight and finesse."
Roosevelt's long tenure in the White House spanned two great epochs: the Great Depression and the Second World War. On the Depression, Black demonstrates just how bad things were in 1932 and how far the US had recovered by 1940, and he is good on the way Roosevelt co-opted allies and marginalized opponents without ever getting a step beyond public opinion. But amid descriptions of an alphabet soup of agencies and programs, it remains mysterious just how they produced economic recovery, or how Roosevelt the until-then rather lightweight political adventurer developed his strategies to bring the nation back from economic collapse.
Life really surges into Black's prose some 500 pages into his story, as he approaches the Second World War. The grand strategy of the war may now be a familiar story to anyone interested, but Black explores it with an unwearying attention to detail, and he offers many vigorous and well-supported interpretations. Among his provocative contentions is the case that Roosevelt was a winner in planning the postwar situation. Black savages the traditional conservative critique that the naïvely liberal American President was gulled at the 1945 Yalta Conference by the ruthless Stalin.
Many commentators have observed how it odd it is that the conservative Black has made such a case for the glories of liberalism in both economic policy and international diplomacy. Indeed, he demolishes many shibboleths of conservatism. Of course Ronald Reagan's entire program was essentially tax reduction -- but who would have expected Conrad Black to say so?
Black's real news, however, is not that Roosevelt was a great liberal. It's that he was one tough SOB. When Black is done, there's no more Mr. President Nice Guy. Beneath all Roosevelt's idealistic platforms and great personal charm (meeting him was "like opening one's first bottle of champagne," said Churchill memorably), Black convincingly depicts an absolutely solitary soul, a man who never had or needed friendship, cared for no one, and was unceasingly manipulative and calculating as he exploited that intuitive command of events he always seemed to have.
Black dismisses the crackpot theory that Roosevelt connived at the attack on Pearl Harbour, but goes very far in his argument that Roosevelt very deliberately pursued policies that would provoke Germany and Japan into attacking the United States, so he could take his reluctant country to war as the injured innocent. "His techniques, while bloodless, were not always much less ruthless, devious, and cynical than Hitler's or Stalin's," Black concludes. At this level, evidently, good work is too precious to be entrusted to good people.
That so many Canadian millionaires flare out as rapidly as they rose may have inoculated us against the notion that the acquisition of wealth must be proof of brilliance. By writing books like this one, however, Conrad Black gives us a much better way to gauge his knowledge and his judgment (and his allegedly baroque prose style. I found his writing consistently serious, but always clear and sometimes forceful. I did reach for my dictionary at page 925 when he described Marshal Tito in an "exiguous" bathing suit. But it's no weakness in a book that you find one new word in 1200 pages.)
A big book should change its subject, and Black changes Roosevelt by revealing with new force and clarity the cold political operator within Roosevelt and how that made it possible for the president to do whatever was required to become the "champion of liberty" on a national and then global scale.
Will this book also change Conrad Black? Perhaps it will, if it persuades him that he truly is a writer able to handle the big book and the big subject. Amid mostly very good reviews, one American critic sneered at Black's Roosevelt as a "vanity press" effort. We should rather - a crucial distinction - understand it as a labour of love. It's far too long, way too detailed, and too much at odds with his image and his interests, to have been written simply in the service of the ego or the self-promotion of a public figure. It seems, early in 2004, that there may not have been much of lasting value in Conrad Black's business career or his political maneuvres. But has he a future as a writer of history if he wants one? Yes, he does.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom by Conrad Black is published by PublicAffairs in 2003 and is distributed in Canada by HarperCollins.
©Christopher Moore Editorial Ltd, 2004
SCHOLARS, AND PARLIAMENTARIANS
(first published in The Beaver, August-September 2004]
Reading Stephen Gould or Richard Dawkins often makes me wish that historical journalism had some of the richness of scope and ambition that today's best science writing displays. (You can make the same discovery in television. Consider History Television in relation to Discovery Channel, and despair.)
Lately some science writers seem intent on discovering history for themselves. Consider the work of the American field biologist Robert M. Sapolsky, who in his book A Primate's Memoir evokes the half a lifetime he has spent in close observation of a troop of Kenyan baboons. ("I had never planned to become a savanna baboon when I grew up," he writes. "I had always assumed I would become a mountain gorilla.") Sapolsky loved "his" baboons, and they taught him much about baboon behaviour and physiology. On the whole, though, the troop behaved about the way we might expect. All its members were caught in fiercely-maintained dominance hierarchies. The males were particularly violent and competitive. The toughest, most aggressive ruled as top baboon - for as long as he could hold on. Everyone beat up on those below them, and all were permanently stressed in unhealthful ways.
Then a new source of meat became available to Sapolsky's baboon troop, at a garbage dump. Only the most aggressive males could successfully fight their way to a share of the meat. And since the dumped meat came from tubercular cattle, all the aggressive males got TB and died. Sapolsky watched his baboon family of twenty years being destroyed by plague. Devastated by the deaths of his research subjects (and friends), he abandoned his observations in the mid-1980s.
Except the TB proved not very contagious. The baboons who had been insufficiently aggressive to get diseased meat survived. And more than a decade later, the unaggressive survivors maintained a new, more harmonious way of being baboons. Even adolescent male recruits who transfer into the troop have taken on the new style, and so it endures. Today the alpha males, newcomers since the plague years, are less aggressive and more "affiliative" than baboon society is supposed to permit. The TB epidemic is long passed and forgotten, but Sapolsky's troop remains the least aggressive, least competitive, least dominance-obsessed gang of baboons anyone has ever observed. These baboons, reports Sapolsky, have built a new culture.
Even in the technical language of a scientific journal, his amazement rings out: "Somewhat uniquely in nonhuman primate studies, these findings concern the intergenerational transfer of social, rather than material culture."
What Sapolsky has discovered, though he doesn't quite say so, is that baboons have history. The only way to understand the behaviour of this baboon troop is by its history. Baboons may not have the range of cultural choices human societies do, but this troop exists as it does because of the way it responded to particular events in its now remote past.
It seems to follow that the same assumption will have to be applied to other primates. Biologists can no longer assume what they observe in a community of chimps or baboons (or hyenas?) is "biology." They will have to become historians too. To know their subjects, they will have to know where they have come from.
This story reminds me of an ambitious coterie of historians in Europe, particularly in France, some fifty years ago, who wanted to unite history and the sciences and the social sciences into one vast integrated form of human study.
These historians were eager to learn from sociology and biology and statistical mathematics and any other field of promise, but they did not simply want to improve history by applying to it the (presumably superior) methods from other disciplines. In the great unification of scholarship that they dreamed of, they saw history, not as a borrower, but as the linchpin. History, they insisted, was "the federative discipline." No human subject is adequately understood, they said, unless one has grasped where in the past it has come from. History may find techniques from sociology useful, that is, but sociology is meaningless without a historical sense.
That kind of missionary zeal seems to have gone out of history today. Historians certainly borrow eagerly from other disciplines. These days, the fashion is for borrowing from literary and cultural theory more than from the harder sciences or social sciences. Few historians, however, seem much inclined to push history's insights upon other disciplines. What historian would have dared to suggest to Professor Sapolsky that biology needs history? The biologist had to grope his own way toward that discovery in the field.
All of this is a way of bringing myself around to a short, conversational essay on Canadian political thought I was reading recently: The Once and Future Canadian Democracy by Janet Ajzenstat.
In it, Ajzenstat observes that Canadian political thought about constitutions, good government, and the democratic deficit, whether the scholarly kind or in more public forums, tends to lack time depth. In Canadian political discussion, nothing about where we came from or what we built up over decades or centuries seems to be of any value in deciding where we should be going. "Canadians don't think in a large and generous way, in a philosophical way, about what it is to live in a liberal democracy," she writes.
She also suggest why not. Canadians think romantically about politics, she argues. The romantic style is the reigning tradition in Canadian political history, philosophy, and public commentary.
Ajzenstat has an agenda here. She advocates the tradition of political liberalism that descends from philosophers such as John Locke, which she sees at work in Canadian parliamentary government for 150 years and which she thinks still has much to offer. But she finds the romantic style of thinking impatient with institutions and traditions. It prefers purer emotions and the untrammeled will. It refuses to take seriously anything from our long Canadian experiment in liberal democracy, because by definition the past is what stands in the way of grand new beginnings. Democracy is for the future.
There's much in Ajzenstat's essay that's worth reading and arguing with. But she is on to something here. It's not just a lack of knowledge that constrains our political debates. Their ahistorical style isn't to be remedied just by teaching more history to more people, not if there is a willed intention not to take history seriously. We still need to make the case that our society came from somewhere, and that how it evolved matters.
it even matters for baboons.
M. Sapolsky's A Primate's Memoir was published
by Scribner in 2000. His article with Lisa J. Share,
"A Pacific Culture among Wild Baboons: Its Emergence
and Transmission," is published in PLOS Biology
The Once and Future Canadian Democracy by Janet
Ajzenstat was published by McGill-Queen's University
Press in 2003.
Moore Editorial Ltd, 2004
HAPPENS TO A COUNTRY WITHOUT A CINEMA?
This summer we caught Canadian writer-director Ian Iqbal Rashid's film comedy Touch of Pink at the local multiplex. Although American Kyle McLachlan's spot-on star turn as the ghost of Cary Grant generated most of the buzz, Touch of Pink offered a cultural-diversity theme that was more Toronto than Hollywood. Alim, the Cary Grant-worshipping hero, is a Canadian working in Britain, and the comedy depends on his self-affirmation. He learns to accept being gay in a straight world. He accepts working in the arts instead of something sensible. He accepts being an Ismaili Muslim in a world where most people aren't.
The only condition Alim (and the film) cannot accept is being from Canada. Alim's imaginary friend Cary Grant mocks him every time Toronto is mentioned, and Alim cringes at being tied to so contemptible a place. Touch of Pink is a worthy film, and unlike most Canadian films, it actually got screen time amid the Hollywood blockbusters, but its effort to show sophistication by dissing its own origins seems to typify Canadian cinema.
Mostly we just take it for granted that we don't get to see movies that grow out of Canadian situations. On historical subjects, I could think of occasional exceptions like Black Robe and The Grey Fox, but the picking are slim compared to what we expect from Canadian writing, Canadian music, or Canadian painting. When these genres don't hide where they are from, why does Canadian film mostly strive to be so international - meaning from somewhere else?
Thinking about the absence of Canadian history from our cinema, I called George Melnyk, who has just published One Hundred Years of Canadian Cinema, the first overview history of the long struggle of Canadian cinema.
Melnyk is prepared to venture that "we have a maturing cinema history" in Canada. It has always been hard to sustain a film industry in Canada, and yet Canadians have kept trying. Melnyk describes the efforts of early filmmakers in such places as Brandon, Calgary, Trenton and Montreal before 1920. (In another recent book, A Century of Canadian Cinema, critic Gerald Pratley reviews two thousand twentieth-century Canadian films.) Melnyk places himself with "those who value the feature film as an expression of creative identity," so he concludes that the National Film Board's documentary tradition became a "barrier to the evolution of the Canadian film industry." Canadian cinema, he says, "did really not get going until the 1970s, while in some countries film has been going strong for a hundred years." But amid the expanded production and improved quality of recent decades, Melnyk sees the elements of a distinctive Canadian cinema emerging.
Melnyk observes that the difficulty of making careers in feature film here means most Canadians in the field are "auteurs," writer-directors creating from personal vision. With personal stories driving so much Canadian filmmaking, our films are that much less likely to engage in historical themes or historical storytelling (one spectacular exception: Zacharias Kunuk's Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner).
A larger problem is what Melnyk calls the absent audience. In English Canada, he says, Canadian films get about one per cent of the available screen time. "Compare that to the huge audience for Canadian music, writing, and so on." About fifteen features are made in English Canada each year, "and maybe one or two get shown in art house cinemas. No audience means no films, which means no audience. It's a vicious circle." There's often a larger audience outside Canada; no wonder filmmakers seek respect elsewhere.
George Melnyk studies film as an art form, seeking instances of great films and distinctive styles of filmmaking. (And he emphasizes the plural, stressing the many distinctions within English Canadian film, let alone between English Canada and Quebec). But cinema is also an industry, perhaps more than any other art form. Even more than other arts, film needs a sustainable, income-making industrial base as a precursor to sustained aesthetic achievement and the expression of national themes.
Much of the filmmaking activity in Canada is still the runaway American kind, providing work for actors and crews but no Canadian films. Vancouver in particular has been very successful in attracting American productions, but Melnyk suspects that may be why we have not seen a Vancouver director portraying his hometown on film as Winnipegger Guy Maddin, Toronto's Atom Egoyan, or Montreal's Denys Arcand have done for their cities.
Would we start to see more Canadian films if the rising Canadian dollar and Arnold Schwarzenegger's campaign against "runaway productions" drove Hollywood North to start making its own films? Melnyk suspects that despite the ups and downs, the Americanized productions will survive. He's equally skeptical of a theory floated in Peter Rowe's recent and lively documentary about Canadian film, "Popcorn With Maple Syrup," that the infamous "tax shelter" era of the 1970s, for all the waste and dreck it produced, at least started the critical mass a film industry needs. Melnyk prefers the Telefilm funding system of the 1990s. "If you compare the 1970s with the 1990s, I can assure you that you got ten times the quality in the 1990s. In the end, the tax-shelter era meant big losses to taxpayers, without the quality coming back in return."
Melnyk quotes Fellini as saying "two things always look good in a film - a train and snow." We have mostly lost the trains, but we still have the snow. Can Canadian filmmaking hope for a future brighter than its past? "Canadian cinema has always struggled against the American tide that engulfs film in Canada," Melnyk writes in One Hundred Years of Canadian Cinema. Unless the vicious cycle of the absent audience is overcome, cinema may continue to be a poor relation among Canadian art forms.
Does it matter? "Is cinema as an art form something that forms public consciousness?" muses Melnyk "Yes, we know that it is. For example, we know that the films of the twentieth century have been fundamental to how the United States sees itself. So what happens when you don't have a cinema? Do we lessen ourselves? Or is it irrelevant?"
Melnyk's One Hundred Years of Canadian Cinema
is published by University of Toronto Press. Gerald Pratley's
A Century of Canadian Film is published by Lynx
Images. "Popcorn and Maple Syrup: Canadian Film
from Eh to Zed," produced by Peter Rowe Productions,
was broadcast on CBC Television in November 2004.
Moore Editorial Ltd, 2004
ROBICHAUD: WHAT A PREMIER CAN DO
Last January I was surprised to read of the death of Louis Robichaud, the eloquent and charismatic little Acadian who was premier of New Brunswick from 1960 to 1970. I thought he had died years ago.
But Robichaud was only in his late seventies when he died. After being premier, he held a Senate seat, but he never became hooked on the drug of power or celebrity. If he receded from view after he left the premier's office, aged just 45, it was because he had achieved most of his ambitions. His achievements back in the sixties still command attention.
Not many provincial premiers will seem significant in forty years, particularly those from smaller provinces remote from national media. But I've been reading two biographies of Louis Robichaud recently, and how many provincial premiers have two biographies? They have rather different ideas on why Robichaud still looms large.
Professor Della Stanley's scholarly study Louis Robichaud: A Decade in Power emphasizes government and considers Robichaud as a case study of what a provincial premier can do. Michel Cormier's recent Louis J. Robichaud: A Not So Quiet Revolution is less heavily documented but more personal and more passionate, with extensive input from Robichaud himself. For Cormier, Robichaud's vital contribution was to be both symbol and facilitator of the Acadian renaissance.
Cormier begins with the personal impact Louis Robichaud had on the Cormier family. Robichaud's reform of provincial education standards meant that the salary Cormier's mother received as a rural schoolteacher in Cocagne, New Brunswick, doubled overnight. (She thought there was a misprint on her paycheque.) Cormier himself, like so many successful Acadian professionals today, launched his own career at another Robichaud creation, the Université de Moncton. He's now a rising journalist and broadcaster as a European correspondent for Radio Canada.
But in the 1960s, observes Cormier, Acadian communities like his had more in common with Alabama or Kentucky than with Saint John or Fredericton. Beset by poverty, limited education, minimal social services, they were also politically powerless. As he describes how Robichaud's provincial government began attacking poverty, lack of education, and lack of opportunity throughout the province, Cormier emphasizes the impact those reforms had on the mostly Acadian counties of northern and eastern New Brunswick.
Cormier also emphasizes how Robichaud opened paths for francophone New Brunswickers in New Brunswick (facing down anti-French backlash in a province where Acadians were barely a third of the population) but also nationally. Premier Robichaud made New Brunswick the only officially bilingual province and became a national statesman by presenting Acadians as a linguistic minority committed to their culture and language, but also to Canada and to federalism.
"When I was a child," writes Cormier in his theme-setting first sentence, the name of Robichaud received "the same reverence as that of Mahatma Gandhi." How many premiers will ever get that kind of tribute?
Della Stanley's biography disputes none of Robichaud's impact on New Brunswick's Acadians, but she suggests quite another reason to remember him. Robichaud was one of the post-war Canadian premiers who showed just what provincial governments could do when they put their minds to it.
In 1960, the New Brunswick legislature met for just a couple of weeks once each year. There as in other provinces, provincial politics was a spare-time, part-time kind of thing. Civil servants had limited skills and few pressing duties because provincial governments simply did not do much. Schooling, public services, health, and welfare were run and paid for by county and municipal councils or private and religious charities. For New Brunswick, the consequences were dire. Many of its communities lacked the resources, the educational facilities, the leadership, and the administrative tools to attack their own backwardness. And the poorer they were, the less they could do.
Yet health, education, welfare, and social services are provincial responsibilities. By the 1960s, many provinces were beginning to awaken to the possibilities in expanded, modernized provincial administrations. Across Canada, provincial civil services and provincial programs grew rapidly, but New Brunswick's relative backwardness made the opportunity there all the greater. Robichaud's government, notably prompt and notably effective in expanding the scope of provincial programs, deserved the national attention it got.
Robichaud's "Equal Opportunity" program was partly about linguistic and cultural equality, but even more it meant transferring power and responsibility from ill-equipped local councils to a rapidly expanding government serving the whole province. In a few years, Robichaud's government combined new provincial tax revenues with federal transfer payments, applied them to province-wide programs in health, education, and social services, and built a professional civil service to run them. It meant a huge transfer of authority to the provincial government in Fredericton. But for the first time, there was a government actually able to do things for its citizens.
Today, many Canadians take for granted the presence of large, powerful provincial governments with professional bureaucracies, extensive taxing powers, and broad ambitions. In recent years, the most newsworthy premiers have been those most determined to attack that consensus, by cutting taxes, privatizing programs, and chopping services. The eventful decade of Louis Robichaud's premiership in New Brunswick is a reminder of how recently provinces emerged as governments to be reckoned with. And how much of the public infrastructures we often take for granted depends, not on Ottawa but on how well or badly we are served by our provinces.
Louis Robichaud: A Decade in Power by Della Stanley was published by Nimbus Publishing in 1984. Louis J. Robichaud: A Not So Quiet Revolution by Michel Cormier, translated by Jonathan Kaplansky, was published by Faye Editions of Moncton in 2004.
Moore Editorial Ltd, 2005
WEST MUSCLES IN, 1905
The centennials that Alberta and Saskatchewan celebrated on September 1 and September 4 were actually a couple of months late. When Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier announced the creation of two new provinces early in 1905, he declared their birthday would be July 1, not September 1. The delay and its causes cast light on the enduring national issue of the west and its power within the Canadian confederation.
Provincehood marked the culmination of a not very edifying process. Canada's early nineteenth-century political thinkers - Etienne Parent, Joseph Howe, Robert Baldwin, Louis-Hyppolyte Lafontaine - had established the great principle that citizens, even colonial citizens, had a right to governments accountable to legislatures that represented them. But when those men's heirs, governing Canada later in the century, acquired the North-West Territories, they managed mostly to imitate the worst traits of autocratic colonizers.
Ottawa provided Canadians living in the Territories with no representation at all in the House of Commons until 1886, and the territorial government remained firmly under the thumb of Ottawa officials for more than a decade after that. Only in 1897, after years of campaigning by western statesman Frederick Haultain, a pioneer lawyer from Fort Macleod, did Ottawa accept the principle (familiar to the eastern provinces since the 1840s) that the territorial government must answer to the people's elected representatives.
After that achievement, surging immigration made it only a matter of time before the region built up a population and economy large enough to sustain full provincial status.
There's a legend that in 1905 Ottawa made two provinces instead of one big one (the preference of territorial premier Haultain), in a plot to keep them both weak. Actually regional identities were already powerful. The foothills ranchers of Alberta saw themselves as quite distinct from the flatland farmers farther east. They wanted no chance of going on being governed from Regina, the territorial capital since 1883.
There's also a legend that sheer spite provoked Ottawa officials into preventing Haultain, their persistent critic, from becoming founding premier of either province. But Liberals looked certain to dominate in both new provinces, making it appropriate that Liberal party leaders (Alexander Rutherford in Alberta, Walter Scott in Saskatchewan), rather than the tory-leaning Haultain, would be invited to form the first governments. Each indeed remained in power for years. (Haultain eventually became the long-serving Chief Justice of Saskatchewan.)
But it was not those issues that caused the delay in provincehood. It was education - which meant language, and religion.
In February 1905, when Prime Minister Laurier introduced the federal legislation to create the provinces, he cited a constitutional tradition that a province entering confederation would thereafter maintain the educational rights that minorities had previously held there. Laurier's bill declared that the Catholic French minorities of Alberta and Saskatchewan would have the educational rights established for the territory back in 1875.
This was, to say the least, unpopular in the west in 1905, where francophones were a small and diminishing minority. Left to set their own educational policies, neither Alberta nor Saskatchewan was likely to do much for minority-language schools. Territorial premier Haultain condemned Laurier's decision as another Ottawa attack on local self-government.
But Ottawa had always had its way with the west before, and Laurier led a newly-elected majority government with clear authority to legislate for the territories. What could the west do?
What the west did, in fact, was successfully flex its muscles in Ottawa. And since lack of muscle in Ottawa would be precisely the west's great complaint for the next hundred years, it's worth looking at how it happened in 1905.
First Clifford Sifton, MP for Brandon and Laurier's powerful Interior Minister, resigned to protest the educational clause. By going to the backbenches, Sifton became not less but more powerful. As a cabinet minister, he was bound by cabinet solidarity. As a backbencher, he successfully organized the western Liberal MPs (and many of their colleagues in Ontario and the east too, it seems) to defy the Prime Minister.
This kind of backbench eruption hardly ever happens in Canada. Even in 1905, the west protested how Laurier's bill deprived the new provinces of control of their natural resources - clearly provincial powers under the British North America Act. But the MPs did not fight on land as they fought on education, and that clause passed.
In the century since 1905, Canadian MPs have allowed themselves to become ever more tightly bound by the dictates of their party leaders. Western-backed initiatives for reform - separate western parties, populism, proportional representation, recall - have often seemed designed to prevent the kind of independent backbench initiatives that served the west's ambitions rather well in 1905.
In recent years, backbench MPs have rarely wielded that power of dissent in Ottawa, though in many parliamentary countries such sectional muscle-flexing within national parties is the essence of political life. Comparing the recent defections on same-sex marriage with what happened to language rights in 1905, it seems that the only thing that can stiffen a Canadian backbencher's spine is intolerance.
Moore Editorial Ltd, 2005
I'm a historian, I don't do the future. But recently it's been hard to miss the vision of the next century that has been dominating the news: the rise of China as the new great power for the twenty-first century.
Commentators observe with fascination the construction cranes over Chinese skylines and the automobiles being purchased by newly-prosperous Chinese, the relentless export growth of China's new industries, and its growing demand for resources and oil. But if the commentators are Canadian, they also worry what that future means for Canada. Can Canada compete? Where will Canada fit in the world of the new Asian superpower? Can our fast-growing and highly enterprising Chinese-Canadian communities help this country find openings to China?
That mix of fascination and foreboding with China has been a Canadian concern for a very long time. Late in 2005, just as the Canadian government announced a controversial package to address historical wrongs done in Canada to people of Chinese ancestry, I found myself reading about the mixed feelings with which Canadians viewed China and the Chinese 120 years ago.
It's no coincidence that 1885, the year that saw the introduction of the infamous head tax - a per-person levy never applied to anyone other than Chinese immigrants to Canada - was also the year the transcontinental railroad was completed. When the railroad was being built, thousands of Chinese were a vital part of its labour force, and Chinese immigrants became the fastest-growing segment of the west-coast population. By 1885, there may have been 15,000 Chinese in British Columbia, compared to perhaps 40,000 Europeans and 25,000 aboriginal Canadians.
British Columbia politicians had been fearful and angry for years about the threat they perceived in Chinese immigration. It was the imminent completion of the CPR and the abrupt drop in demand for immigrant labourers that made the matter a national issue. In 1885 the Canadian parliament passed two measures related to Chinese immigrants. One imposed a head tax on all Chinese immigrants upon entry. The second deprived Chinese in Canada from voting.
Yet even then there was appreciation of the actual and potential Chinese contribution to Canada, and ambivalence about what Canada was doing. Joseph-Adolphe Chapleau, the former Quebec premier who as Canadian Secretary of State introduced the head tax bill in Parliament in 1885, acknowledged that racial limits on immigration abrogated a long British tradition that "British soil was open to any member of the human family." He saluted the contributions Chinese immigrants had already made to Canada, and he denied that they brought disease or caused trouble. Opposition to them, he said, had no other cause "than the competition of cheap labour with labourers who want to exact a higher price."
Nevertheless, Chapleau went on, "It is a natural and well-founded desire of the white population of this Dominion that their country should be spoken of abroad as being inhabited by a vigorous energetic white race of people." Some M.P.s criticized Chapleau for moving a bill and attacking it at the same time, but the motion to establish a $50 head tax passed by a voice vote without any recorded opposition.
The law that deprived Chinese of the right to vote also passed that session, but only after similar doubts about its legitimacy were aired. The Prince Edward Island M.P. Louis Davies (a future Chief Justice of Canada) said robustly in Parliament that "a Chinaman who has become a British subject by naturalization, who resides in this country and has acquired the necessary qualification, has as good a right to be allowed to vote as any other British subject of foreign extraction." No one denied the principle, but the bill passed.
Mixed feelings about anti-Chinese laws also existed outside Parliament. Toronto's Globe newspaper soon reported the story of an Englishman arriving at Victoria, B.C., with his Chinese wife and six Anglo-Chinese children, "all fluent in English and following the customs of their father's native land." The family had to pay $350 (or roughly $6300 in 2005 values). Could a law stand that denied the settled legal principles that husband and wife were as one and children take the father's nationality?
Criticisms such as these were whistling against the wind. Even the Globe generally supported limits on Chinese immigration, as did the other who raised doubts and hesitations. Yet perhaps the most striking evidence that even in 1885 there was some awareness of the potential of China and the Chinese also appeared in the Globe.
November 9, 1885, as part of its coverage of the last
spike, driven the previous day at Craigallachie, B.C.,
the newspaper noted that Canada was not the only place
building railroads. European colonizers were building
railroads and ports and factories in China, it said.
And surely as a result the same prosperity that railroads
and industry were bringing to Canada must also blossom
in China. Then, said the paper, as railroads and industry
transform China, " the laborious, sober, ingenious
Chinese will have become penetrated with modern industrial
civilization, and then Chinese will not need to emigrate.
They will have but to stay home and manufacture for export
and manufacture on such terms as Europeans and Americans
workmen could not even look at."
Moore Editorial Ltd, 2005
THE SENATE -- THE FIRST TIME
consequence, you might say, of a country that neglects
its history, particularly its political history, is that
all questions seem eternally new.
In March 2006 the National Post, long supportive, ran a series of articles highlighting doubts about the idea. Roger Gibbins, head of the Canada West Foundation, a longtime force for Triple-E, suggested Prime Minister Harper should "proceed fairly cautiously. My concern is that we will rush too quickly into an election format." New attention began to be directed to a 2004 Fraser Institute paper, Challenges in Senate Reform, that laid out potential problems in an elected Senate. That paper was particularly notable as the work of Gordon Gibson, who in 1981 was co-author with E.C Manning of Regional Representation, the book long considered to have launched the Triple-E Senate idea.
Debate about an elected Canadian senate has been largely unconstrained by the fact that Canada had an elected senate once before. The first person elected to a Canadian upper house was Philip VanKoughnet, and he was elected to the Legislative Council of the United Canadas in 1856, precisely 150 years ago. The fate of that elected upper house is a story with some possible lessons for our twentieth-first-century debate.
Getting the upper house elected in that era was not a western initiative, but it was a conservative one. Much as many westerners have felt in recent years, Canadian conservatives of the 1850s felt the lower house was not functioning as it should. They wanted a powerful upper house as a counterweight to the lower house. They got one in 1855, with the help of the Clear Grits, the left-wingers of the day, who favoured electing everyone, and the first elections were held the next year. At first an elected upper house seemed to serve the conservative interest well.
Many of those elected to the Legislative Council in the following years were rather like Philip VanKoughnet, a prosperous, establishment lawyer of solidly conservative views. The upper house's large ridings, long terms, and substantial property requirements gave strong advantages to conservative candidates. Indeed, the upper house of the 1850s and 1860s seemed about to become not so much Triple-E as Triple-R: rich, rural, and reactionary.
That indeed had been the plan.
In 1853 William Henry Boulton, one of the intellectual architects of the elected upper house, argued the lower house was infected with "rampant democracy." He proposed an elective upper house to create a check upon democracy. Conservative Canadians argued that the lower house, newly empowered by responsible government in 1848, was too democratic, too much under the sway of ordinary people and their representatives. A reliably conservative upper house seemed to be the corrective that was needed.
But the legislators who created the elected upper house in the 1850s rather quickly turned against their own creation. Even amid the constitutional deadlocks of those years, moderate conservatives and moderate liberals in the united Canadas began to reaffirm their trust in the representative lower house. And if the lower house worked properly, they concluded, a too-powerful upper house became a nuisance and a threat. Part of the confederation bargain of 1867 was an agreement to kill the election of senators. In 1855 the great reformer George Brown had stood almost alone in opposing an elective upper house. By 1867 almost all his colleagues had come back to his point of view.
Our modern senate debate has been haunted by myths about why the confederation-makers of 1867 opted for an appointive upper house.
It was not because they feared parliamentary democracy. They understood the focus of parliamentary democracy lies in the lower house, the common house, the one elected on the basis of representation by population.
They were not looking for a house of the provinces either, for they took steps to disconnect Senate seats from the provinces, and they gave the provinces no part in filling them. They did speak of regional representation, but region was a nebulous concept, not a real source of power or authority.
The confederation-makers' real concern was that the upper house be carefully limited. They would let it live, they would let it protest against majoritarian excesses that might arise in the lower house, but they agreed it should not wield an effective veto on the place where the people were best represented. In 1867 the elected senate of 1855 went back to being appointed, and that has kept the upper house restrained to its advisory role ever since.
Second thoughts about appointing legislators in a democratic era began to emerge soon after confederation, but influential proposals for an elected Senate really returned in the 1980s. The reason was much as in the 1850s: a conviction that the lower house was not working properly. Particularly in Western Canada, the sense that a Commons majority made in central Canada could ignore the rest of the country and that MPs were powerless to serve their constituents effectively led to efforts, not to fix the dysfunctional Commons, but to create an effective counterweight to it in the upper house.
Prime Minister Harper says he is committed to an elective senate, even one where provinces like Alberta and British Columbia will be outvoted by much smaller ones. I'm inclined to suspect the constitution-makers of the 1860s had the better sense of things: the problem may be in the Commons, but so is the solution, and an elected and powerful upper house would be bad for western Canada, bad for Canada, bad for democracy.
But if we must go ahead with electing senators, history at least suggests there could be a cure. The experiment with an elected Senate that was launched with Philip VanKoughnet's election one hundred and fifty years ago lasted barely a decade before Canadians plumped for something better.
Moore Editorial Ltd, 2006
PRAIRIE GIANT: WHO WAS JIMMY GARDINER ANYWAY?
I cannot bring myself to write more about the craven behaviour of the CBC in betraying the Tommy Douglas drama Prairie Giant after some viewers complained of its characterization of Douglas's rival, the Liberal politician James G. Gardiner. A label on the opening of Prairie Giant declares it is a dramatization in which characters have been "condensed, composited, or fictionalized." Anyone unaware that drama is fiction and that in fiction things are invented should not have responsibility for running a television network.
Still, the character called Jimmy Gardiner in Prairie Giant was not slavishly faithful to the historical figure, no small giant in his own right. Rather than encourage squabbles about how to control history, I thought it might be more edifying to pursue a different question. If that was hardly Jimmy Gardiner in Prairie Giant, who was Jimmy Gardiner? Has he maybe got a story of his own?
Jimmy Gardiner was a little guy, physically a bit like Tommy Douglas, a teetotaler, and as hard as the times that shaped him. (His brothers were First World War casualties, his son died at Dieppe, and he buried two wives, one a suicide.) Like so many of the west's early leaders, he was an Ontario farm boy, born in 1883, and he first went west as a labourer on a harvest excursion. He stayed, settled, and got into the Saskatchewan legislature in 1914. By 1926 he was premier.
In 1935 he moved on to Ottawa and more than twenty years as federal Minister of Agriculture. Louis St-Laurent beat him in the Liberal leadership race of 1948, and after the Diefenbaker sweep of 1958, he retired to his farm in Lemberg. His monuments include the Gardiner Dam on the South Saskatchewan.
Recently I asked several students of western and national politics whether after half a century there were elements in the Gardiner career that still give a not-quite prime ministerial politician a claim upon our attention.
David E. Smith co-authored a biography of Gardiner. He reminded me that when Jimmy was in power, Saskatchewan had the country's third largest population. Ottawa listened when Gardiner spoke for Saskatchewan and for farmers. That is an experience enjoyed in recent years by few westerners, indeed by few cabinet ministers at all. "For any political scientist, this is quite a story about Canadian political life," Smith says. "It's a story of an unremitting fight for western Canada and for farmers, and about the tools a minister could use for those causes that a minister maybe no longer has."
Saskatchewan historian Bill Waiser told me how Gardiner, early in his career, joined a debate that prefigured one going on today: can Canada accept foreign immigrants without "losing its identity"? In the 1920s, the foreigners were Central Europeans and Catholics, not south Asians and Muslims. According to Waiser, Gardiner experienced Saskatchewan's multi-cultural mix in his rural school-teaching days: "Certainly he saw political potential in those votes, but he was also committed to the diverse population base Saskatchewan was developing." When nativist, anti-foreigner prejudice surged up in Saskatchewan politics in 1929, Premier Gardiner suffered one of his few political defeats. According to Regina historian Bill Brennan, "The Liberal Party tradition has been that Jimmy Gardiner's Liberals did the right thing in 1929, and paid the price."
Mackenzie King biographer Blair Neatby once interviewed Gardiner at his Lemberg farm. ("He was very down to earth and unpretentious, a genuine farmer.") Neatby recalls a politician unintimidated by bureaucrats. Neatby's uncle was a civil servant and deputy minister of agriculture and when Gardiner did not like his advice, he would simply say, "Remember, Ken, I'm the minister." That attitude shaped Gardiner's reservations about the Canadian Wheat Board, which he saw as bureaucratic and beyond the control by farmers; he preferred farmer-run co-ops.
For Saskatchewan historian and legal scholar Beth Bilson, that attitude influenced Gardiner's hostility to Tommy Douglas's CCF. "One of the big issues behind the CCF in Saskatchewan was its advocacy for technocracy, for competence, for the specialization of public administration. And that did set up a tension with popular democracy." Gardiner, convinced that elected politicians must be in the driver's seat, fought a long rear-guard action against non-partisan expertise.
One enduring characterization of Gardiner is "a machine politician," for he ran the Liberal organization in western Canada when it was fearsomely successful. Smith: "If we define machine politics as a patronage-based civil service where civil servants were expected to do their bit to support the re-election of their political masters, he was not much different from many others of his time. It was a fairly normal part of politics."
Gardiner himself rejected the term "machine" -- a political party was nothing without organization, he said -- but he was a ferociously partisan Liberal. "One of the arguments that Jimmy used against third parties," says Smith, was: "What do they think they can do for the west when they are sitting on the left side of the speaker? I think it is a question that has not definitely been answered yet by western third parties."
Jimmy Gardiner was above all a fighter. In his world, politics was a hard-knuckle, no-concession, no-surrender business. That is where Prairie Giant caught something essential about the man. If you could tell Jimmy Gardiner there was a movie that portrayed him as someone who always fought tooth-and-nail for his party and the causes he believed in, well, he might have accepted that. A movie hero needs an antagonist, and the film rolled everything Tommy Douglas feared and fought into one single character labelled "Jimmy Gardiner."
"Jimmy Gardiner dominated Saskatchewan for half a century," reflects Bill Brennan. "What the Prairie Giant controversy showed was how many people had never heard of him." For a last word, here's what Tommy Douglas said of Jimmy Gardiner in 1958: "He's not a loveable figure. He's a tough, hard-bitten politician.... [But] he has tremendous courage.... I never saw him run away from a fight of any kind . He's not a snob.... When he was a Minister of the Crown [he] met with the ordinary people and lunched with the private members and was democratic, friendly and approachable."
Gardiner: Relentless Liberal by Norman Ward and
David E Smith was published by University of Toronto
Press in 1990. The Politician, a novel Jimmy Gardiner
wrote in his youth, was published in 1975 by Western
Producer Prairie Books.
Moore Editorial Ltd, 2006
THE PLAQUE MAKERS
I don’t really have a bumper sticker that says, “We brake for plaques.” But my beginnings in historical practice go back to the historic sites service of Parks Canada, so I’ve long been engaged with the way Time gets rooted in Place -- and vice versa. It’s not hard to get me to stop for any historical place.
My family, fortunately, aids and abets this enthusiasm. Over the years, we have explored historic sites and read historical plaques from Cape Spear, Nfld., to White Pass Summit, Yukon.
This past summer, we did not venture far from home. But historical news is where you find it. One morning, in a Toronto neighbourhood not far from my own, I was stopped in my tracks by a poster with the headline “Teiaiagon.”
I knew Teiaiagon. It was an Iroquois fortified town that briefly thrived in the mid-1600s on a headland commanding the Humber River on the west side of Toronto. But who cared enough about historical Teiaiagon to be slapping posters about it on postal boxes and power poles in the neighbourhood where it once stood?
The Missing Plaques project cared.
Toronto activist Tim Groves, the guiding spirit of Missing Plaques, first went out with “a steaming bucket of wheat paste and a roll of posters” in December 2002. He wanted to tell the Christie Pits neighbourhood of Toronto about the 1933 riot there that pitted swastika-waving Nazi sympathizers against the local Jewish community. In Groves’ view, that is the kind of incident that goes “missing” from official, civic-booster historical plaques. His direct-action response to historical amnesia at Christie Pits became the first of fifteen “Missing Plaques” posters he has put up in various Toronto neighbourhoods.
“I don’t have bureaucrats censoring and editing the histories to make sure they portray Toronto in a favourable light,” Groves writes on the Missing Plaques website. His illustrated posters include such recently-controversial topics as Toronto’s Bathhouse Raids of 1981 and “Revenue Rez,” a 29-day First Nations occupation of Revenue Canada’s Toronto headquarters in 1994. But Missing Plaques also takes note of older events: an 1882 strike by women shoemakers, ancient Teiaiagon. Groves has found a vehicle to combine his interests in graphic design, radical politics, and local history, and he’s enriching our urban spaces at the same time.
Missing Plaques may be part of a trend. Along Montreal’s “Main,” the Boulevard St-Laurent, you can explore the history and culture of the neighbourhood through an elaborate network of art and information called “Frag.” Frag has more official standing and sponsorship than Toronto’s Missing Plaques, but it too was the inspiration of neighbourhood artists and urbanists. No doubt other initiatives I have not yet noticed document other half-forgotten moments across the country.
One group applies new media to the places where history happened. The “Murmur” Collective spurns low-tech plaques and installations as positively 20th century. It prefers history by cell phone. In neighbourhoods around Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal, Murmur puts up its logo and a phone number. You spot the logo, open your cell phone, input the number. And you hear a story rooted in the scene that’s right in front of you. Murmur sites have blossomed in San Jose, California, Dublin, Ireland, and Edinburgh, Scotland as well as the Canadian cities. But Shawn Micallef, one of Murmur’s founders, thinks the inspiration was pure Toronto. “In Toronto, people think important things happen elsewhere. They don’t mythologize Toronto. So we were reacting to that.”
Asked if they worry about accuracy and historical significance, Micallef says simply, “No.” Murmur, he says, is storytelling, it’s local mythology. “We are not historical plaques. Plaques are important, they are official. If you disagree with the stories we’ve recorded, we’ll let you record your own.”
Accessing stories by cell phone, we are a long way from bronze texts on stone cairns duly authorized by city council or the National Historic Sites and Monuments Board. But bronze, it turns out, is an endangered species anyway. The Toronto civic agency responsible for official plaques went missing after the mega-city amalgamation ten years ago and has never really got going again. And in Montreal the plaques are quite literally missing. A year ago, 28 of the 85 commemorative plaques in Old Montreal had been stolen for the value of the metal in them.
Some independent plaquing projects profess to confront a constraining “official” narrative of our history. Activists like Toronto’s Tim Groves draw inspiration from urban organizing, radical politics, and street art. “Many of the people who do work around the city’s history… focus on the history of the British and the rich,” the Missing Plaque project declares. It seeks the histories that Toronto denies.
I’m not so sure. It’s true the alternative plaquers document much that is unlikely ever to be cast in official bronze. (Though not far from Missing Plaques’ Teiaiagon poster, there’s a substantial Toronto Parks panel on the same subject.) But the most important thing these projects offer is not their confrontation with “official” history. Many people won’t know the official history either. Amnesia and apathy about history strike me as more substantial targets for creative citizens than some paper-tiger official narrative.
What the underground installation artists and poster makers really confront is that sense that History belongs to some official agency or to no one. What’s most exciting about Frag, Murmur, and Missing Plaques (and all their siblings I’ve not discovered) is their faith that history belongs to all of us, to citizens. History in our neighbourhoods need not be left exclusively to public agencies. Historical speech really is a form of free speech. It has as much right to be political and provocative as any other medium.
All we need do is seize it. Or, where possible, dial it up.
Correction: I wrote here that Toronto's official heritage agency became inactive after Toronto's merger with neighbouring cities in 1997. ON publication, Heritage Toronto informed me that since 2004 it has been back in operation and installing new plaques to commemorate Toronto heritage. Good!
Plaques showcases its Toronto poster work
Moore Editorial Ltd, 2007
YOUR GENEALOGICAL GROOVE
Barbara Sears, once Pierre Berton’s “best-in-the business” research associate, has in recent years become quietly essential to scores of film and television projects about Canadian history, and she knows the field. “History on film,” she says, “used to be all about talking heads and stock footage. Now it’s about celebrities and new ways of telling stories.”
As evidence, she points to not one but two national television programs that are devoted to the search for historical family. Suddenly genealogy is fashionable.
Sears helps make the CBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? (based on a breakout BBC hit). It starts with homegrown Canadian celebrities, from singer Chantal Kreviazuk to retired Major-General Lewis Mackenzie, then draws the subjects (and the viewers) into their often surprising ancestries.
I find that connecting people I feel we know with things they never knew about themselves can be irresistible history: just watch the charming young singer Measha Bruggergosman fight back tears over a 1783 document that records her five-month-old ancestor, the child of escaped slaves, as “born free.”
“Storytelling is the heart of the appeal,” says series producer Janice Tufford. “It’s a bit of a reality-show hybrid.”
Over at History Television, the genealogy show is Ancestors in the Attic. It invites ordinary Canadians to pose questions from their own family histories, then zooms off to unlock the answers in gleaming archives and moody graveyards around the world.
The only celebrities in Ancestors are its never-fail panel of genealogists. Instead of famous people, the program at first offered storytelling flash instead. Host Jeff Douglas and his camera leaped around each other at a headsnapping pace, suggesting music video more than History Television’s usual fare of Panzers rolling across Poland. But the producers’ confidence in the show’s inherent appeal is growing. “We did take it down a notch in the second season,” series producers told me recently.
Ancestors in the Attic works for me; I find it entertaining and sometimes moving. History Television’s commissioning producer Michael Kot says, “I wanted stories of ordinary people. And I wanted ways to help people who could not do their own searches.” Ancestors now gets floods of requests from exactly those people, “from all over the country,” says producer Dugald Maudsley, “from a wide range of ages, and more and more from Chinese-Canadians, Japanese-Canadians, Ukrainians. We’re getting away from that Anglo-Scottish-Irish idea of Canada and of genealogy.”
I would say the show’s youthful enthusiasm works too. “Genealogy is most often done by people who are older,” says Maudsley, “like my father who is retired” — and who first convinced his filmmaker son this stuff could be a TV series. “But the material has appeal much more widely. It has elements of CSI — the search, the method of step one, step two, step three, as you attack a mystery. And it does have emotional impact, for women and for young viewers as much as anyone. The stories it tells are about family and real lives.”
Genealogy’s rise to fashion involves more than just a couple of television programs. Paul McGrath — who has become at least a minor celebrity as one of Ancestors’ on-camera panelists — runs a genealogical consulting company in Toronto, and he has seen tremendous growth in public interest in genealogy. One cause: technology. “I started doing genealogy at fourteen,” he told me, “making trips to dark reading rooms in archives. Now you can do it at home. You sit at your computer. You find sources, you find bits of information, you get hooked, and away you go.”
Digitization has also produced a great explosion of information providers, from local libraries and the Canadian Genealogical Centre of Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa to commercial providers who assemble public records online and add value in convenient search tools, data management programs, and even publishing arms that will print and bind your family history.
Now genetic science is adding “deep ancestry” to genealogy. Forget about the birth date of your grandmother’s maiden aunt; have you got your mitochondrial haplogroup assignment yet? Provide a saliva sample, and your line can be traced back 50,000 years to the Rift Valley of Africa. Already the basics cost as little as $100 from local stores or online providers.
McGrath, the professional genealogist, is not entirely sold. “I did mine, and it told me that both my mother’s family and my father’s family came from the British Isles. Well, duh.” Still, he foresees rapid progress as data registries link participants to others with matching DNA profiles. The only link McGrath has received so far was so distant as to be genealogically invisible, but the level of detail should constantly improve as more people join these new networks of data.
In all its manifestations, from gene tracing to web-based research to stories that tug the heartstrings, genealogy offers our moving, mingling, disassociating, recombining societyat least hints and glimpses of who we are through the search for where we came from.
And the market is vast. A study commissioned by one of the commercial genealogy services claims a quarter of Canadians do not know their grandmothers’ maiden names, while forty percent do not know when their family came to Canada.
Genealogical stories may even be helping change how television does history. When I profiled History Television on its launch ten years ago, executives there told me History Television “would never have a studio program.” One result: way too much Second World War stock footage. A panel of genealogists would not have had a chance.
Today Ancestors in the Attic, a studio program, is a hit for the network. Genealogical stories, says Dugald Maudsley, are “a vehicle for talking about history — but in a contemporary way.” The genealogy programs are demonstrating that, skilfully done, talk about history can be dramatic and engrossing television.
©Christopher Moore Editorial Ltd, 2008
MICHAEL BLISS: HISTORIES AND PRINCIPLES
“I think there is very little theory in my writing,” says Michael Bliss. “Philosophy convinced me that a lot of social theory is bunk. My work is very specific and grounded.”
When I read in the recent tribute volume entitled Essays in Honour of Michael Bliss that Bliss’s first studies were in philosophy, I wondered if that was the source of the clear views and strong principles that have distinguished him among recent historians of Canada. No, he said when we talked recently at University of Toronto’s Massey College. What he retained from philosophy was mostly that resistance to grand theoretical interpretations.
Since the late 1960s, Michael Bliss has been a substantial presence among scholars of the history of Canada. He began in business history, most notably with his 1978 book, A Canadian Millionaire. This biography of Toronto entrepreneur Joseph Flavelle evoked the late 19th century Canadian business world, as a country merchant straight from a backwoods farm built a large industrial corporation and then moved into finance, banking, high society, and public life. Bliss even provided a kind of cliffhanger: how did the man who declared “to hell with profits” become a war profiteer? Bliss followed it with Northern Enterprise (1987), an encyclopedic sweep across five centuries of Canadian business.
Meanwhile, he had detoured into medical history. He took up the story of insulin partly just for the sake of a story that needed to be reconstructed in intricate detail, “day by day, and dog by dog.” The Discovery of Insulin (1982) became his best-known book, and medical history gradually became his principal historical work, yielding Plague and three big biographies of doctors Frederick Banting, William Osler, and Harvey Cushing. One lesson from the medical histories? Despite all our advances, Bliss writes, the twentieth-century turn to the secular meant a huge reduction in life expectancy: from eternity to less than a hundred years.
Bliss sees himself as a “grounded” historian, trying to pursue human lives in all their existential uniqueness. As a biographer, he admits to following Walt Whitman’s injunction: to resurrect the dead, to stand them on their feet in all their human complexity. This “tell it like it is” stance puts him, to say the least, out of step with the academic consensus not something that has deterred Bliss much.
Bliss may be anti-theoretical in his historical writing, but much of his fame comes from the vigorous opinions in his op-ed columns and media commentary. For Bliss, who has criticized his own profession for its retreat into specialization and minutiae, commentary became a way to keep history engaged with the big Canadian questions.
“My first job was to write good history,” Bliss says of his commentary. “I think I have always discussed things in historical context.” He denies being simply a conservative voice on public affairs, but might admit to being a contrarian. “The problem I had as a Canadian public intellectual was being expected to be a cheerleader for Canadian nationalism, was resisting the temptation of the money and the support that was always available for that. I wanted to resist that. I tried to avoid drumbeating. I thought it was important to be able to ask any critical question, including ‘why should the country continue in existence?’”
I saw one television talk piece he did recently, and he had lost none of that pungency. While the other guests parsed the politics of Mulroney-Schrieber hearings, Bliss was clearly outrage at seeing political life and the office of prime minister so sullied, and he blazed with cold fury. Those moments are now rare: Bliss decided he would mostly give up punditry when he retired from the university in 2006.
But the principles remain strong. We happened to be talking on the day in March 2008 when Conrad Black began his jail term, and as we left Massey College we encountered John Fraser, the college’s master. A lifelong friend and sometime employee of Black’s, Fraser gave us the latest news on Black’s pre-jail mood. “I never thought it would come to this,” he said.
As we left the college, Bliss admitted he had always thought it would come to precisely this. As an acquaintance of Black’s, he had been sounded out about a letter of support for the beleaguered businessman. And had declined.
in Honour of Michael Bliss: Figuring the Social,
a volume of essays organized by Bliss’s former
doctoral students and edited by E.A. Heaman,
Alison Li, and Shelley McKellar, was published
by University of Toronto Press in March 2008.
©Christopher Moore Editorial Ltd, 2008
AN EXPO '67 KALEIDOSCOPE: TEN SCENES FROM TERRE DES HOMMES
1. If You Need Proof that the Sixties Really Existed…
I once heard of a girl from Hamilton, Ontario, who chose a smart little outfit that day and let herself get separated from her Catholic-school class tour group as soon as they came up out of the Métro on Ile Sainte-Hélène and she met Yvan or something from Outremont and they toured the Soviet Pavilion and Man the Producer and they rode the blue mini-rail but the lines for Labyrinth were way too long so they went to the Canada 360 film-in-the-round and everyone was so friendly everywhere and so sophisticated, and she kissed him at Katimavik and he took her to the fireworks at La Ronde and then the nuns sent her home to Ontario and now she has daughters older than she was then but she remembers it like scenes from a Claude Lelouch movie with split screens and a pop-strings soundtrack and she thinks whatever became of that boy Yvan and where did she find that great little outfit and she thinks, yeah, baby, that was my ‘sixties moment, Expo ‘67 in Montreal, Terre des Hommes.
Okay, I’m not sure every detail in that story can be fact-checked. In fact, I think we need a warning here: age-sensitive material. If you are under fifty now, you were probably too young. Over seventy-five, you were pushing forty then and may have missed some of the allure. There will be historical significance in this article. But if you really cannot stand more boomer gloating about their g-g-generation, you had better flip to the book reviews or something, because some of that may be hard to avoid here.
From the midst of the fair, the great Montreal writer Hugh Hood declared, "It's too much, baby; it's something else, total environment, Romantic synaesthesia, the way things are." We really did talk that way, as if to have been young and part of Expo ‘67 … what was that Wordsworth line from English class? … ‘was very heaven.’
2. It was Gonna be a Disaster.
“I was living about a hundred yards from Pie IX Blvd which seemed to be the major route for all the trucks taking the fill to the islands' site. For about a year, that street, a main Montréal thoroughfare, was covered in dirt. Mud, on a rainy day.” (Alan, a Montrealer, in his twenties in 1967)
Moscow actually won the competition to hold a 1967 world exposition. Montreal only got the nod after the Soviets backed out. It was a very late start. The Diefenbaker government was not very interested. No one believed the boasts of Montreal’s Mayor Jean Drapeau. The plan to build new islands for the fair in the St. Lawrence River looked seriously crazy. Well into 1964, government officials were whispering about how to postpone a World’s Fair. Canadians expected the whole thing to be a big stupid ugly blight upon the nation.
Then the nations of the world signed on. And the islands were not washed away, and upon them arose a spectacular skyline of pavilions and pleasure domes. And somehow the whole place seemed to plug itself into the very best of the world at that moment. From the day it opened, April 28, 1967, it was the place everyone in the world wanted to be. Canadians realized they had always known it was going to be wonderful.
3. Three who made the fair: Drapeau, Dupuy, Churchill
Drapeau was an amazing electrifying little man, and word began to go out, “We’re going to have a Métro and a world’s fair,” and we were hearing about how they were building new islands, which was weird. And then on the Ed Sullivan Show, Ed introduced Jean Drapeau! That’s when we said, ‘My God, this is really big.’ Montreal was so proud in 1967. It was making history. It was the centre of Canada. (Carol, a Montrealer, 18 that year)
Jean Drapeau was mayor of Montreal most years from 1950 to 1986, and though Expo ‘67 was not his idea, he made it happen. His career would not end well, with that Olympic debt and the megalomania, but in the early sixties he brought Montreal its Place des Arts, and the spectacular new Métro, and a wave of urban redevelopment and the fair.
Pierre Dupuy, Canada’s senior diplomat, became Commissionaire-General of Expo in 1963. When they said he “sold Canada and Expo to the world,” Dupuy denied it. He said he simply made the nations of the world see it was in their interest to be part of the greatest world’s fair ever. Sixty-two countries responded to his invitation, a record number. Fifty million people came to see, half again more than were expected.
Dupuy quickly recruited a team of anglophone and francophone Canadians to build his Expo. Colonel Edward Churchill, a Canadian Forces engineer who took charge of construction, used a computer to set a “critical path” building schedule. At the time, computerized management and critical-path engineering were so advanced they seemed like magic. What really was critical was Churchill’s irresistible insistence: those deadlines had to be met.
A Triumph for Designers
impressed we were with Habitat. It had terrific
ideas, so novel, so many ideas. Just the way
that the apartments did not have views straight
up and down like a typical high rise but were
beautifully staggered and angled. It was complex
and interesting everywhere you looked. (Blanche,
in her forties then, who took the train from
Penticton, B.C, with her husband and three
teenaged children)…. They had designed and
developed the whole area just to walk around
in. Even the trash bins were designed -- to
be useful but also to fit in and to be part
of the overall design. (John from Toronto,
in his thirties with small children)
In 1968, Robert Fulford published This Was Expo, a souvenir picture book that is also an astute critical study. Fulford guessed that a key legacy of the fair might well be its architecture. The apartment complex Habitat, pre-built without being cookie-cutter, made Moshe Safdie’s reputation. Fulford loved Buckminster Fuller’s American pavilion, a spectacular geodesic dome, then the largest ever built, and Germany’s airy tent, an innovation in space-frame construction. Fulford quoted one architect who found Expo’s buildings “the most exciting collection of buildings I’ve ever seen.”
Yet it wasn’t the buildings. Expo ‘67 was one of North America’s first encounters with a cityscape designed for pleasure, a place that mixed education and leisure and commerce, a place for friendly crowds to stroll and enjoy the view and eat well and shop and see a show. Vancouver’s Granville Island, Halifax’s Waterfront Properties, Winnipeg’s Forks, and that place down by the bend of the Bow River in Calgary, they all have a little of Expo ’67 in their genes. Fulford credits a Colombian designer, Luis Villa, with the elegant design concepts that pulled it together.
5. Terre des Hommes, a secular celebration
We were going with our school classes and they were trying to educate us, while the kids older than us were having fun. They were visiting “other countries,” and you knew by next year they would be doing that for real, actually backpacking the world. At Expo everything was so new and so international. (Rita, Montrealer, age 12)
Pierre Dupuy said most world’s fairs chose a theme and then forgot about it. Terre des Hommes/Man and His World an image inspired by the French writer and visionary Antoine de Saint-Exupéry actually worked. Expo became one of the first flowerings of that secular humanist sense of global sharing, technological possibility, creative prowess, and sheer confidence in humanity’s power and potential. It was mostly a triumph of the west. China was not represented, Africa just barely, and Latin America only a little. In Stephen Gill’s novel Immigrant, a South Asian visitor to Expo is asked for his autograph, just because he is exotic. But you could not miss this breezy confidence that humankind could learn to do great things. And once the designs were perfected, man’s world was going to be wonderful.
6. “La découverte de la fiérté”
We could see Expo ‘67 ahead of the ship as we came into Montreal. In the early morning, the glitter of Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome it was full of hope and optimism. I was excited about Canada, about a new life. Montreal was wonderful, truly a great city. And my first sight of Canada was Expo. (Trysh, an immigrant from Britain in her early 20s)
When he wrote a memoir, Pierre Dupuy called it Expo ‘67, ou la découverte de la fiérté. The discovery of pride. “What’s got into our good gray neighbour?” asked the Americans. The Brits said Expo had glitter and sex appeal and it was … Canadian? Dupuy believed the surge of confidence and pride in shared achievement and international recognition would change Canada forever. On opening day, the journalist Peter C. Newman wrote, “This is the greatest thing we have ever done as a nation.”
There’s a moment in almost every decade when Canada “becomes a nation,” and Expo ‘67 was surely one of those. In the midst of the marvelously successful Centennial celebrations, Expo ’67 made many Canadians more proud and patriotic than they had ever felt before.
Canada’s own pavilion was centered on a vast inverted pyramid called Katimavik, the meeting place. Though there was not much to do there, “there was weeping, it made us so happy,” one Canadian remembers. “Because we had no idea of what the rest of the country thought of us, and suddenly we were checking in with other Canadians who had a secret: we really have a country. You were always meeting people, we were touching people, we were saying, ‘I can’t believe this is happening.’”
7. Changing our relationship with the movies
Film on the wall and on the ceiling and everywhere, all the fabulous films. The, Ontari-ar-ario film and all those split up images. I saw a live birth of a baby on film, and I had never seen anything like that. .(Judith, age 12, who drove with her mother from Espanola, Ontario) … I remember most the 360 in the round film, probably old hat now, but I really clearly remember holding on to the railing as the helicopter swooped., (Barbara, early 20s, a British Columbian with a civil-service job in Ottawa)
Patrick Watson conceived the Heritage Minutes from a memory of the one-minute film festival he attended at Expo ’67. The people who developed IMAX were veterans of the National Film Board’s mega-screen Expo hit Labyrinth, where you walked through the movie and the images came at you from all sides. Czechoslovakia sent the first interactive film, a movie where the audience got to vote among branching plot options.
Film suddenly burst the boundaries of single-screens and static audiences at Expo ’67, and the visual image announced it was about to go all interactive and multi-screen and omnipresent. The world did not go to Expo for the movies, but there the movies seized the world by the eyeballs, the way they have been doing ever since.
It was more than movies. Robert Fulford in 1968: “At Expo it became possible to envision a world in which all the resources previously available to private industries and to show business film, lighting, models, carefully organized environments -- would be used by professional educators” in schools, galleries, and museums. Electronic education. Edu-tainment. For better or worse, we have been living there ever since.
8. “Today Expo is part of the Québécois identity.”
“En 67 tout était beau/C’etait l’année d’l’amour, c’était l’année d’l’Expo” (Quebec supergroup Beau Dommage, “Blues d’la métropole,” 1975)
“Everyone seized on this extraordinary thing that was Expo 67 to create a flattering and celebratory idea of Quebec,” writes Laval University anthropologist Pauline Curien. Her 2003 doctoral thesis on Expo 67 examines how Expo marked a new moment in the self-image of French Quebec. At Expo 67, she argues, a modern francophone Québécois supplanted the folkloric French Canadian as the image the people of Quebec held of themselves. At Expo, Quebeckers simply chose to become modern.
People joked that the pavilions of Quebec and Ontario had been switched. Where Ontario’s airy tent was mostly joie de vivre, Quebec’s cool glass cube spoke of energy and technology and urban sophistication. In her thesis, Curien argues that Quebec’s pavilion conveyed the image of a society freed of its past and turned toward a future where faith, tradition, and the Catholic Church gave way to reason, modernity, and the state.
Expo ’67 proved that those traditional French-Canadian Catholic farm families had given birth to one of the coolest peoples in the world. Quebec did not discover itself; it discovered what it was capable of. Expo’s message about global reach, secular prowess, and the glories of the modern world was young Quebec’s discovery as well.
9. The Girls of Expo.
My sister worked at Expo. She wore the little hostess outfits designed by John Warden. You went to Montreal to see the women. There were minis and pantsuits, and everyone was gorgeous. (Carol, Montreal, age 18)
Reading the documents and guides of the moment, you would think there had never been pretty girls before, or that men had never noticed them. From forty years on, it’s amazing how much everyone writing in 1967 mentioned “the girls” of Expo as if they were part of the design, something to gaze upon in delight. Hostesses were beautiful and bilingual and they wore smart designer outfits and their hair was long and straight. In fact, that was every girl in Montreal that summer, if you believe what they were writing. It really was “Man and His World.” Today, I guess we would not even dare to call it that.
10. Just being there.
The crowds I loved them, that happy crowd thing, the buzz of being caught up in the event, I love a mob scene when it’s like that. It was French, it was sophisticated, and there was so much going on. The whole mood of the Expo was so fresh, now, happening. La Ronde, it was a great place to spend time. (Elaine, 21, frequent visitor from New Hampshire)
It was crowded. From the very first days until the closing in October, there were many more visitors than anyone predicted. There were crises with accommodations. There were scandals over food supply. There was panic over the long, slow lineups that wound around most popular pavilions all day and every day.
Forty years later, the only ones who remember any of that were parents who had to cope with the needs of young children. For the rest the crowds were fun, the food was good and interesting, and memories of the long waits have faded. Time and again, people then and people now agree: the real joy of Expo ’67 was just being part of it.
“I saw the Bolshoi Orchestra at Place des Arts. The wealth of material performed at Place des Arts that summer! It was just so rich. It was an amazing moment for Canadian culture, with our art and design and the best of all the world all in one place. The cultural stuff truly was extraordinary. Montreal, I fell in love with Montreal. (Guenther, 17, from Cambridge, Ontario)
“It was a time of euphoria like no other, a sudden consciousness of where we belonged, of being Canadian.” (Gunda, a young adult newly returned to Canada from Europe)
©Christopher Moore Editorial Ltd, 2007
THE NATIONAL DREAM
Twenty-five years ago Pierre Berton was famous, successful, influential. As a journalist and as a TV personality, he had long since outpaced his few rivals in Canada. But he was not yet the Berton we know. He was not yet Berton the historian.
Then in 1970, he published The National Dream, the first of his two-book narrative on the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway. The railway books changed his life -- and ours. He was fifty. His important work had just begun.
The idea that Berton's historical writings are his important ones, outweighing all his previous journalism, is Berton's own. He said so last May in Toronto, when he gave the Margaret Laurence Lecture, an annual event (sponsored by the Writers' Development Trust) in which a senior Canadian writer reflects on "A Writer's Life." That idea started me musing on the significance of those railway books. Then he said something else about them.
When he had his research assembled, Berton said, he retreated home to Kleinburg, Ontario. And there he wrote the first draft of the first volume in three weeks -- typing, barely able to stop, eighteen hours a day, then spending the other six barely able to sleep, so eager was he to get back to his story. I thought I had never heard a more vivid account of a writer's ecstasy, of being so consumed with a subject that writing becomes a pleasure and an obsession.
Recently I went to talk to Pierre Berton about writing the railway books that founded his historical career. "I haven't read them since then," he said. But he has not forgotten them either. Perhaps working on his memoirs (scheduled for publication in 1995) has helped refresh his memory, but no one lets him forget those books. "They are not my favorite books, or my best. I enjoyed Vimy more. And , my longest book, it's a very long book, I think may be my best. But the railway books made my fortune. And they are the ones everyone still remembers."
Looking back, Berton sees the inspiration for his plunge into historical writing in Klondike, published in 1958. That book, about the beginnings of the community he grew up in, might easily have been a one-time venture into history, for a daily column for the Toronto Star preoccupied him in the years that followed. Most of a decade passed before he considered another history. "I had enjoyed Klondike. I can see now that it was about the big subject I like to write about: large groups of people moving through time and space. And I came across the idea of the railway."
Klondike had been built largely from interviews, but the railway led into the archives. "Michael Bliss [who read and commented on the railway manuscript] told me later I would have done better to have started with more of the secondary material, but I went to the archives very early on." Berton discovered the same things most archives users do. There was the shock of being handed boxes filled with precious, irreplaceable documents: in this case, John A. Macdonald's own letters. There was the struggle to master the handwriting (Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie, he discovered, wrote left to right across the page in the normal fashion, then parsimoniously turned the page around and wrote more lines at right angles across the first ones). And there was the freedom of research ("In the public archives in Ottawa, you could read all night, literally, if you borrowed the materials during their working hours.")
He may have been a neophyte in the archives, but already Berton was finding his reporter's skills useful. He instinctively read the papers on the Pacific Scandal the way only an investigative journalist could, interrogating the sources as he might a politician in a scrum.
He also applied the organizational skills of a writer raised on deadlines. All his notes (and those of his researcher Norman Kelly) went into looseleaf sheets that accumulated in thick binders, numbered paragraph by paragraph. When a binder was full Berton assembled a card index to it, and gradually the cards became an outline of the book. When he began to write, he had at hand a plan and the materials to implement it. "I'm like General Montgomery," says Berton now, "I don't make a move until I have all the preparations done and I know exactly what is going to happen."
Journalism also told Berton what kind of book he wanted to write. "I don't call what I do popular history because there is academic history that is popular and non-academic history that no one reads. I call it narrative history. When I started no one in Canada was writing this kind of history. The only exception was Bruce Hutchison." Berton, famed as a journalist for his ability to spot the big story, then get the facts and lay them out in clear vivid prose, planned to apply the same qualities to narrative history. "I'm very influenced by the movies. I try to visualize, I like to see the background. There's a place in the first book [it's volume one, page 222] where I say the meeting between Donald Smith and James J. Hill is like a widescreen movie. Someone criticized that, but that how I like to see."
The richness of the archives helped make that widescreen vision possible. "The railway books started as one book. In fact, I always start a book with the fear that there will not be enough material, enough good material." Once or twice he has abandoned a topic on those grounds, but the archives usually provide. "I make nothing up," Berton says firmly. "I don't need to make up the weather, or the time, or someone's thoughts, when there are sources to tell."
Berton's narratives thrive on that special kind of detail. "Daniel McMullen, for instance, the man who revealed the stolen telegrams in the Pacific Scandal. He had been mentioned, but no one had looked into who he was, his height and age and the fact that he had once been in the ginseng business, all the things that make a character vivid." The archival work that provides that kind of detail, the work that also turned up Edward Mallandaine and put a name to the boy who squeezed into the famous Last Spike photograph, is what underpins Berton's historical narrative style, and it has hardly changed since the railway books.
By then it was time to write. Berton told everyone he was going to Mexico. Instead he went home. To insure quiet, and over the protests of his family (barely heard, one suspects), he took out the telephone. With the card index and twenty binders of notes beside his typewriter, he began the frenzied three weeks that produced the book. "Of course that draft was very rough. I'll write three or four drafts of a book, and up to thirteen of some sections. But I like to get a book down on paper. And I don't always start with Chapter One. In the railway books, I think I started with some of the parliamentary debate, because I knew there was good material there. I had the background on everyone, not just Macdonald but people like Lucius Seth Huntington, too, and with the background in place, those great speeches just leapt right off the page."
The second book emerged at nearly the same pace. Berton points out that over the years The Last Spike has matched the sales of The National Dream, no easy feat for a sequel, but he also thinks they are very different books. The first book was more complex because it was about the competing plans and personalities when the railway was indeed mostly a dream. "In the second book, when they are actually building the railway, the story drives the narrative, and the style is very simple because the story just carries it along."
The railway books appeared in 1970 and 1971. Berton thinks the time was right for the new kind of history he was providing: Centennial year had whetted Canadians' interest in Canada. In any case, the books met instant acceptance and extraordinary sales. Berton particularly remembers a book-signing in Victoria, when orderly lineups collapsed and four hundred people crowded around waving copies of the book at him.
Soon came the television version -- surely one of the best things television has ever done on an historical subject. That sold more books, and really the demand never ceased. Berton had created an audience, and he and his audience have gone on together ever since. The success of The National Dream made him an historian, and almost twenty-five years of Berton histories have changed the landscape of Canadian historical writing. "When I did the TV series My Country, we did 52 episodes. Now I think someone has done a book about every topic we took up in those episodes."
He thinks his best books are those that tap "his" theme -- people moving in time and space. But he thinks a subtheme is vital too. "It's there in all the books, and I never say it straight out. But when I find the subtheme, maybe halfway through the research, I know I have a book.
"Klondike is not really about gold. It's about man's quest, it's about seeking, it's about the odyssey. Vimy is about the frontier, tough, practical, adaptable frontier Canadians who could do what the sophisticated Europeans could not. And 1812 is about the stupidity of war -- about how the least stupid general is always the winner. The Arctic Grail is about the snobbery of the English class system, which is really what defeated Franklin and the others.
And the railway books? "Oh, that's nationalism, the we can do it legacy." Perhaps indeed, nationalism is the theme of all his histories. His journalism is often critical and controversial, but his history tends to the epic more than the expose. Berton has waged unrelenting war on Canadians' sense that their country may not be interesting, may not be great, may not be worth our attention. The measure of his success is how hard it is now to go back to when Berton was fifty and no one thought of him as Berton the historian.v
Pierre Berton concluded his Margaret Laurence lecture by describing a writer's fear. It's not so much death he fears, he said to appreciative laughter, as the frustration of being taken with a book only half done and never to be completed. The man who lives with that delicious fear is the same one who created the railway books, writing almost around the clock and waking up eager for the sheer satisfaction of writing some more.
He's probably more to be envied for that than for all the fortune his histories have earned.
©Christopher Moore Editorial Ltd, 1993
I’ve never met any members of the British royal family, and I don’t really expect to. But I’ve had the chance to meet or see several governors general and lieutenant-governors over the years, and that has helped reinforce my sense of the governor general as our real head of state. More present and less exotic than a British royal, she is part of our Canadian community and our ceremonial life, and that seems a good thing.
Among the ceremonies and presentations, it is easy to forget that a governor general has a constitutional role as well. These days, when constitutional lawyers and historians consider the governor general’s role, it seems we are always one step from a constitutional crisis.
In September 2008, when Michaelle Jean accepted Prime Minister Harper’s advice and dissolved parliament for the October 14 election, several lawyers, political scientists, and historians declared she should have rejected the prime minister’s advice. They wanted her to make her own decision on the matter. “If she says yes,” wrote historian Michael Behiels of the University of Ottawa, anticipating the governor general’s response to the prime minister’s advice, “she will be helping to undermine the rule of law.”
I must say this astonished me. I thought it was parliamentary bedrock that the crown does not take independent action, that the crown acts on the advice of advisors responsible to the people’s elected representatives. But today many Canadians are frustrated with the arbitrary actions of prime ministers. MPs will not rein them in, so the search for countervailing forces has led the critics to Rideau Hall.
Was this not settled in the King-Byng crisis of 1926?
In June 1926 King that’s Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King had been running a minority government for eight months. Too clever by half, King wanted the governor general to dissolve parliament to help King avoid a Commons vote that would put his Liberals out and the Conservatives in. Byng that’s Field Marshal the Viscount Byng of Vimy, Governor General of Canada since 1921 said no, and swore in Arthur Meighen as the new prime minister.
Byng was correct in that decision, most historians agree. Since Meighen’s Conservatives, who actually held more seats than King’s Liberals, had won over the Progressives (who had kept King in power until then), it was clear Parliament intended to change its consensus on who should be prime minister. Byng, in other words, was not independently rejecting advice from his prime minister so much as acceding to parliament’s message that it wanted to change who advised him.
King-Byng showed a governor general taking direction from Parliament as he should. In 2008, by comparison, Parliament was offering no hint that Stéphane Dion was eager to form a government or that he could have mustered support from other parties if he tried. With no change of her advisors in the offing, it seems hard to fault Governor General Jean for taking the advice of the prime minister parliament had given her.
That, however, is not the view of a historian (Behiels), a political scientist (Lawrence LeDuc of the University of Toronto), and a constitutional lawyer (Errol Mendes of the University of Ottawa law school). They are assisting Democracy Watch, an Ottawa lobby group, in seeking a Federal Court ruling that the governor general’s dissolution of parliament was illegal.
“The law is the new factor,” Behiels told me recently. He was referring to a law Prime Minister Harper himself had introduced the one amending the Election Act to require fixed election dates. That law seemed to promise that a prime minister could no longer recommend a dissolution of parliament. The governor general “She is bound by the constitution and that includes all the laws,” Behiels puts it.
Not every scholar has accepted this argument. Constitutional lawyer Patrick Monahan of Osgoode Hall Law School pointed out succinctly that any attempt to change the powers of the governor general would have required a constitutional amendment. Harper’s fixed-elections law specifically disavowed any such intention. Even Behiels agrees that it was “a bad law, probably not needed under our parliamentary system… a bit of Reform flim-flam.”
I can’t see much future in Democracy Watch’s legal challenge and its law-centered rather than parliament-centered view of government. But the crisis we avoided raises a larger question. A governor general does have a constitutional role, constrained though it is. And today, whether she does too much or too little, it seems almost certain that any action is likely to have someone crying “Unconstitutional!”
If Michaelle Jean had refused Prime Minister Harper his dissolution in September, it’s easy to imagine the Conservative campaign against her: see the governor general, an ex-broadcaster with no constitutional credentials, a Liberal appointee, part of that fancy gala-going urban elite, acting as an unelected autocrat and denying the Canadian people an election? What’s democratic about that?
Frankly, that would be an accusation with force behind it, and the damage to the office would be enormous.
We need a Canadian head of state, and I’d say our recent governor generals have done a wonderful job in filling the ceremonial and symbolic aspects of the office. But there’s always the prospect of that constitutional responsibility arising. And a head of state whose standing relies on prime ministerial patronage is always going to be in a weak position.
In Ireland, a parliamentary democracy much like Canada, the head of state is a president whose powers are the same very limited ones held by our governor general. But Irish presidents are elected by all the Irish. Being elected does not authorize them to push the government around, but it does confer on them the moral authority to fill their office with confidence in times of harmony or crisis.
©Christopher Moore Editorial Ltd, 2008-2009
SEARCHING FOR CENTURY SAM: BRITISH COLUMBIA CELEBRATES A HUNDRED AND FIFTY YEARS
When I was a kid, I had a tin box. It was tall and deep, with a hinged lid and bright, coloured images of a cartoon figure called Century Sam all over it. The logo said “British Columbia: A Century to Celebrate 1858-1958.” When it was new, the box had been filled with toffees.
I was not very old in 1958. It is my memory that I got my Century Sam tin box from Willow Point Public School, up the lake from Nelson in the Kootenays of B.C. To celebrate B.C.’s centennial, the province was distributing candy to schoolchildren.
Could that have happened? What Department of Education would give kids boxes of candy? I consulted my smarter older brother recently, and his memory matched mine precisely. For sure the tin box was real; it was around our family home for years. Was my tin box part of the lost history of British Columbia?
Fifty years on, British Columbia is marking its hundred and fiftieth anniversary. Sorry, kids, no candy. Actually, they may not be making so much of it at all. The British Columbia writer and historian Jean Barman has written the text for a spectacular celebratory book called British Columbia: Spirit of the People, that B.C. commissioned for the occasion, but she is cautious about the impact of this event. “Mostly it is local,” she told me. “In Vancouver, most people would not know what you were talking about.”
But in 1958? In 1958, people were talking about Century Sam. The British Columbia centennial came at just the right moment for the province, and the province took to it in a big way.
In the 1950s, a great resource boom –B.C. exports grew five-fold from 1952 to 1972 – was generating new prosperity. Mia Reimers, who teaches history at Northwestern College in Terrace, B.C., says the province was being bound together as never before. “1958 really was the whole process of defining ourselves as a modern province,” she said. “Something was needed to bring the province together, to create a British Columbian identity.” “Beautiful British Columbia”, “the good life,” “Super Natural,” “Pacific Spirit.” You might say all British Columbia’s slogans grow out of the self-discovery of 1958.
Reimers recently completed a study of centenary-making in British Columbia. In thirteen years, the province managed to observe no less than four centenaries, but the first, in 1958, which marked the Fraser River gold rush and the founding of the mainland colony called British Columbia, was the one that left behind the infrastructure: centenary museums, community centres, and swimming pools all over the province. 1958 produced the province’s first heritage preservations, at Barkerville and Fort Steele. 1958 was filled with recreations of historic events. There were even beard-growing contests.
“Men actually did grow gold-rush beards for 1958,” laughs Reimers. “In a sense, the spirit of 1858 allowed these 1950s men to throw off suburban domestication for a moment. And the province played up that gold rush, pioneer, entrepreneur image, as a model for all the entrepreneurial resource development that was going on right then. It all fitted so well with the pro-business, resource-extraction, entrepreneurial attitude.”
Then there was the ubiquitous Century Sam, a cartoon gold miner with no ties to historic realities, “a cross between a Walt Disney dwarf and Howdy Doody,” someone said, but who now looks about fifty years ahead of his time as an effective brand image.
They did something else to mark the centenary in 1958. They commissioned and published a history of the province, British Columbia: A History by Margaret Ormsby.
As it happens, I knew Miss Ormsby, who was a friend of a relative of ours. She probably provided my first intimation that historians were real, people who could be friends of your parents, and that big, serious books could be written about, well, about here.
British Columbia: A History is a big serious book, for sure. It is 566 pages in the edition I have, a meticulous reconstruction of the colony and province based on heroic research in Colonial Office files, politicians’ papers, newspaper archives and much else.
Jean Barman, who has written her own big history of B.C., The West Beyond the West, can’t help comparing the Ormsby history commissioned for the hundredth anniversary and Spirit of the People, the 150th anniversary book to which she contributed.
Many critics have noted that Ormsby’s 1958 viewpoint was entirely with the colonizers. First Nations exist in it mostly as an administrative problem; events such as the deportation of Japanese Canadians in 1942 are barely mentioned. (Indeed Reimers’s study shows the 1958 organizers carefully limited First Nations participation in that year’s events.) Spirit of the People, by comparison, is relentlessly, gorgeously multicultural. “Someone said to me, ‘There are no white people in your book!’ says Barman. (There are.)
Over fifty years, the present reshapes the past. Today’s British Columbia is a Pacific Rim society where a quarter of the population has Asian roots, and so the province’s new history notices that the British Columbia mosaic has always included Chinese, Japanese, black refugees from slavery, Hawaiians, Portuguese, Finns, Swedes, and the First Nations.
But Barman thinks the two books also suggest a change in our sense of history books. 1958 commissioned a massive, authoritative academic study. 2008’s Spirit of the People is a large-format picture book, a full-colour collection of British Columbia art and photography and a collage of stories and sidebars – a book in which the historical narrative might almost be missed.
“The people in government, I admire the way they thought about it,” Barman says. “It really does show the difference in fifty years, the way my book is structured. If you want people to read this book, this is what you have to do.” Each book reflects the British Columbia of its times. In 1958 British Columbia’s leaders saw themselves as pioneering and entrepreneurial, authoritatively taking charge of their province and its image just as their serious. authoritative history does. In 2008 the message is all about “spirit;” and the history book is relaxed, inclusive, tolerant, good-humoured, and diverse.
There is something of that in the British Columbia I see every time I visit. We were talking recently of Port Alberni, a town on Vancouver Island. There used to be one certainty there. If the forestry mills ever closed, everyone said, they would roll up the sidewalks and close the town. Well, the industry has been hit very hard. But Port Alberni seems to be relaxed and tolerant about it. It’s re-emerged as a tourist centre, a retirement community, and a local service centre, and things look brighter than ever.
Count on that old resource economy from 1958, and you worry about British Columbia. The forests have the pine beetle. Salmon stocks are dicey every year. Mining has all been bought by foreign interests.
But look for that Pacific spirit mood. Somehow the place seems to be thriving.
“B.C. is doing so well,” says Jean Barman. “and we always have that immigration from the rest of Canada and the world. I read the Globe and Mail every morning and it seems like doom for the Canadian economy every day, and I get worried. Then I read the Vancouver Sun reporting the boom in British Columbia. The rest of Canada is helping the BC economy. We always have more people born elsewhere than born in British Columbia. You meet older people, and they are all two to eight years out from Alberta or Ontario, and they say, “I never knew it was like this!
“And they are all trying to become British Columbians.”
My Century Sam candy box that I got in school? I asked everyone I spoke with about the province giving free candy to school kids.
They all knew Century Sam. The Royal British Columbia Museum has a terrific 150th exhibit, with plenty of Century Sam, but there’s no artifact from the great toffee giveaway. The story was news to Jean Barman. Mia Reimers, who knows everything about 1958, has never heard of the province giving candy to school kids. The Century Sam candy box is not even on eBay.
I think my candy box came from an indulgent relative caught up in the mood of 1958. Research shatters another fond illusion.
Jean Barman, British Columbia: Spirit of the People was published by Harbour Books in 2008. Mia Reimers’s doctoral dissertation, British Columbia at its Most Sparkling Colourful Best, was completed in 2007.
©Christopher Moore Editorial Ltd, 2008
Listening to the North: Dorothy Harley Eber's Oral Histories
Dorothy Harley Eber gives much of the credit to her interpreters. In her new book Encounters on the Passage, she salutes Tommy Anguttitauruq in Gjoa Haven, Oleepa Ikidluak in Iqaluit, Leah Otak in Igloolik, Christopher Amautinuar in Pelly Bay, and many others in communities across Nunavut. She praises them as “amazingly talented,” “highly trained” and possessing “remarkable skills” “The interpreters are so important,” she said when I talked with her recently. “If the interpreter is known and respected, then you get more – more stories, more detail.”
But the listener matters too. For forty years Dorothy Harley Eber, a Montreal journalist with no academic or institutional credentials, has been going to the North and listening to Inuit elders talk of the old days The tapes and transcripts she has collected during many visits have become a precious source of information about Inuit life during its transformation from the hunting life to today’s Nunavut. Though she speaks no Inuktitut, the books she has made of those conversations offer us kabloona [Inuktitut: a non-Inuit person] a remarkable window on the Inuit history of the north.
Art, not history, first took Dorothy Eber north. She was a freelance journalist in Montreal when she first saw an exhibition of Inuit prints and sculpture at the Montreal Museum. “Immediately I knew I wanted to go and write about that art.” It took a few years, but in the late 1960s she made her first trip to Cape Dorset on southwestern Baffin Island in what is now Nunavut. “The weather was so bad, and I only had a day and a night there. But I had a good interpreter, and I was able to talk with several of the leading artists of the day. I went back in the summer of 1970, and that time I stayed a month and I did the Peter Pitseolak interviews.”
In the 1940s, Peter Pitseolak (1902-73) had acquired a camera and began photographing Inuit camp life. In order to develop his pictures, he and his wife built darkrooms in igloos in the midst of hunting expeditions. Eventually Pitseolak wrote a memoir (in Inuit syllabics), and his story, combined with Eber’s interviews with him and with his photographs and prints, became a book, People from Our Side, first published in 1973 and still in print today. Eber believes it was not just the first Inuit oral history, but the first Canadian one.
On a later interviewing trip, Eber took with her an 1881 photo of an Inuit family who had travelled south to New London, Connecticut. She thought her hosts might be interested in the century-old news story. “Hey, that was Johnniebo!” they said. To her surprise, they knew all about the family in the photo and why they had gone south. Their account of his story was much more detailed than the historical record, at least about the Inuit side of things. Eber grasped the richness of preserved memory among this story-telling people – and she began to listen.
Johnniebo and his family had gone south with a whaling crew. In the nineteenth century, whaling was the main source of contact between Europeans and Inuit along the coasts of the Eastern Arctic. From the rich fund of stories the Inuit elders retained, Eber wrote When the Whalers Were Up North (1989), an oral record that is a substantial history of Arctic whaling as well as a vivid recapturing of the Inuit communities that participated.
In her latest book, Eber turns to the British naval expeditions sent to discover the Northwest Passage in the mid-nineteenth century – culminating in John Franklin’s doomed expedition. Impressed by the way another book, Unravelling the Franklin Mystery by David C. Woodman, found new light on Franklin’s fate in century-old Inuit testimony collected by Franklin searchers, she decided to see what further stories might still be in the repertoire of today’s Inuit storytellers. In communities across the Arctic, she sat down as a guest in one small home after another, with a pot of tea at hand and Discovery Channel (Nunavut’s favourite channel; it’s the animals) in the background, and let her informants talk.
Encounters on the Passage is alive with suggestions for enthusiasts still seeking Franklin’s grave or his lost record books or his sunken ships. But what stand out is how the Inuit experienced those crazy incursions. Eber’s stories bring home the true weirdness of these aliens and their great vessels, suddenly planting themselves amidst the people. Were they human? Who dared approach them? No wonder they fuelled a thousand stories worth retelling for the next hundred and fifty years.
If someone finds the Erebus and Terror wrecks this summer – and they will be looking – Inuit testimony will have been crucial to their success. But the richest material in this book, as in all of Eber’s, is not what it says about a few doomed intruders from the south, but the role it plays in storing and preserving Inuit storytelling.
The future of Inuit oral history, Eber is sure, lies with the Inuit themselves. “There will be Inuit authors in the next decade who will take this over.” Already local elders’ societies and research centers are compiling their own story collections, preserving an Inuit heritage for an Inuit future and adding to oral traditions recorded as long as a century ago, many of which still await editing and analysis.
Many of the elders Eber first listened to, men and women who absorbed community lore during long nights, are now long in traditional hunting camps are now long dead. But their voices endure, and northern history continues to be told and collected.
“I have met some who did not want to speak and thought others should not either. But most of the people want to pass on an understanding of the old ways. Pitseolak Ashoona said to me, ‘After I am dead, the book will be there, so that they will know it was not all a myth.’ People like her believe they are doing something worthwhile, recording the stories.”
Dorothy Harley Eber’s new book, Encounters on the Passage: Inuit Meet the Explorers was published by University of Toronto Press in 2008.
©Christopher Moore Editorial Ltd, 2008
Okay, I was hooked the moment the book came in the mail: Rise Again! The Story of Cape Breton Island, by Robert J. Morgan.
I started my historical career working with Bob Morgan in Cape Breton. Though I soon went away again, he stayed. I could see in this very readable history, the island’s first in 150 years, a culmination of the near half-century Bob Morgan has spent deep inside the local history and culture of his island.
And something more, too.
Beneath the refrain that Canadians don’t know or care about our shared history lies a remarkable wealth of deeply rooted, deeply local historical interest. Bob Morgan’s lifework, which helped fuel a cultural renaissance in Cape Breton, is a shining example of how grassroots history and local cultures sustain each other in communities right across Canada, generally without the rest of the country taking any notice.
Morgan first went to Cape Breton Island in 1962 to teach history at the local college, now Cape Breton University. There was a strong local culture, but no local history courses, no local history societies, not a single local museum or heritage property on the island.
"I noticed little St. Pat’s Church sitting abandoned on the Esplanade," he told me recently, "and it looked old. I said, ‘What’s that?’" Derelict and awaiting demolition, it was the island’s oldest Catholic church, built in 1828. When Morgan and some friends decided to make it a local museum, there were no grants, and the word "heritage" had barely been coined. But they formed the Old Sydney Society in 1966, Morgan recruited some of his summer students as unpaid labour, and the museum has been there ever since.
The society rallied support from local notables and successful expatriates, and the supportive local MLA became a cabinet minister, and the movement snowballed. “I think we have forty historical societies on the island now, and 25 museums,” Morgan says.
In Sydney alone, the Old Sydney Society helped preserve several buildings. One, the Lyceum, hosted "The Rise and Follies of Cape Breton Island," the 1977 cabaret/musical that helped drive the evolution from traditional Celtic fiddling and step-dancing to international successes like the Rankins, Ashley McIsaac, and Rita McNeil. "The Rise and Follies" also inspired "We Rise Again," Leon Dubinsky’s much-performed hymn that has become Cape Breton’s unofficial anthem – and the source of Morgan’s title.
Today, with forty or more cruise ships visiting Sydney every summer, history and culture underpin the city’s tourist industry, and many of the visitors are hosted by summer staff employed by the historical society. As if to confirm the new standing of local history, the city last year declared the area around St. Patrick’s Church a historic district.
Morgan, who worked steadily on the island in teaching, historic sites work, and archives, is now retired, but as his publisher testifies, he’s still active.
“Bob is extremely generous with his time,” says Ron Caplan of Breton Books. “He’ll speak anywhere. Anything about the island, they give Bob a call. If they want some advice down in Richmond County, say, he’ll be there.”
For grassroots history across Canada, a Ron Caplan is often as vital as a Bob Morgan: someone to print and distribute the community’s stories. Caplan came to the island in the early 1970s, a poet steeped in a tradition he calls writing from where you stand. “I was trying to read myself into Cape Breton,” he says, and that project led first to Cape Breton’s Magazine and then to Breton Books, which reprinted the out-of-print local histories Caplan wanted to read. As he says, “When you have a press, word gets around.” Soon he was also publishing local poetry and fiction. The Glace Bay Miners’ Museum, a story by local writer Sheldon Currie, became an internationally successful book, play, and movie: another dimension to the historically-rooted cultural flowering.
That transformational power of local history does not just happen in Cape Breton. A few years ago Mike Fedyk, of Mossbank, Saskatchewan (pop. 400), launched the Rural History and Culture Association “to confront the idea that nothing ever happened in rural Saskatchewan. When you tell people their history matters, you tell them they matter!”
The RHCA’s forte is re-enacting history: a 1957 debate in Mossbank between Premier Tommy Douglas and future premier Ross Thatcher; Premier Jimmy Gardiner’s 1928 debate with the Ku Klux Klan in Lemberg; a John Diefenbaker campaign evening. Each was recreated by actors and a participatory audience, right in the town and building where the original event took place.
“It is all in the presentation,” says Fedyk. “Once people knew, they came. Lots of people from the cities were willing to come out to Mossbank. If you let people know, they will show up.”
Fedyk has been moved by the deep hunger he finds for that kind of local affirmation. “We do popular history people can identify with. We like getting people in the door!”
It’s not only small places that show a powerful interest in their own stories. On the blog HistoryWire, the Vancouver historian Daniel Francis recently saluted terrific British Columbia histories that get dismissed as “local” by national media. “When we brought out The Encyclopedia of British Columbia in 2000, we hoped we could sell 10,000 copies. Without any national attention, we sold 30,000. People here felt this was their book about their province. The hunger for books like that, books that address the profound sense of place… it’s tremendous.”
Bob Morgan and Ron Caplan know that. When they launched Rise Again, an overflow crowd lined for hours to get copies signed. The second volume of Morgan’s history will be appearing soon.
“And everyone who bought the first will want the second,” Morgan says
©Christopher Moore Editorial Ltd, 2009
If you went across the border in mid-2008, your handsome loonies were as good as those homely greenbacks. And Maclean’s made a cover story out of the arrival of $200 oil.
That was then. Now oil is below $50 a barrel. And the Canadian dollar has fallen to eighty cents. We begin to realize: our loonie floats on oil.
Oil is huge. It’s huge for Alberta, where last year’s forecast surplus of $8 billion is this year’s forecast deficit of $4 billion. But it is huge for all of Canada. Alberta’s energy industries are doing as much to shape Canada’s modern history as anything you can name.
So Alberta’s oil is a story we need to know, and we need to know it historically. Recently I’ve been wondering: if I wanted to read myself into the history of oil and Alberta, what would I find?
Shelves of economic and political and business stories of oil, no problem. Environmental issues, sure. But what about a big history pulling the story together? American writer Bryan Burroughs has just released The Big Rich, about how Texas got that way. Who could do that for Calgary?
I looked at Aritha van Hirk’s lively Mavericks: An Incorrigible History of Alberta. It’s full of lore and stories – but there’s more on the Mounties than on oil. Not her fault -- that’s what her story sources offer. But surely there are oil stories worth the telling.
“We actually have great resources,” he goes on. It is still a living story, and people do not think of it as history. But when they do, the materials will be terrific.” He sends me to archivist Doug Cass at Calgary’s marvellous Glenbow Museum, the memory bank of the west.
For years, Cass has been acquiring petroleum industry papers for the Glenbow -- a recent arrival, filling 630 metres of shelving, was Imperial Oil’s corporate records. “I am constantly amazed by the materials I am finding about oil and the industry,” he says. “But it is not done by historians, I would say. Very few are the work of professional historians.”
Indeed drilling for academic scholarship on Alberta’s energy history does not seem rewarding. UBC’s David Breen, now retired, wrote several studies, including an essay pointedly titled “1947 [that is, the year of the Leduc discovery]: The Year that Made Alberta.” One might think the Alberta history departments would have any number of endowed chairs in Petroleum History. But the historical file seems to depend more on Calgary’s Petroleum History Society, a lively ad-hoc group.
Nothing could be more useful than clear-eyed historical scrutiny of the political history of energy in the last sixty years. Economist Herb Emery, in the same essay collection as Breen’s piece, suggests that after Peter Lougheed’s province-building moment, Alberta’s leaders “lost faith” in activist, government-driven policy. Emery argues that Ralph Klein went back to “Ernest Manning’s world,” where the province simply spends whatever oil will provide, booming when prices rise, facing the loss of $12 billion in a year when the bust comes.
That need for historical perspective is getting more critical all the time.
Andrew Nikiforuk’s recent Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent is a tough, sharp critique of the devastation – political as much as ecological – he sees in the developments now transforming the oil patch. He can see the need for historical work, and not just for all the great stories the industry offers.
“With the tar sands,” he says, “we are in new territory. The scale of investment and exports is a game changer. We have moved up from the world’s number 7 producer to number 5, and we could become number two. You cannot be the number one oil supplier to the number one empire without having it change you.
“But in Canada nobody knows a damn thing about the tar sands. There is great space for historical reflection.”
David Breen’s and Herb Emery’s essays are in the 2005 Alberta centennial volume Alberta Formed Alberta Transformed, edited by Michael Payne, Donald Wetherell, and Catherine Cavanaugh (University of Calgary Press).
©Christopher Moore Editorial Ltd, 2009