The Enduring Legacy of Slavery

February 18, 2019 § 2 Comments

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This came through my feed on Facebook a few days ago.  It’s worth re-posting and it’s worth a deeper commentary.  The United States was founded upon slavery.  Fact.  The Founding Fathers included slave owners.  Face.  The Founding Fathers didn’t deal with slavery in the Constitution.  Fact.  The Civil War happened because the South seceded over slavery.  Fact.  The Southern response to Emancipation was Black Codes, the Ku Klux Klan and segregation.  Fact.  Desegregation only happened because of the intervention of the Supreme Court.  Fact.

But.  None of this is a Southern thing.  Slavery initially existed in the North as well.  But even after the North banned slavery, it benefited from slavery.  The American industrial revolution began in Lowell, MA, due to the easy availability of Southern cotton.  The North got wealthy, in other words, on the backs of Southern slaves.   The North countenanced slavery.

After the Civil War, the North countenanced segregation.  The second Ku Klux Klan emerged in Atlanta, true, but it operated all over the country.  And, following Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court decision that desegregated schools, the North was affected, most notably during the Boston Busing Crisis in the 1970s.

But even with the official end of desegregation with Brown v. Board, it’s not like segregation went away.  Schools today remain very segregated across the United States due to the outcomes of racism, poverty and housing choices.  In fact, one of the outcomes of the Boston Busing Crisis.  The busing ‘experiment’ in Boston ended in 1988, by which time the Boston school district had shrunk from 100,000 students to only 57,000.  Only 15% of those students were white.  As of 2008, Boston’s public schools were 76% African American and Hispanic, and only 14% white.  Meanwhile, Boston’s white, non-Hispanic population in 2000 was 55% white.  White Bostonians pulled their children out of the city’s public schools and either enrolled them in private schools, or moved to the white suburbs.

As for housing, the Washington Post found last year, the United States is a more diverse nation than ever here in the early 21st century, but its cities remain segregated.  Historian Richard Rothstein has found that the segregation of American cities was not by accident.

Then there’s the question of redlining, which was officially banned with the Fair Housing Act of 1968.  But all that means is that banks and financial institutions have become more clever at discriminating against African Americans and other minorities.  And more to the point, those areas of American cities that were redlined when this was legal in the 1930s continue to suffer from the same prejudices today.

Slavery and the complete and utter failure of Reconstruction after the Civil War means that African Americans in the United States today live in the long shadow of slavery and institutionalized racism.  So, while the meme above is correct that it was only in 1954 that segregation is outlawed, I would be a lot more hesitant about the green light African Americans have there from 1954 onwards.

 

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To Be Canadian Is To Be Toronto

November 6, 2018 § Leave a comment

There is a disturbing trend in Toronto sports for the franchises of the self-proclaimed ‘Centre of the Universe’ to brand themselves as the ultimate Canadian franchise.  Of course, this should not be surprising, since Toronto hasn’t realized there is a huge country out there, and that, in reality, it only makes up around 16% of the population of the nation.  But don’t tell Toronto that.

The Toronto media has a long history of denigrating the rest of the country.  I stopped reading the Globe and Mail about 10 years ago when I realized that about the only time there was news about Vancouver, Calgary, or Montréal was when it was bad news or something to mock the cities about (this, of course, coming from a city that once called out the military to deal with a bit of snow and had Rob Ford as mayor).

But to suggest the Toronto sporting franchises as the Canadian teams is, well, ridiculous and insulting.  The NBA Raptors a few years ago used the slogan #WeTheNorth as part of its marketing campaign.  This, though, feels the least insulting to me in that the Raptors are the only Canadian NBA team, and the only other Canadian NBA team, the Vancouver Grizzlies died an ignominious death in 2001.

And, to be fair, the CFL Argonauts and MLS TFC haven’t seemed to get the memo, but that’s probably because no one cares about either one anyway.

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But it’s the MLB Blue Jays and the NHL Maple Leafs who take the cake.  The Blue Jays have created a cap that features nothing but the Canadian maple leaf on it.  The message here is that any good Canadian must cheer for the Blue Jays.  But the thing is, it’s not this simple.  Until 2004, Montréal had its Expos.  The Expos were killed off by MLB and moved to Washington, DC., so this remains somewhat of a sore spot.  But Down East, Canadians are just as likely, if not more so, to cheer for the Boston Red Sox than the Jays.  And out West, the Seattle Mariners and the Bay Area teams are also popular.  And in Montréal, the Red Sox are the most popular team.

Then there’s the Maple Leafs.  Sure, their name and their logo.  But those go back nearly 90 years.  So they get a pass on that (as an aside, the Canadiens de Montréal are so-known because the peasants of French-era Québec were called Canadiens, or Habitants, thus, the Habs).  But EA Sports, Adidas (which makes NHL uniforms) and all of the so-called Original Six teams created interesting new jerseys for EA Sports’ NHL ’19.

They almost all suck and are pointless, but you just know that they will eventually be the third jerseys of the teams, though the Chicago Blackhawks jersey looks like their third jersey already.  The Maple Leafs’ however, is a blatant rip off of the legendary Team Canada jersey, made famous by the victorious Canadians in the 1972 Summit Series.

 

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The difference, of course, is that the Maple Leafs’ version is blue instead of red:

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So, yeah, this is for a video game and it’s not realty.  Yet.  And sure you’re thinking I’m getting worked up about something that isn’t important.  The thing is, it is.  Jerseys, caps, hoodies, etc., these are all part of the marketing campaigns of the franchises and the leagues they play in.

And when Toronto clubs monopolize and capitalize on Canadian images and icons for their marketing campaigns, they are doing several things.  First, they are cheapening our national symbols and icons (as an aside, remember when the RCMP licensed its images to Disney for marketing purposes and the outcry it created?).  Second, they are changing the national discourse about what it means to be Canadian, just as Molson attempted to in the 90s with the Joe Canada commercials, which suggested to drink Molson Canadian was to make oneself Canadian.  That’s what the Raptors, Jays, and Leafs are doing here: to cheer for them is to be Canadian.

In the case of baseball, again, we have divided loyalties.  We do for basketball, too.  All my friends in Montréal cheer for the Boston Celtics, and out in Vancouver, it’s the LA Lakers, Chicago Bulls or Golden State Warriors.  But hockey is something else.  There are seven NHL franchises in Canada.  Three of them have variations on Canada and our nationality in their names (Canucks, Maple Leafs, Canadiens).  One shamelessly ripped of the Royal Canadian Air Force in its marketing and logo (Winnipeg Jets).  But none of this reaches the ridiculousness of the EA Sports Maple Leafs’ jersey.

And so we’re back to the idea that to be in Toronto is to be Canadian and to hell with the rest of the nation, you know, the 84% of us who don’t live in Toronto.

On Missing Home

July 26, 2018 § 4 Comments

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Riding the metro in Beijing the other day, listening to Wolf Parade’s track ‘Valley Boy,’ I suddenly had this moment of vertigo as my mind was riding the 55 bus up blvd. St-Laurent back home in Montreal.  ‘Valley Boy’ is a tribute to Leonard Cohen, our city’s patron saint of letters.  Wolf Parade, though from Vancouver Island, are also a Montreal band.  A few minutes later, my friend, Darryl, who is in Montreal from Alberta this week, sent me this photo.

There is nothing more alienating than to feel yourself in a city over 11,000km away from where you are.  But I was in Montreal.  But not the shiny Montreal of 2017, the grittier Montreal of the early 2000s, when the Main was half dug up in construction, and the rest was littered with discarded coffee cups and remnants of the weekend’s detritus.  In those days, it wasn’t uncommon to see Cohen wandering around, visiting his favourite haunts, talking to the occasional person brave enough to actually approach him.

I never did.  He was Leonard Cohen, He wasn’t a man for small talk, or pointless conversation.  I did, though, meet Cohen once, a long time ago.  It was the early 90s, he was touring behind The Future, and in a laundromat in Calgary, there he was folding his laundry as I was putting mine in the dryer.  It was a random meeting and he dropped a sock, I picked it up for him.  We talked for a bit, about nothing and everything and then he went on his way.  I still don’t know why he was doing his own laundry on tour.

Montreal is changing, soon it have the newest infrastructure of any city that matters in North America.  Every time I go home, I hear more and more English, and not just downtown, but on the Plateau, in the Mile End and in my old haunts in Saint-Henri and Pointe-Saint-Charles.  But even worse is the creep of major chain retailers.  It used to be that Montreal was a holdout against this invasion.  It was a city of small shops, mom and pop outfits, all up and down the Plateau, even downtown and in the other boroughs.  I bought a stereo at a small store on Sainte-Catherine near MusiquePlus that has been shuttered for over a decade now, killed off by the Best Buy.

Montreal is losing its soul, I’m afraid.  I take no pleasure in saying this, in fact, it hurts my own soul to say so.  But there is a deep and dangerous cost of the gentrification of the city.  My buddy Steve is a New Yorker at core, even if he long ago escaped.  Each time he goes home to Queens, he is more and more appalled by what he sees in Harlem and Brooklyn and even Queens.  Sure, it was a safer city and all that, but it was losing its soul.  I always felt smug in the belief my city couldn’t do that.  And better yet, my city was never crazy violent and it had, by the early 2010s, appeared to have recovered from the economic uncertainty of the separatist era.  Hell, for a few years at the turn of the century, Montreal was actually the fastest growing city in Canada.

And so Leonard Cohen has been dead for almost two years.  In ‘Valley Boy,’ Spencer Krug, one of the frontmen of the band, sings:

The radio has been playing all your songs
And talking about the way your slipped away up the stairs
Did you know it was all going to go wrong?
Did you know it would be more than you could bear?

In interviews, Wolf Parade have hinted this was about the larger geopolitical shitstorm that was engulfing the world when Cohen went to his great reward.  As I was riding up the Main on the 55 bus in my head the other day, I thought differently.  This was about Montreal, a city they and I have all moved on from, and one that Cohen left many times.  Of course, Cohen also said that you can never leave Montreal, as it travels with you wherever you go and it calls you home.  Later on the album, Krug sings, ‘Take me in time/Back to Montreal.’  And so we never do really fully leave.

Child Spies

July 20, 2018 § 4 Comments

News has erupted in the United Kingdom that Scotland Yard has been using children as spies for criminal cases.  Not surprisingly, most British are sickened and appalled by this, as are the usual array of human rights groups.  There can be no defence of this. None.  This is one of the most morally repugnant things I have ever come across in my life.

The children are pulled from a database about gang members, apparently.  And certainly, some have already decided that they’re criminals and therefore forfeit their civil rights.  It’s not that simple.  First, they’re children.  Second, being in this database is not necessarily an indication of criminality.  Third, even if they are, that is not an excuse to curtail someone’s civil rights. To do so is inhumane. It says that someone is less of a human due to past behaviour.

The House of Lords committee that revealed the existence of this programme is sickened.  Even David Davis, one of the most self-serving British politicians of our era (he resigned from PM Theresa May’s cabinet a couple of weeks ago) is appalled.  I wonder what Boris Johnson thinks?

And yet, here is May’s spokesperson defending this practice:

Juvenile covert human intelligence sources are used very rarely and they’re only used when it is very necessary and proportionate, for example helping to prevent gang violence, drug dealing and the ‘county lines’ phenomenon. The use is governed by a very strict legal framework.

In other words, we don’t care about the rights of children, we think they are there to serve the needs of the police, and if you’ve got a problem with this, it is frankly because you are a bleeding heart.  This is disgusting.  And immoral.

And this is moral relativism at the root.  Doing something immoral, disgusting, and wrong can be explained away as just another policy in the Met’s crime-fighting tool kit.  We have reached the point where in one of the wealthiest, most powerful Western democracies in the world, exploiting children is seen as an acceptable practice by a circle of the government and the police.

Merci Beaucoup and Thank You

June 14, 2018 § 1 Comment

fullsizeoutput_4cfAt the end of May, at the annual Congress for the Humanities and Social Sciences in Regina, SK, my book, Griffintown: Identity & Memory in an Irish Diaspora Neighbourhood, won a CLIO Award from the Canadian Historical Association.  I wrote the best book in Québec history last year.  I was stunned and surprised when I found out about this award in early April and I remain just as gobsmacked today.

It is very humbling to be recognized by your peers for your work, I have to say.  It has also been humbling to see the response to the book as a whole.  Last September, I hosted a book launch back home in Montreal at Hurley’s Irish Pub.  It was an amazing night, as new and old friends came out, well over 100 people in all, spilling out of our main room into the bar area.  In April, to celebrate the American launch of the book, I hosted another launch at Amherst Books in Amherst, MA.  It was another gratifying evening, as more people than I could count came out, including friends, colleagues, and even students.  We sold out the stock of the book in short order.

I am proud of this book.  I think it’s a good book.  But that’s only part of the story.  The book is also beautifully packaged, designed by the team at University of British Columbia Press, using the art of my good friend and colleague, G. Scott MacLeod.  Scott’s art makes my book cover look so stunning.

Working with UBC Press was wonderful.  I had excellent editors in Darcy Cullen, the acquisitions editor, and Ann Macklem, the production editor.  I enjoyed working with Darcy so much that I was sad when she passed me off to Ann.  But Ann was also amazing to work with.  Darcy and Ann made the often Byzantine process of academic publishing easier and more sensible to me.

And my anonymous reviewers; I know who they are now.  But I will respect their anonymity.  All I can say is that they both were incredibly encouraging.  They found the holes in the manuscript I knew existed, they found some I didn’t realize.  But they both also offered many options and possibilities to fill those gaps in the research, the theory, and so on.  I learned a lot about writing a book and about history, theory, and method from them.

My book is, obviously, better for the experience with UBC Press, and my anonymous reviewers.  And for that, I am eternally grateful.  I am also grateful to the committee that determined the CLIO Awards, and to everyone else along the way, both before and after publication, who was supportive and encouraging.

 

Doug Ford: Ontario’s Populist

June 11, 2018 § 2 Comments

Canada is beside itself with the election of Doug Ford as the Premier of Ontario.  Ford, the leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario, is not really all that qualified to be premier, I must say.  The lynchpin of his campaign was a promise of $1 beer, and the rest was based on a basic message that the government of Liberal leader Kathleen Wynne was stupid.  Well, he didn’t exactly say that, but it was pretty much his message.  The centre and left in Ontario and around Canada has been wringing its hands as Donald Trump Lite™ has been elected to lead the largest province in Canada.

It is impossible to deny Ontario’s importance to Canada, it is the most populous province, home to the largest city in the country.  And Ontario’s economy is the 8th largest in North America.  And, of course, Toronto is also the most diverse city in the world.

Ford, for the most part, did not run on a racist campaign, like the American president, and he has generally not uttered racist comments.  But, while he hasn’t, his supporters have.  Like everywhere else in the Western world, racism is on the rise in Ontario, and Canada as a whole.  The reasons for this are for another post.

The commentariat in Canada has been aghast, rightly so, at Doug Ford’s election. He is a classic populist, a multi-millionaire who pretends to be for the little guy, and mocks the élites for being, well, élites.

But, ultimately, Doug Ford’s election isn’t a rupture with Ontario’s political past.  It is also not necessarily a sign of Trumpism coming to Canada.  Ontario has a long history with populist premiers, dating back to the Depression-era leadership of Mitch Hepburn.  But, also more recently, with the government of Mike Harris in the 1990s.

Mike Harris was elected premier in 1995.  In a lot of ways, I think commentators have seen his election as a correction of sorts, after the province had shocked the rest of Canada in electing the NDP government of Bob Rae in 1990.  Rae’s time as premier did not go smoothly, and so Harris’ election must be seen in that light.  Harris, like Ford, was a populist, and ran on something he called the Common Sense Revolution.  Harris sought to bring common sense to Ontario politics.  This went about as well as you’d imagine.

Harris’ government cut the social safety net of Ontario something fierce.  He also tried to introduce boot camps for juvenile offenders.  Harris rode the crest of the 1990s economic boom, and once the economy crashed with the dotcom bubble, he resigned as premier (for personal reasons, I might add) in 2002 and the PC government of Ontario stumbled along with Ernie Eves as premier before getting trounced by the Liberals of Dalton McGuinty in 2003.

Harris’ policies led indirectly to people dying in Ontario.  The most obvious example is during the horrible Walkerton e-coli crisis in 2000.  There, due to the bumbling incompetence of the Koebel brothers, who operated the Walkerton water supply without any actual training, e-coli entered the supply system.  Over 2,000 people fell ill, and 6 people died.  Harris’ government was blamed for 1) Refusing to regulate water quality around the province via some form of supervision; 2) Related to 1), not enforcing the rules and guidelines pertaining to water quality; and, 3) the privatization of water supply testing in 1996.

And then there was Kimberly Rogers.  Rogers was a single mother and was convicted of welfare fraud.  Rogers had collected both student loans and welfare whilst going to school.  This had been legal when she began her studies in 1996, but Harris’ government had put an end to that the same year.  Rogers plead guilty to the fraud in 2001 and was sentenced to house arrest.  And ordered to pay back the welfare payments she had received, over $13,000.  She was also pregnant at the time.  Her welfare benefits were also suspended; she was on welfare because she couldn’t find employment, even with her degree.  The summer of 2001 was brutally hot in Sudbury, her home town, and she was trapped in her apartment with no air conditioning as the temperature outside crested 30C, plus humidity.  She committed suicide in August 2001.

An inquest found fault with the government, noting that someone sentenced to house arrest should be provided with adequate shelter, food, medications.  Rogers had the first, but not the other two.  And while Rogers did break the law, the punishment handed out did not necessarily fit the crime, especially insofar as the house arrest went.  And this was due to Harris’ reforms.  Upon delivery of the inquest report, Eves’ government refused to implement any reforms, complaining to do so would be to tinker with an effective system.

Meanwhile, Toronto, the self-proclaimed Centre of the Universe, has embarrassed itself with its mayoral choices.  The first time was when it elected Mel Lastman mayor in 1997. Lastman had been mayor of the suburb, North York, but Harris’ government had amalgamated Toronto with its suburbs, and so Lastman was now mayor of the new city.  Lastman did a lot of good as mayor, that cannot be denied.

But. There was the time when his wife got caught shoplifting in 1999, and Lastman threatened to kill a City-TV reporter.  Yes, the mayor of the largest city in Canada threatened to kill someone.  He also cozied up to Hells Angels when they held a gathering in Toronto.  During the 2003 SARS crisis, he groused on CNN about the World Health Organization, claiming the WHO didn’t know what it was doing and that Lastman had never even heard of them (as an aside, due to the WHO’s work, SARS didn’t become an epidemic).  And then there was his trip to Mombassa, Kenya, in 2001 in support of Toronto’s bid to host the 2008 Olympics.  Lastman told a reporter:

What the hell do I want to go to a place like Mombasa?… I’m sort of scared about going out there, but the wife is really nervous. I just see myself in a pot of boiling water with all these natives dancing around me.

Lastman, though, was just the precursor to Rob Ford, Doug Ford’s younger brother.  Rob Ford ran on a similar campaign of populism.  He wasn’t qualified for the job.  But it was the larger circus of his life that was concerning.  The police were called to his house several times on suspicions of domestic abuse.  He also had problems with drugs and alcohol that included an addiction to crack cocaine.  He had a habit of getting drunk at Toronto Maple Leafs games and yelling and threatening and abusing people around him.  And he, of course, appears to have smoked crack whilst mayor with some gang members.     Ford’s larger run as mayor was on the basis of populism, and attacking transportation infrastructure projects, as well as privatizing garbage pickup.

So, as we can see from the past 3 decades of life in Ontario, Doug Ford isn’t exactly the horrible rupture many wish to see him as.  He is, instead, a horrible continuity of populism and dangerous politics.

Nothing Says Cluelessness Quite Like Joking About Gentrification

November 30, 2017 § 4 Comments

Gentrification is a topic I have written a lot about here (for example, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, herehere, here, here, here, here, here, and, finally, here).  And, of course, I wrote a book about Griffintown, Montreal. In other words, I think about gentrification a lot, occasionally curious about it, occasionally appalled by it.

Last week, a Denver coffee chain found itself in the midst of a firestorm over a really stupid sandwich board sign outside of its outlet in Five Points neighbourhood.  Of course, the name Five Points carries with it various derogatory ideas, largely connected to the original Five Points in Manhattan, so the gentrifiers of Denver’s Five Points have re-christened it RiNo (or, River North Arts District).  The Five Points ink! coffee shop placed this sandwich board outside its shop:

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Ok, then.  A few things to note. First, the sign is on dirt/gravel, next to what looks like a new(-ish) sidewalk).  So clearly, gentrification is apace here.  Second, Five Points is historically home to pretty much the entirety of Denver’s African American population.  And, as anyone who knows anything about urban history will tell you, this also means that the congregation of the black population of the city here was not entirely always by choice.  And, of course, who loses in the gentrification of traditionally African American neighbourhoods?  African Americans, of course.

Third, the gentrifiers want this neighbourhood to be a centre for the arts.  Not surprisingly, the arts that are native to Five Points are not all that welcome in the newly re-imagined RiNo.  Why? Because hip hop is still seen as a black art form, and that makes a lot of white people uneasy, even today after hip hop has gone global.

And while the people at ink!’s Five Points shop may have thought they were being edgy and funny, they were not. They were being stupid.  And offensive.  Yes, gentrification usually means you can get good coffee in your neighbourhood, but at what cost?  And who benefits from gentrification in the US?  The answer to the latter question is predominately white, young, urbanites with well-paying jobs.

And that means that those who lose from gentrification are people who do not look like them, these urban explorers.  Gentrification is, I think, as close to an inevitable process as we have.  But, that doesn’t mean that it needs to be brainless and lead to the displacement of the residents, and it doesn’t need to mean a whitewashing of neighbourhoods traditionally of colour.

And to joke about this whitewashing?  Well, that’s frankly offensive and stupid.  And Keith Herbert, the founder of ink!, comes across as especially daft in his Twitter statement, but at least he’s trying.  That’s something, I guess:

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