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Final Judgment is Always History’s to Make

14 Sep

The most memorable moment of Martin Scorcese’s 2002 film “Gangs of New York” – generally not one of the acclaimed director’s most memorable films – comes in the final minute before the closing credits.

The film – starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Daniel Day-Lewis – mostly takes place in the now-gone Five Points slum of Lower Manhattan during the time of the American Civil War. It depicts the vicious and gory turf wars between “nativist” Protestant and Irish Catholic immigrant gangs in the unrecognizable pre-metropolis New York City of that long-ago era.

The story culminates in a violent battle among gang members set against the backdrop of the bloody New York Draft Riots of 1863, during which hundreds of people were killed, many buildings were burned to the ground, racial violence flared, and U.S. President Abraham Lincoln sent in troops to bring the city under control.

At the very end of the movie, as one character’s narration describes how the city was born of “blood and tribulation” and laments how everything he once knew had been swept away and he and his confrères forgotten, the camera lingers on a shot of the graves of two other characters in a cemetery across the East River from a burning Manhattan.

In a series of time-lapse shots lasting less than 60 seconds on film but representing the passage of almost 150 years, we watch the gravestones deteriorate and disappear, the cemetery transformed into a barren field, and the city in the distance grow into the familiar modern metropolis we recognize today.

The scene is a poignant depiction of the power of time to blunt memories and to turn powerful events that seem of great importance to those living through them into hazy half-forgotten historical footnotes.

At the end of the movie, the twin towers of the World Trade Center are briefly glimpsed on a spot where a minute earlier, smoke swelled from the 1863 riots. The film was made not long after the 2001 attacks that brought the towers down, so seeing them in this context is striking.

This month, the tenth anniversary of the 9 / 11 attacks has provoked countless reports, memorials, and public and private thoughts about the meaning of the event, and how it changed our world and defined our era.

There is no question that 9 / 11 did those things. All of us old enough to remember that day will forever remember what we were doing when the airplanes hit the towers. And so many of the major international developments of the past ten years have origins in the terrible events of Sept. 11, 2001.

It feels odd that it has already been ten years since then, because the attacks still have such a visceral resonance to so many of us who remember that day, how it unfolded and what came after.

In the broad sweep of history, though, there is no way for us to know now what its resonance will be. It all depends what happens next and what happens after that, and so on and so on. That’s how history works.

Will 9 / 11 be seen as a major turning point in world history or will it fade from memory in centuries to come as did the New York Draft riots of 1863? None of us will be around long enough to know, but it is worth contemplating.

Another example, closer in memory and certainly a Canadian – rather than a worldwide – historical event: The death from cancer of NDP Leader Jack Layton this past summer.

If Layton had passed away half a year before he did, it would have been no less tragic – a dynamic and prominent political leader taken down too young. But it was surely how he lived out the final months of his life – whether or not he had any definite sense of his looming mortality – that provoked the mass outpouring of genuine grief and lament for what could have been in the days following his death.

However you viewed his politics, there is no doubt Layton went out with a bang, almost singlehandedly altering the dynamics of Canadian politics by taking the party he led for eight years from fourth place in the House of Commons to Official Opposition and ending the generation-long dominance of the Bloc Québecois in Quebec federal politics.

But it’s too early to judge whether or not those final months of Layton’s life changed Canadian history in a lasting way. Only history itself will be able to judge that.


(Re-)Living History on Grosse Ile

28 Aug

When we got off of the boat at Grosse Ile, attendants quickly led us into the disinfection building right by the docks on the western end of the island.

Soon enough, we were undergoing physical inspections – of our tongues, our fingernails, our skin. Looming over us and dominating the room was the giant steam-powered disinfection machine, state-of-the-art when first installed, into which all visitors to the island were required to place their worldly possessions. For most, that meant a beat-up old bag or two.

Before too long, we were led upstairs to the shower room, also state-of-the-art at some point in its history, where each metallic stall was equipped with rows of curved horizontal pipes that would surround its occupants and spray water from all directions to ensure a thorough cleaning. For many visitors to the island, this mandatory disinfecting wash would have been the first shower of their lives.

The disinfecting steam machines and horizontal showers aren’t operational anymore, and the tongue inspections were just a bit of theatre. These days, visitors to Grosse Ile arrive with cameras and boxed lunches and stay for only a few hours. Past visitors would often arrive with cholera, typhus or smallpox and would stay for months at a time, if they ever left the island at all.

In fact, any sign of disease would get visitors shipped to the east sector of the island – the “sick side”. Many of them would die there. Those lucky enough to recover would get the coveted official papers they required to set foot anywhere else in Canada.

When it was in operation as a quarantine station for more than one hundred years until just before the Second World War, this small island in the middle of the Saint Lawrence River north of Quebec City served as the first point of landing for most immigrants to our country. Possibly some of your own ancestors spent time on Grosse Ile before sailing on to new lives in places south and west of there.

Of course, in all its years operating as a quarantine station, no year brought as much tragedy to Grosse Ile as 1847, when thousands of Irish immigrants fleeing the Great Potato Famine fell victim to a typhus epidemic that swept through the island. This was a number of decades before technological and medical advances led to the disinfection and quarantine processes described above.

A mass grave not too far from the landing docks hosts the remains of the 5,424 victims who died that long-ago summer, the wavy appearance of the ground bearing evidence of piles of stacked coffins underneath.

More than two-thirds of all the visitors to Grosse Ile who ever died there over the course of a century perished that summer. When you approach the island by boat, the first thing you see is a stark, giant monument in the shape of a celtic cross – the largest in North America – that pays tribute to their memory.

A smaller monument – a plaque inside an old Anglican church on the island – is similarly moving. It reads:

“In memoriam of the thousands of persons of many races and creeds who, victims of pestilence, lie buried in nameless graves on this Island”.

I knew a little bit about Grosse Ile and its history before I visited there in person this past summer. But nothing teaches the history of a place as effectively as stepping foot in that place and walking in the footsteps of those who were there before.

Especially a place with as much historical resonance as Grosse Ile to a country made up of so many descendants of immigrants or immigrants themselves.

The Grosse Ile site is now operated by Parks Canada, and in my experience, there is no better guardian of its legacy than that agency. Last year, my family bought an annual pass that allowed unlimited access to all of the national parks and historic sites operated by Parks Canada. We visited as many as we could on trips in Quebec, Ontario and Atlantic Canada.

Every experience was worthwhile, and the history and natural wonders of each place we visited – from battlesites to unique geological phenomena – were presented in fascinating and memorable ways.

Parks Canada’s mandate is to “… protect and present nationally significant examples of Canada’s natural and cultural heritage, and foster public understanding, appreciation and enjoyment … for present and future generations.”

It’s been doing so for 100 years. I hope it continues to do so for centuries to come.

Political Barricades to Political Welcome Mats

11 Apr

I’ve recently written in this corner that the outcome of the upcoming federal election could come down to the choices of voters in a couple of dozen ridings with large ethnic minority populations.

The political parties have devoted a disproportionate amount of their leaders’ time – and of their campaigns’ resources – to wooing the so-called “ethnic vote”.

The Conservative Party in particular has spent a number of years trying to engage with immigrant and minority communities in an attempt to reverse the Liberal Party’s generations-long hold on their votes. Conservatives argue that their values most closely match those of members of those communities. Liberals disagree and accuse the Conservatives of pandering for votes.

In the end, the relative success of the parties in winning the support of such voters could very well be the critical factor that determines the shape of the next government.

If members of Canada’s political class today demonstrate common cause with minority communities, recruit minority candidates, and make strong public pitches for the support of minority voters, it’s important to note that this wasn’t always the case in this country.

It wasn’t too many years ago – in the lifetimes of many Canadians – that overt racism and anti-Semitism were not only part of the culture, but also a reality of political life.

An episode of a recent critically acclaimed documentary series by Ottawa journalist Holly Doan shines a spotlight on the discrimination faced by Canadian minority groups, particularly Jews, in the decade following the Second World War. Of particular note is the way that discrimination extended into the corridors of power.

Doan’s work, called “The Fifties”, is a sweeping nine-part series covering many different stories about a decade that transformed Canada. The series debuted last month on CPAC – the Cable Public Access Channel – and is now viewable in its entirety on the website. (Full disclosure: I produce a program for CPAC, although I was not involved in any way with the documentary in question).

In an episode of the series called “One Canada”, Doan introduces us to dubious characters such as Solon Low, the MP from Peace River Alberta, who led the Social Credit Party in the House of Commons from 1944 until 1958. Low believed that Jews were not only behind Communism, but also that they funded Adolf Hitler. One Social Credit MP of the era spoke of world dictatorship and “Zionist control of the press and radio” in a House of Commons debate. The party was charged with using Parliamentary mail to distribute anti-Semitic literature.

Although the Socreds were never a major force in national politics, the documentary shows how the attitudes of the era – a time when many properties and jobs were limited to white Christians – were reflected in the way governments operated.

A former journalist recalls how Jewish members of the Ontario legislature sat as independents because “parties didn’t want them.” On Parliament Hill, Jewish MPs had been elected to the House of Commons since 1871, but eight decades later, no Canadian Prime Minister had ever appointed a Jew into cabinet or to the Senate.

Liberal PM Louis St-Laurent finally made longtime Toronto MP David Croll the first Jewish senator in 1955. But the documentary makes clear that appointment only came about because St-Laurent – a man who publicly condemned bigotry – did not have the political courage to face down anti-Semites in his party and bring the talented and popular Croll into his cabinet. On top of a decade of experience as a backbench MP, Croll also had been a successful mayor in Windsor and a provincial cabinet minister. It was only his Jewish heritage that kept him out of federal cabinet.

Canada wouldn’t have its first Jewish cabinet minister until 1969, when Pierre Trudeau made Herb Gray a minister without portfolio. Interviewed in the documentary, Gray puts his accomplishment into historical perspective:

“I’m not saying there weren’t others like Dave Croll who were worthy of that, but it fell to me to have that distinction (as the first Jewish cabinet minister).”

The hero of the “One Canada” episode of “The Fifties” is John Diefenbaker, the longtime civil liberties advocate who became Prime Minister in 1957, and introduced the first Canadian Bill of Rights three years later. Historian Desmond Morton says Diefenbaker’s bill helped make “all those hatreds that this country had in its belly… unreal, meaningless, stupid, embarrassing.”

Only a few decades down the road, political barricades have turned into political welcome mats. It’s a history worth contemplating this election season.

The Imperative to Remember

12 Apr

History isn’t always as distant as we sometimes imagine it to be.

Or maybe it is.

About 15 years ago, while researching something unrelated at the National Archives, I stumbled upon an old newsreel from 1945.

It showed footage of a large parade somewhere in the United States, held shortly after the Allied victory in the Second World War.

Among the marchers that day was a small group of elderly men, some in wheelchairs, all of them veterans of the American Civil War.

The scene took me aback because it seemed so incongruous that there were still Civil War vets alive during the lifetime of my own parents, who were children when the newsreel was shot.

For me, the American Civil War seemed part of distant history. Book history. The Second World War, though, was more recent history. Living history.

I knew living, breathing, speaking people who had experienced the Second World War. There were veterans of that war in my family and in my community. From an early age, I’d heard first-hand accounts from vets and from Holocaust survivors.

But the American Civil War? It seemed almost ancient… prehistoric even… by comparison, although (I looked it up) there were still Civil War veterans alive well into the 1950s.

There were once people on this earth who lived through both the death of Abraham Lincoln and the birth of Rock and Roll.

To someone of my generation, the First World War is right on the frontier between book and living history. A great uncle I never met served in the Canadian armed forces during that war, but never saw combat.

From another branch of my family, my mother’s late aunt used to tell me stories of the maimed, vacant-eyed, younger-than-they-looked veterans of the Great War who would wander the streets of Saint John, New Brunswick after returning from the horrors of trench warfare in Europe. They frightened her as a child growing up there in the early part of the last century, and she still had vivid memories of them in her 90s.

At school, First World War vets occasionally would talk to us on Remembrance Day. But they were already quite elderly by the time I was a kid – older than my grandparents. It was hard to picture the frail old men speaking at our school assemblies as young soldiers in the trenches of Passchendaele or Ypres.

The Second World War and Korean War veterans were younger and more accessible. Also, they fought in wars documented by relatively modern cameras, with clear and crisp pictures. The First World War was all old-fashioned photos and fuzzy, silent film footage.

Twelve years ago, on the 80th anniversary of the end of the First World War, the Canadian government brought 17 of that war’s veterans to France and Belgium to revisit old battle sites. At the time, there were several hundred Canadian veterans of the War still alive, most in their late 90s and early 100s. Many of those still around in 1998 had only seen action as underage soldiers near war’s end.

Just a few were strong enough to make the trip. It would be the last major official commemoration of the First World War involving so many living veterans.

Before they left for Europe, they gathered as a group in Ottawa with the family members who would accompany them overseas: Septuagenarian children and 50-year-old grandkids. I was lucky enough to interview a few of those vets for a TV program. Their war experiences were unimaginably horrific, and some still found it difficult to talk about them eight decades later.

Those veterans are all gone now. Book history. And the World War II vets and Holocaust survivors who speak to my own kids’ classes may seem as prehistoric to them as the First World War vets seemed to me as a kid. Some day soon, their living history will also become book history.

The other day, I stood among thousands of onlookers in a cold drizzle at the National War Memorial during a ceremony commemorating Vimy Ridge Day. Officials made poignant speeches. A vintage First World War plane flew overhead. Sixty-five doves – each one representing 10,000 of the 650,000 Canadians who served in the war – were released into the sky.

But for the first time, there were no living witnesses in attendance. The last Canadian Great War vet died in February.

History can’t help but grow more distant. But maybe as the living memory dims, the imperative to remember strengthens.

Conflicting Histories

25 Feb

The taxi pulled to a stop on the side of the road, just across the street from what we’d come to see. Without looking toward where he was pointing, the driver gestured disdainfully to the left with his thumb.

“There it is,” he said with resignation. “That’s the site of the slaughter.”

Site of a slaughter? Didn’t much look like one. When we glanced through the window to our left, we saw lush, green, pleasant-looking parklands stretching off into the distance.

The driver’s resigned tone? Well, there was little chance we were the first tourists to hop in his taxi and ask to be taken to this place. Given his job, it was somewhere he likely visited several times a week.

His disdain? Simple. We had indeed stopped right across the street from the site of a slaughter.

The slaughter, though, had taken place more than three centuries before a couple of Canadian tourists pulled up for a look.

We were just outside Drogheda, on the east coast of the Republic of Ireland, about 50 kilometres north of Dublin. And we were looking out at the place where William of Orange defeated James II – the last Catholic king to reign over England, Scotland and Ireland – in the Battle of the Boyne in July 1690.

More than three hundred years later, of course, the reverberations of that one-day battle are still felt throughout the Emerald Isle.

For many Irish Catholics such as our taxi driver, the Boyne battlefield is a place of tragic defeat representing the conquest of a culture.

Of course, one man’s slaughter is another man’s glorious victory. For many Irish Protestants, especially those in Northern Ireland, the Battle of the Boyne is the definitive triumphal moment in their cultural history, It is commemorated every July during the so-called “marching season”, when for many years celebratory Orangemen parades often led to sectarian violence between Catholics and Protestants.

In fact, our visit to the Battle of the Boyne site happened to take place during one such July back in the early 1990s, before a measure of peace came to Northern Ireland.

Everywhere we went in the Republic of Ireland, we’d run into Catholic visitors from the North, who’d timed summer trips south to avoid being unsafe at home during the marching season.

They say military history is written by the victors, but the truth is more complicated than that. What usually happens is that both the victors and the vanquished write conflicting histories, with neither side countenancing the other’s version of the historical truth.

So in Ireland, you have the centuries-old competing views of the Battle of the Boyne. In the Middle East, Israelis call the celebration of their country’s formative military triumph “Yom Haatzmaut” – Independence Day – while Palestinians call the exact same event “El-Nakba”: the Catastrophe.

Closer to home, historical narratives continue to collide over one of our own country’s formative battles – the one that took place on the Plains of Abraham in September, 1759, when the British conquered Quebec City on their way to defeating the French in North America.

Many of the cultural and linguistic divisions that define Canada to this day lie in the outcome and effects of that short battle.

It’s big-time important history.

But plans to re-enact the Plains of Abraham battle – in commemoration of its 250th anniversary this year – were cancelled after some marginal Quebec secessionist groups threatened violent disruptions.

Many English Canadians could not understand the fuss. One editorialist in the Montreal Gazette wrote that in canceling the re-enactment, the National Battlefields Commission had “cravenly surrendered the field”.

But the re-enactment plans were widely reviled among francophone Quebeckers of all political stripes.

As columnist Lysiane Gagnon wrote in the Globe and Mail:

“ … there is absolutely no reason why the inhabitants of the only predominantly French-speaking society left in North America should celebrate the battle that their ancestors lost and that marked the end of French expansion on the continent… The Battle of the Plains of Abraham still has a strong emotional echo in Quebec. It is the day of la Conquête (the Conquest), which resonates through many interpretations of history and is at the root of Quebec nationalism.”

A famous saying: Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

True enough. But if you want to learn from the past, and use that knowledge to best progress into the future, it’s also important to recognize there are two – or more – sides to every history.

Anything can happen in Canadian politics… who’da thunk it?

3 Dec

So how’s it going to end?

Will the Conservative government fall and be replaced by a Liberal/NDP coalition propped up by the Bloc Québecois?

Will Stephen Harper manage to prorogue Parliament and live to be Prime Minister for a little while longer?

Will we end up with our fourth election in 4.5 years and our second in three months? Or will a best-of-five coin flip decide on who gets to govern?

Or maybe Governor-General Michaëlle Jean will declare “off with their heads” and end up ruling by decree…

Here’s something to contemplate:

Anything can happen in Canadian politics.

That’s not a sentiment you hear too often from too many quarters. But after five days of things happening in Canadian politics that no one would have ever predicted, and with the prospect of another five days or five weeks or five months or so of unpredictable things happening in Canadian politics… well… that’s something to contemplate…

Here’s another interesting thing. Yesterday was exactly two years to the day that Stéphane Dion became leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. 

And those two years may go down in history as some of the worst two years ever experienced by a leader of a major federal party in Canada.

They seemed to have culminated in a disastrous campaign and election loss this past October, which seemed to have sealed Dion’s fate as leader.

Here’s how I described it last month:

“Sadly for Dion, he will not get a second chance. The political promise that won the hearts of Liberal delegates on Dec. 2, 2006 got trumped by a deficit of political skills…”

Shows how much I know.

Well, I was probably right on the political skills part. But I may have been wrong on the second chance.

My crystal ball is as bad as anyone’s who claims to have one, but it looks as if Dion has about a 50-50 chance of shedding his likely epitaph of “Only the second Liberal leader in history never to become Prime Minister” and gaining one that reads “23rd Prime Minister of Canada”.

With an asterisk, of course, because he will be gone as Liberal leader next May whether or not he is also PM.

And then there is the matter of the 22nd Prime Minister of Canada.

As I write, Stephen Harper remains Prime Minister, and is using “every legal means at his disposal” to keep from losing the job. Will he succeed? People have lost money underestimating the man.

But no matter what happens to Harper going forward, this entire incident may have critically wounded his political career, the success of which depended on a reputation for competent management and serious purpose.

The wound was self-inflicted.

When Harper won a second minority mandate following an election this fall that many thought was unnecessary, his marching orders seemed clear:

Drop the extreme partisan shtick and get down to the serious work of governing this country through a looming economic crisis.

That’s what he said he was prepared to do on election night. And his statesmanlike tone continued into the opening of Parliament.

But on the major challenge of the day, the international economic crisis, he dropped the ball in what could be a history-changing way.

An economic update to set the agenda for dealing with the crisis instead became an opportunity for partisan political gamesmanship, which only succeeded in uniting opposition parties against the government.

And so an economic crisis begat a political crisis, which begat a constitutional crisis, which may have begat a national unity crisis in both Quebec and the West.

Harper may survive in the short term. But he will come out of this one way or another as a weakened leader, his political future uncertain in a way that was unimaginable just a few days ago.


Programming note: If you are looking for a more in-depth look at all of the twists and turns of the ongoing Canadian political crisis, you could do worse that have a look or listen to an hour-long televised discussion I co-produced on Monday night. But you should tune in soon. At the pace that developments are developing, what gets discussed one night may be out of date by the next morning.



Programming Note: Bernard Shapiro

21 Sep

To the casual follower of Canadian politics, Bernard Shapiro is best known for his recent tenure as federal ethics commissioner – a tenure not without its share of controversy.

But Shapiro is also one of the foremost Canadian scholars in the field of education. He’s had a distinguished career in academics (director of the Ontario Institute for the Study of Education, principal of McGill University, among other CV highlights) and government (Ontario deputy minister of education, and other portfolios).

He was also the guy who wrote a Royal Commission Report on private schools for the government of Ontario a couple of decades back. His recommendations were ignored then, but they are still relevant to the current education funding debate in the province.

I have produced a televised feature discussion between Shapiro and Steve Paikin, which deals with that report. It will air tonight at 8 p.m. on TVOntario, and will be available for viewing, listening to, and/or downloading on TVO’s website early next week. The interview will be followed up by a candidates’ roundtable discussion on a number of campaign issues. Tune in, if the topic is of interest.

More info on my show’s blog here.



UPDATE: You can now watch the Bernard Shapiro interview, listen to an audio version, or download a podcast here.