Montréal’s Anglo Mayor: Dr. JJ Guerin

November 16, 2012 § Leave a comment

So Montréal got itself a new mayor today, Michael Applebaum.  He wasn’t democratically elected, but given the sudden resignation of the scandal-plagued Gérald Tremblay on 5 November, he has to be an improvement.   The big woopedy-do about Applebaum is that he’s Anglophone (he’s also the metropole’s very first Jewish mayor).  Montréal hasn’t had an Anglo mayor since 1910, when James John Guerin sat in the mayor’s chair.

Guerin, despite the last name, was Irish Catholic.  He was also a central player in one of the most vicious election campaigns in Canadian history.  In 1917, at the height of the First World War, Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden called an election over the issue of conscription.  Borden had invited the Liberal Party, under Sir Wilfrid Laurier (Prime Minister of Canada, 1896-1911), into his government to form a Union government for Canada for the duration of the war.  Laurier, however, could not countenance conscription nor could his Québec powerbase.  He refused.  Borden called an election for 17 December.

By 1917, voluntary enlistments into the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) was pretty much drying up.  The war had been going on for three years.  And the Great War was little more than a killing field.  Mechanised warfare wreaked havoc on the soldiers.  Casualty rates were enormous.  Canada, with a population of little more than 7 million, lost 65,000 men, with another 150,000 wounded.  Many of those who were wounded and survived were never the same again.  They lost their eyesight, their hearing, limbs; their lungs were destroyed by the Germans’ poisonous gas; they were shell-shocked.  It wasn’t just in Canada that enlistments were drying up by 1917, the same was true in England, Scotland, and Wales.  Thus, conscription was needed to compel young Canadian men to fight.  Conscription was made palpable in the rest of Canada, in part, due to exemptions.  The most famous case was that of farmboys, whose labour was needed on the farms of the Prairies (and Ontario). (Not that Borden kept this promise).  But, in Québec, nationalists failed to see why Canada should be wrapped up in an imperialist war that had nothing to do with Canada’s interests.  Indeed, Henri Bourassa, the most influential nationalist leader of the day, and founding editor of Le Devoir, argued in that paper’s pages

Le Canada aurait pu intervenir comme nation, lié a l’Angleterre par des attaches politiquées, et à la France par des motifs de sentiment et d’intérêt, sans compromettre en rien son état politique…[and that Canada had] aucune sort d’obligation morale ou légale de participer à la guerre et tenir compte des conditions particulières, des intérêts vitaux qu’il doit sauvegarder comme pays d’Amérique avant lier sont à celui des nations d’Europe.

Bourassa wasn’t entirely correct, Canada did have a legal obligation to participate.  Britain still controlled Canada’s foreign affairs, and would continue to do so until the Statute of Westminster in 1931.  Thus, when Britain went to war, Canada went to war.

At any rate, the Liberal Party of Canada split over conscription in 1917.  Most Liberals outside of Québec took Borden up on his offer; most Liberals in Québec stood behind Laurier.  The outcome of the election was a foregone conclusion, of course.  But that didn’t stop the Bordenites from engaging in some skeezy politics.  They enfranchised women who had sons or husbands in the military, calculating that they would vote for the Bordenites.  They gerrymandered ridings to ensure the best possible outcome for the Unionists.

One of the gerrymandered ridings was St. Ann’s, in Montréal’s west end.  Prior to the 1917 election, the riding was comprised of Griffintown, Little Burgundy, and Pointe-Saint-Charles, a working-class industrial slum.  The sitting member was Charles J. Doherty, a Conservative and the Minister of Justice in Borden’s government.  He was initially election to represent St. Ann’s in 1917.  He was also Irish-Catholic, so, in essence, the Irish of Griffintown (and Pointe-Saint-Charles) had elected one of their own.  Again. St. Ann’s was one of those ridings where the outcome was not a foregone conclusion.  It could just as easily go Liberal.  Thus, the gerrymander.  Conservative, non-Irish, neighbourhoods including the western part of Pointe-Saint-Charles and all of Verdun, were added to the riding.

The Irish were an issue in 1917 because of the effect of the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin on the Irish diaspora.  The 1916 Rising, and the brutality of the British response, served to radicalise the Irish, both in Ireland and the diaspora, including and perhaps especially, Griffintown.  Griffintown was home of the most radical republican Irish nationalists in Canada in the 1910s, mostly centred on the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH).  Thus, for the Bordenites, it was essential that Doherty, who was responsible for conscription, be protected at all costs.  Hence, the gerrymander.

Borden was opposed in the riding by two Liberals at the outset.  Daniel Gallery, the former Liberal member (and city councillor) for St. Ann’s, as well as Dr. J.J. Guerin, a long-time city councillor and former mayor of Montréal.  Gallery, though, ultimately lost the Liberal Party’s endorsement and was left to run as an independent against the Liberal Guerin and the Conservative Doherty.  The election was vicious in Griffintown.  Goon squads intimidated followers of all three candidates.  All three were heckled mercilessly on the campaign trail.  Threats were made.

Doherty won the election handily.  Indeed, he won with the largest margin of his career.  But he also won in large part due to the gerrymander.  In Griffintown, the heart of St. Ann’s, Guerin walked away with the vote, outpolling Doherty by an almost 2-1 margin.  Gallery, despite a long career in service of Griffintown, was never a credible candidate.  He spent most of his time denying that the Unionists were paying him to split the Liberal vote with Guerin.  He garnered fewer than 1000 votes.  Guerin may have lost the election, but he won Griffintown.  And he eventually succeeded in representing St. Ann’s in Parliament; he was elected the Liberal member in the 1925 election and held the seat until his death five years later.

In Griffintown/Dans L’Griff

April 2, 2012 § 1 Comment

In Griffintown/Dans L’Griff will be a documentary about Griffintown, made by my friend, film-maker G. Scott MacLeod.  Scott’s most recent film, a short entitled The Saga of Murdo MacLeod has been received rapturously by Montrealers at its various showings around town, most recently at Ciné-Gael, Montréal’s Irish film series, which is celebrating its 20th season this year.

Scott is proposing to do a short documentary on Griffintown through the eyes of Claude and Lyse Mercier, amongst the last generation of Griffintowners.  Claude and Lyse, as you might guess by their names, are NOT Irish! Shock! Indeed, they are French Canadian, a voice that has long been lost in the stories and memories of the Griff (as my forthcoming book, The House of the Irish: History, Memory and Diaspora in Griffintown, Montreal, will tell you).  Almost all the attention on the Griff’s history has been focused on the working-class Irish Catholics, leaving out the other residents there: French Canadians and Anglo-Protestants, and Scott’s about to address this lacuna.

Scott and I have had a lot of conversation about Griffintown, over Thai food and as we’ve wondered the streets of the neighbourhood both of us are so hell-bent on preserving the memory of.  And while books are great (especially mine!), a documentary, graphic evidence of what once was, is a brilliant addition to the growing corpus of Griffintown memories.

The trailer for the film is below, but I urge you to click on this link, which will take you to Scott’s indiegogo page, where he is attempting to raise money to help with the costs of film-making.  Any amount will help, but Scott is offering 3 levels of support.  20$ gets you a thank you in the end credits and a copy of the DVD, 100$ gets you into the end credits and a DVD, and 1000$ makes you a producer, and you also get a copy of the DVD.

Remembering Zmievskaya Balka, Rostov-On-Don, Russia, 1942

February 15, 2012 § 2 Comments

My sister-in-law’s husband is spear-heading this campaign.  Please circulate this widely.  The actions of the Rostov-On-Don city council are disgusting and an attempt to erase history and are thinly veiled anti-Semitism.  Let us ensure they cannot get away with this:

Please disseminate the following press release by the committee organizing the 70th Anniversary Commemoration of Zmievskaya Balka – “Russia’s Babi Yar.”   Scheduled events will commemorate a series of mass executions by Nazis just outside the city of Rostov, Russia between 1942 and 1943.  While grassroots commemorative initiatives have taken place since the early 1990s by Rostov’s small Jewish community, 2012 marks the first major effort to commemorate the Holocaust in Rostov publicly.

The planning process takes place amidst conflict over the recent decision by Rostov government officials to take down a memorial plaque that was erected in 2004, identifying most of the 27,000  Zmievskaya Balka victims as Jewish.  The replacement plaque does not mention Jews, but rather the “peaceful citizens of Rostov-on-Don and Soviet prisoners-of-war.”  Having struggled for decades to battle exclusionary nationalism and anti-Semitism in the construction of public memory of the events at Zmievskaya Balka, Rostov’s  Jewish community and the diaspora it has yielded have been spurred to action and are seeking support as well as information, donations of artifacts and broad participation in the commemorative activities.  

70th Anniversary Commemoration of Zmievskaya Balka – “Russia’s Babi Yar”

Rostov on Don, Russia,  August 12-14, 2012

Organizing Committee Announcement

August 2012 marks the 70th anniversary of the beginning of mass executions of Jews by the Nazis in Rostov on Don, Russia, in the  Zmievskaya “balka” – a huge ravine on the edge of this southern Russian city of over one million residents. Here more than 20,000 people were killed. The greatest number of victims, including poisoned children,  died on August 11 and 12, 1942. For Russia, this place holds the symbolic importance of Ukraine’s Babi Yar. There is no place in Russia where a greater number of Holocaust victims lost their lives. Others were also killed here: Soviet citizens of other nationalities, prisoners of war, resisters, psychiatric hospital patients, and others.

In 1975, a memorial was erected at the Rostov “Zmievskaya Balka” and a small museum was built there.

This anniversary of the Rostov tragedy, dedicated to the memory of the victims, deserves attention on an international level, as this place has relevance for many famous people connected with the history of the Holocaust. Among those executed here was world-renowned psychoanalyst Sabina Spielrein (about whom several feature films have been made). Both before and after the war Alexander Pechersky lived in Rostov. Pechersky was the organizer of the only successful mass escape from a Nazi death camp — the escape from Sobibor. A British film about his exploits was well received.

Two other prominent Jewish leaders are connected to Rostov: Fedor Mikhalchenko, rescued in Buchenwald as a child and later to become Chief Rabbi of Israel, and Meir Lau, present day chairman of the Board of the museum “Yad Vashem.” Meir Lau, who is planning to attend the rememberance events, will be one of the honored guests. Government delegations, including the U.S. and Israel, are being invited.

Please note that August 11, 2012 falls on a Saturday (the Sabbath), which means that no memorial services will be held on this day.

August 12-14, 2012

Planned memorial /educational activities in Rostov-on-Don include the following:

– A memorial evening in one of the city’s largest halls on August 12th ;

– A ceremony at the Zmievskaya Balka on the morning of 13th August;

– Opening of a new exhibit at the Museum of the “Zmievskaya Balka” (August 13);

– International conference in memory of Sabina Spielrein  on the “Fate of Scientists during the Holocaust” (August 12th -13th );

– A seminar for teachers of Russia, CIS and the Rostov Region, “Lessons of the Holocaust –  the path to tolerance” (12th -14th August);

– A Holocaust Film Festival to feature both documentary and feature films;

We are seeking support from colleagues and interested parties across the globe.

How You Can Help:

–       Join the organizing committee.

–       Donate money to help us hire organizers and researchers.

–       If you have any information about the victims of Zmievskaya Balka or their relatives or descendants, please contact us.

–       Do you read Russian?  When searching for the names of the dead, we found the miraculously-preserved records of the Rostov synagogue circa 1850-1921.  Please help us translate these records, as well as other research articles on the events at Rostov, from Russian into English so that they may be more widely disseminated.

–       Contribute to memorial books or consider donating to the exhibit.

–       Spread the word: disseminate this press release widely. 

Please contact us for more information.

 Ilya Altman:  +79169064998,

Yuri Dombrovskiy:  +79037553043,

Web links:

Bloomsday Montréal 2012

February 4, 2012 § 19 Comments

I am on a steering committee attempting to launch Bloomsday Montréal this year on 16 June.

For those who don’t know, Bloomsday is an annual celebration worldwide of James Joyce’s masterful novel, Ulysses, which was first published in 1922.  Ulysses traces the travels of one Leopold Bloom, a Dubliner, across the city on 16 June 1904. That date was significant for Joyce as it was the date of his very first outing with his wife to be, Nora Barnacle.  Many consider Ulysses the finest novel of the 20th century.  The first Bloomsday was celebrated on 16 June 1954, the 50th anniversary of Bloom’s travels, in Dublin, where the Irish artist John Ryan and the novelist Flann O’Brien decided to re-trace Bloom’s route around the city.

From there, Bloomsday has grown to be a massive cultural phenomenon, celebrated in over 60 nations around the world.  In 2004, the 100th anniversary of Bloom’s travels, a massive celebration was held in Dublin, with over 10,000 people in attendance.  On 16 June 1958, the star-crossed Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath were married on Bloomsday.  Why Montréal, a major city of the Irish diaspora has not had a Bloomsday until now is beyond my ken.  But, it is time.

We are just getting organised, our webpage will be up soon, but in the meantime, follow us on Twitter or Facebook for updates and news of our events on 16 June!


January 31, 2012 § Leave a comment

Ah, what the hell, this is my blog, if I can’t flog my media appearances and other publications and whatnot here, where can I?  I’ve been rather silent around here for the past 8 months or so, though that will change in the coming weeks.

First, I have submitted the manuscript for my book, The House of the Irish: History, Memory & Diaspora in Griffintown, Montreal, to the publisher.  It is out for review now, and with any luck, it will appear on bookshelves and on-line stores around this time next year. Academic publishing moves rather slow at times.  As long as The House of the Irish appears before 2014, we’re good.   I published an article on the Montreal Shamrocks Hockey Club at the turn of the last century in a book edited by John Chi-Kit Wong of Washington State University, entitled Coast to Coast: Hockey in Canada to the Second World War. I wrote the article in 2005-6, it was published in 2009.

I have a raft of ideas for the next projects, but two I am pursuing, or will be once I get the chance later this semester are:
1) I wrote my MA thesis on the Corrigan Affair, which involved the fatal beating of a neighbourhood bully, Robert Corrigan, by a gang of his neighbours in Saint-Sylvestre, Québec, in October 1855.  Corrigan was an Irish Protestant, and his attackers, Irish Catholics. What’s more, the Orange Order and an Irish Catholic secret society, the Ribbonmen, got involved. This led Corrigan’s death to become a cause célèbre in the era of heavy sectarian tensions in 1850s Canada.  Right now, this looks like it will become a book.

2) Boston as the cultural centre of the Irish diaspora. I am fascinated by the Irishification of Boston in recent years in pop culture. Sure, Boston’s always been a major centre of the Irish diaspora, but as the city itself has become less and less Irish over the years, it has become more and more green in pop culture.  Aside from the obvious, a basketball team called the Celtics, you’ve also got the Affleck brothers who play up that Southie culture in film, the novels of Dennis Lehane, and, of course, the music of the Dropkick Murphys.  I’m not sure how this will proceed, whether as an article, a book, or a documentary film, but time will tell.

In the meantime, last month’s controversy surrounding the Habs and the firing of Jacques Martin and his replacement by a unilingually Anglo coach in Randy Cunneyworth found me doing a bit of punditry in the national media here in the Great White North.  First, an article that appeared on and then I was on Global National news later that week. And way back in September, I welcomed the Winnipeg Jets back to the NHL on the National Council on Public History’s Off the Wall blog.

At any rate, as I move forward with these projects and begin to think about history, memory, and the public in coming months, there will be a lot more here. As they say, “Watch this space!”

Globalised Montréal

May 12, 2011 § Leave a comment

In the past few years, there’s been a new trend in Montréal History and historiography that has seen us seek to place the city within a global context.  This is a welcome change from our usual navel-gazing, as we sought to explain developments in Canada solely within a Canadian context.  Certainly, the local context is important, but Canada did not develop in solitude. It was always a colony and nation tied into global political and economic currents, closely related to goings-on in Paris, London, and Washington. Indeed, scholars of Canadian foreign policy have long framed Canada within the North Atlantic Triangle, along with the UK and USA.

But, culturally and socially, while historians have noted the impact of British and/or American ideas in Canada, we have gone onto explain and analyse the Canadian context separate from the global. In Québec, though, perhaps due to political exigencies. Back in undergrad at UBC, Alan Greer’s masterful book, The Patriots and the People was the first study I ever read that attempted to internationalise Canadian history. In it, Greer re-cast the 1837 Patriote rebellions in Lower Canada within the revolutionary fervour that had swept Europe and the United States since the late 18th century. Seen in this light, the Parti Patriote wasn’t just a nationalist French Canadian political party, but part of an international of liberal revolutionaries that had corollaries in England, Ireland, France, the German territories, the Italian countries, the United States, and so on.

Greer’s book fit into the larger work of the revisionist Québec historians, who often sought to put Québec into a global context, both to explain the colony/province/nation’s development, as well as to give credence to Québec’s claims to nationhood. The goal was to  present Québec as a nation commes les autres. Perhaps the book that had the greatest impact on me in this sense was Gérard Bouchard’s 2000 monograph, Genèse des nations et cultures du Nouveau Monde: Essai d’histoire comparée, in which Bouchard examines the development of Québec in relation to other “new world” cultures in Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States. Put this way, Québec’s (and Canada’s) development from the moment of European settlement is globalised and we realise that Canada (and Québec) is not really all that unique.

This tendency to internationalise Québec seems to be continuing with a younger generation of historians. My friend and colleague, Simon Jolivet, has just published his new book, Le vert et le bleu: Identité québécoise et identité irlandaise au tournant du XXe siècle. Simon and I did our PhDs together at Concordia, and in 2006, the School of Canadian Irish Studies there hosted a roundtable discussion that looked at connections between Ireland and Québec, in large part this grew out of the work our PhD supervisor, Ronald Rudin had done early in the decade.  It was probably the most dynamic and informative conference I’ve been at, as ideas flew around the table.  Both Simon and I gained a lot from that conference and it is clear in both of our work.

For my part, I am interested in the Irish in Griffintown, Montréal, over the course of the 20th century. What I look at is, of course, identity, but I’m interested in the shaping of a diasporic identity amongst the Montréal Irish, one that situates the Irish of the city within the global context of the Irish around the world, as well as the links (such as they were) with Ireland itself.  To do so, I make use of post-colonial theory, which seems particularly à-propos for the Irish, descendents of a colonial culture in Ireland, living in Montréal, the largest city of the French diaspora and thus necessarily a post-colonial location.

And this is what Sean Mills picks up in his brilliant new book, The Empire Within: Postcolonial Thought and Political Activism in Sixties Montreal. Mills situates Montréal within that postcolonial framework, and examines the ideas of decolonisation and colonialism within activist circles in Montréal in the 60s. The activists were heavily influenced by what was going on in the world around them, in de-colonial movements in Algeria, Tunisia, and, especially, Cuba, as well as the Caribbean in the 50s and 60s. Certainly, they were well aware of their skin colour and Canada’s place as a first-world nation. But the ambivalence of Montréal (still the economic centre of Canada in the 60s) is something Mills excels at drawing out. As the decade went on, American activists, in particular African American activists like Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael, became influential in the de-colonial struggle of the French Canadian majority of the city.  This was further complicated by Montréal’s own black population, which also identified itself with the ideas coming out of the United States and the Caribbean. And as Montréal became a more complicated city, ethnically-speaking, to say nothing of the actions of the FLQ in October 1970, ideas of decolonisation lost their appeal.

Nonetheless, what is clear is that Montréal is a global city, one that takes its cue from its global connections as much as its local ones. Indeed, this is the basis of my next project about layers of diaspora on the urban landscape of the city. In the meantime, it also gives me a way to situate my own work on the Irish of Montréal in a larger global context.

On Diasporas and Protests

February 6, 2011 § Leave a comment

As unrest unfolds in the Middle East, one thing I’ve enjoyed here in Montréal have been the protests of the various diasporas. A few weeks ago, as I ran errands downtown on a Saturday, I got caught up in a large group of Tunisians protesting against Ben Ali, calling for his removal. Since then, the Tunisians have protested against his brother-in-law, who has attempted to seek shelter in Montréal and claiming refugee status in Canada. Other Arab diasporas have joined in the protests. The Tunisian one I got caught up in had people not only draped in the Tunisian flag, but the Algerian, Lebanese, Palestinian, and Egyptian flag.

Yesterday, the Egyptian diaspora in Montréal was out in the streets downtown protesting against Hosni Mubarak, part of an international day of protests, calling for his ouster. As with the Tunisian protests, they were joined by other Arabs. But what makes these protests special for me is that it’s not just the Arabs, not just the Tunisians and Egyptians, out in the streets in Montréal. They are quickly joined by everyone else in the city: québécois, Anglos, Spanish, Italians, Greeks, Jews, and so on.

The Tunisian protest was a multicultural sea of faces, all united in celebrating Tunisian freedom and Ben Ali’s ouster. Video I’ve seen of yesterday’s anti-Mubarak protests were similar. It’s simply nice to see the coming together of all of these diasporas in Montréal, including ones that don’t historically get along, to protest against injustice on the other side of the world.

UPDATED: Check out this article on the Egyptian diaspora in general and their hopes for reform.

The Redemptorists

January 10, 2011 § 2 Comments

I went to mass on Christmas Day, I’m not Catholic, but I kind of like the tradition. This year we were in Keene, NH, where my sister-in-law lives. The priest had as the theme of his Christmas morning sermon “redemption,” noting that that was the true meaning of the season. I like to think that is one of the good points of Catholicism, that redemption is granted through the fallibility of humanity, God’s forgiveness for our sins, in part through the sacrifice of Jesus, in part through confession.  I presume that this is where the Redemptorist Brothers got their name, their job being to redeem the souls of both their parishioners, as well as their converts (they are a missionary brotherhood).

Anyway, all of this is by way of introduction of my destination tomorrow in Toronto: the archives of the Redemptorists. The Redemptorists were the parish priests in Griffintown from 1885 until the destruction of St. Ann’s Church in 1970, and the ultimate closing of the parish a dozen or so years later. So far as I know, no one has actually gone in and looked at the brothers’ records from Griffintown. I was told about them years ago by Rosalyn Trigger, who was at the time doing her PhD at McGill, but I never found the time to get to Toronto to look at them when I was researching my PhD. Funny: last time I saw my supervisor, Ron Rudin, a few months ago, I was telling him about my plans to go take a look as I finished off the research for the book. He wondered if he could take back my PhD for keeping knowledge of this archive from him. ‘Fraid not, Ron.

Anyway, I’m rather excited to be heading to the archive tomorrow morning to see what I can find, to deepen our general knowledge of Irish-Catholic Griffintown, it will also add something to my book that is not in other histories of the neighbourhood, including my own dissertation.

That the Redemptorist priests were popular in their parish of St. Ann’s is not in doubt. In 1885, when the Sulpicians were stripped of their parish of St. Ann’s, the Irish-Catholics of Griffintown were furious, to the point where they remonstrated with the Bishop of Montréal. However, the Redemptorists, upon their arrival, were able to almost instantly win the hearts and minds of their parishioners, by investing money in the church and parish. By the time that Father Strubbe, the “Belgian Irishman,” was recalled to Belgium, the Irish-Catholics were loudly remonstrating with the powers-that-be over this decision. All the former Griffintowners that I have done oral histories with fondly recall the priests of St. Ann’s, in particular Fr. Kearney.

So I’m hoping here to find out how the priests saw their impoverished parishioners, what they felt they could do for them, whether they enjoyed being in Griffintown, their impressions of the neighbourhood. I’m also interested in the question of faith. All of the former Griffintowners I’ve talked to, as well as all other evidence I’ve seen, shows a very Catholic community, one where people took the ceremonies and rituals of their faith. But what has always interested me is whether this was just that: familiar ritual. One thing the Church is very good at is giving its faithful ritual and ceremony that are both familiar and reassuring. But I’ve always wondered how deep the idea of faith goes, not just with respect to Griffintown, but the Catholic Church in general.

Then there’s the question of Irishness. One of the reasons the Griffintowners protested the removal of the Sulpicians in 1885 was because the Sulpicians were very good about ensuring the parish priests at St. Ann’s were Irish. The Redemptorists who arrived in Griffintown that year were all Belgian. Of course, Fr. Strubbe was able to win over his parishioners and even gain status as an Irishman by the time of his recall.  And by the mid-20th century, the priests, like Fr. Kearney, were Irish once more. Was this a conscious decision by the Redemptorists and the Bishop to represent the faithful? What did the priests make of the Irishness of their parishioners?

So here’s hoping I can begin to find some answers to these questions in the archive.

The Shoe on the Other Foot

August 23, 2010 § Leave a comment

Being Canadian, it sometimes feels like we’re the ones on the short end of the stick in global affairs.  We’re the ones the Americans invaded during the War of Independence and again in 1812.  During World War I, the British used our troops as cannon fodder in battles like the Somme.  We have been colonies of the French and the British.  Economically, we’re largely dependent upon the Americans.  Our peoples are descendent from the colonised of the world (ok, so is the rest of the Western world).  In short, I think Canadians like to see themselves as victims, or at least feel like victims far too often.  This is why winning double gold medals in hockey over the Americans at the Olympics is such a big deal.  For that moment, we’re the winners.

The once-great Vancouver band, Spirit of the West, wrote a song back in the early 90s called “Far Too Canadian.”  It’s a lament for our status as hewers of wood and drawers of water, amongst other things.  The lyrics:

I’m so content, to stand in line
Wait and see, pass the time
Talk a streak, fall alseep, wake up late, whine and weep
I kiss the hand that slaps me senseless
I’m so accepting, so defenseless
I am far too Canadian
Far  too  Canadian

I am the face of my country
Experssionless and small
Weak at the knees, shaking badly
Can’t straighten up at all
I watch the spine of my country bend and break
I’m a sorry state.

A sobering thought, that song. And all the cheesy, stupid, lame-brained Molson Canadian ads in the world (apparently has more square feet of “awesomeness per person” than any other nation on Earth) can’t change it.

That being said, we do have our moments, our victories, and our glories.  But we tend to play those down, too (except when they involve gold medals, hockey, and the Olympics).  We’re a modest people, I suppose.

So all of this being said, I’m always surprised to find Canadians on the other side, at least historically-speaking.  Not far from Charlemont, Massachusetts, is the town of Deerfield.  On 29 February 1704, during the War of Spanish Succession, a joint force of 47 French and Canadian soldiers and 200 Mohawk warriors (including the Pocumtuck, who had lived in what is now the Pioneer Valley before the English settlers arrived) raided Deerfield before dawn.  The raid was partly in revenge for the settlers’ violent and callous treatment of the Pocumtuck, which culminated in a massacre  in what is now nearby Montague Township in 1676.

The combined French-Canadian-aboriginal force caught the settlers unaware before dawn and massacred 56 people.  109 people survived the raid, they were captured and made to march 500km north to Québec, in harsh winter conditions.  21 of them either died or were killed during the trek.  Most of those who made it to Québec were eventually ransomed and made their way back to Deerfield.  A few, most notably the pastor’s daughter, Eunice Williams, chose to remain.  Williams spent the rest of her life at Kahanwake, a Mohawk settlement near Montréal, marring a Mohawk man and having a family with him.

The Deerfield Raid was no doubt a traumatic event for the people of the small settlement.  And it has lived on for the past 300 years, it is a foundational story in the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts.  At times, listening to people describe it, reading newspaper stories about the raid, and seeing how it is represented in the pop culture of the Valley, I even get the sense that the trauma of the raid lives on.  Certainly, it is strange for a Canadian to realise the Americans were victims of the colonial era.  It is even more bizarre to realise that one’s ancestors were the ones who caused the trauma.  We are usucally the victims, not the aggressors of historical trauma.

The fact that the 1704 raid lives on in Deerfield, and is largely forgotten in Québec (as France lost that war), is significant.  No doubt it lives on in part because Deerfield’s raison d’être today is as a tourist site.  Historic Deerfield is a national historic site, and the town’s economy centres around the historical experience there, and the 1704 raid factors heavily into it.  It is no doubt the most significant event to have occurred in Deerfield in its 337 year history.  And, as a result of the historicisation of Deerfield, the 1704 raid gets played out, reinterpreted, and re-assessed almost daily by the town’s residents, the historical educators, and the tourists who come to visit.

But for me, a Canadian, the first time I visited Deerfield, on a warm, sunny day in late May 2006, I was stunned to find a place that was traumatised by Canadians, at least a place that was not an aboriginal settlement/reserve.  And as I took in the colonial American scene in front of me that day, I couldn’t help but feel a shudder of fear imagining that 247-man strong force crawling across the plain along the Deerfield River, coming out of the mist and the snow and laying siege to a small frontier settlement.  And every time since that I have driven past, or been into Historic Deerfield, I cannot shake that feeling of terror that the colonist there must’ve felt that cold February morning 306 1/2 years ago.

The Beast & The Other Hand

July 8, 2010 § Leave a comment

Over at Current Intelligence, I have posted an article on asylum seekers in the UK and Chris Cleave’s recent novel, Little Bee.  It has even garnered the attention of the man himself.  Check it out.

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