Okay, I was hooked the moment the book came in the mail: Rise Again! The Story of Cape Breton Island, by Robert J. Morgan.
I started my historical career working with Bob Morgan in Cape Breton. Though I soon went away again, he stayed. I could see in this very readable history, the island’s first in 150 years, a culmination of the near half-century Bob Morgan has spent deep inside the local history and culture of his island.
And something more, too.
Beneath the refrain that Canadians don’t know or care about our shared history lies a remarkable wealth of deeply rooted, deeply local historical interest. Bob Morgan’s lifework, which helped fuel a cultural renaissance in Cape Breton, is a shining example of how grassroots history and local cultures sustain each other in communities right across Canada, generally without the rest of the country taking any notice.
Morgan first went to Cape Breton Island in 1962 to teach history at the local college, now Cape Breton University. There was a strong local culture, but no local history courses, no local history societies, not a single local museum or heritage property on the island.
"I noticed little St. Pat’s Church sitting abandoned on the Esplanade," he told me recently, "and it looked old. I said, ‘What’s that?’" Derelict and awaiting demolition, it was the island’s oldest Catholic church, built in 1828. When Morgan and some friends decided to make it a local museum, there were no grants, and the word "heritage" had barely been coined. But they formed the Old Sydney Society in 1966, Morgan recruited some of his summer students as unpaid labour, and the museum has been there ever since.
The society rallied support from local notables and successful expatriates, and the supportive local MLA became a cabinet minister, and the movement snowballed. “I think we have forty historical societies on the island now, and 25 museums," Morgan says.
In Sydney alone, the Old Sydney Society helped preserve several buildings. One, the Lyceum, hosted "The Rise and Follies of Cape Breton Island," the 1977 cabaret/musical that helped drive the evolution from traditional Celtic fiddling and step-dancing to international successes like the Rankins, Ashley McIsaac, and Rita McNeil. "The Rise and Follies" also inspired "We Rise Again," Leon Dubinsky’s much-performed hymn that has become Cape Breton’s unofficial anthem – and the source of Morgan’s title.
Today, with forty or more cruise ships visiting Sydney every summer, history and culture underpin the city’s tourist industry, and many of the visitors are hosted by summer staff employed by the historical society. As if to confirm the new standing of local history, the city last year declared the area around St. Patrick’s Church a historic district.
Morgan, who worked steadily on the island in teaching, historic sites work, and archives, is now retired, but as his publisher testifies, he’s still active.
"Bob is extremely generous with his time," says Ron Caplan of Breton Books. "He’ll speak anywhere. Anything about the island, they give Bob a call. If they want some advice down in Richmond County, say, he’ll be there."
For grassroots history across Canada, a Ron Caplan is often as vital as a Bob Morgan: someone to print and distribute the community’s stories. Caplan came to the island in the early 1970s, a poet steeped in a tradition he calls writing from where you stand. "I was trying to read myself into Cape Breton," he says, and that project led first to Cape Breton’s Magazine and then to Breton Books, which reprinted the out-of-print local histories Caplan wanted to read. As he says, "When you have a press, word gets around." Soon he was also publishing local poetry and fiction. The Glace Bay Miners’ Museum, a story by local writer Sheldon Currie, became an internationally successful book, play, and movie: another dimension to the historically-rooted cultural flowering.
That transformational power of local history does not just happen in Cape Breton. A few years ago Mike Fedyk, of Mossbank, Saskatchewan (pop. 400), launched the Rural History and Culture Association "to confront the idea that nothing ever happened in rural Saskatchewan. When you tell people their history matters, you tell them they matter!"
The RHCA’s forte is re-enacting history: a 1957 debate in Mossbank between Premier Tommy Douglas and future premier Ross Thatcher; Premier Jimmy Gardiner’s 1928 debate with the Ku Klux Klan in Lemberg; a John Diefenbaker campaign evening. Each was recreated by actors and a participatory audience, right in the town and building where the original event took place.
"It is all in the presentation," says Fedyk. "Once people knew, they came. Lots of people from the cities were willing to come out to Mossbank. If you let people know, they will show up."
Fedyk has been moved by the deep hunger he finds for that kind of local affirmation. "We do popular history people can identify with. We like getting people in the door!"
It’s not only small places that show a powerful interest in their own stories. On the blog HistoryWire, the Vancouver historian Daniel Francis recently saluted terrific British Columbia histories that get dismissed as "local" by national media. "When we brought out The Encyclopedia of British Columbia in 2000, we hoped we could sell 10,000 copies. Without any national attention, we sold 30,000. People here felt this was their book about their province. The hunger for books like that, books that address the profound sense of place… it’s tremendous."
Bob Morgan and Ron Caplan know that. When they launched Rise Again, an overflow crowd lined for hours to get copies signed. The second volume of Morgan’s history will be appearing soon.
"And everyone who bought the first will want the second," Morgan says
©Christopher Moore Editorial Ltd, 2009
I’ve never met any members of the British royal family, and I don’t really expect to. But I’ve had the chance to meet or see several governors general and lieutenant-governors over the years, and that has helped reinforce my sense of the governor general as our real head of state. More present and less exotic than a British royal, she is part of our Canadian community and our ceremonial life, and that seems a good thing.
Among the ceremonies and presentations, it is easy to forget that a governor general has a constitutional role as well. These days, when constitutional lawyers and historians consider the governor general’s role, it seems we are always one step from a constitutional crisis.
In September 2008, when Michaelle Jean accepted Prime Minister Harper’s advice and dissolved parliament for the October 14 election, several lawyers, political scientists, and historians declared she should have rejected the prime minister’s advice. They wanted her to make her own decision on the matter. "If she says yes," wrote historian Michael Behiels of the University of Ottawa, anticipating the governor general’s response to the prime minister’s advice, "she will be helping to undermine the rule of law."
I must say this astonished me. I thought it was parliamentary bedrock that the crown does not take independent action, that the crown acts on the advice of advisors responsible to the people’s elected representatives. But today many Canadians are frustrated with the arbitrary actions of prime ministers. MPs will not rein them in, so the search for countervailing forces has led the critics to Rideau Hall.
Was this not settled in the King-Byng crisis of 1926?
In June 1926 King that’s Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King had been running a minority government for eight months. Too clever by half, King wanted the governor general to dissolve parliament to help King avoid a Commons vote that would put his Liberals out and the Conservatives in. Byng that’s Field Marshal the Viscount Byng of Vimy, Governor General of Canada since 1921 said no, and swore in Arthur Meighen as the new prime minister.
Byng was correct in that decision, most historians agree. Since Meighen’s Conservatives, who actually held more seats than King’s Liberals, had won over the Progressives (who had kept King in power until then), it was clear Parliament intended to change its consensus on who should be prime minister. Byng, in other words, was not independently rejecting advice from his prime minister so much as acceding to parliament’s message that it wanted to change who advised him.
King-Byng showed a governor general taking direction from Parliament as he should. In 2008, by comparison, Parliament was offering no hint that Stéphane Dion was eager to form a government or that he could have mustered support from other parties if he tried. With no change of her advisors in the offing, it seems hard to fault Governor General Jean for taking the advice of the prime minister parliament had given her.
That, however, is not the view of a historian (Behiels), a political scientist (Lawrence LeDuc of the University of Toronto), and a constitutional lawyer (Errol Mendes of the University of Ottawa law school). They are assisting Democracy Watch, an Ottawa lobby group, in seeking a Federal Court ruling that the governor general’s dissolution of parliament was illegal.
"The law is the new factor," Behiels told me recently. He was referring to a law Prime Minister Harper himself had introduced the one amending the Election Act to require fixed election dates. That law seemed to promise that a prime minister could no longer recommend a dissolution of parliament. The governor general "She is bound by the constitution and that includes all the laws," Behiels puts it.
Not every scholar has accepted this argument. Constitutional lawyer Patrick Monahan of Osgoode Hall Law School pointed out succinctly that any attempt to change the powers of the governor general would have required a constitutional amendment. Harper’s fixed-elections law specifically disavowed any such intention. Even Behiels agrees that it was "a bad law, probably not needed under our parliamentary system… a bit of Reform flim-flam."
I can’t see much future in Democracy Watch’s legal challenge and its law-centered rather than parliament-centered view of government. But the crisis we avoided raises a larger question. A governor general does have a constitutional role, constrained though it is. And today, whether she does too much or too little, it seems almost certain that any action is likely to have someone crying "Unconstitutional!"
If Michaelle Jean had refused Prime Minister Harper his dissolution in September, it’s easy to imagine the Conservative campaign against her: see the governor general, an ex-broadcaster with no constitutional credentials, a Liberal appointee, part of that fancy gala-going urban elite, acting as an unelected autocrat and denying the Canadian people an election? What’s democratic about that?
Frankly, that would be an accusation with force behind it, and the damage to the office would be enormous.
We need a Canadian head of state, and I’d say our recent governor generals have done a wonderful job in filling the ceremonial and symbolic aspects of the office. But there’s always the prospect of that constitutional responsibility arising. And a head of state whose standing relies on prime ministerial patronage is always going to be in a weak position.
In Ireland, a parliamentary democracy much like Canada, the head of state is a president whose powers are the same very limited ones held by our governor general. But Irish presidents are elected by all the Irish. Being elected does not authorize them to push the government around, but it does confer on them the moral authority to fill their office with confidence in times of harmony or crisis.
©Christopher Moore Editorial Ltd, 2008-2009
If you went across the border in mid-2008, your handsome loonies were as good as those homely greenbacks. And Maclean’s made a cover story out of the arrival of $200 oil.
That was then. Now oil is below $50 a barrel. And the Canadian dollar has fallen to eighty cents. We begin to realize: our loonie floats on oil.
Oil is huge. It’s huge for Alberta, where last year’s forecast surplus of $8 billion is this year’s forecast deficit of $4 billion. But it is huge for all of Canada. Alberta’s energy industries are doing as much to shape Canada’s modern history as anything you can name.
So Alberta’s oil is a story we need to know, and we need to know it historically. Recently I’ve been wondering: if I wanted to read myself into the history of oil and Alberta, what would I find?
Shelves of economic and political and business stories of oil, no problem. Environmental issues, sure. But what about a big history pulling the story together? American writer Bryan Burroughs has just released The Big Rich, about how Texas got that way. Who could do that for Calgary?
I looked at Aritha van Hirk’s lively Mavericks: An Incorrigible History of Alberta. It’s full of lore and stories – but there’s more on the Mounties than on oil. Not her fault -- that’s what her story sources offer. But surely there are oil stories worth the telling.
I called a petroleum historian, David Finch of Calgary. Finch works steadily on petroleum history; his recent book Pumped: Everyone’s Guide to the Oil Patch is a not-so-dummy’s guide to the industry. Finch thinks things are better than I feared. “The oldtimers are writing their memoirs, or having them written – I’m working on a couple myself," he tells me. “They think, ‘well, maybe my kids are not terribly interested,’ but they know they were a part of something important.
“We actually have great resources," he goes on. It is still a living story, and people do not think of it as history. But when they do, the materials will be terrific." He sends me to archivist Doug Cass at Calgary’s marvellous Glenbow Museum, the memory bank of the west.
For years, Cass has been acquiring petroleum industry papers for the Glenbow -- a recent arrival, filling 630 metres of shelving, was Imperial Oil’s corporate records. “I am constantly amazed by the materials I am finding about oil and the industry," he says. “But it is not done by historians, I would say. Very few are the work of professional historians."
Indeed drilling for academic scholarship on Alberta’s energy history does not seem rewarding. UBC’s David Breen, now retired, wrote several studies, including an essay pointedly titled “1947 [that is, the year of the Leduc discovery]: The Year that Made Alberta." One might think the Alberta history departments would have any number of endowed chairs in Petroleum History. But the historical file seems to depend more on Calgary’s Petroleum History Society, a lively ad-hoc group.
Nothing could be more useful than clear-eyed historical scrutiny of the political history of energy in the last sixty years. Economist Herb Emery, in the same essay collection as Breen’s piece, suggests that after Peter Lougheed’s province-building moment, Alberta’s leaders “lost faith" in activist, government-driven policy. Emery argues that Ralph Klein went back to “Ernest Manning’s world," where the province simply spends whatever oil will provide, booming when prices rise, facing the loss of $12 billion in a year when the bust comes.
That need for historical perspective is getting more critical all the time.
Andrew Nikiforuk’s recent Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent is a tough, sharp critique of the devastation – political as much as ecological – he sees in the developments now transforming the oil patch. He can see the need for historical work, and not just for all the great stories the industry offers.
“With the tar sands," he says, “we are in new territory. The scale of investment and exports is a game changer. We have moved up from the world’s number 7 producer to number 5, and we could become number two. You cannot be the number one oil supplier to the number one empire without having it change you.
“But in Canada nobody knows a damn thing about the tar sands. There is great space for historical reflection."
David Breen’s and Herb Emery’s essays are in the 2005 Alberta centennial volume Alberta Formed Alberta Transformed, edited by Michael Payne, Donald Wetherell, and Catherine Cavanaugh (University of Calgary Press).
©Christopher Moore Editorial Ltd, 2009
Not all the historians in Canada are historians of Canada. Case in point: Timothy Brook.
Brook is Toronto-born and schooled, and he now teaches in Vancouver. But he’s a historian of China, and his recent book Vermeer’s Hat seems at first to be about Holland in the era of the Dutch masters. When I met Brook recently in Vancouver, he did seem truly a global historian. Vancouver is his home, but Vermeer’s Hat has been published around the world, and Brook was just in from Oxford, where he taught part of the year, by way of New York, where Vermeer’s Hat had just been given the Lynton History Prize, and he was about to go to California, where he was due to lecture. Still, the author and the book – and the hat – say something fresh about Canada and the world.
"I’ve been looking at Vermeer since 1971," says Brook. Looking at Dutch interior scenes from the mid-1600s, he notices maps and globes, Chinese porcelains, South American silver, Virginia tobacco, all testifying to the influences of the wide world. In Brook’s telling, Vermeer’s masterworks become doorways to the world, and not least to the largest, richest nation in the world, the China of the late Ming empire – which happens to be Brook’s own field of scholarly expertise.
How does a kid from Toronto become a historian of China? For Tim Brook, an interest in Chinese philosophy led him into summer language courses in Mandarin. He was offered a student exchange in Beijing, where he mastered the language. Soon he was working on a Harvard doctorate on one corner of Chinese history in the 1600s. Not that it’s easy, but Brook had found the kind of opportunity that sometimes opens to Canadian history students, and he seized it.
Teaching in Edmonton and Toronto, the only Chinese specialist around, Brook seized on global history as a way to find common ground with fellow historians. "The sixteenth century is the age of discovery, but the seventeenth century is the age of people starting to move, the possibility of a global economy, intercultural relations across the globe."
It proved not hard for this Canadian historian of the world to find Canada in world history – or the world in Canadian history. In Vermeer’s 1658 painting of a Dutch military man in a splendiferous beaver hat, the felt for the hat probably came from Samuel de Champlain’s infant colony of New France. Champlain’s colony existed, he reminds us, because explorers like Champlain were hoping to get through Canada to China – hence the town called Lachine on Montreal Island. Today we mouth platitudes about Canada as a global nation and the importance of China. Brook reminds us: Champlain and Vermeer knew that in the 1600s.
Historical studies are grasping that truth, Brook thinks. "History used to be ‘siloed.’ Canadians did Canadian history, Europeans did European history. That’s eased off. There is a much greater fluidity, because no history can be thought about on its own."
There’s another boundary Brook wants to erode. He wants to write for people who are not obliged to read him as well as for scholars who must. "If I write for the Chinese history crowd, I can pretty much know what’s the problem, how do I shape it, how am I going to use sources. I know they are going to read it. But to try and write for some one who doesn’t have a defined interest? That’s a different project all together."
To that end, Brook took creative writing workshops as well as graduate seminars, which may be why Vermeer’s Hat has, as he puts it, "an aesthetic structure, not a logical structure." He wonders about the way universities teach students about writing. "We want them to think about historical questions, we want them to find sources. But we don’t give seminars on how to craft readable historical writing. It’s just not what we do, and I think it’s too bad."
Along with his scholarship on Ming China, Brook has produced politically engaged works on such subjects as the Tiananmen massacre of 1989 and the massacre at Nanking in 1937-38. "I think that engagement is there in Vermeer’s Hat," he says. It’s about "the importance of a cosmopolitan view of the world, a compassionate view of the world. If we can become more conscious of the disasters we have caused in the past, maybe we can not do them again."
The compassion comes out in the respect the book gives to battered, obscure people "whose histories were destroyed" by the collisions of civilizations: characters such as Fulgencio Orozco, a Portuguese who died poor amid the wealth of Potosi, the silver city of Spanish Peru, or Alexander Bosquet, a Scot who drifted to France, then sailed with the Dutch to the Far East, and then, shipwrecked in Korea, became Korean.
Still Brook finds a positive message there, too. "I think personal identities were actually more fluid then than today," Brook says. He draws large conclusions from that. "We don’t need to be threatened by alternate identities, because people have always been moving."
Perhaps that sums up a Canadian’s take on world history.
Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World is widely available in paperback.
©Christopher Moore Editorial Ltd, 2009
Last year our family visited Washington, D.C. It’s a great tourist city. Hotels at decent prices, lively neighbourhoods, impressive subway transit to get around on. Green spaces and civic squares and broad boulevards. Everywhere, the aura of the most powerful nation in the world.
After several fascinating days among the great American monuments and institutions, we drifted to the lighter side: we took a tour of the International Spy Museum. The ISM is a commercial enterprise, slick and cheeky and just instructional enough.
It was when we left the Spy Museum that I began to ponder the economics of all this culture. All week long, we had been sampling one of the world’s great clusters of museums and galleries. The Air and Space Museum, the National Gallery of Art, the Natural History Museum, the Museum of American History, the Museum of the American Indian.
The spy museum was the first one that had charged an admission fee. For the four of us, $72.
Those others are all public museums. In Washington, D.C., the great public museums are all free and always have been.
What I found myself pondering was this: If we had been dropping $18 or $20 a person at every museum and gallery we hit, how would the economics of our holiday have been transformed?
It would still have been worth it. Great institutions like these are expensive. I’ll never say that a terrific museum or historic site is not worth the price of admission. A good museum is a bargain every time.
But if all the Washington museums charged what they are entitled to, we would have been spending literally hundreds of additional dollars a day. My family is second to none as museum fans, I would say. But even for us, those prices might have changed our choices. Our experience of the American capital would have been… thinner.
I have not been to Britain for years, but recently I was reading about the museums and galleries in London. Think of them. The National Gallery. The National Portrait Gallery. The British Museum. The Victoria and Albert. The Imperial War Museum….
Cost of visiting all these? Zero.
They are free too.
Is Canada missing something the Brits and Yanks have grasped?
I’ve been fortunate to visit the historic sites and museums from the Colony of Avalon in Newfoundland to the Haida Cultural Centre in Skidegate, B.C. They are fit to stand with the best in the world. I don’t begrudge a penny I have spent in Canada’s museums.
But it’s not a penny they charge.
Museum of Civilization in Hull: $30 for a family the size of mine. The Canadian War Museum: also $30 for a family. The National Gallery would be $18. That’s only three of Ottawa’s National Museums. It adds up.
Canadian historic sites charge in the same range. Louisbourg $44.10 a family, Fort Henry $47, Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump $22. I’ve admired them all and paid up willingly. But Gettysburg Battlefield? It’s free. (Okay, you pay if you want to see the Visitor Centre – which I will tell you is definitely worth it.)
I could go on. A family at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria: $73.50. The Royal Ontario in Toronto: $74. The Glenbow in Calgary: $28. The Rooms in St. John’s: $29. Fort William in Thunder Bay $35.51. Cities often have packages that will get you into several institutions for one fee – but it still adds up.
This is not just about the dollars. We hear constantly that we Canadians do not know or appreciate our country and our history, that we would be better citizens, maybe even better people, if we did.
Mostly, we look to the schools to address that failing. Whenever a poll suggests that most Canadians would look blank if asked what month the October Crisis occurred, the response is always: they don’t teach enough Canadian history in the schools.
But history and culture are too important to be left to schoolchildren. No matter how many history courses we impose, nothing is going to encourage a historical sense in young people better than an awareness that it’s truly a grown-up concern. When Canadian adults take history seriously, engage with it, make it part of their culture and their lives, it will be a lot easier to engage the kids too.
Nowhere, I’d say, is that rich, adult cultural engagement better served than in our museums, our galleries, and our historic places. They are not just for kids, either. Spend a few days observing people in Ottawa’s national museums, and you will realize you are among people with a sense of what this country is.
That’s why the Brits and the Americans are onto something with their free-museums policies. They are saying to themselves and their visitors: this is us, this is the best of us, this is too important to be reserved for those who will drop $75 to get the family in.
Now, I can see the drawbacks. Museums are already penny-pinched. We would need a real transformation among the funding agencies as to why cultural institutions are worth funding properly. Otherwise, taking away their admission revenues, leaving them even more dependent, would be a disaster.
But “free as in museums" seems to be working for London and Washington.
Is anybody in Ottawa thinking like this?
©Christopher Moore Editorial Ltd, 2009
Is Gordon Freeman crazy? Or is that just how we treat inspired outsiders with strange ideas?
Over three decades, Freeman, a retired Edmonton physics professor, has been putting in time out on the bald-headed prairie of south-east Alberta. Year after year, living in his car or a camper, in the dead of winter and the dust of summer, he takes compass readings. He paces off distances. He photographs alignments. He’s working around a sacred ring, or “medicine wheel,” near Majorville, Alberta, called Ómahkiyáahkóhtóohp in the Siksika language, Omahk for short.
Omahk is a massive central stone cairn with twenty-eight rays of lines running out to a surrounding ring of stones almost 30 metres in diameter. Impressive by any standard, it is perhaps the most intricate of the many stone circles on the Canadian plains. It’s also among the oldest. Its main features are reliably dated to 5000 years ago.
Omahk is low to the ground and wedded to its landscape, but Freeman sees in it a prairie Stonehenge. He’s become convinced he is the first to report how Omahk functioned as an astronomical observatory. He is certainly the first to take such findings to Britain to replicate them at Stonehenge. Freeman’s ideas are set out in a new book called Canada’s Stonehenge.
The trend in British archaeological thought is running against theories of Stonehenge the observatory, and the consensus about prairie stone circles is even more solid. Most plains archaeologists agree that prairie people 5000 years were bison hunters who hardly needed elaborate sun-cycle observatories. To most scholars, elaborate astronomical alignments at either place are more in the eye of the observer than rooted in the places themselves.
But Freeman carries on. He notes all the discoveries made by obsessive amateurs with particular skills and a willingness to put in the time. He’s “a nerd,” he happily admits. (And not shy about controversy. He once published an anti-feminist screed, in a physics journal of all places. The journal apologized, but Freeman did not.)
For a treatise in archaeoastronomy, Canada’s Stonehenge is a startlingly beautiful book. It’s readable, too. Realizing a monograph was unlikely to survive assessment from skeptical scholars, he put his argument in a story about his life among spectacular landscapes, the cattle and coyotes who visit, and his supportive wife Phyl (who sometimes features in his photos as an impromptu alignment marker).
But what is Freeman’s Omahk Stonehenge theory?
I feared it might be that scientists from Stonehenge travelled to Alberta 5000 years ago -- or the reverse. No. “It’s the fifty-first latitude,” Freeman says. The two sites, he explains, share the latitude where sky watchers could observe solstice sunrises and moonrises falling at right angles to each other, on a cycle where the sightlines lay out a square on the stone circles. Freeman wonders if analogous monuments might exist on the same latitude in Asia. Kazakhstan, perhaps.
One oddity helped convince Freeman. At first, all the Omahk alignments seemed inaccurate, falling before or after the solstices and equinoxes that mark the sun’s passage. Then Freeman learned the simple fact any almanac will confirm: equinox may mean “equal night,” but day and night are actually equal in length three days before the spring equinox, three days after the fall equinox. Freeman concluded his ancient sky watchers knew more than he did.
How would Omahk begin? “I think it started with some observations – by a nerd, by some guy who probably took decades to nail this all down. And his observations would have been built on by others.”
Someone like Freeman himself, I wondered? Freeman does think years of observation are still needed -- and he will be eighty in 2010. But when I asked what he hoped would flow from his book, he didn’t talk about more measurements and alignments. A goal? “That Indians will have a lot more land and be seen as having a civilization,” he said simply.
Freeman thinks recognizing the majesty of Omahk is small recompense for all the destruction western civilization brought in its wake. Sites like Omahk, he stresses, remain threatened, as do the First Nations plains cultures that inherited them.
“Genius existed on the prairies at least 5000 years ago, and it continues,” Freeman writes. You don’t need to accept every hypothetical sunrise line to endorse that.
Canada’s Stonehenge: Astounding Archaeological Discoveries in Canada, England, and Wales by Gordon R. Freeman was published by Kingsley Publishing in 2009.
Christopher Moore comments in every issue of The Beaver.
©Christopher Moore Editorial Ltd, 2009
Visitors to Louisbourg, the Nova Scotia historic site, approach its gate -- and are confronted by musket-wielding soldiers barring their entry. “Qui va là? Are you spies for les anglais?"
Then, having introducing the interactive challenges to which Louisbourg hopes its visitors will respond, the sentries welcome them to the reconstructed walled city. Most visitors love it.
But once I met a loyally British Canadian who found that moment infuriating. We defeated the French, he roared, why is the government pretending otherwise with my tax dollars? He wanted to attack the poor sentry.
Historic places can be subversive in ways like that. In Nova Scotia, history’s potential for creatively unsettling is everywhere. Grand Pré is peaceful, yes, but no thoughtful visitor misses the challenge of the people not there: the Acadians and what happened to them. The Glace Bay Miners’ Museum, with its dark mine and its company store, insists we see how the miners suffered to enrich the bosses. Bustling Lunenburg, the heart of Germanic Nova Scotia, cannot help but interrogate the province’s “tartan" branding. All those forts and blockhouses, green and peaceable today, still declare that rivals have often fought for the history of this place.
It is the same across the country. Who doesn’t enjoy Vieux Quebec – or confront there the troublesome choice: Wolfe’s team or the French one? Drive that long haul from Thunder Bay to Winnipeg, and the historic sites you encounter offer competing narratives of how Canada was built – the Montreal-centred NorthWest Company story at Fort William, the Hudson’s Bay version at the Manitoba Museum. Or visit Batoche, where the whole site immerses you in gross injustices done to the Métis and the Cree.
That is something I have always cherished about museums and historic sites. Even when the tour guide is under instructions to avoid controversy, subversive possibilities abound. In Nova Scotia alone, memorials to Scots Highlanders compete with rival tributes to Loyalists, to Palatine settlers, to Planters, to Acadians. Visitors bring their own perspectives, and versions of history clash in ways that puzzle and sometimes enlighten. An immersion in historic sites is a buffeting in conflicting interpretations.
Or, maybe not. In the Province of History, a new book by Professor Ian McKay and Robin Bates, tells us very firmly this never happens. The authors’ subject is “the making of the public past" in Nova Scotia, and they find fraud and conspiracy everywhere. “Tourism/history," they argue, is myth and misinformation, mostly concerned with “generating profits." Indeed, it’s worse than that, a conscious campaign to impose a specific vision of history, the liberal capitalist order, upon unwilling but helpless consumers.
McKay and Bates offer vivid examples, particularly in the ways that Grand Pré, a village central to the destruction and dispossession of the Acadians, was redefined for tourists as “the happy place" of childlike peasants living in placid serenity. It’s a strong case. Nova Scotians long strove to deny or downplay the deportation, even as they marketed interest in Longfellow’s “Land of Evangeline."
But the authors’ focus is never on the visitors, always on the official scripts of tourist promotion. With regard to the obviously absent Acadians, these have often had the desperate note of “Who do you believe, me or your own eyes?" But McKay and Bates see only passive consumers believing all they are told. The authors do disavow (in one paragraph) the idea of “cunning corporate villains" who “manipulate a brainwashed travelling public," but that is pretty much what they discover throughout the “province of history."
More than tourism is at stake here. Ian McKay, a vigorous and prolific scholar (at Queen’s University in Kingston), is the originator of a fresh interpretation of Canadian history that has recently had a powerful impact on Canadian historians. In prizewinning essays and books, McKay has argued that the key to Canadian history is “the liberal order framework." He means that what has held together many different and rival components within Canada is an idea and an ideology: political liberalism allied to capitalist economics.
It’s a big idea. After Donald Creighton’s argument that economic geography, not ideas at all, made Canada, and then the fashion for social history and micro history that seemed about to disavow national questions entirely, McKay’s “framework" has brought political ideas surging back to the centre of Canadian history. Many historians are finding McKay’s liberal order framework powerful and persuasive.
McKay’s big idea is also a conspiracy theory. He’s no fan of the liberal order, to say the least. His framework has been imposed “against steep odds" on unwilling Canadians by “flagrantly anti-democratic" means. His evidence for this authoritarian imposition may seem thin (e.g., the Senate is not elected), but McKay makes his case with passion, sarcasm and irony. And if all Canadians, except a few “rebels, reds, and radicals," have allowed themselves to be lashed down to the liberal order framework, what chance have a few holidaymakers to resist the tourist-history version of it?
McKay and Bates see the public controlled by “the tourist frame." They contrast public “heritage" (which they summarize as no questions, no challenges, no recognitions, no contradictions) to “history," a “form of disciplined knowledge."
Real history, they want us to agree, only happens in classrooms, the property of history professors. But I suspect out that on the tourist routes more than a few Canadians have debated their history without a professorial frame.
In the Province of History: The Making of the Public Past in Twentieth Century Nova Scotia by Ian McKay and Robin Bates was published by McGill-Queen’s University Press in 2010.
Christopher Moore comments in every issue of Canada’s History. He was a Parks Canada researcher at Louisbourg in the 1970s.
©Christopher Moore Editorial Ltd, 2010
We imagine cyberspace as borderless. That web is world-wide, isn’t it? Yet so many sites we go to – to get weather or stock reports, to buy things, to read the news, to browse this magazine’s website – have that purely Canadian ending: dot-ca. There’s a history to that.
One historic choice was made in 1987, when a computer scientist in Vancouver emailed a researcher in California and said, more or less, “When there’s an internet, can I be in charge of Canada, please?” Okay, sure, came the reply. Dot-ca was born, and John Demco began building one key part of Canada’s internet presence.
John Demco was a UBC graduate student then, but he was already involved in the long process of linking computers together. As the online history A Nation Goes Online reports, the Science Council of Canada had predicted “a trans-Canada computer communications network” as early as 1971. In Canadian labs and research institutes, scientists were beginning to link big central mainframe computers to remote terminals, and then to devise ways for the terminals to connect to each other. “There was no internet then, but there were researchers interested in having their computers communicate, and there were technical experts building out the connections,” Demco told me recently.
The 1980s saw the blossoming of these small networks that served clusters of universities and institutes. “The physicists were very active,” recalls Demco. Particularly at large research facilities around the world, “they were quite eager, you might say, to get beyond the stage of sending magnetic tapes in the mail.”
Demco’s own computer-science research involved addresses for networked terminals (“Email was a subject for research then!” he says). That drew him into international collaboration. By the mid-1980s, he was also a volunteer administrator of CDNnet, an early system linking Canadian computers to each other and to the growing international networks. He was well placed for the next step.
The emerging “internet,” mostly in the United States, was just beginning to standardize the now familiar “@” and endings like dot-gov, dot-com, and dot-edu. There was a grandly named “Internet Assigned Names Authority” (IANA), but Demco says, “Really, it was one person, Jon Postel. Just as with telephones, every place on the network needed a number. Jon maintained the list. If you added a host, he would add the name to his list. That was the beginning of domain-name systems.” In 1987 dot-edu, for educational institutions, was the largest “domain” on the internet. It had about 600 addresses. The potential for growth, for “scaling up,” was evident, and IANA began to consider adding national domains.
That was when Demco approached Postel and Postel gave him responsibility for assigning Canadian addresses. Typically, there was nothing very official about it. “Governments had no conception of the importance of the internet,” says Demco, and neither did the telephone companies. “It was only particular researchers and institutes that had an interest.” John Demco, with an informal committee he organized, was dot-ca.
As a staff member at UBC’s Computer Sciences Department, with a computer under his desk and heaps of faxes on it, Demco ran dot.ca in his spare time. He assigned the very first dot-ca, the University of Prince Edward Island’s upei.ca, on January 12, 1988, and until 2000 he allocated every single dot-ca in existence. In 1988 he registered less than a hundred, but soon then the public and commercial internet blossomed. By 2000, when he gratefully transferred his responsibilities to a new agency, the Canadian Internet Registry Authority (CIRA), there were 100,000 dot.ca addresses. Today there are a million and a half.
Does a Canadian presence on the internet matter? For Byron Holland, CEO of CIRA, it does. He notes how a business using dot-ca is bound by Canadian laws and consumer regulations, unlike a dot-com or dot-net that could be anywhere. Even a big American site like the bookseller Amazon routes its Canadian-dollar shipments and sales through Amazon.ca.
Holland believes CIRA and dot-ca “perform well above our weight-class” in international forums. “It’s a multi-stakeholder model – industry, country-code agencies, governments, civil society, all treated equally.” Not all governments, he observes, support an open and accountable internet. “It is critical for us to be there, to see the internet go the way we want it to go.”
It goes deeper than that. “The internet is a global resource, but it includes many communities and tribes, and people want to be associated with communities. The national one, dot-ca, is important. Canada has a certain brand, and it’s a positive brand.” Market research suggests Canadians actually put more trust in “Canadian” web addresses than generic dot.com ones.
Surprise -- the national identity is alive and well and thriving in cyberspace. The domain John Demco built is proof of it.
Christopher Moore -- christophermoore.ca since 2001 -- comments in every issue.
©Christopher Moore Editorial Ltd, 2010