Sunday, May 31, 2009

Last day in May, summer's on its way...


...maybe.

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Monday, May 25, 2009

Behind the house, today

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Hoppaquin Hay (Quinn)


Hoppaquin Hay is a man-at-arms mentioned in Froissart's Chronicles. I like to think of him as "the famous singing cowboy of the 14th century." I threw out that name as a possibility when we got the horse, and soon enough he was known as (the Mighty) Quinn.

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End of May, Bonfield, Ontario

Friday, May 15, 2009

Phil Paine finds his own memorial to genius and heroism in Toronto

He describes a rare moment:

When I first began to read seriously in history, as a boy, my instincts led me to avoid looking for heroes. Trying to find people in the past to admire and respect can be a trap. One is bound to be disappointed. The sad truth is that scoundrels and monsters routinely find their way into history books, but good people do not. The very fact that one is a decent human being virtually guarantees that one will be forgotten. Historical figures propped up as models or champions of this and that usually turn out to be outright frauds, or at the very least to have genuine accomplishments marred by major flaws. But there was one historical figure that I could not help admiring, and that was Frederick Douglass, whose Autobiography inspired me from childhood. And I did not know until recently that I could walk on the very floor where Douglass walked and spoke, right near my own home.

At the corner of King and Jarvis stands St. Lawrence Hall. This fine structure was built in 1850 to provide a venue for public meetings, concerts, balls, and other cultural events of the little city that was then maturing out of its crude frontier beginnings. Over the next century, the hall would be used to echo the voice of Jenny Lind, display the curios of P.T. Barnum, and be used as a practice dance hall by Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn. The structure is well preserved, and an excellent example of the Renaissance Revival style of the mid-nineteenth century. Unlike most such structures, it has maintained its intended function throughout its existence.

The timing of its construction was propitious, for there was an important issue for public discussion: the recently enacted Fugitive Slave Law in the United States. This law allowed agents from the southern slave states to conduct a reign of terror in northern states, kidnapping runaway slaves, and many free blacks, and dragging them back to the slave pens of the south. It effectively unleashed the tentacles of the monstrously evil institution of slavery throughout the United States, canceling out existing abolitionist reforms. This hideous injustice would soon lead the United States into a bloody civil war. The activities of the Underground Railway, the organized resistance movement which smuggled escaped slaves to freedom in Canada, were now much more dangerous. Upper Canada had enacted legislation for the abolition of slavery in 1793. On the issue of slavery, Canadians were consistently and adamantly on the side of the angels. The underground railway terminated in Toronto. Escaped American slaves formed free agricultural communities scattered around rural Ontario, and much of the resistance was organized here.

So it's not surprising that Frederick Douglas came to Toronto, and spoke at the newly-built St. Lawrence Hall to a cheering crowd of 1,200 on April 3, 1851[1]. Yesterday, I entered the building, and walked through the empty hall, which has not much changed in general appearance.

Since I acknowledge so few heroes from the annals of history, I rarely get that special thrill that historians can enjoy... the pleasure of planting one's feet on a spot trod by a paladin. I once stood rapt with pleasure in front of Mozart's house, listening to one of his arias being sung. But Mozart's is an example of a tragic life, transcended by genius, and can hardly serve as an example to follow. I have no transcendent genius of my own, so his example is useless to me, personally.

But the work of Frederick Douglass has long been, for me, a kind of guidebook in the quest for freedom and human dignity. The man was a genius, no doubt about it, but it was a real-world genius.

Read the whole thing.

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Thursday, May 14, 2009

Down the road a bit, just now

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Walking around the property after supper

Sunday, April 05, 2009

And Winter reminds us...

...that she will be back soon, oh soon.

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Thursday, April 02, 2009

Out in the field, spring is coming in

Saturday, October 04, 2008

The world turned inside out

I have enjoyed myself at Nipissing University from the start, which was 19 years ago, but today pretty much took the cake. My history colleague James Murton took his environmental history class on an expedition on the Mattawa River, and allowed some other university people, including me, to tag along.

The excuse for this expedition was to illustrate in a visceral way a classic theme in Canadian history, the connection between what we think of as wilderness and primeval activity in that wilderness, meaning the fur trade and the voyageur routes, and the whole world economy of the time. Every Canadian with the slightest interest in the history of his or her country has been exposed to this material in one way or another, but I will tell you it meant a great deal more to everyone who took part in today's canoe trip on the Mattawa.

Part of me says that every single course at Nipissing University that can justify a canoe trip as illustrating part of its subject matter should do so, and we could spend the entire month of September on the river. This is probably too extreme an idea, but how could it hurt? I certainly felt today that Jamie Murton had made the most of our location.

I live out in the country, and driving out to the river, and stopping at a couple of other sites (the La Vase portage and the local museum with a modern reproduction of the Montréal canoe), I found myself rather surprisingly feeling the world turning inside out. When you are living a life that involves driving between a modern home and a modern small city (with inadequate shopping but still) with a modern and quite new University, driving on modern roads and parking in modern parking lots, it is easy to get the feeling that all those trees and rocks and lakes are just in the way. If you don't like our area that feeling must be much stronger, but even I who do like it often regard the natural landscape as a barrier or empty space arranged in an inconvenient way. But even before we got to the museum or the canoes, knowing the area we were going to, I began to feel that the essential element of my world was not the road I was on, but the river I was about to tackle. I saw the landscape with whole new eyes and it was a thrill.

It reminded me of a previous time I was on the Mattawa, a summer day when I stood at the portage at Talon Dam, watching muscular young people wrestling with canoes as they carried them over a very difficult, rocky path. I realized that every summer's day since the Stone Age, this scene had been duplicated at this portage site. The wooded areas on either side of the river were of no particular interest, but this natural corridor was close to eternal. The same could be said of much of Canada. Vast areas are empty of people almost all the time, but there are corridors that are always in use. North Bay and indeed my village are on such a corridor, (North Bay on more than one), simply because if you want to get through there's not much in the way of alternatives. There are just too many rocks and trees and lakes.

Image:
From Flickr, some other people on Lake Talon in 2007. It was a lot grayer and colder today, but who cares.

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Thursday, October 02, 2008

Greg Stott speaks at NU -- Wed. October 8, 10:30 AM

From Dr. James Murton:

I'm please to announce the return of the History Department Seminar Series for 2008-09.

Our first speaker is Dr. Greg Stott of the History Department, who will be speaking on "The Travails of a Poet: Robert McBride’s Exposé of Corruption and Conspiracy in Lambton County, Canada West, 1854-1858."

Greg's paper focuses on a conservative poet's expose of the political and judicial corruption that, he felt, had formed a grand conspiracy to undermine him – and by inference – other hardworking British subjects in colonial Ontario.

Wednesday, Oct 8, 10:30 am, in Rm A224

Refreshments will be served. See you there!

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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Return to the Near North

Though I spent most of the last few weeks outdoors or in tents, returning to my rural home is still a big transition. To celebrate, I'm including an Astronomy Picture of the Day showing the Milky Way over Ontario. It's usually not so dark in my neighborhood, and the stars are not usually this spectacular, but this is consistent with our sky experience.

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Sunday, April 13, 2008

The first blackfly of spring!

Arrgh!

A late snow has covered everything in white, but the bright sun is bringing out early blackflies ANYWAY!

Image: a T-shirt design from a nearby town.

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Saturday, February 23, 2008

Peawanuck and the rest of the wide world

By some people's standards I live in a remote location, but face it, I've got a paved road in front of my property and high-speed internet service over my phone line (and it works real good). But I get the feeling of remoteness sometimes: the occasional wolf-howl in the distance, the fact that I can see hills in the distance that are in a roadless part of Quebec, my inclusion, on CBC Radio, in a broadcast area that includes the James Bay coast. Sometimes I hear about conditions Peawanuck near Hudson's Bay.

Phil Paine knows Peawanuck better than I do
and uses it as an example to make a point, much more effectively than I did sometime ago on this blog: we think pre-modern people were immobile when in fact many of them saw the opportunities and even the pleasures of long-distance trade and travel, and were perfectly capable and willing to make long journeys. My examples were kings and generals and warriors. His are "ordinary working people," people who live in the same province as Phil and I. His example is the stronger one, because these people do, and have, covered vast distances to do ordinary things, like buy tobacco. Says Phil:

The people of Peawanuck, the Weenusk, form part of the Nishnawbe-Aski Nation and are governed by the Mushkegowuk Tribal Council. Most people there live by hunting, fishing, and trapping, or by guiding the occasional adventurous tourist to see the polar bears and other wildlife, or to fish in the Winisk river system. It’s a fine little place. It has some social problems, and young people must leave to find work, but culturally, it is strong, and traditional language and customs thrive.

The reason I bring up Peawanuck is that, until the 1950’s, there wasn’t much about life in the village that would have been out of place in Mesolithic Europe. Certainly, in the 19th century, life in Peawanuck would have been almost indistinguishable from a settlement in the far north of Europe in 6000 BC. When I look over the maps and site reconstructions in archaeological reports from, say, the Ertebølle culture of ancient Scandinavia, everything about them looks familiar. Everything is comprehensible. I have no trouble visualizing the lifestyle. That’s why, when I read discussions among archaeologists about prehistoric Europe, sometimes they ring true to me, and sometimes they don’t.

What rings the most false to me are the assumptions that prehistorians make about mobility, travel, and trade. There is no question that there was extensive trade across prehistoric Europe. The distribution of artifacts shows this. But it is still customary for archaeologists to assume that people didn’t travel any significant distance, and that trade was "not really" trade. ... [T]his image of a pre-modern, or a prehistoric person existing in a tiny cocoon of ignorance, unable to move or think outside of a few acres, simply doesn’t accord with what I know about a hunting and gathering lifestyle that still exists, and existed in relatively pristine form, only a short time ago.

We know exactly how much Peawanuck's people traveled, traditionally, and how far. Normal connections of trade, family visits, friendship, and political contacts on a personal level extended from the Winisk river (the “homeland”) as far east as western Quebec, as far west as Norway House in Manitoba, all along the Hudson’s Bay coast as far as the Chippewyan territories in the northwest and the Innuit settlements in the northeast, and as far south as the height-of land in Algoma, and the shores of Lake Superior. This is still the rough area within which people are likely to have some relatives, or other personal connections. This area is larger than France.
There's more detail at Phil's blog under February 20.

Image: A map of Northern Ontario. I live very near the bottom right corner, near but not in the North (as Ontarians reckon it).

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Monday, October 01, 2007

MMP referendum

In recent years there has been a lot of interest in Canada in electoral reform, in replacing the ancient "First Past the Post" (FPTP) system with another that would more proportionally represent the preferences of the electorate.

Right now if you are an Ontario voter you cast the local candidate in your constituency; if a plurality of your neighbors agree with you, your candidate goes to the legislature. If your candidate's party also wins a plurality of seats, then you've helped elect the next provincial government. If not, not. Your vote, as some people say, is "wasted." In my area, you can vote for the NDP till the cows come home, or well after, and you won't get a local MPP who suits you. And in fact, it would be possible for a party with a significant percentage of the vote to gain no seats in the legislature. More importantly, perhaps, with three major parties, it's not unusual for one of them to win a majority of seats even though a majority of voters did not vote for that party.

An Ontario Citizen's Assembly proposed that the province adopt a Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system, used in a number of places around the world. As an Ontario voter, you cast one ballot for a local candidate, and the candidate with the plurality wins, as before. However, you also get a second ballot where you vote for a party, and these votes are used to elect a certain number of extra legislators. These seats are distributed to all parties that got more than 3% of the vote to bring the number of total seats per party more-or-less in line with the proportion of the total vote they received. That means a relatively small party with a number of votes in every constituency, like the Greens, might actually win some seats.

I consider this a very important issue, and I think that many people, if the case is made to them, agree. I think it comes down to whether you think it's very desirable for there to be majority governments, or whether you prefer minority governments. If the first, and you think the present system is more likely to produce decisive majority governments, then you'll want to stop MMP in its tracks; if the second, and you are tired of minorities electing majority governments with little need to compromise, then this is perhaps your best chance to get rid of FPTP.

In either case, if you are an Ontario voter, get out and vote your judgment. The referendum is taking place in conjunction with the provincial election on October 10.

If you want more information, go to the Web. Or, if you are near North Bay, there will be an information session at Nipissing University on Tuesday, October 2. Dr. David Tabachnick, professor of Political Science at Nipissing University, will be giving a special presentation about electoral reform at 7 p.m. at the university in the Weaver Auditorium (B200).

Update: For more discussion, see Andrew Coyne's column from the National Post. He's pro-MMP, but the commenters are on both sides and in their arguments demonstrate that people seldom completely agree on basics: like what a vote represents, and what constitutes political representation. Thanks to the Vanity Press for leading me to this.

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