Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Not really a history of London, Ontario

Reading Fred Landon is fun because I actually know most of the little farming communities he's talking about. I grew up in London, Ontario, and have come to love it and the surrounding countryside. It's a strange development since I was so eager to escape from the place when I was in high school. Maybe I just like London because my parents' fridge is usually full.

What really makes London interesting is that I have a much more historically-motivated interest in the region, and Fred Landon's work is one of the few attempts to provide an in-depth study of southwestern Ontario, aka "Western Ontario" or "the peninsula." I suppose it makes sense that the area is neglected in most histories of Canada or even Ontario. London, despite its size (big in Canadian terms - about 350,000 people), has always played second (or third) fiddle to Hamilton and Toronto in terms of industrial might. And Windsor and Oshawa always get the glory for their union traditions. Kingston and Ottawa get all the government-related hype. Even Thunder Bay, Sudbury and Sault Ste. Marie get props for their mere rugged northerness. I still have to tell Canadians that I grew up in "London...Ontario." It's as if nothing ever really exciting happens in conservative London, except for that recent Memorial Cup (go Knights!). Even so, Ian McKay reminds us in Reasoning Otherwise that it was the site of early socialist electoral challenges. It was also the original home of the Industrial Banner, Ontario's premiere labour newspaper between the 1892 and 1922.

London is one of those cities that is still a geographic blob, its suburbs merely contiguous growth from the centre, not distant and separate entities like Kanata is to Ottawa, or the pseudo-cities surrounding Toronto. The University of Western Ontario and Fanshawe College make it a robust education centre. It has some impressive medical research and hospitals, and industry still peppers the city, with the GE Diesel plant building locomotives, General Dynamics building armored vehicles, and a few auto assembly plants just outside the city (for the purpose of tax breaks, of course). And you can still drive through the old industrial area east of downtown and sniff with delight at the Kellogg's factory.

Speaking of downtown, London's is notoriously hopeless. The slogan of my favourite record store, when it was still a dingy Richmond Street punk mecca, used to be "Speed City Records: In Shitty Downtown London." For every masterpiece, like the old post office, there are three blocks dominated by ugly parking lots. There's also no attempt being made to actually get people living downtown to spearhead some revitalization (there isn't even a grocery store!). The new hockey stadium and rebuilt farmers market may have helped a few blocks on the western edge of downtown, but otherwise, the downtown is pointless as a destination (save the humbly upscale David's Bistro, proudly proletarian Prince Albert's Diner, Call the Office and, until they both suspiciously burned down within seven months of each other, The Embassy and The Wick).

Part of the problem with London is the management of the grid plan. The major avenues do not have synchronized traffic lights, making minor excursions in an otherwise small city quite annoying (rumour is, the city engineer desychronized the lights to "slow down" traffic, which just results in frustrated drivers running red lights!). To make things worse, the bus system, while fairly extensive, is routed through the largely unappealing downtown. Nor has there been any attempt to create a ring road despite the 401 bordering the south, 402 bordering the west, and 100 bordering the east. Those opposing the ring road argue that a ring road would contribute to more suburban sprawl, but this is only true if you have, like Toronto's highways, an on-ramp every kilometre. Yet, the city allows further suburban development, paving over beautiful farm land to create new mega-monstrosity car-only retail centres. I suppose London is a more acute example of the incredible capacity of land developers to control the "planning" of Ontario's cities. This is just one reason why London carries the somewhat accurate reputation as being a conservative, white-bread town.

But as Landon makes clear in his classic history, Western Ontario and the American Frontier, London and the surrounding area was deeply influenced, at least in the 19th century, by "American" (ie: politically radical) ideas. And as McKay and James Naylor confirm, it had a significant socialist and labour electoral presence between 1900 and 1920. One might also add that the London Days of Action in December 1995 kicked off the last great extra-parliamentary labour mobilization seen in Ontario (a moment sadly lacking any substantive historical analysis). And my grade 11 English teacher, a labour activist, has been elected twice now to represent East London.

As the title of the book makes clear, Landon was operating within the general framework of the "Frontier Thesis," a famous argument advanced by Frederick Turner Jackson in 1893. Jackson's basic argument was that as Americans moved westward, the influence of European customs, culture and tradition began to disappear. The nature of the frontier imbued settlers with a rugged individualism, a radical egalitarianism rooted in the absence of class distinctions, and militant independent and democratic spirit. This, suggested Jackson, was the genesis of the unique American national identity or ethic, what we might consider to be the foundations of the post-WW2 "American Dream" of independent property ownership, civil libertarianism, social mobility and meritocracy.

Beginning in the late 1920s, and reaching its peak influence in the 1930s, Canadian historians began to apply the Turner thesis to Canada. The "discovery" of the frontier in Canada was no accident. Canadian farmers, especially in the prairies, but also in Ontario, became increasingly hostile to the federal government, especially during WW1, demanding a number of progressive democratic and economic reforms. Farmers formed the backbone of the Progressive Party, which was elected into federal opposition in 1920 and United Farmers parties took power in Ontario in 1919 (with the supporter of the Independent Labour Party) and Alberta in 1921. The Great Depression merely deepened this crisis, providing the context in which new parties emerged, including the radically leftist Cooperative Commonwealth Federation and the populist Social Credit party which quickly turned to the right in opposition to labour and the burgeoning left. In this context, historians such as Frank Underhill, who was instrumental in writing the CCF's anti-capitalist Regina Manifesto, began to see a the Frontier Thesis as relevant to Canada. In seeking out a historical predecessor to the agrarian radicalism of the 1930s, Underhill began to explore the politics of Western Ontario farmers in the 1850s. Unfortunately, his arguments were often limited by his willingness to apply American categories to the Canadian context, describing, for example, radical farmers as essentially "Jeffersonian" (for a rural-based economy) and "Jacksonian" (supporting democratic reform, such as universal male sufferage, or more derisively "mob democracy"). The use of such categories served to undermine Underhill's arguments, especially when the Frontier Thesis and Beardian class analysis fell dramatically out of favour in the 1950s in the United States and Canada. Part of this was due to Donald Creighton's ascendancy in the Canadian historical profession. Creighton's efforts, centring around his biography of Sir John A. Macdonald, marked a decisive shift away from exploring the class character of 19th-century British North America in favour of the "great men" who "built" Canada, aka the scourge of biographism (for an interesting commentary along these lines, see "A Soviet Critique of the Canadian Historical Review" in CHR 47/1). Even so, Underhill did provide a basis upon which Landon, and later JMS Careless, presented a more nuanced exploration of these political influences.

Covering almost the entire 19th century, Landon's account does suffer from some of the problems found in Underhill, whom he quotes approvingly in describing the character of the radical farmers of the 1850s. But if one does not get hung up on Underhill's terminology and actually reads Landon, it can't be denied that important aspects of agrarian radicalism included an insistence on democratic rights and institutions and a general idea of a rural, agrarian economic system.

The real problem with Landon is the general adoption of Underhill's simplistic portrayal of the 1850s reform movement in Upper Canada, a movement reduced by Underhill to simply a farmers movement. Both Landon and Underhill correctly note that the radical farmers provided the electoral base of the Reformers, but also acknowledge that the main leader of the party was George Brown. Brown was editor of the Toronto-based Globe, which basically served as the organ of the Reform party (yes, the Globe is the precursor of today's Globe & Mail, which got it's name after absorbing the Empire & Mail in 1936). Here, Careless' research is essential in more accurately complicating our view of the Reform movement, specifically through identifying its cross-class character. George Brown and his newspaper represented the Toronto-based commercial class, which formed a virulently pro-British conservative faction within the Reform Party in competition with the Western farmers who toyed with republican and even annexationist ideas. Brown himself, as is fairly well-known, consistently disparaged them for such ideas. In this regard, Brown's invectives have been deployed by historians to downplay the pesky existence of republican ideas in Canada and ignore the significance of Brown's accomplishments in terms of party formation.

The first step in Brown's efforts to gain control of the Reform Party was the Globe's absorption of two newspapers, the left-liberal Examiner and republican North American. By the late 1850s, the Globe was by far the most widely-read paper in British North America. While gaining the readership of these other papers, Brown never took aboard their more radically democratic politics, including the Chartism that cropped up in the North American. Instead, Brown fuelled an already-existing anti-Catholic bigotry amongst Western Ontario's Protestant farmers (which paralleled the rise of American nativism and the Know-Nothing party) and oriented the ire of the Western farmers upon the financial and railroad monopolies of Toronto's competitor, Montreal. Of course, Brown said little of the Toronto-based commercial class and its increasing power and monopoly in Ontario.

It was not until the "Great Reform Convention" of 1859 in Toronto, the largest political gathering in Canada at the time, that Brown was able to secure firm control of the party. It was also the convention in which conquering and settling the "North West" - present-day Western Canada - was codified as a central tenet of the Reform party. Likewise, the demand for Representation by Population in the parliament also served to corral and direct democratic demands as well as anti-Catholic, anti-Montreal sentiments. As historians have repeated ad nauseum, the cry of "Rep by Pop" stemmed from the equal seat representation for Upper and Lower Canada (Ontario and Quebec), even though the former's population had surpassed the latter. Ironically, the reason for equal representation, implemented by the 1840 Act of Union, was precisely so the English minority in Ontario could limit the power of the French majority in Quebec.

What Brown accomplished was what Macdonald's Tories would become famous for in the 1870s and 1880s: the construction of an unlikely alliance of different social layers with seemingly opposing ideologies into a relatively cohesive and effective party. Why this process ought to be a central concern of Canadian historians was, as Ged Martin has argued, the dynamic, energetic and central role played by this party in the project which would become Confederation.

Of course, it would be easy to downplay, if not dismiss, the marginalization of the radical farmers within the Reform movement, instead focusing on the conjunctural aspects of the 1859 convention as a result of the infamous "double shuffle" of 1858 when Brown was quickly deposed from office after less than a week. The economically-minded might also add, as H. Clare Pentland argued, that Upper Canadian farmers were absorbed into a Toronto-centred home market through the 1850s railway boom, since the new railways allowed for subsistence farmers to begin selling a surplus to the growing cities. A more fashionable critique today would be that popular loyalties to Great Britain also ensured the defeat of the radicals, especially amidst new waves immigration (this argument, of course, ignores the prevalence of Irish immigrants that may not have been so pro-British). Others would simply observe that the radical farmers never really posed a threat to the status quo, as their almost comical bungling of the 1837 rebellion demonstrated. This is true when it comes to armed rebellion, but hardly insignificant given their electoral influence and the fact that Brown spent the good part of a decade attacking "republicans", "annexationists" and "Jacobins" in the pages of the Globe.

All these arguments are partially valid, but alone they reveal a profound determinism which portrays Brown's eventual control of the party as inevitable. In reality, Brown had to struggle, through years of sharp polemics, buying out opposition papers, and through other methods, to marginalize the radicals and their ideas. In other words, a conscious effort on Brown's part - an agency which negates the inevitability of the process - was made not only to isolate the radicals through ideological polemic, but ensure that their audience remained in the Reform party instead of forming some other party. Brown has often been accused of political sectarianism, but in forging a mass party through a long-term process, Brown was clearly more a strategist in an almost Leninist sense, as opposed to an ideologue allergic to tactical flexibility. Brown's success was of course made in favourable economic and demographic circumstances. His opposition was also generally disorganized, a problem no doubt reinforced given the elimination of the North American which could act, as the Globe did, as an organizational scaffolding.

What does this all mean? If Brown's Reform party was the dynamic element in Confederation, then we might begin to suggest that Brown's particular style of party formation became the model of the Canadian party politics, especially for the major political dynasties which have dominated the Canadian federal scene: the Macdonald Tories, Laurier, King, and Trudeau Liberals. All of these parties had a profound capacity to simultaneously disarm and disorient new oppositional forces while absorbing them (Macdonald's manouevres to legalize trade unions following the 1872 Toronto Printers Strike, a strike directed chiefly against Brown, is a brilliant example of this strategy). Gramsci called this trasformismo, or transformism. The Italian Unification, or Risorgimento, which occurred in the same decade as Canadian Confederation, involved a process not entirely unlike that of Brown's Reform party, and I would suggest, Macdonald's Tories. In regards to the Risorgimento, the formation of a ruling party occurs through

the gradual but continuous absorption, achieved by methods varied in their effectiveness, of the active elements produced by allied groups - and even of those which came from antagonistic groups and seemed irreconcilably hostile. In this sense political leadership became merely an aspect of the function of domination - in as much as the absorption of the enemies' élites means their decaptitation, and annhilation often for a very long time. It seems clear from the policies of the Moderates [the main, ruling party] that there can, and indeed must, be hegemonic activity even before the rise to power, and that one should not count only on the material force which power gives in order to exercise an effective leadership. It was precisely the brilliant solution of these problems which made the Risorgimento possible, in the form in which it was achieve (and with its limitations) - as "revolution without a "revolution", or as "passive revolution...

Antonio Gramsci, Selections From The Prison Notebooks, 58-59 (1971).

Quoting Gramsci will not, in itself, resolve any historical debates about 19th century Canada. However, Gramsci does open up the possibility of asking new questions about the relationships between party formation, class formation and state formation; interlocking questions that were once raised in the works of Landon, Underhill and Careless and, sadly, have yet to be rigorously pursued. Trying to answer some of these questions might allow historians to begin uncovering some yet-to-be discovered patterns, trajectories and influences lost or tangentially touched upon by our predecessors. And then, maybe, we might begin to understand why London, Ontario is so radically unimaginative.

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