It’s a cliché right now, people dumping Twitter in righteous indignation at Elon Musk’s purchase of the social network. I’m not happy about the move at all, I think it’s a dangerous concentration of power and influence, but ultimately it was only the catalyst for me leaving the site. I took a long hiatus from Twitter last fall and really didn’t miss it. I was never a productive user and my presence was minimal. Even with carefully curating what I read and followed, it was still too angry. Most of the time, it just left me feeling sad. I'm not really a social media person.
I have now deleted my account. If you find a Thomas Blampied on Twitter, it’s not me. If you find a ProBonoHistory on Twitter, it’s not me. My website isn’t going anywhere and those of you who want to get in touch can through it.
Tuesday, April 26, 2022
Saturday, January 09, 2021
Review of Marixa Lasso, Erased: The Untold Story of the Panama Canal (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2019).
Many years ago, I studied the construction of the Panama Canal as my main academic focus. In particular, I researched leisure time and tourism during the construction period and the fascinating contrast between life in the American-controlled Canal Zone and in the neighbouring Panamanian cities. In general, I relied on the Canal Record (the official newspaper of the Isthmian Canal Commission), travelogues, memoirs, and existing secondary literature. After several years, academic politics and research limitations forced me to shift my focus and I ended up back on North American topics.
However, my interest in the Canal has never really gone away. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to deliver a guest lecture summarizing the Canal construction and my conclusions about leisure and tourism in the Zone. While I was putting together lecture slides, I struggled to find images of Panamanian towns from the early 20th century. I could find many photographs of official Canal buildings and housing, but almost none of Panamanian communities. Marixa Lasso’s recent and groundbreaking study of the Canal explains why.
Although Erased: The Untold Story of the Panama Canal is a sensationalist choice for a title, it should not detract from what is an extremely valuable contribution to the historiography on the Canal. This is a rigorous piece of scholarship that uses a broad and rich array of sources to challenge many of the standard conclusions about the construction of the Panama Canal. Lasso’s central argument is that as construction of the Canal neared completion, the American authorities undertook a campaign of relocation to remove non-Canal personnel from the Canal Zone. Fuelled by growing racial prejudice and inaccurate understandings of the region, officials hoped to transform the Zone into a civilized tropical paradise. However, as Lasso skillfully demonstrates, this erased centuries of republican government, a sophisticated polity, and denied agency to a Panamanian/Columbian community that saw itself very much as part of the ‘civilized’ world.
Through extensive archival research and work on the ground in Panama, Lasso is able to begin the process of reconstructing the lost world of central Panama as it existed before the 1912 order to depopulate the region. The forced relocation literally erased centuries of thriving mercantile communities that were a global crossroads. In their place, new communities were promised far from the Canal, but they were left mostly incomplete and languished without the trade connections that had brought centuries of prosperity.
By focusing on the immediate consequences of Canal construction, Lasso counters most of the corpus on the Canal. David McCullough’s triumphalist account is the story of American technological and political superiority, but it fails to see the complex and sophisticated society that already existed on the Isthmus. Labour histories by Julie Greene and Michael Conniff focus on the workers but say little about the local population. Alexander Missal’s work on the cultural attraction of the canal (a personal favourite) does focus on the control of the Zone, yet says little about those who lived there before. Perhaps only Michael Donoghue’s borderlands history of the Zone comes close, but even it tends to focus on the post-construction period and the growing movement for Panamanian control of the Zone in the mid-20th century. By shifting the focus onto the local (and adopted immigrant) populations, Lasso calls into question the assumptions made by decades of scholarship.
If I have one criticism of the book, it is one that would be shared by any work trying to resurrect a world that has been eradicated from the record. While Lasso has done an excellent job of piecing together the Panamanian world prior to Zone depopulation, there remains a degree of speculation in the book which is somewhat unsettling. As someone working on Canadian Indigenous history, I appreciate the complexity of archival erasure and understand that speculation may be the best answer given the circumstances. I do not believe that this detracts from the book and it offers encouragement for further research.
It is no surprise that I struggled to find images of Panamanian life away from the Zone. As Lasso’s important contribution to the history of the Panama Canal shows, the American fixation on the Canal was rooted in a mindset that could not accept the existing Panamanian society. By shifting the focus away from Canal construction, Marixa Lasso’s book should be required reading for anyone studying the Canal, or infrastructure in a colonial context more broadly.
Monday, December 14, 2020
I recently received some completely unexpected and very kind tweets about my most recent book, Call of the Northland. I say recent, but it's already six years old. Apparently, the reader bought the book last year and recently got around to reading it. The timing was uncanny. I've been thinking a lot about that book recently, but not in a good way.
Maybe I went about writing it in the wrong way. I chose to title this post the "afterlife" very deliberately. For me, publication was the end, not the beginning. I didn't think much about reception (I was just starting my MA and was a tad busy). To this day, I've never read my book in full, but I have read enough to make me cringe. In particular, I am very upset with the way I portrayed Indigenous people and Indigenous issues. My understanding at the time was beyond superficial and played into more stereotypes than I was conscious of. In all likelihood, I probably did a better job than the majority of Canadians would have in 2014, but still. I have learned so much since, nowhere near enough, but the connections between Indigenous life and infrastructure have become my 9 to 5. Most importantly, I have learned how much I don't know. If Call of the Northland were written today, it would be a very different book.
I don't want to say I'm ashamed of the book now, even though I am, and I rarely mention it to people. I suppose I should be proud. After all, were it not for Call of the Northland, I probably wouldn't be studying the relationship between Ontario Northland and Indigenous communities today. I love the work and I still love writing. I guess I'm pretty lucky.
One of the tweets asked about the sequel. It's true, another problem with a book is that it captures a moment in time. The story ends the day that it hits the printer. Someone picking up Call of the Northland in 2020 is reading my thoughts from six years ago. I did upload an "updates and corrections" document that concluded at the end of 2014, but I haven't said much since. In the past six years, Ontario Northland has gone through a sort of rejuvenation. Bus transportation has become much more prominent within the organization, as has the remanufacturing division. The Polar Bear Express has been upgraded for the first time in nearly 30 years by refurbishing the passenger cars made surplus by the cancellation of the Northlander. Of course, this move means that Ontario Northland would need to source more passenger cars if the Northlander were restarted. The fate of the Northlander itself remains uncertain. In April 2020, the Doug Ford government shifted oversight of the Ontario Northland Transportation Commission from the Ministry of Northern Development & Mines to the Ministry of Transportation. The last time that Transportation was in charge of Ontario Northland was back in the 1970s, which was an era of expansion and innovation for the railway. Don't get me wrong, I think it is far too soon to celebrate, but the signs are more positive than they were even two years ago.
I don't think that the repositioning of Ontario Northland as a transportation, rather than a development, entity is a proactive move. The transportation landscape in Northern Ontario has changed a great deal since the attempt to divest the Ontario Northland was cancelled in 2014. The CN (formerly Algoma Central) passenger service from Sault Ste. Marie to Hearst doesn't run anymore. VIA Rail reduced service on the Toronto-Vancouver run. Greyhound cancelled its bus services in the region as well. If the Ontario government had not shifted its thinking and worked with Ontario Northland to boost bus service first with the (ultimately aborted) Manitoulin Island expansion and more recently with expansion to White River, Thunder Bay, and Winnipeg, Northwestern Ontario would have been completely isolated with the exception of private cars. While some smaller bus companies tried to fill in some gaps, the region needed some sort of network. In December 2020, the Ministry of Transportation published its new strategy for Northern Ontario transportation, including a serious examination of reinstating passenger rail service between Toronto and Northeastern Ontario. Time will tell if this amounts to anything, but the signs are better than they have been for quite some time. As I said, this change of direction is not so much proactive as a reaction to a rapidly changing transportation situation. In particular, it has become impossible for government to ignore Indigenous issues, even if this attention does not always lead to better, more respectful outcomes. The Ring of Fire mining exploration continues, although plans for rail connections are now off the table. The focus is now on road development and establishing better communications infrastructure. The Ford government has also loosened environmental assessment requirements, which has upset many Indigenous communities (see my point above about better, more respectful outcomes).
So, what's the story since 2014? It's one of a leaner Ontario Northland setting off in different directions in Ontario and beyond with, at least for now, better government backing. COVID-19 has changed transportation everywhere, so these are still uncertain times. All in all, the attempted divestment from 2012-14 is beginning to fade into the background. It had lasting effects, but they were perhaps not as drastic as had been predicted. In Call of the Northland, I predicted that I would never see the North again. It was a bit dramatic perhaps, and in the summer of 2019 I did visit North Bay, travelling by bus from Toronto. I have to say it: Ontario Northland buses are comfortable with decent leg room. No, they don't beat the train, but things could be much, much worse.
If there is a lesson here, it's that books have a life - or an afterlife as I like to think about it. They are a snapshot; a moment in time. Sometimes they sit on a shelf and gather dust. But sometimes, they jump out again.
Wednesday, April 08, 2020
My reluctance to read his work was because I thought I knew what he would say: the construction of the CPR built Canada, it was a triumph over untamed wilderness, it was the heroic endeavour of a bunch of white guys. Oh Berton, I misjudged you. A little.
Don’t get me wrong, that’s basically what his two books say, and he tells it like the master wordsmith he is. But that isn’t the whole story here. I tried to approach these books from the perspective of an Indigenous history of the railway. I had assumed that Berton had nothing to say about Indigenous people and the railway. I assumed wrong. Indigenous people are present in several parts of the books. But I think that actually makes it worse. Berton actually has some very emotive passages about the impact that the CPR had on Indigenous people, but his grappling with this issue is even more clumsy than mine is.
Even before the construction of the railway really gets going, we catch glimpses of the tropes that Berton uses. Surveyors “tended to fall in love with the virgin territory they explored.” (Berton, The National Dream, 156) Here he plays with two notions: the myth of wilderness, and the penetrative (sexual) conquest that so informed the colonial mindset. This is a land (and everything in it) for the taking. Were it not for acknowledging the legacy of the HBC, you would think the CPR had stumbled across terra nullius.
It’s in the The Last Spike, however, that Berton really gets going and his thoughts on Indigenous people are worth quoting at length:
“To the Indians, the railway symbolized the end of a golden age – an age in which the native peoples, liberated by the white man’s horses and the white man’s weapons, had galloped at will across their untrammelled domain, where the game seemed unlimited and the zest of the hunt gave life a tang and purpose. This truly idyllic existence came to an end with the suddenness of a thunderstorm just as the railway, like a glittering spear, was thrust through the ancient hunting grounds of the Blackfoot and the Cree … From a proud and fearless nomad, rich in culture and tradition, he became a pathetic, half starved creature, confined to the semi-prisons of the new reserves and totally dependent on government relief for his existence.” (Berton, The Last Spike, 232)Let’s unpack this. Berton is clearly aware of Indigenous people and he understands quite a bit about settler contact. But he is also totally oblivious to the reality as he wrote in the 1970s, a moment when these supposedly dead cultures were growing and taking on the federal government and Canadian society. He has bought into the idea of the Indigenous being only in the past, something relegated to history that no longer concerns present-day Canadians. This is the noble savage, the passing of a stoic race. Even more, it seems that Indigenous people should be thankful. After all, their freedom had only been secured through settler horses and weapons. Both of these things had significant impacts on Indigenous cultures, but to suggest that they are what made Indigenous peoples successful is settler conceit in the extreme. Berton goes on, to the annoyance of any academic historian, stating that “The buffalo, on which the entire Indian economy and culture depended, were actually gone before the coming of the railway; but the order of their passing is immaterial.” (Berton, The Last Spike, 232) Actually, the order is very much material. If we are going to pretend it isn’t, then we are contributing to the erasure of the past.
But then Berton changes tack and things get a little disturbing. Berton tries to explain the benevolence of government agricultural policy, which
“born of expediency, was a two-stage one. The starving Indians would be fed at public expense for a period which, it was hoped, would be temporary. Over a longer period, the Indian Department would attempt to bring about a sociological change that normally occupied centuries. It would try to turn a race of hunters into a community of peasants. It would settle the Indians on reserves, provide them with tools and seed, and attempt to persuade them to give up the old life and become self-sufficient as farmers and husbandmen. The reserves would be situated on land considered best suited for agriculture, all of it north of the line of the railway, far from the hunting grounds. Thus the CPR became the visible symbol of the Indian’s tragedy.” (Berton, The Last Spike, 232-33).Berton didn’t have Daschuk’s Clearing the Plains to read, but he seemed to have a lot of information at hand. So, why didn’t he say that the starvation was in fact part of the government policy of coercion? Would not transforming a “race” into a “community” against its will be tantamount to genocide? Were reserves really placed on prime agricultural land? (Actually, Daschuk says sort-of, although hobbled by government policy and inadequate resources). In Berton's retelling, the government is taking on a tough sociological puzzle; what brave visionaries! This painfully romantic image of the situation (which we can look back on, tut-tut at our forefathers, and move forward from) is sugar-coated in a way which makes me suspect that Berton knew more than he said. When he suspects he has said too much, he re-centres the story: the Indian Commissioner Dewdney and the CPR are cold of the plight befalling Indigenous people until Father Albert Lacombe intervenes to save his Indigenous followers. Once again, the story becomes a settler-dominated one.
Things become even more messy with the Métis, as Berton spends little time going into detail about Riel’s cause, yet dedicates dozens of pages to the heroic journey of the soldiers travelling westward to suppress him. This choice does two things: firstly, it centres the Red River Resistance as a settler issue and, secondly, it makes Métis and Indigenous resistance a sideshow to the imposition of law and order by the Canadian state. This denies Indigenous agency. More broadly, this sidelining suggests that First Nations and Métis people are not part of the Canadian historical narrative, a position apparently only held by settlers. As most writers have, Berton also indicts Poundmaker, although this assertion has now been thoroughly discredited. As Berton explains, the defeat of Riel marks the end of Indigenous resistance and I find this claim to be rather amusing. If resistance had truly ended, would there still be First Nations and Métis people across the Prairies today?
Pierre Berton undoubtedly did much to further the Canadian understanding of its past, but he did so within the confines of his time. I suggest that he knew more than he said, and that in doing so he perpetuated the stereotypes and quiet acceptance of colonial government policy that still hurt Canada today. In a related vein, the Onderdonk's Chinese workers in the Rockies are described in detail, albeit largely in terms related to government policy. This also reinforces the notion of Canada as a nation of immigrants, which further erases the Indigenous presence.
As Andy den Otter lamented in the late 1990s, Berton's narrative of the CPR has been taken as gospel by both the Canadian public and Canadian historians. While The Philosophy of Railways did a lot to counter Berton's understanding of what motivated railway construction, it did not address the complex issues of the Indigenous perspective. Since den Otter's book was published, only one monograph has dealt with Canadian railway history. But rather than further our understanding of the Indigenous perspective, Saje Mathieu's North of the Color Line shows us that we understand railway history even less than we thought by investigating the transnational networks of African-American and African-Canadian sleeping car porters. So, do we really know Canada's railway history at all?