By Paul Wells - Friday, May 10, 2013 - 0 Comments
Paul Wells on a heritage committee study and the politicization of Canadian history
Sometimes Ottawa politics offers up a Rorschach moment. Something random happens and the various reactions tell a story. Last week the Commons heritage committee announced it would launch “a thorough and comprehensive review of significant aspects in Canadian history” that would extend lo unto the nation’s school classrooms. Your members of Parliament passed a resolution saying they would compare “standards and courses of study offered in primary and post-secondary institutions in each of the provinces and territories.”
This gave many observers frissons—of outrage or bold purpose, depending on their inclination. Education is, after all, a provincial responsibility under the Constitution. In Quebec, the government of Pauline Marois paused from its regular work of running the province’s economy into the ground so that assorted ministers could find microphones and declare they would never tolerate such an intrusion. In Toronto, National Post columnist Andrew Coyne congratulated the parliamentarians for abandoning at last the notion that we live in a federation where different levels of government play different roles.
Both the outrage and the kudos were premature. News of the committee’s decision broke on May 2. At their very next meeting, on May 6, the committee’s members voted unanimously to backtrack. There will be no federal study into provincial history curricula.
By Blog of Lists - Tuesday, December 25, 2012 at 9:30 AM - 0 Comments
1. Le Séminaire de Saint-Sulpice, Montreal (1684): Built in what is now downtown Montreal, the seminary still houses active and retired Sulpicians.
2. Notre-Dames-des-Victoires Church, Quebec City (1688): This functioning Roman Catholic church was a film location for the 2002 movie Catch Me If You Can.
3. St. Paul’s Anglican Church, Halifax (1750): The oldest Anglican church in North America is still an active place of worship. It’s seen rough days—a wooden sill is embedded in a wall, flung there during the Halifax Explosion of 1917—but it’s also hosted royals, including Queen Victoria’s father. Continue…
By Jane Armstrong - Tuesday, November 20, 2012 at 11:15 AM - 0 Comments
A researcher says she’s found evidence that Norse sailors may have settled in Canada’s Arctic. Others aren’t so sure.
If Patricia Sutherland’s hunch was right, she was staring at evidence that could rewrite the early chapters of Canadian history books. It was a piece of incredibly old cord, dug up on Baffin Island in the eastern Arctic. The year was 1999, and something about the cord’s texture gave her pause.
It didn’t look like other indigenous artifacts unearthed in the Arctic. It looked European, like the spun yarn she’d once seen on a medieval Norse farm in Greenland. If the cord, several metres in length, was indeed Old World technology, it meant that Vikings may have settled in Canada’s eastern Arctic as early as 1000 CE, hundreds of years before Samuel de Champlain’s fur-trading exploits.
Sutherland, then an archaeologist with the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Que., sent a piece of the cord to a Norse textile expert in England to examine. The answer? The material was indeed comparable to spun yarn from 14th-century Greenland. Continue…
By Peter Shawn Taylor - Tuesday, September 18, 2012 at 12:30 PM - 0 Comments
The War of 1812 is Canada’s only fully inclusive, federalism-friendly conflict
War is hell, of course. But the War of 1812 also happens to be perfect. At least from Ottawa’s perspective.
Consider the federal government’s recent video promoting the war’s bicentennial. “Two hundred years ago the United States invaded our territory,” intones the narrator as red-coated soldiers march and shoot in formation. “We stood side by side and won the fight for Canada.” This short, stirring clip, playing in movie theatres and in frequent rotation on television, makes a virtue of Canadian patriotism and military success and brings focus to bear on four heroes from the conflict: Maj.-Gen. Sir Isaac Brock, native leader Tecumseh, Ontario settler Laura Secord and Lt.-Col. Charles de Salaberry of Quebec.
The one-minute film is not without its critics, however. Carleton university professor Andrew Cohen objects to its “jumped-up jingoism” and militaristic focus. The real legacy of the War of 1812, Cohen wrote in the Ottawa Citizen, is that Canada and the U.S. “developed a tolerance for each other.” And tolerance, of course, is the great Canadian virtue.
By Alex Ballingall - Thursday, August 9, 2012 at 3:18 PM - 0 Comments
The catastrophic WWII battle may have had a much larger purpose than just taking a French beach
New evidence shows the doomed Dieppe raid had a vital mission — and a certain spy author — at its core. In an exclusive feature story in this week’s issue of Maclean’s, on stands now, we go behind the scenes of a dark chapter in Canada’s history.
Dawn had broken by the time Ron Beal scrambled out of his landing craft to storm the beach with the Royal Regiment and attack gun positions looking west over Dieppe harbour. In the early-morning sunlight, the Canadian soldiers were easy targets for the French town’s German defenders; scores lay dead and dying on the rocky beach as bullets rained mercilessly from the cliffs above. Beal kept running toward them, as commanded, even while his comrades were cut down around him. “We were running over our own dead,” says Beal, now 91, a resident of Toronto. “We felt like we were just lambs to the slaughter.”
Beal was taken prisoner, along with 200 fellow Canadians in his landing section. His regiment wasn’t alone in defeat: the Dieppe raid of Aug. 19, 1942, was a disaster, an amphibious assault on Nazi-occupied France that went horribly wrong. In total, 907 Canadians were left dead that day.
Questions about the raid have lingered for decades, and its meaning and purpose have been hotly debated. Why were they sent to Dieppe, a French port town of 25,000 facing north across the English Channel? With a shingle beach shoreline flanked by imposing cliffs topped with German defences, it was no easy target for an amphibious raid. Why did it happen?
Some argue the Canadians were sacrificed in a British-planned effort to placate Soviet and American demands for a second front in Western Europe. Others frame it as a botched dress rehearsal for D-Day. But for many historians, it’s as if there’s been a glaring hole in the Dieppe narrative—a large piece of the puzzle for understanding what happened that day has been missing.
Until now, that is.
On Aug. 19, the 70th anniversary of the Dieppe raid, a groundbreaking documentary called Dieppe Uncovered will air on the specialty TV channel History. (It re-airs the following day.) The film finally uncovers a clear explanation for why so many young Canadians were sent to their deaths.
O’Keefe has discovered that the main goal of the operation was to provide help and cover for a top secret commando unit—whose very existence was kept hidden for years—to steal highly valued intelligence material from a German naval headquarters in the seaside town. This mission was of such consequence that, had it been successful, the entire course of the war could have been altered. It’s an extraordinary revelation, involving closely guarded military secrets, the soon-to-be-famous creator of James Bond, and the bravery of hundreds of men pursuing an objective of paramount importance to the Second World War in 1942.
In an exclusive feature story in this week’s issue of Maclean’s, on stands now, we go behind the scenes with David O’Keefe to find out how he made this astonishing discovery, and explore what his findings mean to our understanding of that dark chapter in Canada’s history.
Peter Henshaw, a history professor at Western University, says he is amazed by O’Keefe’s findings. “It’s especially rare in this area of Second World War history, because so many people have already plowed through a lot of this stuff,” he says. “It’s a big deal.”
And it promises to forever change the way Canadians, especially the living veterans who endured so much that day, look back at Canada’s worst military defeat.
Read more in this week’s issue of Maclean’s.
By Andrew Coyne - Monday, September 26, 2011 at 10:30 AM - 19 Comments
Who said Canadian history was devoid of excitement?
Chances are you missed it, but something quite significant happened on the CBC Monday night. Indeed, I may say it was an event of some importance in the life of the nation: the historical drama John A: Birth of a Country. It is rare enough to see any Canadian history on Canadian television, and rarer still something of this quality. There have been subtler dramas, there have been more exact histories, but this is the finest historical drama to appear on the CBC since The National Dream almost 40 years ago.
Explaining the road to Confederation through the personal and political battle between Sir John A. Macdonald and George Brown, it should dispel forever a pernicious myth: that Canada’s founding, like much of its history, was a dry bit of horse-trading, devoid of interest or excitement. On the contrary, as any viewer of John A will be convinced, it was the creation of men of extraordinary passion and conviction, driven by personal ambition but guided by their own greatness toward an end much larger than themselves. The last half-hour, in particular, is simply riveting: the scene where Macdonald seeks to persuade Brown to join his cabinet—on his terms—is a study in psychological and political acuity.
That the show brings Macdonald so vividly to life (Shawn Doyle is marvellous in the part, wobbly accent notwithstanding) is an achievement, though not entirely surprising: he remains one of the richest, most colourful subjects in all of political history, a brawling, drunken, cheerfully unscrupulous rebuke to the whole “Peace, Order and Good Government” theory of Canada’s development, which has bored two generations of Canadian schoolchildren.
But we know Macdonald was great. Of much more significance is the treatment of Brown, at last restored to his true position in the historical firmament, second only to Macdonald among the Fathers of Confederation, and perhaps not even second. It is to Brown that we owe much of the design of the country: not only his famous insistence on “rep by pop,” or representation by population (apparently still a controversial idea), but the very principle of federalism, against the unitary state that was Macdonald’s dream. And it was his momentous decision to cross the floor, joining Macdonald in the grand coalition that would pursue federation with the other scattered colonies of British North America, that made the whole enterprise possible. All that we are, everything this country has become, can be traced to that supreme act of statesmanship.
Yet in popular terms at least, he remains very much the forgotten man of Canadian history. There are no highways or airports named for him, as there are for Macdonald and his Quebec lieutenant, George-Étienne Cartier. The last major biography him was J. M. Careless’s—52 years ago. He simply does not fit into the dominant, Macdonald-centred view of Canadian history as an orderly series of public works projects. He was a Victorian liberal: reform-minded, pro free trade, skeptical of government, with unfortunate (though by no means unusual for his time) views of Catholics and the French. As such he was an inconvenience, and so was made largely to disappear. With any luck, John A, and Peter Outerbridge’s doughty performance as George Brown, will begin to change that.
Good as it is, I do not see John A as an argument for public broadcasting (the question is not whether I like a particular show, but whether I can justify forcing others to pay for my pleasures; the subscription model, à la HBO, has more to recommend it, both on artistic and philosophical grounds). But if we are going to have public broadcasting, surely this is exactly the sort of thing it should be doing. Which makes it a mystery why the CBC should seem so intent on burying it. It’s bad enough that it has taken the corporation decades to produce a show on this, the single most important event in our history, but it has thus far committed only to this first instalment in what I gather was planned to be a four-part series on Macdonald’s life (drawing on Richard J. Gwyn’s shrewd biography, John A: The Man Who Made Us). For goodness sake, we’re only up to 1864: the adventure has barely begun.
What’s truly unforgiveable, however, is the lack of promotion. At a time when the network is blanketing the airwaves with ads for Battle of the Blades and other bilge, you’d think it could spare some of its PR budget for a project as important as this. Yet people working at the CBC were unaware it existed until a week ago. If the corporation were in any doubt of what it had on its hands (it shouldn’t: the producer, Bernard Zukerman, has a proven track record, as does director Jerry Ciccoritti and writer Bruce Smith) it cannot be now.
It is just too much like the CBC to turn what ought to have been a moment of triumph into a fiasco. Fortunately, there is a remedy. We’ve seen the pilot. Now green-light the rest of the series. Give it a decent time slot. And maybe tell the odd person it’s on.
By Josh Dehaas - Thursday, July 7, 2011 at 11:30 AM - 8 Comments
Why are Canadian schools teaching so little about the pre-Confederation era?
Recent history grads may be forgiven for not knowing the significance of the 1st Baron of Dorchester, or that his 1744 Quebec Act was once known as Canada’s Magna Carta. They don’t teach much pre-Confederation history in school. “In high school, we had to take one history course and all I learned about was World War One, World War Two—maybe we touched on the Depression,” says Amy Legate-Wolfe, the 22-year-old co-president of the University of Toronto’s History Students’ Association. She didn’t choose any Canadian history courses in university either, preferring to learn about British monarchs and the origins of Hong Kong.
But considering that the Quebec Act was the first piece of legislation to enshrine minority rights for French Catholics in the British Empire, more Canadians should have studied it, says Chris Champion, one of the five editors of a new journal, the Dorchester Review. The Review’s first issue is modest in circulation (500 copies), but it has attracted some big-name contributors, including Conrad Black. They’re united by the belief that Canadian history teachers are overlooking many key moments. “[Professors] emphasize the notion that the really important things happened after John A. MacDonald, that World War One was Canada’s war of independence, that we didn’t really become a country until we had our own flag and that our rights and freedoms began in 1982 with the Charter,” says Champion. “There’s a lot more to it than that.”
The kind of things one might have learned if studying in the 1960s. The University of Toronto’s 1960-61 course calendar shows 27 of 33 history classes focused on Canada, Britain or America. Queen’s University only offered two courses on anything outside of North America or Western Europe that year.
By Kate Fillion, Brian Bethune, Anne Kingston, Sheilagh McEvenue, Chris Sorensen - Thursday, September 30, 2010 at 4:00 PM - 0 Comments
Plus, a novel about Shakespeare’s illegitimate daughter, a case for the oil sands, a shocking confession, war biographies, and a head-spinning tour of central Europe
During a quixotic campaign for the Colombian presidency in February 2002, Ingrid Betancourt—Green Oxygen party founder, elected senator, bestselling author and anti-corruption whistle-blower—was kidnapped by FARC rebels and spirited off to the jungle. Her account of the 6½ years she spent in captivity is, even at 528 pages, riveting: there are anacondas, piranhas, food shortages, forced marches through the rainforest, sadistic captors, life-threatening illnesses—and the growing certainty that she is both too valuable a pawn for the rebels and too inconvenient an activist for the government ever to be freed.
To evade detection, FARC commanders kept hostages on the move, sometimes cramming them into tiny barracks, and other times forcing them to sleep in the open. Betancourt escaped several times but was always recaptured, and eventually chained by the neck to a tree. But as she makes clear, she was not well-liked by the other hostages, several of whom rushed to press with damning memoirs accusing her of “haughtiness” and “selfishness.”
While Betancourt doesn’t address these charges directly, she writes that many hostages—who included fellow politicians and three American military contractors—were envious of the international attention her plight attracted. Certainly, meanness rather than grace emerged under pressure: cliques formed, captives began snitching on (and filching from) each other, and bitter squabbling and schadenfreude were the norm. Betancourt doesn’t pretend she was above any of this. “I, too, had run up to the stewpot in the hope of having a better piece . . . We were all alike, entangled in our ugly little pettiness.”
It’s easy to believe that in the jungle, Betancourt was a self-important pain in the ass at times. But in this surprisingly a political and tightly circumscribed memoir—there’s no discussion of her post-rescue divorce, or her ex-husband’s nasty kiss-and-tell book—she also proves herself to be a first-rate (mis)adventure writer. This jungle book is an indelible portrait of hell—which, as Sartre suggested, does turn out to be other people.
- KATE FILLION
By Julia Belluz - Sunday, September 26, 2010 at 8:45 AM - 0 Comments
Though the Metis leader didn’t agree, madness seemed the best defence against charges of high treason
When Joseph Boyden read a National Post op-ed in July entitled “Louis Riel Deserves No Pardon,” the author of Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont, the latest in Penguin Canada’s Extraordinary Canadians series, fired off a letter (it was never published) to the newspaper about what he says were “untrue and blatantly false” statements in the piece.
One of those falsehoods, says the Giller Prize-winning author of Through Black Spruce, is that Riel—Metis leader and father of Manitoba—tried to take land from the Indians and put it in the hands of his people. “Riel is one who very much believed in inclusion,” says Boyden, a regular contributor to Maclean’s. “He knew that the northwest was big enough for all the races living there.” In fact, the writer feels that Riel’s forward-thinking notions about a cohesive society should define his legacy: “He was one of the first to push for inclusion.”
Boyden is less resolute about another topic of the Post’s op-ed: Riel’s alleged insanity. Boyden thinks he was “somewhere between” sanity and madness. “One day he’d feel in control, the next day he was questioning himself down to his core,” he says. “This fragility mixed with absolute hubris is what’s so interesting about Riel, and part of why many people say he was crazy.”
By Alex Shimo - Friday, March 13, 2009 at 10:00 AM - 13 Comments
A 25-year-old’s comics feature characters like John Diefenbaker and Margaret Trudeau
Was Lester B. Pearson too nice to be prime minister? Was John Diefenbaker a mad, bug-eyed egotist? And was Pierre and Margaret Trudeau’s marital relationship a little like that of father and daughter? These are the sorts of questions 25-year-old Kate Beaton gently probes in her series of comics on Canadian history, which are unusual enough to have sparked the sort of praise most writers spend a lifetime cultivating.
Originally from Cape Breton, Beaton is a Toronto-based cartoonist who has fans ranging from award-winning graphic novelists to geeky comic nerds. In the little over a year she’s been doing the comics, her work has been talked about on the website Wonkette and in Bitch magazine; a reviewer for Wired magazine called Beaton’s the “funniest comic that I’ve read in awhile.” Recently Daily Show writer Sam Means approached her to illustrate a children’s book he is writing. About 10 other agents and publishers have asked her to write a book, but so far she’s refused. Still finding her feet, Beaton wants to find out more about the industry so she doesn’t get shortchanged. Also, since she hasn’t yet drawn enough to fill a book, she doesn’t want to become “overwhelmed.”