Julie Cruikshank, Do Glaciers Listen? Local Knowledge, Colonial Encounters, and Social Imagination, (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2005) 328 pp.

 Julie Cruikshank’s book Do Glaciers Listen? is one of my favourite historical studies. It is a blend of history, anthropology and geography. Cruikshank uses traditional historical sources and Aboriginal oral sources while drawing upon scientific knowledge and interweaves them seamlessly. She deftly switches from Aboriginal to European perspectives while maintaining the overall focus on the history of a glacial region. The first line notes that it is “glaciers and their intangible connections” which provide a unifying theme to the work. (3) She splits her book into three sections, one examining “local knowledge,” one exploring the glaciers’ impact on exploration and scientific knowledge, and a final section on the imposition of boundaries on the region. Cruikshank’s work reflects in part the changing nature of her field as a whole. The book represents an important shift in Aboriginal history towards a greater focus on both traditional European sources of knowledge, Aboriginal local knowledge, and an effort to combine the two.

The field of Aboriginal history has been drastically transformed in the last two decades. Many studies have charted the evolution of our conception of Aboriginal peoples within Canadian history. Bruce Trigger’s overview traces the emerging presence of native peoples in Canadian history through the works of the 1800s, to Harold Innis’ The Fur Trade in Canada, and to the 1970s and the works of Arthur Ray, Donald Freeman, Abraham Rotstein and Robin Fisher. Innis’ contribution represented the dominant discourse in the historiography and its economic focus. Aboriginal history was effectively the history of the fur trade and their role in Canadian history was rarely discussed beyond the establishment of permanent European settlement. Only with the publication of Ray’s Indians in the Fur Trade in 1974 did historians begin to address a more complete picture of Aboriginals. Ray argued that they were not simply passive in the fur trade, but actively and knowledgeably interacted with European traders and communities on a commercial level. These purely historical studies, which argued a greater Native presence, echoed the other significant trend that began in the 70s, a fusion of history and anthropology that became known as “ethnohistory.” Reflecting the movement towards social histories of minorities and gender of the 1970s, ethnohistory was in effect a social history of Aboriginals. Jennifer Brown’s Strangers in Blood and Sylvia Van Kirk’s Many Tender Ties, published in the early 1980s, represented some of the first major Canadian works that examined Aboriginal peoples outside of the traditional economic framework. By the 1990s, these social histories were no longer a new phenomenon and historians began to explore the field to an even greater depth. It is at this time when Julie Cruikshank, an anthropologist, published her pioneering work on Aboriginals in the Yukon based primarily on her oral history research with three elders in Life Lives Like a Story. Her subsequent works, such as Do Glaciers Listen? furthered her use of oral history as well as crafting a unique methodological approach to historical inquiry.

The book substantially contrasts with the work of other historians and this in part demonstrates its importance. It established a method for the use of oral histories in an academic format and it also showed a way for historians to integrate “Aboriginal methodologies” into their research and writing. For instance, in her third chapter “Listening for Different Stories,” Cruikshank uses oral histories as a “counterpoint” to the history which she had outlined in the previous chapter. (76) Her purpose is to show that local Aboriginal oral histories are part of “distinct and powerful bodies of knowledge” which, when compared to the European narrative, best display the “unique entanglement of culture and nature, humans and landscapes, objects and their makers.” (259) In effect, Cruikshank argues that the history of Aboriginals in Canada has two different sides which are still very relevant today. Aboriginals’ story cannot be explained solely from the European perspective without fundamentally harming their present-day connection to their history and place. Her work is an example of an inclusive Aboriginal history, belonging as much to the people that it studies as it does to the scholars who study them.

Cruikshank’s work does have its weaknesses. There is a careful balance between traditional historical sources and oral histories. In Glaciers this balance is expertly managed as she switches back and forth between Aboriginal and Europeans perspectives, but there are still some jarring points in the narrative. The story of Edward James Glave in Chapter 6, while interesting, is somewhat fractured. It suffers from examining both his time in the Yukon and his time in the Congo. It adds little to the overall purpose of the book, and he is hardly worthy of an entire chapter. Cruikshank may have done better in fleshing out the shifting relationship of Europeans to the north at the turn of the century as their technological advancement allowed them to explore and exploit its vastness. It was in this era that the North Pole and Antarctica were explored with great acclaim as well as the discovery of gold in the Yukon. Even as Cruikshank explores the transformed relationship of Aboriginals with their environment, she does not equally examine Europeans’ changing experience and conceptions of the “glacier.”

Do Glaciers Listen? may not be a wholly historical work in its methodology or analysis, but it is a work that deals with many of the fundamental questions of history. It explores one region’s development and the people who lived or went there. Asking about the reasons behind a perceived change or the motivations for historical actions are questions that any historian must address in their own work. While Cruikshank has different ways of asking her questions, ultimately her work delivers a clearer understanding of the history of the “glacier.” She intertwines two histories into one that proves that the two disparate sides of Aboriginal history, that of “native and newcomer,” can be brought together. Luckily for us, her work has inspired many historians to mirror her approach and the field of history is better for it.

Ross King, Defiant Spirits: the Modernist Revolution of the Group of Seven, (Vancouver: Douglas and McIntyre, 2010), 492 pp.

Ross King may not be known to most Canadians, but he should be. An experienced writer and historian, he has produced several well-researched and gripping histories ranging from Machiavelli to Leonardo da Vinci to French Impressionists. Each book immerses the reader in the world of their times. In his art histories, such details reveal how art is deeply rooted in the societies and cultures of the artists. His work focusing on Canadian art, Defiant Spirits, examines the formation of one of the most well-known artistic communities of Canada: the Group of Seven.

King expertly leads the reader through the aspiring careers of Canadian artists, their personal stories, the Canada in which they lived, and larger movements in the international art scene that surrounded them. The book opens long before the Group of Seven formed, with graphic artists Tom Thompson arriving in the stark wilderness of Algonquin Park in 1912 to fish, hike, and paint. It was his first foray into capturing the Canadian landscape in a uniquely Canadian style. Algonquin Park epitomized the national mythology of Canada's hard environment: a “hostile and unforgiving land that dictated the terms of human existence.” (17) A growing circle of painters formed around the employees of the Toronto design firm, Grip Ltd. It was there Tom Thomson met J.E.H. Macdonald, Arthur Lismer, Fred Varley, A.Y. Jackson and Lawren Harris, and others. Together they were determined to bring new life into the depictions of Canada's expansive wilderness. Canadian art was mostly sombre landscapes and painters like Homer Watson and Horatio Walker failed to distinguish themselves from European or American artists. But in the years before and during the First World War, this younger group of artists began to experiment with the new European styles they saw emerging in France, Scandinavia and Italy.

Though they encountered resistance from the art establishment of Toronto and Montreal, select patrons like Sir Edmund Walker of the National Gallery allowed what was then called the Algonquin Park School to flourish. Yet just as they began their forays into new fusions of European styles, the First World War broke out in August 1914. Several of the group, like A.Y. Jackson and Lawren Harris, enlisted. Jackson was wounded but eventually joined the ranks of the Canadian War Records Office headed by Max Aitken (Lord Beaverbrook) alongside other Canadian artists. They were tasked with producing a Canadian artistic record of the war and encouraged to work in their own Canadian style. Though Tom Thompson's death (a mystery to this day) was a heavy blow for the Algonquin School in 1917, the opportunity for others to paint the terrible scenes of the war saved them from trench fighting and allowed them to work professionally as artists. A new way of war required a new art to convey it.

Despite the interest in some members of the Group of Seven's work during the First World War, the years immediately afterwards back in Canada were again hostile to innovative artistic styles. In May of 1920, the artists held an exhibition in Toronto and decided they had to escape the geographic limitation of the “Algonquin School.” Their new name, the Group of Seven, evoked other dissident artist movements. More importantly though, it was rebranding matching their “ambitions to bestride the national stage.” (330) The group saw themselves as “patriots and populists whose landscapes were meant to appeal to all Canadians as Canadians and to foster a sense of beauty in everyone.” (337) Only in the late 1920s and after their dissolution in 1932 did their work rise to prominence in Canada itself.

For decades the Group of Seven were heralded as icons of Canadian culture, but, King argues, their importance has diminished for contemporary Canadians. Their paintings of Canadian wilderness does not resonate with a society more enamoured with Canada's immigration and ethnic diversity. King writes that the “patriotism and nationalism that they promoted are seen by many outdated and unattractive ideologies.” (418) Today Canadians do not imagine a synchronicity between their national identity and the environment. Still, he reminds his readers in the final pages of the book that regardless of criticisms of the Group of Seven's work, they remain examples of powerful, beautiful works of art that articulated one vision of the Canadian nation.

Sirkka Ahonen, Coming to Terms with a Dark Past: How Post-Conflict Societies Deal with History, (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2012), 181 pp.

Coming to Terms with a Dark Past examines the social memory of post-conflict societies. The balance between victims and victors plays out in three different case studies: the Finnish Civil War after the First World War, the decades long racial conflict in South African during Apartheid, and Bosnia-Herzegovina after the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Both sides used guilt and victimization to justify their views while class, racial and ethnic divisions affected how each “national community” uses “historical perspective to make sense of their ordeal and ... rebuild a functional society.” Ahonen's study emerges out of a change in the perception of history after the rise of public history and “history from below,” which has transformed the history of post-conflict societies from one of amoral triumphalism to a morally infused histories reflecting on the victims of these conflicts. The result is that “civil society [becomes] engaged in history wars” between victims and perpetrators using monuments, commemoration rituals and public education to shape social memory.

The work reviews the history of each region's conflict and outlines the social divisions that emerged afterwards. Finland was split between the Whites and Reds, in South Africa Africans came to govern in place of their former oppressors the Afrikaners, and in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Serbs, Croats and Muslims all struggled to live together after the war. Reconciliation was a difficult process as contested narratives shaped their post-conflict experiences. Both winners and losers used historic representations of guilt and victimhood to justify the construction and transformation of social memory. South Africa was the most successful at reconciling the two sides with its Truth and Reconciliation Commission, while Bosnia-Herzegovina had the most trouble.

Ahonen argues that a lack of multiperspectivity in the Balkan state impeded understanding the victimization of the different perspectives. Ultimately it is realization that all of society suffers as victims of an internal conflict which leads to successful reconciliation. As Ahonen concludes, “instead of being persuaded from above to identify with an official grand narrative, 'history from below' let the separated groups bring their authentic experiences into the open and hence start a constructive dialogue.”

Ahonen's work outlines the impact of history and memory on society. She links the diversification of historical narratives by historians, and their examination of “limited identities,” to the process of using history to give voice to the victims of conflicts. At the same time, the increasing self-reflection of democratic societies made it possible for victims to have their voices heard. With these insights, the book becomes a fascinating glimpse as how democratic societies have been able to react and negotiate the consequence of divisive conflicts. Though not always successful in the post-conflict societies she examines, Ahonen demonstrates the practical (and extremely worthwhile) consequences of the “history from below” and its inclusion of different voices into public memory.

Doug Saunders, The Myth of the Muslim Tide: Do Immigrants Threaten the West? (Toronto: Vintage, 2012), 199pp.

In this short book, journalist Doug Saunders takes issue with the idea that Muslim immigrants present an increasingly real threat to Western values and sovereignty. In his introduction, Saunders claims that “this book is not a defence of Islam, and does not contain a dissection of the teachings of the Koran” (p.6). Instead, Saunders uses a handful of anti-Islam writers, who have developed the so-called Muslim-tide argument, against which he offers a different perspective on the issue. Among others, these include Christopher Caldwell, Mark Steyn, Bruce Bawer, and far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders, all of whom argue that an influx in Muslim immigrants ultimately presents an existential threat to the ways in which Westerners live their lives.

Because I don’t particularly disagree with the substance of Saunders’ argument, it’s worthwhile to dwell on more problematic parts of the book—his methodology and structure. As far as a sourcebase is concerned, Saunders heavily relies on quantitative data in the form of demographic statistics. In his chapter “The Facts,” he outlines claims made by a number of Muslim-tide advocates and systematically employs demographic data to contest each of his opponent’s claims. For example, he refutes the arguments made by both Thilo Sarrazin and Mark Steyn, which suggest that Muslim immigrants in the West are destined to reproduce faster than the people around them, by citing articles and polls of varying quality (p.48)

But the more serious issue with this methodology is that Saunders hopes to contest an overwhelmingly qualitative idea (or fear) in a dominantly quantitative way. Whether or not the fertility rates of immigrants are less than or equal to autochthonous Britons, Canadians, or Germans is largely irrelevant in the debate. One’s opinion on the issue depends on experience over “the facts,” regardless of how illogical this might seem. If, for instance, one queues up for a bus in Mississauga, just outside of Toronto, or Rotterdam in the Netherlands, one might very well be convinced based on their own empirical experience that they are becoming a minority in the country in which they reside—and this is particularly true for those living in densely populated and urban centers.

Some of the content Saunders includes later in the book helps remedy this methodological problem. Chapter Three, for example, entitled “We’ve Been Here Before,” details some historical parallels in which influxes in immigration have contributed to a perceived threat to Western stability and sovereignty. These include American fears of Catholic domination immediately following the Second World War, as well as the immemorial fears of Jewish immigrants in Europe and North America. In each of these cases, Saunders persuasively shows that the perceived threat of Muslim immigration is part of a broader and historical Western experience. In this way, Saunders’ decision to place this material near the end of the book is curious and weakens the thrust of his argument.

On the whole, however, Saunders’ book provides a concise rebuttal to a series of books and opinion pieces that express an unfeigned fear of the Islamicization of Europe and beyond.


David W. Lesch’s Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012), 275pp.

In this timely book, historian David Lesch explores the recent history of Syria from about 1970 to 2012. Unlike other investigations published recently, Lesch is uniquely qualified to write on Syria in general and Bashar al-Assad in particular. Lesch has traveled to and has written about Syria for twenty-three years and was given unprecedented access to interview President Bashar al-Assad in 2004 and 2005. He presents a narrative that blends intimate anecdotes about the Assad regime, while also considering evidence produced by scholars and analysts.

The book is divided into nine chapters which roughly follow the chronology of Assad’s ascension in 2000 to the time at which Lesch finished writing the book. This means that Lesch has in some places presaged later developments in the Syrian crisis, while in others his analysis at the time proved inaccurate. Chapter 1 offers a concise examination of Bashar al-Assad in 2000, who had fallen into power because of the untimely death of his older brother Basil, whose political acumen was apposite for following in the footsteps of Hafiz al-Assad. Lesch paints Bashar as a politically moderate, computer enthusiast, called back from London following the completion of his degree in ophthalmology to reticently take up the leadership position in his father’s party.

Against the backdrop of his hope for Syria, Lesch explores the subsequent events that have come to characterize Bashar’s headship. Chapter 2 discusses how the United States, under the Bush administration, shifted policy towards Syria in the wake of the invasion of Iraq, when Bashar failed (or neglected?) to close his nation's border to prevent Islamist insurgents from fighting US troops in Iraq. Lesch presents the difficult political decisions Bashar had to make during those years against the backdrop of political inexperience. His inexperience, even personal insecurity, gave way to anger and an increasing confidence in 2005 when Bashar was forced to remove his troops from Lebanon.

The following chapters (Ch. 3-6) examine the development of protests in the context of the Arab Awakening, as well as how he and the Syrian government responded. Readers in the West will likely find Chapter 7, “The International Response,” most fascinating. Here, Lesch lays out in a clear manner the countries and groups which are either for or against Assad, including al-Qaida and Hezbollah. Lesch effectively highlights the inconsistencies in the international response to government repression across the MENA.

Chapters 8-9 follow the latest developments, probably just before Lesch’s manuscript was submitted for print. In the end, Lesch presents a variety of scenarios which may play out depending on the international response to the ongoing war. He shows that the fall of Assad is likely to be the only option that will mollify the opposition and, in light of the ongoing fighting, a negotiated solution is becoming more and more improbable. In addition, Lesch also argues that the fragmented nature of the opposition precludes an effective and unified front to negotiate a peace with the Assad regime.

In the end, Lesch contrasts Bashar al-Assad with former leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev. Realizing the collapse of the Soviet system, Gorbachev engaged in the process of glasnost and perestroika, socio-political and economic programs that fundamentally reconfigured the Soviet Union. Ironically, these same measures resulted in his fall from power. Nonetheless, as Lesch notes, Gorbachev “recognized and then seized the moment” to transform life in the Soviet Union. “Not unlike Gorbachev,” Lesch writes, “Assad desperately needed to break out of the stifling, anachronistic box of Syria politics-as-usual and to embrace a transformational role in his country” (p.241). However, he has failed miserably to do so. It is in this way, Lesch concludes his book.

One of the book’s virtues lies in Lesch’s ability to show that, despite his moderate and western-style upbringing and education, Bashar al-Assad is a product of the context in which he grew up. He is a product of the Cold War era, and someone who, not unlike his father, will secure his political longevity at all costs—even if that means brutally suppressing the people over whom the Assad regime rules.

This is a timely book that should be required reading for anyone interested in Middle Eastern history and politics. Lesch’s provides profound insight into what continues to be a brutal war and whose consequences have yet to materialize fully.


Mark Mazower's Governing the World: The History of an Idea (New York: Penguin, 2012), 475pp

This book represents a departure from Mark Mazower's previous work, some of which has explored Nazi policy and occupied Europe, as well as the history of the Balkans. In Governing the World, Mazower changes focus in both time and space to explore the idea of international governance. Although he does not offer an explicit thesis statement, Mazower aims to investigate the historical evolution of global governance to show how some ideas "have shaped realities through the institutions that they have inspired, and to ask what is left of them today." In so doing, he highlights that some of the ideas that currently govern American institutions have their origins in European affairs: "these ideas and institutions originated in Europe before spreading across the Atlantic and around the globe during the two centuries of Western world hegemony that are now drawing to a close."

To accomplish this objective, he divides the book into two sections, the first of which examines the ways in which the Great Powers of Europe reacted to the destructive consequences of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. The Concert of Europe (1815-1914), Mazower suggests, was a period during which the Great Powers ensured that no single hegemonic power operated freely. For Metternich and his contemporaries, the consequences of Napoleon's wars substantiated this. This was the era of internationalism.

The second part of the book, "Governing the World the American Way," shows how the ideas from continental Europe made their way to America following the First World War. Here, Mazower picks up where the first section ends: the eventual denouement of the League of Nations. It is not until the section exploring the geopolitical realities of the Cold War where he offers a much more explicit thesis statement. On page 231, Mazower writes "on the whole, as this book has attempted to make clear, world government in the sense espoused by Saint-Simon, H.G. Wells, or Paul Otlet has always been a minority taste. Believing in the compatibility of nationalism and internationalism, what most nineteenth-century internationalists sought was a coordinating agency that would empower nation-state members." Throughout the book, therefore, Mazower demonstrates the inherent problems in the reconciliation of nationalism and the desire for international governance. At the crux of his argument is the constant struggle between ideas of internationalism versus their application in practice.

This book is meticulously researched and offers much to readers interested in international relations, European politics, and historians. Perhaps more importantly, Mazower contributes to the history of ideas relating to global governance and has written a lucid history of how those ideas have dictated the development of international institutions. If one offers any criticism of the book, it would be that some chapters appear disjointed within the broader narrative. For example, Chapter 4 "Science the Unifier", provides an overview of international contributions to science, such as Otlet's development of statistics (which, though not mentioned, was greatly influenced by Auguste Comte) and Ludwig Zamenhof's creation of Esperanto as a universal language. As one of the shorter chapters, it lacks an adequate appreciation for the divisive nature that science had on European societies. While some members of the European scientific community were drawn to the benefits of internationalism, the impact of Darwin's theory of evolution, for instance, had terrible and unintended consequences, as Europeans and non-whites became increasingly categorized into "types." This had an enormous impact on criminology and sociology among many other disciplines. Cesare Lombroso applied these scientific principles to determine which types of people were atavistic criminals. Suffice it to say that while science had the propensity to unify, it also had the tendency to substantiate claims of supremacy over other peoples.

Despite these criticisms, the book still offers a great deal of information and detail one would expect of Mark Mazower

Noah Richler's What We Talk About When We Talk About War

Book note on Noah Richler's What We Talk About When We Talk About War (Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane Editions, 2012), pp. 370

In this thought provoking and erudite work, Noah Richler explores what he sees as a fundamental shift in Canadian politics, discourse, and identity in relation to foreign policy and international development. At the crux of his interpretation lays an assumption that over the course of one decade, from 9/11 onward, Stephen Harper’s Conservative Government initiated a myth that distorts attitudes about Canada’s role in foreign policy and, particularly, the War in Afghanistan. For Richler, the Tories along with other notables have helped refashion a narrative of Canadian history.

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