UPDATE: The Griffintown Horse Palace

September 29, 2014 § 1 Comment

The Griffintown Horse Palace Foundation has met and exceeded its goal, and with three days to spare!  As of right now, the Indiegogo page has raised $49,335!  The goal was $45,000.

The Foundation is also hosting a fundraising soirée at the Horse Palace, 1226, rue Ottawa, in Griffintown, on Thursday night, 2 October, from 5pm.  Tickets are $75, and can be purchased here.  More details on the soirée can be found on the Foundation’s Facebook page here.

A huge thank you to all who have contributed.  Even though I am no longer involved with the Foundation, I strongly believe in its mission and want to see Leo’s Horse Palace saved!

Shameless

December 7, 2013 § Leave a comment

We’ve been watching the American version of Shameless off and on for the past year.  The American version is based on the British show, but is set in the South Side of Chicago.  It is centred around the big and cacophonous Gallagher clan.  The patriarch is Frank, played by William H. Macy.  Frank is a drunk asshole.  There’s no other way to put it.  His wife, the children’s mother, has up and left.  The family is held together by the eldest daughter, Fiona.  There are 5 more children, the youngest of which is 2 (and somehow African American in a family of white Irish Americans; this is never explained).  Fiona scrounges and scrimps and saves to keep food on the table and the roof over the heads of the other Gallagher kids.  The house is possessed by the Gallaghers through dubious means, involving some welfare scam on the part of Frank.  Fiona is left to scam to keep the family together and to keep the rest of the kids from ending in foster care.

I have to say, I enjoy the TV show, though occasionally it hits kind of close to home, in that I grew up mostly poor with an alcoholic and abusive step-father.  But, this show is a rather complicated look at poverty, particularly white poverty in America.  It also dovetails nicely with Michael Patrick MacDonald’s points about South Boston.  The show is set in Canaryville, the historically Irish section of Chicago’s South Side.  Canaryville, like Southie or Griff, is rather legendary for being both Irish and hostile to outsiders.

As I watch the show, I can’t help but wonder if Shameless romanticises poverty, portrays it accurately, or stereotypes poor people as scammers.  I find myself torn every time I watch it.

On the one hand, the Gallagher clan and their friends struggle everyday trying to make ends meet, but it seems they’re always able to put aside their money worries to have fun.  No, they don’t get drunk (except for Frank) and they don’t do drugs.  But they do have a lot of fun, there’s a lot of wisecracking, and teasing.  There’s also a lot of scamming of pretty much anything that can be scammed, from welfare officers to schools, to businesses and anyone else stupid enough to get involved.

When I was growing up, my life wasn’t exactly as glamourous as the Gallaghers, but it’s not like we spent our entire lives miserable because we were poor.  And the “system,” such as it were, was there to be scammed.  To a degree.  It was not like anyone I knew scammed welfare or Unemployment Insurance (as Employment Insurance was once called in Canada), and so on.  Scams tended to be smaller scale.  Like scamming free rides on the bus or the Skytrain.  Life wasn’t one thing or the other, it wasn’t black and white.  It was complicated.

And this is where I think Shameless is a brilliant show.  Obviously there is some mugging for the cameras and the creation of some dramatic storylines for entertainment purposes.  But it represents the life of these poor white trash Irish Americans in Canaryvlle, South Side Chicago, as complicated.  Their lives aren’t all of one or the other.  They live lives as complicated as the middle-classes.  Perhaps more so, because they’re always worried about having something to eat and having gas to heat the house.  In the end, Shameless represents the poor as multi-faceted, complicated people, who are pulled in various different directions according to their conflicting and various roles (as breadwinner, daughter, son, friend, lover, etc.).  In short, at the core, their lives are no different than ours.  They are, essentially, fully human.

Too often, when I see representations of the working-classes and the poor in pop culture, whether fiction or non-fiction, these representations are nothing more than stereotypes.  Poor people are lazy.  Poor people are scammers.  Poor people are dishonest.  Poor people are victims.  Poor people need help.  And so on and so on.  In reality poor people are none of these things and all of these things and more.  In fact, the poor are just like you and me.  And, at least in my experience, essentialising the working classes does them a disservice.

And this is where works like Shameless or All Souls come in.  MacDonald complicates our stereotypes of Southie.  He shows us the complications of the impoverished Irish of South Boston, and he makes it impossible for us to stereotype.  In the end, Shameless does the exact same thing.

Irish Slums

December 5, 2013 § 4 Comments

Last month, I met Michael Patrick MacDonald at an Irish Studies conference in Rhode Island.  He was the keynote speaker.  I didn’t know much about him beforehand, other than he wrote All Souls about growing up in South Boston in the 70s and 80s.  I knew All Souls was a story about heartbreak, drugs, and the devastation suffered by his family.  But MacDonald’s talk was one of the best I’d ever heard, he spoke of Whitey Bulger, drugs, Southie, his work in non-violence and intervention, and he talked about gentrification.  He was eloquent and fierce at the same time.  He is, of course, an ageing punk.  He was also pretty cool to talk to over beers in the hotel bar later that night.

I finally got around to reading All Souls last week.  I’m glad I did.  I was stunned that MacDonald and his siblings could survive what they’ve survived: three of their brothers dead due to gangs, drugs, and violence.  One of their sisters permanently damaged by a traumatic brain injury brought about due to drugs.  And another brother falsely accused of murder.  It was a heartbreaking read, at least to a point.  I know how the story ends, obviously.

It was also interesting to read another version of Southie than the one in the mainstream here in Boston.  The mainstream is that Southie was an Irish white trash ghetto, run by Whitey Bulger, terrorised by Whitey Bulger, but all those Irish were racists, as evidenced by the busing crisis in 1974.  And while MacDonald tried to revise that narrative, both in his talk and in All Souls, pertaining to the busing crisis, it is hard to argue that racism wasn’t the underlying cause of the explosion of protesting and violence.  But, MacDonald also offers both a personal and a sociological view of how Southie was terrorised and victimised by Bulger (and his protectors in the FBI and the Massachusetts State Senate).  And, today, he talks about gentrification in a way that most mainstream commentators do not (something I’ve railed about in my extended series on Pointe-Saint-Charles, Montréal, his blog, Pt. 1, Pt. 2, Pt. 3, Pt. 4, and Pt. 5).

But something else also struck me in reading MacDonald’s take on Southie.  I found that he echoed many of the oldtimers I’ve talked to in Griffintown and the Pointe in Montréal about their experiences growing up.  Griff and the Pointe were the Montréal variant of Southie, downtrodden, desperately poor Irish neighbourhoods.  And yet, there is humour to be found in the chaos and poverty, and there is something to be nostalgic for in looking back.

MacDonald writes:

I didn’t know if I loved or hated this place.  All those beautiful dreams and nightmares of my life were competing in the narrow littered streets of Old Colony Project.  Over there, on my old front stoop at 8 Patterson Way, were the eccentric mothers, throwing their arms around and telling wild stories.  Standing on the corners were the natural born comedians making everyone laugh.  Then there were the teenagers wearing their flashy clothes, their ‘pimp’ gear, as we called it.  And little kids running in packs, having the time of their lives in a world that was all theirs.

This echoes something journalist Sharon Doyle Driedger wrote of Griffintown, where she grew up:

Griffintown had the atmosphere of an old black-and-white movie.  Think The Bells of St. Mary’s,with nuns and priests and Irish brogue and choirs singing Latin hymns.  Then throw in the Bowery Boys, the soft-hearted tough guys wisecracking on the corner.

The difference, of course, is that MacDonald’s ambivalence runs deep, he also sees the drug addicts and dealers, and the grinding poverty.  Doyle Driedger didn’t.  But, MacDonald is standing in Southie as an adult when he sees this scene, Doyle Dreidger is writing from memory.

Nostalgia is a funny thing, and it’s not something to be dismissed, as many academics and laypeople do.  It is, in my books, an intellectually lazy and dishonest thing to do.  Nostalgia is very real and is something that tinges all of our views of our personal histories.

But what I find more interesting here are the congruencies between what MacDonald and Doyle Driedger writes, between what MacDonald says in All Souls and what he said in his talk last month in Rhode Island, and what the old-timers from Griff and the Pointe told me whenever I talked to them.  There was always this nostalgia, there was always this black humour in looking back.  I also just read Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, about a kid growing up in Dublin’s Barrytown, a fictional inner-city neighbourhood.  Through Paddy Clarke, Doyle constructs an idyllic world for a boy to grow up in, as he and his mates owned the neighbourhood, running around in packs, just like the kids in Southie MacDonald describes, and just as MacDonald and his friends did when they were kids.

I don’t know if this is something particular to Irish inner-city slums or not.  But I do see this tendency as occurring any time I talk to someone who grew up in such a neighbourhood, or read stories, whether fiction or non-fiction, to say nothing of the music of the Dropkick Murphys (I’m thinking, in particular, of almost the entirety of their first album, Do Or Die, or the track “Famous for Nothing,” on their 2007 album, The Meanest of Times),  I’m not one for stereotyping the Irish, or any other group for that matter, I don’t think there’s anything “inherent” to the Irish, whether comedy, fighting, or alcoholism.  But there is something about this view of Irish slums.

Immigration: The More Common North American Experience

September 6, 2013 § 4 Comments

The scenery as we drove across the United States and back was amazing.  So were many of the place names.  There is a town in Colorado named Rifle.  Another town in Colorado is called Cahones.  I kid you not.  But perhaps my favourite highway road sign in all of the United States was this one we saw on the side of I-84 in Eastern Oregon.

photo The sign pretty much says it all.  Canadian and American culture is full of stories of the successful immigrant, the ones who came to these shores with nothing and made lives for themselves, who made fortunes and found fame.  And while certainly there were a few who experienced this good fortune on North American shores, the majority did not.  Most settled somewhere in between fame and fortune and poverty and despair.

Certainly, pop culture contains references to the downside of emigration.  In Canada, university students in Canadian history and literature are tortured with perhaps one of the worst books in Christendom, Susanna Moodie’s interminable Roughing It In the Bush, Or, Life in Canada, about the trials and tribulations of Moodie and her husband, John Weddiburn Dunbar Moodie, a down-at-the-heels member of the British gentry, in the wilds of Upper Canada in the 1830s and 40s.  While Moodie was a horrible writer and her husband an even worse poet, the book is a key text on the struggles of even wealthy emigrants in the British colonies in the mid-nineteenth century (it worked out ok for the Moodies, they ended up moderately wealthy and living in the thriving town of Belleville, Ontario).

One of my favourite Pogues songs is “Thousands Are Sailing,” which is the story of downtrodden Irish emigrants in New York City in the 19th century.  The song is actually kind of heartbreaking.

So this sign for an exit on I-70 in Eastern Oregon struck me as a remarkable site.  Old Emigrant Hill Road is on the northern side of I-70, and it runs into Poverty Flat Road on the southern side of the highway.  Obviously, these two roads have been there for a lot longer than the Interstate.  And, as you can see from the terrain surrounding the sign for the exit on the highway, the landscape around Poverty Flat Road isn’t exactly all that welcoming.  This was also a common experience for emigrants to the “New World” in the 19th and 20th centuries: they ended up farming lands that were not conducive to growing much of anything.  Generations struggled to make a living on these farms until someone, whether out of optimism or desperation, decided to clear off the land and make his or her fortunes elsewhere.

Perhaps this is the more common story of the immigrant in North America than the one of fame and fortune.

Diaspora and Terrorism: The problem with relativism

July 21, 2013 § Leave a comment

Janet Reitman‘s Rolling Stone feature on Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is a fascinating read in many ways, as she explores just what might have radicalised him and turned him into a terrorist.  Reitman talked to pretty much everyone in the Boston region who knew him growing up.  He comes across as the pretty stereotypical American urban kid.  As a Bostonian, the article interested me for obvious reasons.  But as an historian, I was struck by questions and notions of diaspora concerning the Tsarnaev family and the youngest son, especially.

Reitman talked to Brian Glyn Williams, who teaches Islamic Studies at UMass-Dartmouth.  UMass-Dartmouth, of course, is where Tsarnaev went to school.  Interestingly, Tsarnaev, who by all accounts was interested in his history as a Chechen and a Muslim, didn’t take a single one of Williams’ classes.  But Williams also comments on the older brother, Tamerlan, who by all accounts was the ring-leader.  Williams, says Reitman,

believes that Tamerlan’s journey – which he calls “jihadification” – was less a young man’s quest to join Al Qaeda than to discover his own identity. “To me, this is classic diasporic reconstruction of identity: ‘I’m a Chechen, and we’re fighting for jihad, and what am I doing? Nothing.’ It’s not unlike the way some Irish-Americans used to link Ireland and the IRA – they’d never been to Northern Ireland in their lives, but you’d go to certain parts of Southie in Boston, and all you see are donation cans for the IRA.

I find this comment interesting.  Being an Irish Canadian, and having spent much of the past decade-and-a-half studying the Irish in North America, I’ve always been struck by the willingness of Irish-Catholics in both Canada and the United States to identify with the IRA.  Usually this identification with the IRA came without complications.  Supporters never thought about where that money in those tins was going, what it was going to be used for.  What happened when the guns and bombs it bought were used, who got hurt, who got killed.  If they had stopped to think about this, if they removed the romanticism of the struggle back “home” (even if Ireland hadn’t been home for several generations), I’m sure support for the IRA would’ve dried up pretty quickly.  Not many Irish Canadians or Irish Americans actually went back to Northern Ireland and got involved in the fight.

And yet, Tamerlan Tsarnaev did.  He went back to Chechnya and Dagestan.  He was, however, told by a cousin in Dagestan that this was not his fight.  So he brought the fight home.  I shudder at the consequences.

But that is exactly what makes Williams’ comparison invalid after a certain point.  All those Irish in Southie who contributed to the IRA’s cause have several degrees of separation from the consequences of their donation.  Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev quite literaly have blood on their hands as a direct result of their actions.

Diaspora and Terrorism

April 24, 2013 § Leave a comment

Scholars studying diaspora and immigrant communities have noticed that there are some very general, very real trends amongst diasporic immigrant communities.  The first generation, the immigrants, arrive in their new home, but find themselves caught between two worlds, struggling to fit into the new home, whilst still maintaining very real and very strong ties to the homeland.  Their children, the second generation, are citizens of the new country by birth, and grow up in that host culture, and generally do not express a lot of interest in the culture of the homeland; they are fully integrated into the new homeland.  It’s their children, the third generation, that begins to cast an eye back to the old homeland, curious about where their grandparents are from and the culture their grandparents carried with them in the new land until they died.  These are trends that have existed in North America since the Irish began coming over here in the mid-19th century, and have been replicated time and again by pretty much every single group that has arrived in the United States and Canada in large numbers since.

Immigrants, their children, and grandchildren, of course, have greatly changed North American culture ever since the Irish.  Take, for example, the city I live in now: Boston.  Boston is the birthplace of the American independence movement in the 1770s, and was a tight-knit Anglo-Protestant city prior to the Irish arriving.  Boston was never the same after the Irish arrived in huge numbers in the mid-19th century.  And as the Irish infiltrated the city’s economy, culture, and politics, they left their mark.  This can still be seen today: at present Stephen Lynch and Ed Markey are both attempting to gain the Democratic nomination for the special election to replace John Kerry in the US Senate.  Both Lynch and Markey are currently Congressmen.  Both are Irish Catholics, Markey’s from Malden and Lynch is from South Boston, aka: Southie.  He grew up in the same housing projects as Whitey Bulger.  The Irish still have their tentacles in the Democratic Party machinery in Boston today, 160-some odd years after they arrived.

Other cities are affected differently.  Take, for example, my hometown of Montréal.  Montréal has long been the recipient of immigrants, dating back to the Irish, who began arriving there in large numbers in the 1840s.  The Irish completely changed the city, adding an Anglophone group that was Catholic to an already divided city.  The Catholic Church was also massively changed in Montréal as the Irish muscled their way in.  Indeed, they are largely to thank for the fact that there is an English-language Catholic Church in the city today.  But Montréal is also being fundamentally changed by immigration from nations in the Francophonie in Africa and the Caribbean today. In the past decade or so, Montréal has undergone a fundamental cultural shift, as new French-speaking communities arrive.  The consequences for French Canadian nationalism and separatism should be obvious.

But this process of acculturation may be now speeding up.  Our cities have become faster, life is lived at a frenetic pace in our cities on this continent.  Last week, two bombs went off at the Boston Marathon, killing 3 people and injuring over 200 more, some very seriously.  The bombs were planted by Tamerlan Tsarneav, 26, and his younger brother Dzhokhar, who is 19.  The Tsarneav brothers are immigrants, they came to the United States from Dagestan just over a decade ago.  Tamerlan was here on a green card, whilst Dzhokhar became a citizen last year.  Their parents have both returned to Russia in recent years, leaving them here.  But they’ve been here a long time, Tamerlan was 14 or 15 when he arrived here, Dzhokhar was 8 or 9.  They were both Americanised, and their brand of terrorism, experts have concluded is of the ‘home-grown’ variety.

Yesterday in the Boston Globe, Farah Stockman commented on this growth in homegrown terrorism, citing forensic psychiatrist Marc Sageman, who in 2008 predicted that terrorism in the West would increasingly be of this variety.  Of course, by 2008, we had already seen the writing on the walls.  On 7 July 2005, four terrorists detonated bombs during the morning commute in London.  All four were homegrown terrorists, two were the sons of immigrants, a third was an immigrant himself, but had grown up in England.  The bombing of Madrid’s transportation system in March 2004 was also of the homegrown variety.

This new generation of terrorists, the so-called 3rd wave, are younger than the Al Qaeda terrorists of the previous decade.  According to Stockman, the average Al Qaeda terrorist in the 90s and early 00s was in his 30s.  Today, the average age of these 3rd wavers is in his early 20s.  The 2nd wave were devoutly religious and had grown up in devoutly religious homes.  The 3rd wave grew up secular, as the brothers Tsarneav had.  So, why the turn to radicalism and terrorism, she asks:

For some, it was out of a warped romanticism for a homeland they barely knew; an act of rebellion against hardworking immigrant parents who brought them to the West for “a better life.” Others were US-born converts to Islam who found in terrorism a sense of camaraderie and purpose that had eluded them all their lives. A few became terrorists after years of gang-banging and drug dealing. It was an ideology that transformed their violent tendencies into something heroic. It made them feel they were on the side of the angels.

Sagemean concludes that for some of these young men, ‘terrorism is a fad.’  This is an interesting thought.  But if these young men are attracted, in part, by this romantic attachment to their parents’ homeland, or the homeland of their families, or to the religion that sustained their family generations ago, I’m not so sure that this is a fad.  Scholars looking at notions of diaspora note the attachment 3rd generation children and those beyond have to the mythical homeland.  Looking at my own community and what I study (the Irish), I would note that men and women whose families emigrated to North America 160 years ago remain curious and interested in the mythical homeland of Ireland.  Ireland draws them in, they’re curious about the history, the culture, and some even the language.  This becomes a life-long interest.

Maybe Sagemen is correct in that the violence of radicalism and terrorism is a fad of youth and some of these young men will eventually mellow out and choose to focus on aspects of their culture that do not lead to violence.  Certainly there are echoes of this in the Irish diaspora, where many young men (and some young women) have been attracted to the glory of the violence in the North.  This was certainly true when I was younger, before the establishment of peace following the Good Friday Accords in 1998.  Young Irish-American and Irish-Canadian men would hold romanticised images of the IRA and the resistance “back home”.  Most have long since grown out of this fascination with the IRA, of course.  (This did, however, inspire Bono  to go on a legendary rant during a performance of “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” during the 1987 Joshua Tree tour, which was released on the DVD of Rattle & Hum).  

Canada and the North American Triangle

January 5, 2013 § 3 Comments

imagesTwice in the past few weeks, I have been caught up in discussions about the role of the monarchy in Canada with Americans.  These discussions rather astounded me, I have to say. In all my years, I have never really thought all that much about the role of the Queen and her representatives in Canada.  Sure, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II is the head of state in Canada (as well as everywhere else in the Commonwealth), but her actual role in Canadian politics is close to nil.  Governors-General have been little more than figureheads, responding to the whims of Prime Ministers since the 19th century, not the Queen.

For my American interlocutors, however, the Queen was a big deal for Canada.  They’ve all spent a fair amount of time north of the 49th parallel, and they’re all insightful people.  The argument goes something like this: Canada has been prohibited from achieving a full sense of independence of its own because of the on-going association with the former colonial parent through the person of the Queen.  Because Canada is not completely sovereign, it cannot be a fully independent nation.  It will always be beholden to the United Kingdom. To a person, they all argued that Canadians (at least Anglo Canadians) are very British, in all manners, from our dry sense of humour to our stiff upper lips, and even down to our accents.  I was dumbfounded.

I argued that the Queen means very little to Canadians.  Aside from the hardcore monarchists, she’s just this grandmotherly woman who pops up on TV now and then.  I pointed out that Americans are actually more obsessed with the royal family than Canadians, as evidenced by the marriage of Prince Receding Hairline to whatshername last summer.  Sure, the Queen is on our money, but how is that different from Washington and Lincoln being on American money?  And certainly Washington has reached the status of a monarchal icon in the USA by now.  I argued that, despite the fact that the Queen is the head of state, the Prime Minister is the one who wields power, and quite a lot of it.  The Prime Minister decides when elections are to be held, what the policies of government are, etc.  In short, sovereignty lies in the Canadian people as expressed through our elected representatives and the Prime Minister; the Queen has nothing to do with this.

But then one of them brought up Prime Minister Harper’s underhanded attempt in 2010 to avoid an election by asking Governor General Michaëlle Jean to prorogue Parliament.  He argued that we had an unelected representative of the Queen deciding the fate of the Canadian government.  Good point, I conceded, but, the Governor General in 2010 acted in accordance with established constitutional law in Canada and the entire Commonwealth; she acceded to the wishes of the Prime Minister.  This wasn’t good enough, the fact remained that the Governor General is unelected.  Full stop.  And this is proof of Canada’s lack of full sovereignty.

UnknownNow I certainly do not buy into the argument that Canada was born on 1 July 1867. As far as I’m concerned the date that we chose to celebrate the birth of our nation is entirely arbitrary and artificial.  I have also argued on this blog that Canadian independence has been achieved piecemeal.  From the granting of responsible government in 1848 to the patriation of our Constitution in 1982, Canada has inched towards independence.  I’d go so far as to argue that in many ways, 1982 is the true date of Canadian independence, as finally our Constitution was an Act of our own Parliament.  I certainly do not buy the argument that Canada is doomed because the nation wasn’t born in violence and a war of independence like our American neighbours.

There is also the argument that Canadian unity can never be, due to the fact that upwards of 40% of the population of the second largest province (at any given time) wish to separate from the nation.  And, for this reason, Canada is an artificial nation.  I think this is a simplistic, and even stupid, argument.  It assumes that all nations were born of the nationalist movements that swept across the world from the early 19th to the late 20th centuries.  The continued existence of massive multi-ethnic nations such as Russia and China bely this. So, too, does the on-going persistence of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, despite the continued threat of the Scots nationalist movement.  Instead, I argue, Canada is successful precisely because it is not a national nation, it is post-national and can house more than a single nation.  Indeed, this is what makes Canada not just bi-cultural, but multi-cultural, as we learned in the 1960s, whatever government policies of the day might be.

So I’ve been left stewing over the role of the monarchy in Canada, thanks to my American interlocutors.  I’ve also been stewing over different conceptions of democracy.  Britain is the modern birthplace of democracy.  It is where the people slowly gained control over their nation from the monarchy.  At one point, the House of Commons was filled with men hand-picked by the king and his minions, true. But by the 19th century, this was no longer the case.  In the UK, the Queen is little more than a figurehead, just like in Canada.  But, of course, Elizabeth is English, she’s not Canadian.  Thus, she is a foreign queen, according to my American friends.  But it’s not that simple.  That is an American argument.  American democracy works very differently than British or Canadian democracy.  And notions of what democracy mean differ as well.

To wit, a few weeks months ago in the Boston Globe, the resident conservative columnist, Jeff Jacoby, was making the argument that the best way to determine whether or not gays and lesbians should be granted rights was through referenda.  Only by giving voice to the majority could we determine whether or not a minority should be granted civil rights.  That, concluded Jacoby, is how democracy works. To my Canadian mindset, this idea was shocking and appalling.  Pierre Trudeau once opined something along the lines that the best determinant of a free and open society is how that society protects its minorities.  In short, the rights of minorities should never be left up to majorities.  That is what democracy is.

And maybe that’s what this argument boils down to: Canadians and Americans have very different ideas of what democracy is.  And for that reason, whilst my American conversants were appalled that Canada would have an unelected, foreign queen, I, a Canadian, could care less.  The Queen has no real impact on Canadian life and politics.  Her “representative” in Canada, the Governor General, is appointed by and serves at the pleasure of the Prime Minister.  And the Governor General has, since 1848, deferred to the wishes of the Canadian Prime Minister.  Canada is no less a sovereign nation for this.

And Canada’s inferiority complex has nothing to do with this relationship to the UK, it has everything to do with being the junior partner in North America with the United States and Mexico.  Canada is the smallest of the three countries in terms of population, and ranks only slightly higher than Mexico in terms of the size of its economy.  The only way in which the colonial relationship with the UK actually does matter is in the sense that Canada has never had the chance to fully stand on its own.  It WAS a British colony.  And today, it is by and large an American colony.  I mean this in terms of the economy, Americans own more of Canada’s economy than Canadians themselves do.  And we currently have a governing party, the Conservative Party of Canada, that acts like a branch plant of the American Republican Party.

The Strange Anglo Fascination with Québécois Anti-Semitism

December 13, 2012 § Leave a comment

I am a reader.  I read pretty much anything, fiction and non-fiction.  As I have argued for approximately forever, reading, and especially, literature, is what keeps me sane.  So I read.  It’s also the end of the semester, so what I read devolves in many ways from lofty literature to murder-mysteries.  I would argue, though, that a good murder-mystery is full of the basic questions of humanity, right down to the endless push/pull of good v. evil.  I came to this conclusion when someone once tried to convince me that Dostoyevsky’s Crime And Punishment was, at the core, a murder-mystery.

So, it is that I came to find myself reading the third in John Farrow’s so-far excellent series of murder mysteries set in my home town, Montréal, and featuring the crusty old detective, Émile Cinq-Mars.  The third novel, however, centres around Cinq-Mars’ early career in the late 60s/early 70s.  And Farrow, who is really the esteemed Canadian novelist, Trevor Ferguson, took the opportunity to write an epic, historical novel.  It’s also massively overambitious and falls under its own weight oftentimes in the first half of the book.  The novel opens on the night of the Richard Riot in Montréal, 17 March 1955, with the theft of the Cartier Dagger, a relic of Jacques Cartier’s arrival at Hochelaga in the 16th century.  The dagger, made of stone and gifted to Cartier by Donnacona, the chief of Stadacona, which is today’s Québec City, has been central to the development of Canada.  It has ended up in the hands of Samuel de Champlain, Étienne Brulé, Paul de Chomedy, sieur de Maisonneuve, Dollard des Ormeux, Médard Chouart des Groselliers, Pierre Esprit Radisson, and so on.  But it has ended up in the hands of the Sun Life Assurance Company, the very simple of les maudits Anglais in mid-20th century Montréal.  Worse for the québécois, Sun Life has lent it to that mandarin of ‘les maudits anglais,” Clarence Campbell, president of the National Hockey League, and the man responsible for the lengthy suspension to Maurice “The Rocket” Richard.  Clearly, Farrow subscribes to the theory that the Quiet Revolution really began in March 1955 (I do not agree with this one bit, thank you very much).

Farrow then takes us through the history of the dagger, from Cartier until it ends up in the hands of  Campbell, to its theft on St. Patrick’s Day 1955.  And from there, we move through the next sixteen years, through the Quiet Revolution, Trudeaumania, and the FLQ, as Cinq-Mars finally solves the mystery of the theft of the Cartier Dagger in 1971 (which was also the year that an unknown goalie came out of nowhere to backstop the Habs to the Stanley Cup).

All throughout the story, Farrow, in true Anglo-Montréal style, is obsessed with franco-québécois anti-semitism.  This is especially the case from the late 19th century onwards.  We are brought into the shadowy underworld of the Order of Jacques Cartier, a secret society hell-bent on defending French, Catholic Québec against les Anglais and the Jews.  Characters real and fictive are in the Order, including legendary Montréal Mayor Camillien Houde, and Camille Laurin, the father of Bill 101, and others.  And then there’s the Nazi on the run after the Second World War, Jacques Dugé de Bernonville.  We also meet Pierre Elliott Trudeau and his nemesis, René Levésque.

Outed as anti-semites are the usual characters: Maurice Duplessis, Abbé Lionel Groulx, Houde, Laurin, and, obviously, de Bernonville.  Also, Henri Bourassa and Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine.  And so on and so forth.  And, ok, fair enough, they WERE anti-semites (though I’m not sure you can call Bourassa and Lafontaine that).  Québec, and Montréal in particular, was the home of Adrien Arcand, the self-proclaimed fuhrer of Canada.  These are disgusting, dirty men.

But all throughout the novel, only French Canadian anti-semitism matters.  This reminds me of a listserv of policy wonks, academics, and journalists I’ve been a member of for a decade-and-a-half.  Years ago, we had one member who liked to rail against the sovereigntists in Québec, accusing them of being vile anti-semites (sometimes he was right).  But, whenever evidence of wider Canadian anti-semitism was pointed out, he dismissed it out of hand.  In his mind, only the French are anti-semites (to the point where he often pointed to the Affair Dreyfus in late 19th century France as proof the québécois are anti-semites to the core).

I am not suggesting that anti-semitism should not be called out for what it is: racism.  It must and should be.  But whenever we get this reactionary Anglophone obsession with Franco-québécois anti-semitism, I get uncomfortable.  This is a bad case of the pot calling the kettle black.  Anti-semitism has been prevalent in Canada since the get go, in both official languages.  The first Jew to be elected to public office in the entire British Empire was Ezekiel Hart, elected to the Lower Canadian legislature in 1807.  But he was ejected from the House almost immediately upon taking his seat because he was Jewish.  The objections to Hart taking his oath of office on the Jewish Bible (which was standard practice in the court system for Jews) were led the Attorney-General, Jonathan Sewell.  But the people of Trois-Rivières returned him to office nonetheless.  He was again refused his seat. Opposition came from both sides of the linguistic divide in Lower Canada, and you will surely note Sewell is not a French name.  Lower Canada, however, was the first jurisdiction in the British Empire to emancipate Jews, in 1833.  The leader of the House, and the Parti patriote? Louis-Joseph Papineau.

At any rate, this isn’t a defence of the franco-québécois record on anti-semitism. It’s not good.  But it is to point out that Anglo Canada isn’t exactly pristine.  Irving Abella and and Harold Troper’s book, None is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe, 1933-1948 makes that point clear.  Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King’s immigration chief, Frederick Blair, made sure that Jews fleeing Nazi Germany weren’t allowed into Canada.  Jews had been coming to Canada since the late 19th century, and there, they met an anti-semitic response, whether it was Montréal, Toronto, or Winnipeg. Even one of our great Canadian heroes, Lester Bowles Pearson, Nobel Prize-winner for inventing UN Peacekeepers and Prime Minister from 1965-7, was an anti-semite, at least as a young man before the Second World War.

And anti-semitism has remained a problem in Canada ever since.  While anti-semitism is relatively rare in Canada, B’Nai Brith estimates that, in 2010, upwards of 475 incidents of anti-semitism happened in Toronto alone.

So clearly Canadian anti-semitism isn’t a uniquely franco-québécois matter.  Indeed, one of the few Anglos to feature in Farrow’s book, Sir Herbert Holt, was himself somewhat of an anti-semite himself.  And I am left feeling rather uncomfortable with this strange Anglo Québec fascination with the anti-semitism of francophone québécois, especially when it’s presented out of the context of the late 19th/early 20th centuries.  This was a period of pretty much worldwide anti-semitism.  It was “in fashion,” so to speak, in the Euro-North American world, from actual pogroms in Russia to the Affaire Dreyfus, to the US and Canada refusing to accept refugees from Nazi Germany thirty years later.

Canada and Empire

December 12, 2012 § 3 Comments

I often amuse myself with the attempts of Canadian historians to try to explain how, in the years leading up to the First World War, Anglo Canadians could alternately view themselves as Canadians, English, British, and as citizens of the greatest empire the world had ever seen (that would be the British, if you’re wondering).  They tend to see this as a contradiction, a confusion, and get themselves twisted into knots in explaining this phenomenon.  It just seems so contradictory to them.  Here, for example, is Ian McKay, one of Canada’s greatest historians, with Jamie Stairs in their excellent new book, Warrior Nation: Rebranding Canada in an Age of Anxiety:

Many Anglo Canadians like [Bill Stairs, a Canadian hero of Empire] believed that a good British subject could and should simultaneously be loyal to Nova Scotia [Stairs’ home], Canada, and the Empire, and in doing so experience no contradiction.

To our 21st century Canadian identity, it is anathema that one could see oneself as more than just Canadian.  And I just don’t get this.  I really don’t.  In the late 19th/early 20th centuries, Canada was a colony.  It was not an independent nation, no matter what the politicians of the era, the Jack Granatsteins and Stephen Harper’s of today tell you.  Canadian independence is a slippery concept, there is no exact moment that Canada gained its independence.  For example, it could be 1848, when the Canadas gained responsible government.  Or it could be 1867, when three colonies came together to form a united whole (Canada, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick).  It could also be 1931, when the Statute of Westminster gave Canada (and all the other white Dominions: South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand) control over their foreign affairs.  But, there was still no such thing as “Canadian” citizenship.  That came on the 1st of January 1947.  The following year, the Supreme Court of Canada became the highest court of appeal in the land.  Prior to that, it was the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London (not Ontario, the UK one) that held that position.  In 1982, our constitution was patriated from Mother Britain and made an act of our own Parliament.  If you want to go all republican on the matter, I’d note that the head of state today is Queen Elizabeth II of England.  So, politically, declaring the date of Canadian independence is difficult.

But the long and short of it is that 100 years ago, Canada was not an independent nation.  It was also part of this massive Empire.  The British Empire controlled something like 20% of the world’s land and 25% of the world’s population at the dawn of the 20th century.  Think about that for a second.  I mean it, just imagine the globe, imagine 20% of that land coloured the pink of the British Empire.  Or just look at this map (and imagine the red as pink).

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Empire was a very powerful concept in that Canada (and if Stephen Harper has his way, we’ll be thinking this way again soon).  It was not incongruous for the average Canadian of Scots, English, or even Irish, stock to see him or herself as both Canadian and British at the same time.  For being Canadian made one British, such was the nature of citizenship laws, and such was the fact that the monarch of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was (and remains) the head of state in Canada.

Thus, the simple fact of the matter is that Canadians 100 years ago were both/and, not either/or.  They were both Canadian and British, not Canadian or British.  That was the way they rolled, so to speak.  The same was true for other subjects of the British Empire throughout the Dominions.  It might be time for Canadian historians to recognise this simple fact, and to stop twisting them like Mike Palmateer trying to bail out his woeful hockey team in trying to explain this.  Joy Parr long ago instructed we Canadian historians that identities are not sequential, they are multiple and simultaneous.  And the average Anglo Canadian’s identification with Canada, Britain, and Empire is just that: the simultaneous identities of an ambivalent population.  No more, no less.

The “Curation” of Southie and the General Over Use of the Term

December 10, 2012 § 4 Comments

We were in Southie yesterday, the former Irish-Catholic working-class neighbourhood of Boston.  Southie is undergoing massive yuppification these days.  The working classes are being squeezed out, and the yuppies are moving in.  This was clear as we took the #9 Broadway bus from Copley Square into Southie.  The bus is the great equaliser of Boston society; in some parts of the city, it’s the only time one sees large numbers of minorities.  We got off the bus at the corner of West Broadway and A Street, on our way to a yuppified Christmas foodie craft fair at Artists for Humanity on West 2nd Street.  In a lot of ways, Southie looked to me like a combination of parts of the Plateau Mont-Royal and Pointe-Saint-Charles back home in Montréal.  The architecture was Plateau-like in terms of post-industrial spaces and housing, but the people looked like they could be in the Pointe.  There was a curious mixture of the down and out, the working-classes, hipsters, and yuppies of every skin colour.

Gentrification is a creeping problem in pretty much every North American and European city, and much has been written about this, including on this very blog (like, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here, for starters).  But what struck me the most was Social Wines, a wine and beer emporium in a spanking new building on West Broadway at A Street.  Social Wines offers its clientele “Curated Craft Beer and Spirits.”  Now, I must confess, this is my kind of store: it focuses on smaller, indie breweries and vineyards.  I like giving my money to these kinds of companies, rather than the Molsons, Budweisers, and massive vineyard conglomerates of the world.  But curated?  What the hell does that mean?

According to the Meriam-Webster dictionary on-line, a “curator” is “one who has the care and superintendence of something; especially : one in charge of a museum, zoo, or other place of exhibit.  To “curate” is: “to act as curator of a museum or exhibit curated by the museum’s director.”

Of late, hipsters and academics have abused the term “curate” like it’s nobody’s business.  It is one thing, in the field of Public History and its corollaries, to write of the ways in which museums and the like have “curated” items.  That is the proper use of the term.  But when editors of edited collections of academic papers start referring to themselves as “curators” and not “editors,” well, then we have a problem.  Meanwhile.  Hipsters.  On any given day, one can go to PitchforkMedia and see articles about this or that music festival that has been “curated” by someone.  The most egregious example of this is the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival, which takes place in merry olde England, with branches occurring in the US, too.  Each year, ATP is “curated” by a guest musician, one of stature and great fame.  What that means is that someone is in charge of deciding who should play, and the list of artists reflects the curator’s tastes.  Yup, deciding who should play a music festival is curation.

And so now we have a hipster beer and wine store in Southie that offers us “curated” booze.  What, exactly is curated?  The collection of booze on sale.  See, the old ma and pop liquor store down the street just orders in booze that they figure their clientele will enjoy.  But, not hipsters, they lovingly and carefully “curate” the collection of booze on sale at Social Wines.  I don’t know about you, but I feel a lot better knowing that rather than having some old geezer just randomly order wines and beers that may or may not be any good, we have the fine folk at Social Wines to very carefully curate their collection.

My problem with the use of this term?  It’s very simple.  It’s pretentious.  And nothing quite says “I’m a wanker” like declaring that you curated your liquor store.  I applaud Social Wines’ mission.  Hell, next time I’m in Southie, I may even stop in and peruse their collection of wines.  But the use of this term by book editors, musicians, and liquor store owners also seriously devalues the meaning of the word in its true professional sense.

Professional curators, those who work in museums and art galleries, do not just collect stuff they like to display.  They are responsible for the content of exhibits, and they are required to carefully make decisions on what is appropriate and what is not, to carefully arrange the displays, to negotiate with sponsors, and so on and so forth.  There is a reason why curators go to school to learn how to properly curate.  Musicians and liquor store owners do not.

 

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