April 18, 2019 § 2 Comments
The current issue of Foreign Affairs is about nationalism, and its resurgence around the world. The base assumption of all the authors in this edition is that nationalism is a conservative movement, tied to white supremacy, racism, and strongmen like Rodrigo Duterte and Vladimir Putin. The basic argument is that the resurgence of nationalism, and all it entails, is a response to globalism and the rise of a class of cosmopolitans who, the argument alleges, feel at home anywhere. Thus, everyone else, the ‘somewheres’, who have a sense of connection to place are mad.
First, this is a ridiculous dichotomy. The actual real cosmopolitans, the ones who are at home in Istabul, Mumbai, and Tokyo, are the 1% of the world. The bulk of people who are alleged cosmopolitans actually tend to have deep connections to place as well. They are connected to where they live, their neighbourhoods, their towns and so on.
But this discussion of cosmopolitans vs. the non-cosmopolitans actually obscures more than it clarifies. Like all theories that attempt to put human behaviour into neat little boxes, it fails.
And this is because the basic assumption of this argument is that the non-cosmopolitan nationalist is not connected to a wider community, one beyond the borders of her nation. And it also assumes that the leaders of these movements are not in constant contact with each other. That Donald Trump and Nigel Farage don’t have a connection, that Steven Bannon isn’t globe-trotting, trying to convince Italian conservatives that the biggest evil in the world is Pope Francis.
Of course men like Trump, Farage and Bannon have international communities. One is the president of the most powerful nation in the world, one is the former leader of a major British political party, and the last is the man who stands behind their ilk, helping them get elected.
But the argument presumes that Trump’s supporters, Farage’s voters, and Viktor Orbán’s fans are not also connected in a globalist sense. The internet and social media have seen to this. There are linkages across international boundaries between nationalist and conservative movements in Europe and North America.
In other words, these reactionary movements are just as internationalist as the liberal world order they’re attempting to take down. They can’t not be, this is a co-ordinated attack on what these nationalists and conservatives (because they are often the same thing) distrust, dislike, and fear in the liberal internationalist order.
Whether we like it or not, we live in a globalized era, and even if we wrap ourselves up in the Union Jack and talk about bringing jobs back to Bristol, or we prefer our government to open our border for more refugees, we live in this world. The ideological struggle for the soul of the world reflects this as much as it did during the Cold War.
During that era, from 1945-91, two opposing, internationalist, camps fought for global supremacy. We all know that American-backed liberalism won. And despite Francis Fukuyama’s embarrassing claim that this saw the end of history, the conservative backlash was in motion by the mid-90s, though its articulation took longer to develop, into the 2010s, our current decade.
And so now, the two opposing, internationalist camps fight for a world that is either liberal, cosmopolitan, and internationalist in nature, or one that is illiberal, nationalist, and just as internationalist in nature.
May 22, 2017 § 2 Comments
Today is the Journée nationale des Patriotes in Quebec. The date commemorates the 1837 Patriote Rebellion in what was then Lower Canada, when a rebellion against the British Empire erupted in first, Saint-Denis, and then other nearby locales in November and December of that year. And while it started off well for the Patriotes, it did not end well, with the British routing them and then ransacking the village of Saint-Eustache before martial law was imposed on Montreal.
But the rebellion only tells a part of the story of the Parti patriote. The Patriotes, led by Louis-Joseph Papineau, were a group of middle-class radicals, largely based in the urban centres of Lower Canada (Quebec). They took their inspiration from the French Revolution, and from the wave of liberal radicalism across the Western world, from France to the United States. They were frustrated with the corrupt politics of the Governor and his cadre.
From the early 1830s on, they formed the majority of the colonial legislature, which met in the capital of Quebec. The Patriotes sought, essentially, responsible government. They demanded accountability from the legislature and the governor. And they demanded economic development for the disenfranchised, disgruntled French Canadian majority of Lower Canada, as well as the working-class, predominately Irish, in Montreal and Quebec.
In other words, the Patriotes were not a French Canadian nationalist movement. I read an article in the Montreal Gazette yesterday that encapsulated my frustration with the memory of the Patriotes and 1837. The article was a discussion about what to call today in Quebec. The journalist noted that in the Montreal suburb of Baie d’Urfé, the citizens wish to call it La journee nationale des Patriotes/Victoria Day. This is not, obviously, an actual translation. The article then tours around the West Island and some off-island suburbs of Montreal that have a large Anglo population. The results are more of the same. And then there’s the title of the article, “Our Annual May Long Weekend Is Here. But What Should We Call It?” This, of course, is typical West Island Anglo code for their exclusion from the nation/province of Quebec, at least officially.
This is also a mis-remembering of the Patriotes. And not just by the West Island Anglos, but by almost every single Quebecer, whatever their background. And it is one that is rooted in our education system, not just in Quebec, but nationally. I learned, in school in British Columbia, that the Patriotes were only interested in French Canadians and were nationalists. When I taught in Quebec, my students had learned the same thing. I remember reading Allan Greer’s excellent book, The Patriots and the People, in grad school and being surprised at what I read.
Greer, in addition to noting the multi-ethnic background of the Patriotes, also is the one who made the argument that what 1837 was was a failed revolution in Quebec. That had the Patriotes succeeded, Quebec would’ve looked politically more like France or the United States. Indeed, it is in the aftermath of 1837 that the Catholic Church in Quebec came to be so powerful, as it became a member of the state in the province/nation, and gained great political, moral, economic, social, and cultural power over Catholic Quebecers, both English- and French- speaking, until the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s.
To return to the multi-ethnicity of the Parti patriote and its supporters, Papineau’s lieutenant was Edmund Bailey O’Callaghan, who was the member of the legislature for Montreal West. O’Callaghan succeeded the radical Dr. Daniel Tracey as the MLA for Montreal West and the right-hand seat at Papineau’s table. Both were Irishmen. Tracey died treating his compatriots in the fever shacks on Pointe-Saint-Charles during the cholera epidemic of 1832. Montreal West was the riding that contained Griffintown and other Irish neighbourhoods in what was then the west end of Montreal (now it’s the sud-ouest). The Griffintown Irish were radicals. They kept voting for Tracey and O’Callaghan over the wishes of their more genteel compatriots.
And then, there is the simple fact of the Brothers Nelson, Robert and Wolfred. They were the sons of English immigrants and members of the Anglo Protestant Lower Canadian bourgeoisie who were also major players within the Patriote movement. Wolfred led the rebels at the first battle of the Rebellion, at Saint-Denis on 23 November. This was the battle the Patriotes won. Robert, meanwhile, was amongst a group of Patriotes who were arrested and then freed in the autumn of 1837, which caused him to flee to the United States, where he was further radicalized. He led the 1838 Rebellion, which fizzled out pretty quickly. Both Nelsons survived the rebellions. Wolfred went on to become the Mayor of Montreal in the 1850s. Papineau, for his part, returned to the legislature after being granted amnesty in the 1840s.
Indeed, the major impetus for the formation of the St. Patrick’s Society of Montreal on 17 March 1834 was exactly this: the radical nature of the Griffintown Irish was hurting the larger ambitions of the Irish-Catholic middle class of the city. In those days, Montreal was not all that sectarian or linguistically divided. It was class that cleaved the city. Thus, the middle-class Anglo-Protestants, French Canadians and Irish all formed a community within the larger city, give or take the radicals. And they stood in opposition to and apart from the working classes, who tended to be more radical. Thus, the St. Patrick’s Society was created to separate the middle class Irish from these radicals. The Society was originally non-sectarian, it had both Catholics and Protestants within its ranks. It was not until the sectarian era of the 1850s that the Protestants were ousted.
It does all of us a dis-service to so clearly mis-remember the Patriotes. While Papineau is commemorated on streets, schools, highways, buildings, and a métro station in Montreal, the Nelsons, Tracey, and O’Callaghan are not. They have been removed from the officially sanctioned story of the Patriotes, let alone the 1837-8 Rebellions. Meanwhile, the Anglo community of Quebec seems to prefer to forget about the existence of these men entirely, to say nothing of the ancestors of many of us who voted for Tracey and O’Callaghan in Griffintown. Remembering the Patriotes for what and who they were would help with the divide in Montreal and Quebec.
December 11, 2014 § 6 Comments
My Google calendar tells me that today is the 83rd birthday of the Statute of Westminster. But, oddly, I don’t think parades are being planned across Canada, nor are there any fireworks shows scheduled. I always find the idea of Canadian independence rather interesting. We celebrate 1 July 1867 as the date of Canadian Confederation, as if it meant anything. I’ve never really been convinced that it does. On that date, the Dominion of Canada was created, that much is true. This was a confederation of the the province of Canada (today’s Ontario and Québec), with Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.
But, for the most part, aside from the new government of the (now) four united provinces, not much else changed. British North America had gained responsible government (for the most part) in 1848, meaning that the democratically elected governments of the colonies could now legislate for themselves independent of the whims of the British Parliament in Westminster, London. But, the new Dominion of Canada had no control over its foreign affairs. This was made patently clear in boundary disputes along the Alaska/British Columbia and New Brunswick/Maine borders where the British, unwilling to upset their new American allies, back the American claims to the detriment of Canada. When the First World War broke out on 28 July 1914, when the British declared war, the Canadians were automatically at war.
The First World War, or so we’re told in Canada, was the time when our country came of age. Nevermind the fact that conscription was an incredibly divisive issue, exploiting fissures in Canada that remain to this day, or that the Unionist government of Sir Robert Borden won the 1917 general election through trickery, disenfranchisement, and gerrymanders. But, fine, let’s just accept the argument that this was Canada’s coming out ball. In the aftermath of the war, Borden and the South African Prime Minister, Jan Smuts, argued that their nations had bled for the war, and deserved their own seats at the Paris Peace Conference. Canada, in particular (as the senior Dominion) continued to agitate throughout the 1920s for more control over its foreign affairs, joined for awhile by the new Irish Free State.
Thus, in 1931, the Parliament in Westminster passed the eponymous statute. Amongst other things (most notably, it established the relationship between the Commonwealth that persists to today), Canada gained complete legislative independence, including over its foreign affairs. In 1909, Canada had created its own Department of External Affairs, reluctantly, under the Liberal premiership of Sir Wilfrid Laurier. In the 1923, under the Liberal William Lyon Mackenzie King (the longest serving PM in British Empire/Commonwealth history, he was office 1921-6, 1926-30, 1935-48), signed its very first international treaty (with the United States) without the involvement of the British. So, in many ways, the Statute of Westminster confirmed the status quo.
Canada used its new legislative independence proudly. When the Second World War began on 1 September 1939, with the German invasion of Poland and the 3 September declaration of war by the British upon Germany, Canada waited a full week to declare war on Germany itself. My history prof in a class on the history of Canadian foreign policy at the University of British Columbia sniffed that this was done simply to point out that Canada could. Knowing Mackenzie King, it wouldn’t surprise me.
But this still does not mean that Canada was a fully independent and sovereign nation. On 1 January 1947, Canadian citizenship came into existence. Prior to that, Canadians were subjects of the British Crown. In 1949, the Supreme Court of Canada became the highest court in the land. But, even then, the Canadian constitution was an act of a foreign legislature, i.e.: Westminster.
In 1982, after much wrangling, and ultimately without Québec signing on, the Canadian constitution was patriated under Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau. And with that, one could conclude that Canada was finally a sovereign, independent nation. Maybe. There is still the argument that occasionally surfaces in Canada about the role of the monarchy, since the British monarch is still sovereign over Canada.
But, either way, Canada did not, like many other former colonies (like the one I now call home), spring into existence as a fully independent and sovereign nation; rather, in Canada, this was a long, drawn-out process, beginning in 1848 and ending (maybe) in 1982.
April 7, 2014 § Leave a comment
I have been on this listserv of policy wonks and academics in Canada since sometime in the late 90s. Most of the time, I’m not entirely sure why I remain on it, a small handful of the approximately 100 people on it post, and some use it to beat their hobby horses to many, many deaths. But, occasionally, it serves its purpose and intelligent discussion breaks out about various world events, Canadian politics, and the like. Over the past couple of weeks, one of those broke out over the Québec election, which is underway right now.
This has been the most divisive provincial election I’ve seen in Québec in my lifetime, though, admittedly, the bar was set very low with the ruling Parti québécois’ ridiculous, offensive, and racist charte des valeurs, a sad attempt at laïcité. That in and of itself, is fine, and is perfectly consistent with the Euro-francophone world, but the way it was introduced in Québec, and the manner in which it targeted minorities, most notably Arabs and other Muslims, was appalling. And since then, it’s been a raise to the bottom between the PQ, the Parti libéral du Québec, the Coalition pour l’avenir du Québec, and the 4th party, Québec solidaire. For the uninitiated, the PQ is a former leftist, sovereigntist party; the PLQ is a rightist, federalist party, the CAQ is a right-wing, sovereigntist party, and QS is a largely irrelevant leftist sovereigntist party. For the record, I voted QS in 2012 and would’ve again this year if I was still living in Québec.
So, to return to this discussion on the listserv. It was between an Anglo political scientist in Montréal, a Québec sovereigntist, a lawyer in Vancouver, and myself. Three Quebecers and an Anglo Canadian. The discussion largely centred around the PQ and its fitness for government, though, interestingly, the major issue of the election campaign, the charte was largely ignored by three of the four in this discussion (I was the fourth). The political scientist advocated the continuation of the status quo, a PQ minority, the separatist wished for a PQ majority (and a subsequent third referendum on sovereignty), I suggested the PQ was not fit for government based on the charte, and the lawyer ridiculed the entire idea of sovereignty. Other issues raised included protection of the French language and culture of Québec, as well as the fading generation of sovereigntists.
Pauline Marois, the current leader of the PQ and (at least until later tonight) the premier of Québec, is 65 years old. This puts her at the younger end of the baby boomers, who were the ones who really carried the idea of sovereignty in Québec. Interestingly, support for sovereignty is much lower amongst my generation (Gen X) and the millennials. The political scientist noted this, the need for younger blood in the PQ.
I argued that to simply dismiss the PLQ as incapable of defending the French language and culture in Québec is simple-minded, and I mocked the PQ for the charte and also pointed out QS’ near irrelevance. This led the political scientist to assume I voted PLQ. My guess, though, is that my name had more to do with that than anything. I found this rather disappointing, given nearly everything I’ve ever said about Canada/Québec on this listserv has made it clear I am not a knee-jerk Anglo Montrealer (like one I got into an argument with on Twitter this weekend who seemed to be suggesting Anglo Quebecers are a deeply oppressed minority).
But the real silliness emerged with the lawyer, who appears to be of the opinion that Anglo Montrealers and Anglo Quebecers do not have anything distinct about their language and culture, as compared with the Rest of Canada. He opined that in leaving Montréal for Boston, I did not give up much, as opposed to a francophone who would give up nearly everything. I find this argument both fatuous and depressing.
Anglo Montreal, at the least, has a distinct culture, specific to location. Anglo Montreal is often regarded as a large village, as it seems that all Anglos are no more than 3 or 4 degrees of separation from each other. But, more concretely, as McGill linguist Charles Boberg has discovered, Anglo Montrealers speak a dialect of English that is heavily influenced by French and is rather distinct from the Canadian English dialect. This makes sense. English is the mother tongue of about 650,000 people in Québec as a whole. This out of a total population of over 8 million. Within Montréal, out of a total population of nearly 4 million, about 420,000 people are native English-speakers. In other words, Anglos are a small island in a sea of francophone culture (to borrow the metaphor about Québec adrift in the North American sea of Anglos). As such, Anglo Montreal and Anglo Quebec have their own distinct culture and history, shaped as it was by the simple demographic fact of minority. This is very different than the plight of Anglophones in the rest of most of North America (except for Mexico and the American Southwest).
In other words, despite what a lawyer in Vancouver believes, Anglo Montrealers have their own distinct culture, language and identity, one that is separate and distinct from Anglo Canadians in the rest of the country. There are both positives and negatives to this, of course.
But, my Vancouver lawyer isn’t unique. He represents and all-too-common view of Anglo Canadians. Quebecers are perceived to either be beyond the pale of the Rest of Canada (if we’re francophones, I once got told in southwest Ontario that I speak “good English”), or we’re just like everyone else (if we’re Anglos).
So look at that, Québec is a distinct culture all around (Allophones, or immigrants and their descendants also have their own distinct culture in Québec). It might even be a nation unto itself.
September 13, 2013 § 7 Comments
When I was doing my PhD at Concordia University in Montréal, I TA’d for one of my favourite profs there, Norman Ingram. Norman is a French historian and in the Western Civ class I TA’d for him, he had what I still consider to be a brilliant assignment. He had the students read and compare two books written about the Fall of France in June 1940 during the Second World War. The first book was by eminent French historian, and member of the résistance (and Jew, which is how Bloch ended up being tortured and shot by the Gestapo in June 1944, as the Allies were swiftly re-conquering France), Marc Bloch, the founder of the Annales School. The second book was written in 1996 by an historian at the University of Winnipeg, Robert Young.
Strange Defeat was written by Bloch, a captain in the French Army, in the summer of 1940, immediately following the Fall of France. It is a searing book, almost painful to read, written by a fierce French patriot stunned and shocked his nation collapsed in defeat at the hands of the Nazis. Bloch blames France’s political and military leaders for failing to have prepared for modern warfare. And while Bloch remains an annaliste in writing Strange Defeat, the immediacy of the events he’s describing and his anger and fury are clear.
Young’s France and the Origins of the Second World War was, obviously, written some 50+ years after the fact, with the benefit of a half-century of hindsight, other historical views, as well as archival sources. It is dispassionate, though eminently readable.
The students were then asked to compare and contrast the two books, the immediate view versus the long view.
I think of Norman’s assignment often, both in my own teaching career, as a public historian, and, quite often, on Twitter. When I worked for a now-defunct web magazine based in London, any time we published anything to do with the Bosnian Genocide, without fail, we would get attacked almost immediately by people arguing that there was no genocide, that the suggestion there was a genocide is just Western imperialism and further proof of a conspiracy against Serbia and the Serbian people. It was almost like clockwork.
So, yesterday, when I posted this piece commenting on a New Yorker profile of the Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic, I expected more of the same. As you can see from the comments, my expectations were met. I also got something a bit different, however. I was indeed assailed on Twitter, by a woman who says she’s from Bosnia, who seemed to be arguing that there was no genocide in Bosnia at all, and that she should know, because she was there. Upon further argument, she was saying something slightly different, that there was a lot of killing going on in Bosnia in the early-to-mid 90s, involving Croats, Serbs, and Bosnians as both aggressors and victims. That was certainly true.
However, it is indisputable that what happened at Srebrenica was a genocide. It is indisputable that the VRS, the Bosnian Serb Army, committed ethnic cleansing in Bosnia as a whole in the 1992-95 period. This has been established by countless experts in the field, it has been confirmed by the ICTY in The Hague.
As the argument carried on, I began to think back to Norman’s assignment, and to think about the difference between the immediate view of the spectator and the big picture view of the analyst. I’m not convinced that it wasn’t clear that the VRS was engaging in ethnic cleansing and genocide. But I am convinced that whatever side of the ethnic divide one was on in Bosnia/Herzogovina in the period from 1992-95, it was something close to hell. And so I am back pondering the difference in what we see based on where we’re standing (there is, of course, also the fact that metric tonnes of ink have been spilled in the past twenty years by journalists, sociologists, political scientists, anthropologists, and historians about the events). I reject the view that there was no genocide, but I do find myself wondering about what someone who was Bosnian Serb would have seen on the ground in that era.
When I lived in Vancouver in the late 90s, I talked to this guy, Dragan, a refugee from Sarajevo, at the local café. He wouldn’t say what side of the divide he was from, just that he was Yugoslavia. He was deeply traumatised by the war and genocide. Vancouver had an international fireworks competition in those days, and we lived in the West End, where the fireworks were. On those nights, if Dragan was at the café, he’d flinch, noticeably, with every loud noise from the fireworks. I don’t know what he did in Sarajevo before he escaped in 1995, and I didn’t want to ask. I don’t know if he was a perpetrator, a victim, or both. But I often think of how he described the outbreak of war in his cosmopolitan Yugoslav city in 1992. He said that, quite literally, neighbours of twenty or thirty years turned on each other, that families collapsed in spasms of violence if there was inter-ethnic mixing. And, as Dragan noted, that was very common in a city like Sarajevo. The entire world, he said, fell down, everything that had held up his universe collapsed. He knew very bad things happened in his homeland. I kind of suspected he might have played a role in his steadfast refusal to say anything, and the cold, steely glare that passed over his eyes when the subject came up, which was often, given he talked about home a lot.
And so, as I was arguing with my interlocutor on Twitter yesterday, I thought about Dragan and I thought about Norman’s assignment. I thought about the chaos of war and the view on the ground as opposed to the view from the sky, the micro vs. the macro, and I thought how much they could vary. I don’t have any real answers here, other than the obvious, but I did find the discussion and all it brought up for me rather interesting.
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.
June 10, 2013 § 2 Comments
All History is both political and public in nature. I tend to describe myself as a public historian. As such, I am interested in how history is viewed by the general public and I’m interested in the intersection of public memory and history. But that should be obvious to anyone reading this blog or what I’ve written on the NCPH’s history@work blog. But, sometimes I tend to forget about the inherent politicisation of any act of history or memory.
To wit, I got drawn into an argument on Twitter yesterday, my foils were both Canadian Army soldiers. One retired, one active. One I have never come across before, the other is a guy I follow and who follows me. The discussion was about Stephen Harper’s new paint job on his plane, one that makes it look like a Conservative Party of Canada Airbus, rather than an RCAF plane. We argued about the colours of the Royal Canadian Air Force, and whether red, white, or blue belong there (we all agree they do), and in what proportion.
The outcome of the argument is irrelevant. What is interesting was the very fact that we were having it in the first place. In Anglo Canada, history has long been a dead subject, it wasn’t usually the topic of public discussion or debate, and when it was, it was something we could all generally agree on, like hockey. Even when Jack Granatstein published his deliberately provocative (and generally quite stupidly offensive) Who Killed Canadian History? in the mid-90s, Canadians generally yawned and looked the other way.
But, in the past few years, largely I would argue as a result of Stephen Harper’s Prime Ministership, Canadian history has become a live grenade. Anglo Canadians argue about the role of the monarchy in our history, we argue about the role of the military in our history, and so on. Canadians are having real arguments about their history for the first time in my life. And, as much as I despise Stephen Harper and his government, I suppose we have him and they to thank for this.
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 Orbital, wherein 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.
April 30, 2013 § 2 Comments
Over at the National Council of Public History‘s (NCPH) blog, history@work (wherein public historians such as yours truly discuss issues related to history and the public and historical public memory), I have a new piece up on Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s delusional history of the War of 1812, entitled Re-manufacturing 1812: Stephen Harper’s Glorious Vision of Canada’s Past. From the title, you can probably guess my angle on Harper’s attempts to re-brand Canadian History through the War of 1812. Quite frankly, I find it disturbing. Let me know what you think.