Anzac, Vimy, and Social Memory

26 04 2010

According to the BBC’s Sydney correspondent, Australians are debating whether the increased popularity of Anzac Day in recent years is helping to promote militarism and chauvinism in that country.  Two historians, Professors Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds, have denounced Anzac Day and “the relentless militarisation of our history”. (To hear Professor Lake speak on this topic, click here).

Marilyn Lake

Anyway, I thought that this might be of interest to Canadian readers, especially since Vimy Ridge has a significance to Canadians similar to that of Anzac Day in Australia and New Zealand.  In fact, something called Vimy Ridge Day was invented by our parliament in 2003 to supplement 11 November. In Australia and New Zealand, both Remembrance and Anzac Days are celebrated.

Anzac Cove, Turkey

The parallels between the social memories of the First World War in Canada and Australia are striking. In both cases, the citizens of increasingly multicultural countries pause each year to venerate men who died for an Empire that no longer exists.  In both countries, hard right people who pine for the good old days of the British Empire have latched onto the relevant holidays for present-day political purposes. In both countries, conservatives say  that military history is a very important, indeed central, part of the national historical narrative.

The place of Anzac, Vimy, and other events in military history in the social memories of Australia and Canada is especially striking when one considers that these countries are, thanks to lucky geography and the peaceful disposition of their inhabitants, among the least militarised societies on earth. Compare the histories of Canada and Australia to those of most of the 180 members of the UN and you will see just how pacific their histories are.  The militarization of Australian history described by Professor Lake is ironic because military force has probably played a less important role in the history of Australia than in the history of any other continent (unless you count the guards who watched over the first convict settlers as military). South America, Europe, Africa, Asia, have all been terribly scarred by war. Australia hasn’t.

Similarly, the striking thing about Canada’s past after 1815 is just how _unmilitary_ it is. (I admit that military conflict is a big part of Canadian history before 1815). With the exception of the 1885 Rebellion in Western Canada and the Battle of Batoche, Canada’s domestic history has been _very_ peaceful by international standards. The FLQ crisis was really the exception that proves the rule that Canada is peaceful. Yeah, many Canadians went to help the mother country out in the two world wars and South Africa.  The losses, although tragic, were light compared to those other countries. It’s true that there was a bit of food and gasoline rationing in Canada during WWII, although most British people wouldn’t have considered what we had real rationing at all. Toronto didn’t get bombed. Postwar, Canada made some contributions to UN missions around the world. These contributions are now honoured on the $10 bill.  A few Canadians still go to fight for their respective mother countries today (e.g., the Serbian Canadians who fought in Bosnia in the 1990s). However, the overall importance of war and military conflict in post-1867 Canadian history is probably less than in the history of any other major country in the western hemisphere. War is also less important in Canadian history than in the histories of the countries that supply most of Canada’s immigrants (India, Pakistan, China).  Canada since Confederation has been a pretty peaceful place where few people have died from violence, including wars and other forms of political violence.

Despite the overwhelmingly peaceful nature of Canadian history, many of our national commemorations revolve around the military.  We have a national day to mark the end of the First World War (in Europe), but we don’t have a national day to commemorate the completion of the CPR which took place, I’ve been told, in Canada. This is ass backwards!  What is even more bizarre is that so much of the social memory of English-speaking Canada focuses on 20th century  military history and events that took place overseas rather than on the earlier  wars and battles fought here on home turf.  From a purely Canadian standpoint, the pre-1815 battles on Canadian soil were probably more important.

Yet for reasons that probably include the absence of photographic and motion picture records, the pre-1815 wars aren’t a major part of the social memory of English-speaking Canada.  Recognition of the people who died in the pre-1815 conflicts have only recently begun to be integrated into the 11 November ceremonies in Ottawa, a long overdue development. It was only in 2005 that statues representing those of who served in the Seven Years’ War, the American Revolution, and other pre-Confederation conflicts were added to the national war memorial in Ottawa.

Statue of Joseph Brant, National War Memorial, Ottawa

As someone who teaches Canadian history to first-year university students, I try to strike the right balance between military and non-military aspects of our history. I talk about Canada’s role in the two world wars, but I also assigned a book on the history of the donut in Canada. Which of those topics is most important? In the long run, over-consumption of donuts may kill more Canadians than either world war.

Emphasizing the role of military conflict in Australian and Canadian history at the expense of other themes (e.g., economic growth, the emergence of consumer culture, the advent of TV, women’s emancipation, the histories of accountancy and fast food) obscures two important truths.

First, the world has been getting more peaceful over the last few centuries. So observers have been so bold as to predict that war is on the way out. This is a risky claim, but it does seem that  as societies progress from tribalism to the nation state to capitalist democracy, the percentage of the population that dies from violence typically falls. The 20th century is often remembered as a bloody century and age of unprecedented mass murder. There are some terrible data points that support this view (the Holocaust, the Battle of Stalingrad) but in reality it was a relatively peaceful period of human history. One of the reasons why the death toll in the two world wars was so high was that the world’s population numbered in the billions by the 20th century. The percentage of the world and European populations that died from war and other forms of violence was actually lower than in early centuries. Of course, the atrocities that took place were captured on film. A German boy born in 1900 likely died of disease, not war, whereas in a hunter-gatherer society about half of all males die violently. Today Europe is, thank goodness, very peaceful, as is the world as a whole.

In Canada and Australia, the demographic impact of war was very small indeed. More Canadians died from car accidents between 1950 to 1953 than in the Korean Conflict, yet there are no memorials to them.

Second, Canada and Australia have been two of the countries that have been vanguard of the move towards a more peaceful world. Among other things, they are the nations that have embraced multiculturalism, democracy, capitalism, and globalization. Maybe we need more memorials to these phenomena.

Monument to Multiculturalism, Toronto

Current PhD Theses/Dissertations on Topics in Canadian History, 1815-1891

19 04 2010

Last Friday, I sent out the following message on H-Canada.

To whom it may concern:

I am putting together a database of PhD and other graduate students who
are working on topics that deal with British North America/Canada 1815
to 1891. If you are interested in being included in this database,
please send me your name, thesis title, university, and the name of your

Je suis en train de créer une base de données des étudiants au
doctorat qui travaillent sur l’Amérique du Nord Britannique/Canada
durant la période 1815 À 1891. Si vous souhaitez être inclus dans ma
base de données, veuillez m’envoyer votre nom, le titre de votre thèse, votre
affiliation institutionnelle, et le nom de votre directeur.


Andrew Smith

These are my responses to date:

Paul John Reale
“Creating a ‘British Country’: Empire and Education in Upper Canada, 1791-1871”
The University of Chicago
Dissertation Chair: John E. Craig

Patrick J. Connor
Department of History, York University, Toronto
“‘The Purest of Gifts’: Royal Clemency, Patronage, and the Politics of Pardon in
Upper Canada, 1791-1841”
Supervisor: Doug Hay.

Jacob Ginger, Queen’s University
‘The Political Economy of Faith:  Shaping God, Mammon and the State in Nineteenth-Century Upper Canada’  (working title)
Supervisor:  Dr. Jeffrey L. McNairn

Daniel Rueck
“Mohawk Land Practices and the Liberal Order: An environmental history of Kahnawake”
McGill University
Supervisor: Elsbeth Heaman

Janine Rizzetti
Thesis title: “A Lamentable Succession of Follies and Consequent Disasters: The Colonial Career of Mr Justice John Walpole Willis”
University: La Trobe University, Bundoora Australia
Supervisors: Prof. Richard Broome; Dr Jennifer Ridden

Christopher Herbert
“White Gold:  Power, Empire, and Identity in the California and British Columbia Gold Rushes”
University of Washington
Supervisor:  John Findlay

name: Katrin Urschel
thesis title: “Surfacing Again: Ethnic Identity in Irish-Canadian Literature”
university: National University of Ireland, Galway
supervisor: Dr. Riana O’Dwyer

Allison O’Mahen Malcom
The University of Illinois at Chicago
Advisor: Prof. Richard R. John (who is now at Columbia)
“Anti-Catholicism and the Rise of Protestant Nationhood in North America,

Wendi Lindquist
“Death and Dying on the Northwest Coast of North America, 1774-1858”
University of Washington
Supervisor Professor John Findlay.

Bradley Miller
“Emptying the Den of Thieves: International Fugitives in British North
America, 1800-1910”
University of Toronto
Supervisor: Jim Phillips

Why Does Canada Have a More Stable Banking System than the United States?

23 03 2010

Why Does Canada Have a Better More Stable Banking System than the United States?

Former Bank of British North America branch in Toronto

That is the research question informing my forthcoming presentation to the Business History Conference at the University of Georgia in Athens. My presentation will take place Saturday 27 March, 3:30-5:00 Concurrent Sessions G, G.1 Rhetoric of Liberalism.

Canada’s banking system is rock solid. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, the relative stability of Canada’s banking sector has been recognized. When banks in the United States and the United Kingdom collapsed, Canada did not experience any bank failures. The World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report rated Canada’s banking system as the most sound in the world.

The Bank of British North America, designed by John Howard and constructed in 1845-6, in 1867, on the northeast corner of Yonge and Wellington Streets. Toronto. Image from Toronto Public Library.

The stability of Canada’s banking sector is nothing new. Historically, bank failures have been quite rare in Canada. Since 1871, Canada has witnessed a few bank failures, such as the collapse of the Home Bank in 1923, but in general bank failures in Canada have been uncommon. During the early 1930s, there was a wave of bank failures in the United States and long queues of anxious depositors lined up at banks. Canada’s banks, in contrast, remained healthy during the Depression. Canada’s banks also demonstrated their stability during the crashes of 1893 and 1907.

Canada and the United States are similar in many ways, but their banking systems are quite different. Some of these differences help to explain the greater stability of the Canadian system. Canada’s banking sector is much more oligopolistic than that of the USA. Canadians are served by a small number of big banks with branches in every corner of the country.  In contrast, the United States has a vast number of small banks. Until recently, there were many laws in the United States that prevented banks from one state from operating in another. It should be stressed that Canada had developed an elaborate system of transcontinental branch banking by about 1900.

Head Office of the Bank of Montreal

In 1867, the British parliament passed by the British North America Act, which created the Dominion of Canada. The new constitution gave exclusive jurisdiction over banking, currency, and interest to the federal parliament rather than the provincial legislatures. In contrast, American states had the right to charter banks and to pass laws related to banking. The legal foundations of Canada’s arguably superior banking system were laid in the banking and currency statutes passed by the new Canadian parliament in the five years after Confederation. My paper examines the making of the Canadian banking law in 1871, which was a turning point in Canadian financial history.  The integration of the financial systems of the previously separate colonies between 1867 and 1871 was a crucial part of the creation of Canada as a nation state. A common currency and common banking system helped to knit the different parts of the Dominion together.

Bank of Montreal branch in Toronto. Picture from McCord Museum, Montreal

In the paper, I look at how the banking laws of other countries, most notably the 1863 National Bank Act in the USA and the 1844 Bank Act in England, influenced Canada’s lawmakers. The personalities mentioned in my paper included Sir John A. Macdonald, Sir Francis Hincks, John Rose, Alexander T. Galt, Edwin King of the Bank of Montreal, Joseph Cauchon, Alexander Mackenzie, and Salmon P. Chase.

The paper is based on published primary sources (newspapers such as the Toronto Globe and the Monetary Times) and archival primary sources (the correspondence of Macdonald and Galt).

Banknote Issued by the Colonial Bank, 1859.

Dominion Note, 1882

In the paper, I argue that while the currency and banking laws passed in 1870 and 1871 were, on balance, good laws, they were written by politicians who were anything but disinterested statesmen. Indeed, the close connections between particular banks and the Prime Minister and the successive minister of Finance would today be regarded as an egregious conflict of interest. I suggest that Macdonald’s massive personal debts influenced the bank laws of 1870 and 1871.

Sir John A. Macdonald, 1883

In the paper, I examine the rivalry between the Toronto and the Montreal banks. I also talk about the impact on banking law of the ongoing agitation against Confederation in Nova Scotia, a province which had been pretty much forced into Canada. Although my paper is primary focused on high politics (i.e., the manouevering of Cabinet ministers, bank presidents, and other elite individuals) of I also look at the attitudes of ordinary Canadians to banking.

I show that while hostility towards financiers and moneylenders was widespread, the attitudes of the populace had a limited impact on what actually went into the statute book.  This is because the political culture and institutions of Canada were, in the 1860s and 1870s,   significantly less democratic than the United States. Although a higher proportion of adult males in Canada enjoyed the right to vote than in Disraeli’s Britain, politicians in Canada still regarded “democracy” as an American, and therefore suspect, concept. In the northern United States, nearly every white man had the right to vote, but the franchise in Canada was restricted by a variety of property qualifications.  Canada’s elites believed in a system that blended monarchy and aristocracy with democracy. Even today, there is considerable resistance in Canada to the idea of direct democracy. Most politicians in Canada and the United Kingdom still look with horror upon the idea of elected judges and the frequent use of referenda in California and other American states!

The Fathers of Canadian Confederation, 1864

This elitist attitude influenced both the procedure by which Canada’s new constitution was adopted in the 1860s, which involved votes in the legislatures of the several provinces rather than approval by the people in referenda. The elitist attitude also influenced banking law. Had Canada’s political system been more democratic, it is unlikely that Canadian legislators would have been so wedded to the gold standard and oligopolistic banking. In 1870, much of the Canadian populace evidenced a strong distrust of banking and financiers. For better or worse, the attitudes of the majority had a minor impact on the making of Canada’s banking law.

British North America Act. Image Source: UK National Archives.

My Teaching This Week

17 03 2010

HIST 1407  (Canadian History Survey Course)

A Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reporter interviewing two parachute-qualified officers, one from the Royal 22e Régiment, who are part of the First Rotation Leave, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, 8 December 1944.

My lecture on Monday dealt with the history of the media in Canada. I talked about cultural policy as it applied to magazines, radio, television, and feature films. Topics touched on in my lecture included the introduction of Canadian Content regulations for radio stations, the creation of the CBC and CTV, and subsidies for magazines. I also spoke about the history of the media in Quebec. Although my focus was mainly on giving students the basic facts of the case, I supplied a few of my opinions on this issue. I was pretty critical of cultural nationalism/protectionism and pointed that the it involved the diversion of resources into film production, etc., that could otherwise have been put in the hospitals, highway widening, students loans, etc. I also pointed out that some of the movies produced in the Canadian film boom of the early 1980s were total garbage. I think that students could really relate to this lecture.

My lecture on Wednesday was on the history of immigration policy in Canada from 1867 to the present. This is a fun lecture to give because the narrative I present is a fundamentally positive one—Canada used to be a really racist country but it later became a beacon of tolerance and progress in the world beset with ethnic nationalism. It’s fun to tell a story that starts out bad and then has a happy ending! The students seemed really engaged in this topic, although perhaps there is less interest in it than there might be in a major urban centre. I began the lecture by speaking about the constitutional division of responsibility for immigration between Ottawa and the provinces, placing the actual text of the relevant section of the British North America Act on the screen. The then talked about the successive Immigration Acts, the Chinese Head Tax, Clifford Sifton and the development of the Prairies, the voyage of the Komagata Maru, Canada’s shameful response to Jewish refugees in the late 1930s, the enormous changes to Canada’s immigration policy under Diefenbaker and Pearson, the introduction of the points system, and the Cullen-Couture Agreement.

Komagata Maru

West Indian students in Montreal celebrated the anniversary of the West Indies Federation with exhibitions of limbo, voodoo and calypso dances at the Negro Community Centre. Credit: Canada. Dept. of Manpower and Immigration / Library and Archives Canada / C-045104

In the lecture, I showed how the evolution of Canada’s immigration policy was connected to changes in Canada’s identity and the transition from ethnic to civic nationalism. I touched on our declining birthrate and how Canada’s response to this issue has differed from that of other industrialized countries. I also pointed out that for several decades Canada was a country of net-emigration. Many students were surprised to learn that Canada was a net exporter of people for many years. As a way of illustrating this point, I spoke a little bit about the origins of the California town of Ontario and about French Canadian settlement in the factory towns of New England. I usually mention that the author of O Canada died in Boston, although I forgot to say this when I delivered the lecture this year. In the last part of the lecture, I showed how Quebec’s attitudes to immigration are somewhat different from those in English-speaking Canada and I differentiated Quebec’s inter-culturalism from the multiculturalism of the rest of the country. I concluded the lecture on a very positive, upbeat note and stressed that Canada is a global success story when it comes to immigration: an astonishingly high proportion of our population is of foreign birth, yet we have been able to preserve social cohesion in a way that is the envy of other nations. We are so lucky in Canada to have a consensus in favour of multiculturalism, whereas other countries are stuck with Jean-Marie Le Pen, the BNP, and Lou Dobbs.  I pointed out that Australia, Switzerland, and, more recently, the United Kingdom have copied our points system!

HIST 4165

In my 4th-year seminar on British North America in the Confederation era, we heard four students present about their research. One student presented her research on the evolution of abortion law in 19th century British North America. She made some pretty interesting discoveries in the primary sources. The next presentation was on Sir John A. Macdonald and the 1871 Treaty of Washington.

Some good primary source research was presented there. We also heard a fine presentation on the role of evangelical Protestantism in the Sons of Temperance organization. The last presentation to today’s class was on Canadian reactions to 1857 Mutiny in India. This student talked about the formation of a regiment in Canada to help put down the rebellion. The student compared French Canadian and Anglophone reactions to the proposal to dispatch this force to India. I was really impressed with these presentations. After the class the students headed off to the campus pub to drink green beer. They certainly deserve a drink for their hard work this St Patrick’s Day!

Ronald Rudin’s New Website

18 01 2010

Ronald Rudin

Concordia University Ronald Rudin recently published Remembering and Forgetting in Acadie: A Historian’s Journey through Public Memory (University of Toronto Press, 2009).  He also constructed a website to go with the book. The website even features some pretty cool video clips of interviews taken from his NFB documentary on the Acadians.

Congrats to Prof. Rudin for the book and the website. I believe that such website are crucial in bringing the research of academic historians before a wider audience.

Great Blog Post on Riel

8 01 2010

Sean Kheraj, who is teaching a course on Western Canadian history, has posted some great images and video clips related to Louis Riel to his blog.  Check it out!

Canadian History Book Reviewed in WFP

20 12 2009

The Winnipeg Free Press recently carried a review of  Immigrants in Prairie Cities: Ethnic Diversity in Twentieth-Century Canada by Royden Loewen and Gerald Friesen.

Canadian Museum for Human Rights

13 12 2009

Canadian Museum of Human Rights, Artist's Conception

The Globe has an excellent story about the Canadian Museum of Human Rights.The story mentions that Stuart Murray, the current head of the museum, is the former head of the Manitoba PC Party. In 2001, Murray voted against extending adoption rights to gays and lesbians. The decision of the Harper government to appoint Murray to head the museum caused an outcry from gay organizations when it was announced in September 2009.

The website of the museum carries the following statement by Mr. Murray dated 27 September 2009. I have italicized the most interesting parts.

“I believe in the dignity and rights of all people. Human rights are not a static concept; they require ongoing effort to define and secure them for all people. I have always been open to opportunities to have conversations to foster my own understanding of human rights –the challenges, the triumphs, the common links between seemingly diverse situations and people.  I welcome the opportunity to meet with representatives from the LGBT community to a meeting at their earliest convenience to introduce myself to them, and to hear directly about their concerns.  I commit that sexual orientation will be an important theme to be explored within the Museum and will work to further develop the rich partnerships with human rights organizations and LGBT representative organizations, already begun by the Museum team, to ensure that the community is involved, engaged, and heard.
The Canadian Museum for Human Rights will welcome people of all ages, genders, abilities, cultures, orientation, and beliefs. The Canadian Museum for Human Rights will engage and empower Canadians and international visitors from all walks of life to combat prejudice, intolerance, and discrimination.   It will deal with today’s issues, today’s conversations, and today’s challenges.  It will connect with the past in order to influence the future.  The Canadian Museum for Human Rights is about our rights and our responsibilities.”

I have two thoughts.

First, should a human rights museum seek the participation of people of “all beliefs”? Is this statement literally true? I would ask Mr. Murray to think carefully about what he has said. I think that it would better to say that his museum should encourage the participation of a wide spectrum of belief systems but not all belief systems.

Second, while it is clear that conceptions of human rights have indeed changed over time, pointing this out does not tell us the extent to which we should judge the actions of previous generations and different societies according to our own values. Stressing that human rights are not “a static concept” could place one on the slippery slope to moral relativism. To use an extreme example, many whites in the Confederate States of America thought that the abolition of slavery would be an assault on their fundamental rights, including the right to own property they have acquired lawfully. To what extent should a museum curator respect their viewpoint, which was doubtless held with great sincerity?

As Peter Novick points out in his book, That Noble Dream: The ‘Objectivity Question’ and the American Historical Profession, page. 291 many American historians moved decisively away from moral relativism after the Holocaust. Many intellectuals in this period came to the view that Western liberal democracies should indeed impose their values, their conceptions of human rights on other non-liberal cultures, be it the US South or the Soviet Union or apartheid South Africa. An important corollary of this view was that historians should be more judgemental of human rights abuses perpetrated in the past rather than simply describing what happened in neutral language.

The curators of the museum will have to think about these thorny issues as they move forward in generating content for this museum.

The home page of the museum is here.

Memorial for Tecumseh

11 12 2009

The Ontario town of Thamesville is planning a big memorial for Tecumseh, the First Nations leader who fell in the War of 1812. More details are available here.

Canadian Historians and Climate Change

7 12 2009
Polar Bear: Image of Climate Change

Polar Bear at Cape Churchill (Wapusk National Park, Manitoba, Canada). Photo by Ansgar Walk

The great climate change conference has opened in Copenhagen. Some are branding this gathering as the most important international meeting since the Congress of Vienna. It remains to be seen what future historians have to say about it. Most historians hesitate to predict the future or how our descendants will view present-day events. In any event, historians have already said a great deal about past climate changes. You might think that climate change is a purely scientific topic about which historians would have relatively little to contribute. The reality is that historians’ work has been important in advancing the scientific community’s understanding of past climate changes and their impact on societies. Moreover, many of the existing climate models depend on data that historians have carefully gathered from archives all over the planet.

Patrick D. Nunn , Climate, environment and society in the Pacific during the last millennium; Brian Fagan; The Little Ice Age : how climate made history 1300-1850 ; The way the wind blows : climate, history, and human action edited by Roderick J. McIntosh, Joseph A. Tainter, Susan Keech McIntosh; Richard H. Grove, Ecology, climate and empire : colonialism and global environmental history, 1400-1940.

Canadian historians have researched a variety of topics related to climate change. The Hudson’s Bay Company archive is a particularly useful resource for climate-change historians because the clerks at HBC posts were required to record the daily temperature. The post records provide information about climatic conditions in the days before national weather services began collecting records. A list of other records related to the climate history of Canada is available here.

Last year, an academic conference on Canadian history and climate change was held at the University of Western Ontario. The presentations were recorded and are available online here. More information about the Early Canadian Environmental Data project is available here.

Athabasca Tar Sands, Early Twentieth Century. Image Source: Library and Archives Canada

Also, check out: Paul Chastko’s history of the Alberta tar sands,  Developing Alberta’s Oil Sands : from Karl Clark to Kyoto.

Update: the blog at has some more information on historians and climate research.