Tag Archives: National Post

Our past has never been boring

Ask Trent University history professor John Milloy, reports the National Post, and he will tell you Canadians have been “much too polite” about their history.

Ask me, and I will tell you Canadians have for a long time acknowledged the notoriety of our historical scoundrels and scallywags. We may not give them knighthoods – as the English have done with such bad-boy rockers as Sir Mick Jagger and Sir Elton John – but we do find other ways to recognize them. Nowhere is this more evident than in Fort McMurray, where a street and a shopping mall are named after Peter Pond, an 18th century fur trader and confessed murderer run out of the country in 1788 for shooting a fellow trader to death.

“Blood, sex, greed, that’s the good stuff,” says Prof. Milloy. “That’s what brings people into the movie theatres.”

So what else is new? Hugh Dempsey knew this when he included in his book, Calgary: Spirit of the West (1994), a story from 1889 about the strangling murder of a Native prostitute that drew headline comparisons with the Jack the Ripper killings in England. James H. Gray knew this when he wrote his 1971 bestseller, Red Lights on the Prairies, a book that forever exploded the myth that the West had been settled by “monks, eunuchs and vestal virgins.” And I knew this when I included in Boondoggles and Bonanzas (2003) the story of Don Cormie, the disgraced financier who left 67,000 investors holding the bag when his Principal Group of Companies declared bankruptcy in 1987.

The Post writer, Tristin Hopper, had to reach back to 1923 to find a university professor (unnamed) who complained to a meeting of the Canadian History Association that his students had a “special hatred for Canadian history.” Hopper bolstered his Canadian-history-is-dull argument with a later, 1996, quote from a “Vancouver immigrant” (also unnamed) who complained that Canada’s history is “without a doubt the most boring history I have ever encountered.”

Well, I’ll grant you that back in 1923 it might have been difficult for Canadian history students to find anything on the shelves other than what Hopper describes as “dry textbooks on responsible government.” But for a newcomer to feel the same way in 1996? What books was this person reading? Did this immigrant ever read anything by Pierre Berton or Peter C. Newman?

I’m an immigrant too, and I soon discovered that Canadian history was far from boring. In the summer of 1967, about eight months after arriving in Canada, I had a part-time job in the gold room of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce in Dawson, telling Canadians about the history of their own country. Surrounded by imitation ingots in the bank where Robert Service had worked as a teller, I explained to visitors how a sluice box works and told them about the individuals who had struck it rich during the 1890s. My teaching guide was a well-thumbed copy of Berton’s book, Klondike, loaned to me by the local pharmacist.

Yesterday afternoon, when the snow was flying outside, I emceed an event at the Calgary Public Library where four of Calgary’s best historian-storytellers – Hugh Dempsey, Harry Sanders, Max Foran and Nancy Townshend – kept an audience entertained for more than two hours with tales from Calgary’s colourful past. It was a powerful show; the audience didn’t want it to end.

There are dozens of similar events held in Calgary every year. During Historic Calgary Week, at the end of July and beginning of August, hundreds of Calgarians turn out to hear talks and musical performances, and take part in historic walks and tours. They may have heard the stories before, but that never stops them from attending.

I was thinking this morning that I should have brought along this National Post story yesterday afternoon, and asked the Library audience to comment on the headline, “Who says our past is boring?” I’ll bet you nobody in the crowd would have held up a hand and said, “I do!”


No more Sunday papers

Postmedia Network has scrapped the Sunday editions of the Calgary Herald, Edmonton Journal and Ottawa Citizen, put the National Post’s Monday edition on hiatus for the second summer in a row, and announced plans to stop publishing print editions of the chain’s papers on national holidays. More newsroom jobs will be lost, local news coverage will continue to shrink, and the future of the business will continue to look bleak. Pat O’Callaghan must be turning in his grave.

It seems like only yesterday (it was actually in 1982) that O’Callaghan came to Calgary from Edmonton to become the Herald’s publisher. At the time, the upstart Calgary Sun had a Sunday edition, but not the Herald. “This minor daily paper should not have the Sunday market all to itself,” said O’Callaghan. He announced that the Herald would thenceforth publish its own Sunday edition because “we live in a seven-day world.” Three years later, he added a Sunday magazine to the paper. That supplement appeared for the next six years, and won a few national and regional awards for writing and photography. (Full disclosure: I was one of the magazine’s writers.)

Although the Sunday magazine had its own dedicated staff – two full-time writers, one full-time photographer, two full-time copy editors, and an editor-in-chief – the same did not hold true for the Sunday paper itself. That was a missed opportunity, to my mind. Instead of stretching six days of coverage over seven, Herald management should have put a full-time team of reporters, editors and photographers in place to produce an independent Sunday paper.

Management should also have taken some of those additional Sunday advertising dollars and used them to recruit a rotating roster of guest columnists (Aritha van Herk, Sharon Pollock, Fred Stenson, Sid Marty, Sam Selvon, etc.) to give the Sunday paper its own voice and identity. The resulting publication might not have had the same cachet as the Sunday New York Times, or even the Saturday Globe with its great standalone book review section, now much missed. But at least it would have stood out from the Monday to Saturday editions as a paper with a distinctive style and tone.

By the time Herald management finally got around to remaking the Sunday paper in accordance with reader surveys, it was too little too late. The paper was heavy on cosmetic changes and light on content reimagining. There was little in it for readers who had grown used to living without a local Sunday paper.

What will the Herald lose when the Sunday edition is axed at the end of July? We have yet to hear what sections will move to Saturday and to other days of the week. But I think it’s fair to speculate that books coverage will not be one of them. Book reviews don’t attract advertising and now, more than ever, advertising support is the key to the Herald’s survival. Sad but true.

One section deserves to die. The paper should get rid of the Sunday spreads of photos from the local cocktail party scene that, to my mind, take up an unnecessary amount of valuable space. But Corporate Calgary has to be kept happy, I suppose, so these pretty pictures are undoubtedly here to stay. Atwood will become irrelevant but the Stampede Queen must reign forever.

O’Callaghan was handed a great gig when he became the Herald’s publisher. Not only did he have the freedom to launch a Sunday edition and magazine, but he also had the freedom to make the Herald reflect his philosophy that a newspaper should “never be bland, colourless or gutless.”

Today, there is plenty of bland, precious little colour, and hardly any gutsiness. That’s what happens when you’re owned by a bunch New York hedge funds that care only about profit.

I see no light at the end of this tunnel. The demise of the Sunday editions is just the beginning of the end for Postmedia as a publisher of printed newspapers. I can only echo the wise words of a first-year journalism student who said to me recently, “I feel like we’re being trained to work for a business that will no longer exist by the time we graduate.”