Sunday, April 15, 2012

Curious Measurements in Canadian First Nations History

The standardization of arbitrary measurements can be traced back to ancient times, with the Greek and Romans using the foot as a measurement.  In the middle ages, Charlemagne used the "toise de l'Écritoire" which was the distance between the fingers of a man's outstretched arms.  Several moments in Canadian First Nations history show that the practice of using what was available, was the norm before standardized surveying tools were available.
Ancient Metrology John NealTheSecret Academy
One particularly arbitrary measurement was used in the determination of lands purchased from the Mississauga tribe in the early nineteenth century.  The Mississauga territories were located west of Lake Ontario including where the city of Mississauga is today.  The treaty of the land surrender was know as the "Gunshot Treaty", as the depth of the land purchased went back as far as a musket shot could be heard on a clear day.  (J.Miller, Skyscrapers, p.84)
Missisauga Treaty signing August 1st, 1805George McElroy Missisauga Library
Date     1881
Source     Royal Society of Canada
Author     George Bryce
Another instance of using the familiar for measurement is found in the land purchase for the Selkirk colony in Red River.  These lands were to stretch back two English statute miles from the Red and Assiniboine Rivers.  (Miller, 133)  When the Ojibwa and Cree asked how far a statute mile reached, they were informed "it was the greatest distance, at which a horse on the level prairie could be seen, or daylight seen under his belly between his legs."

Friday, April 13, 2012

Indiscriminate Killings during Insurgencies: Servan-Schrieber's "Lieutenant en Algerie"

Alistair Horne's A Savage War of Peace (1977) is a classic account of the 1954-1962 insurgency in Algeria.  The book was reportedly read by George W. Bush and numerous American military commanders after the 2003  invasion of Iraq.  Horne himself was consulted by the president, and wrote that, "In the Oval Office last year, I was questioned intently on how de Gaulle got out of Algeria; I had to reply, 'Mr President, very badly; he lost his shirt.' Though it was clearly a disappointing response, Mr Bush replied, with emphasis: 'Well, we're not going to get out of Iraq like that.' There are several ways in which the Americans lost their shirt in Iraq, and George W. Bush could be said to have personally lost his comfy pad on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Insurgencies are difficult to generalize.  Most are specific and chaotic, inseparable from their historical context, and refuse to be neatly compartmentalized into good guys and bad guys.  Algeria was a particularly brutal war, and Horne does not back away from the grisly details.  An account which he quotes from Jean-Jaques Servan-Schrieber's book Lieutenant en Algerie (1957), echos the frustrations of regular soldiers who cannot tell friend from foe.  An old campaigner here tells a fresh-faced captain about the realities of discriminating civilians from combatants:
1960 Algerian Independence Demonstration
"Either you consider a priori that every Arab, in the country, in the street, in a a passing truck is innocent until he's proven the contrary; and permit me to tell you that if that is your will immediately be posted, because the parents of reservists one has had killed don't like it, and will write to their deputies that you're a butcher...Or you will...consider that every Arab is a suspect, a possible fellagha...because that, my dear sir, is the truth...But once you're here, to pose yourself problems of conscience - and treat possible assassins as presumed innocents - that's a luxury that costs dear, and costs men, dear sir, young men themselves also innocent, and our own..."

Such sentiments are how insurgencies are won militarily and lost politically.  This brutal calculus of counterinsurgency exposes the attitude of distrust which creeps into the soldier's psyche when any passerby may be a potential killer.  This is one common thread to insurgencies: they are an extremely difficult psychological task for the soldiers that fight them.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Depression era Prairies as Great War Battlefields, 1931

The writings of EH Oliver during the Great Depression show that the landscape of the ruined First World War battlefield was a reference point for desolation long after the fighting was over.

Oliver at Benhill-on-sea 1917
Edmund Oliver, was a professor of history and principal of St. Andrew's College, Saskatoon, when he set out overseas during the Great War.  Oliver enlisted in the Canadian Forces, becoming chaplain to the 196th Battalion.   In 1917, he was instrumental in setting up the "University of Vimy Ridge" in France, a school for the soldiers of the Canadian Corps.

David Marshall's Secularizing the Faith (1992) argues that in the long period of secularization of the evangelical Protestant churches in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, that the Great War was a reactionary period.  The men who experienced the misery of the trenches were not comforted by the message of the importance of moral and social deeds which came to typify the church's liberal theology.  Instead men looked to the earlier evangelical message of personal salvation, and empathized with the notion of the suffering of the innocent.

Marshall shows that EH Oliver's experiences of the Prairie West during the Great Depression were shaped by what he saw in the muddied fields of France and Flanders.  Marshall writes that, "Images of the First World War were recalled by Oliver, for the ruination of that war was the only thing within his experience that he could refer to which was similar to the wind-whipped, sun-scorched, desert-like 'Garden of Saskatchewan'" (Marshall, 234)
Saskatchewan 1930-34
Oliver attempted to portray what he observed of his 1931 tour of the arid Saskatchewan prairie.  He asked his readers to imagine,  "if it was possible,  the choicest wheat fields of our modern plains churned into yawning gravel pits, streaked with long rows of zigzag, gleaming,chalk trenches with an occasional tree trunk standing, twisted and bent and smashed." (McKinnon, The Life of Principal Otter, Toronto, 1938, 35, as quoted in Marshall)
"Dugout on the Somme" Hamilton, Mary Riter, 1873-1954.LAC Acc. No. 1988-180-3

Oliver wrote, "It left me weak and sore afraid, as though I had turned the corner of our street, eager and expectant to catch a glimpse of home and found it wrecked by a bomb or burned to the ground. 'An enemy hath done this,' was the thought that leaped into my mind, as thought the devastating hand of a malignant spirit had waved a wand over the great Prairie to spread desolation and drought and death.  If there were added to the scene a battered house here and there and an occasional trench it would be like the desolation of the western front." (National Emergency Relief Committee Papers, as quoted in Marshall)

Marshall noted that the tensions of the Great Depression caused Oliver to return to the traditional emphasis on the Bible and what God would provide, and question the power of the social gospel.  Like the Great War, the depression made some clergy abandon the liberal theology and embrace a more conservative God-oriented faith.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Eurocentric Interpretations of Native-American Torture

A. Walker. LAC, Acc. No. R9266-2362
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, grisly tales of torture performed by the so-called "savages" of the New World, were read with delight by a European audience whose arrogance and pride were reinforced by torrid tales of "barbaric" action.

One such account was aghast at the role of women in torture ritual, yet clearly delighted in the details: "You should have seen these furious women, howling, yelling, applying fire to the most sensitive and private parts of the body, pricking them with awls, biting them with savage glee, laying open their flesh with knives; in short doing everything that madness can suggest to a woman.  They threw fire upon them, burning coals, hot sand; and when the sufferers cried out, all the others cried still louder, in order that the groans should not be heard, and that no one might be touched with pity." (Miller, p.60)

Jim Miller's Skyscrapers Hide the Heavens notes that this "ethnocentricaly inspired misunderstanding" discounted that most captives of war were adopted by the families of the victors to replace kin killed in battle, or enslaved for work or barter with the French. (p.60)  Miller writes that when torture was used it was as a part of sun-worship, and was used to break the enemy's will.  The Natives treated women captors much better than the Europeans.  For the white newcomers, Miller claims the spoils of war included "brutal rape and collective violence." (p.61)
"Indians Returning From War" P. Rindisbacher, 1825. LAC Acc. No. 1981-55-72
Europeans were particularly shocked at the cannibalism involved in Native torture ceremonies.  As CJ Jaenen suggests, Christians were particularly short-sighted in not understanding the spiritual side of cannibalism, what with the beliefs in "transubstantiation and literally eating their Lord in their communion service." (Cited in Miller, p.61)  Miller notes the taking of scalps for trophies should have been more comprehensible, given that Europeans "guillotined, hanged, drew, and quartered those guilty of any hundreds of offences, and who put heads on pikes as warning to others." (p.61)

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

A Noose too Long: An Early Trial of John A's

John A.'s Kingston Home, where he lived in 1837
Credit: Miscellaneous / Library and Archives Canada / C-004509
In the late 1830s, John A. Macdonald practised criminal law in Kingston.  Richard Gwyn notes in his recent biography John A : The Man Who Made Us, that the dramatic cases that the future prime minister took gave him exposure far beyond the local courthouse. (Gwyn, 2007, p.49)  The particulars of one early case of the late 1830s, are particularly dramatic, if slightly ghastly.
John A Mac, 1842-43 :LAC C-004811
Droit d'auteur: Périmé
William Brass, the respectable  offspring of a  Loyalist, was accused of the heinous crime of the rape of an eight-year-old girl.  Despite Macdonald's arguments that he was the victim of a conspiracy and insane, the verdict came up guilty and Brass was sentenced to be hung from the neck until he was dead.

Gwyn notes that the circumstances of this punishment were particularly macabre:

"At Brass's execution, the rope proved to be too long and the wretched man fell to the ground from the gibbet, landing in his own coffin.  He screamed out, 'You see.  I am innocent; this gallows was not meant for me.'  The sentence was nevertheless carried out, the second time with a rope of the proper length."