Monday, August 29, 2005

Do/Did You Find Canadian History Boring?

This is my last Montreal-based post on this blog. I'm neck-deep in boxes, so I'm going to make it a quasi-guest blog. A pair of columns have run on the past two Saturdays in the Ottawa Citizen. The first, by U of T historian Allan Greer is entitled "Why Canadian History is BORING", and he kindly
posted it to the H-Canada listserv
, which I co-moderate. He also provided the link to the rejoinder last weekend from York historian emeritus Jack Granatstein (of Who Killed Canadian History? fame) which you can find linked here.

I haven't made a pass through an elementary or high school Canadian history textbook of late, but have recently read through the major ones at the university level. What strikes me at that level is that I don't know of any Canadian history professor who teaches to the textbook, or parrots what they find there. I only ever assign them as optional readings, usually for a student who missed lectures or had trouble keeping up with the pace of my lectures, and wanted a bit of extra material. Pretty much every professor I ever had does a combination of what Greer and Granatstein are advocating - teaching both the contentious issues, but also stressing the issues of national development and pride where appropriate. Rare is the professor who limits him/herself to the textbooks alone.

Is the situation really so different at the high school level? It seems to me that if it is, this is more a problem of an overly rigid curriculum and teachers who don't go beyond the textbooks than of a fundamental flaw with the discipline of Canadian history.

For the last twenty-odd years, the academic discipline of Canadian history has seen an ongoing battle between the so-called "political" and "social" historians. It strikes me as being too easy to pin the alleged current state of Canadian history being "boring" on those schisms, especially when many historians are attempting to bridge that gap, and include the best elements of both approaches.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should mention my own connection to both professors. Allan Greer taught me the history of New France as an undergraduate student, and I have used many of his own books in my teaching. I didn't ever have Jack Granatstein directly, but his books on military and diplomatic history were central to many of my undergraduate and graduate courses, and I had one of his former PhD students as a professor at graduate school. I think that both men have done excellent work in their respective fields.

What do you think, gentle readers? Is Canadian history irredeemably boring? Is it being taught in an overly negative or jingoistic fashion? Is there a cure?

As for me, I'll be back to posting in a little while, once I'm partially settled in my new home of the bustling metropolis of Sackville, New Brunswick, where I will be teaching in the Canadian Studies Department at Mount Allison University.

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Thursday, August 25, 2005

Is tourism the solution to small-town Canada's woes?

I'm not an expert on economic development, but you don't have to be one to realize that urbanization is slowly killing off Canada's small-town communities. Youth are moving to cities, and new immigrants to Canada also choose to live in larger cities when they can. Increasingly, Canada's small towns are looking like retirement communities.

On the political front, there are certainly voices advocating a stronger role for city governments, which is a good thing, given their rising importance. But it seems to me that some attention needs to be paid to the small towns as well - and not necessarily by the same government department. At what point does a town cease to be viable? Is this a reversable trend?

These ponderings are prompted by two events in my life. The first was a vacation last week at a friend's cottage in the Muskokas. When we were picking up groceries in Huntsville (a town whose development I've followed since the 1980s, when my grandparents used to have a cottage on Lake of Bays), I was struck by two phenomena. The first is how the residents of the town itself are quite old, and there is a striking prevalence of retirement homes. (My mother lives there, so this is not just a random observation, but confirmed by a local informant.) The second is how the town has reinvented itself as a hub for the cottagers. A striking number of businesses exist almost exclusively for the summer cottagers of Muskoka. We noticed this most at the Robinson's Independent Grocery, which is now a Loblaws' megastore-sized complex on the outskirts of the town in a new development. The only people shopping there were camp counsellors and cottagers - and the product selection (which was awesome) is tailored to them. The only locals seemed to be the cashiers. Apparently, the locals all shop at the Price Chopper.

I recognize that the Muskokas are likely the exception, as the playground for Ontario's (and the US's) rich (and those lucky enough to have family cottages that predate the price explosion), but it got me thinking about whether Huntsville's survival strategy - essentially as a tourism hub - is the wave of the future for small communities. Other mid-northern Ontario towns seem to have the same approach, just scaled down somewhat.

The second factor driving this ramble is my upcoming move to Mount Allison University, in Sackville, New Brunswick. I'm not the first person to comment on the economic situation in the Maritimes, I recognize. What struck me most, however, was how the region was building up infrastructure to facilitate tourism. The highways in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia are excellent, and they have a 110 km/h speed limit! This could be the product of a make-work project using federal transfer payments (as some cynical friends of mine claimed), or it could be a cunning plan to make the region more desirable for tourists. Nova Scotia has cleverly couched all of its provincial highways in terms of scenic routes (as had PEI, when I was last there). To me, this seems to be the nuts-and-bolts side of developing Maritime tourism. The cultural side is the "Quest for the Folk" invention/commodification of folk traditions that historians Ian McKay and Alan Gordon have been studying recently.

While economic development is needed in both of these cases, I worry about the possible creation of a two-tier Canada. The upper tier would be the urban Canadians with disposable incomes, the lower tier the rural/small-town Canadians who work service jobs in their own communities so that the urbanites can play and vacation there. I'm not certain what the alternative is, and would welcome some ideas.

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Monday, August 08, 2005

Non-enforcement is not good enough

My posting levels seem to be plummetting. I blame it on the silly season. Stifling Montreal heat has made me apathetic, and I haven't had a lot to get worked up about in the daily news.

In the interests of maintaining my blogger credentials, I should probably post something before I head off on vacation (along with every other columnist in this nation, it would seem).

So here goes. Everyone seems to be up in arms one way or the other about the Mark Emery case. Here's my two cents: the central issue here is not about the extradition and Canadian sovereignty, but about Canada's half-assed approach to legalizing or decriminalizing unpopular or "icky" practices. Because MPs are afraid of the political consequences - both foreign and domestic - of legalizing marijuana, they simply allow statutes to stay on the books, and not enforce them. So 99% of the time, a person can smoke a joint in peace, but you're SOL if you get caught by an overzealous police officer. Rather than legalizing and regulating sex trade workers, politicians create wiggle-room by outlawing some of their associated practices, so it can continue to go on, but only in dark alleys, where workers are unprotected.

Politicians need to be forced to develop a spine (or be given strap-on spines, a la Dilbert) and confront these issues directly, rather than hoping that legal limbo will suffice. Canadians deserve to know where they truly stand vis-a-vis the law, so that they can behave accordingly.

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Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Federal sponsorships in Quebec: The New Page

I haven't been posting much in the past few weeks because I've been too busy enjoying the various festivals that Montreal has to offer in the summer months (that, and I've been prepping courses like a madman). One wouldn't think that this would lead to a politically oriented post, and yet it does.

Both of the two big festivals that I attended in the past month - Just for Laughs and DiversCité - have recently had their sponsorships from the federal government slashed. Just for Laughs was recently told that its grant would be reduced from $900,000 to $630,000. In June, Heritage Canada cancelled its $60,000 grant toDiversCité (Montreal Pride).

Is this unconnected to the federal sponsorship scandal? Is this happening elsewhere in the country? It just seems very curious to me that two of Montreal's highest profile festivals would have their funding cut at this point.

In case you're curious, Just for Laughs seems to still be going full-throttle, with ever-increasing attendance. DiversCit
é, on the other hand, moved its traditional Sunday afternoon parade to the Monday evening prior to the main weekend. Attendance was way down, and the crowds on the weekend were significantly diminished. Whether or not this is linked to budget cuts is unclear, as organizers claimed that it was a move designed to re-invigorate the festival, but it smacks of something more to me.

The new federal approach to sponsorship: Slash and burn.

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