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Canada: A People’s History Volume Two

by Don Gillmor,Achille Michaud, and Pierre Turgeon

Some historians have complained bitterly that the grand sweep, the great events, of Canadian history are being forgotten or deliberately ignored. What a surprise it was then that millions of 21st-century Canadians sat in front of their TV sets watching Canada: A People’s History, a television series that resurrected what is customarily thought to be the dullest of subjects, the history of Canada.
Accompanying the CBC telecast was the first volume of Canada: A People’s History. Together they covered Canadian history up to the 1870s; the second series and its accompanying tome deal with the period from the 1870s to the 1990s. Elections, prime ministers, the First and Second World Wars, and the Korean War are all comprehensively covered. There is space for the rise and fall of politicians like Ontario’s oafish Liberal premier in the 1930s, Mitch Hepburn, with his apocalyptic union-busting rhetoric. The misery of the Great Depression and the Saskatchewan Dust Bowl are vividly described, but so is the simultaneous high life in the nightclubs and hotels of Montreal and Toronto.
Volume Two, like its predecessor, is lavishly and intelligently illustrated. A particularly valuable feature is its frequent references to personalities and events beyond Canada’s borders: pictures by Miró and Picasso illustrate the Spanish Civil War; a prose sketch of Dr. Freud enhances the discussion of pre-1914 Canada. The authors do not forget that Franklin D. Roosevelt enjoyed great personal acclaim in Canada. This is a book, then, that is not blinkered by a false sense of nationalism or Canadian insularity: it recreates the world, physical and mental, that Canadians actually lived in.
The authors also skilfully use individual lives to illustrate the history of a particular place or period. For the Klondike gold rush of 1898, it is Martha Purdy, later Martha Black, a Chicago socialite who found her way over the Chilkoot Pass to Dawson, stayed, married, and eventually became Canada’s second female Member of Parliament. For the Imperial era at the turn of the century and through the First World War, it is John McCrae, doctor and poet, whose life illuminates the era when many Canadians placed their hopes and their patriotism in the development of a place for Canada in the British Empire.
Volume Two gives a great deal of space, as any comprehensive history must, to the complicated life of Mackenzie King, Canada’s longest serving prime minister. King was a quintessential compromiser, a man born with an innate sense of political balance. In Canadian history he is best known and most appreciated for his leadership during the Second World War, in which he prevented a definitive clash between the enthusiastic English-Canadian majority and the reluctant French-Canadian minority.
The authors cover Mackenzie King’s life extensively, presenting the incongruous (his conversations with the dead via mediums) along with the admirable (his sense of social progress as well as his sensitivity to Canada’s principal and politically crucial minority, the French Canadians). But like most historians who have studied this man of contradictions, Gillmor and company do not quite know what to make of King.
There are irritating elements in the book. Like the makers of the television series, the authors are relentlessly left-liberal in their approach – not so far left as to lose their readers, but far enough, one suspects, to irritate some of the pundits at the National Post.
More centrist readers may also be occasionally disturbed by the political bias. Mackenzie King is properly condemned for his fatuous impressions of Hitler when he visited Germany in 1937 (the book says 1938). The authors fail to mention that King also told some of Hitler’s ministers that if war came between Germany and Great Britain, Canada would be firmly at Britain’s side and that many Canadians would wish to swim the Atlantic to get to the fighting.
Canada’s romantic 1930s icon, Dr. Norman Bethune, gets a great deal of space – deservedly, for Bethune’s life is a romantic story, and the good doctor was an eloquent writer and passionate man. But if Mackenzie King is to be pilloried for his foolish appraisal of der Führer, what are we to make of Bethune, who sacrificed his life in the monstrous Mao Zedong’s guerrilla army in China? Mao’s millions of victims are not mentioned, but his monuments to Bethune are presented as a source of Canadian national pride.
These are, on the whole, minor defects. The verdict must be that, though not a perfect book, Volume Two delivers a pleasurable and informative read.