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Eminent Canadians: Candid Tales of Then and Now

by John Fraser

A decade ago, I suggested to my agent that I should do a book called “Eminent Canadians,” a Lytton Strachey-like job on the rich and powerful. Deflate the pompous and savage the powerful, in other words. Stanley Colbert said no one would be interested, so I turned to other projects. John Fraser presumably didn’t get that advice; if he did, he was wise to discount it, because in many ways his book is fascinating.

An update of Strachey’s Eminent Victorians it’s not, however. Fraser’s intent, explicitly stated, is not to debunk but to “redeem the dismissed and humanize the demonized.” Very Canadian, in other words. There are few harsh words, and the author’s approach is deeply conservative, religious, monarchical. John Fraser may be the last of the “old-style” Canadians who take such traits as biblical imperatives.

Fraser focuses on bishops, editors, prime ministers, and queens, in each case comparing one long dead with another still with us. He weaves a skillful tale around each pair, contrasting strengths and foibles and always finding the apposite phrase. The editors compared are George Brown, the founder of The Globe, and William Thorsell, the brilliant, “ego saturated” former editor of The Globe and Mail, a man desperate to achieve access to the country’s top players. His prime ministers are the pragmatists Wilfrid Laurier and Jean Chrétien; neither is treated with great perception, though Fraser just might be right in seeing Chrétien as the leader who brought Canada back from the brink of the 1995 Quebec referendum.

Fraser’s bishops, two Anglicans, are John Strachan, the heart of the Family Compact in Upper Canada, and Terence Finlay, who fell victim to his own efforts to force a gay priest out of the church. And his two monarchs, of course, are Victoria and Elizabeth. Only John Fraser would call two British queens “eminent Canadians” and think two bishops in a declining communion important. Prime ministers matter, of course, and so do editors. This book matters, too, because Fraser writes beautifully, knows a good story when he finds one, and loves to gossip. There is little new here, but the book works. A good thing Stanley Colbert wasn’t around to say “don’t do it.”