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Fights of Our Lives: Elections, Leadership, and the Making of Canada

by John Duffy

I must come clean here. Canadian history often puts me to sleep, a fact that may or may not make me the ideal reader for Fights of Our Lives. However, John Duffy’s account of the last 150 years of Canadian history has come closer to changing my mind than anything I’ve read on the subject.

The book is a history of Canada told in terms of the country’s “great” elections, judged according to the following criteria: the election entailed a “good fight,” meaning the result could go either way; it resolved some “nation shaking” issue; and it represented a milestone in the development of the Canadian democratic process.

Highlights among the chosen five include Wilfred Laurier’s first win in 1896 at a time when English-French relations were at a low ebb and threatened to pull the dangerously delicate Confederation into pieces. Duffy’s own favourite is the 1957-58 campaign that saw the irrepressible and irascible John Diefenbaker – the first Canadian politician to exploit the politics of image and position himself as a man with a vision – score his “two step” victory, a nationwide majority.

My favourite from Duffy’s five – perhaps because it was the first I have any memory of – is Trudeau’s debut win as prime minister in 1968. It was, as Duffy allows, the first campaign fought almost entirely on television, with Trudeau playing the hip hare to Robert Stanfield’s enervated tortoise. The campaign was about style and wit, and it certainly revitalized the country’s mood. However, since no one doubted the election’s outcome from the beginning, it lacks one of Duffy’s own criteria for greatness.

Each election is prefaced by an overview of all the background information readers need to know, and there are plenty of lively illustrations. Read in sequence, these clear and lively overtures provide an excellent summary of the high (and low) points in Canadian political history. In short, any Canadian history buff (and Duffy has made me consider becoming one), will really like this book.