Bob Johnston

        CBC listeners will already have heard that Bob Johnston, long-time reporter and columnist, passed away on the Labour Day weekend. The National did a nice little tribute to him.
        Johnston did almost daily short columns that were broadcast on local CBC AM (as it then was, now CBC Radio One) shows. When I was growing up, they were usually played on the morning show, and (I think) between 7:10 and 7:25.
        The segments were these fantastic compilations of stories, often linking an event on a particular day to a larger historical issue. Most, again if I remember correctly, were Canadian history bits, but I could be wrong. As a young person, I loved these, and remember discussing several of them with my dad or others in my family. They were perfect as bits of radio, and while I looked at his book when it was published, it didn't have the appeal of his radio pieces.
         Johnston was not a professional historian, but he had a clear love of history and could craft a good story. I've missed his pieces since they stopped running regularly many years ago. It's sad to know there will be no new ones.


Collecting Books

     I have never been much of a collector, there have been a few I have tried mostly as a child pogs, coins, Pokémon cards and some others but these were always short lived, never holding my interest beyond a few weeks maybe a month. Many I started because of friends giving up another activity to share, or different fads in school that I’d want to participate in but with these there was never any completion to collect or gather more which I feel is needed to grow a true collection and without them serving any real purpose there was no lasting motivation to collect them.   The only real exception for me has been in collecting books.
     My book collection for me began as a child even though it was in no way really an effort to create a collection. Reading was always just an interest of mine which was encouraged by my parents who would happily buy me new books when I had read all my others.  This is how my collection got its start coming either from my parents or relatives as I had no way of growing my collection on my own.  And as I never wanted to give away a book I had finished or throw away one that was worse for wear in case I had need for it again, a practice I continue. Doing this led to me amassing a relatively impressive sized collection in a short time.   It did not take long before this became a motivation as well as reading the books there was an enjoyment from just own it, even as a  young child I began to love adding books to the tiny shelf in my room which is something that has continued for me until today.   
  Why I feel books are my only real collection it is about more than having them for their function there is an enjoyment from improving my collection and adding to it, which is not felt in with other items.  I’m own a lot of Cds but enjoyment comes from listening to them rather than the simple possession.
  As I got older I have been able to grow my collection on my own, this is where a majority of my collection now comes from. This became a hobby in a way as I would start to love to find new books to read and add to my collection and try different genres.  There a number of times this can be seen in my collection where I would try a new genre or author and become hooked and read a series by an author like The Foundation series or The Chronicles of Narnia. These changes can be seen throughout my collection as different my interest’s changed and over time.    
   It has moved beyond the simple size of the collection where adding was to sole goal and quality is now a consideration that I used to ignore, this is a recent change where I used to buy mainly paperbacks but now that I have the means to I buy better books that .  Too as now I’ll buy new copies of books I already own that I will own multiple copies of them.  I do not upgrade my DVDs to blue ray or buy anniversary editions even though these will likely come with a greater variety of changes to them that are rarely seen in books. 
   More recently they shift with more disposable income a better quality of books has started to join the collection.  Books with nicer bindings and covers, from higher end polishing houses, folio society and library of America.  This tend to have less of a focus in genre as well this is where most of the duplicates come from, better nicer versions of books that I already owned, replacing some of my favorites with these fancy new copies.  The books from the folio society come in a slip case, for each book.  These are the best my collection has which are the most impressive looking of the collection. They have illustrations and other
The history in the collection is little more than a personal history showing how my interests changed over time since the early years of my collection though to now it has seen a number of evolutions. Looking at it now I can see how it maps my interests over the years, as it shifts away from children’s books to the science fiction and fantasy that I came to love, and I can see how my tastes have changed over time.  More recent books are mostly University texts.  The historical details I see in the collection relate to me, my age and interests, whether how much money I had to spend. It is these sorts of details that I can remember when I go through my collection.
  At this point it has grown unmanageable in ways, it is too large to keep on the shelves that I keep. It has become scattered, split up into a number of locations, my favorites are kept on my shelves while others are in a few different basements, garages, closets.  Which has defeated a lot of the purpose I have no idea what is where and finding a specific book could take days to get.


The Ismaili Centre, Burnaby, Vancouver

I am very much fond of digital Architecture collection of monuments and Centres. I have digital photographs of Ismaili Centres all around the world which i added in my collection few years ago. In the past, few years, I have been collecting digital photograph of Ismaili Centers that is built around the world. The Ismaili Muslims are  a community of ethnically and culturally diverse people living in over 25 countries around the world, united in their allegiance to His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan as the 49th hereiditary  Imam (Spiritual leader) and direct descendant of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him and his family).  The Ismaili community plays an active role in the community. They work hand in hand with other community organziation to alleviate poverty. Once a year, World Partnership Walk is being held by the Ismaili Community to raise funds for the third world countries. This event is supported by many sponsors and local agencies. His Highness Aga Khan have built Ismaili centres around the world; for instance, The Ismaili Centre in dushanbe, The Ismaili Centre in London, and The Ismaili Centre in Dubai. However, My focus is The Ismaili Centre in Burnaby; but recently, another Ismaili Centre and Aga Khan Museum and Park is being build in Toronto. I was invited to the ground breaking ceremony of The Ismaili Centre and Aga Khan Meseum and Park in Toronto in 2010 and visited The Ismaili Centre, Burnaby few times.  The Ismaili Centre, Burnabay, is significant monument because it was first centre built for the Ismaili Community and its purpose was to get wider public involve in dialogue of faith and community building. I am a member of Ismaili Community and the digital Architecture photographs (CD) is a gift from my friend.

The Ismaili Centre, Burnaby

In July 1982, Lieutenant-Governor of British Columbia, the Honourable Henry Bell-Irving, in the presence of His Highness Aga Khan, Mayor Lewarne of Burnaby and other distinguished guests, the Foundation Ceremony was performed. After three years, the Opening Ceremony of the Ismaili centre, Burnaby was performed by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. The Centre has many functions such as it hosts a wide range of events and its doors are open to the wider public. The Ismaili Centre launched a speaker series and Karen Armstrong, who is a prominent religious historian was the keynote speaker for a lecture focusing on the relevance of the life of the holy prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him and his family) in our present time. Furthermore, The Centre between September-December 2002, opened space for the mayors and staff of all municipalities in the Lower mainland for board meetings. Another function of the centre is that the multi-functional Social Hall facilitates government forums, citizenship ceremonies, weddings, and other events. It has hosted a number of high-profile guests, including Her Excellency The Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean, Governor General of Canada, and His Royal Highness Prince Andrew.
His Highness Aga Khan and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney at the Opening Ceremony of Ismaili Centre

The Architecture of The Ismaili Centre, Burnaby

Sandblasted coral and rose marble panels inlaid with brass are used to form the mihrab, the Muslim architectural indication of the direction of prayer. Photo: Garry Otte
Thirteen octagonal domes with brass circle rings provide natural light. Photo: Garry Otte

The centrepiece of the Council Chambers is a Carrara marble table from Italy. Photo: Gary Otte
The Ismailli Centre is the synthesis of Islamic architecture and contemporary buidling design. The prinicple is steep in the tradition of the faith, and at the same time co-exist with modern time. The purpose of the Centre is to provide a religious and social facility for the community, " blending harmoniously and discreetly with the environment, adding yet another dimension to the varied architecture of the Lower Mainland".  The calligraphy is constantly used and its the reminder of spiritual content through its common design. According to Archetic the basic forms are balanced and ruled by geometry and there is a sense of stability, tranquillity and equillibrium. Space is framed, with each area being defined; a physical context being constructed for each activity in daily life with a definite delineation between privacy and community, areas in light and in shadow, small and large spaces, and interiors and exteriors.The Architect is built by  Bruno Freschi Vancouver born who himself hails from an Italian Catholic background. This illustrates the diversity of the Canadian way of life.
A detailed view of the window pane reveals intricate Islamic geometric patterns. Photo: Garry Otte
A detailed view of the window pane reveals intricate Islamic geometric patterns. Photo: Garry Otte

Speech at the Foundation Ceremony of the Ismaili Centre, Burnaby

Speech by His Highness Aga Khan
At the Foundation Ceremony of
The Ismaili Jamatkhana and Centre, Burnaby
Monday, 26 July 1982

Your Excellency,
The Honourable Senator Perrault,
The Honourable Mrs. Grace McCarthy,
Deputy Premier of British Columbia,
Your Worship The Mayor of Burnaby,
Distinguished Guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
...."Today is a particularly significant and, indeed, happy occasion for the Ismaili community in Canada and for my wife and for me.
I am most grateful to Your Excellency, the Lieutenant Governor, for honouring us with your presence and for performing the Foundation Ceremony of the Burnaby Jamatkhana.
Your presence, Your Excellency, and the presence of so many other distinguished guests underlines the understanding and cooperation that has been so generously extended to my community. It is a demonstration of the tradition of religious tolerance and the right of freedom of worship which are both allowed such eloquent expression in Canadian society.
“The significance of this ceremony is further enhanced by the fact that this is the first Jamatkhana to be built in North America — in Canada, a country of the New World which has extended the hand of friendship to countless peoples from all over the world, including Ismailis, welcoming them when turmoil, racialism, bigotry or envy were destroying their lives.
And while Canada may not be unique in welcoming the victimised to her shores, where she stands very nearly alone, is in her encouragement to her new citizens to maintain their traditions and customs. An encouragement that is, in my view, a particularly wise and mature expression of democratic freedom.
As a consequence, Canadian Ismailis have become, in a relatively short span of time, fully integrated into this society and today they play a responsible role as citizens of this country. While it is true that they have been assisted in this by their industry and strong traditional self-help, none of this would have been possible without the understanding extended to them”.
The new building will stand in strongly landscaped surroundings. It will face a courtyard with foundations and a garden. Its scale, its proportions and the use of water will serve to create a serene and contemplative environment. This will be a place of congregation, of order, of peace, of prayer, of hope, of humility, and of brotherhood. From it should come forth those thoughts, those sentiments, those attitudes, which bind men together and which unite. It has been conceived and will exist in a mood of friendship, courtesy, and harmony.
While the building will be an important focus in the social and religious life of the local Ismaili Community in Burnaby, it is my hope, a very deep hope, that it will become a symbol of a growing understanding in the West of the real meaning of Islam....His Highness Aga Khan"
The speech by His Highness Aga Khan illustrates the importance of building community centres for the bettement and development of the community but also to create dialogue between different communities. TheCentres are open to wider public to come and have discussion about social and religious debate and or host speaker series. His Highness Aga Khan have built many Ismaili Centre around the world in order to send the message of peace, tolerance, and to open dialogue between different faiths and communities. I have build my digital collection by buying CDs which contents photographsh of these Centres and or gifted as token of appreciation. I personally, believe, it is esstential for every individual of different communities to explore each other's thoughts and believes and experience the cultures of each other only then we can reduce the gap between each other.

The Ismaili Magazine, July edition
The Ismaili Centre, Burnaby CD

Sam Steele: The Journey of a Canadian Hero

Sam Steele: The Journey of a Canadian Hero is exhibit put on by the University of Alberta and is being held in downtown Edmonton at the Enterprise Square Gallery. The exhibit focuses on the life of Sam Steele, an officer in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police from the mid-19th century through to the early 20th century and who was involved in many important Canadian and international events during this time, the Klondike gold rush, the Fenian raids, Riel rebellions, the Boer war and the First World War are just a few. This unwitting ability for Steele find himself involved in so many notable historical events has led to him being said to be Canada’s Forest Gump a point the exhibit is happy to bring up. 
 In 2008 the University of Alberta purchased the Sir Sam Steele collection for 1.8 million dollars. The collection consists of a 1000s of documents, diaries, photographs, memoirs.  Since that time the university has been working with the documents, trying to restore, sort and catalog them. The exhibit offers the public a chance to see selected pieces of the collection and get a better understanding of who Sam Steele was and his contributions to Canadian history. 

  The exhibit its self is well laid out, the structure is intuitive and has a lot of open space keeping it from feeling claustrophobic.  There are 16 display boxes each with a variety of documents that relate to a part of Sam Steele’s life.  The displays are in chronological order and divided into different themes such as his marriage, his time in the Yukon, or in securing the CPR these run  from Steele’s early years in the Mounties through to his death in 1919, though two are devoted to the lives of his children and another two to Henry Roger Ashwell Pocock.  Each displays consisted of a variety of documents from the collection, largely letters, maps, and photographs the exhibit also contains a number of related artifacts guns, uniforms, a fake horse, and then as well there is a 20 minute video on Sam Steele. There are two options for tours a guided tour or an audio tour.  The walls are covered with blown up photos of Sam Steele, and there are a number of paragraph length descriptions of his time as a Mountie. There is also a lengthy and detailed time line that tells of the events that took place during his Steele’s life.  It all is well put together and makes for a pleasant and visually pleasing exhibit. 

  While visually it is a success the content of the exhibit is a bit more of a mixed bag some strengths and weaknesses.  One of the first issues that I saw is the lack of context given to the displays. The displays themselves do not have any descriptions they are just the documents and artifacts.  This seems an odd choice and makes it necessary to take a tour of some kind, which are not without problems either but they are needed to get an understanding of the displays.  The only other way to get information is from the timeline, which while long and with a lot of entries gives little more than an event and its date. 
    The audio tour is the worst I have heard. It is supposed to be a dialog between Sam Steele and his wife.  It is a mock conversation of the two of them looking at the different documents. It gives very little information on any of the events that Steele was involved in or really what his role was in most of them.  In regards to Red River the audio tour makes the point that the maps were used in his book and makes the joke that they fail to show the mosquitoes and most of the others tracks are similar to almost all of the displays, when talking about the Boer war the document they discuss is the menu of the boat that took Sam Steele to South Africa, in another they comment on his horse in another they comment on the hat that he wore and how it was more practical than the one given to Mounties and how his ideas for uniforms were ignored.  They make frequent jokes and banter which is not enjoyable in any way and worse fails to give any of the information someone going the exhibit would care about.  I am not sure what they thought this would add to the tour but it fails to do much more than annoy.  The audio tour is 17 tracks, one is an introduction and the other sixteen are one for each display.  Each track is roughly between 30 seconds and two minutes, when each is filled with banter and comments non relevant comments it is easy to see how very little information can be taken away from it which makes it necessary to take the guided tour if you want to learn anything about Sam Steele. 

    The guided tour takes about an hour and gives much more detailed information on who Sam Steele was and why he is remembered.  The biggest issues with this are the way that they enforce the narrative of Sam Steele as a hero and do not address the controversy events like the Red River rebellion or the Boer war. Issues like these are downplayed in favour of the positive stories that surround Steele, which there are a number of. Some of the stories told about Steele are interesting and at times it is easy to see why is remembered as a hero and why he was seen as one in his own day.  The stories of him saving lives or self-sacrifice do paint a the picture of a heroic and honourable man and people may take that away but it would be a stronger exhibit if a more balanced view of Steele was given in order to allow people to decide on whether he was a hero or not.

    Some of the successes of the display are in crafting a narrative that is interesting and engaging.  Though I would disagree with the approach they have done a good job in creating a Through a display of his daughter, who was a participated in the first world war as a nurse the exhibit finds a way to branch off from Steele and presents a brief history on the role of women in the first world war. 

   The title its self, Sam Steele: The Journey of a Canadian Hero gives a great deal of insight in the way the exhibit has been framed.  It presents a narrative of Sam Steele as a hero of great courage and moral character rather than to try to identify the man that really was. The exhibit fails to address any controversy surrounding the events that Steele was a part despite being events that continue to be questioned today and does not question his actions. I’m not suggesting he be condemned, he should not be judged by today’s standards but must be put in his historical context and treated as a man of his day but nothing is gained overlooking the reality of what he did in favour a of more heroic narrative.  I can only speculate at the universities decision to do this but it seems that they deliberately choice to create this heroic narrative rather than to create an exhibit that would causes people think and create any sort of dialog on Canadian history, instead they present a story. One of the parts that is concerning is that this exhibit has been put on by an academic institution whose goals should be to have a balanced and objective view of history and to create a environment that encourages audiences to question the history that has been but instead in presents an idealized version of the history and event that surround Sam Steele. It is puzzling to think of why the University of Alberta has chosen to show Sam Steele in such way, presenting him as a hero and creating this narrative around his life rather than in creating a balanced and fair representation of him linking him to events in Canadian history that could serve as a way for introduce people to these events in Canadian history and present them as a way to create a discussion and interest in these sorts of events.

   Some of the successes of the display are in crafting a narrative that is interesting and engaging.  Though I would disagree with the approach they have done a good job in creating a Through a display of his daughter, who was a participated in the first world war as a nurse the exhibit finds a way to branch off from Steele and presents a brief history on the role of women in the first world war.  .  It is true that Sam Steele was seen as a hero in his own day and time. With people signing petitions to get him to stay in the Yukon and both sides paying reverence in Winnipeg following his death. But this is not a wholly good figure and we must ask the question does showing what is gained through this kind of presentation of history. When fails to present the man that is was in favour of a myth. 


The Fate of America: A Review

  The Fate of America is a 1997 Canadian documentary by Jacques Godbout. The film shows how Jacques Godbout and his friend René-Daniel Dubois, two artists from Quebec view the Battle of the Plains of Abraham as both set out to make films that focus on the battle and the major figures involved, primarily General Wolfe and Montcalm.  René-Daniel Dubois is working on a screen play for a dramatized version of the battle and the events leading up to it for an American studio. While at the same time Jacques Godbout is working on his documentary that also examines what lead up to the battle, the battle and what its significance on the history of America is.  Godbout also uses this as an opportunity to ask a number of other questions about the nature of history and he begins to have questions about his personal feelings towards the battle and how it has come to affect him as he tries to understand the Battle of the Plains of Abraham. Godbout carefully approached the event, doing his best to put the battle and the key figures into their historical context, and making an effort to objectively look at the events without personal feelings influencing his judgements.
The Fate of America begins with a summary of the events of the battle, and describing the importance of these events in shaping Canadian and even North American history and paying special attention to how this affected the lives of the people of Quebec and how this has continued to this day.  The description given at the beginning is very brief but is supplemented throughout the film with a number of more detailed accounts of the events surrounding the battle. With a large part of the middle of the film describing in great detail how the battle unfolded and the tactics used by each of the leader Montcalm and Wolfe and then how the English came to with the battle as well as the implications for this politically for people living in Quebec. 

  Godbout travels to London where he meets with Dubois and they being to work together on their projects.  During his time in London Godbout meets with Andrew Wolfe-Burroughs a direct descendant of General Wolfe to hear what his opinions are on his ancestor.  Godbout hopes in meeting with Wolfe’s descendant he can get a better insight into the battle and impacts. Andrew Wolfe-Burroughs is described as a BBC television journalist and a Liberal.  He tries to put Wolfe’s military career into place historically and is makes a serious effort not to judge it by today’s morals, and the problems that are seen in hindsight as a result of British imperialism, but recognizes that they saw themselves as doing good and bringing enlightenment and other positivism to the people that they conquered.  While an interesting discussion at times it fails to lend much to the film. His conversation with Wolfe-Burroughs makes some comments on the importance of putting the events into their context which is nothing revolutionary and it adds little to changing the understanding of the battle or its significance.

  Godbout then travels to the south of France to meet with a descendant of Montcalm.  This is again an interesting conversation but does not answer any of the questions that Godbout is looking to answer.  He meets with Baron Georges Savarin de Marestan, Montcalm’s descendant, who working on his own to rebuild his ancestor’s estate, at the time doing the masonry by hand. He is a monarchist and hope for the return of the Bourbon dynasty and argues that the aristocracy were servants of the people.  It is an interesting interview to watch but again like the one with Andrew Wolfe-Burroughs it does not help to come any closer to answering the questions posed by the film maker. 
  Godbout returns to Quebec after this two interviews and visits the school board in an attempt to find out about the education system and how history is taught in schools. There are a number of scenes that show him and Dubois trying to get basic information but are unable to due to the bureaucracy and then find the office that dealing with history empty.  These scenes do not seem to have a place in the rest of the movie, it does go to show the lack of importance placed on history which turns out to be one of Godbout’s motivations.  He sees that history is losing its importance to modern generations and in a way is trying to understand what the implications will be but it leads the film off track in a way that is hard to follow.   

   This also leads the film shifting and Godbout reflects on the place on the Plains of Abraham in Canadian history and the way in which myths have been built around it but also how it is at least in the director’s view becoming forgotten and more irrelevant to new generations of Canadians.  Godbout fears that his might be the last generation that care about the battle and how it influenced Canadian history.  He tells a story about his father shortly before he died he told him not to forget that the English burned there houses.  The director takes this as an important idea because up to this point and he feels it too that this has been a part of him as a Québécois and the battle has in a way been a large part of his identity and that of past generations of Québécois so if it is forgotten what will that mean.

   At times it is very unclear what Godbout is trying to do with his movie which does not make for the most engaging experience as he is constantly shifting focus and is he unsure what his goals for the film have become.  This is even addresses in a scene in the film. Godbout is with another man discussing the documentary he is making and how he has the ability to shift his focus throughout the filming and it is one of the benefits of documentaries for Godbout because he is not restrained. Though this does not make for a great film as you watch interviews and conversations that do not relate to one another and most of the questions that are asked get forgotten a few scenes later. 

  Of the questions Godbout asks the one he most successful argues asks about the ability for a fictional dramatized version of history to present good history.  By showing the process of René-Daniel Dubois working on his script he shows the obvious problems this presents in creating accurate history.  IN the film Dubois struggles with when to sacrifice history for a stronger narrative. He is not sure who will be the villain and who will be the hero, and that this is not motivated by research but by what makes the finest story. Dubois sees ten possible villains and some who could also be the hero.  Godbout does not face with it clear to him that this fails to present a valid from of history.  As he is unable to manipulate the truth and the facts for story as it may be convenient but has to face the reality of what he finds.  From this it is clear that the dramatized film goal is to put focus on entertainment ahead of education of accuracy.  The film maker goes on to describe in great detail his vision for the film even before he had begun to do any research.

   Godbout creates and interesting and humorous look into the battle of the Plains of Abraham and asks a number of interesting questions in the film, which does encourage the audience to think about the how this event has shaped the history of all North America.  What he fails to do is offer much insight beyond this or even the necessary information to let the audience answer the questions.  By constantly shifting focus and not following through with a single idea Godbout fails to say anything very meaning full about the Battle of the Plains of Abraham.  In the end all that we walk away with is the same story surrounding the events and are told the same story of the English scaling the cliffs and defeating the French, Montcalm and Wolfe dying and how this battle passes control of North America over to the British.  It is a familiar story to Canadians, and it remains a relevant part of Canadian history, continuing to affect how Canadian identify themselves and deserves to be studies and have questions asked but I am not sure that Godbout does much to change anyone view on the battle. 

History as Entertainment

I’ve decided to review a television called Canadian Pickers that is currently ongoing in its 2nd season on History Televison.  It includes Sheldon Smithens and Scott Cozens who travel across the country attempting to purchase antiques and flip them for a profit.  In addition to the business side that allows viewers to keep score, history behind the antiques they discover are featured, as keeps consistent with other programming on History Television.

The hosts add credibility to the show, as they should be considered experts in the field of collectibles.  Sheldon is a third generation antiques dealer, along with being an appraiser and auctioneer.  On the website for the production company Cineflix Productions it further explains how he teaches continuing education courses at the University of Calgary along with being accredited by the Canadian Associationof Personal Property Appraisers.  Scott Cozens is a lawyer for Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP in Calgary, and has been a collector since childhood.  Although both of them are not history professors, they are both well educated individuals, and seem to be meticulous in providing accurate information and historical context.  They offer a more practical interpretation of history as they evaluate the worth of items on the open market.  In the final credits of the show, it is evident that a serious effort is made to be historically accurate.  Three people are employed as researchers and there is a senior director of factual content.  Archives are listed, and special thanks are given to various people and museums.

The episode I am choosing to focus on is titled “Adventure Capital” and was released in 2012.  The hosts travel to the region surrounding Ottawa, Ontario, and visit an acreage, farmhouse, and an English manor (which is part of a heritage site) in search for treasure.  They rummage through the properties, and interact with the owners attempting to negotiate prices on antique pieces they wish to acquire.  During this process, interesting pieces that come up are discussed, and their relevance to Canadian history is considered.  As the show caters to its audience, and is not detailed as academic reports would be, entertainment is paramount to fully explaining the historical significance.  Through this process quantity is emphasized over quality, and many small bits of history can be presented through the one hour episode.

Historical content

The show also gives an opportunity for those selling historical artifacts from their collection to speak about how the collection was formed, what meaning it has to them, and why they have chosen to select certain pieces.  Through watching multiple episodes, hardly anyone states that their collections were pursued in search of financial gain.  When selling items, it’s often done with reluctance, as individuals have an attachment to the collection they have formed.  Certain items were collected for their historical significance and preserving the past.  One such example is of a person who rescued a print from 1915 of soldiers in a train heading off to war, as families and friends were sending them off at the railway station.  About to be discarded at a yard sale, the collector wanted the picture saved to preserve the memory, especially for the families of the soldiers (many of which who did not return).  In addition to the collections themselves, the show allows observers to think about personal collections they may have, and reflect upon their relevance and meaning personally.

Historical content is often added to the show in post-production.  As certain interesting artefacts are discovered in a live setting, researchers for the show are able to dig deeper and provide additional content to the viewer.  During the single episode being discussed here, eight such blurbs appeared throughout the show.  A fine example of its use would be after the hosts discovered a Pequegnat clock that was believed to have been manufactured in Ontario in the early 20th century.  Each model of clock was based on the names of cities in Canada.  Two blurbs appeared shortly after:
Berlin model Pequegnat clock
“Pequegnat made clocks from 1904 to 1943 in Kitchener, Ontario.  Highly collectible, several of the clocks are now valued over $3,000.” 
“Kitchener, Ontario was originally called Berlin, but growing anti-German sentiment during WW1 led it to being renamed in 1916.”
(Both quotes were taken directly from the visual graphic appearing on the television show)
These blurbs allow for more detailed historical content to be provided promoting Canadian history, especially in the one referring to Berlin having its name changed to Kitchener.  Although the information provided is not a detailed account, or enough to truly completely understand all the history involved with it, an attempt is made to do more than provide entertainment.  Being broadcast on the History Channel, it is reasonable to assume that a certain minimum level of historical content must be provided to conform to network policies.

Although the show generally focuses on Canadian history in the 20th century, it is not bound by this geographic restraint or timeline.  Pieces from worldwide can find their way onto the show along with the stories associated with them.  Such an example would be when a concubine chair that originated from Cairo, Egypt was presented.  The owner discussed part of the journey on how it found its way out of Egypt.  As Napoleon’s army had conquered Egypt, his officers had stolen the chair from a palace as spoils of war.  Price was briefly discussed but the owner made it clear that it was a piece extremely high in value and would not be up for sale.  Nothing further on the history of the situation was presented which is typical to the format of the show.  However one should not dismiss the historical message that was able to be shared.  The viewer can take away that during the Napoleonic Wars, Egypt was conquered, and also traditions of warfare such as looting valuables from the conquered was practiced and considered acceptable.  The average viewer is not overwhelmed by a historical narrative, while those in search for deeper history can use the show as a survey, and further research topics of interest within more complete sources such as history texts.
Presenting history to the public

It is important to realize that the show is not a documentary, but a reality show.  Instead of focusing on criticizing what the show lacks, a far more constructive approach is to evaluate how the show succeeds in promoting history.  While in class we had investigated fiction and myth’s impact on history, yet entertainment seems to be something little explored.  History is full of interesting stories of people and events.  Knowledge of history is difficult to profit from without treating it as entertainment.  By promoting stories that spark general interest, and employing a format such as the bargaining process, allow for a larger viewership.  When considering the general public, there is most likely a trade off between entertainment and investigating historical subjects more comprehensively.  Succeeding in high viewership has allowed the show to inform a large amount of Canadians with a broad and shallow level of content. 

We also must view the degree of history that is demanded by the general public.  To start with an example of a parallel field, I would like to look at financial advisors and their relationship with clients.  Reports to clients are very simple, and attempt to not overwhelm the recipient who is generally not knowledgeable to the subject (which is why they have hired professional help).  The actual analysis and construction of a portfolio is a far more complicated process involving accounting for risk along with numerous financial ratios.  Although informing the client of the complete process would make them better informed, most likely the information would overwhelm them, and lead to them not reading the information available, even the simple comprehendible information that was presented in the simple version.  Similar to Canadian Pickers, it was determined that less can be more.
Potential improvement

Although being satisfied that the program is successful in promoting the level of history it has deemed appropriate does not mean that there cannot be room for improvement.  Focusing less on quantity of artefacts showcased every episode, there is still considerable time available further the historical background.  Certain items with entertaining historical backgrounds could be focused upon, and given more time to be explored.  Having 5 minute segments on historical background on these items could definitely further the historical context in which they existed, and provide a deeper understanding to the viewer.  In addition, perhaps a spinoff could be created, or special episodes in which items from a similar era or region could be combined to further investigate their history.  Whether there is enough consumer demand for such a program is questionable, however if the goal is to increase historical content, it can easily be achievable. 
Why is this important?

Through investigating the television program Canadian Pickers allows a view of how history can be presented.  Documenting and interpreting history seems of paramount importance to an academic understanding, however there is another side of how to present it to the public most effectively.  The show was effective in providing historical content, and including it into a format in which people who are not overly interested in history can still be informed.

Comic Books and Louis Riel: A Review

Chester Brown’s LouisRiel: a Comic-Strip Biography is an introduction to the life of Métis leader, Louis Riel, and his role in the rebellions of 1869 and 1885. This book stands out in a few different ways. First, while there are other published Canadian history comic books (Scott Chantler’s Two Generals and Paul Keery’s Canada at War: A Graphic History of World War Two for example,) the list is quite short. Additionally, it differs from even most comic books because Brown actually provides quite extensive end notes, an index, and a bibliography, making it a novel mixture of both entertainment and more traditional history methods. Despite the criticisms I have of the book, Louis Riel is a worthwhile read.

Structurally, Louis Riel is divided into four chronological parts, with six frames per page. The first section of the book deals with the transfer of Rupert’s Land from the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) to the government in 1869 and resulting Red River rebellion in the same year, ending with the self-exile of Riel into the United States . The second section chronicles Riel’s return to Canada after promises were not kept and the Métis were losing land to new settlers. This section also introduced the visions that Riel experienced that led to hospitalizations and his belief that he was a prophet. The third is about the 1885 rebellion. The last section begins with Riel’s trial by the Canadian government and ends with his execution. Altogether, the book is 241 pages.

One of the biggest strengths of this comic book is Brown’s ability to communicate effectively with his readers. He is able to make a complicated story accessible to a wide audience of a large age range. He communicates through three main ways: maps, dialogue, and pictures. First, at the beginning and end of each section are maps and short explanations of what happened in between each section. The maps are drawn very clearly and are easy to understand, making them an invaluable part of the book. Brown employs a simple legend, partitioning the land with polka dots and lines to illustrate differences in land ownership.  Its readability would be especially beneficial for younger audiences and any readers entirely unfamiliar with Canada’s expanding borders in the nineteenth century.

Secondly, Brown employs modern and direct dialogue. The genre, with its limited space, calls for each statement to be succinct and to the point. The dialogue is easy to read, informal, yet communicates his ideas well. For example, he uses informal and modern words like 'handy'. He also finds a way to differentiate between English and French well. Anything said in French is simply enclosed in the symbols < and >. French speakers also have a French accent when speaking English.

Notice the eyes and smirk
Thirdly, because this is a comic book, the illustrations of the book are just as significant as the written content. Aesthetically, his drawings are reminiscent of the Tintin comics by Herge, which is acknowledged by Brown himself. However, he does state that his main inspiration was from Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie. Either way, Brown’s drawing style is simple yet effective. He flows easily from close-ups, reaction shots, to panoramas. He also uses his drawings to further his argument effectively because the way Brown chooses to actually draw the characters is very telling of his bias. In other words one can guess whether each character will be a ‘good guy’ or ‘bad guy’ based simply on appearance alone. One good example of this is the portrayal of John A. MacDonald. MacDonald is not a sympathetic figure in this narrative, and can be characterized as manipulative, power-hungry, and dismissive of the Métis. Therefore, MacDonald even looks like a villain. His eyes form a sneaky leer in most of the frames, and his mouth is usually curved up into a devious smirk. Yet, he still looks like the John A. MacDonald that most Canadians would recognize. Part of this is humorously done through Brown’s drawing of MacDonald’s distinctive nose, which is exaggerated in the comic-series. Brown has achieved a good balance by both drawing a recognizable character, but also manipulating him as he sees fit.

However, the very fact that he clearly arranges the people involved into ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ is problematic. Louis Riel is an undoubtedly controversial figure, whose image and value have never drawn a consensus from Canadians. More recent opinions of the Métis leader have been generally good, especially for Manitobans, French, and First Nations groups. In Manitoba, Riel is sometimes called one of the fathers of confederation, since the negotiations brought on by the 1869 rebellion led to the creation of the province. Additionally, he is called a hero because of his resistance against the oppressive English majority. On the other hand, there are those who believe that Riel was a traitor, a madman, or both.

It is quite clear early on where Brown’s sympathies lie. He portrays Riel as a clear hero, albeit a flawed one.  As a whole, the Métis are depicted as a small group fighting for basic property, language, and representational rights against the manipulative, prejudiced, and oppressive government of John A. MacDonald. It is the classic underdog story with a tragic ending. As stated, while this interpretation of the rebellions is not new in Canadian historiography, it is certainly not at all the only view. The author himself is very aware of this. In his foreword, he clearly states that he finds Maggie Siggins’ Riel: a Life of Revolution to be the “most comprehensive,” and the most helpful to his book, yet also acknowledges that she presents Riel as a hero. By contrast, he suggests Thomas Flanagan’s books, Riel and the Rebellion: 1885 Reconsidered and Louis ‘David’ Riel: ‘Prophet of the New World’ for less sympathetic depictions of Riel and the Métis. The problem is that he does not adequately explain why he believes that Siggins is the most comprehensive or the most accurate, which should make the reader question his position. In fact, in an interview done in 2004 (link at the bottom), Brown states that “I set out to make the Canadian government look as bad as possible, because my political stance when I began the project was anarchism – it was supposed to be an anti-government work…” For obvious reasons, this takes away any idea that there was any effort of even trying to be fair.

The big, and perhaps obvious, problem with this is that it presents too simple of a narrative. First, his very political goals might lessen his desire to write anything but a simple narrative and to leave out any messy details. But this also has to with the limited amount of space a comic book allows. Dividing the book into these four sections works to create a seamless story that flows, despite the fact that the 20 years that Brown chooses to illustrate are not sequential.Therefore, the author may argue his position, but must do so in so few words, thus leaving out otherwise important arguments or having to distort others. While the seamless narrative makes the comic more exciting to read, his portrayals of people like Riel and MacDonald strike me as much too simplistic and one dimensional. Again, Brown is aware of his own distortions. In his notes at the end of the book, there are phrases like “This is probably an exaggeration,” “[…]I could live with that level of inaccuracy,” and even “I’m pretty sure I didn’t make this up…but I can’t find the reference right now.”

The over simplicity of his narrative relates to my other grievance with the book. The title itself is misleading at first glance. The term ‘biography’ is used in the very title of the book, yet the author very quickly informs the reader that his work is not a full biographical treatment of Riel. Upon further reading, one quickly realizes that neither is it a complete and comprehensive description of the 1869 and 1885 rebellions. Instead, Brown states that his focus rests mainly on “Riel’s antagonistic relationship with the Canadian government.” This statement is vague enough that one cannot fault him for not doing this. However, this is hardly a biography in the way that most readers will understand the term. Therefore, the use of the word ‘biography’ is unnecessary and may lead some to believe that this book is a comprehensive resource for Riel’s life.

However, I do find that Brown presents a fairly thoughtful interpretation of one of the more controversial aspects of Riel’s life. Riel’s alleged madness and his stint in mental hospitals in the United States is up for much debate. Whether his condition takes away from his suggest heroism, or whether it undermines his actions is a big question after all. For this, Brown does a good job at both portraying his madness and leaving it up to the reader to decide. Of course, this could be because to leave out Riel’s mental illness would be too inaccurate and he had to address it somehow.This is most evident in the fourth section of the book, especially in the cases explaining megalomania, "T'ey sometimes give you reasons which would be reasonable if t'ey were not starting from a false idea" (page 219.) After explaining the condition, Brown does not really try to convince the reader of anything too much.

What is less nuanced, and a good example for the problems that I have discussed, is Brown portrayal of the Thomas Scott scandal. The execution of Thomas Scott was hugely controversial at the time, with some historians suggesting that it was Riel’s biggest mistake. There doesn’t seem to be any other side to Brown’s depiction of this scandal other than that Scott’s execution was well deserved and that Riel was just simply a victim of circumstance. In fact, Scott looks the most non-human compared to the rest of the characters. His distorted features fit well with his dialogue. Scott is not presented as anything other than racist and bloodthirsty, with most of his speech made up of XXXXXXXX with the X symbolizing racism and profanity. Louis Riel, by contrast, is shown as generally sympathetic to Scott but having his hands tied because of the pressure from his peers. The argument, then, is that Scott was evil and deserved to die but that the decision really had nothing to do with Riel anyway.

So the question remains whether Brown’s book is ‘good’ history. In many ways, it is not. The limited space leaves out a lot of potentially vital information, simplifying the rebellions down to a story-like action packed narrative, creating a clear dichotomy of good versus evil with Riel as the central figure and hero. These are serious and fair criticisms of the book. Even more generally is the question of whether comic books, with its limited space, are capable of being ‘good’ history. This comic book does make me doubt that comic books will ever be able to deliver history to the public in a balanced, thorough way.

On the other hand, and in my opinion, the very fact that people are reading it is telling of both the potential for comic books and Brown’s ability to engage his reader, making it very difficult to write the book off as not worth reading, or even recommending. As explained earlier, its appeal has much to do with his ability to create an accessible, clear narrative. Brown’s interpretation of Riel has been well received by both critics and the public since its first publication in 2003, landing on the Globe and Mail’s list of 100 best books of the years and Quill and Quire’s list of five best Canadian non-fiction books of the year to name but a few. Perhaps more importantly is that Louis Riel was the first comic book to become a Canadian non-fiction bestseller.  The commercial and critical success of this book is in and of itself indicative that this way of presenting history has enormous potential. Perhaps Canadian history would benefit from more books like these.  

In sum, although it should certainly not be used as a comprehensive resource for Riel’s life or the rebellions, Louis Riel: a Comic-Strip Biography is still worth reading. It both reaches a wide audience and creates an accessible narrative that readers of almost any age can connect with. Brown shows at the very least that history can extend past the world of academia and scholarship and utilize new formats, like the comic book, to reach the wider public in an effective way.  Quite simply, it is just a short, enjoyable afternoon read that will give the reader a fairly good idea of who Riel was and what happened during the rebellions. One just needs to keep in mind that there are always more sides to a story and to always read the end notes. 

http://www.metabunker.dk/?p=3167 (Link to the interview with Brown)

Brown, Chester. Louis Riel: A Comic Strip Biography. http://www.amazon.ca/Louis-Riel-A-Comic-Strip-Biography/dp/1896597637