Monday, June 15, 2015

Random historical observations

The weekend before last I had two interesting historical experiences.

I attended as I often do a local Windsor event called Art in the Park. Not a lot of art as such, but plenty of crafts, and located in one of the city's most prominent parks – the grounds of the mansion built by Windsor's most famous distiller and smuggler of whiskey into the prohibition era United States.

Wandering around the park – it was a beautiful day – I had a sudden realization. Events of this sort, and they aren't iuncommon, are like a trip to the 1970s. People who produce goods for this kind of crafts show are still making the kind of things that people thought were new and different back 40+ years ago.

And sure enough, the moment that I came to that realization, I spotted someone wearing a "Dark Side of the Moon" T-shirt. A well-worn T-shirt at that.

Another day I went to the best bookstore in Windsor and spotted a rather alarming book called Rise to Greatness. It's a history of Canada. The alarm was not due to the claim to greatness, although that claim is rather dubious (decency, yes, at least most of the time, but greatness?). What was alarming was the person making the claim. I felt an urge to go right out on the main deck and check the lifeboats for leaks. A quick examination of the book confirmed that there was probably nothing to interest me. It had all the hallmarks of a old-fashioned political and constitutional history typical of the first half of the 20th century or even earlier.

The most telling aspect? It was advertised as a history from the Vikings to the present; in other words it's entirely about immigrants of various eras and how they contributed to "the rise to greatness." Not a single section labelled as a treatment of the First Nations. Given the tremendous impact on ordinary Canadian life by First Nations – much more so in most areas than in the United States – this exclusion was scary.

1 comment:

  1. I remember so many of those Canadian history books. "Rise to Blandness", "CN-CP Timetables and the Canadian Dream", "The Canadian Journey from Britain's Skirts to America's Carport", etc. These were the products of the generation of Canadian historians, many trained at the University of Chicago, who felt embarassed that Canada existed and had a past, and took comfort in the "scientific" history of freight rates and wheat pool statistics. They expressed great contempt for the pre-WW2 historians who revelled in coureur-de-bois exploits and the wild frontier, and who actually wrote extensively about Native Canadians.

    This post comes at an interesting moment for me. I'm reading the personal correspondence of Louis Hippolyte LaFontaine and Robert Baldwin. Their personal friendship became the core of a new idea: a democratic state that renounced ethnicity, language and religion as organizing principles. This was in the 1840s. There was nothing comparable anywhere in the world. Both men where ardent reformers. The correspondence begins with LaFontaine sending Baldwin a copy of Fénelon's "Les aventures de Télémaque", the 1699 work which layed the groundwork for Enlightenment humanism. When LaFontaine lost his seat at Terrebonne, Baldwin invited him to run in Newmarket, Ontario. Together, they built "responsible government" in the new Canada that emerged from the 1837 rebellion. Baldwin learned French and sent his children to school in Lower Canada. LaFontaine wrote some history ---- including a book on African Canadian and Native Canadian issues.

    None of this stuff figured in the bland books cranked out by the post-war generation of historians.