Tag Archives: History of Canada series

Ice and Water by John English

Ice and water

After finishing Death on Two Fronts, I decided to read one more title from the History of Canada Series; I bought Ice and Water at the same time as the last book and it was next in the queue on my Kobo app, so I dove right in. I was looking forward to this title mainly because the actual subject matter interested me; I minored in Political Science and my graduate studies were in Island Studies so I was already fairly familiar with Arctic politics and some of the history around it. This is the fifth title in the History of Canada Series that I’ve read, and unfortunately, it was my least favorite so far. It wasn’t necessarily bad, it just didn’t live up to the expectations I went in with based on my experience with the previous four entries.

Ice and Water: Politics, Peoples, and the Arctic Council by John English is a look at the political history of the Arctic. English provides a bit of pre-World War II context, subsequently looks at Cold War era Arctic politics, and then zooms in on the formation and development of the Arctic Council that took place from the mid-1980s through to today. The book explores the relations between the “Arctic Eight” (Canada, US, Russia/Soviet Union, and the five Nordic countries), indigenous peoples (Inuit, Eskimos, and Saami), and NGOs (such as Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Federation) and how we ended up with the current international Arctic political dynamic. Topics such as sovereignty, defence, the environment, indigenous rights, and economic development are all examined through the lens of Northern politics.

Writing about contemporary history is very difficult – John English admits as much in his acknowledgements. Very little is archived, items may be classified in some way, many of the players are still politically active and therefore reluctant to speak candidly, media accounts that usually make up the primary sources may be unreliable, and most importantly it is hard to draw conclusions from events that have yet to be “concluded.” With that being said, John English must be one exceptionally well connected historian; his book is well researched, meticulously detailed, and leaves no stone unturned. I think it may be this meticulousness that made this title less enjoyable than previous History of Canada titles.

Ice and Water read more like a Master’s thesis than it did a general audience history. It wasn’t written in social science-ese but was very steeped in the conventions of political science and historical academic writing. This caused the book to be very heavy and dense; I usually read in bed at the end of the day and found myself exhausted after about the equivalent of 20 pages – making this is a very slow-read. I read this on my Kobo but the hardcover is almost 400 pages (which I’d argue is a lot for such a topic as Arctic politics).

I don’t want to leave the impression that I didn’t enjoy the book. I liked it, I just didn’t love it. If you have an interest in political history, international relations or Cold War politics, then you may enjoy this, even though it is a bit of a slow slog to finish. If, on the other hand, you like Canadian history but are not interested in any of the aforementioned topics, I would skip this one.

I’ve read only histories and academic titles for over a year now and it was fun while it lasted. But now, my brain needs a shift in my reading list. May 2013 was the last time I read a novel or book of poetry. The time has come to delve back into the exciting world of hardcore CanLit. Here we go…

Advertisements

Death on Two Fronts by Sean Cadigan

death two fronts

It’s been over a year since my last book review and what a year it’s been. I completed a year of graduate studies in the fascinating, yet obscure, field of Island Studies. And, last but not least, my wife and I had a baby; our little bundle Gavin was born on November 4th, 2013. Now that he’s almost ten months old and actually sleeps through the night, and since I’ve completed all of the academic pursuits I’ll be pursuing for a while, I’m able to start pleasure reading again; so of course, that means new blog posts. Hopefully I haven’t forgotten how to review books, but surely you’ll forgive me if this first one in 15 months seems a little rusty.

For my first book read in almost a year, I decided to start with another title in Penguin’s History of Canada Series that I seem to lust after (in the literary sense). Death on Two Fronts: National Tragedies and the Fate of Democracy in Newfoundland, 1914-34 by Sean Cadigan is one the latest additions to the series. This book charts two decades of political culture in Newfoundland, spanning the years 1914 to 1934. The history is book-ended with the infamous Newfoundland sealing disaster of 1914 (which Kent Stetson dramatized in The Harps of God) and the end of responsible government culminating with the defacto return to crown colony status in 1934. The focus during the intervening years is obviously World War I and its effect on the Dominion of Newfoundland. Cadigan works his story around Newfoundland’s two fronts: the war front in Europe and the domestic political struggles at home.

Cadigan chronicles all of important events during this period with the vivid details and meticulously researched insight  – the Newfoundland disaster, WWI battles like Beaumont Hamel and Gallipoli, and the rise of progressive politics and its subsequent collapse. The major political players during the time are the primary figures and Cadigan often uses contemporaneous newspaper editorials to set the stage and situate the contrasting views prevailing in the Dominion at the time.

Newfoundland, during the period Cadigan explores, is a perfect example of “the island” acting as a microcosm of what was, and currently is, taking place in larger states. What I most enjoyed about Cadigan’s book was how relevant it is to today’s political and economic situations. Newfoundland was faced with an extremely polarized political culture and media (a la Fox News and MSNBC), a populace that increasingly demanded publicly funded services with no thoughts given to the cost, public debt that was completely unmanageable, and rising disillusionment with the political process and liberal democracy as a whole. While it is obvious to the reader with a century of hindsight how desperate the government was becoming (selling Labrador was considered a viable option to raise cash) and what the ultimate fate of Newfoundland would be, it was not clear to those involved until the very last moment.

This book worked for me on many levels: the writing was fabulous, the book was well researched, the selection of photographs were wonderful, the subject matter is as relevant today and it was in the early 20th century, the history was analyzed intelligently without being written in social-scienese (which is a challenging task) and the author masterfully balanced details with wide-lens scene-setting. Death on Two Fronts is a fantastic addition to The History of Canada series.

The Best Place to Be by John Lownsbrough

John Lownsbrough’s The Best Place to Be: Expo 67 and Its Time is the ninth entry in the History of Canada series published by Penguin Canada. As the title implies, it is the story of Expo 67, Canada’s centennial celebration held on constructed islands in Montreal. I was born in 1982, so I obviously didn’t attend the festivities and prior to reading this book I knew almost nothing about Expo 67 (except of course for what those Heritage Moments taught me); that is why this book titillated my interest. I learned a lot of interesting tidbits about the fair, but, unfortunately, this book did not live up to the expectations that its History of Canada brethren set up for it.

Among the positives in Lownsbrough’s book were the incredible detail he described and the way in which he tied the events of Expo into the wider context of Canadian culture and world events. I had no idea what Expo was all about and that it was such a large event. Dozens of countries setup pavilions, the various Canadian regions setup buildings, as did corporations, there was a giant amusement park, and, of course, Habitat – the one element of Expo I had certainly heard of and seen. Expo was a celebration of Canada, the world, and, as the Expo theme bluntly stated, “Man and His World.” The impression that I was left with after reading the book and looking up photos, was that this was a venerable artistic paradise. Avant-garde film, in both content and technology, was everywhere; the pavilions were bacchanalias of architectural prowess; and all manners of visual art were never more than 2 minutes away.

In addition to his lucid descriptions of the sights, Lownsbrough also made one point exceptionally clear: the men running Expo were unbelievably dedicated to the event and they knew that they were undertaking something special. The author did a fantastic job of setting the political scene for Expo; this event involved some very bombastic personalities, not the least of whom was Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau and eventual Parti Quebecois leader Rene Levesque.

Unfortunately though, The Best Place to Be could have been better. All of the other History of Canada books follow the convention of single author history books of telling the story in a linear, narrative fashion.  This book instead devoted each chapter to an individual element of the Expo, be it the people, the buildings, the context, VIP guests, etc. While I would not normally be that bother by this, there was no sequential logic to the chapters and the way they jumped around made the book feel disconnected and disorganized. The quality of writing wasn’t nearly as good as many of the high quality history books I have read in the last few years – it felt like the author was trying to be witty, but not very well. Finally, Expo was a very visual, tactile experience – the dearth of photographs in the volume was very disappointing. I read the Kobo ebook and I think there were in total maybe 20 screens worth of pictures (so about 10 pages in print) and there were no maps. This did not do it justice; going online I found thousands of beautiful and rich photos in the National Archives that were far superior to anything included in the volume.

Despite the book’s shortcomings, if you’re interested in Expo 67 or are a fan of the History of Canada series, I would recommend picking this up. It does provide some neat insight into the event and it is a good starting point if you were like me and knew nothing about this important milestone in our cultural history. As a closing note on Expo 67, there are rentals currently available apparently at Habitat 67 (although way out of my price range). Click here.

The Destiny of Canada by Christopher Pennington

cover_the_destiny_of_canada_lg

Penguin’s History of Canada series is one of my new favorite collections. I’ve collected all of the paperback releases and have them on a shelf with Oxford’s Wynford books and Penguin’s other fantastic series, Extraordinary Canadians. The Destiny of Canada, Christopher Pennington’s tale of the 1891 federal election, is the second book in the series that I have read (the first being The Last Act). Pennington takes the reader into the backrooms of the Macdonald and Laurier campaign; legends of Canadian history become fascinating characters (Sir Charles Tupper is my favorite). This book is like porn for the political junkie but is written in a way that anyone with even a passing interest in Canadian history will enjoy.

Pennington’s research was incredibly thorough. It is clear that he must have read thousands of newspaper articles as well as previous academic research. The tone of the book is somewhat sardonic; Pennington goes into great depth on the rampant corruption in almost every element of Canadian politics, but, instead of taking a judgmental tone, he simply expounds the details with a tongue-in-cheek wit. The author makes the case that the 1891 election was one of the most important in our history and it has largely been overlooked. Canada never had an election like the 1860 US vote, where the outcome would bring Earth-shattering consequences; the 1891 election was probably the closest to that which we have had. At stake, argues Pennington, was the fate of Canada. Would we travel down a road that would possibly lead to American annexation or would we stay on the current path which was bringing about severe economic hardships?

Sir John A. Macdonald was the star of the book. Laurier was obviously important, but at this early point in his career, he didn’t have the same gravitas as Sir John. I’ve really come to the conclusion, after reading many books on early Confederation, that Sir John A. was a Machiavellian political master. He did have major accomplishments: he was a leader Father of Confederation and under his reign he added all the territory save Newfoundland to the country, completed the railway, instituted the National Policy, and created what would become the RCMP. But, he also manipulated, bribed, “boodled,” and did just about anything imaginable to hang on to power. The author notes in the epilogue that Laurier was the same when he came to power. This behavior has to be taken into context though; this was perfectly normal and somewhat accepted as politics as usual in Canada in the 19th century. These details have simply been scrubbed out of junior high history books.

The book is filled with all kinds of interesting tidbits. It was common for individuals to run in multiple ridings to hedge their bets and running and serving concurrently in provincial and federal houses was common. And, what interested me very much, were the mentions of the insanely ambitious discussions in the 1880s and 90s to build a tunnel from PEI to NB.

The Destiny of Canada is a fantastic entry in the History of Canada series. It is very readable, it has a solid narrative flow, it is incredibly well researched, it is both balanced and thorough and there are several pages of portraits of the important figures and a good number of editorial cartoons. This book would be enjoyed by Canadian history enthusiasts, political junkies, or anyone who enjoys quasi-political TV shows like The West Wing or Veep.

The other titles in the History of Canada series cover Expo 67, the 1981 constitutional debate, the Fenians, WWII in the St. Lawrence, and the Plains of Abraham battle. Get these on you bookshelves. The History of Canada Series

The Last Act by Ron Graham

Shortlisted for the 2011 Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing

Globe and Mail Top 100 Book – 2011

The Last Act by Ron Graham is from Penguin’s new History of Canada series. When I first saw this series in the bookstore, with titles exploring the legendary 1891 federal election, the now mythic Plains of Abraham battle, Expo 67, and the German U-boat battles in the St. Lawrence, I almost had a stroke induced by excitement. A quality series of books, by very reputable writers, digging into events that are known at at least in a general way by the Canadian citizenry  is something to be celebrated. I immediately grabbed a pile of these titles and headed to the cash. Since I just finished Donald Creighton’s pair of histories on Canada, I figured this book would be a good follow-up.

Two great things happened to Canada in 1982: I was born and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms was passed. Ron Graham’s The Last Act: Pierre Trudeau, the Gang of Eight, and the Fight for Canada is an account of the November 1981 conference that resulted in severing one of the last lingering remnants of colonialism. (Eventually we will sever the last and get rid of that anachronistic monarchy that is still technically our Head-of-State). This meeting brought about constitutional patriation, the Charter, an amending formula, and set into motion the wheels of the Quebec sovereignty movement that culminated in the 1995 referendum. While the book focuses on the events of November 4 and 5, there is a great prologue giving historical context and a fantastic epilogue discussing Mulroney’s failed Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords. Ron Graham has written a masterpiece of Canadian political history; it is highly readable and accessible, but also very thoroughly researched and scrupulously cited with a huge bibliography. In years to come, The Last Act will be looked at as an authoritative text on the 1981 constitutional debate.

Something that is interesting about Graham’s writing style is, with the exception of his epilogue, the utter neutrality he takes towards the people involved, especially Rene Levesque whom he tries to portray in as sympathetic manner as possible. As a reader though, depending on your ideological tendencies, you will definitely end up taking sides and developing strong dislikes of certain players (for instance I would have liked to beat Peter Lougheed and Sterling Lyon with a rubber hose).

This book could have become bogged down in philosophical notions of federalism, the role of the courts, and constitutionalism. These ideas are present, but they come out in the words of the players themselves through interviews, quotes, and their general actions. After reading Creighton’s The Road to Canada and learning about how opposed the Fathers of Confederation were to the concept of “provincial rights” and their destructive nature, I was fascinated by the importance of it in the negotiations.

I have always been a huge admirer of Pierre Trudeau, and this book did nothing but deepen that admiration. Trudeau took the long view. By introducing the Charter, he ensured fundamental freedoms for all Canadians. The political scientist in me firmly believes that for a liberal-democracy to function in the interests of its citizens, checks-and-balances need to be in place. The Charter provides this; important changes in Canada’s social fabric were brought about because of the Charter, changes that politicians would be terrified to touch (reproductive rights, same-sex marriage, safe-injection sites, and soon hopefully, assisted suicide). Trudeau was a Canadian visionary, but above all, he was a shrewd political mind, and love him or hate him, in November 1981, he was definitely the smartest guy in the room.

%d bloggers like this: