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Book Reviews

Building Canada: People and Projects That Shaped the Nation

by Jonathan Vance

If it is true, as Mackenzie King once said, that while some countries have too much history Canada has too much geography, then this book from University of Western Ontario history professor Jonathan Vance is the story of how we have overcome that geography. (Not that there’s any shortage of history here, either.)

Building Canada’s 12 chapters are organized into four sections, covering transportation (bridges, the Trans-Canada Highway, air travel), monumental buildings (legislatures, château hotels, cultural centres), rural Canada (mail, phones, electricity), and icons (grain elevators, towers, memorials). Each chapter is self-contained and rich in historical and personal anecdote.

Vance has amassed a wealth of facts and human-interest stories to enliven the past. These range from the bizarre (Colonel By’s celebrated ability to eat raw pork) to the quaint (the small Albertan telephone company in 1916 that used to call every subscriber with the latest news from the war). Vance also creates a wonderful sense of a lost time. Who, in our jaded present, could wax as eloquently over a 13-hour flight from Vancouver to Ottawa as this, from a dignitary in 1939: “the shining silver wings gave off a radiance that was almost golden”?

However, some things don’t change. Despite the naïve belief that rural telephones and decent roads would make us all better human beings, a disturbing number of those undertakings were plagued by rampant corruption, interprovincial squabbling, and self-interest that, as with the tragic saga of the Quebec Bridge collapse, often led to disaster.

Each project covered in Building Canada contributed to tying the country together and giving Canadians a sense of identity. This is obvious with something like a highway from Halifax to Victoria, but Vance makes a convincing case for less conspicuous projects such as the memorials designed by Emanuel Hahn.

Canada owes its distinct character to a lot of history and geography. Building Canada is a readable, entertaining, and accessible excursion into both. It will appeal to anyone who cares for our culture or has an interest in our past.