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Neil Cameron

Neil Cameron is a Montreal writer and historian. He served as a member of Quebec's National Assembly from 1989 to 1994.

Jesse Owens: Memory, Myth, and History

Commercial television, broadcast for only a few hours a day, was still a novelty in 1950s Canada; federal authorization of the national CTV network came only in 1960. However, by the mid-1950s, Calgary had a local commercial station providing daily shows, including an hour-long Sunday afternoon one called "Youth and the Questions," on which four students from the city's four high schools spent the first half hour discussing issues of the day, and the second half interviewing miscellaneous guests. The students were recruited by an employee of the station, who was himself still attending my high school half-time, and he recruited me. I found most of the discussions pretty feeble, but I enjoyed doing the interviews, in which the moderator gave me a leading role. Thus it was that, in the spring of 1956, just short of sixty years ago, and then just twenty years after the 1936 Berlin Olympics, I interviewed Jesse Owens, also chatting with him before and after we were on air. Old men forget, as Shakespeare's Henry V sagely observed. But I am reasonably sure that my recollection of that Owens interview has stayed with me accurately, for two reasons: the impact of the man himself, and something surprising he had to say. As to the man, all of us knew that Owens had won astonishing quadruple Olympic gold medals in sprinting, relay racing, and jumping, and had accomplished this in in front of Hitler and other top Nazis. For all of the following twenty years, Owen had been one of that tiny group of athletes at the pinnacle: admired and idolized, not only for performing their particular sport superlatively well, but greatly increasing the overall prestige and participation in that sport overall. Owens was to track and field what Maurice Richard was to hockey or… Read More

Ministers of Education in the credentialist era

Quebec's new Minister of Education, Pierre Moreau, has held many previous senior offices for the provincial Liberals. Anglos may be pleased that he has had much greater contact with anglo constituents than his predecessor. Whether he will have any real effect, positive or negative, on public education is more open to question. Compared to other cabinet positions, Education has been something of a revolving door. In the last half century, it has had about two dozen Liberal or PQ appointees to the post. It is recognized as a difficult position, but while it has usually been occupied by senior party figures or fast rising stars, they have mostly been professional politicians, largely in the hands of the two groups that really control all the matters of substance, the permanent bureaucrats, and the leaders of teachers' and support staff unions. There have only been three Ministers who, for good or ill, put a marked personal stamp on the office. Paul Gérin-Lajoie, a Rhodes Scholar with an Oxford law doctorate, was a major founding architect of the MEQ, part of the “Quiet Revolution” of the 1960s Lesage Liberals. Jacques-Yvan Morin, another legal scholar, was René Lévesque's choice for the first four years of his government. And Claude Ryan, former editor of Le Devoir, former Leader of the Liberal Party, an austere and learned workoholic, was an unusually effective Minister from 1985 to 1990. I served on the Legislature Education Committee throughout the first half of the 1990s, observing Ryan's capacity in the first year I was there. He probably would have happily remained there another five years, but Bourassa switched him to a triple portfolio of Public Security, Municipal Affairs, and Native Affairs, to deal with the 1990 native insurrection at Oka. The three Liberals who followed Ryan over the next four… Read More

Last Days of a Sorcerer’s Apprentice

As a sceptical 1950s student hangover, I was still around university campuses and undergraduate life during the upheavals of 1965-75, but saw them very differently from most students around me. I was most interested in surprising ideas and developments that did not fit the instant mythology being created. A major cause of these surprises was that, when university departments, flush with cash in those days, sought to raise their prestige by inviting a "Distinguished Visiting Professor" from afar to join them for a year or two, they sometimes got different distinctions from the ones they expected. In 1966-68, I was at Sir George Williams University. My Queen's mathematics degree already in hand, I was taking two years to qualify in honours history. before moving on to graduate studies at McGill. During those two years, the Sir George history and economics departments had jointly obtained Rudolf Schlesinger as a visiting professor. Schlesinger was the retiring head of "Soviet Studies" at the University of Glasgow, and the editor of two academic journals, one on the USSR, one on "world co-existence." He was also a walking piece of history. Coming to Britain as an Austrian emigre in the late 1930s, he had been an important Communist Party activist for two previous decades, in Berlin, Prague, and Moscow. Despite having been expelled from the USSR CP in 1936 in a purge, he had remained a lifelong Marxist-Leninist. The then largely youthful and leftist history department revered him as a scholarly Marxist, who would add the weight of his historical experience. In some ways, he did as expected. He was certainly not one of the countless eventually disillusioned Marxists of his generation, symbolized by Arthur Koestler's 1940 novel, Darkness at Noon. For him, Communism was still not the god that failed. “Koestler? A mere courier!”… Read More

Marking life and death by the numbers

In my teens in the 1950s, I found that I loved mathematics and had some talent for it, so I made it my first degree subject, although by then deciding I preferred to study history. I also considered for a while becoming an actuary, although without much enthusiasm. I had never so much as heard of it before attending university, and did not much hear about it even there. The most important study that actuarial science required was in probability and statistics, and the single course provided in these in most math departments then was held in low regard by the pure mathematicians, who liked to determine exact proofs, not carry out quantitatively sophisticated guesswork. The only two Canadian universities, Queen's and Manitoba, that offered full degree programs in the field had trouble staying in existence, since its professors kept leaving for employment by the big insurance companies, which then paid far better than university teaching. Insurance of all kinds has always depended on making uncertain but reasonably reliable assessments of risk. Applied to ship cargoes, some versions go back to Mediterranean antiquity, but insurance on human beings individually or in groups, began arriving in the 17th century, especially in England and the Netherlands. One of the first systematic tables of mortality, for example, was created by Edmund Halley, Isaac Newton's colleague, the friend and colleague, who has a comet named after him. Increasing accuracy and professionalization continued over the following two centuries, notably among the Scots, once the main creators of actuaries as they were of chartered accountants. Both of these also had a large influence on the way business and finance have evolved in Canada. It used to be said that the Americans made the money, but the Canadians counted it and sold life insurance to anyone who… Read More

A 2015 Chorus Line

    Readers may sing along to the Can-Can [Apologies to Offenbach] and imagine assembled worthies below lined up and kicking high.           The polls still jump for Donald Trump! Trump is loud and blonde and plump! Each day brings new bump from Trump! Bush and other rivals slump! GOP in frightened lump, knows not how they can dump Trump! Dems now, also grump! Bernie Sanders bites their rump! Students mount stump! flee free speech to safe space clump; Toilets re-lump! She-hes must have private dump! British Tories back again! Cameron still at Number Ten! Scottish voters in the glen, slaughter Labour in their den! Merkel offers migrant pen! Putin bombs for Assad's men! France has more blood in the Seine! Hollande vows this time it's when! Migrants bang on every door! many lost on Lesbos shore! Borders back once more, Brussels shaken to the core! NDP once poised to sweep, in the end could only weep! Justin made a mighty leap, drama coach to top of heap! Says we'll take the hungry sheep, fleeing ISIS o'er the deep! Climate laws will no more creep, oil will no more flow or seep! Natives hope he'll keep, promises that don't come cheap! He and Sophie smiling peep, from the next Vogue, fans to reap. Movies now are toujours gai, on the LGBT way! Heroes all with feet of clay, villains, too, must get their say! Victims of the system they! From Macbeth to Brothers Kray! Ex Machina's android may, offer fifty shades of grey! James Bond both a fool and knave, Ian Fleming twirls in grave! Harry Potter's now a slave, in Frankenstein's electric cave! Grab your partners, join the dance! Wear your brightest skirts or pants! Life looks better when we prance! Even when we look… Read More
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