Got Land? Thank an Indian and Canadian racism

January 17, 2014 § 12 Comments

Tenelle Star is a 13-year old girl who is a member of the Star Blanket First Nation in Saskatchewan.  She goes to school in Balcarres, SK.  Last week when she wore a hilarious pink hoodie that asked “Got Land?” on the front, and said “Thank an Indian” on the back, she created a controversy.  The CBC reported on the matter on 14 January, and from there things have gone sort of viral.  Jeff Menard, the Winnipeg man behind the shirts, says he’s getting flooded with orders.  But the fallout around Star’s hoodie is getting ridiculous.

A few days ago, I tweeted my disbelief, in a rather inelegant fashion after reading the comments on the original CBC story:

The response to this and a few other similar, though more eloquent, tweets was generally positive, but I got some pushback.  Most of it was garden-variety racism, but this one was particularly interesting:

Further discussion revealed nothing, and I spent the rest of the day trying to figure out the logic, which appeared to be connected to the term “Indian.”  Of course, the term comes from Christopher Columbus who, upon landing Hispaniola in 1492 thought he was in India.  The name stuck.  Today it is an incredibly loaded term politically, but, despite all that many aboriginals in Canada continue to prefer the term to the various attempts at replacing it.  And if we really want to get semantic, I could point out that the term “India” for the country India actually comes from the Persians who termed the land around the Indus River India in the 5th century BCE.

The second part of that tweet was much more obvious.  Blue Squadron’s grandfather worked for a living, the implication being that aboriginals in Canada do not.  That’s beneath contempt.

This morning on the CBC’s website the fallout from Star’s hoodie continued.  Her Facebook page has been inundated with comments, most of which are positive, but more than a few are disgustingly racist.  The sad fact of the matter is that Canada is a racist nation when it comes to the First Nations, as I noted in this tweet

One only need read the comments on the CBC article, or even the comments on Star’s Facebook page to see that.  I also have the added benefit of having worked for eight years in the field of aboriginal law and litigation in Canada.  I was a research analyst for an Ottawa-based company, we did research surrounding the myriad claims and counterclaims between the First Nations of Canada and the federal and provincial governments.  The duplicity of government agents astounded me then, it still does today.  And that’s not even touching the racism.  I could cite many examples of horrible racist comments I came across the in the archives, but one has always stuck out for its complete lack of self-reflection.  It came from an RCMP officer named Gallagher (an Irish name) who, when supervising a work camp where a few aboriginal men were sentenced for trivial criminal acts, complained that they didn’t want to do the backbreaking work.  Said Gallagher, “They are sun-burnt Irishmen.”  Oy vey.

But today, a new low was reached with the CBC reporting on the response of a Vancouver woman, Michele Tittler, to Star’s sweatshirt.  Tittler is the head of this group called End Race-Based Laws, Inc., which was apparently formed in response to last year’s #IdleNoMore movement.  This is from the CBC article:

Michele Tittler was posting on social media sites connected to the story. Tittler, from Vancouver, is a co-founder of a non-profit political organization called End Race-Based Laws, or ERBL Inc.

“I was immensely offended,” Tittler told CBC News Thursday, regarding the message of the shirt. “And I was going to do everything within my power to have that shirt banned from that school.”

Tittler said she had written to the Balcarres school and also sent notes to Facebook, complaining about the content on Starr’s page.

She is also planning to lodge a formal complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission , although it’s not clear on what grounds. Tittler is, however, convinced that the message of the shirt is racist.

“This is racism,” she said. “Canadians are really getting sick of the double-standard. No white kid could walk into a school with a shirt that says that in reverse.”

First off, no white kid SHOULD walk into school wearing the reverse of Star’s hoodie.  Secondly, it is NOT reverse racism, it’s not racism.  Tittler is is just flat-out, plain wrong.  She is the latest iteration of an old phenomenon in Canadian history.  Many aboriginals in Canada would be just as happy getting rid of the Indian Act, but the fact of the matter is that cannot happen.  The playing field in Canada is not even.  First Nations start at such a massive disadvantage to the average Canadian it’s almost unbelievable.  The on-going legacy of Canadian colonialism and the systematic attempt at ethnocide in the 19th and early 20th centuries remain.  During that period Canada made every attempt it could to eradicate aboriginals from Canada, not by killing them, but by taking their culture, making their kids speak English or French, through residential schools, through enfranchising aboriginals for leaving reserves and so on.  None of that worked, for obvious reasons.

It is disgraceful that Canada remains such a fundamentally racist society when it comes to First Nations.  It is a shame.  It embarrasses me.  In the year 2000, I was working in Ottawa, on a claim that centred around a group of Inuit in what is now Nunavut.  This is where that gem from Officer Gallagher comes from.  It was just one of many, and the more I read in the archives, the more appalled I was.  And the more embarrassed that my country could have acted in this way.  It was also Canada Day.  In Ottawa.  It was not a happy time for me.

And fourteen years on, it hasn’t got any better.  The National Post, that noted bastion of retrenchment, published a collection of letters it received on residential schools, all of which appear to have been written by white people.  I was astounded.  Just astounded at these comments.

This is not going to get better at any time soon.  It’s acceptable for far too many Canadians to be racist in this respect.  And that is to the great shame of Canada.

On Living in a Gentrifying Neighbourhood, Pt. V

October 2, 2013 § 6 Comments

[I thought I was done with this series (parts I, II, III, and IV and the prequel) when I left Pointe-Saint-Charles last summer and moved to New England. Apparently not.]

In the mid-1980s in Vancouver, the BC provincial government built the SkyTrain, a new light-rail system connecting the western suburbs of New Westminster and Burnaby to the City of Vancouver.  SkyTrain caused a lot of disruption when it was built, as you might expect for a brand new system. When it finally opened, just in time for Expo ’86, people were excited.  Vancouver finally got rapid trasit!  But some people weren’t so happy, the people who lived along the line in New West, Burnaby, and East Vancouver (it’s worth noting the SkyTrain went primarily through working-class neighbourhoods).  I recall a news segment that investigated the claims of the noise.  In particular, I remember a glass of water on a counter next to an open window as the SkyTrain went by.  The water didn’t move.  At all.

Nonetheless, I can understand in the inconvenience of the SkyTrain for those whose day-to-day lives were affected by it.  They were there before SkyTrain, it moved into their neighbourhood.

But let us now consider Pointe-Saint-Charles.  The Pointe has been home to a train yard since the Grand Trunk Railway built its yards there in 1853.  For those of you who are mathematically challenged, that’s 160 years ago.  In other words, the trains have been in the Pointe for a long, long time.  And for much of its history, the trains were part and parcel of the experience of living in the Pointe.  There was a train yard there.  Life goes on.

But, as I’ve been noting in this series, the Pointe is undergoing redevelopment and gentrification.  And nowhere is this clearer than in that part of the southern part of the Pointe which, even a decade ago, was a pretty dodgy part of town.  Here, people have been snapping up cheap housing, both the 19th century stock and hideous new condos, and movingin.  The Pointe, ever-so-slowly has become a more happening place because of this gentrification and that closer to the north end of the neighbourhood, near the Canal and the Nordelec building (which is in the process of being condofied now).   In short, the yuppies (of whom I was obviously one when I lived there) are moving in.

For the most part, the process of gentrification has been more or less smooth in the Pointe, but, then again, I’m not one of the people being priced out of the neighbourhood.  But the tension that exists in Saint-Henri was lacking in the Pointe. But, there were subtle changes in the culture of the neighbourhood when I lived there.  This was seen most obviously to me in the case of the community garden at the end of our block.  A couple of years ago, the arrivistes took control of it and essentially pushed the old-timers out of the garden. Not cool.

So, today I was reading the news on CBC Montréal, and I came across this little gem.  Some of the yuppies who’ve moved into that southern part of the Pointe (taking advantage of cheap housing and pushing the poor out) are crying foul over the sound of the trains at all hours of the day.  Yup.  Imagine that! Trains! In a train yard!  One resident hears the trains and he gets afraid of what might happen.  Others complain sound like The Grinch, complaining about the noise, noise, noise!

Certainly, some of this is in response to the disaster in Lac Mégantic.  But, it is worth noting that in all my years in the sud-ouest, I cannot recall a single accident involving trains in Pointe-Saint-Charles or Saint-Henri.  Accidents between cars, bikes, and peoples, certainly.  But not trains.

So, these people want Canadian National to reduce the trains and the noise they make.  This is not unprecedented.  There is a condo building on rue Saint-Ambroise in Saint-Henri, right where the CN tracks go through Saint-Henri.  When it was first opened up, the people who bought in there respectfully asked that the Canadian National STOP running trains through their backyards.  That line, which is connected to the largely disused yards in the Pointe, remains one of the busiest train tracks in North America, used by CN and ViaRail between Montréal and Ottawa and Toronto.  I’m not making that up.

It would seem to me that one of the basic facts of living in a city is that there is noise.  And if you are on the market for a new condo, you would look at what’s around you in your new neighbourhood and consider the inconvenience of the noise factor, or other things that might upset you.  And, if you move into a condo near a train yard, you might want to consider the fact that it’s going to get loud occasionally. Trains are like that, they’re loud (I can hear the Commuter Rail train from my house here at all hours of the day and night, in fact, one is going by right now!).  It is asinine and selfish to move into a neighbourhood with a train yard in and then act surprised when there are trains that make lots of noise.  It is the height of idiocy, quite frankly.  If you don’t like the noise, then go live somewhere else.  It’s that simple.  And so, that is my solution for these fine people in the Pointe.  Sell.  Move elsewhere.

The Historian’s Job

July 31, 2013 § 2 Comments

Three times in the past three days I’ve been reminded of what it is that we historians do.  And let me be clear, by “historian,” I mean academically-trained holders of advanced degrees who study the past.  Yeah, call me pretentious or whatever.  I don’t care.  The first reminder I got was the now notorious interview of Reza Aslan by FoxNews concerning his new book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.  In the interview, Aslan had to continuously remind the FoxNews host that he was a trained historian, not just some Muslim dude writing about the founder of Christianity.  Jesus Christ isn’t usually a topic I find interesting, but after hearing the NPR interview wherein Aslan actually got to discuss the book, I almost want to read it.  Almost.

The second reminder of what it is that an historian does came yesterday.  Against my better judgement, I got involved in a Twitter discussion with a conspiracy theorist.  I should’ve tuned out when he told me that Pierre Elliott Trudeau, whom many (including me) consider Canada’s greatest Prime Minister, was a communist.  Trudeau, you see, made Canada communist.  But, wait, there’s more!  The communist path was paved for Trudeau by his predecessor, Lester B. Pearson, who was PM from 1963-8.  Pearson, this guy claimed, had been named by a Soviet spy before US Congress as having passed on secrets to the Soviets during the Second World War.  I have, believe it or not, seen this claim before, I have a vague recollection of having read something of it in connection to the Gouzenko Affair.  The author of whatever this piece was addressed the Pearson claim in a footnote and gave his sources.  As an historian does.  My interlocutor, however, did not consider this enough.  He dismissed this academic article as a MSM source (mainstream media) and biased, blah blah blah.  I found myself thinking of Aslan repeating ever-so-patiently noting what it is that makes him qualified to speak on the subject of Jesus Christ.  I thought, well, let’s see, I’ve read somewhere around 5,000 books and articles over the course of my career.  Maybe more, maybe a little less.  I am trained to critically assess an argument, its logic and its evidence.  As are all the rest of us academic, professional historians.  My interlocutor had offered up a Google search as his “proof” that Pearson and Trudeau were dirty commies.  But he dismissed my evidence as “nothing.”  Ah, wonderful, anti-intellectualiam.  Carry on then, good sir, and good luck with your alternate reality.

The third time I was reminded of the historians’ path came today when reading The Times Literary Supplement.  I allowed my subscription to lapse last fall.  I regret that.  I just renewed, and the first new issue came yesterday (note geek excitement here).  In it comes a review of Brian Levack’s new book, The Devil Within: Possession and Exorcism in the Modern Worldby Peter Marshall.  I thought several things of this book and its review.  The first was it appears to have been a colossal miss in terms of Public History.  Levack is bedeviled (pun intended) by the fact that it is well nigh impossible to rationally explain possessions.  And yet, people continued to believe they happened.  I’m more interested in that cognitive dissonance, I must say.  Anyway.  Towards the end of the review, Marshall opines that “The folie de grandeur of historians is that we are conditioned to believe we can explain anything.”  Huh.  Not sure I agree with that.  Certainly, the rational, positivist bent of our training is given over to such pursuits.  And we tend to take on rational topics, things we can explain. Certainly, anything I’ve tackled in a research project from undergrad to now fits into this category. But there are some things that are harder to explain.  Like, for example, the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth.  Or a belief (or unbelief) in God.  Or, possessions, demons, and exorcisms.  Here, the historian is left with this cognitive dissonance, of attempting to conduct a rational discussion (and argument) about something that may not actually be rational.  Herein lies my interest in exactly that dissonance.  What is it that makes people persist in their beliefs? Even in the face of all rational evidence to the contrary (as in the case of, say, possessions)?  The very fact that the subject of discussion is not explainable is exactly what makes it so interesting.  So, in a sense, then, Marshall is incorrect, historians cannot explain anything.  Nor should we wish to.

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.

National Review on Brown v. Board of Education and Desegregation

July 19, 2013 § 2 Comments

The National Review is one of the United States’ longest-standing conservative voices.  It is also usually a reasoned, steady voice.  But, well, as I read a bizarre rant about George Zimmerman in its pages full of thinly veiled racism, I find myself recalling National Review’s response to Brown v. Board of Education and government-mandated desegregation in the South in the late 1950s.

Writing in 1957 (the 24 August edition, to be exact), the editors of National Review had this to say:

The central question that emerges — and it is not a parliamentary question or a question that is answered by merely consulting a catalogue of the rights of American citizens, born Equal — is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas where it does not predominate numerically?  The sobering answer is Yes [italics in original] — the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race.

Yup.  And for an added bonus, here is James J. Kilpatrick, who was then the editor of the Richmond News-Leader in Virginia.  He was of the opinion that Brown and forced desegregation would “risk, twenty or thirty years hence, a widespread racial amalgamation and debasement of the society [of the South] as a whole.”

Joseph McCarthy and Intellectual Dishonesty

July 17, 2013 § 2 Comments

I’m working on a new research project, for which I am reading George H. Nash’s classic The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America since 1945.  Nash, a conservative himself, wrote this book 37 years ago, in 1976, but it has been updated regularly, most recently in 2006 (the edition I’m reading).  It is, for the most part, a tour de force, but too often Nash (and the men he studies) are incapable of recognising the moral and real world implications of their arguments.

One glaring example of this is in the 1950s and the support of the American Right for McCarthyism.  At least according to Nash, almost to a man, the right in the 1950s supported the bullying, unintelligent senator from Wisconsin.  They supported his lies.  They did so because of their belief in the evils of communism.  But they seem to have been incapable of recognising the cost of McCarthyism.  As one of my old professors, Steve Scheinberg (a 1960s radical) noted, many lives were destroyed by McCarthy and his accolytes in the early 1950s.

Nash even refers to one, Owen Lattimore.  Lattimore was accused by McCarthy of being a Soviet stooge (along with many of the China Hands at the CIA, for that matter).  Lattimore was was professor at Johns Hopkins University, in the 1930s, he was an adviser to both the American government and Chiang Kai-Shek’s nationalist movement in China.  Chiang, of course, was engaged in a long and brutal civil war against Mao Zedong’s Communists throughout this period and was supported by, amongst others, the Americans.  The Senate Internal Security Subcommittee engaged in an investigation of the Institute of Pacific Relations, as well as the American government’s China policies (remember, Mao and the Communists won the civil war in 1949, Chiang’s nationalists withdrew to Taiwan, but it was not until 1972 that the Communists were recognised by the US as the legitimate government of China).

Rumours of Lattimore being a Soviet spy had existed since 1948, but it in the early 1950s, McCarthy went after him, calling him the top Soviet spy in America, as well as accusing him of having delivered China into the hands of the Soviets.  After investigation, it was found that Lattimore, though he had been an admirer of the Soviet Union and Stalinism in the 1930s was not, and had never been a Soviet spy, nor had he engaged in espionage.  But that didn’t stop the Subcommittee’s report from concluding that Lattimore was “from the some time beginning in the 1930s, a conscious articulate instrument of the Soviet conspiracy.” This was untrue and a lie.  Nonetheless, it ended Lattimore’s career as a consultant for the CIA and the American government.  Ultimately, he left Johns Hopkins and moved to Leeds University in England, perhaps for obvious reasons.

But very little of this is in Nash’s book.  The quote from the Subcommittee above is, and then he goes on to note how the right then used the report of the Subcommittee and quoted it “from one end of the country to the other” and of the impact of the report and its supporting documents.  There is not a single mention of Lattimore’s innocence.  At all.  And all throughout Nash’s discussion of McCarthyism and its import for the American Right in the 1950s, he conveniently avoids mentioning all the lives that were destroyed by Communist witch hunts.

To me this is intellectual dishonesty.  Nash completely avoids the implications of the arguments made by the conservative intellectuals of the 1950s he studies.  He decontextualises these implications.  One could read this chapter in Nash’s book and have absolutely no clue of the excesses and dangers of McCarthy, an ill-educated bully who ranted and raved about names he had listed on what were actually completely blank pieces of paper.

Niall Ferguson: Somewhere a village is missing its idiot

May 5, 2013 § 1 Comment

By now it is no secret that I think Niall Ferguson is a pompous simpleton.  I give the man credit, he has had a few good ideas, and has written a few good books, most notably Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power.  His recent book, Civilization: The West and the Restwould have actually been a pretty good read if not for his sophomoric and embarrassing discussion of “killer apps” developed by the West and now “downloaded” by the rest of the world, especially Asia.  He has also been incredibly savvy in banking his academic reputation (though he is losing that quickly) into personal gain.  He has managed to land at Harvard, he advised John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2008.

But a few days ago, Ferguson outdid himself.  Speaking at the Tenth Annual Altegris Conference in Carlsbad, California, Ferguson responded to a question about John Maynard Keynes‘ famous comment on long-term economic planning (“In the long run, we are all dead”).  Ferguson has made it abundantly clear in the past that he does not think highly of the most influential and important economist of all time, which is fine.  But Ferguson has also made it abundantly clear that part of his problem with Keynes is not just based on economic policy.  John Maynard Keynes was bisexual.  He was married in 1925 to the Russian ballerina Lydia Lopokova, with whom he remained with until his death in 1946.  By all accounts I’ve read, the marriage was a happy one.  But they did not have children, which obviously upsets Ferguson.  But more troublesome for Ferguson is the fact that Keynes carried out many, many affairs with men, at least up to his marriage.  Fourteen years ago, in one of Ferguson’s more forgotten books, The Pity of War, Ferguson goes on this bizarre sidetrack on Keynes’ sexuality in the post-WWI era, something to the effect (I read the book a long time ago) that Keynes’ life and sexuality became more troubled after the war, in part because there were no cute young boys for him to pick up on the streets of London.  Seriously.  In a book published by a reputable press.

So, in California the other day, to quote economist Tom Kostigen (and who reported the comments for the on-line magazine Financial Advisor), who was there:

 He explained that Keynes had [no children] because he was a homosexual and was married to a ballerina, with whom he likely talked of “poetry” rather than procreated. The audience went quiet at the remark. Some attendees later said they found the remarks offensive.

It gets worse.

Ferguson, who is the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University, and author of The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die, says it’s only logical that Keynes would take this selfish worldview because he was an “effete” member of society. Apparently, in Ferguson’s world, if you are gay or childless, you cannot care about future generations nor society.

Indeed.  Remember, Ferguson is, at least sometimes, a professor of economic history at Harvard.  That means he has gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender students in his classes.  How are they supposed to feel about him when they go into his class?  How is any right-thinking individual supposed to think when encountering Ferguson in class or anywhere, for that matter?

Today, Ferguson apologised on his own blog.  He called his comments his “off-the-cuff and not part of my presentation” what they are: stupid and offensive.  So for that, I applaud Ferguson.  He has publicly owned up to his idiocy.  But, I seriously doubt these were off-the-cuff comments.  Those are not the kind of comments one delivers off-the-cuff in front of an audience.  How do I know?  Because I’ve talked in front of large audiences myself.  I’ve been asked questions and had to respond.  Sometimes, we do say things off-the-cuff, but generally, not.  The questions we are asked are predictable in a sense, and they are questions that are asked within the framework of our expertise on a subject.

Moreover, there is also the slight matter of Ferguson’s previous gay-bashing comments in The Pity of War a decade-and-a-half ago.  Clearly, Ferguson has spent a lot of time pondering Keynes as an economist.  But he has also spent a lot of time obsessing over Keynes’ private life which, in his apology today, Ferguson acknowledges is irrelevant.  He also says that those who know him know that he abhors prejudice.  I’m not so sure of that, at least based on what I’ve read of Ferguson’s points-of-view on LGBT people, to say nothing of all the non-European peoples who experienced colonisation at the hands of Europeans, especially the British. Even in Empire, he dismissed aboriginal populations around the world as backwards until the British arrived.

I do not wish Ferguson ill, even though I do not think highly of him.  But I do hope there are ramifications for his disgraceful behaviour in California this week.

Stephen Harper: Revisionist Historian

May 3, 2013 § Leave a comment

By now, it should be patently clear that Canada’s Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, is not a benign force.  He likes to consider himself an historian, he’s apparently publishing a book on hockey this fall.   But, I find myself wondering just what Harper thinks he’s doing.  I’ve written about the sucking up of the Winnipeg Jets hockey club to Harper’s government and militaristic tendencies.  I’ve noted Ian McKay and Jamie Swift’s book, Warrior Nation: The Rebranding of Canada in the Age of Anxiety (read it!).  And I’ve had something to say about Harper’s laughably embarrassing attempt to re-brand the War of 1812 to fit his ridiculous notion of Canada being forged in fire and blood.

Now comes news that Harper’s government has decided it needs to re-brand Canadian history as a whole.  According to the Ottawa Citizen:

Federal politicians have launched a “thorough and comprehensive review of significant aspects in Canadian history” in Parliament that will be led by Conservative MPs, investigating courses taught in schools, with a focus on several armed conflicts of the past century.

The study was launched by the House of Commons Canadian heritage committee that went behind closed doors last Monday to approve its review, despite apparent objections from the opposition MPs.

When this first passed through my Twitter timeline, I thought it HAD to be a joke.  But it’s not.  Apparently, Harper thinks that Canada needs to re-acquaint itself with this imagined military history.  I’m not saying that Canadians shouldn’t be proud of their military history.  We should, Canada’s military has performed more than admirably in the First and Second World Wars, Korea, and Afghanistan, as well as countless peacekeeping missions.  Hell, Canadians INVENTED peacekeeping. Not that you would know that from the Harper government’s mantra.

As admirable as Canada’s military has performed, often under-equipped and under-funded, it is simply a flat out lie to suggest that we are a nation forged of war, blood, and sacrifice.  Canada’s independence was achieved peacefully, over the course of a century-and-a-half (from responsible government in 1848 to the patriation of our Constitution in 1982).  And nothing Harper’s minions can make up or say will change that, Jack Granatstein be damned.

To quote myself at the end of my War of 1812 piece:

Certainly history gets used to multiple ends every day, and very often by governments.  But it is rare that we get to watch a government of a peaceful democracy so fully rewrite a national history to suit its own interests and outlook, to remove or play down aspects of that history that have long made Canadians proud, and to magnify moments that serve no real purpose other than the government’s very particular view of the nation’s past and present.  The paranoiac in me sees historical parallels with the actions of the Bolsheviks in the late 1910s and early 1920s in Russia.  The Bolshevik propaganda sought to construct an alternate version of Russian history; in many ways, Canada’s prime minister is attempting the same thing.  The public historian in me sees a laboratory for the manufacturing of a new usable past on behalf of an entire nation, and a massive nation at that.

Every time I read about Harper’s imaginary Canadian history, I am reminded by Orwellian propaganda.  And I’m reminded of the way propaganda works.  Repeat something often enough, and it becomes true.  The George W. Bush administration did that to disastrous effects insofar as the war in Iraq is concerned.  But today, I came across something interesting in Iain Sinclair’s tour de force, London Orbitalwherein Sinclair and friends explore the landscape and history of the territory surrounding the M25, the orbital highway that surrounds London.  Sinclair is heavily critical of both the Thatcherite and New Labour visions of England.  In discussing the closing of mental health hospitals and the de-institutionalisation of the patients in England, Sinclair writes:

That was the Thatcher method: the shameless lie, endlessly repeated, with furious intensity — as if passion meant truth.

I suppose in looking for conservative heroes, Harper could do worse than the Iron Lady.  But it also seems as if Harper is attempting nothing less than the re-branding of an entire nation.

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).  

On Humanity and Empathy: Boston and Rehtaeh Parsons

April 18, 2013 § Leave a comment

Monday’s terrorist attack at the Boston Marathon was a little too close to home for my tastes.  A few of my students were there, near the finish line.  A couple had left by the time the bombs went off, a couple had not.  They were unhurt, as they were far enough away from the bombs.  I know Boylston Street well.  A few days before the Marathon, I was there; I had dinner in the Irish pub in the Lenox Hotel, which is across the street from where the second bomb went off.  In my mind’s eye, I can see exactly where those two bombs were.

Like most Canadians and Americans, for me terrorism happens in the abstract.  It’s a news report on TV, it’s on our Twitter timelines, it’s pictures in a newspaper.  Sometimes, it’s a movie.  But we don’t experience it personally, and this is still true even after 9/11.  I have not experienced terrorism personally, and yet, I have never been as close to a terrorism attack as I was on Monday.  Not surprisingly, I feel unsettled.

But I have been shocked and dismayed by some of the responses to the bombs on Boylston Street.  Aside from those on Twitter declaring this to be a “false flag” attack (in other words, a deliberate attack by the US government on its people), which is stupid to start with, there have also been those who have been declaring that this happens all the time in Kabul or Baghdad or Aleppo.  That is very true, it does happen everyday in those places.  Indeed, for far too many people around the world, terrorism is a daily fact of life.  That is wrong.  No one should live in terror.  But by simply declaring that this happens all the time elsewhere, you are also saying that what happened in Boston doesn’t matter.  And that is a response that lacks basic humanity.

This has been a week where I’ve been reminded too often about our lack of humanity.  The inhumanity of the bombers, of the conspiracy theorists, and those who say this doesn’t matter because it happens all the time elsewhere.

News also broke this week about disgusting, inhumane behaviour surrounding the Rehtaeh Parsons case in Halifax.  There, “friends, family, and supporters” (to quote the CBC) have taken to putting up posters in the neighbourhood around Parsons’ mother’s house supporting the boys who sexually assaulted her, declaring that the truth will come out.  I’m sure those boys are living in a world of guilt and shame right now, as they should.  But to continue to terrorise a woman whose daughter was sexually assaulted, and then teased, mocked, and bullied for two years until she took her life is inhumane.  It is inhumane that those boys assaulted Rehteah in the first place. It is inhumane that her classmates harassed, mocked, and bullied her for two years for being a victim.

There has been plenty of positive, especially in response to the Boston bombings.  As I write this, President Obama is at a memorial service in Boston for the victims of the bombing.  There are plenty of stories of the humanity of the response of the runners of the marathon, the bystanders, and the first responders. #BostonStrong is a trending hashtag on Twitter. Jermichael Finley of the Green Bay Packers will be donating $500 for every dropped pass and touchdown to a Boston charity, and New England Patriots receiver will donate  $100 for every reception and $200 for every dropped pass this season.  Last night’s ceremony at the TD Garden before the Bruins game was intense.  And so on and so forth.  This is all very heartening.  It shows that we are humane, that we can treat each other with empathy and sympathy and dignity.

But it doesn’t erase those who lack humanity.  I had a Twitter discussion last night about this.  About how this kind of inhumanity seems to be everywhere.  This morning, I was talking to two students about this inhumanity and how it just makes us depressed and wanting to cry.  I wish I could say that this is a new phenomenon in society.  But it’s not.  This is one of the (dis)advantages to being an historian.  We have the long view of history, quite obviously.  We have always been a vengeful, inhumane lot.  We’ve used torture since we could walk on our hind legs.  The Romans’ favourite past-time was gladiator fighting, where two men fought to the death.  Public executions were big deals, social outings.  All to watch a man (and occasionally a woman) die.  What is different now is the Internet allows people to express their inhumanity so much easier and so much quicker, and to gain further exposure in so doing.  And that is just unfortunate.

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