Conrad Black's History of Canada

Conrad Black's latest book, Rise to Greatness: The History of Canada from the Vikings to the Present, is now in stores. I haven't read it, but I did read Black's commentary in this past weekend's National Post, in which he explained the rationale behind the book. As he argues, the history of Canada is rarely situated within the broader international context of "European and Anglo-American relations, and the complexities of international events skilfully navigated by the statesmen who built the country." There is some truth to this. Aside from a few select events that took place at Westminster and a number of wars that are considered fundamental in the shaping of the Canadian state, international affairs are often overlooked. While this may make it sound as if the book is offering something new, the last part of the above quote reveals Black's enduring interest in the Great Man theory of history, which purports that the world is shaped by charismatic leaders. (Conrad Black may be many things, but a social historian he is not.) For more evidence of this, see the quote below, also from his National Post commentary:

To my knowledge, the history of Canada has never been explained before as the inexorable progress from utter obscurity to being one of the 10 or 12 most important countries in the world, not by a series of flukes, though many developments were fortuitous, but by the determined belief of successive leaders, starting with Champlain, that something unique and distinguished should be built in the northern half of this continent. From Champlain’s grand vision of New France to Carleton’s enlightened quest for a bi-cultural British colonial state, to the Baldwin-LaFontaine-Hincks establishment of an autonomous state affiliated to Britain, to the Macdonald-Cartier-Brown creation of what remains history’s only trans-continental, bicultural, parliamentary confederation, and to the present, a magic thread of pragmatic, adaptable determination has created a country that is now important to the world.

You can read the Globe and Mail's review of Rise to Greatness here.

Toronto's Time Capsules

Edward Brown provides a rundown of time capsules in Toronto, all of which are located, digitally and spatially, utilizing Google Maps. Those covered include the time capsule that Pollution Probe buried outside Robarts Library at the University of Toronto. I missed this when it was first published - it's a decidedly non-Halloween story for October 31st - but it's worth checking out. View it here

Today in Canadian History: The Birth of a Red Tory, the Death of an Olympian, and MVP Recognition for a Former Expo

On this day in 1918, prominent Red Tory George Parkin Grant was born. Grant came from a prominent family; both his father and maternal grandfather served as principal of the prestigious Upper Canada College, while his paternal grandfather was principal of Queen's University. (As far as descendents are concerned, one of his nephews is Michael Ignatieff, the noted scholar and former leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.) A Rhodes Scholar, Grant completed a doctoral dissertation titled "The Concept of Nature and Supernature in the Theology of John Oman" before embarking on a long and productive career as a philosopher. He is best known today for 1965's Lament for a Nation, which linked the Progressive Conservative's loss in the previous federal election to creeping continentalism and the Americanization of Canada. His book would become a rallying point, and required reading, for Canadian nationalists.

Twenty-five years ago today, Olympic champion Victor Davis died, succumbing to injuries sustained when he was struck by a car outside a Montreal nightclub two days earlier. A gregarious figure, Davis struck gold in the 1984 Summer Olympics, setting a world record in the 200-metre breaststroke. Over the course of his career he also won three Olympic silvers, three Commonwealth Games golds, two world championships, and one Pan Pacific championship. Do yourself a favour and check out this video of his dominant performance at the Los Angeles games.

Today also marks the seventeenth anniversary of baseball player Larry Walker winning the National League MVP award. Born in Maple Ridge, British Columbia, Walker broke into the majors with the Montreal Expos. In 1997, while playing for the Colorado Rockies, he hit 49 home runs, had 130 RBIs, and stole 33 bases, to go along with his .366 batting average. A five-time all-star and seven-time Golden Glove Award winner, he also won the Silver Slugger Award three times. He was inducted to the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 2009, but as of yet he hasn't received the call from Cooperstown.

Why Do We Study History? Here's Your Answer

As a writer and teacher of history, I get a lot of people asking me about the relevance of the discipline. Why, they wonder, would somebody become an historian? ("I think it's interesting and all, but it doesn't seem very useful. Do you know what I mean?") It's a valid question, and one I've always welcomed answering. And I'm still fine with answering it, but if there's a computer/tablet/smartphone handy, I might just show the person "What is History for?" by the London-based School of Life. The amusing graphics underscore the message that "Good history should always mean history with solutions or consolations for today." Take four minutes and watch the clip above.

Today in Canadian History: Chris Hadfield goes to space, Norman Bethune dies a revolutionary in China, and the birth of Neil Young

Nineteen years ago today, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield made his first foray into space aboard the Atlantis. The crew's mission involved bringing supplies to, and performing work on, the Russian Mir space station. There's no word on whether Hadfield tucked along his acoustic guitar to serenade his colleagues with Bowie tunes this time around.

Donald Sutherland has played him on film. He was a battlefield surgeon. And no, it's not Captain "Hawkeye" Pierce from the 1970 classic M*A*S*H. Dr. Norman Bethune was born in 1890 in the small town of Gravenhurst, Ontario, the son of pious Presbyterians. Having volunteered and served twice during the First World War - first as a stretcher bearer and later, having finished his medical degree while convalescing from a wound suffered during service - he would go on to become an early advocate for socialized health care in Canada. A card-carrying member of the Communist Party of Canada, he visited the Soviet Union in 1935 in order to study their state-run health system. The following year he joined the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War, aiding the cause as a surgeon. Upon returning to Canada in 1937 he worked to raise money and awareness of the ongoing fight against fascism overseas. In 1938 he joined Mao Zedong's Communist revolutionaries in China. He died 75 years ago today, the result of blood poisoning, which he contracted after cutting himself during a battlefield operation. His selfless work on behalf of the people of China, where he is credited with introducing modern medicine to the rural regions, has made him a revered figure in the country.

On a happier note, Neil Young was born in Toronto 69 years ago today. He's made an incredible amount of music during his lifetime, whether it be with Buffalo Springfield, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Crazy Horse, or solo, and his opposition to the Keystone pipeline kinda makes up for his earlier support for the US-led invasion of Iraq. But let's not talk about that. Instead, why don't you check out this performance of "Cinnamon Girl" from the sufficiently weird Rust Never Sleeps concert film.

Remembrance Day links

Today being Remembrance Day, there are a plethora of history-inspired articles in the media. Here's a small sampling:

Lawrence Martin, "Canada’s first remembrance day," Globe and Mail.

  • Lord Minto personally opposed Canadian involvement in the Boer War, declaring at one point that "I don’t see why they should commit their country to the expenditure of lives and money for a quarrel not threatening imperial safety."

John Crosbie, "The war was fought in Canada too. Let’s not forget," Globe and Mail.

  • "Recent events in Ottawa and in Quebec have reawakened memories of a time when war was brought to our shores. Not in a very long time have we Canadians had to feel unsafe or wary of moving about in our daily lives .... We have almost forgotten the time when it was commonplace, at least on our Eastern seaboard."

Mike Faille, "Graphic: Remembering 114,457 Canadians killed in military operations since First World War," National Post.

  • Each dot in this graphic represents a Canadian life lost in wartime or peacekeeping since the outbreak of the First World War.

To learn more about the experience of Canada's veterans, check out The Memory Project.

And if you'd like to learn about the 105th Canadian Infantry Battalion, one of Prince Edward Island's major contributions to the First World War, you can check out my Island Magazine article, "The 105th: The Rise and Fall of the Island's Battalion."

Today in Canadian History: A prime ministerial birthday, a political retirement, and a legendary Great Lake sinking

Pop quiz: who was Canada's fourth prime minister? The correct answer, of course, is Sir John Sparrow David Thompson, a Conservative. (By "of course" I mean "which I didn't know either.") Thompson, who served as prime minister from December 1892 to December 1894, was born on this day in 1845.

Interesting facts about Thompson:

  • he was the first Roman Catholic prime minister;
  • he is one of only two Canadian prime ministers to have died while in office (he suffered a heart attack in Windsor Castle while on business in England);
  • he was premier of Nova Scotia for a short period in 1882;
  • he also served as the federal minister of justice.

In 1987, Pierre-Marc Johnson resigned from office, ending his political career. As leader of the Parti Québécois, he served as premier of la belle province from October 3 to December 12, 1985. As you might suspect, that's the shortest tenure on record for a Quebec premier. Johnson came from one of Canada's more intriguing political families. His father, Daniel Sr., was premier from 1966 to 1968, while brother Daniel Jr. was premier briefly in 1994. Sr. led the Union Nationale, while Jr. was a Liberal.

Today also marks the 39th anniversary of the sinking of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald. A bulk carrier operating in Lake Superior, it was traveling from Superior, Wisconsin to Detroit, Michigan, with its cargo full of ore when it got caught in a fierce winter storm. No distress signals were sent, and none of the bodies of the twenty-nine passengers were ever recovered. Gordon Lightfoot's commemoration of this tragic event, "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald," was a major hit in 1976, reaching number one on the Canadian RPM charts, and number two on the Billboard pop charts in the United States. Check out the excellent (and recent) performance of the song in this video.

Books in the mail!

I just received my first batch of The First Green Wave and I'm quite delighted with the way they turned out. Hardcover copies, which are set for release on November 15, are currently available for pre-order. While these books are on the pricey side - $89.29! - I should note that the more affordable paperbacks will be released in April.

The History of Halloween

Over at the Toronto Star there's an interesting article about the history of Halloween. As it turns out, the day served as an outlet for many inhabitants of the notoriously uptight city. (There was a reason, after all, that it was known as "Toronto the Good.") The article, which features reporting from the newspaper's extensive archives, features an amusing quote from an Orillia police constable. As the nonplussed lawman told a reporter in 1930, "there wasn’t even a good practical joker at work on the streets. Halloween isn’t what it used to be by a long shot."

Here's what I learned from the article:

  • the mischievous game of "nicky nicky nine doors" was popular in Canada well before the outbreak of the First World War;
  • in the 1880s, Halloween often involved streetfights between university students and the police;
  • children in the early 1900s would go from door to door, tossing beans and peas and demanding tasty things to eat.

Contextualizing then and now is a quote from local historian Jack Webster, who noted in a 1999 interview that "These days, any night can be trouble. Back then, Halloween was the trouble night."

For more on the background of trick or treating (spoiler! the first usage of this term in print occurred in Canada), check out this article on the Smithsonian's website.