Tuesday, June 29, 2010

A course in Chiac

The language policy geek in me is very excited this morning. Apparently the immigrant welcoming centre in Moncton, New Brunswick is going to be offering courses in Chiac, the Acadian dialect of French.

If you scroll through the comments page on the CBC story that I've linked to, you'll find all the anticipated denunciations of Chiac as bastardized, lazy French. I'm not a linguist though, I'm a historian. And my initial take on this is that this course could be really beneficial to new immigrants to francophone New Brunswick. I wouldn't recommend it as the only French course that they take - a course in "standard" French will be needed, and likely one in English too, if they want to maximize their opportunities. But to get a grasp on Acadian culture, theatre and literature, a knowledge of Chiac would be very useful - just as getting the basics of Joual helps in Quebec.

A common complaint that I heard at a forum on official languages policy in Toronto was that new immigrants were not welcomed and/or viewed with suspicion or hostility by the multi-generational French Canadians. This type of course will help with the integration process, if it's well done.


On a very loosely-connected note, I'm really looking forward to seeing French Immersion, the new comedy from the producers of "Bon Cop, Bad Cop", when it comes out. Our language issues in this country have caused severe tensions, but they're also great comic fodder, and it's always nice to see Canadians able to laugh at ourselves.

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Monday, June 28, 2010

More arrests than the October Crisis

I'm reeling somewhat from what happened in Toronto over the weekend. So much of it was so unnecessary - a contentious (and frankly, not all that useful) summit in the core of a major city, over a billion dollars spent on security, rent-a-cops from across the country patrolling in full riot gear, and a few dolts ruining an otherwise peaceful set of protests. Add on to that the effective detention of protestors and onlookers in a police cordon at Queen & Spadina, the assaults on journalists, and the destruction of property, and it's hard not to believe that our system of justice and policing is fundamentally broken at a number of levels.

I don't have a lot of concrete suggestions on how to improve things. But there is one thing that really needs to be highlighted. During the FLQ crisis in October 1970, which followed a seven-year campaign of bombing, which led to a number of deaths, and the two kidnappings of Pierre Laporte and James Cross, Quebec police were given extraordinary powers to arrest and detain suspected FLQ terrorists under the War Measures Act. After all of that very real and violent buildup, the police arrested a total of 465 people.

What does it say about our society when a small number of thugs engage in some vandalism and this is used by the police and state as justification for the arbitrary detention of almost twice as many people as were arrested during an actual terrorist crisis? It's not hard to argue that we are on a slippery slope with regards to our civil liberties.

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Tuesday, June 15, 2010

In which Dalton McGuinty tries to buy my vote

I don't have any particularly strong opinions about Ontario's adoption of the HST, although my husband, who runs his own translation business, will now have to collect more tax for his services. But my general take on thie issue is that if you're going to be implementing a new tax, then just do it - we've known for quite some time that this tax was coming, and delaying its full brunt for a year just puts off the political pain that will accompany the inevitable hostility that always welcomes a new tax.

Cue the reason for this post. I received a notice in the mail that I'm going to be receiving Dalton McGuinty's HST tax rebate. Or, more to the point, as a couple, my husband and I are eligible.

I've never seen such naked pandering to middle class voters. As a university professor, I earn a very good salary, and my partner's business does quite well. There is no way that we should be qualifying for this rebate - at least under any calculation method that is related to progressive tax policy or promotion of social justice. Moreover, as a DINK couple (double income/no kids), we certainly shouldn't be receiving more than 1.5 times what two single people are getting back.

I suppose that this is the first time that being a married gay couple has actually saved us money (as opposed to bumping us into higher tax brackets), but the naked political opportunism of this ploy bothers me. It certainly isn't going to make me more eager to vote for the man who plans to try to freeze my salary for at least the next two years.

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Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Peter C. Newman and Political Biography

The annual meeting of the Canadian Historical Association at the Congress of the Social Sciences and Humanities wrapped up today. On the whole I had a good time, meeting up with a mix of eminent scholars, new grad students and old friends and also hearing some good papers. This was the first year that the Political History Group, a group that I helped found, was able to sponsor some sessions. Although I was quite happy with the roundtable that I organized on the current state of the field of political history, my real excitement was for a roundtable on political biography. We'd brought together a mix of new scholars (Cara Spittal & Adam Chapnick) and very well-known biographers (John English, Peter C. Newman) to speak about the challenges and developments in their field.

This was not the only session on biography that was held at the CHA, and indeed just before heading into our session, I'd attended another session dealing with issues of gender, historiographical theory and biography. During that session, panelists and the session attendees wrestled with questions of performativity, of private lives, and of reinjecting emotional and affective ties into history, particularly when it touched on political issues.

What I found particularly striking about attending these two panels back-to-back was the extent to which the "old school" political biographers were explicit about the fact that the issues which were so important to the social and gender historians in the prior panel were also issues that they had long incorporated into their own work. Indeed, Peter C. Newman spoke at length about how as a political journalist, he always paid more attention to body language and to the emotional content of what was being said, than to the words themselves. He spoke passionately of the need to tap into human feelings to make biographies appeal to readers. It was quite refreshing, and perhaps a bit ironic, to discover that the political biographers were already well in-tune with the issues of such great importance to the academic social historians, albeit perhaps in a less theoreticized mode. And of course, it was delightful to hear Newman's anecdotes from his encounters with our past Prime Ministers!

Clearly the field has a great deal of vitality. As John English, currently co-editor of the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, pointed out, the DCB gets 280,000 hits a month, a far cry from the 20,000 that were predicted when its internet site was launched in 2003. The most hits, he noted, were for political leaders of the past. It would seem that interest in political history is indeed alive and well, which is very gratifying for those of us working in the field.

I would have liked to hear the panelists speak more about the new developments in their field, such as Cara Spittal reflections about the impact of microhistory on her work on the Diefenbaker era. It's clear from reading English's biographies of Trudeau that his work has been influenced by women's history, gender history and even new understandings of political history. However, I believe that political historians would benefit from being more explicit about the new influences on their work, which is often casually derided by some social historians, despite the increased sophistication and theoretical models which increasingly underpin their work. That qualifier aside, I think this panel went well, and perhaps might help spark some increased activity in this under-populated field of Canadian history.

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