Saturday, February 13, 2010

A great Canadian work of art

I have said elsewhere that I am a sucker for great ephemeral works of art, for instance (some) Olympic opening ceremonies.

Last night's pagentry was not perfect, but it had perfect moments.

My first reaction, sparked by the beginning act featuring representatives of First Nations, was to think, almost seriously:

"I hear that Jack Vance is blind, but I have a feeling he may have scripted this anyway. He sees things more vividly with his inner eye than most of us with the outer ones."

But really it was better than that; not the creation of a 92-year-old American I admire very much, but of much younger Canadians I don't know with dazzling technical skills and first-class creative ideas. And performers who could dance energetically for an hour straight! And fly!

Even if you saw it on TV, you owe it to yourself to see the Big Picture presentation, to remind you, and see details you might have missed.

Image: One of those perfect moments. I had a hard time choosing.

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Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Upcoming book from Dean Bavington

Dean Bavington is an assistant professor and Canada Research Chair in Environmental History at Nipissing University. I expect his first book, from University of British Columbia Press in May, to have a big impact on resource debates.

Here's the publisher's blurb:

Managed Annihilation: An Unnatural History of the Newfoundland Cod Collapse
Dean L.Y. Bavington

The Newfoundland and Labrador cod fishery was once the most successful commercial ground fishery in the world. When it collapsed in 1992, fishermen, scholars, and scientists pointed to failures in management such as uncontrolled harvesting as likely culprits. Managed Annihilation makes the case that the idea of natural resource management itself was the problem. The collapse occurred when the fisheries were state managed and still, nearly two decades later, there is no recovery in sight. Although the collapse raised doubts among policy-makers about their ability to understand, predict, and control nature, their ultimate goal of control through management has not wavered – it has simply been transferred from wild fish to fishermen and farmed cod.

Unlike other efforts to make sense of the tragedy of the commons of the northern cod fishery and its halting recovery, Bavington calls into question the very premise of management and managerial ecology and offers a critical explanation that seeks to uncover alternatives obscured by this dominant way of relating to nature.
– Bonnie McCay, Department of Human Ecology, Rutgers University

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Friday, December 04, 2009

Re-creation and the Olympic torch -- from The Big Picture

Top: Priestesses at Olympia light the torch.
Then: Vikings keep it burning at L'Anse aux Meadows.

Too cool.

More here.
Or click on the pics.

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Thursday, December 03, 2009

"...the Premier took the Prime Minister to the woodshed."

Not a good sign (as told by the Globe and Mail):
In an unprecedented diplomatic breach, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao publicly upbraided Prime Minister Stephen Harper today for failing to visit China sooner.

“This is your first visit to China and this is the first meeting between the Chinese premier and a Canadian prime minister in almost five years,” Mr. Wen told Mr. Harper through an interpreter.

Mr. Harper listened, stone-faced, in front of Canadian, Chinese and international media.

“Five years is too long a time for China-Canada relations and that’s why there are comments in the media that your visit is one that should have taken place earlier.”

Such a public scolding is unheard of in a meeting between heads of government.

“I agree with you Premier that five years is a long time,” Mr. Harper said in response. “It’s also been almost five years since we had yourself or President Hu in our country.”

He went on to invite the Premier or President Hu Jintao to visit Canada “in the not too distant future.”

Mixed feelings here: I consider Harper to be a sycophant to imperial power, and here he is being an incompetent sycophant. OTOH, this display by a displeased imperial power is chilling.

Image: You'd better learn this face.

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Friday, November 06, 2009

A meditation on the British cemetary in Kabul

From the At War blog of the New York Times. This of course is what caught my attention:
A Canadian television journalist who was in the graveyard the same afternoon I was there was struck by something closer to her home. On the walls surrounding the cemetery are lists of the dead since 2001. Plaques for the fallen British; for Americans; a few for Germans and for Canadians. The plaque for the Canadian dead with the country’s emblem, the maple leaf, etched in the middle, lists only those who had died through the end of 2006 as if Canadians soldiers had not died after that. The 30 Canadian troops killed in 2007, the 32 killed in 2008 and the 27 killed so far this year have no marker of their passing. She turned and said, “I called our embassy, it’s terrible; they haven’t added any names since 2006.” She wasn’t a journalist at that moment; she was a Canadian on foreign soil. We are most patriotic when we are far from home; the possibility of our own mortality, most present.

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Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Is it rural Russia, or "I survived a Japanese game show?"

I laughed out loud at this video from English Russia, but once again it reminds me of off-the-beaten-track Canada. Especially with all the rain my area has got this year.

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Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Canada Day thought

From a Globe and Mail comment thread on the Canadian self-image:
I am more grateful than I am proud to live in Canada.
Lucked out this time!


Sunday, May 31, 2009

Last day in May, summer's on its way...


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Monday, May 25, 2009

Behind the house, today

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Hoppaquin Hay (Quinn)

Hoppaquin Hay is a man-at-arms mentioned in Froissart's Chronicles. I like to think of him as "the famous singing cowboy of the 14th century." I threw out that name as a possibility when we got the horse, and soon enough he was known as (the Mighty) Quinn.

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End of May, Bonfield, Ontario

Friday, May 15, 2009

Phil Paine finds his own memorial to genius and heroism in Toronto

He describes a rare moment:

When I first began to read seriously in history, as a boy, my instincts led me to avoid looking for heroes. Trying to find people in the past to admire and respect can be a trap. One is bound to be disappointed. The sad truth is that scoundrels and monsters routinely find their way into history books, but good people do not. The very fact that one is a decent human being virtually guarantees that one will be forgotten. Historical figures propped up as models or champions of this and that usually turn out to be outright frauds, or at the very least to have genuine accomplishments marred by major flaws. But there was one historical figure that I could not help admiring, and that was Frederick Douglass, whose Autobiography inspired me from childhood. And I did not know until recently that I could walk on the very floor where Douglass walked and spoke, right near my own home.

At the corner of King and Jarvis stands St. Lawrence Hall. This fine structure was built in 1850 to provide a venue for public meetings, concerts, balls, and other cultural events of the little city that was then maturing out of its crude frontier beginnings. Over the next century, the hall would be used to echo the voice of Jenny Lind, display the curios of P.T. Barnum, and be used as a practice dance hall by Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn. The structure is well preserved, and an excellent example of the Renaissance Revival style of the mid-nineteenth century. Unlike most such structures, it has maintained its intended function throughout its existence.

The timing of its construction was propitious, for there was an important issue for public discussion: the recently enacted Fugitive Slave Law in the United States. This law allowed agents from the southern slave states to conduct a reign of terror in northern states, kidnapping runaway slaves, and many free blacks, and dragging them back to the slave pens of the south. It effectively unleashed the tentacles of the monstrously evil institution of slavery throughout the United States, canceling out existing abolitionist reforms. This hideous injustice would soon lead the United States into a bloody civil war. The activities of the Underground Railway, the organized resistance movement which smuggled escaped slaves to freedom in Canada, were now much more dangerous. Upper Canada had enacted legislation for the abolition of slavery in 1793. On the issue of slavery, Canadians were consistently and adamantly on the side of the angels. The underground railway terminated in Toronto. Escaped American slaves formed free agricultural communities scattered around rural Ontario, and much of the resistance was organized here.

So it's not surprising that Frederick Douglas came to Toronto, and spoke at the newly-built St. Lawrence Hall to a cheering crowd of 1,200 on April 3, 1851[1]. Yesterday, I entered the building, and walked through the empty hall, which has not much changed in general appearance.

Since I acknowledge so few heroes from the annals of history, I rarely get that special thrill that historians can enjoy... the pleasure of planting one's feet on a spot trod by a paladin. I once stood rapt with pleasure in front of Mozart's house, listening to one of his arias being sung. But Mozart's is an example of a tragic life, transcended by genius, and can hardly serve as an example to follow. I have no transcendent genius of my own, so his example is useless to me, personally.

But the work of Frederick Douglass has long been, for me, a kind of guidebook in the quest for freedom and human dignity. The man was a genius, no doubt about it, but it was a real-world genius.

Read the whole thing.

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Thursday, May 14, 2009

Down the road a bit, just now

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Walking around the property after supper

Sunday, April 05, 2009

And Winter reminds us...

...that she will be back soon, oh soon.

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Thursday, April 02, 2009

Out in the field, spring is coming in

News from Kaffiristan

The Big Picture
has a portfolio of pictures from Afghanistan, including a number from Nuristan (formerly Kaffiristan). Lots of poppy fields, Canadian troops, and debris from explosions.

Image: Doesn't this have an uncanny resemblance to Catal Huyuk?

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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

CBC One at its best

I spent a lot of time in the car this past weekend, much of it listening to the CBC. I am quite the CBC fan, it is one of the things that made me a Canadian, but it doesn't always suit my mood. Those of you who listen too know what I mean. This time however, I won the radio lottery.

On Saturday morning's edition of Go!, Brent Bambury conducted "The Hunt for Canada's Alt Anthem." As the website puts it:

In tough uncertain times, it always pays to have a contingency plan... for EVERYthing. This morning, GO! is on the hunt for Canada's alt anthem.

We love O Canada, but we wonder what its hip 2009 B-side would sound like.
Of course, this idea had great potential for lameness, even lameness on a cosmic scale. But although one of the three candidate songs was only true and apt, the other two were BRILLIANT! One of them had me sitting in the car with my mouth agape, amazed (not for the first time) at how, sometimes, people can rise to the occasion. With so much mean-minded insanity out there in the world, it was great to hear some fun, sane stuff coming from my compatriots.

Was this what Marconi was aiming for?

Here is a page where you can listen to them yourself. They are the three excerpts listed under 03/28/2009, from Amanda Martinez, Tiny Bill Cody and the Word Burglar.

Go ahead, take a chance on the mothership.

On Sunday, on the way home, the show Tapestry was equally good in a completely different way. Usually Tapestry drives me a bit nuts, it being a show that specializes in earnest interviews with people about their unremarkable spiritual experiences. I only listen to it in the car, and not always then. Sunday's show, however, was fascinating. Mary Hynes talked to Michael Muhammad Knight, a formerly Catholic convert to Islam from upper New York State (the Burned Over District lives!). Discouraged by his inability to be a good Muslim by his own standards, Knight wrote a novel about a fictional punk rock house full of young punk rock Muslims, all of them searching for the true way. Knight started photocopying the book for would-be readers, and now The Taqwacores is a hit. You can hear the whole interview here.

I found it interesting that Knight shares an idea I've had-- that any reasonably successful religious tradition expands to include many disparate elements; as he said, "Islam is what Muslims do," and quite evidently they do many different things. I came to this as a historian, he as a believer. It was not surprising to me to hear such a thought from an American from the Burned Over District (a region known for new, even anarchic movements since the early 19th century). I would be happy if I heard people from Pakistan same the same thing occasionally. But then, maybe they do and I'm just too far away to hear it.

By the way, the current government wants to cut back on all this wonderful stuff from the CBC -- the Conservatives have always hated it. If you value the CBC and its potential, do something. Call or write your MP.

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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Preparing for Before Taliban: some online reading

Students in my History of Islamic Civilization course are finishing their second major essay, based on Daughter of Persia, an autobiography of an Iranian woman of great interest. The next assignment will be an essay on a quite different book, David B. Edwards' Before Taliban: Genealogies of the Afghan jihad. The title is accurate: it concerns how a variety of the Afghan people experienced the complex politics of pre-Taliban Afghanistan. It's going to take some work to come to grips with this material and so here I suggest some reading from online sources.

Just last Sunday, Juan Cole published along piece at his blog Informed Comment on the challenges of the situation. He has quite pessimistic view of the possibilities for the success of Western intervention. But he just doesn't assert an opinion, he supplies some interesting material through his links and I strongly suggest you take advantage of them.

After that, maybe you would like to meet the new generation of Taliban, the current batch of fighters, a generation or more removed from the people you'll be reading about Edwards' book. The Globe and Mail back in March had a feature called Talking to the Taliban, in which an Afghan correspondent spoke to various insurgents about what was important to them. It might be worth your while to see this, since it is your taxes and neighbors who are being devoted to defeating these people.

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Monday, January 19, 2009

This doesn't happen every four years...

...believe me.

An e-mail from our Registrar's Office:

The UTS department will provide a live streaming of the US Presidential Inauguration on Tuesday, Jan. 20th between 10:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. on the large screen in the Nipissing Theatre. The university community is invited to watch and discuss this historic event with their colleagues and peers.

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Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Todd Webb of Laurentian University speaks at Nipissing

From Dr. James Murton:
The History Department Seminar Series returns with our soon-to-be annual visit from our friends down Hwy 17 at Laurentian U. Todd Webb, Department of History, will present a talk titled “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition: Methodism, Anti-Catholicism and Empire in Lower and Upper Canada."

Todd's talk will focus on a little discussed aspect of Canadian religious history: the role of anti-Catholicism in the process of cultural formation among the Methodists of colonial Canada. It will do so by examining the Methodist role in three episodes: the rebellions of 1837-38 in Lower and Upper Canada, the formation of a transatlantic anti-Catholic consensus during the 1840s and 1850s, and the Prince of Wales’s tour of British North America in 1860.

Friday, Jan 23, 2:30 pm, Rm A224.

Refreshments will be served.

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Friday, January 02, 2009

Sounds great -- some Canadian early history

Coasts of Canada by Lesley ChoyceA fascinating book review of The Coasts of Canada: A History by Lesley Choyce, over at

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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

NU ski trails open

Toivo Koivukoski announces:

The campus ski trails are now in proper shape and ready for skiing. There are approximately 5km of groomed trails, accessible from Athletics, P8, Governors House, and the Pond. The trails are alternately groomed for skate and classic; classic tracks will be set on weekends and when it is cold (like now!), and skate set for weekdays otherwise.

Please kindly refrain from walking or snowshoeing on the groomed trails- there is lots of snow out there to share.

Skis are available for free loan from the Education Center gym.

Many thanks to the NECO Community Futures Development Corporation, the Vice-President Finance and Administration, Andrew Rees, Dave Rees, all those who came out for trail work, and the North Bay Nordic Ski Club for their generous support for this project.

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Thursday, December 18, 2008

Vancouver in the fog

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Get real

I promised in the previous post not to obsess about Canadian politics, but I hope this one says something about the current situation that no one else has brought up yet.

In the last federal election, the Conservatives got a plurality of seats, but not a majority. Their traditional rivals the Liberals did very poorly, but still formed the official opposition. When Parliament met about two weeks ago, our unlovable PM pulled a stunt so provocative that he unified the other parties in the House against him -- no mean feat. The PM then asked the Governor General to close Parliament temporarily in hopes that the opposing coalition would fall apart. As it well may.

Here is the thing I am commenting on. The federal Liberals are now in the process of replacing their leader, the one who did poorly in the general election, with a new one, and they are doing it without any reference to the ordinary members of the party. They are simply going with the candidate who has the most support in the Liberal caucus in the House of Commons. I suppose they can do that, but like the PM's stunt it shows up in complete contempt for the political realities of the country and of their own party's position. Today on CBC Radio One, there were a lot of former Liberal voters calling in saying that they understood that there needed to be a new leader in time for the reopening of Parliament in late January, but why couldn't a modern political party arrange for consultation with the membership in that timeframe?

The answer, Mr. Bones, is that no Canadian political party is modern. To be modern now means that you have to have absorbed the lesson of the Obama victory in the Democratic resurgence that preceded it. You have to realize that the party that actively engages with its grassroots members, and members of the general public who have never been involved in a partisan organization before, well, that party has a hope in hell of doing something. Otherwise not.

I know this. Why don't these professional politicians know it? they are now going to attempt the brave feat of running a national party with no grass roots at all.

Image: any implied insult to horses and buggies is regretted. This was a good technology at the time.

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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Sports fans in Toronto, Russia

Russian immigrants celebrate a sporting win in Hogtown. Hey, at least they have a winning team! From English Russia.

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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Canadian Oil's involvement in Kurdistan and Iraqi (dis)unity

Laura Rozen refers us to this article in Mother Jones.

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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

More sense, less nonsense on "socialism"

Down at the Greatest Show on Earth, the word "socialism" is being kicked around in a comical manner. Phil Paine rides to the rescue with Sense and Nonsense About "Socialism:"

The word “socialism” is used to mean virtually anything imaginable, but if it means anything at all intelligible, it is “control of productive enterprise by the state”. More exactly, it means that the people who control production and the people who control the state are the same people. Most states in human history have been predominantly socialist....Many countries preserve that pattern today, though sometimes it is masked by a thin veneer of pseudo-democracy. Sometimes the pattern is specifically called "socialism", and sometimes not, but there is no important difference between those which use the term and those which do not...

The state can control production through a variety of techniques. Productive enterprises can be administered through a state bureaucracy, they can be parceled out to a hereditary or military aristocracy, or to corporate bodies which are theoretically (but not actually) "separate" from the state. All these configurations can logically be called “socialism”. If large portions of productive enterprise are engaged in military production, whose only customer can be the state, then that too should rationally be called “socialism”. Any country that engages in protracted and extensive warfare is, ipso facto, socialist. If large portions of productive enterprise are tied to government through special privileges, subsidies, bailouts, or government contracts, that is socialism as well. Any country whose economy is dominated by giant corporations, which manipulate and determine state policy, is socialist.

The United States has long engaged in extensive socialist practices. The American Conservative movement has been the most aggressive promoter of socialism, by encouraging rampant military spending, and promoting the concentration of state-corporate power and privilege. The U.S. is far more “socialist” than, say, Canada, where there is considerably less of these activities. To repeat what should be obvious, you have socialism when the people who control production and the people who control the government are the same people. Nobody with an ounce of common sense would deny that this is the case in the United States, today, and anybody who bothers to think straight should see that this is the central ideological desideratum of the Conservative movement. America's socialism is the product of its domination by Conservative ideology.

Socialism has nothing to do with the provision of government services. Risk-reduction services, such as Canada’s health insurance systems, or pension plans, or welfare services, or educational services provided by government, are not control of production. They are not “socialism” or “socialist”. Progressive taxation is not "socialist". Measures to protect the public from fraud, or promote public safety, or to overcome injustice or to protect the rights of labourers are not "socialist". There is no connection whatsoever between these things and socialism.

In fact, the more socialist a state is, the more power it can exert over its people, and the less it has to answer to them. Consequently, it is less likely to provide these services, and less likely to create social justice. ...You find good quality public services in democratic regimes, where the people have been strong enough to limit corporate-state control of production. Canada has better health care than the United States partly because it is less socialist than the United States. The United States has inferior health care because it is more socialist than Canada.

The aim of truly progressive political and economic thought is to prevent the concentration of power in the hands of the few, and the concentration of property in the hands of the few. It should seek to prevent concentrated corporate power or aristocracy from gaining control of production. Progressive thought is then, by logical necessity, anti-socialist and anti-corporate. But progressive thought embraces the utility of government services whenever they enable and enhance the freedom and autonomy of the individual (as, say, our health insurance system does in Canada). It just as firmly rejects sham government "services" that are merely stratagems to give power over the people to a managerial elite. Thus, a Progressive who gladly supports health insurance reform should oppose state plans to herd "the lower class" into state-controlled housing. Progressive thought embraces a social "safety net" under all our feet, provided it is not rigged to control its recipients, and always rejects handouts and subsidies for the rich. Democracy's meaning is clear: the people should rule; they should not be ruled.

The revolutionary aim of democracy is to create a society where every individual has a significant share of property and exercises practical autonomy, where the opportunities and fruits of enterprise are open to everyone, and where no privileged clique exercises power over the majority. The democratic state is supposed to serve this aim, and never to promote the interests of an elite, whether it dresses up as mandarins, dukes, commissars, or CEOs. Whatever moves society in this direction is "progressive". Let's get our concepts and terminology in order.

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Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The mess in the Middle East: it's our war, too

We Canadians can congratulate ourselves that our soldiers are not dying in Iraq, but they are dying in Afghanistan, and the whole region is really one big political and military mess. Want to know how big? See what Juan Cole had to say the other day. Highly recommended for students in my Islamic Civilization class. We will be getting there by the end of the school year.

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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Recent writings on democracy by Phil Paine

While I was more or less away from my computer for the holiday, Phil Paine, my sometimes collaborator on the history of democracy, wrote some interesting posts.

One, which was written just before the Canadian election, does not suffer from being "overtaken by events." It talks about how citizens in a democracy should think about elections, any elections anywhere, and it catches why even the prospect of a win by the saner presidential candidate in the United States leaves me uneasy. The hankering so many people have for "strong leadership" is all that much more evident when it comes to foreign policy especially warmaking. Every time I hear American politicians talk about the future of foreign policy I feel like they are trapped in a dream world, and that they will inevitably be led astray by fantasies they seem to share with most of the population. (Canada is hardly immune from this kind of thinking; a call to "support the troops" closes down sensible debate most of the time.) Phil's piece, his Seventh Meditation on Democracy, is here.

Phil is very good at locating specialized works that shed an interesting light on general human problems. Two such works are featured in his blog at

One, Hélène Claudot-Hawad's “Éperonner le monde” ― Nomadisme, cosmos et politique chez les Touaregs is a study of the Tuareg, the Saharan people, which serves to confirm in Phil's mind conclusions he drew from personal experience of this culture, a quarter century ago. You'll have to read Phil's whole review to see why I think it's worthy of notice ; but it's not long.

The second, Nancy M. Wingfield's Flag Wars and Stone Saints: How the Bohemian Lands Became Czech, shows how an ideological classification, embedded into a change in one bureaucratic document, can make a tremendous difference in the life of the community, and not a good one. Here I will quote from Phil's review somewhat extensively:

Ethnic nationalism is one of the most diseased and obnoxious ideas contrived by human beings, rivaled only by Marxism and religious fanaticism in its potential for creating human suffering. The stage was set for the horrors of the twentieth century by the passionate ethnic hatreds of the 19th century. It was in this era that collective loyalties among Europeans shifted from obsessions with God to obsessions with Race and Nation. And it was in this era that most of the "national identities", which now seem so fixed, were concocted.

This book deals with the process of manufacturing "national identity" in Bohemia, a process which involved the co-opting and polarizing of people who previously felt no special collective "oneness". For example, language seems to have been regarded as nothing more than a convenient medium of communication in most of Bohemia, until the Austro-Hungarian bureaucracy turned it into a critical qualification for political and social status. In 1880, the Hapsburgs' imperial census demanded that everyone in the empire identify themselves by language, of which they could only choose one.

Millions of people who were bilingual or multilingual, who might use Czech to gossip with a neighbour, German at work, Hungarian to talk to a brother-in-law, and Slovak in bed with their spouse, suddenly had to define themselves like a species of insect by one, and only one of these languages. A Jewish shopkeeper might speak Yiddish at home, Moravian with his Customers, and read German newspapers and books. Czech nationalists insisted that he be considered a German, and German nationalists insisted that he was not. His rabbi claimed him as neither. The only opinion that carried no weight was his own. Up until then, in most of rural Bohemia, a given person would have said, "I am from such-and-such a village", not "I am Czech" or "I am German". Most Bohemians lived in this multi-cultural and multi-lingual reality, and had done so for centuries, but the census demanded that everyone be labeled ethnically under a single language, assumed to be identical with some inherent biological species.

To intellectuals and political activists, the resulting statistics and manufactured ethnicities became the tools for power struggles. National Defense Leagues, and parliamentary power-blocks used them in the pursuit of advancement, usually with blatant economic motives. The Nationalist mentality demanded not only the advancement of one's "own" schools, celebrations, statues, and job opportunities, but the extermination of everyone else's. Infantile vandalism, violence, and riots over statues, beer brands, and songs characterized life in late 19th Century Bohemia. Mobs attacked theatres that dared to perform a play in the Other language. The founding of a Czech-language university in Brno met violent opposition. Mobs of Czechs destroyed stores with German signs in their windows. Germans demanded boycotts of beers brewed by Czechs. History was rewritten into absurd fantasies of heroes and villains exemplifying the "superior" culture of Us and the perfidy and barbarity of Them. The old religious issues were not forgotten — they were merely re-shaped and twisted to amplify ethnic ideologies. And, of course, the age-old hatred of Jews thrived in such an atmosphere, and was used as strategic leverage.

So it was that when the Republic of Czechoslovakia emerged from the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, after World War I, ethnic nationalism acted as a slow poison to weaken and corrupt a society that initially offered considerable hope.

Definitely one for my must-read list.

Image: a self-identified alpha male. (See Phil's Seventh Meditation.)

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Saturday, October 04, 2008

The world turned inside out

I have enjoyed myself at Nipissing University from the start, which was 19 years ago, but today pretty much took the cake. My history colleague James Murton took his environmental history class on an expedition on the Mattawa River, and allowed some other university people, including me, to tag along.

The excuse for this expedition was to illustrate in a visceral way a classic theme in Canadian history, the connection between what we think of as wilderness and primeval activity in that wilderness, meaning the fur trade and the voyageur routes, and the whole world economy of the time. Every Canadian with the slightest interest in the history of his or her country has been exposed to this material in one way or another, but I will tell you it meant a great deal more to everyone who took part in today's canoe trip on the Mattawa.

Part of me says that every single course at Nipissing University that can justify a canoe trip as illustrating part of its subject matter should do so, and we could spend the entire month of September on the river. This is probably too extreme an idea, but how could it hurt? I certainly felt today that Jamie Murton had made the most of our location.

I live out in the country, and driving out to the river, and stopping at a couple of other sites (the La Vase portage and the local museum with a modern reproduction of the Montréal canoe), I found myself rather surprisingly feeling the world turning inside out. When you are living a life that involves driving between a modern home and a modern small city (with inadequate shopping but still) with a modern and quite new University, driving on modern roads and parking in modern parking lots, it is easy to get the feeling that all those trees and rocks and lakes are just in the way. If you don't like our area that feeling must be much stronger, but even I who do like it often regard the natural landscape as a barrier or empty space arranged in an inconvenient way. But even before we got to the museum or the canoes, knowing the area we were going to, I began to feel that the essential element of my world was not the road I was on, but the river I was about to tackle. I saw the landscape with whole new eyes and it was a thrill.

It reminded me of a previous time I was on the Mattawa, a summer day when I stood at the portage at Talon Dam, watching muscular young people wrestling with canoes as they carried them over a very difficult, rocky path. I realized that every summer's day since the Stone Age, this scene had been duplicated at this portage site. The wooded areas on either side of the river were of no particular interest, but this natural corridor was close to eternal. The same could be said of much of Canada. Vast areas are empty of people almost all the time, but there are corridors that are always in use. North Bay and indeed my village are on such a corridor, (North Bay on more than one), simply because if you want to get through there's not much in the way of alternatives. There are just too many rocks and trees and lakes.

From Flickr, some other people on Lake Talon in 2007. It was a lot grayer and colder today, but who cares.

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Thursday, October 02, 2008

Canadian leaders' debate

It was really good and I'm glad I watched. I've seen about 5 minutes of the US VP debate online and found it unbearable.

Boy, there are some creepy people in politics. If they were smart they'd never appear on TV where ordinary decent people might see them.

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Greg Stott speaks at NU -- Wed. October 8, 10:30 AM

From Dr. James Murton:

I'm please to announce the return of the History Department Seminar Series for 2008-09.

Our first speaker is Dr. Greg Stott of the History Department, who will be speaking on "The Travails of a Poet: Robert McBride’s Exposé of Corruption and Conspiracy in Lambton County, Canada West, 1854-1858."

Greg's paper focuses on a conservative poet's expose of the political and judicial corruption that, he felt, had formed a grand conspiracy to undermine him – and by inference – other hardworking British subjects in colonial Ontario.

Wednesday, Oct 8, 10:30 am, in Rm A224

Refreshments will be served. See you there!

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Monday, September 29, 2008

The federal election -- Dr. Gendron speaks at Nipissing University

From Dr. Robin Gendron, Department of History, NU:

As you may have heard, I have been asked by the History Club to speak and take questions about the current federal election/past elections in Canada. I'll be doing so Wednesday at 11:30 in room A224 (I think that's correct). The History Club is generously providing lunch for this event as well.

If any of your students might have an interest in attending, please let them know of this talk.

Although the prolonged dramatic agony of the US election tends to overshadow our short, economical process, this election has a lot of potential to change Canada one way or another. Don't miss your chance to get some important background material before you cast your vote.

And from me, thanks, Robin, for doing this.

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Monday, September 08, 2008

The Role and Mission of the Canadian Navy in the 21st Century

From Dr. Robert Gendron of the History Department:

On Tuesday, September 16th, Nipissing University will host a talk by Commander Stuart Moors on "The Role and Mission of the Canadian Navy in the 21st Century." Commander Moors will talk about the Canadian Navy and things like Arctic sovereignty, coastal defence, disaster relief, and anti-terrorism. This should be a very enlightening discussion of the substance and purpose of an aspect of Canadian defence policies and I hope that everyone will join us for it. I would particularly ask faculty members to announce the talk to their classes.

The talk takes place on Sept. 16th starting at 7 pm in A137. It is free and open to everyone from the campus community and the broader community as well. Many thanks to Dr. Peter Ricketts, the VP Academic and Research, and Dr. Craig Cooper, the Dean of Arts and Science, for sponsoring this talk.

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Sunday, September 07, 2008

Canadian federal election called

The election will take place on October 14th.

Americans in the middle of the Longest Campaign probably don't want to hear this.

Image: Elections in Canada as in many other countries begin with writs issued by the Crown (often in the person of the local Governor-General). This goes back to the practices of medieval England. But could I find a picture of a medieval writ of election? No.

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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

And you think your government is stupid and unresponsive

Friday, August 22, 2008

The problems of really serious historical reenactment

Darrell Markewitz was involved in the design of the Viking living history site at L'Anse aux Meadows, and now he hears news that they are trying some ambitious projects there. I am sure he is intrigued, but the most interesting thing about this blog post is his fear that the site is tackling more than it can handle.

Darrell will be on my property on Labor Day weekend taking part in an SCA re-creation event. Last I heard there will be on-site glass bead making. If you come, come dressed in medieval fashion, as best you can do.

Image: see the post.

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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Return to the Near North

Though I spent most of the last few weeks outdoors or in tents, returning to my rural home is still a big transition. To celebrate, I'm including an Astronomy Picture of the Day showing the Milky Way over Ontario. It's usually not so dark in my neighborhood, and the stars are not usually this spectacular, but this is consistent with our sky experience.

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Omar Khadr interrogation tapes

This morning I was asked to comment on the release of the Omar Khadr interrogation tapes, or at least on issues arising from the interrogation itself, for local radio station KCAT. I don't know if or when the interview may be broadcast, or what it will sound like when edited, but you can pretty much see my point of view in this Globe and Mail opinion column by Ed Broadbent and Alex Neve, which I found about an hour later on the Globe's website. This is an excellent summation of the issues.

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Thursday, July 10, 2008

PM Harper not responsible for anything important

Certainly not the well-being of Canadian citizens!

Perhaps someone should ask him who he works for.

From the Canadian Press:

Speaking to reporters in Tokyo - where he met with the Japan's emperor and prime minister following this week's G8 summit - Harper said the Liberal government of the day knew about Khadr's treatment in Guantanamo Bay.

"The previous government took a whole range, all of the information, into account when they made the decision on how to proceed with the Khadr case several years ago," he said.

"Canada has sought assurances that Mr. Khadr, under our government, will be treated humanely. We are monitoring those legal processes very carefully."

The prime minister then said Canada "frankly, has no real alternative" to the U.S. legal process.

However, Khadr's U.S. military lawyer, navy Lt.-Cmdr William Kuebler, took issue with that in an interview Thursday on CTV's "Canada AM.

"I think that what is being done to Omar Khadr right now rest squarely on the shoulders of Prime Minister Harper," Kuebler said.

"There is very little question that if Canada, the last western country to allow its citizen to be detained in Guantanamo Bay, demanded Omara's repatriation from Guantanamo to face due process under Canadian law, that the U.S. government would heed that request," he said.

Kuebler said the Canadian government has known since at least 2004 that U.S. assurances regarding the treatment of Khadr were false, "yet continued to hide behind those assurances in allowing Omar to be detained in Guantanamo Bay."

He said videotaped interviews with Khadr are expected to come out in the next few days and that the contents are likely to be "quite powerful."

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Monday, June 30, 2008

More on the state of Canada

This "Focus Forum" is worth the 9 web pages the Globe and Mail devoted to it. Only a little sentimentality and nostalgia; some robust and genuine disagreement.


Saturday, June 28, 2008

The state of Canada

In the summer of 2006, when Lebanon was being bombed by Israel, those who could get out, did. Among them were a large number of Canadian citizens of Lebanese background. I sat beside some on the plane across the Atlantic -- as I was returning from Latvia at the time. This experience increased my anger with the Prime Minister's lack of concern about this illegal and inhumane bombing campaign and its effect on people he is responsible for and to.

Imagine my astonishment, then, when I was exposed on my return to loud complaints about these refugees when some of them -- I heard -- complained about the lack of response of their government to their urgent plight. It was strongly implied by some people that these were not real Canadians just holders of "passports of convenience." Others expressed the sentiment of "what do you expect, going to live in such a dangerous place?"

As an immigrant myself married to another immigrant, my perspective is quite a bit different, as you can imagine. That incident opens a whole raft load of issues; but at the moment I'd like to raise just one. What kind of country, I ask, is it that does not have a significant number of its citizens living and working elsewhere?

I don't really have to answer that question, because Canada is not an isolated country of that sort. Today, in the lead up to Canada Day on the first, the Globe and Mail is running a series of articles on the state of Canada and its place in the world. It is quite an amazing article and I recommend that you read it all. I will be back Monday for more. Today's installment, by Michael Valpy, has a lot to say about this issue of what makes a real Canadian. Not everyone will agree with this perspective, but it corresponds to many aspects of my own experience.

Here's what caught my eye in the article, with particular passages of importance bolded:
... Canada ... has arrived at multiculturalism Mark II and a generation of new adults who have moved decisively beyond nationalism to embrace a kind of transcendent planetary supranationalism. We are becoming the land of global citizens, by all accounts galloping out ahead of other advanced democracies.

It appears to be occurring within a broad consensus.

University of Montreal political philosopher Daniel Marc Weinstock, who studies globalizing cultures, says there is little evidence to suggest it is causing Canada problems. A recent Environics poll found nearly 70 per cent of respondents thought it was a positive thing for Canada's image that three million Canadians live outside the country.

Canadians comprise 10 per cent of the population of Hong Kong. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, more live as immigrant transnationals: maintaining a cultural and even physical presence in both Canada and the countries that they, or their families, may have left years earlier.

A huge majority of young Canadians - as well as a majority of all adult-age cohorts - say they want to live, study or work abroad, according to the same Environics poll done earlier this year.

Forty per cent of Canadians say they donate money to international charities. Twenty per cent say they send remittances to overseas relatives. An increasing portion of Canada's international trade comprises Canadian Diaspora entrepreneurs doing commerce with their original homelands.

I know that some Canadians, including friends of mine, will be ticked off by the notion of 10% of Hong Kong being "Canadian." "Passports of convenience" indeed! But the story is more complicated than one might imagine:

Queen's University geographer Audrey Kobayashi has studied what are now in some cases three generations of families who have moved back and forth between Hong Kong and Canada, for education, for business, for periods of residence.

They speak with Canadian accents - Prof. Kobayashi talks of being in Hong Kong business offices and hearing nothing but Canadian accents. They have deep emotional feelings for the land, a pride in Canada's public institutions, an engagement in Canadian affairs. Rooted in Canada, but from time to time living elsewhere.

I won't excerpt any more, but I will refer you to two other stories concerning former Chilean refugee Luz Bascunan and second-generation Indo-Canadian Radha Rajagopalan. Ms. Bascunan's story really speaks to me. I didn't come to Canada as a refugee, but I did come for a very specific purpose, to attend the best graduate program in medieval history in North America, and I thought I'd be leaving when that purpose was accomplished. When I was done, however, I found that I'd acquired a family, a family, I'll point out, which was divided between Canada and Latvia. I was living this version of the Canadian dream -- or at least the Canadian reality. (I think Canada's better at realities than dreams.)

I will end this piece by saying something about my own experience Nipissing University. The consensus of world outreach referred to in the article is evident here. The vast majority of our students come from Ontario, many of them from small places in the country or the suburbs. When they come to Nipissing University, the place seems quite diverse to them. I lived in Toronto for 13 years, and I have different standards of what counts as diverse, but I'm happy for these students, especially since they are happy about the diversity! And a great many of them want more: they are taking the opportunity to travel to other countries for study and then making a great success of it. University is supposed to be a gateway to the greater world and I'm glad we are fulfilling our function.

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Wednesday, June 11, 2008

"Welcome back" -- wonders never cease

That's what a Canadian border official said to us yesterday after checking our documents. And he wasn't even a particularly cheerful fellow.

The country itself greeted us with a huge double rainbow.

Good grief, after Cornwall and Latvia, this is a big country. And we were only crossing the inhabited part of the most populous province.

Image: part of the rainbow as seen from a bus window.


Saturday, May 24, 2008

$5 a gallon

...but you'd never know from the number of people on the highways this weekend, including hundreds of motorcyclists from who-knows-where, cruising in large flotillas, stopping at Tim Horton's, etc...

Back when gas in my area hit $.95 a liter for the first time, and I noticed people still running their cars with their air conditioners in parking lots while using the post office, I concluded that the price of gas was not high enough yet. Maybe it's still not?

Image: a ride in support of the Gettysburg Battlefield Preservation Society (founded in 1863).

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Friday, May 23, 2008

Canada's Supreme Court tells the government, support Omar Khadr's right to a fair trial

In a 9-0 ruling, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the Government of Canada must allow Omar Khadr's lawyers to see evidence collected at Guantánamo Bay by Canadian interrogators. The Court unanimously pointed out that the "judicial" procedure in place at Guantánamo at the time of the interrogations was illegal by Canadian and international law, and that the United States Supreme Court had also ruled that procedure as illegal. The ruling said that Khadr deserved to have access to the information gathered by Canada, and that the government had no excuse to deny him material relevant to his defense.

Details (the Globe and Mail's report) and a link to the Supreme Court's judgment can be found here.

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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The French Revolution and Canada -- laughable?

Last week I attended the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Michigan. It's my favorite academic conference -- the very first conference I ever attended was an early iteration of what's often just called "Kalamazoo" and it rather spoiled me for other models. This year, despite the fact that my energy level is still not quite to previous levels, I had a very good time indeed.

I want to tell you about one incident that led me to reflect on my own historical values. On Sunday morning, the BABEL working group hosted a roundtable called, What Is the Place of the Present in Medieval Studies? I hesitate to characterize the "presentism" discussed mostly approvingly, by the members of this roundtable, but a very simple definition might be that if you're a "presentist," you see present and past issues coming together and feel compelled to comment on them, perhaps in forms and in forums where past scholarly practice would not allow such comment.

The Roundtable began with a senior and rightfully admired scholar unsympathetic to this approach commenting upon it. I rather got the impression that she was calling for a circling up of the wagons in scholarship, so that serious issues rather than faddish ones get proper attention. This rather took some of the other participants back, but it did lead to some interesting discussion. Later, the same senior scholar told a story that I believe was meant to illustrate her rejection of trivialities. She told story of walking into her department in a prominent Canadian university, seeing a poster advertising a conference called The French Revolution and Canada and finding it hilarious. And finding it even more hilarious that no one else in the department thought it was funny at all. (One gathers from this anecdote that the senior professor is not originally from Canada.)

I think the anecdote passed over a lot of people's heads, but I've heard the like before. I'm not quite sure what the senior scholar meant, but two possibilities occur to me. The first is that Canada is an inherently humorous place, perhaps one that has no real reason to exist. The relationship between a world historical event like the French Revolution and Canada is absurd on the face of it simply because Canada is not important enough to be part of the discussion of the FR. And as for what people in Canada thought about French Revolution then or since, or whether Canadians might have a unique and interesting view of that revolution, well it's hardly worth considering. The second is that the senior scholar has run into the rather pathetic efforts of Canadian intellectuals to make themselves and their country relevant in situations where those Canadians don't really believe it themselves. This is an attitude I have run into, but more often in the 70s than in any more recent decade.

I hate to think that the senior scholar has been in Canada for decades and still has a condescending attitude towards the country's very existence, but it is one held by some people born and bred in Canada. Certain people, not necessarily important ones, feel that Canada's second- or third-ratedness (in their eyes) diminishes them, and they react by taking every opportunity to slight the country, especially if foreigners are around. They would be oh so much more happy if they were part of a first-rate world power. People with great ambitions sometimes have a very bad case of this desire to disassociate themselves from Podunk Canada. Consider the cases of Lords Beaverbrook, Thompson, and Black, who bought British newspapers specifically so they could someday be members of the House of Lords. Sometimes the Canada-bashers go so far as to become politically active and attempt to incorporate Canada and their own careers in some great imperial project. A truly despicable example of this took place in the fall and winter of 2001, when "conservative" commentators in Canada went on a tear, blaming September attacks on New York and Washington on softheaded Canadian liberalism and Canada's failings as a bad ally.

I think that I came to Canada from the same country and for much the same reasons as the senior scholar, but if I ever would have found the conference about the French Revolution and Canada funny, I can no longer remember feeling that way. It's not so much that I've become Canadian over the years -- though that's part of it clearly -- but more that I have developed a world historian's attitude even if I'm mainly a medievalist. No country, or no country's people, are more inherently humorous than anyone else. They get neither automatic contempt nor automatic admiration from me. You never know where some good idea is going to come from or from where some slimy practice will creep out. If you really want to understand the human condition, you can't start by excluding part of humanity from consideration. Maybe a few people in Bhutan aren't very significant in their current attempts to implement a humane democracy in the Himalayas. But who knows? Let's check back later and see how things actually work out.

Image: Inherently humorous Canadian money.

Update: Fixed some embarrassing errors produced by using dictation software and not checking closely enough afterwards.

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Rule of law and human rights -- only when convenient?

On my way home last night I heard on CBC Radio One that Senator Romeo Dallaire, famous in Canada as the commander of the failed UN peacekeeping force in Rwanda and ever since a strong proponent of human rights and international enforcement, bravely criticized the Canadian government for not insisting that Omar Khadar, captured in Afghanistan in 2001, be treated as the child soldier he is by international agreement. Khader, the son of an undoubted Al Qaeda supporter, was 15 years old when he was captured by American forces. Since then, he has been tortured and interrogated at Guantánamo Bay and is still held there. Although he is a Canadian citizen, and nothing has been proved against him in a court of law, and he falls into the child soldier category, a category recognized by Canada in its operations in Afghanistan, neither this government nor its predecessor has lifted a finger to obtain lawful treatment for Omar Khader. Once again, human rights we as Canadians supposedly stand for -- and claim to be fighting for in Afghanistan -- are tossed out the window when they are inconvenient, or may prove offensive to some powerful interest.

I've known this for a while and have been quite angry about Canada's unwillingness to stand up for decent treatment for all Canadians. What really offended me this time was the fact that the Liberal party leadership in parliament seems reluctant to stand up for Dallaire, a widely-admired man who knows from personal experience how the young and powerless are kicked around in places like Rwanda and Afghanistan. (Indeed, if they are only kicked around in such places...) . Dallaire said:

"The minute you start playing with human rights, with conventions, with civil liberties, in order to say that you're doing it to protect yourself and you are going against those rights and conventions, you are no better than the guy who doesn't believe in them at all.''
This comparison between Canadian delinquency and terrorist practice offended the Tory MP Jason Kenney. I'm not surprised; but I am disappointed that the Liberal leader in the House of Commons, Stéphane Dion, allowed the Tories to make Dallaire the issue. According to CTV, Dion said, "he disagreed with Dallaire's choice of words, and hinted the senator could be disciplined."

The Vanity Press has the appropriate response to Dion's remarks. He should have spoken harder truths: Canada is disgraced by this unprincipled behavior. And it doesn't matter who did it first (the Liberals did), it should stop now. Just because someone has a "dangerous sounding" Islamic name doesn't mean the rule of law does not apply in his or her case. And what is outside the rule of law? Lawlessness.

Image: the world's most dangerous Canadian teenager, before he was imprisoned and tortured.

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Sunday, April 27, 2008

Phil Paine on Canada's self-delusions

He's tired of kicking Americans:

Wake up, Canadians. We have no “image”. The world does not think we are cool. The world does not know, or care, if we exist. Only the Dutch know we exist, and admire us for something we did half a century ago, an amazing case of prolonged gratitude in a world where the cultural memory span is notoriously short. But outside of the Dutch, nobody notices our global presence or status.

More here, under April 27, 2008.

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How sectarian hatred gets started

When outside news media cover such developments as Albanian-Serbian conflict in Kosovo, or Sunni- Shiite conflict in Iraq, they are often described as the result of centuries-old hatreds, and readers are referred to the ultimate origins long, long ago. But in real life, most of these conflicts are rather irrelevant unless something more recent brings them to life again. Ontario and much of Canada has a long history of Catholic-Protestant conflict over schools and their funding. Unless, however, a school funding issue pops up, that old conflict is completely irrelevant to people's public identities or the way they interact with their neighbors. The number of people who sit around thinking about William of Orange or the Battle of the Boyne is insignificant; indeed, and I know this from personal experience, most people have no idea what what either of these things might be or what kind of influence they had on Canadians of the past. The Glorious 12th of July used to be the biggest public holiday in Ontario -- at least for Protestants -- but no one knows what it is now. But with a lot of bad luck and human perversity, one can imagine a Catholic-Protestant conflict welling up in Ontario in the future, and then if Catholics and Protestants wanted reasons to hate each other, they would find the libraries full of books to tell them why this was appropriate.

How this works in Iraq is well illustrated by this story from Inside Iraq. It illustrates how old hatreds come back to life, when everybody, or most everybody, thought they were dead. The story only makes sense if, when the correspondent's friend got married, she hardly gave a thought to Sunni or Shiite identity. Now, however, she can hardly think of anything else. The harsh reactions that she expects from her new neighbors don't have much to do with what's in Iraq's libraries, directly, but I'm sure that for everyone involved, if this woman's fears are at all realistic, conflicts from the time of Ali and Hussein or even Saddam Hussein are a lot more present than they were in 2003.

I was at a party last evening with some historian colleagues, and we were talking about how the Canadian social history class went this year ( pretty well in many respects). My friend who taught the course said that for our students, most of whom were born sometime in the late 80s, historic Canada is unrecognizable as their country until a point of very few years before their birth.

This is just another illustration of how present concerns have a huge effect on what aspects of the past we choose to think about.

Image: William of Orange. Boo, hiss!

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Saturday, April 05, 2008

Canals on Mars?

No, runoff in the back field, following paths made by the horses.

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Spring treat

It feels like spring here at last, but it was still possible to skate on a runoff pond this morning. I'll bet the sap is running fast today.

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Thursday, April 03, 2008

Human rights, religious freedom, and tolerance in Canada

Phil Paine has written at an essay on a human rights case in Toronto entitled Distinguishing between real and fake human rights issues. followed the link and page down Wednesday, April 2, 2008.

Although Phil does not have a comment section on his website, he encourages replies from his readers. Drop him a line.

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Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Canada is at war

Canada is at war, and has been for a long time. Like a lot of people, perhaps, I have had a hard time coming to grips with this. In my case, I've been distracted by the rolling catastrophe in Iraq, and in the United States.

Today I came to grips with my "Afghanistan War avoidance syndrome" and started looking at something that's been staring me in the face for days, every time I've gone to the Globe and Mail site. There you and I can find the results of an astonishing journalistic project, especially astonishing in this era where a mostly corrupt and stupid US press sets the tone.

The project is called Talking to the Taliban, and that title describes it well. Reporter Graeme Smith commissioned an unnamed interviewer to put a list of 20 standardized questions to 42 Taliban fighters. As Smith says, not all of the individual answers are very enlightening, but the procedure had the advantage of being an effort to create a systematic picture. People who call themselves "oral historians" do things like this, but journalists?

I'm impressed. My reactions to the content later.

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Monday, March 31, 2008

Mississauga and New Orleans

Phil Paine has a new essay at his site: The Poisoning of a People (page down to the entry for Saturday, March 29, 2008).

The Mississauga disaster he refers to was handled so well that people in downtown Toronto, like me, were hardly affected, when indeed it could have disrupted the entire metropolitan area.

Image: The Mississauga train derailment.

Update: After reading Phil's piece, read this.

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Friday, March 28, 2008

This could be Canada

This could be my township! But it's ice fishers in Russia rescuing cars and snowmobiles that went just a little too far.

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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Phil Paine: What a game show says about Canadian politics

Over at Phil Paine (who else?) talks about what he concluded about Canadian politics after watching a recent TV game show called Canada’s Next Great Prime Minister.

Among the things he claims Canadians don't care about in the voting booth is sex:

Unlike in the U.K. or the United States, I can’t think of any “sex scandals” in Canadian Politics. We simply don’t care about the sex lives of our politicians, if they have any. It’s just something we never think about.

I'm sure that someone can dig up a sex scandal, but after about four years of reading pretty much daily on American politics, I'd have to agree that the difference is like night and day.

Thank Heaven!

More good stuff here.

A template used by deputy returning officers to help visually-impaired voters.

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Today! James Murton speaks today on BC Environmental History, 6 pm, Weaver Auditorium

Dr. James Murton speaks a 6 pm today in the Weaver Auditorium as part of the NipissingYou speaker series. He describes the subject briefly:

The talk considers the draining of Sumas Lake, BC in the 1920s by the
BC government, with the agreement of local landowners. James Scott
argues that when state-directed projects lead to social and
environmental problems it is because the state understands the
environment (and society) in an overly simplified way. I argue that
the landowners’ support of the project, despite its cost and their
meager gains, suggests that the problems of the project lay less in
the limitations of the state than in a widely held cultural discourse
of a progressive countryside and an orderly nature.

The talk is derived from material that has just been published in the
journal Environmental History.

See also:

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Saturday, March 15, 2008

Afghan values

I am currently reading David Edwards' Before Taliban: Genealogies of the Afghan Jihad, which seeks to understand the politics of Afghanistan in the 1970s through 90s by following a number of individuals and analyzing how they expressed themselves and how effective their language was. I still haven't made up my mind about this book, but it has already given me much to think about.

Note Edwards' discussion of communist efforts to rally poor farmers and workers to the cause through marches and demonstrations (p. 70):

...when recalling marches at which people were encouraged to shout such phrases as "Death to the Feudals" and "Death to American Imperialism," one should keep in mind the difference between the rhetoric of Marxist opposition and the dynamics of tribal opposition that heretofore had held sway through much of Afghanistan. In tribal culture, to boast that you intend to kill someone places you under the burden of that claim. Utterances have consequences, and for one to publicly promise to do that which one does not intend ultimately to do or which cannot be done makes one appear foolish and dishonorable. That is to say, if people do not realize that words have weight and use them carelessly, then they cannot be trusted, for they are clearly unaware of the implications of honor and, as such, are a danger to themselves and others.

Edwards, p. 71:

Another issue to consider is the government rallies themselves as a form of public performance... Most newspaper photographs of these events show groups of newly enfranchised farmers carrying shiny shovels and slogan-covered placards while standing or marching in parade-ground formation. However the government intended these performances to be perceived, local people generally viewed them as an embarrassment and a disgrace...such stock performance devices as the unison shouting of praise for the revolutionary party while marching in formation were viewed by people as acts of public humiliation that violated their sense of individual initiative and control.

Reading this material in the week when the Canadian parliament renewed its commitment to the NATO mission in Afghanistan, this not only made me more pessimistic about that mission, but made me wonder if there is going to be an Afghan mission to the rest of the world to spread some Afghan values. Any informed person can recite a list of unappealing aspects of Afghan society, but on some issues they may have a thing or two to teach others.

Further, this book makes the rinky-dink communist movement of the 1970s look contemptible and ridiculous (see photo on p. 73 and the accompanying explanation), except of course for all the damage it did. In the last quarter of the 20th century, poor countries around the world were afflicted with movements and egomaniacal leaders like Afghanistan's Tariki and Amin, all determined to make the population march with shiny shovels and chant in unison, and who was better off for it all? How long was the casualty list?

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Saturday, March 08, 2008

Inner Norwegian? Nay, real Canadian!

A brilliant little report from Toronto, which ten years ago had a mayor disgrace the city by panicking over snow.

If you are wondering, it's a lot less snowy up here in the Near North.

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Saturday, February 23, 2008

Peawanuck and the rest of the wide world

By some people's standards I live in a remote location, but face it, I've got a paved road in front of my property and high-speed internet service over my phone line (and it works real good). But I get the feeling of remoteness sometimes: the occasional wolf-howl in the distance, the fact that I can see hills in the distance that are in a roadless part of Quebec, my inclusion, on CBC Radio, in a broadcast area that includes the James Bay coast. Sometimes I hear about conditions Peawanuck near Hudson's Bay.

Phil Paine knows Peawanuck better than I do
and uses it as an example to make a point, much more effectively than I did sometime ago on this blog: we think pre-modern people were immobile when in fact many of them saw the opportunities and even the pleasures of long-distance trade and travel, and were perfectly capable and willing to make long journeys. My examples were kings and generals and warriors. His are "ordinary working people," people who live in the same province as Phil and I. His example is the stronger one, because these people do, and have, covered vast distances to do ordinary things, like buy tobacco. Says Phil:

The people of Peawanuck, the Weenusk, form part of the Nishnawbe-Aski Nation and are governed by the Mushkegowuk Tribal Council. Most people there live by hunting, fishing, and trapping, or by guiding the occasional adventurous tourist to see the polar bears and other wildlife, or to fish in the Winisk river system. It’s a fine little place. It has some social problems, and young people must leave to find work, but culturally, it is strong, and traditional language and customs thrive.

The reason I bring up Peawanuck is that, until the 1950’s, there wasn’t much about life in the village that would have been out of place in Mesolithic Europe. Certainly, in the 19th century, life in Peawanuck would have been almost indistinguishable from a settlement in the far north of Europe in 6000 BC. When I look over the maps and site reconstructions in archaeological reports from, say, the Ertebølle culture of ancient Scandinavia, everything about them looks familiar. Everything is comprehensible. I have no trouble visualizing the lifestyle. That’s why, when I read discussions among archaeologists about prehistoric Europe, sometimes they ring true to me, and sometimes they don’t.

What rings the most false to me are the assumptions that prehistorians make about mobility, travel, and trade. There is no question that there was extensive trade across prehistoric Europe. The distribution of artifacts shows this. But it is still customary for archaeologists to assume that people didn’t travel any significant distance, and that trade was "not really" trade. ... [T]his image of a pre-modern, or a prehistoric person existing in a tiny cocoon of ignorance, unable to move or think outside of a few acres, simply doesn’t accord with what I know about a hunting and gathering lifestyle that still exists, and existed in relatively pristine form, only a short time ago.

We know exactly how much Peawanuck's people traveled, traditionally, and how far. Normal connections of trade, family visits, friendship, and political contacts on a personal level extended from the Winisk river (the “homeland”) as far east as western Quebec, as far west as Norway House in Manitoba, all along the Hudson’s Bay coast as far as the Chippewyan territories in the northwest and the Innuit settlements in the northeast, and as far south as the height-of land in Algoma, and the shores of Lake Superior. This is still the rough area within which people are likely to have some relatives, or other personal connections. This area is larger than France.
There's more detail at Phil's blog under February 20.

Image: A map of Northern Ontario. I live very near the bottom right corner, near but not in the North (as Ontarians reckon it).

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