Thursday, 22 January 2015

A Monumental Mess - Update

I learn from my inbox today of a few more stories about the monumental mess brewing in Ottawa over the Monument to Victims of Communism that I wrote about in December.

There are two more useful stories, each giving more behind-the-scenes details about the process that led to the monument's designation - one in the Ottawa Citizen  and the other by John Geddes in Maclean's.

Both of these stories confirm what I had heard unofficially about the process - that the committee of advisors who are tasked with providing input to the National Capital Commission had advised against putting the monument in its proposed location. They found it 'totally inappropriate'.

Yet the government apparently said from the get-go, the decision on location has already been made.

Monday, 12 January 2015

A Prime Ministerial Villain?

Here's the scenario: two venues for serious discussion of a prime minister's record, each tackling the question of how the founding prime minister should now be remembered. Each presents the views of four different scholars and thinkers on the man's record. In one outlet, we see a real difference of opinion with clashing perspectives. In the other, everyone pretty much agrees.

This is what we see this week in a series of articles assessing the record of John A MacDonald in the Globe & Mail and on Active History 

Sadly, the venue with a greater diversity of opinion and better debate was the commercial newspaper, though they had to go outside the university world to get the different viewpoints. And so it goes in the world of scholarly debate (even the always interesting Active History).

Sunday, 28 December 2014

The Monument Men

Source: Ottawa Citizen

Just before Christmas I penned an op-ed for the Toronto Star questioning the decision of the Harper government to erect a monument to the victims of communism in Ottawa. (Alas, the oped is not online.) My main criticism wasn't the monument itself but its location. If all goes ahead as planned, this huge almost block-sized monstrosity is going to sit next to the Supreme Court of Canada.

In other words, alongside the parliament buildings, our national library and archives and our supreme court, we're going to have a monument to the victims of communism. Where everything else along this stretch of the national capital deals with all Canadians and is centred on our collective national citizenship, we're now going to have this politically motivated edifice. It's like one of those quizzes for grade school kids - pick the one that doesn't fit.

The op-ed might not be available to read but it generated some fascinating letters to the editor which you can read here. For some of these, the best one can say is that the author really is dead - and much ado about misinterpretation.

You can see more about the controversy in the Ottawa Citizen which has been doing a good job in following the brewing controversy. Articles here and here are useful.

It's not as if Harper and his crew have simply invented the monument out of thin air. There is a constituency of Canadians of eastern European ancestry in particular who really want something like this. It was initially supposed to be a monument to the victims of totalitarianism. But along the way the Harperites have modified the message to best suit them.

The biggest pity is the blight this will make on the central street in our national capital. Perhaps it's not too late to stop things.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

The Political Sentimeter

Nellie McClung

The Toronto Star recently introduced us to its 'political Sentimeter'. It's part high-tech political personality test, and part buzz-feed quiz. The test is fascinating and you can take it here to see where you yourself fit.

They asked me and a few other historians/political scientists to offer some historical examples of the different political types. You can see our suggestions here.

My main take-away from this was a reconfirmation of just how much our political landscape has changed since the 1960s. A number of contemporary political types just don't readily translate into Canadian political history. Look at the test, for example, and try to place a first wave feminist like Nellie McClung.

Partly this has to do with the way in which so-called family values and religion were more common-sensical even to many on the left. Also important is the radical liberalization of the political spectrum, including the way in which libertarian ideas have spread across both the right and the left in complex ways. Something to think about.

Or just another fun internet quiz. You choose.

Friday, 17 October 2014

How should we teach history?

On 31 October, before you head out to 'trick or treat' or to dress up as ghoul for dancing fun, why not come to what looks to be an interesting event at the University of Toronto?

Stéphane Lévesque will be giving a talk on history as a verb. Then there will be a roundtable discussion in which I'll say a few things (though I don't know what they'll be. come to find out).

Here's the poster I've been sent:

Friday, 12 September 2014

Canadian Political History Conference

In a few weeks, a large number of political historians in Canada will be gathered at Université de Québec à Montréal to talk about their research. It's a diverse bunch of topics and historians, kind of gathered under the rubric of political activism and citizen intervention.

See the whole program here.

I have the very unhistorian like title 'What democratic reformers can learn from Freud's 20th century.'

My own contribution is slotted in the very last session of the conference on Saturday afternoon.  The only consolation for this horrid spot is that I have great company.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Shameless Propaganda

I was looking forward to watching a pre-screaming of the new NFB documentary 'Shameless Propaganda'. But, then again, I'm a historian and I would say that.

My mother-in-law isn't. She had just arrived from England and had been up for about twenty hours, having flown across the Atlantic, driven a couple of hours down Hwy 401 and then endured several hours of entertaining the grandchildren. When I sat down on the couch, called up 'Shameless Propaganda' on my computer and started watching, she didn't just drift off to sleep: she started watching too.

Shameless Propaganda is a documentary about documentaries, though it's also about Canada. And it's about Canada at an interesting moment of transition, in the middle of the twentieth century, still largely rural, suffering from the depression, where many Canadians didn't have indoor toilets or electricity. Yet a good deal of this would change, or be about to change, in the midst of six long but fast-paced war years - a time in which the NFB set out to capture the story of the country, and to convince Canadians that they were a people and that they could and should fight a war together, and do it right.

The film does a much better job of getting this all down than I shall here. In fact, I'll likely want to use it to begin a course I teach on Canada since 1945. It would make an ideal beginning - a nice glimpse into the Canada in the making at mid-century.

We get a good sense of the NFB and its founder, the swashbuckling Jon Grierson, and his progressive vision for the country, a progressiveness that ultimately probably cost him his job. In fact, it would later cost the jobs for a number of those at the NFB as they got caught up in the postwar Red Scare, a topic which the film doesn't get to.

Ironically, this film about propaganda could actually be said to be propaganda of a kind itself. Certainly it has a distinctive moralizing perspective. Much of this is entirely appropriate - its critical stance on older films about aboriginal peoples and immigrants to Canada. But just as the film says that the propaganda films of the war were silent on some issues, so too Shameless Propaganda has its own silences - mostly of what might be called political correctness, things we no longer mention. So we're told (correctly) that many English Canadians were hostile towards French Catholics and so that a particular film about a French Catholic family in Quebec would have been an original sympathetic portrayal. We're meant to be sympathetic to the reasons why some Quebeckers would have resisted conscription. But we're not told about Quebec sympathies with fascist Catholic Italy or other similarly discomfiting stories. The audience here is seemingly contemporary English Canada and we are supposed to look back and shake our heads at earlier prejudice. It's correct as far as it goes, but in leaving out some details, it's easier to catch the moral but also easier to lose sight of the much more complex moral world of the Canada that was.

The filmmakers are generally better where the historiography is better - on Japanese Canadians for example. The picture that emerges is still moralizing but slightly more complex.

None of this takes away from what is essentially a great documentary. It's simply striking that the film itself follows the path of contemporary Canada and its academic history. Our own views and prejudices, our own moral crusades, show up here too. It's not shameless propaganda, but it is also not entirely the full story either.

Watch it yourself over on the NFB website

(Images: NFB)