Sunday, August 4, 2013

Background research -- Canada

It may be becoming apparent that I often like doing background research more than handing in a final product.  For things I really care about (more than transportation consulting work broadly speaking), it is hard to let go.  And this is at least one reason I am not a super-star academic.  The other primary reason is that the academy has really shifted and become quite a bit more conservative and balkanized.  It used to be somewhat encouraged to work across disciplinary lines, which is what I do, and now it is discouraged -- at least for junior hires (once you are tenured senior faculty you can go back to doing inter-disciplinary work if you so choose).  Granted there are some interesting centres that are doing inter-disciplinary work but you still need to be hired by a home department.  My work was generally on the line between sociology and political science, and then to make matters worse, nearly all of my publications are in journals that specialize in transportation!  But the snag in going over to transportation completely is that the area I could teach in is usually hosted by civil engineering but I don't have the credentials from my undergrad(!) days to be allowed to teach engineers.  Truly an unfortunate Catch-22.  And I now have passed the point where it would be wise to shift careers.  Even a few years ago I would have considered it, but now I would have to shed so much status (and salary) that it doesn't bear thinking about.

Anyway, the current background research I am doing is on Toronto in the 90s: 1993-94 to be precise, the years I was in the city doing a Master's in English literature at UT.  Now I need to take a minute to admit that I have been knocking myself out researching 1995-96.  I don't know quite why, though I must have kept so much in contact with Canadian friends (after my departure from UT) that some of the really key moments (the Mike Harris take-over of Toronto and then the Quebec separatist referendum -- both in 1995) were being talked about a lot.  And thus I sort of felt I lived through them.  I know for certain that I was in Toronto when an important election was held.  Everyone thought it was going to be a minority government, but it was actually a sweep (maybe not so different from the recent BC elections where the pollsters got it completely wrong).  Looking over a history book, this was probably the federal election in 1993 when Chrétien first came to power.

One of the premises of the novel (that I work on periodically) is that I stayed in Toronto in 1994 and didn't leave for another year or two.  Of course, it isn't "me," and the characters in the novel are all composites of people that I knew.  So it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world to have the main character live through these events I have been studying.  It does, however, mean a few more days in the library to wrap up the 1995-6 research and then to go all the way back to 1993.  I think for sure, however, that he should be gone from the city before the 1998 Toronto amalgamation (and really before the anti-amalgamation referendum of 1997).  He can hear of that from afar, in the unlikely event that I continue working on his story in a sequel.

I think it is a delicate balancing act writing what would now be a historical novel.  (And it is more than a little depressing that events from my youth have become historical...)  You don't want Exposition Joe to run up and start talking to Receptor Rita, which is what happens in the worst of such novels (very common in bad sci-fi novels as well).  At the same time, I used to talk about politics all the time in coffee houses, though not as much at parties.  And being American, some things about Canada did have to be explained to me, just as they would with this character.  I'm not wanting the main character to be a grad student, though several of the secondary characters would be.  Also I think he would be hanging out with people just a bit more mainstream, which means that they might not talk about politics quite as much and if they did, they would hold closer to the MacLean's view.  Maybe this isn't correct, but it is how I have structured my research, and it is the reason why I am going through the MacLean's archives.  It strikes me as a fairly close companion magazine to Time, which was sort of centre-left in the 80s and 90s, as opposed to Newsweek, which was sort of centre-right.  Now during the 90s, MacLean's did carry one conservative opinion writer, but I don't really read through her pieces.  I do usually read Peter Newman's columns (basically a mainstream Liberal) and sometimes Allan Fotheringham.  Harder to get a handle on him -- seems a bit to the left of Newman at least in the 90s.

In addition to skimming through the MacLean's issues (on microfiche!), I decided to order two of Newman's books, which expand on his columns.  The Canadian Revolution covers his thoughts on how Canada shifted from 1985-95, and then Defining Moments : Dispatches From an Unfinished Revolution, which came out in 1997 and has quite a long section on the 1995 Quebec referendum.  That really gets at the gist of the period I am interested in.

For a small handful of the really critical events: Harris taking control of Ontario in 1995 and Chrétien and the liberals winning in 1993, I'll go ahead and look at The Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star issues.  But this isn't intended to be a crash course on Canadian politics; rather I'm just trying to re-familiarize myself with what reasonably well-informed Canadians would have been thinking about from 1993-96.  In that sense, MacLean's is pretty good* since it covers international events with a Canadian slant and, perhaps even more importantly, culture -- what films/books did it review and so on.  The truth is I don't think I need to do too much more research, but a little bit more wouldn't be such a bad thing if it prevents me from making a horrendous error (like moving the Ontario provincial election up by 2 years!).  I probably won't even use that much of it, and maybe I will go ahead and post some of the more interesting findings here for kicks. 

(Just to add that on my last visit I found that the Chicago Public Library had a pretty complete set of McLean's as bound volumes, which are so much easier to use than the microfilm at the Vancouver Library.  Too bad I didn't realize this a couple of years ago, though I wasn't quite in the right frame of mind then.  I suppose I will be back in Chicago in mid-Sept. and may have an evening free...)

* It does seem to me that the current MacLean's has slipped a bit and is more of a tabloid rag than it used to be.  I can't really tell but certainly the covers are more sensationalistic.  Once I return to Toronto, I'll probably start getting The Star delivered, but I haven't decided about MacLean's.  I'm not really sure I need it, and I don't get the feeling that today's columnists measure up to those from the 90s.  But maybe this is just get-off-my-lawn syndrome (i.e. everything was better in the 80s through the mid-90s).

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