My Talk in Banff

28 07 2015
"Banff, Alberta, Canada (230089894)" by Tony Webster from Portland, Oregon, United States - Banff, Alberta, Canada. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

“Banff, Alberta, Canada (230089894)” by Tony Webster from Portland, Oregon, United States – Banff, Alberta, Canada. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Are you interested in state formation, constitutional change, and sovereignty in North America in the 1860s? If so, check out the programme of the Rethinking North American Sovereignty Conference in Banff Alberta.

Masonic Lodge, Banff, Alberta

I will be speaking at the Masons Hall, 103 Caribou Street, in Banff, Alberta on Thursday, 30 July at 6:30pm. The event is free and open to the public.

Andrew Smith, University of Liverpool, “Confederation as a Hemispheric Anomaly: Why Canada Choose to Remain a Colony -draft July 2015

Steven Hahn, University of Pennsylvania, “The United States from the Inside Out and the Southside North”

Comment: Thomas Bender, New York University

This conference is sponsored by the George and Ann Richards Civil War Era Center at Penn State University and supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies at Virginia Tech University and the following academic units at the University of Calgary: the Department of History; the Centre for Military, Security, and Strategic Studies; the Faculty of Arts; the Latin America Research Centre; and the Office of the Vice President for Research.

When Do Canadians Think Canada Was Founded?

25 06 2013

That was the subject of a recent poll by the Association of Canadian Studies which asked Canadians when their country was founded.

“As Canada approaches the 150th anniversary of Confederation in 2017, a bare majority of citizens considers the 1867 deal struck by Sir John A. Macdonald and his fellow architects of the BNA Act the “founding” event in the country’s history, according to a new national survey.”  Other Canadians mentioned 1812 and 1608 as Canada’s founding dates.

You can read press coverage of the survey results here.

For some reason, detailed information about this survey is not available on the Association of Canadian Studies website. We do not, therefore, know much about the survey methodology used here. The lack of transparency here is surprising, given that the Association of Canadian Studies a) run by academics, who are supposed to “show their work” b) funded by the taxpayer c) has put detailed information about past surveys online in the past. (For instance, they recently put information about their soccer/turban ban poll online).

My Teaching Last Week

30 03 2010

HIST 1407 (Canadian History Survey Course)

My lecture on Monday was about Canadian history from 1984 to 1993. I spoke about the following issues: the pre-1983 career of Brian Mulroney; the 1984 election; the nature of the “Mulroney Coalition”; the 1988 Free Trade election (I showed a clip from the 1998 leaders’ debate); the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords; Elijah Harper; the Oka Crisis; the emergence of the BQ; the Somalia Affair (there are some great images and video clips available online!); the judicial politics of abortion; Canada’s policies towards the apartheid regime in South Africa; Kim Campbell. I also devoted a fair bit of time to the environmental policies of Brian Mulroney because environmental history is one of the themes of this course.

Brian Mulroney in 1984

My lecture on Wednesday was on an even more recent period of history, 1993-2003. My major focus was on the 1995 Referendum and the subsequent Clarity Act and sponsorship programs. I showed video clips from the night of the referendum. The video clips really captivated the attention of the class. Most of students were born in roughly 1991. I also spoke about Jean Chrétien’s life before 1993, Paul Martin’s career as Finance Minister, and NAFTA.

HIST 4165

4th Year Seminar on BNA in the Age of Confederation

Fenian Raid Medal

We listened to five student research presentation this week. A number of students have selected topics related to what one student has called the War on Fenianism in the 1860s.

Fenian Raids Monument, Toronto, 1890

We heard two presentations on the assassination of McGee and a presentation on the Fenian Raids.

Committee of Safety Minutes, 1866, Page 1, Welland, Canada West

We also heard a student present on the impact of railway construction on the town of Stratford Ontario.

Grand Trunk System Map

Perhaps the most entertaining presentation related to the abolition of public capital punishment in Canada in the late 1860s. That student has discovered some great primary sources related to her topic!

A Canadian Hanging

My Teaching This Week

26 11 2009

On Monday, I spoke to the students in my pre-Confederation Canadian history survey course about the impact of the Civil War on British North America. I spoke about the Underground Railroad, Abolitionism, anti-Americanism, Canadians who fought on both sides in the Civil War, the Trent Crisis, Confederate raiders who operated from Canada, Reciprocity, Jefferson Davis, and the Fenian Raids. I tried to explain why so many decent people in British North America were sympathetic to the southern cause in the Civil War. I made it clear that they did not approve of slavery, but merely felt that British North America’s interests would be advanced by the division of the United States into two or more sovereign entities. Canadians in the 1860s were anti-Yankee rather than pro-Southern. I stressed to the students that the paramount goal of President Lincoln and most Republicans was the preservation of the union, not the extinction of slavery. I also noted that anti-Black racism was very common in the northern states and that some Northerners wanted to free the slaves and then deport all Blacks! These are important facts for the students to know if they are to evaluate the actions of Canadians during and after the Civil War. The lecture also discussed Anglo-American relations from 1860 to the Treaty of Washington. The Civil War lecture allowed me to show some real cool photographs to my students. Thank god for PowerPoint!

Confederate Dead, Chancellorsville, Virginia 1863

On Wednesday, I spoke about Canadian Confederation, providing students with a detailed, blow-by-blow account of the conferences, elections, and personalities of the period between 1864 and 1867. I spoke about the Charlottetown Conference, the Quebec Conference, and the London Conference, as well as Macdonald, Brown, Cartier, Tilley, Tupper and, of course, Joseph Howe.

In the lecture, I adopted an anti-Confederation posture as a way of being the devil’s advocate. In arguing against Confederation and expressing support for the position of Joseph Howe, I was trying to get the students to think critically the celebratory narratives of Confederation developed by historians based in Ontario universities. I showed that many people in French Canada, the West, and the Maritimes were opposed to Macdonald’s centralizing vision for British North America. I also hammered home the point that Confederation in 1867 did not make Canada independent of Great Britain. I went on a little digression about the 1931 statute of Westminster. I think that I made it clear that any student who wrote that “Canada became an independent country in 1867” on the final exam would be summarily executed!

At the end of the class, I returned marked essays to the students. These essays were on the journals of Pehr Kalm, a Swedish-Finnish scientist who visited Montreal as part of an extensive tour of North America. Kalm kept a diary or journal during this tour. This diary was published in Stockholm in the 1750s and read by Swedes curious about conditions in North America. An English translation of Kalm’s journals was published in London in 1770. In 2002, the 1770 edition of Kalm’s journal was digitized by the staff of the Wisconsin Historical Society. My students read the sections of the journal related to his visit to Montreal. I asked the students to assess whether Kalm’s journal is an unbiased source of information on life in 18th century North America. Most of the students were able to detect that Kalm had an anti-English bias and that his comments on New France thus have to be taken with a pinch big scoop of salt. My students appear to have enjoyed the challenge of reading an 18th century primary source.

In my fourth-year seminar on Confederation, the focus was on aboriginal history. Our readings were on Duncan Campbell Scott, “Indian Affairs, 1840-1867” in vol. 5 of Canada and Its Provinces; Barry M. Gough, Gunboat Frontier : British Maritime Authority and Northwest Coast Indians, 1846-90 (Vancouver : University of British Columbia Press, 1984), 1-24; Sidney L. Haring, “The Common Law is Not Part Savage and Part Civilized: Chief Justice John Beverley Robinson and Native Rights” in White Man’s Law : native people in nineteenth-century Canadian jurisprudence (Toronto : Published for the Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History by University of Toronto Press, 1998), pp.62-90. The students liked the reading by Gough, but I think that the one by Haring was a bit too complex, even for students in an honours seminar. We also listened to student presentation on the lives of Joseph Brant Clench, a 19th century Indian Agent, and Jean-Baptiste Assiginack, a First Nations leader.

On Thursday, I met my graduate student to discuss her research on the fur trading post at La Cloche. She has found excellent material in the microfilmed records of the post.

The 150!Canada Conference

19 10 2009

Older readers will remember the 1967 celebrations of the centennial of Confederation. Indeed, some of you may have gone to Expo 67 in Montreal. The planning for the 150th anniversary of Confederation is already underway.

“On March 11-12, 2010, IPAC and MASS LBP will convene a major conference at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa that will bring together senior public servants from all levels of government, business leaders and representatives of leading NGOs to discuss preparations for Canada’s sesquicentennial year.

The conference will review the success and lessons of the 1967 and 1992 celebrations, learn from recent national celebrations in other countries. Presentations by Canadian luminaries and leaders will help spark our imagination as the delegates work to establish a national framework for sesquicentennial preparations and design.

The program will combine keynotes, presentations and panels with a second full day of creative and planning workshops.”

More details here. I hope that the organizers include professional historians and historical societies such as the Canadian Historical Association and the Institut d’histoire de l’Amérique française, in the planning process. In particulary, I hope that they invite historian Christopher Moore, who has recently been blogging about the Quebec Conference, to take a leading role.

Ajzenstat on the BNA Act

11 10 2009

Janet Ajzenstat has replied to a recent post in which I said that Canada’s constitution was partly written and partly unwritten. A written constitution is one in which the political system is blueprinted in one or more written documents. In an unwritten constitution, important offices and practices are defined by custom and tradition, not a written document.  The United States has a written constitution that, among other things, describes the powers and mode of selecting the President and the Congress. Britain has a largely unwritten constitution: the office of Prime Minister evolved gradually and there is no constitutional document defining that office or its occupant’s powers or mode of selection.  “Responsible Government”, the cornerstone principle of Canada’s system of government, is not described or mandated in any of Canada’s constitutional documents. Indeed, the office of Prime Minister went unmentioned in the British North America Act of 1867. Professor Ajzenstat has said that I was wrong to assert that Canada’s constitution is partly unwritten because there are sections of the British North America Act that allude to Responsible Government and which suggest that the drafters of the statute had Responsible Government in mind. The BNA Act certainly referred to the Ministers of Agriculture and Finance, but it made no reference to the office of Prime Minister. It is true that the written part of Canada’s constitution was created with the unwritten conventions in mind, but this does not mean that Canada’s constitution is entirely or even mainly written. Canada’s constitution is a hybrid, combining bits of the British and American constitutions. Perhaps the most important part of Canada’s written constitution is the preamble, which states that the Provinces of Canada, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick have expressed their Desire [for]… a Constitution similar in Principle to that of the United Kingdom.” These words entrenched parts of Britain’s unwritten constitution in the Canadian constitution.

It seems to me that it is an indisputable fact that Canada’s constitution is partly unwritten. That’s why the constitutionality of things like last December’s proposed coalition is a matter of passionate debate. (Indeed, the identity of Canada’s head of state is also a constitutional grey area). Whether or not Canada’s half-written, half-unwritten constitution represents an ideal arrangement is, of course, a matter open for discussion.

Senator Hugh Segal on George Brown and Confederation

10 10 2009

In this video, Tory Senator Hugh Segal speaks about George Brown’s role in Confederation. The video was shot near the Château Laurier on Canada Day. I thought that I would post this video because Christopher Moore is currently “live blogging” the Quebec Conference of 1864.

McCord Museum Video on Confederation

6 10 2009

McGill University historian Brian Young was the historical consultant for this video. The video does a good job of explaining the causes and results of Confederation.

My Thoughts on the Liberal Order Framework

2 06 2009

I attended a roundtable on the Liberal Order Framework at last week’s meeting of the Canadian Historical Association.  Roundtable participants discussed the body of historical literature that has emerged in response to Ian McKay’s seminal article “The Liberal Order Framework: A Prospectus for a Reconnaissance of Canadian History,” Canadian Historical Review 81, no. 4 (2000).

In the article McKay offered a  new interpretative framework/ paradigm/metanarrative for understanding Canadian history. McKay says that in the middle third of the 19th century there was a liberal revolution in British North America—liberal, by which he appears to mean classical liberal, ideas became dominant and have been hegemonic in northern North America ever since. McKay argues that the project of building a trans-continental  Dominion in northern North America was about imposing this “classical liberal” ideology on their various peoples of the territory, some of whom clung to various pre-modern, pre-liberal ways of structuring their societies.

McKay’s framework has been taken up by a number of Canadian historians. Indeed, a book of essays written in response to McKay’s initial article was recent published by University of Toronto Press. Liberalism and Hegemony: Debating the Canadian Liberal Revolution edited by Jean-François Constant and Michel Ducharme.

I have finished reading this book, which I picked up at the Learned Societies’ book fair. I must say that I find the literature on the liberal order at once stimulating and frustrating, which is also how I felt about McKay’s original article. Here are a few quick thoughts:

1)    McKay was not actually present at the roundtable on the liberal order. For some reason, the CHA organizers had double booked him for another event. This was really unfortunate, since the discussion took place without him.

2)    I commend McKay for thinking big and for advancing a comprehensive theory of Canadian history. One of the advantage of Marxism and other once popular macro-theories of history is that they gave scholars a framework for understanding a world full of discreet facts and making decisions about which facts to select. The discrediting of Marxism and many of the other big theories left many historians without a theory with which to interpret the jumbled facts presented in the archive.

3)    Theory is essential for the writing of high quality history. History is a discipline that is both empirical and theoretical. As I see it, it is the job of the historian to take a theory and see whether it applies to the facts of a particular case. If historical research produces too many data point contradicting the theory, then the theory needs to modified or discarded. To be credible, a theory must also be falsifiable. This is true for historical theories as much as scientific ones. As far as I can tell, McKay’s theory or framework lacks falsifiability because his definition of “liberal” is in constant flux, even within a single article.

4)    Let me repeat this key point: the liberal order framework or theory lacks falsifiability because the word “liberal” is never clearly defined by McKay and his followers. Loose or slippery definitions allow a theory to escape refutation.  It is clear that McKay is using the word “liberal” to describe something that relates to individualism and which is a distant cousin of capitalism, but he doesn’t supply us with a clear and robust definition of liberal that we can then use as a yardstick for judging his claim that the formation of the Canadian state promoted liberalism. Moreover, during the roundtable session, the participants threw around several definitions of the word “liberal”. Until I spoke up, nobody bothered to point out that they were defining liberal is very different ways. The meaning of the word liberal has changed dramatically in the last 150 years. It also varies from one English-speaking country to the next. Many Americans use the word “liberal” to mean a sort of soft socialist– which is clearly very different from a 19th century classical liberal (or “libertarian”) or the modern Liberal Party of Canada, which includes both classical liberals and soft socialists.

5)    The liberal order framework purports to explain why a separate nation called Canada emerged in northern North America. So far, so good. I agree that understanding why Canada emerged as a separate nation state and did not become just another region of the USA is one of the _central tasks_ of the Canadian historical profession. I’m not certain that pointing out that liberalism was part of the political culture of Canada in the 19th century advances our understanding of why Canada exists today. The USA in this period was also, broadly speaking, a liberal country. Indeed, some classical liberals, most notably Goldwin Smith, thought that ends of classical liberalism would be advanced by continental union (i.e., Canadian joining the Union).  In fact, the whole process of building a separate nation in North America has some profoundly illiberal elements, such as high tariffs and other protectionist policies, that were totally anathema to classical liberalism. I must say that McKay’s claim that Sir John A. Macdonald’s National Policy (a protective tariff) was an expression of liberalism was a bit far-fetched.

6)    To my mind, a much simpler and therefore better explanation for the emergence of Canada as a separate nation in northern North America is anglophilia—namely the intense loyalty that many British North Americans in the 19th and early 20th century felt towards Britain and the British Crown. The project of creating Canada was, in large measure, about building up a British Dominion and resisting the north-south attractions of the United States. This explanation fits the available facts far better than any other proferred explanations, including the famous Laurentian thesis. Until the Other Quiet Revolution of the 1945-1965 period, Britishness was central to the English-speaking Canadian identity. And it was the foundation of the Canadian nation state– the regions of North American that became part of the Dominion of Canada had nothing in common with each other, save that they were British territory, painted red on the map. Britishness was the glue that held them together.

7) In March 2008, I published an article in the Canadian Historical Review that cited McKay’s 2000 article and which then proceeded to undermine its central argument by looking at the debates on Confederation in British North America in the 1860s. The article showed that many, if not most, classical liberals in British North America were opposed to Confederation for fear that it would lead to higher taxes and “Big Government”. The proponents of greater government in the interventionism in the economy were, for the most part, on the pro-Confederation side of the debate.  The research findings presented in the article are the exact opposite of what McKay’s theory would predict, since McKay connects Confederation and the building of the Canadian nation state to the rise of liberalism. I don’t know what the production schedule for the Liberalism and Hegemony book was like, but I thought that it was unfortunate that there were no references to this article in that book, which was published in May of 2009. Although it is possible to dismiss my CHR article as relating to just a single data point (i.e., Confederation), it’s an important data point and one that calls McKay’s whole framework into question.