Tag Archives: history

Sail away on an adventure!

I love summer as much as the next person, yet there is always that day when going outside simply isn’t feasible. Yet when I really need to get out of the house, I suddenly look for the best indoor options available. One such option is hitting up local museums. It’s a great way to see something amazing (and get some cardio in), without having to deal with our unpredictable weather. One of my favorite places is the Manitoba Museum. It has a great layout and covers a large swath of history. Yet, like anything else, the museum is constantly revamping both its exhibits and its history as new interpretations about the past appear.

One such change is the recently reopened Nonsuch gallery on June 8th. It was 350 years ago this year that this great ship (known as a ketch because the mizzenmast is smaller than the foremast,) travelled across the Atlantic to Hudson’s Bay to participate in the Fur Trade and begin laying the groundwork for what would be the Hudson’s Bay Company a year later. Anyone who has ever visited the museum would know that the Nonsuch on display is a replica of the original ketch. Yet there is almost as much history behind the replica as there was for the original vessel. The Hudson’s Bay Company wanted to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the voyage with the construction of the replica.

After ten months of labour, on August 26, 1968, the Nonsuch set sail from Devon with a few modern aids (such as an engine and working toilets). She would spend the next six years successfully travelling 14,000 km of ocean around Europe and North American until her final voyage where she would land at the Manitoba Museum (Nov. 19, 1973, CBC). (Incidentally, once the Nonsuch arrived at the museum, the gallery had to be built around her because of her great size. This renovation would also include the addition of the sub-arctic gallery, woodland gallery and the forest gallery that opened in 1975.)

Since 1973, the Nonsuch display has been about her voyage from England to Canada. Now the exhibit will switch to her journey from Canada back to England in 1669 and contain her new cargo of trade goods and stories from the crew about their amazing voyage. It’s definitely something to check out during those hot and humid summer days. But, for those who prefer a more literary exploration, by all means check out these books on the Nonsuch and other fantastic museums.

NonsuchThe Nonsuch By Laird Rankin, gives an in-depth view on the history of the Nonsuch, her construction, launch and journey to Hudson’s Bay in 1668. What I find most fascinating though, is the fact that Rankin was more than just a historian, but also the man responsible for bringing the Nonsuch to Winnipeg in the first place. He worked for HBC in the late 1960s and was part of the 300th year celebrations. When she “docked”, he would later be responsible for the tours aboard her. Rankin would later revise his book and republish it as Return of the Nonsuch in 2004. The reprint includes more photographs then the original edition.

Empire of the BayEmpire of the Bay: An Illustrated History of the Hudson’s Bay Company by Peter C. Newman is one of many books written on the subject of the Hudson’s Bay Company. While Newman does relate the history of the company by presenting an entertaining read through the use of facts and narrative, he goes further by exploring how the history of Western Canada is intertwined with the expansion of Hudson’s Bay. A fantastic read that is more like an adventure novel then a history book.


Sail and SteamFor those of you more interested in maritime history, I would recommend Sail & Steam: A Century of Maritime Enterprise, 1840-1935: photographs from the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich by John Falconer. Filled with photo reproductions from the National Maritime Museum, Falconer utilizes the photos as a basis for historical essays that bring to life 19th century Britain’s trade, naval supremacy, fisheries and daily life. There is also A Maritime Album: 100 Photographs and their Stories if you wish to see more photographs on the subject or The Habit of Victory: the story of the Royal Navy 1545 to 1945, Naval War of 1812 and Nelson, An Illustrated History if a deep delving into naval history catches your fancy.

After charting the waters through artifacts, prehistory and dioramas (where we are one of six museums who still have dioramas), you might want to take a look at the Canadian Human Rights Museum for a more interactive perspective of history. Or at the very least take a look at a few books below on the subject. Happy reading and exploration!

– Katherine


What’s new in Alternate History Fiction?

It has been a while since I blogged about alternate history novels and there have been quite a few great new additions to the library’s collection, challenging the reader to imagine our world if it taken divergent paths in its history.


Cover image for JudenstaatIn Judenstaatauthor Simone Zelitch imagines the consequences for the Jewish people and the rest of the world if a Jewish state had been created in central Europe, in the region of Saxony, instead of in Palestine in 1948. The story begins forty years later with a historian preparing a documentary celebrating the anniversary of Judenstaat given new evidence about the death of one if its founding fathers. Her investigation brings to light uncomfortable truths about the nation’s past. The change in the timeline brings a different Cold War, with Judenstaat building its own version of the Berlin Wall (to keep out potential “fascists”), and tackles national myths and their place in countries’ identities.


Cover image for Hystopia : a novel

Hystopia gives us a totally different 1960’s where John F. Kennedy not only survived multiple assassination attempts but is now in his third term as United States President. The Vietnam War is still ongoing but a new “Psych Corps” has been created by the government to take charge of traumatized veterans and clean their memories with drugs and therapy. One of these returned soldiers is an author trying to write the novel that will honour his brothers-in-arms (the story is told as a novel within the novel), even as some of the more psychologically-scarred ones are roaming the U.S. countryside and recreating the atrocities they lived through. This is a challenging read as it does not shy from scenes of strong violence, but it also tries the challenge of recreating the unease and paranoid feeling of being in the US in the troubled 1970’s.


bombs-awayThe ever-prolific Harry Turtledove is working on his newest trilogy – the Hot War trilogy. The first two volumes are already available: Bombs Away and Fallout. The first one is called Bombs Away. This is a tale told from multiple point of views (a characteristic of Turtledove’s storytelling) and tells of how the world became embroiled in nuclear warfare in 1951, after General Douglas MacArthur escalated the Korean War. In an age before missiles and jet bombers, the war between the Western and Eastern blocks slowly escalates and risks spinning out of anyone’s control to stop it before humanity faces extinction. Ordinary people from nations around the globe, both civilians and combatants, are shown trying to cope with unprecedented nuclear destruction in a chilling but all-too plausible scenario.


ink-and-boneThis next trilogy, The Great Library, written by Rachel Caine, includes elements of fantasy in addition to its alternate history setting.  In Ink and Bone we discover a world in the near-future where the great Library of Alexandria (the largest library in the ancient world, containing works by the greatest thinkers and writers of antiquity) was not destroyed. The Library has grown into the greatest depository of human knowledge in the world, becoming the all-powerful ruler of society through its control of access to knowledge.  Thanks to alchemy, the knowledge of its books can be transmitted to everyone instantaneously (like ebooks today), but private ownership of books is a capital offence, with a black market booming in illegal books. The main protagonist is from a family of book smugglers who joins the Library’s ranks as a spy but how will coming into contact with people worshipping knowledge over human life and their immense power change him?


Cover image for Clash of eaglesClash of Eagles, the first volume of the Esperian trilogy by Alan Smale, tells the story of a Roman general captured by Cahokians after his legion is massacred while attempting the conquest of North America. Having been spared and gradually accepted by them, he must decide if he still fits in the empire’s plans of expansion or join his adopted people whose culture he has grown to admire. It’s a story of a clash of two cultures who never met in our history but realistically imagines how such an event might have unfolded and transformed our world. This series is recommended for action/adventure fans as well as history buffs.


clockworkFinally, closer to home, Clockwork Canada: Steampunk Fiction by Dominik Parisien is a collection of 15 stories about how steam technology might have reshaped the history of our country. You’ll read of mythical clockwork creatures that roam the landscapes of New France terrorizing the settlers in “Clochemard” and Mounties pursuing steam-powered buffalo-girl hybrids and solve a string of murders in “Buffalo Gals” (a Canadian superweapon that could change history). Many stories deal with real issues about our history like colonization, racism, and industrialisation’s impact on human society and the environment. It is quite a good read if you are in the mood for something local.


– Louis-Philippe

Beyond Anne’s Diary

Diary Young GirlI have a vivid memory of being in my local library as a kid and picking up The Diary of a Young Girl (also known as The Diary of Anne Frank). My Mom said to me: “I’m not sure if you should read that. It’s very sad!” She thought it best to shield me from the heartbreak of Anne’s story for just a little bit longer. Fast-forward about 15 years and I was asked to be one of the tour guides for the travelling exhibit currently at Millennium Library – Anne Frank: A History for Today. At this point, I had seen the play multiple times and even visited the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, but I still hadn’t done the diary justice.

So, I just recently read the famed book and of course my Mom was right, it is a heartbreaking story! Most people know what happened to Anne, her family, and the six million other Jewish people the Nazis systematically murdered (not to mention the other groups Hitler persecuted based on ethnicity, ability, sexuality, etc.). It’s a devastating piece of history, but when reading the diary there are moments where you somehow forget how the story ends. Anne’s writing is eloquent and you can’t help but be sucked in by the unexpected humour, glimpses of teenage romance, and Anne’s perpetual charm.

As Anne’s diary is a cultural phenomenon, I was not entirely surprised to find a variety of other books about her life. The following titles take the diary in new directions and cross into different genres. No matter what your age, there is a version of Anne’s story for you. Each of these books can be found at the Winnipeg Public Library, but be sure to keep searching as this is just a fraction of our collection on Anne Frank, the Holocaust, and World War II.


Anne Frank MullerAnne Frank: The Biography

In this first biography of Anne Frank, Melissa Müller’s thorough research creates a compelling portrait of Anne’s life. Originally printed in 1998, this book contains interviews with family and friends, as well as previously unpublished letters and documents. A new edition of this biography was released in 2014, full of even more information that has since emerged. These documents, along with the Frank’s family tree and an epilogue by one of the family’s helpers, Miep Gies, shine light on this incredible girl.


Anne Frank House BioThe Anne Frank House Authorized Graphic Biography

This biography in graphic novel form is an illustrated account of Anne’s life. New York Times bestselling authors, Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colón, seamlessly work Anne’s story into the history of World War II and the Holocaust. The book contains a concise chronology of events in the history of the Frank family – an extremely helpful tool for any reader.


Anne Frank Hudson-GoffAnne Frank

This graphic novel by Elizabeth Hudson-Goff focuses on both sides of the attic – life before going into hiding and a glimpse at what her final days in a concentration camp may have looked like. A quick read that can easily be finished in one sitting, illustrations bring a new dimension to this famous story of survival.


Anne Frank Poems AgosinDear Anne Frank: Poems

A poetry collection that is a tribute to Anne’s life. In most pieces, Marjorie Agosín holds a conversation with Anne, addressing her courage and curiosity. Poetry, and the dialogue Agosín creates, brings Anne’s narrative to life in a unique way.



Anne Frank PooleAnne Frank

A beautifully illustrated picture book that relays Anne’s story – from birth to death – to a younger audience. By explaining how the Franks end up in hiding, Josephine Poole provides an introduction to the Holocaust for children that is easy to understand. The story ends on a positive note, with Otto, Anne’s father, receiving her diary after the war. The diary ensures that the rest of the Frank family will live on after their senseless deaths.


Anne Frank WorldAnne Frank in the World, 1929-1945

This book is a history in pictures published by the Anne Frank House. While the focus is primarily on the Holocaust, the book is framed by Anne’s story. By continually returning to photos of the Franks, the reader is reminded that the victims of the Holocaust are not just a statistic but are real people.




Anne Frank Exhibit

The travelling exhibit has come all the way from the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam! It officially launched on Monday, July 11, at the Millennium Library, where it will run until September 3rd. We encourage everyone to spend some time looking at the beautifully crafted panels.

There are also a number of guided tours available, in English or French, that you can register for by calling 204-986-6489. Each tour will begin in the Carol Shields Auditorium (second floor) and will last up to 90 minutes. Those who want to book group tours for more than 10 people can register by calling 204-986-6458.

  • Stephanie

Young, Scrappy and Hungry: The Hamilton Phenom

“How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten part of the Caribbean by Providence, impoverished, in squalor, grow up to be a hero and a scholar?”



These are the opening lines of the new Pulitzer Prize winning Broadway musical, Hamilton. The musical tells the life story of Alexander Hamilton, one of America’s “founding fathers”. Hamilton is best remembered as creating America’s Treasury department and being the architect of the new country’s financial system. He also died in a duel against his life-long rival, Aaron Burr. In the musical, Burr acts as the narrator.

Lin Manuel-Miranda, who wrote the words and music, also currently plays the lead role of Hamilton on Broadway. He famously picked up Ron Chernow’s biography on Alexander Hamilton at an airport before going on vacation, and began to see possibilities in turning his story into a musical. It’s a great read all on its own and its fun to pick out little bits and pieces of the real story that get turned into songs.


Now, you may be wondering what all the fuss is about. I mean, a musical about some American founding father doesn’t exactly sound like the most exciting thing you’ll ever see, but after listening to the soundtrack earlier this year, I was immediately hooked. Manuel-Miranda fuses classic Broadway styles with modern hip-hop and rap, and the result is a 2 hour “mix-tape” that hasn’t stopped playing in my car, or through my ear buds, or at home. I feel like I am becoming insufferable around my friends, family and coworkers talking about it all the time. (And now I am using the Reader’s Salon Blog as a platform to get the word out further. I’m the WORST.)

Let me just say: give it a listen and let us know what you think! You can borrow the CD from WPL, or get the album on Hoopla.

For a start, you can see what the opening number looks like in this link, as they performed it for the 2016 Grammy Awards just before winning the Grammy for best musical theatre album. Surely more awards await this musical at the Tony Awards in June?

Lin Manuel-Miranda has recently published a book called “Hamilton: The Revolution”. It focuses on the process of making the musical, and it’s filled with tons of photos of the production, cast profiles, and lots of interesting bits of trivia. A must-read for any Hamilton fan. It’s currently only playing on Broadway, but a run is planned for Chicago this fall, and surely touring productions after that. Road trip, anyone?


“And yo, I’m just like my country: I’m young, scrappy and hungry, and I’m not throwin’ away my…shot”. Alexander Hamilton



The Next Big Thing


Up here on the fourth floor of the Millennium Library we’ve been highlighting books about inventions and inventors, tinkering and making. Here are a few picks that have been moving off our shelves:

Black Inventors: Crafting Over 200 Years of Success by Keith Holmes

This book about African American inventors highlights history that is often overlooked. For more on Black inventors check out these profiles from Biography. We also loved finding this write-up about Elijah McCoy as part of his nomination to the Canadian Railway Hall of Fame: “The noted African Canadian inventor, Elijah McCoy was issued more than 57 patents for his inventions during his lifetime. His best known invention was a cup that fed lubricating oil to machine bearings through a small bore tube. Machinists and engineers who wanted genuine McCoy lubricators might have used the expression “the real McCoy.”

Milestones of Space: Eleven Iconic Objects from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

Lunar modules, astronaut Neil Armstrong’s space suit, and the Hubble telescope. Milestones of Space provides gorgeous photographs and meticulous explanations of the inventions that have made space exploration possible.

The Eureka Method: How to Think Like an Inventor by John Hershey

Written by a PhD in Electrical Engineering (with 134 patents to his name!), the Eureka Method will show you how to scan the world around you and think systemically to spark big ideas.

Patently Female: From AZT to TV Dinners, Stories of Women Inventors and Their Breakthrough Ideas by Ethlie Ann Vare

From the hang glider to Jell-O, tract housing to windshield wipers, learn about the women behind these inventions and many more.


Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future by Ashlee Vance

Especially because of the recent announcement of a lower (if not low) cost Tesla, Elon Musk has been in the news a ton lately.  This bio discusses how his success is an example of the intersection of visionary thinking, inventing talent, and business acumen.

A History of Invention From Stone Axes to Silicon Chips by Dr. Trevor I. Williams

From the humble axe-head to the ubiquitous indispensable silicon chip, here’s a fun and informative history of “things”.

Makers: All Kinds of People Making Amazing Things in Their Backyard, Basement, and Garage by Bob Parks

From the publishers who brought us Make magazine this title featuring real-life – and definitely home-grown – inventions is sure to speak to your inner-tinkerer.

Rube Goldberg: Inventions by Maynard Frank Wolfe

The shortest path from A to B may be a straight line but what’s the fun in that? Here’s a wonderfully, whimsical title full of schematics for hair-cutters, Easter egg-dyers, a better golf tee and more, devised by the one and only Rube Goldberg.


-Monique W.

The French Intifada

In the wake of the Paris attacks I found myself wanting to learn more about the history of France and the Arab world.

But where do you start?

IntifadaIn the 1800s France turned its attention to North Africa and began to expand their empire in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. The French believed they were bringing democracy and a better way of life to the African people, but in reality they exploited their colonies for its resources, and at the expense of the local population.

The French Intifada, written by Andrew Hussey, examines the complicated history between France and its Muslim population.


We learn about the conquest of Algeria and France’s use of violence which ensured their dominance of the country for more than a century. As Europeans or colons arrived in droves they began to establish their own communities. Suddenly the Algerians found themselves dispossessed of their land,  becoming second class citizens.

Following the end of the Second World War, France’s stranglehold over its colonies began to weaken. This presented an opportunity to nationalist movements as well as terrorist organizations to mobilize and strike back against their colonial masters.

As we navigate through France’s colonial history, the author bridges the past to the present.

Once these countries achieved independence many of its citizens immigrated to France in hopes of a better life. Unfortunately this has been difficult to achieve, as the majority of these immigrants settled in suburbs and banlieues where joblessness and poverty are rampant. Hussey explores how these conditions have led Muslims to feel alienated by the state. As this generation struggles to find its place in French society the notion of revenge becomes more enticing.

This novel is entertaining and important as it discusses current issues. By discussing history and connecting it to the present this book gives a clear picture of France’s struggles.


No history without story

For in oral history, people are sources and sources are people.”                                                             – Dan David Prize

Stories. Listened to, read, told, recorded. Saved. Shared. The stories of individuals and communities, even our own or that of our families, are some of the most powerful ways we interact with events and people gone by. Coming up in early October we are thrilled to co-host what we know will be a thought-generating evening, inspired by the power of listening to the past. World renowned oral historian Alessandro Portelli is being brought to Winnipeg by our program partner, the Oral History Centre (housed at the University of Winnipeg). Audience members will have the opportunity to consider the value of oral histories – of listening to the full arcs of real-life stories – in today’s world of information bits and bytes. The program is free and open to all; see the end of this post for details.

Oxford Dictionaries defines oral history as “the collection and study of historical information using sound recordings of interviews with people having personal knowledge of past events.” This basic definition, while technically accurate, doesn’t emphasize the heart of oral history and its practice – that is, people.

Historian Paul Thompson gets to that heart (from the Oral History Centre site): “Oral History…is a history built around people. It thrusts life into history itself and widens its scope. It allows heroes not just from the leaders, but also from the unknown majority of the people. It encourages teachers and students to become fellow-workers. It brings history into, and out of, the community. It helps the less privileged […] towards dignity and self-confidence. It makes for contact – and hence understanding – between social classes, and between generations. […] In short it makes for fuller human beings.”

readerPowerful stuff, oral histories are – listened to or read. Winnipeg Public Library has a wide-ranging and growing collection of oral histories to learn from and enjoy. You can find a starter list of titles here. To find out how you might go about collecting an oral history – recording and sharing stories yourself – visit the Oral History Centre’s site. The Centre is a real Winnipeg gem. It offers in-person workshops, the use of equipment and software, assistance with archiving and more.  Those with a strong interest in the practice of oral history will definitely want to check out The Canadian Oral History Reader ; 2 of the book’s editors – Alexander Freund and Nolan Reilly – are Co-Directors of the Oral History Centre.

About Alessandro Portelli

orderAlessandro Portelli is Professor Emeritus, University of Rome La Sapienza and recent lecturer at Princeton University. A 2015 Dan David Prize Laureate, he is considered the world’s leading practitioner of oral history. More information about Professor Portelli can be found here and here. He also maintains a blog with occasional posts in English. Among his celebrated works are The Order Has Been Carried Out, about the 1944 Nazi massacre of over 350 Jewish and non-Jewish civilians in a suburb of Rome; and They Say In Harlan County which documents histories from Appalachian coal mining country. From Goodreads: “They Say in Harlan County is not a book about coal miners so much as a dialogue in which more than 150 Harlan County women and men tell the story of their region, from pioneer times through the dramatic strikes of the 1930s and ’70s, up to the present. Alessandro Portelli draws on 25 years of original interviews to take readers into the mines and inside the lives of those who work, suffer, and often die in them–from black lung, falling rock, suffocation, or simply from work that can be literally backbreaking. The book is structured as a vivid montage of all these voices–stoic, outraged, grief-stricken, defiant–skillfully interwoven with documents from archives, newspapers, literary works, and the author’s own participating and critical voice.” harlan

Professor Portelli will join us Monday, October 5 from 7 – 8:30 p.m. in the Carol Shields Auditorium on the second floor of the Millennium Library. Please register in-person at any Library branch or by phone 204-986-6450 (drop-ins welcome, space permitting).

We look forward to welcoming many of you to share in a great evening.

Monique W.

The Hotel on Place Vendome

The Hotel on Place Vendôme by Tilar J. Mazzeo

The Hotel on Place Vendome

For centuries Paris has captured our imagination. The French capital is known for its art, fashion, fine dining as well as the passion it evokes in men and women. In The Hotel on Place Vendôme, we travel back through time when this luxury hotel was home to many of France’s most influential citizens.


The Hotel Ritz, located at 15 Place Vendôme, opened its door in June, 1898. From the moment of its inauguration, the Ritz was a place where the elite drank champagne with foreign nobles and battled wits with artists from the burgeoning Parisian art scene.

Meanwhile, a disgraced artillery officer is the subject of an inquiry. The government has launched this latest trial to establish the fact that Alfred Dreyfus supplied Germany with France’s military secrets. The Dreyfus Affair has split society into two camps; the upper class who believe he is guilty, and the Dreyfusards (many of whom were artists) who believe the young officer is innocent.

This is a moment when the upper class was beginning to lose its importance in French society, whereas the artists began to cultivate fame. While the wealthy would retain their fortunes it was the artists, actors, film directors, sculptors and writers who would rise to prominence.

The patrons and staff of the Ritz Hotel would witness the end of the Belle Époque and live through some of the most savage events that would inevitably shape the 20th century.


It is the summer of 1917. A blackout turns the French capital into a ghost town. German planes drop their bombs on the darkened city. The populace holds its breath, terrified. Yet in spite of the bombardment life continues. Marcel Proust attends yet another party at the Hôtel Ritz. As the guests drink their cocktails they attempt to discuss gossip, politics – anything except the horrors of the Great War. As conversations continue to flow the writer tries to seduce his hostess, Hélène Chrissoveloni Soutzo, a Romanian Princess.

It’s another night at the Ritz.


When the Germans begin their occupation of France in 1940, Paris takes on a new significance. As a tourist attraction it offers numerous pleasures to beleaguered soldiers. Furthermore, as the cultural capital of Europe, Paris is beyond value. Those who are willing to collaborate with the new rulers will be compensated; some are given material rewards while others are awarded prominent positions within the new government. Unfortunately for most Parisians, the occupation meant food shortages, incarceration for political prisoners, deportation and eventually extermination for its Jewish population.

Because of the occupation many of the other hotels closed; however, the Ritz remained open. Its manager Franz Elminger was Swiss, and like his homeland the hotel remained neutral through out the war. This was a calculated move. The staff would continue to offer comfort and fine dining to anyone who could afford it, regardless of their nationality.

Unlike other long term residents of the hotel, Coco Chanel managed to keep her suites. Throughout the war she was romantically involved with the German officer Hans von Dincklage. Given her status and wealth, Ms Chanel was able to ignore the harsh realities of the occupation and continue living in opulence.

Until its liberation, Paris became an illusion. The Third Reich did everything it could to maintain the city as it had been. But the veneer wouldn’t last forever. Like the rest of their European possessions, the Germans went to extraordinary lengths to exert their control over France and its populace. As the Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels famously stated, “The capital will be gay- or else.”


The Hotel on Place Vendome, written by Tilar J. Mazzeo, is a wonderful book that brings the past to life. Whether you’re a Francophile or a student of history this is a worthwhile read.


Sapiens and mortality

9780385677004           9780771038501

Two nonfiction books that have captured the imagination of readers recently: Being Mortal by Atul Gawande and Sapiens: a brief history of humankind by Yuval Noah Harari provide two different perspectives and prospects of modern humans and where they came from and where they are ultimately going.

Gawande’s vantage point is that of a surgeon and having intimate knowledge of the dilemmas and complications we all must face experiencing end of life care, either directly as a patient or as a family member of a loved one. He cites modern medicine’s reliance or fixation to control things with sophisticated and expensive tests and treatments with often only marginal benefits in longevity or quality of life. 9781400069033This book coincides with a series of provocative pieces like Ezekiel Emanuel’s The Atlantic article “Why I Hope to Die at 75” and Oliver Sacks‘ “My Own Life” in the New York Times. The examples cited by these articles and reinforced in the stories in Gawande’s book is that what really matters to people going through end-of-life care is not so being cured but more being respected and acknowledged as a human being. It is the power of being able to make our decisions and being able to think for ourselves. In philosophy class we called it ‘human agency’; in our everyday lives we should call it respecting our souls.

Harari’s book takes a different tract. Tracing the rapid evolution of homo sapiens within the last 150,000 years he cites a series of ‘revolutions’: the cognitive; where we acquire language, use symbols and abstract thoughts, form the basis of religion and morality; agricultural, the scientific, the industrial, followed by the informational and ultimately the bio-technological. The interesting aspect of Harari’s analysis is that the each successive is better than the previous, but thinking about the trade-offs between those ages. Although the agricultural revolution allowed for the creation of surplus in terms of food supply and division of labour, it also allowed for hierarchies, creation of private property, kingdoms and overlords, etc. In pre-agricultural societies there were limited resources for population growth, but the high protein hunter-gathering diet and the internal cooperation needed to secure food produced a better quality of life experience than the slavery and drudgery that was needed to maintain an agricultural society. And in many ways the same trade-off could be explained in the transition from agricultural society to industrial/capitalist society with the Irish potato famine and the Scottish clearances.

9780393317558        9781443422994

Similar books in the style would be Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel and the more recent The Human Age by Diane Ackerman. The thing I find missing in Harari’s assessment of this great sweep of human history is the thing that is so primary in Gawande’s book and the articles by Emanuel and Sacks: that is the primacy of souls, our demand to be respected and to have our own intrinsic dignity upheld. 9780691161570This demand transcends political/ideological divisions: a conservative philosopher as such Roger Scruton in Soul of the World could find common ground with Wilkinson and Pickett’s The Spirit Level. Whatever technological transformation human beings will encounter, the fact remains that we must be aware we are not machines or robots to be manipulated with and marketed to; but we human beings with purpose and intent, bodies with a soul.


Wavin’ Flags

“Your proposed flag has just now been approved by the Commons 163 to 78. Congratulations. I believe it is an excellent flag that will serve Canada well.”
John Matheson, Flag Committee member, writing to Maple Leaf flag designer George Stanley, December 15, 1964.

Happy Anniversary everyone!

Yes, that’s right. Our national flag, admired around the world and mostly loved at home, just turned 50. It was inaugurated on Feb 15, 1965, and for the past 20 years or so Canada has observed Flag Day on this date.

A good number of us (including me) were born after the Maple Leaf became our national flag, so it’s hard to imagine Canada having any other one. WPL has a number of resources that tell the story of the Maple Leaf and how it came to be our national flag and symbol.

Our Canadian Flag

Our Canadian Flag




This picture book by Maxine Trottier is written for a young audience, but Brian Deines’ soft pastel illustrations can certainly be enjoyed by all ages. It’s hard to not feel a wave of patriotism as you flip through this book.

The Story of Canada’s Flag: A Historical Sketch





This brief overview of the story behind Canada’s flag is written by historian George Stanley, who also happened to be the flag’s designer.

Canada’s Flag: a search for a country






Another version of Canada’s flag story, told by John Matheson. Matheson was a federal MP who sat on the “flag committee” (we’ll get to that later) and who was instrumental in making the Maple Leaf flag a reality. I quote him at the beginning of this blog post.


It’s a pretty interesting story, as far as flag stories go, so if you’ll indulge me I’ll paraphrase the exciting bits for you (and apologize to the historians if I cut a few corners for the sake of brevity).

The most recent version of the Red Ensign, used from 1957 to 1965.

The most recent version of the Red Ensign, used from 1957 to 1965.

From around the time of Confederation to the mid 1960s, Canada’s official flag was the same as Great Britain, the Union Jack. Informally, however, the Red Ensign was used whenever there was need for a distinct Canadian flag. The Red Ensign had the union jack in the upper left corner (the “canton” section of the flag for flag nerds) and the Canadian Coat of Arms in the lower right (or the fly if we want to get really precise).

Parts of a flag.

Flag parts. I’m not making this up.

The original Coat of Arms had symbols representing the four founding provinces of Canada (bonus points if you can name them!). The weird thing was that every time another province joined Confederation they would just redesign the coat of arms to include something special for that province. Depending on what part of the country you were in, you might see any number of “Red Ensigns”, each of which were purportedly “Canada’s flag” and yet none were standardized. It was chaos! There was even a “Blue Ensign” literally floating around out there (used by the Navy) but no one likes to talk about it so let’s say nothing more of it.

A version of the Red Ensign with the Coat of Arms altered to recognize Manitoba's entry into Confederation.

A version of the Red Ensign with the Coat of Arms altered to recognize Manitoba’s entry into Confederation.

The Red Ensign was finally standardized in 1921 and it stayed that way until 1957, and then with some minor changes remained our flag (NEVER OFFICIALLY),  until 1965.

So, now let’s talk about Lester Pearson and John Diefenbaker and what has been come to be known as the “Great Flag Debate”.

When Pearson and the Liberals came into power, one of their priorities was to establish a new “Canadian” flag that was not tied to any of the old colonial symbols like union jacks or fleur-de lys. After being involved in the Suez Crisis (for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize), Pearson remembered that having the Union flag in the corner of Canada’s Red Ensign compromised Canada’s perceived neutrality with the Egyptians, since Britain was one of the aggressors involved in the Crisis. In fact, in 1963, Pearson promised to have a National Flag for Canada within 2 years. It wasn’t long before a design was leaked to the press, supposedly based on Pearson’s preferred design. It became known as the “Pearson Pennant”.

The "Pearson Pennant"

The “Pearson Pennant”

John Diefenbaker and the Conservatives took the opposite side of the argument, supporting the continued use of the Red Ensign. The two sides finally met at Parliament, where the “Great Flag Debate” began on June 15, 1964. It might be difficult to imagine now, but for three months over the summer of 1964, the Conservatives filibustered and Pearson cancelled summer leave. Surely there was other stuff going on in the country and around the world, but for those three months, Parliament was obsessed with determining the symbol of our National Identity. Who doesn’t love a good filibuster?

Finally, on September 10th, Pearson agreed to refer the matter to a special “flag committee” made up of members of all parties in the House of Commons. The committee was tasked with coming up with a flag in six weeks. No pressure.

At this point, the committee began to receive submissions from regular citizens across the country. By the end of the six weeks, over 3500 designs were submitted. The vast majority of them used maple leaves, but a significant number focused on beavers, fleurs-de-lys, and union jacks. In addition to the “official” submissions to the flag committee, Diefenbaker’s office received many “fringe” submissions from Canadians who were worried the “Pearson Pennant” would win the day. The National Post ran a great article looking at some of the best “rejected” ideas sent to Diefenbaker.

The three finalists

The three finalists

The committee narrowed their options down to three designs. They were the so-called “Pearson Pennant”, the Maple Leaf, and the Maple Leaf with the Union Jack and Fleurs-de Lys, supposedly trying to make everyone happy. Amazingly, the committee unanimously voted for the Maple Leaf design, which was eventually inaugurated (with a slight change to the shape of the leaf) by Parliament on Feb 15, 1965. The unanimous choice of the committee didn’t deter Diefenbaker, who continued to filibuster for another three months, until Pearson said “Come on now. That’s enough.”

The final design.

The final design. Feeling patriotic yet?

There was enough support for the old Red Ensign, however, that Ontario and Manitoba adopted versions of it as their provincial flags in the aftermath of the “Great Flag Debate”. It’s curious that Saskatchewan didn’t adopt a version of the Red Ensign for their flag in 1969, since that was Diefenbaker’s home province. Maybe he was all tuckered out from all that filibusterin’ in ’64?

Our provincial flag. The Red Ensign lives on!

Our provincial flag. The Red Ensign lives on!