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Bastards & Boneheads: Our Glorious Leaders, Past and Present

by Will Ferguson

Prime Ministers: Ranking Canada’s Leaders

by J.L. Granatstein and Norman Hillmer

Repeat after me. Canadian history isn’t boring; Canadian historians are boring. Most of them, anyway. As Will Ferguson amply illustrates in his survey of Canada’s glorious leaders past and present, Bastards & Boneheads, the history of the European invasion of the northern half of this continent has just as much drama, conflict, and intrigue as the self-narrative of those deluded followers of manifest destiny to the south of us. Canada has long been a country in need of a storyteller. And Ferguson is an apt one.

First, however, let’s size up the opposition, represented here by J.L. Granatstein and Norman Hillmer’s expanded top 20 list titled Prime Ministers: Ranking Canada’s Leaders. Granatstein has been making the rounds lately decrying how little Canadian high schoolers know about their nation’s history. He does his cause little service here, however, despite using the Chatelaine-like technique of listing the PMs in order of greatness. If only he had called Chatelaine and asked their advice! Surely a survey of the sex lives of our PMs would have done more to focus the minds of teenagers on the significance of leadership in national affairs (no pun intended).

Whereas the nature of Granatstein’s and Hillmer’s exercise limits them to the country’s leaders from Confederation to the present, Ferguson casts a wider net. His narrative begins with the arrival of the first French colonialists (1604) and includes chapters on glorious leaders like Chief Tecumseh, Lord Durham, Louis Riel, and the suffragettes. Ferguson scores here, since his survey of winners and losers includes not only those sanctioned powerful by Parliament, but those who exercised influence in other jurisdictions.

The decision by Granatstein and Hillmer to focus on parliamentary leadership leads them to interpret Canadian history through the challenges faced by our PMs; mainly, how to govern a large, underpopulated country prone to regional conflicts and struggling to wean itself from one empire (British) while avoiding being sucked up into another (American). This is narrative with interesting but familiar features. For example, it raises the eternal spectre of Canada’s collapse, either from inside or from without. On the one hand, we have the War of 1812 and Free Trade. On the other, Canada’s PMs have done battle with openly separatist movements in Quebec and Nova Scotia and sought means to pacify Western idealists from before Riel to the present day.

Ferguson adopts a less conventional view: “If we are good, if we are very, very good, we [Canadians] may one day become Acadians.” The Acadians (remember them?) were French settlers in Nova Scotia for 100-odd years until most of them were forcibly expelled by British military thugs in 1755. A few remained; many were deported to the then-French colony of Louisiana; some managed to return to the Bay of Fundy area and settle in what is now Canada’s only officially bilingual province, New Brunswick. Ferguson presents the Acadians as victims of history who nonetheless overcame the odds and remained big-hearted and prosperous. They are a model for the rest of us. In Ferguson’s view, if Quebec faced facts it would see it has nurtured a victim narrative out of proportion to the details of the past. If English Canada faced facts, it would see the plan to assimilate the First Nations was a disaster; it took too long for women to get the vote; Canada’s failure to accept Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany was one of the nation’s darkest hours. None of these events figure prominently in the book by Granatstein and Hillmer. They were not priorities of Canada’s PMs, and they are not the priorities of Canada’s leading historians. How boring – and unfortunate.