October 31, 2017 § Leave a comment
I read Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others last week. For some reason, Sontag has always loomed on the fringes of my cultural radar, but I had never read anything by her, other than a few essays or excerpts over the years. In some ways, I found her glib and in others, profound. But I also found her presentist.
At the start of the second chapter, she quotes Gustave Moynier, who in 1899, wrote that “We know what happens every day throughout the whole world,” as he goes onto discuss the news of war and calamity and chaos in the newspapers of the day. Sontag takes issue with this: “[I]t was obviously an exaggeration, in 1899, to say that one knew what happened ‘every day throughout the whole world.'”
We like to think globalization is a new phenomenon, that it was invented in the past 30 years or so and sped up with the advent of the internet and, especially social media, as we began to wear clothes made in China, rather than the US or Canada or Europe. Balderdash. Globalization has been underway since approximately forever. Europeans in the Ancient World had a fascination with the Far East, and trade goods slowly made their way across the Eurasian landmass from China to Italy and Greece. Similarly, the Chinese knew vaguely of the faraway Europeans. In the Americas, archaeological evidence shows that trade goods made their way from what is now Canada to South America, and vice versa. Homer describes a United Nations amassing to fight for the Persian Empire against the Greeks.
Trade has always existed, it has always shrunk the world. Even the manner in which we think of globalization today, based on the trade of goods and ideas, became common place by the 18th century through the great European empires (meanwhile, in Asia, this process had long been underway, given the cultural connections between China and all the smaller nations around it from Japan to Vietnam).
For Sontag, though, her issue is with photographs. Throughout Regarding the Pain of Others, she keeps returning to photographs. She is, of course, one of the foremost thinkers when it comes to photographs, her landmark On Photography (1977) is still highly regarded. In many ways, Sontag seems to believe in the credo ‘pics or it didn’t happen.’
Thus, we return to Moynier and his claim to know what was going on in the four corners of the world in 1899. Sontag, besides taking issue with the lack of photographs, also calls on the fact that ‘the world’ Moynier spoke of, or we see in the news today, is a curated world. No kidding. But that doesn’t make Moynier’s claim any less valid than the New York Times’ claim to ‘print all the news that’s fit to print.’ That is also a carefully curated news source.
In Moynier’s era, Europeans and North Americans, at least the literate class, did know what was happening throughout the world. The columns of newspapers were full of international, national, and local news, just like today. And certainly, this news was curated. And certainly, the news tended to be from the great European empires. And that news about war tended to be about war between the great European empires and the colonized peoples, or occasionally between those great European empires. But that doesn’t make Moynier’s claim any less valid. He did know what was going on around the world. He just didn’t know all that was going on. Nor do I today in 2017, despite the multitude of news sources available for me. The totality of goings on world wide is unknowable.
And Sontag’s issue with Moynier is both a strawman and hair-splitting.
June 27, 2016 § 4 Comments
There is a meme going around the interwebs in the wake of last Thursday’s Brexit referendum and decision. This meme is American and has appeared on the FB and Twitter feeds of pretty much every conservative I know. And, like nearly all memes, it is stupid. And ahistorical.
I watched an argument unfold on a friend’s FB wall over the weekend, where one of the discussants, in response of someone trying to historicize and contextualize the EU, said that “History is irrelevant.” He also noted that history is just used to scare people. OK, then.
But this is where history does matter. The European Union is a lot of things, but it is not “a political union run by unaccountable rulers in a foreign land.” Rather, the EU is a democracy. All the member states joined willingly. There is a European Parliament in Brussels to which member states elect members directly. Leadership of the EU rotates around the member states.
And, the 13 Colonies, which rose up against the British Empire in 1774, leading to the creation of the United States following the War of Independence, were just that: colonies. The United Kingdom is not and was not a colony of Europe.
The two situations are not analogous. At all. In other words, this is just another stupid meme. #FAIL
February 4, 2015 § 3 Comments
Yesterday, a new report was released on the plight of Canada’s aboriginal peoples in the healthcare system. The title, “First Peoples, Second Class Treatment,” perhaps says all you need to know. The CBC also posted a story on-line about the experiences of several aboriginal people vis-à-vis healthcare in Victoria, British Columbia. A couple of the “highlights”:
- Michelle Labrecque went to the Royal Jubilee Hospital complaining of severe stomach pain in 2008. A doctor gave her a prescription. When she got home and opened the paper with the prescription on it, it was a drawing of a beer bottle with a circle slashed through it.
- Carol McFadden went to the doctor with a lump in her breast, only to be told she could’ve gone to mammography herself. She now has Stage 4 breast cancer, and it has spread to her liver.
- McFadden reports that whilst some doctors have been compassionate, others have been rude and brusque, to the point where they kick her bed when they want her attention, and continually asking her if she drinks or does drugs.
I recently read Joanna Burke’s book, The Story of Pain: From Prayer to Painkillers. In it, she talks about the body in pain, and the responses thereto, both from the victims of the pain, as well as the medical profession. Nineteenth century doctors, insofar as they discussed the colonialized body, they dismissed the idea that indigenous bodies could feel pain in the same way that an upper-class British man could. For that matter, they also argued that working-class men had a higher tolerance to pain. Their recommendation was to try to take the body in pain seriously, but not to be sympathetic, to be brusque when talking to the victim. We live in the twenty-first century. Why are aboriginal peoples treated this way by doctors?
Of course I know why, Canada is a deeply, deeply racist society vis-à-vis the aboriginal population. It is acceptable in Canada to be openly racist against First Nations people. I wish I could say I was surprised by the findings of this report. I am not.
February 7, 2014 § 1 Comment
Ypres was a hotspot in the First World War. No fewer than five major battles took place around this Flemish town between 1914 and 1918. During the Second Battle of Ypres, fought in April-May 1915, the Germans wafted a cloud of chlorine gas at the Allied troops across No Man’s Land. The other side was occupied by Moroccan and Algerian troops, flanked by Canadians. In other words, the main targets were French African colonial troops. The Germans didn’t dare set the gas towards Europeans.
The Moroccans and Algerians died on the spot and/or broke ranks and ran. This left a massive gap, 4 miles long, in the Allied lines, which the Germans were rather hesitant to rush into, for obvious reasons. That meant the 13th Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force was left to counter the German attack, on its own. It was reinforced by the 10th Battalion of the 2nd Canadian Brigade, as well as the 16th Battalion of the 3rd Canadian Brigade the next day. It’s worth noting that the Canadians became the first colonials to defeat a major European power at Ypres.
In short, the Allied lines when the Germans used chlorine gas on them were manned by colonial troops: Moroccans and Algerians who took the brunt of the gas, and then Canadians who also got hit with gas, but to a lesser extent (they urinated on handkerchiefs and then put them to their faces to survive the attack).
This is the version I was taught in school and university in Canada. And it was also the version I saw in pop culture, films, literature, history books, at least until recently. In the past year or two, this story has been simplified: French and British troops were gassed by the Germans. And while that is technically true, it is massively mis-leading.
In the case of Canada, our national mythology says that our country came to age on the battlefields of the First World War. It led to Canada demanding and gaining the ear of British Prime Minister David Lloyd George with the creation of the Imperial War Council (along with the other Dominions). And Canada (as well as the other Dominions) were seated at the Versailles conference. Eventually, in 1931, Canada (and the other Dominions) gained control of their own foreign affairs in 1931 with the passing of the Statute of Westminster. And, as I argue myself in my own forthcoming book, The House of the Irish: History & Memory in Griffintown, Montreal, 1900-2013, Canadians were consciously fighting for their own nation, they fought in their own army, the Canadian Expeditionary Force. And even if the CEF was appended to the British Expeditionary Force, Canada was coming of age as a nation of its own right. So, to state that the British and French were the victims of the German gas attack is disingenuous. And yet, there it is in our culture, everywhere from writers who should know better to Downton Abbey.
Imagine my surprise, then, to be reading a quick review of Graeme Kent’s new book, On The Run: Deserters Through the Ages, (which has yet to be published in North America) in The Times Literary Supplement, that states that the gas attack “fell four square on the French and to a lesser extent on the Canadian First Division.” I quickly flipped to the back to see who the reviewer, Nathan M. Greenfield, was. A Canadian military historian. So that sort of doesn’t count. And, there is also the fact that while Greenfield did wave the Canadian flag, he also denied the Moroccan and Algerian troops their due.
February 3, 2014 § 4 Comments
Niall Ferguson likes attention. There’s no other way to explain his public pronouncements. Like when he predicted there’d be blood on the streets of major Western cities in response to the 2008 global economic meltdown. Or when he said John Maynard Keynes was a bad economist because he was gay. Or when he attacked Gandhi in his Civilization: The West and the Rest. Then there’s that book in general, with its incredibly lame attempt to be hip, as Ferguson talked about the West developing “killer apps” that allowed it to dominate the rest of the world. This idea was so bad it detracted from what was actually a decent argument. Ugh. So when I saw that Ferguson had opined to the BBB’s History magazine that Britain should never have entered the First World War in 1914, I was already in mid-eye roll when I realised that Ferguson was actually onto something here.
The BBC article is behind a paywall, but when Ferguson speaks, the media listens and The Guardian published a quick account. Basically, Ferguson says that Britain made “the biggest error in modern history” by entering the war in 1914. He says that Britain could’ve let the Germans, French, and Russians slug it out on the continent, and then dealt with a victorious Germany at a later date, on its own terms. He also notes that had Germany defeated the Russians and French, it would have had the same problems Napoléon had a century earlier, in terms of governing an unruly empire and being behind a British sea blockage. In 1914, Britain was simply not ready for war, especially a land war.
And then he looks at the long-term cost for Britain of the war. It nearly bankrupted the nation, Britain was saddled with debt after 1918. It ultimately cost the British their empire and their status as a major world power (as it also did to France).
There is something to be said for his argument here, but, as usual with a polemicist, he overshoots his mark, taking a claim that might actually be something and then wrapping it up with ridiculousness, like what he did with the unfortunate Civilization. At its core, the Great War was calamitous for Britain, there’s no two ways about that. But Ferguson doesn’t take into account the human cost of the war. An entire generation of young men was destroyed by the war. The costs of that lost generation are immense, in terms of politics, economy, and culture. It also meant a decline in birth rates, so the lost generation had a long-term effect of Britain.
Ferguson does talk about the cost of the war economically, the massive debt the country accumulated, and the fact that this ended up costing Britain its empire. This is where I think Ferguson gets his hackles up, given that he’s the last great defender of the force of civilisation that the British Empire was.
As historians, we are supposed to enjoy the benefit of hindsight, to be able to see the bigger picture that, say, Sir Herbert Asquith, the British Prime Minister in 1914, could not. But we still need to take into account the view from White Hall in August 1914. From Asquith’s point-of-view, Britain was bound by treaty to protect its Allies. Britain was also militarily prepared for war (a point Ferguson dismisses), even if it was the wrong kind of war it anticipated.
Recently, I read a review of three books on the start of the First World War in the Times Literary Supplement. There will be a lot of that this year, since its the centenary of the start of the war. One of the books was written by a journalist, and one with a particular axe to grind, and was full of broad, sweeping statements about the war, the British generals, and politicians. The reviewer took issue with this approach as being ahistorical and anti-intellectual. And while I wouldn’t go that far with Ferguson’s argument, it’s on that route. At least at this point. I hope a book will emerge from this thought, as it would certainly be worth the read.
January 17, 2014 § Leave a comment
I assigned William Cronon’s landmark Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England this semester in American History. I read this the first a long, long time ago at the University of British Columbia during my undergrad. I read it again at Simon Fraser University during my MA studies. The book itself is 31 years old this year, but it was re-issued in a 20th anniversary edition in 2003. It is still a fantastic book, in my opinion.
But one thing struck me as I was reading. Cronon writes, concerning the English Crown’s attempts at taking possession of the land of New England:
The Crown derived its own claim to the region from several sources: Cabot’s “discovery” of New England in 1479-98; the failure of the Indians to adequately subdue the soil as Geneis 1.28 required; and from the King’s status — initially a decidedly speculative one — as the first Christian monarch to establish colonies there.
These are all points I am familiar with, obviously, after all those years of schooling and my teaching career. But sometimes, when I see the justification for early imperialism laid so bare as this, I am astounded. I won’t even get into the logical fallacies of relying on the Bible to justify the Crown’s claim to the land, possessed by non-Christians.
It gets better though, Cronon notes:
…by the late seventeenth century, Indian lands were regarded as being entirely within English colonial jurisdiction; indeed, the logic of the situation seemed to indicate that, for Indians to own land at all, it had first to be granted them by the English Crown.
November 7, 2013 § 2 Comments
I’m reading CJ Shivers’ book, The Gun, which is essentially a history and biography of the machine gun, though he focuses primarily on the AK-47. Shivers, though, goes into great depth about the development of machine guns, back to the attempts of Richard Gatling’s attempts back in the 1860s to develop an automated firing system. So far, I have to admit, this book is worth the hype it received when it came out in 2010.
However. Shivers spends some time discussing the deployment of the Gatling Gun, as well as the Maxim, amongst others in colonial endeavours in Africa in the late 19th century during the Scramble for Africa. For the most part, Shivers follows British troops on their attempts to pacify the natives. The descriptions of the efficacy of the guns are chilling. Shivers quotes one British soldier who casually mentions the piling up of African bodies as the British advanced with their Maxim guns. Numbers get thrown around, here 3,000 dead, there 1,500, and so on and so forth. These are from single battles, large African forces against small British ones. And yet the British win, because of the guns.
The book summary on the back cover says that this is “a richly human account of the evolution of the very experience of war.” It is, at least so far, if we are talking about white Europeans and Americans. When it comes to the black Africans, however, they’re no more than body counts. This, however, is NOT really Shivers’ fault. This is the nature of imperialism, this is the very core of imperialism. The colonised “other” is a faceless, shapeless mass. The imperialist dehumanises the victims of the imperial process. The colonised are reduced to something not quite human. The fault here doesn’t lie with Shivers (let me state that again), it lies with colonial sources. By design, the Africans were dehumanised by the British (or the French, the Italians, the Germans, or whomever) during the Scramble. They were reduced to an irritant in the forward march of progress.
None of this is news to anyone who knows anything about imperialism. It’s not news to me, but sometimes I feel like I’ve just been smacked in the face with this knowledge. It is almost like reading it again for the first time. And reading The Gun, I feel that way.
June 8, 2013 § 8 Comments
I’m teaching a summer course, a quick, 6-week course wherein I’m supposed to cover World History from approximately the Enlightenment in Western Europe in the mid-18th century until the late 20th century. It’s impossible to do this topic justice in a 15-week semester, let alone a quick summer course. For that reason, and because I’ve been teaching variations of this course for far too long, I decided to try something new with this class. In essence, my students are my guinea pigs this semester. I am teaching the Terror of History/The History of Terror.
A few years ago, I read a fantastic book by UCLA History Professor Teofilo Ruiz, The Terror of History: On the Uncertainties of Life in Western Civilization. Ruiz expanded on something that had been travelling around the back of my own brain since I first read Boccaccio’s The Decameron some twenty years ago. In his Introduction, Boccaccio lays out the response of people in Florence to the Plague: What they did. According to Boccaccio, there are three basic human responses to terror and misery: 1) Religion; 2) Debauchery; or 3) Flight. To that, Ruiz adds that there’s a 4th category: those who remain in place, who attempt to carry on in the midst of chaos. Since I read Ruiz, I’ve been thinking about this more explicitly, and I have re-read The Decameron (as an aside, I find it rather insulting that my MacBook insists that Decameron is a spelling error). Sometimes it’s hard not to become a miserable cynic when teaching history. We humans have come up with so many ways to terrorise, torture, and kill each other. If you don’t believe me, look at how Romans dealt with traitors: crucifixion. Or the Holocaust or any genocide you want.
Religion, it occurred to me when I was a teenager, was simply a means of ordering the world in order to allow ourselves not to lose our minds, to try to find wider significance and meaning for the bad things that happen. When I was a bit older, I dabbled in Buddhism, which was much more explicit about this. This isn’t to demean religion, it is a powerful force for some, and it allows an ordering of the universe. But, as the Buddha noted, life is suffering. What we control is our response to that.
So, Ruiz pointed out the terror of history, of the endless crashing of shit on our heads. Pretty much everything in our world is predicated on it. We live a comfortable life in North America because my shoes were made in Vietnam in a sweat shop. My car emits pollution into the air. Historically, systems of power are predicated on fear, terror, and awe. That’s how order is kept. Uplifting, isn’t it?
So, this semester, I’ve made that explicit in my class. I cannot even hope to do justice to World History, so I am trying to cherry-pick my way through all the mire. I am focussing on the chaos and terror at moments like the American War of Independence or the French Revolution. Or the terror of slave owners in the American South or in Brazil. Or the use of terror by the world’s first terrorist, Maximillien Robespierre, who explicitly declared that he wanted to terrorise his enemies. Lenin and Trotsky rolled in a very similar manner. So, too, did the Qing Dynasty in China. Or the British imperial system in Africa or India. Or the Belgians in the Congo. But this wasn’t an export of Europe. Slavery has existed since approximately forever, and was an integral part of Ancient Warfare, but it was also central to African warfare in the 18th century. The list goes on and on.
How do we survive in this endless cycle of bad news? We do what Boccaccio said we do. We find religion. We despoil ourselves in debauchery. We find joy in religion or debauchery. Or we find it in flight. Flight doesn’t have to be literal, like the 10 young men and women in The Decameron, flight can be symbolic. It can be a search for beauty, awareness, or knowledge. In many ways, the three categories can overlap, like in the mystic cults of the Roman Republic. But we are remarkably resilient creatures, and we find our joys and happiness in the midst of the shit of life.
Ruiz notes that people almost always attempt to step outside the colossal weight of history by following these paths to religion, debauchery, or flight. Events like Carnival, whether in Medieval Europe or Rio de Janeiro (or Québec City in winter, for that matter), is exactly that, an escape, temporary as it might be, from history. We escape systems of power and oppression for brief moments.
The hard part in teaching the Terror of History is finding the escapes and not making them sound like they are hokey or unimportant or trivial, which is what they sound like in the face of this colossal wave of bad news. But we all do this, we all find means of escaping the news. Right now, the news in my local newspaper concerns the government spying on its own citizens, a war in Syria, and people trying to recover from a bomb going off during a marathon. If I took each at face value, I’m sure I’d be lying prostate on the floor, sucking my thumb. So, clearly, I have coping mechanisms. And humans have always had them. But it remains difficult to talk about these in class without making them sound hokey.
This week, we’re reading Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s, SlaughterHouse 5, which takes place in part at the end of the Second World War and was Vonnegut’s attempt to make sense of having been in Dresden in 1945, when the city was firebombed by the Allies. The terror of that, the horror, the devastation. All throughout the novel, the narrator declares “So it goes” when dealing with death and other calamities. We have a philosophy, then, here, one of stoicism. Stoicism and Buddhism are fairly closely related. This is an attempt to deal with the Terror of History.
At any rate, this is making for an interesting summer course, and it seems as though my students are, if not exactly enjoying it, are learning something. Along with SlaughterHouse 5, we’re also going to watch Triumph of the Will this week.
January 5, 2013 § 3 Comments
Twice 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.
Now 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.
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).
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.