The Return of Canadian Historical Literature

A Great Period for Historical Political Literature in Canada

The book publishing industry, when it comes to works about political events and figures, seems to have recently become about who can get their book out faster. After the election of Barack Obama, countless works came pouring into book stores all over the world. When Ted Kennedy died, he suddenly began to compete with his brothers in both having books written about him and having those books sell until they were completely out of stock. In Canada, several books suddenly came into print when Stephen Harper became Prime Minister and more still followed after he instigated a Constitutional crisis in 2008. Michael Ignatieff launched his leadership of the federal Liberals with a new book about his Canadian heritage.

The result of all this is that the figures and issues in the modern day political arena, whether in Canada or elsewhere, are finally finding a market, even if sales eventually become fleeting as a new ‘it’ story rears it’s head.

Works on political history, however, have largely stayed unwritten as authors and readers focus on the here and now. In 2010 and 2011, that has changed.

2010 saw the printing of Lawrence Martin’s must read book Harperland. This book has recently been updated to include the victory of the Prime Minister in the 2011 election. The same year, John Boyko released what will likely be known as the official reference on Richard Bennett titled Bennett: The Rebel Who Challenged and Changed a Nation. John Ralston Saul also took up the torch and like Boyko, highlighted two less known figures in Canadian history in his book Louis-Hipppolyte & Robert Baldwin.

2011 has been an improvement even compared to 2010. This year, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the historic 1911 election between heavyweights Laurier and Borden, Patrice Dutil and Davis MacKenzie published Canada 1911. Richard Gwyn released the second half of his bigography on John A. Macdonald titled Nation Maker. Andre Pratte released Wilfrid Laurier, part of John Ralston Saul’s Extraordinary Canadians series. Allan Levine published the first work in years on Canada’s longest serving Prime Minister and titled it King: A Life Guided by the Hand of Destiny. And Last month, Paul Litt released Elusive Destiny, a biography on the political career of John Turner that the former Prime Minister actively cooperated with.

These books follow a decade of biographies about Prime Ministers of Canada as well as memoirs by Prime Ministers Mulroney, Chretien and Martin, released almost back to back to back to one another. This decade has also seen the first half of Richard Gwyn’s work on Macdonald, The Man Who Made Us. Lawrence Martin completed The Defiant Reign of Jean Chretien, a companion piece to a book he original wrote on the Prime Minister in 1995. Andrew Cohen recently wrote Lester Pearson for the Extraordinary Canadian series while Nino Ricci wrote Pierre Trudeau for the same series. John English, biographer of Pearson, wrote a two part series on Pierre Trudeau, Citizen of the World and Just Watch Me.

There is now a great amount of material available, written in just the last decade, that puts a fresh spin on our history or in some cases, sheds light on stories we were never told. My advice is to pick up any number of these books and use this fall to get in touch with Canadian political history.

‘Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine & Robert Baldwin’: John Ralston Saul, 2010

LaFontaine and BaldwinFist fights on the floor of Parliament between its members. A future Prime Minister, John A. Macdonald, attempting to duel with another member. The egging of a sitting Governor General, Lord Elgin, as he conducted the business of the country. Sandfield Macdonald, a future post-confederation Ontario premier, beaten unconscious in parliament. Parliamentarians of all political stripes banding together to ward off invading rebels in parliament, violently clashing with them. Rebels seizing the Mace and the Speaker’s chair, mocking parliament. Parliament itself pelted with stones until a gaslight was struck and the building itself began to burn to the ground. Members of parliament rushing to save the library and historical portraits of parliament but barely escaping with their lives. 23,000 books and the entire archives of Canada burnt to the ground with parliament, lost forever. The Solicitor General, shooting and wounding two people. Local papers calling for annexation of Canada by America. The Tory’s of parliament voting in support of annexation. Assassination plots on the sitting Prime Minister, LaFontaine, leading to several failed attempts and the destruction of his home by fire, set by rebels.

These were the events of the first year of a Canada comprised of a united Upper and Lower Canada under the political leadership of LaFontaine from Montreal and Baldwin from Toronto. These were the events that transpired after the arrival of Responsible Government.

Canadian history is largely considered by Canadians themselves to be boring. It is seldom that way. The work of Baldwin and LaFontaine to bring Responsible Government to Canada by way of what would become Ontario and Quebec ultimately altered the course of Canadian (and some would argue world) history, putting us on the path to Confederation and the true birth of the nation.

John Ralston Saul’s new book, part of the ‘Extraordinary Canadians’ series, chronicles this violent, revolutionary, and extremely important time in our history. It is the story of two men, strangers to one another and of entirely different heritage, who were brought together by their shared philosophy and together brought their ideals to all of Canada.

Saul argues that LaFontaine and Baldwin brought forth a new system not just for Canada, but for the world as Responsible Government would eventually spread all over the world over the following century. He suggests that this was an entirely new form of politics the world had never seen and it was selected over other models such as the republicanism seen in America.

Beyond this, Saul argues that we owe not just Responsible Government to these two men, who had inspiration from people like Baldwin’s father and Joseph Howe of Nova Scotia as well as help from others like Lord Elgin, the Governor General who risked his own reputation and life to help them. He suggests that the concept of restraint, of not fighting back and of avoiding violence was forged by these two men years before Ghandi would ever employ such tactics. Saul suggests that LaFontaine and Baldwin saw the key to any success for Canada as a nation lay in not adopting the old colonial ways of maintaining power by force.

Saul monitors the philosophical maturation of each man as they grew towards the beliefs they would be known for as well as each other. He tells of the sheer exhaustion both men felt after only one term in what was called the ‘Great Ministry’ and how all their efforts of reform had left them with little energy left to administer after changing the entire political landscape and then formulating the new way forward once in government.

Baldwin, tired of politics, eventually quit parliament, weeping as he gave his farewell speech which brought his fellow members to tears. LaFontaine soon followed, not willing to continue without his partner. Both men died not long after and each had society-stalling funerals in their respective home cities of Toronto and Montreal, funerals of a scale that reflected their importance to what would soon become Canada.

Yet modern Canadians generally know little if anything at all of either man. The Prime Minister and his deputy who governed at a time when John A. Macdonald was merely a freshman MP from Kingston, are ignored as founding fathers by most of Canada and even in the historic places of their story, little is left behind to commemorate that they ever existed or what they accomplished.

Baldwin’s impact on Toronto is his family’s impact. Osgood Hall, Spadina, Front Street… all linked to Baldwin and his family but will very little current awareness for that fact. LaFontaine, first elected in York in what is now Sharon, Ontario leaves behind the Sharon Temple, the religious home of the Quakers who supported him but little else. There is a monument to the two men at Parliament Hill in Ottawa in a back corner of the grounds. Elgin himself has a long stretch of road nearby named after him.

The legacy of these men is in effect everyday in Canadian governance but we should celebrate their accomplishments more than simply using their model. Canadians rarely celebrate their own history and without celebration there is often a tendency to forget altogether. Baldwin and LaFontaine are too important to forget.

Women, Power, Politics: Sylvia Bashevkin, 2009

In a new book, Sylvia Bashevkin looks at why women’s progress in politics seems stalled in this country. She is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. Her book is called “Women, Power, Politics: the Hidden Story of Canada’s Unfinished Democracy”.

Many great comments in this interview however one idea stood out for me personally and that was the idea of false familiarization with female politicians as they are referred to as their first names instead of in the respectful way men are often referred to as Mr. or by their title.

Belinda Stronach, a former female politician and cabinet minister, frequently argues for reforms to be brought to the system that would benefit women and encourage more female candidates to step forward. One such suggestion was documented in Maclean’s Magazine:

‘Lester B. Pearson’: Andrew Cohen

Andrew Cohen discusses his contribution to the book series ‘Extraordinary Canadians’ about the 14th Prime Minister of Canada, Lester Pearson. Andrew Cohen argues that few leaders have changed this country so profoundly in such a short time.

‘My Years as Prime Minister’: Jean Chrétien, 2007

Former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien sits down with Allan Gregg for a wide-ranging interview. They discuss Chrétien’s new memoir, My Years as Prime Minister, his views on the state of politics in Canada and his recent heart surgery. Released earlier this fall, the book chronicles the high points and challenges of Chrétien’s decade in office as Canada’s twentieth prime minister – from eliminating the deficit to the 1995 cliffhanger Quebec referendum to his decision to keep Canada out of the Iraq war, as well as the rift between Chretien and his successor, Paul Martin.

‘True Patriot Love’: Michael Ignatieff, 2009

The leader of the federal Liberals writes in a new memoir about his mother’s side of the family stretching back to Confederation, and how they influenced him. It’s called “True Patriot Love: Four Generations in Search of Canada”.

Who We Are: Canadian Citizenship Guide, 2010

Discover Canada(click on image to be re-directed to the citizenship guide)

Canada has welcomed generations of newcomers to our shores to help us build a free, law-abiding, and prosperous society. For 400 years, settlers and immigrants have contributed to the diversity and richness of our country, which is built on a proud history and a strong identity.

Canada is a constitutional monarchy, a parliamentary democracy and a federal state. Canadians are bound together by a shared commitment to the rule of law and to the institutions of parliamentary government.

Canadians take pride in their identity and have made sacrifices to defend their way of life. By coming to Canada and taking this important step toward Canadian citizenship, you are helping to write the continuing story of Canada.

Canadian citizens enjoy many rights, but Canadians also have responsibilities. They must obey Canada’s laws, and respect the rights and freedoms of others.

Canada is known around the world as a strong and free country. Canadians are proud of their unique identity. We have inherited the oldest continuous constitutional tradition in the world. We are the only constitutional monarchy in North America. Our institutions uphold a commitment to Peace, Order, and Good Government, a key phrase in Canada’s original constitutional document in 1867, the British North America Act. A belief in ordered liberty, enterprise, hard work, and fair play have enabled Canadians to build a prosperous society in a rugged environment from our Atlantic shores to the Pacific Ocean and to the Arctic Circle—so much so that poets and songwriters have hailed Canada as the “Great Dominion.”

To understand what it means to be Canadian, it is important to know about our three founding peoples— Aboriginal, French, and British.

Discover Canada, the Canadian Citizenship Study Guide