Merger of the Dominion Institute and Historica

9 11 2009

The National Post recently carried a story on the merger of the Dominion Institute and Historica, two rival charities devoted to increasing public knowledge of Canadian history. Historica is well-know for its Canadian history TV PSAs. Here is an example:

The NP story explains why the organizations were separate for so long and how they were recently able to overcome their differences. The article recounts how Historica’s establishment was sparked by the publication in 1999 of historian Jack Granatstein’s book Who Killed Canadian HistoryLynton “Red” Wilson, a prominent business leader, read Professor Granastein’s book and decided to fund an organization to promote awareness of Canada’s past, Within six months of Historica’s foundation, however,  Granatstein had left its board of directors. He had come to the conclusion that the organization had been taken over by social historians. Granastein: “Historica had been taken over by the people I thought were the killers of Canadian history”. Granastein then joined the Dominion Institute, which promoted a more conservative interpretation of Canadian history. The future direction of the merged organization remains to be seen.

My Teaching This Week

5 11 2009

In my first-year Canadian history survey course, I spoke about the Rebellions of 1837-8 in Upper and Lower Canada. I showed this clip from the Canada: A People’s History documentary.

I spoke about Lord Durham’s Report in my lecture, mentioning Durham’s desire to anglicize the French Canadians and quoting his famous remark that the French Canadian were a people ” a people with no history, and no literature “. I also pointed out that the French-language bookstore in Sudbury is located on rue Durham. Many students appreciated the irony of this. I also told my students about an interesting article in one of the free newspapers distributed on campus. The current issue of the paper contains an article on the decline of the French language in Canada titled “le spectre de Lord Durham”. I used this newspaper, which appeared on campus the day before my lecture, to show the students that Lord Durham is still remembered by some non-historians in French Canada.

In my honours seminar on Canada in the Confederation period, we began the class by talking about the various collections of digitized primary sources for the study of 19th century Canada. Many of my students enjoyed being introduced to Early Canadiana Online. We then discussed two articles on Blacks and the Underground Railroad in Canada: Kristin McLaren, “ ‘We had no desire to be set apart’: Forced Segregation of Black Students in Canada West Public Schools and Myths of British Egalitarianism” Histoire Sociale/Social History 38 (2005): 27-50 and Howard Law,  “ ‘Self-Reliance is the True Road to Independence’: Ideology and the Ex-Slaves in Buxton and Chatham”  Ontario History 74 (1985): 107-2.

I also met my excellent graduate student to discuss some secondary sources related to her research on the fur trade. We discussed the following readings: Carolyn Podruchny, Making the Voyageur World : Travellers and Traders in the North American Fur Trade (Lincoln : University of Nebraska Press, 2006); John S. Galbraith, The Little Emperor : Governor Simpson of the Hudson’s Bay Company (Toronto: Macmillan, 1976); Toby Morantz, “ ‘So Evil a Practice’ : A Look at the Debt System in the James Bay Fur Trade” in R. Omer, ed., Merchant Credit and Labour Strategies in Historical Perspectives (Acadiensis Press, 1990), 203-222; John Lutz,  “After the Fur Trade: The Aboriginal Labouring Class of British Columbia, 1864-1890” Journal of the Canadian Historical Association 3 (1992): 69-93.

A fair number of students were missing from my classes. This may have have been due to the H1N1 swine flu or its closely-related variant, whine flu.

New Nature’s Past Podcast

1 11 2009

Logo of the Nature's Past Podcast

Episode 10 of Nature’s Past, the podcast of the Network in Canadian History and Environment, is now online.

“How have online digital technologies changed environmental history research, communication, and teaching? This episode of the podcast explores this question in the context of the recent NiCHE Digital Infrastructure API Workshop held in Mississauga, Ontario. Online-based Application Programming Interfaces or APIs are just one digital technology that holds the potential to change the way environmental historians access resources, analyze historical data, and communicate research findings. Within the past decade alone, the development of online digital technologies has offered the potential to transform historical scholarship.
This episode includes a round-table conversation with some leading figures in the realm of digital history as well as an interview with Jan Oosthoek, the producer and host of the Exploring Environmental History podcast.”

Check it out here.

Trudeaumania in 2009

29 10 2009

Trudeau 1980

Trudeau Speaking in Montreal, 1980

Just Watch Me: The Life of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, 1968-2000, the second volume of Professor John English’s authoritative biography of the great Prime Minister, has been published. The book’s revelations about Trudeau’s personal life have gotten a great deal of attention in the Canadian media. See here, here, here, and here.

The Quebec newspapers have had little to say about this book. Perhaps this will change next month, when the French translation appears. For a rare newspaper article in French about the book see here.

Paul Wells of Maclean’s Magazine thinks that Canadian historians pay too much attention to Trudeau.

Joe Martin Interviewed on BNN

28 10 2009

Joe Martin was recently interviewed on BNN about his new book on Canadian business history, Relentless Change. You can watch the interview here.

Historians Discuss the Development of the American Healthcare System

27 10 2009

I thought I would share these two links related to the history of healthcare in the United States.

This podcast explores “the origins of the health care debate, and try to explain how we wound up with a system so different from the European model.”

James Mohr, history professor at the University of Oregon, places the current healthcare debate in a historical context. He explains, “We have to find ways to combine what is positive and unique about our system while eliminating the historical anomalies that make it unsustainable.”


Toronto General Hospital

I will add that the history of Medicare in Canada is one of the great under-researched topics in 20th century Canadian history. Medicare is clearly an important institution for the Canadian identity. Tommy Douglas was voted the greatest Canadian because of his role in creating our current system. More importantly, Medicare has a big impact on the level of health in Canada. Health spending represents a big share of GDP. Health care is consistently one of the most important issues for Canadians, according to pollsters. But while the general public is very interested in Medicare, academic historians, it appears, are not. There are few books on the history of Medicare. Steps on the Road to Medicare: Why Saskatchewan Led the Way by Sylvia O. Fedoruk and Stuart Houston is one of the few good books on this topic. Moreover, it deals with only one province and was written by two people who are not professional historians. Stuart Houston is a medical doctor. I base my annual lecture on the evolution of Medicare on research by non-historians: Eugene Vayda, Raisa B. Deber, “The Canadian Health-Care System: A Developmental Overview” in Canadian health care and the state : a century of evolution,  edited by C. David Naylor (Montreal : McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1992).

There is an active community of historians of medicine in Canada. For instance, Michael Bliss has published a biography of Sir Frederic Banting, the inventor of insulin, and Jaclyn Duffin at Queen’s has published an interesting history of medicine in the Western world. Shelley McKellar at UWO has published a biography of Canadian surgeon Gordon Murray. However, there are few works on the history of the Canadian healthcare system.

Many of the students in my post-1867 Canadian history course want to write their essays on Medicare. Along with Vimy Ridge, it is the most popular topic. Unfortunately, there are few secondary sources to which I can direct them. (I have done a diligent search). What is a needed is a good book that gives the history of our health care system from say 1900 to the present. The book would talk about the Marsh Report, the developments of the 1950s, the Saskatchewan Doctors’ Strike, Diefenbaker, the Royal Commission on Health Care, Medicare, the Canada Health Act of 1984, the impact of the Charter of Rights, etc. Unfortunately, this book doesn’t exist.

This situation is absurd and represents a big systemic failure on the part of the Canadian historical profession. For some reason, research on the history of health care is not valued.

Hugh Segal on Sir John A. Macdonald

26 10 2009
John A. Macdonald, 1875. Image from Library and Archives Canada

John A. Macdonald, 1875. Image from Library and Archives Canada

Senator Hugh Segal has published a piece in the Toronto Star arguing that Canadians should pay more attention to Sir John A. Macdonald. Segal notes that the bicentennial of Macdonald’s birth (2015) is rapidly approaching and that we should begin planning celebrations similar to the Lincoln bicentennial in the United States (2009).

I couldn’t agree more. In fact, I have recently become involved in a project that will involve the creation of a first-class website devoted to the life, times, and digitized correspondence of Macdonald. (details to follow). I am also in the process of designing a course for undergraduate entitled “The Life and Times of Sir John A. Macdonald”.  This course will use Macdonald’s life as a vehicle for teaching Canadian history, 1815-1891.

A National Securities Regulator for Canada

16 10 2009
There was a story in the news today that reminded me of the need to update Canada’s antiquated, steam-engine age constitution. The story concerned the regulation of securities.
Toronto Stock Exchange in 1856. Image from Library and Archives Canada

Toronto Stock Exchange in 1856. Image from Library and Archives Canada

Toronto's Financial District Today

Toronto's Financial District Today

Canada has always been something of an anomaly in the sense that it is the only industrialized country without a national securities regulator. In Canada, securities and securities markets are regulated by the provinces, which is widely regarded as an arrangement that makes the country less competitive internationally.

For years, the possibility of creating a national securities regulator has been discussed, but without anything being done: Ottawa was scared that such a move would be denounced in Alberta and, of course, Quebec, as an unconstitutional assault on provincial autonomy. The federal government is now taking steps to regulate securities. It announced today that it will ask the Supreme Court to rule on the constitutionality of creating a national securities regulator. (See here, here, here, and here).

I strongly support the idea of a national securities regulator and commend the Harper government for moving on this issue. (For the record, I tend to think that unitary states are more efficient than federations. There would probably be many benefits if the provincial governments were abolished).  However, I’m a bit disturbed by the fact some commentators appear to think that the creation of a national securities regulator is a done deal. There is already lots of talk about the transition team.

Supreme Court of Canada

Supreme Court of Canada

We don’t know yet how the Supreme Court will rule on this issue or how the current SCC justices feel about the issue of centralization vs. provincial rights. If the courts say yes, Canada may have a national securities regulator within a few years, but the whole thing may be derailed by an election. Moreover, even if the courts give the green light and Ottawa passes the required legislation, Quebec, which is now recognized as a nation within Canada, will probably retain its own regulator.

Predicting how power will be distributed between the federal and provincial governments is a

John A. Macdonald, 1875. Image from Library and Archives Canada

John A. Macdonald, 1875. Image from Library and Archives Canada

tricky business. Some of our greatest statesmen have had a poor track when it came to making predictions in this field. In December 1864, when Canadians were debated whether to proceed with Confederation, John A. Macdonald that the federal constitution outlined by the Quebec Conference would soon become a unitary state.  In a letter to a conservative politician in Toronto who wanted to create a unitary state right away, Macdonald said that proposed provincial governments would not last for long. He wrote:

“If the Confederation goes on, you, if spared the ordinary age of man, will see both Local Parliaments & Governments absorbed in the General power. This is as plain to me as if I saw it accomplished but of course it does not do to adopt that point of view in discussing the subject in Lower Canada.”

Sir John A. Macdonald Papers, vol. 510 Macdonald to M.C. Cameron, 19 December 1864.

For better or worse, Macdonald’s prediction did not come to pass. Instead, the provincials governments grew so powerful that some of them began to act as if they were sovereign states. Lower Canada Quebec maintains quasi-diplomatic offices abroad, seeks representation in international bodies such as Unesco, and considers itself to be a nation, not just a province.

My Teaching This Week

15 10 2009

Undergraduate Teaching:

Normally, I deliver two lectures each week to my first-year course on Canadian history. However, there was only one class this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday on Monday. My lecture on Wednesday was about the War of 1812. As it happens, the popular CBC comedy program Rick Mercer Reports broadcast on Tuesday evening contained a segment in which host Rick Mercer playfully interviewed some War of 1812 re-enactors in London, Ontario. Mercer is a well-known Canadian nationalist and appears to have relished participating in a War of 1812 re-enactment. About ten students in my class of 94 said that they had seen this segment the night before. During the lecture, I spoke about the place of the War of 1812 in Canadian popular culture, using Rick Mercer’s segment as an example of the use and abuse of history. I also spoke about anti-Americanism as a force in Canadian political culture. Rick Mercer’s show was a teachable moment as they say in the edutainment education business. You can view the segment here:

During our discussion of the War of 1812, one student mentioned a song about the conflict by the Canadian music group the Arrogant Worms. A video of this song has been placed online.

I am also pleased to note that a symposium on the military history of the Niagara region will be taking place on 6 and 7 November 2009 at the Lake Street Armouries, 81 Lake Street, St. Catharines, Ontario. The sponsors of the conference include the Laurier Centre for Military Strategic and Disarmament Studies, Brock University, and the University of Waterloo History Department.There is a very extensive programme of speakers laid out, including: James E. Elliott, “Strange Fatality: The Battle of Stoney Creek, 1813”; Heather Moran, “200 Years of Peace: Celebrating the 1812 Bi-Centennial through Public History” and David Schimmelpenninck van der Oye, “Robert Rogers: The Original Ranger”.For further information, contact Professor Geoffrey Hayes, at or by phone at (519) 888-4567 ext. 35138. (Hat tip to The Cannon’s Mouth / Par la Bouche de nos Canons, the Canadian military history blog).

Graduate Teaching:

This week I met with my excellent MA student to discuss three readings connected to her thesis, which deals with a fur trading post in north-eastern Ontario. The theme of today’s discussion was First Nations in the Fur Trade: Free Agents or Victims? The secondary sources we discussed were: Arthur J. Ray and Donald B. Freeman, “Give us Good Measure” : an Economic Analysis of Relations between the Indians and the Hudson’s Bay Company before 1763 (Toronto : University of Toronto Press, 1978); Sylvia Van Kirk, Many Tender Ties: Women in Fur-trade Society in Western Canada, 1670-1870 (Norman : University of Oklahoma Press, 1983); Ann Carlos and Frank Lewis, “Marketing in the Land of Hudson Bay: Indian Consumers and the Hudson’s Bay Company, 1670-1770” Enterprise and Society 3:2 (2002): 285-317.

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.