Canada's History

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Articles / Canada's History / 2007 - 2008

Canada's History

(first published in The Beaver, April/May 2007)

1. If You Need Proof that the Sixties Really Existed…

I once heard of a girl from Hamilton, Ontario, who chose a smart little outfit that day and let herself get separated from her Catholic-school class tour group as soon as they came up out of the Métro on Ile Sainte-Hélène and she met Yvan or something from Outremont and they toured the Soviet Pavilion and Man the Producer and they rode the blue mini-rail but the lines for Labyrinth were way too long so they went to the Canada 360 film-in-the-round and everyone was so friendly everywhere and so sophisticated, and she kissed him at Katimavik and he took her to the fireworks at La Ronde and then the nuns sent her home to Ontario and now she has daughters older than she was then but she remembers it like scenes from a Claude Lelouch movie with split screens and a pop-strings soundtrack and she thinks whatever became of that boy Yvan and where did she find that great little outfit and she thinks, yeah, baby, that was my ‘sixties moment, Expo ‘67 in Montreal, Terre des Hommes.

Okay, I’m not sure every detail in that story can be fact-checked. In fact, I think we need a warning here: age-sensitive material. If you are under fifty now, you were probably too young. Over seventy-five, you were pushing forty then and may have missed some of the allure. There will be historical significance in this article. But if you really cannot stand more boomer gloating about their g-g-generation, you had better flip to the book reviews or something, because some of that may be hard to avoid here.

From the midst of the fair, the great Montreal writer Hugh Hood declared, "It's too much, baby; it's something else, total environment, Romantic synaesthesia, the way things are." We really did talk that way, as if to have been young and part of Expo ‘67 … what was that Wordsworth line from English class? … ‘was very heaven.’

2. It was Gonna be a Disaster.

“I was living about a hundred yards from Pie IX Blvd which seemed to be the major route for all the trucks taking the fill to the islands' site. For about a year, that street, a main Montréal thoroughfare, was covered in dirt. Mud, on a rainy day.” (Alan, a Montrealer, in his twenties in 1967)

Moscow actually won the competition to hold a 1967 world exposition. Montreal only got the nod after the Soviets backed out. It was a very late start. The Diefenbaker government was not very interested. No one believed the boasts of Montreal’s Mayor Jean Drapeau. The plan to build new islands for the fair in the St. Lawrence River looked seriously crazy. Well into 1964, government officials were whispering about how to postpone a World’s Fair. Canadians expected the whole thing to be a big stupid ugly blight upon the nation.

Then the nations of the world signed on. And the islands were not washed away, and upon them arose a spectacular skyline of pavilions and pleasure domes. And somehow the whole place seemed to plug itself into the very best of the world at that moment. From the day it opened, April 28, 1967, it was the place everyone in the world wanted to be. Canadians realized they had always known it was going to be wonderful.

3. Three who made the fair: Drapeau, Dupuy, Churchill

Drapeau was an amazing electrifying little man, and word began to go out, “We’re going to have a Métro and a world’s fair,” and we were hearing about how they were building new islands, which was weird. And then on the Ed Sullivan Show, Ed introduced Jean Drapeau! That’s when we said, ‘My God, this is really big.’ Montreal was so proud in 1967. It was making history. It was the centre of Canada. (Carol, a Montrealer, 18 that year)

Jean Drapeau was mayor of Montreal most years from 1950 to 1986, and though Expo ‘67 was not his idea, he made it happen. His career would not end well, with that Olympic debt and the megalomania, but in the early sixties he brought Montreal its Place des Arts, and the spectacular new Métro, and a wave of urban redevelopment ­ and the fair.

Pierre Dupuy, Canada’s senior diplomat, became Commissionaire-General of Expo in 1963. When they said he “sold Canada and Expo to the world,” Dupuy denied it. He said he simply made the nations of the world see it was in their interest to be part of the greatest world’s fair ever. Sixty-two countries responded to his invitation, a record number. Fifty million people came to see, half again more than were expected.

Dupuy quickly recruited a team of anglophone and francophone Canadians to build his Expo. Colonel Edward Churchill, a Canadian Forces engineer who took charge of construction, used a computer to set a “critical path” building schedule. At the time, computerized management and critical-path engineering were so advanced they seemed like magic. What really was critical was Churchill’s irresistible insistence: those deadlines had to be met.

4. A Triumph for Designers

How impressed we were with Habitat. It had terrific ideas, so novel, so many ideas. Just the way that the apartments did not have views straight up and down like a typical high rise but were beautifully staggered and angled. It was complex and interesting everywhere you looked. (Blanche, in her forties then, who took the train from Penticton, B.C, with her husband and three teenaged children)…. They had designed and developed the whole area just to walk around in. Even the trash bins were designed -- to be useful but also to fit in and to be part of the overall design. (John from Toronto, in his thirties with small children)

In 1968, Robert Fulford published This Was Expo, a souvenir picture book that is also an astute critical study. Fulford guessed that a key legacy of the fair might well be its architecture. The apartment complex Habitat, pre-built without being cookie-cutter, made Moshe Safdie’s reputation. Fulford loved Buckminster Fuller’s American pavilion, a spectacular geodesic dome, then the largest ever built, and Germany’s airy tent, an innovation in space-frame construction. Fulford quoted one architect who found Expo’s buildings “the most exciting collection of buildings I’ve ever seen.”

Yet it wasn’t the buildings. Expo ‘67 was one of North America’s first encounters with a cityscape designed for pleasure, a place that mixed education and leisure and commerce, a place for friendly crowds to stroll and enjoy the view and eat well and shop and see a show. Vancouver’s Granville Island, Halifax’s Waterfront Properties, Winnipeg’s Forks, and that place down by the bend of the Bow River in Calgary, they all have a little of Expo ’67 in their genes. Fulford credits a Colombian designer, Luis Villa, with the elegant design concepts that pulled it together.

5. Terre des Hommes, a secular celebration

We were going with our school classes and they were trying to educate us, while the kids older than us were having fun. They were visiting “other countries,” and you knew by next year they would be doing that for real, actually backpacking the world. At Expo everything was so new and so international. (Rita, Montrealer, age 12)

Pierre Dupuy said most world’s fairs chose a theme and then forgot about it. Terre des Hommes/Man and His World ­ an image inspired by the French writer and visionary Antoine de Saint-Exupéry ­ actually worked. Expo became one of the first flowerings of that secular humanist sense of global sharing, technological possibility, creative prowess, and sheer confidence in humanity’s power and potential. It was mostly a triumph of the west. China was not represented, Africa just barely, and Latin America only a little. In Stephen Gill’s novel Immigrant, a South Asian visitor to Expo is asked for his autograph, just because he is exotic. But you could not miss this breezy confidence that humankind could learn to do great things. And once the designs were perfected, man’s world was going to be wonderful.

6. “La découverte de la fiérté”

We could see Expo ‘67 ahead of the ship as we came into Montreal. In the early morning, the glitter of Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome ­ it was full of hope and optimism. I was excited about Canada, about a new life. Montreal was wonderful, truly a great city. And my first sight of Canada was Expo. (Trysh, an immigrant from Britain in her early 20s)

When he wrote a memoir, Pierre Dupuy called it Expo ‘67, ou la découverte de la fiérté. The discovery of pride. “What’s got into our good gray neighbour?” asked the Americans. The Brits said Expo had glitter and sex appeal and it was … Canadian? Dupuy believed the surge of confidence and pride in shared achievement and international recognition would change Canada forever. On opening day, the journalist Peter C. Newman wrote, “This is the greatest thing we have ever done as a nation.”

There’s a moment in almost every decade when Canada “becomes a nation,” and Expo ‘67 was surely one of those. In the midst of the marvelously successful Centennial celebrations, Expo ’67 made many Canadians more proud and patriotic than they had ever felt before.

Canada’s own pavilion was centered on a vast inverted pyramid called Katimavik, the meeting place. Though there was not much to do there, “there was weeping, it made us so happy,” one Canadian remembers. “Because we had no idea of what the rest of the country thought of us, and suddenly we were checking in with other Canadians who had a secret: we really have a country. You were always meeting people, we were touching people, we were saying, ‘I can’t believe this is happening.’”

7. Changing our relationship with the movies

Film on the wall and on the ceiling and everywhere, all the fabulous films. The, Ontari-ar-ario film and all those split up images. I saw a live birth of a baby on film, and I had never seen anything like that. .(Judith, age 12, who drove with her mother from Espanola, Ontario) … I remember most the 360 in the round film, probably old hat now, but I really clearly remember holding on to the railing as the helicopter swooped., (Barbara, early 20s, a British Columbian with a civil-service job in Ottawa)

Patrick Watson conceived the Heritage Minutes from a memory of the one-minute film festival he attended at Expo ’67. The people who developed IMAX were veterans of the National Film Board’s mega-screen Expo hit Labyrinth, where you walked through the movie and the images came at you from all sides. Czechoslovakia sent the first interactive film, a movie where the audience got to vote among branching plot options.

Film suddenly burst the boundaries of single-screens and static audiences at Expo ’67, and the visual image announced it was about to go all interactive and multi-screen and omnipresent. The world did not go to Expo for the movies, but there the movies seized the world by the eyeballs, the way they have been doing ever since.

It was more than movies. Robert Fulford in 1968: “At Expo it became possible to envision a world in which all the resources previously available to private industries and to show business ­ film, lighting, models, carefully organized environments -- would be used by professional educators” in schools, galleries, and museums. Electronic education. Edu-tainment. For better or worse, we have been living there ever since.

8. “Today Expo is part of the Québécois identity.”

“En 67 tout était beau/C’etait l’année d’l’amour, c’était l’année d’l’Expo” (Quebec supergroup Beau Dommage, “Blues d’la métropole,” 1975)

“Everyone seized on this extraordinary thing that was Expo 67 to create a flattering and celebratory idea of Quebec,” writes Laval University anthropologist Pauline Curien. Her 2003 doctoral thesis on Expo 67 examines how Expo marked a new moment in the self-image of French Quebec. At Expo 67, she argues, a modern francophone Québécois supplanted the folkloric French Canadian as the image the people of Quebec held of themselves. At Expo, Quebeckers simply chose to become modern.

People joked that the pavilions of Quebec and Ontario had been switched. Where Ontario’s airy tent was mostly joie de vivre, Quebec’s cool glass cube spoke of energy and technology and urban sophistication. In her thesis, Curien argues that Quebec’s pavilion conveyed the image of a society freed of its past and turned toward a future where faith, tradition, and the Catholic Church gave way to reason, modernity, and the state.

Expo ’67 proved that those traditional French-Canadian Catholic farm families had given birth to one of the coolest peoples in the world. Quebec did not discover itself; it discovered what it was capable of. Expo’s message about global reach, secular prowess, and the glories of the modern world was young Quebec’s discovery as well.

9. The Girls of Expo.

My sister worked at Expo. She wore the little hostess outfits designed by John Warden. You went to Montreal to see the women. There were minis and pantsuits, and everyone was gorgeous. (Carol, Montreal, age 18)

Reading the documents and guides of the moment, you would think there had never been pretty girls before, or that men had never noticed them. From forty years on, it’s amazing how much everyone writing in 1967 mentioned “the girls” of Expo as if they were part of the design, something to gaze upon in delight. Hostesses were beautiful and bilingual and they wore smart designer outfits and their hair was long and straight. In fact, that was every girl in Montreal that summer, if you believe what they were writing. It really was “Man and His World.” Today, I guess we would not even dare to call it that.

10. Just being there.

The crowds ­ I loved them, that happy crowd thing, the buzz of being caught up in the event, I love a mob scene when it’s like that. It was French, it was sophisticated, and there was so much going on. The whole mood of the Expo was so fresh, now, happening. La Ronde, it was a great place to spend time. (Elaine, 21, frequent visitor from New Hampshire)

It was crowded. From the very first days until the closing in October, there were many more visitors than anyone predicted. There were crises with accommodations. There were scandals over food supply. There was panic over the long, slow lineups that wound around most popular pavilions all day and every day.

Forty years later, the only ones who remember any of that were parents who had to cope with the needs of young children. For the rest the crowds were fun, the food was good and interesting, and memories of the long waits have faded. Time and again, people then and people now agree: the real joy of Expo ’67 was just being part of it.

“I saw the Bolshoi Orchestra at Place des Arts. The wealth of material performed at Place des Arts that summer! It was just so rich. It was an amazing moment for Canadian culture, with our art and design and the best of all the world all in one place. The cultural stuff truly was extraordinary. Montreal, I fell in love with Montreal. (Guenther, 17, from Cambridge, Ontario)

“It was a time of euphoria like no other, a sudden consciousness of where we belonged, of being Canadian.” (Gunda, a young adult newly returned to Canada from Europe)

©Christopher Moore Editorial Ltd, 2007

(first published in The Beaver, October/November 2007)

I don’t really have a bumper sticker that says, “We brake for plaques.” But my beginnings in historical practice go back to the historic sites service of Parks Canada, so I’ve long been engaged with the way Time gets rooted in Place -- and vice versa. It’s not hard to get me to stop for any historical place.

My family, fortunately, aids and abets this enthusiasm. Over the years, we have explored historic sites and read historical plaques from Cape Spear, Nfld., to White Pass Summit, Yukon.

This past summer, we did not venture far from home. But historical news is where you find it. One morning, in a Toronto neighbourhood not far from my own, I was stopped in my tracks by a poster with the headline “Teiaiagon.”

I knew Teiaiagon. It was an Iroquois fortified town that briefly thrived in the mid-1600s on a headland commanding the Humber River on the west side of Toronto. But who cared enough about historical Teiaiagon to be slapping posters about it on postal boxes and power poles in the neighbourhood where it once stood?

The Missing Plaques project cared.

Toronto activist Tim Groves, the guiding spirit of Missing Plaques, first went out with “a steaming bucket of wheat paste and a roll of posters” in December 2002. He wanted to tell the Christie Pits neighbourhood of Toronto about the 1933 riot there that pitted swastika-waving Nazi sympathizers against the local Jewish community. In Groves’ view, that is the kind of incident that goes “missing” from official, civic-booster historical plaques. His direct-action response to historical amnesia at Christie Pits became the first of fifteen “Missing Plaques” posters he has put up in various Toronto neighbourhoods.

“I don’t have bureaucrats censoring and editing the histories to make sure they portray Toronto in a favourable light,” Groves writes on the Missing Plaques website. His illustrated posters include such recently-controversial topics as Toronto’s Bathhouse Raids of 1981 and “Revenue Rez,” a 29-day First Nations occupation of Revenue Canada’s Toronto headquarters in 1994. But Missing Plaques also takes note of older events: an 1882 strike by women shoemakers, ancient Teiaiagon. Groves has found a vehicle to combine his interests in graphic design, radical politics, and local history, and he’s enriching our urban spaces at the same time.

Missing Plaques may be part of a trend. Along Montreal’s “Main,” the Boulevard St-Laurent, you can explore the history and culture of the neighbourhood through an elaborate network of art and information called “Frag.” Frag has more official standing and sponsorship than Toronto’s Missing Plaques, but it too was the inspiration of neighbourhood artists and urbanists. No doubt other initiatives I have not yet noticed document other half-forgotten moments across the country.

One group applies new media to the places where history happened. The “Murmur” Collective spurns low-tech plaques and installations as positively 20th century. It prefers history by cell phone. In neighbourhoods around Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal, Murmur puts up its logo and a phone number. You spot the logo, open your cell phone, input the number. And you hear a story rooted in the scene that’s right in front of you. Murmur sites have blossomed in San Jose, California, Dublin, Ireland, and Edinburgh, Scotland as well as the Canadian cities. But Shawn Micallef, one of Murmur’s founders, thinks the inspiration was pure Toronto. “In Toronto, people think important things happen elsewhere. They don’t mythologize Toronto. So we were reacting to that.”

Asked if they worry about accuracy and historical significance, Micallef says simply, “No.” Murmur, he says, is storytelling, it’s local mythology. “We are not historical plaques. Plaques are important, they are official. If you disagree with the stories we’ve recorded, we’ll let you record your own.”

Accessing stories by cell phone, we are a long way from bronze texts on stone cairns duly authorized by city council or the National Historic Sites and Monuments Board. But bronze, it turns out, is an endangered species anyway. The Toronto civic agency responsible for official plaques went missing after the mega-city amalgamation ten years ago and has never really got going again. And in Montreal the plaques are quite literally missing. A year ago, 28 of the 85 commemorative plaques in Old Montreal had been stolen for the value of the metal in them.

Some independent plaquing projects profess to confront a constraining “official” narrative of our history. Activists like Toronto’s Tim Groves draw inspiration from urban organizing, radical politics, and street art. “Many of the people who do work around the city’s history… focus on the history of the British and the rich,” the Missing Plaque project declares. It seeks the histories that Toronto denies.

I’m not so sure. It’s true the alternative plaquers document much that is unlikely ever to be cast in official bronze. (Though not far from Missing Plaques’ Teiaiagon poster, there’s a substantial Toronto Parks panel on the same subject.) But the most important thing these projects offer is not their confrontation with “official” history. Many people won’t know the official history either. Amnesia and apathy about history strike me as more substantial targets for creative citizens than some paper-tiger official narrative.

What the underground installation artists and poster makers really confront is that sense that History belongs to some official agency ­ or to no one. What’s most exciting about Frag, Murmur, and Missing Plaques (and all their siblings I’ve not discovered) is their faith that history belongs to all of us, to citizens. History in our neighbourhoods need not be left exclusively to public agencies. Historical speech really is a form of free speech. It has as much right to be political and provocative as any other medium.

All we need do is seize it. Or, where possible, dial it up.

Correction: I wrote here that Toronto's official heritage agency became inactive after Toronto's merger with neighbouring cities in 1997. ON publication, Heritage Toronto informed me that since 2004 it has been back in operation and installing new plaques to commemorate Toronto heritage. Good!

Missing Plaques showcases its Toronto poster work at
Murmur’s audio tales can be heard at, and
Montreal’s FRAG is online at

©Christopher Moore Editorial Ltd, 2007

(first published in The Beaver, February/March 2007)

We shouldn't believe that Canadian writing began in the late 1960s -- and historical writing even later. Recall, for instance, James H. Gray. Gray's first book, The Winter Years, appeared way back in 1966 and immediately gained a large and enthusiastic audience across the country. A vigorously written memoir-history of the Depression and a young Winnipegger's experience of it, The Winter Years became the first of a stream of James Gray histories of the prairie West.

Gray's pioneering role among popular historical writers was part of what attracted Calgary writer Brian Brennan, himself the author of several books on Alberta history, to write How the West was Written: The Life and Times of James H. Gray. In Gray Brennan saw an inspiration - someone who wrote a dozen lively Canadian histories that sold well and widely and won critical praise and many honours.

But Brennan finds in Gray not only an inspiration, but also an object lesson in the challenges of writing history in Canada. That first book? Gray actually wrote it in the 1940s and could not get it published for twenty years. Although he was both prolific and popular, he hardly made a living from his books. And both he and Brennan have wondered if you can be a successful Canadian writer if you don't live in Toronto and you write about a "region."

Like Berton, like Broadfoot, like Newman (all of whom he could claim to predate as a historian), Jimmy Gray began his writing career in newspapers. But they all came of age in or after the Second World War; his formative years were the twenties and the thirties. He had grown up in the hustle and flow of the new prairie West in the full flood of its growth -- and then saw that growth stopped dead by the Depression. He had found his subject.

Gray had left school at sixteen. "When it had become clear in 1931 that our stay on unemployment relief was likely to be prolonged, I decided to continue my education by reading my way through the public library," he once recalled. Duly educated, he joined the Winnipeg Free Press in 1935 and later ran a couple of magazines in Calgary.

What launched Gray's historical career was the cutting-off of his career in journalism. He turned to books because his strong views and independent streak did not fit well with the rise of publisher-dominated journalism. Brennan knows that situation well. He's also a refugee from newspapers; indeed, he conceived his first book in 1999 while walking the picket line at the Calgary Herald.

Brennan's biography documents Gray's many achievements, and rereading James Gray's books confirm them. All his books have terrific narrative drive, vivid characters, convincing details, and strong sentences. "He was a story-teller," Brennan told me recently, willing to create dialogue and even repeat yarns that were so good that no one should fact-check them.

But James Gray was not James Frey. Unlike the recently controversial author of the disputed memoir A Million Little Pieces, Gray was no yarn-spinner on things that mattered. He looked for big historical themes and argued out well-sustained theses.

The Winter Years evokes the hardships of city life in the depression, but it is also a history of governmental failures to grasp the relief crisis. Men Against the Desert is a history of how western farmers and Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Act officials fought back and made Palliser's Triangle not just agriculturally viable but the world's breadbasket in the 1950s. The Boy from Winnipeg, partly memoir, is mostly about the shaping of urban life on the Prairies before the First World War.

Red Lights on the Prairies and Booze, both built from Gray's own dogged research into the ill-documented undersides of prairie life, are not merely lurid stories. Gray argues that prohibition in 1914-24 broke the wide-open, hard-drinking "brothel-booze culture" of the pre-war prairies. It caused a drastic reduction in violence, crime, and family disintegration that was sustained even after controlled liquor consumption returned.

This "quintet of prairie histories I never intended to write in the first place" was followed by several more books. His last book, a substantial biography of Calgary's first prime minister, R.B. Bennett, was published by a scholarly press in 1991. To the pleased surprise of Gray, no slavish worshipper of academic history-writing, it won him academic honours.

Brian Brennan salutes Gray's persistence and his prodigious energy for research and writing, but he notes and shares two concerns Gray lived with. Can Canada sustain writers? And can a "regional" writer gain national recognition?

Brennan says "Gray didn't mind if unsuccessful or unpopular writers never made any money, but he said, 'I'm a successful writer. Why can't successful writers make a living in this country?'" (Much of Gray's income came not from books but from smart investments in Alberta's 1950s oil boom.) Out of these concerns, Gray became a founder of the Writers' Union of Canada in 1973, and he fought hard for writers' economic concerns: royalty terms, copyright licensing, lending rights. "We are still fighting those battles today," reflects Brennan, himself a Writers' Union board member. "I might not have written that chapter if it was not so interesting to me. But I'm an old newspaper guy who turned to writing books just as he did, and I too care about making a living." (Full disclosure: I too have been active in the Writers' Union, and for much the same reasons.)

Can a writer achieve and sustain national attention without living in Toronto? It would seem Gray proved you can. But Brennan, himself Calgary-based, believes "being in Calgary rather than Toronto -- that probably did limit his reputation…. Gradually he became a Calgary writer while Pierre Berton became a Canadian writer."

James Gray was ninety-two when he died in 1998. Near the end of his life, widowed and almost blind, he feared that his work, like the history it chronicled, was destined to be neglected and forgotten. Brennan describes how reassured Gray was by the republication of his principal works by the Calgary-based publisher Fifth House. Now that he joins the handful of historians who have their own biographies, perhaps his legacy is not so fragile.

Brian Brennan's How the West was Written: The Life and Times of James H. Gray was published by Fifth House in 2006.

©Christopher Moore Editorial Ltd, 2007

(first published in The Beaver, April/May 2008)

Barbara Sears, once Pierre Berton’s “best-in-the business” research associate, has in recent years become quietly essential to scores of film and television projects about Canadian history, and she knows the field. “History on film,” she says, “used to be all about talking heads and stock footage. Now it’s about celebrities and new ways of telling stories.”

As evidence, she points to not one but two national television programs that are devoted to the search for historical family. Suddenly genealogy is fashionable.

Sears helps make the CBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? (based on a breakout BBC hit). It starts with homegrown Canadian celebrities, from singer Chantal Kreviazuk to retired Major-General Lewis Mackenzie, then draws the subjects (and the viewers) into their often surprising ancestries.

I find that connecting people I feel we know with things they never knew about themselves can be irresistible history: just watch the charming young singer Measha Bruggergosman fight back tears over a 1783 document that records her five-month-old ancestor, the child of escaped slaves, as “born free.”

“Storytelling is the heart of the appeal,” says series producer Janice Tufford. “It’s a bit of a reality-show hybrid.”

Over at History Television, the genealogy show is Ancestors in the Attic. It invites ordinary Canadians to pose questions from their own family histories, then zooms off to unlock the answers in gleaming archives and moody graveyards around the world.

The only celebrities in Ancestors are its never-fail panel of genealogists. Instead of famous people, the program at first offered storytelling flash instead. Host Jeff Douglas and his camera leaped around each other at a headsnapping pace, suggesting music video more than History Television’s usual fare of Panzers rolling across Poland. But the producers’ confidence in the show’s inherent appeal is growing. “We did take it down a notch in the second season,” series producers told me recently.

Ancestors in the Attic works for me; I find it entertaining ­ and sometimes moving. History Television’s commissioning producer Michael Kot says, “I wanted stories of ordinary people. And I wanted ways to help people who could not do their own searches.” Ancestors now gets floods of requests from exactly those people, “from all over the country,” says producer Dugald Maudsley, “from a wide range of ages, and more and more from Chinese-Canadians, Japanese-Canadians, Ukrainians. We’re getting away from that Anglo-Scottish-Irish idea of Canada and of genealogy.”

I would say the show’s youthful enthusiasm works too. “Genealogy is most often done by people who are older,” says Maudsley, “like my father who is retired” — and who first convinced his filmmaker son this stuff could be a TV series. “But the material has appeal much more widely. It has elements of CSI — the search, the method of step one, step two, step three, as you attack a mystery. And it does have emotional impact, for women and for young viewers as much as anyone. The stories it tells are about family and real lives.”

Genealogy’s rise to fashion involves more than just a couple of television programs. Paul McGrath — who has become at least a minor celebrity as one of Ancestors’ on-camera panelists — runs a genealogical consulting company in Toronto, and he has seen tremendous growth in public interest in genealogy. One cause: technology. “I started doing genealogy at fourteen,” he told me, “making trips to dark reading rooms in archives. Now you can do it at home. You sit at your computer. You find sources, you find bits of information, you get hooked, and away you go.”

Digitization has also produced a great explosion of information providers, from local libraries and the Canadian Genealogical Centre of Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa to commercial providers who assemble public records online and add value in convenient search tools, data management programs, and even publishing arms that will print and bind your family history.

Now genetic science is adding “deep ancestry” to genealogy. Forget about the birth date of your grandmother’s maiden aunt; have you got your mitochondrial haplogroup assignment yet? Provide a saliva sample, and your line can be traced back 50,000 years to the Rift Valley of Africa. Already the basics cost as little as $100 from local stores or online providers.

McGrath, the professional genealogist, is not entirely sold. “I did mine, and it told me that both my mother’s family and my father’s family came from the British Isles. Well, duh.” Still, he foresees rapid progress as data registries link participants to others with matching DNA profiles. The only link McGrath has received so far was so distant as to be genealogically invisible, but the level of detail should constantly improve as more people join these new networks of data.

In all its manifestations, from gene tracing to web-based research to stories that tug the heartstrings, genealogy offers our moving, mingling, disassociating, recombining societyat least hints and glimpses of who we are through the search for where we came from.

And the market is vast. A study commissioned by one of the commercial genealogy services claims a quarter of Canadians do not know their grandmothers’ maiden names, while forty percent do not know when their family came to Canada.

Genealogical stories may even be helping change how television does history. When I profiled History Television on its launch ten years ago, executives there told me History Television “would never have a studio program.” One result: way too much Second World War stock footage. A panel of genealogists would not have had a chance.

Today Ancestors in the Attic, a studio program, is a hit for the network. Genealogical stories, says Dugald Maudsley, are “a vehicle for talking about history — but in a contemporary way.” The genealogy programs are demonstrating that, skilfully done, talk about history can be dramatic and engrossing television.

©Christopher Moore Editorial Ltd, 2008

(first published in The Beaver, June/July 2008)

“I think there is very little theory in my writing,” says Michael Bliss. “Philosophy convinced me that a lot of social theory is bunk. My work is very specific and grounded.”

When I read in the recent tribute volume entitled Essays in Honour of Michael Bliss that Bliss’s first studies were in philosophy, I wondered if that was the source of the clear views and strong principles that have distinguished him among recent historians of Canada. No, he said when we talked recently at University of Toronto’s Massey College. What he retained from philosophy was mostly that resistance to grand theoretical interpretations.

Since the late 1960s, Michael Bliss has been a substantial presence among scholars of the history of Canada. He began in business history, most notably with his 1978 book, A Canadian Millionaire. This biography of Toronto entrepreneur Joseph Flavelle evoked the late 19th century Canadian business world, as a country merchant straight from a backwoods farm built a large industrial corporation and then moved into finance, banking, high society, and public life. Bliss even provided a kind of cliffhanger: how did the man who declared “to hell with profits” become a war profiteer? Bliss followed it with Northern Enterprise (1987), an encyclopedic sweep across five centuries of Canadian business.

Meanwhile, he had detoured into medical history. He took up the story of insulin partly just for the sake of a story that needed to be reconstructed in intricate detail, “day by day, and dog by dog.” The Discovery of Insulin (1982) became his best-known book, and medical history gradually became his principal historical work, yielding Plague and three big biographies of doctors Frederick Banting, William Osler, and Harvey Cushing. One lesson from the medical histories? Despite all our advances, Bliss writes, the twentieth-century turn to the secular meant a huge reduction in life expectancy: from eternity to less than a hundred years.

Bliss sees himself as a “grounded” historian, trying to pursue human lives in all their existential uniqueness. As a biographer, he admits to following Walt Whitman’s injunction: to resurrect the dead, to stand them on their feet in all their human complexity. This “tell it like it is” stance puts him, to say the least, out of step with the academic consensus ­ not something that has deterred Bliss much.

Bliss may be anti-theoretical in his historical writing, but much of his fame comes from the vigorous opinions in his op-ed columns and media commentary. For Bliss, who has criticized his own profession for its retreat into specialization and minutiae, commentary became a way to keep history engaged with the big Canadian questions.

“My first job was to write good history,” Bliss says of his commentary. “I think I have always discussed things in historical context.” He denies being simply a conservative voice on public affairs, but might admit to being a contrarian. “The problem I had as a Canadian public intellectual was being expected to be a cheerleader for Canadian nationalism, was resisting the temptation of the money and the support that was always available for that. I wanted to resist that. I tried to avoid drumbeating. I thought it was important to be able to ask any critical question, including ‘why should the country continue in existence?’”

I saw one television talk piece he did recently, and he had lost none of that pungency. While the other guests parsed the politics of Mulroney-Schrieber hearings, Bliss was clearly outrage at seeing political life and the office of prime minister so sullied, and he blazed with cold fury. Those moments are now rare: Bliss decided he would mostly give up punditry when he retired from the university in 2006.

But the principles remain strong. We happened to be talking on the day in March 2008 when Conrad Black began his jail term, and as we left Massey College we encountered John Fraser, the college’s master. A lifelong friend and sometime employee of Black’s, Fraser gave us the latest news on Black’s pre-jail mood. “I never thought it would come to this,” he said.

As we left the college, Bliss admitted he had always thought it would come to precisely this. As an acquaintance of Black’s, he had been sounded out about a letter of support for the beleaguered businessman. And had declined.

Essays in Honour of Michael Bliss: Figuring the Social, a volume of essays organized by Bliss’s former doctoral students and edited by E.A. Heaman, Alison Li, and Shelley McKellar, was published by University of Toronto Press in March 2008.

©Christopher Moore Editorial Ltd, 2008

(first published in The Beaver, July 2008)

When I was a kid, I had a tin box. It was tall and deep, with a hinged lid and bright, coloured images of a cartoon figure called Century Sam all over it. The logo said “British Columbia: A Century to Celebrate 1858-1958.” When it was new, the box had been filled with toffees.

I was not very old in 1958. It is my memory that I got my Century Sam tin box from Willow Point Public School, up the lake from Nelson in the Kootenays of B.C. To celebrate B.C.’s centennial, the province was distributing candy to schoolchildren.

Could that have happened? What Department of Education would give kids boxes of candy? I consulted my smarter older brother recently, and his memory matched mine precisely. For sure the tin box was real; it was around our family home for years. Was my tin box part of the lost history of British Columbia?

Fifty years on, British Columbia is marking its hundred and fiftieth anniversary. Sorry, kids, no candy. Actually, they may not be making so much of it at all. The British Columbia writer and historian Jean Barman has written the text for a spectacular celebratory book called British Columbia: Spirit of the People, that B.C. commissioned for the occasion, but she is cautious about the impact of this event. “Mostly it is local,” she told me. “In Vancouver, most people would not know what you were talking about.”

But in 1958? In 1958, people were talking about Century Sam. The British Columbia centennial came at just the right moment for the province, and the province took to it in a big way.

In the 1950s, a great resource boom –B.C. exports grew five-fold from 1952 to 1972 – was generating new prosperity. Mia Reimers, who teaches history at Northwestern College in Terrace, B.C., says the province was being bound together as never before. “1958 really was the whole process of defining ourselves as a modern province,” she said. “Something was needed to bring the province together, to create a British Columbian identity.” “Beautiful British Columbia”, “the good life,” “Super Natural,” “Pacific Spirit.” You might say all British Columbia’s slogans grow out of the self-discovery of 1958.

Reimers recently completed a study of centenary-making in British Columbia. In thirteen years, the province managed to observe no less than four centenaries, but the first, in 1958, which marked the Fraser River gold rush and the founding of the mainland colony called British Columbia, was the one that left behind the infrastructure: centenary museums, community centres, and swimming pools all over the province. 1958 produced the province’s first heritage preservations, at Barkerville and Fort Steele. 1958 was filled with recreations of historic events. There were even beard-growing contests.

“Men actually did grow gold-rush beards for 1958,” laughs Reimers. “In a sense, the spirit of 1858 allowed these 1950s men to throw off suburban domestication for a moment. And the province played up that gold rush, pioneer, entrepreneur image, as a model for all the entrepreneurial resource development that was going on right then. It all fitted so well with the pro-business, resource-extraction, entrepreneurial attitude.”

Then there was the ubiquitous Century Sam, a cartoon gold miner with no ties to historic realities, “a cross between a Walt Disney dwarf and Howdy Doody,” someone said, but who now looks about fifty years ahead of his time as an effective brand image.

They did something else to mark the centenary in 1958. They commissioned and published a history of the province, British Columbia: A History by Margaret Ormsby.

As it happens, I knew Miss Ormsby, who was a friend of a relative of ours. She probably provided my first intimation that historians were real, people who could be friends of your parents, and that big, serious books could be written about, well, about here.

British Columbia: A History is a big serious book, for sure. It is 566 pages in the edition I have, a meticulous reconstruction of the colony and province based on heroic research in Colonial Office files, politicians’ papers, newspaper archives and much else.

Jean Barman, who has written her own big history of B.C., The West Beyond the West, can’t help comparing the Ormsby history commissioned for the hundredth anniversary and Spirit of the People, the 150th anniversary book to which she contributed.

Many critics have noted that Ormsby’s 1958 viewpoint was entirely with the colonizers. First Nations exist in it mostly as an administrative problem; events such as the deportation of Japanese Canadians in 1942 are barely mentioned. (Indeed Reimers’s study shows the 1958 organizers carefully limited First Nations participation in that year’s events.) Spirit of the People, by comparison, is relentlessly, gorgeously multicultural. “Someone said to me, ‘There are no white people in your book!’ says Barman. (There are.)

Over fifty years, the present reshapes the past. Today’s British Columbia is a Pacific Rim society where a quarter of the population has Asian roots, and so the province’s new history notices that the British Columbia mosaic has always included Chinese, Japanese, black refugees from slavery, Hawaiians, Portuguese, Finns, Swedes, and the First Nations.

But Barman thinks the two books also suggest a change in our sense of history books. 1958 commissioned a massive, authoritative academic study. 2008’s Spirit of the People is a large-format picture book, a full-colour collection of British Columbia art and photography and a collage of stories and sidebars – a book in which the historical narrative might almost be missed.

“The people in government, I admire the way they thought about it,” Barman says. “It really does show the difference in fifty years, the way my book is structured. If you want people to read this book, this is what you have to do.” Each book reflects the British Columbia of its times. In 1958 British Columbia’s leaders saw themselves as pioneering and entrepreneurial, authoritatively taking charge of their province and its image just as their serious. authoritative history does. In 2008 the message is all about “spirit;” and the history book is relaxed, inclusive, tolerant, good-humoured, and diverse.

There is something of that in the British Columbia I see every time I visit. We were talking recently of Port Alberni, a town on Vancouver Island. There used to be one certainty there. If the forestry mills ever closed, everyone said, they would roll up the sidewalks and close the town. Well, the industry has been hit very hard. But Port Alberni seems to be relaxed and tolerant about it. It’s re-emerged as a tourist centre, a retirement community, and a local service centre, and things look brighter than ever.

Count on that old resource economy from 1958, and you worry about British Columbia. The forests have the pine beetle. Salmon stocks are dicey every year. Mining has all been bought by foreign interests.

But look for that Pacific spirit mood. Somehow the place seems to be thriving.

“B.C. is doing so well,” says Jean Barman. “and we always have that immigration from the rest of Canada and the world. I read the Globe and Mail every morning and it seems like doom for the Canadian economy every day, and I get worried. Then I read the Vancouver Sun reporting the boom in British Columbia. The rest of Canada is helping the BC economy. We always have more people born elsewhere than born in British Columbia. You meet older people, and they are all two to eight years out from Alberta or Ontario, and they say, “I never knew it was like this!

“And they are all trying to become British Columbians.”

My Century Sam candy box that I got in school? I asked everyone I spoke with about the province giving free candy to school kids.

They all knew Century Sam. The Royal British Columbia Museum has a terrific 150th exhibit, with plenty of Century Sam, but there’s no artifact from the great toffee giveaway. The story was news to Jean Barman. Mia Reimers, who knows everything about 1958, has never heard of the province giving candy to school kids. The Century Sam candy box is not even on eBay.

I think my candy box came from an indulgent relative caught up in the mood of 1958. Research shatters another fond illusion.

Jean Barman, British Columbia: Spirit of the People was published by Harbour Books in 2008. Mia Reimers’s doctoral dissertation, British Columbia at its Most Sparkling Colourful Best, was completed in 2007.

©Christopher Moore Editorial Ltd, 2008

Listening to the North:  Dorothy Harley Eber's Oral Histories
(first published in The Beaver, November 2008)

Dorothy Harley Eber gives much of the credit to her interpreters. In her new book Encounters on the Passage, she salutes Tommy Anguttitauruq in Gjoa Haven, Oleepa Ikidluak in Iqaluit, Leah Otak in Igloolik, Christopher Amautinuar in Pelly Bay, and many others in communities across Nunavut. She praises them as “amazingly talented,” “highly trained” and possessing “remarkable skills” “The interpreters are so important,” she said when I talked with her recently. “If the interpreter is known and respected, then you get more – more stories, more detail.”

But the listener matters too. For forty years Dorothy Harley Eber, a Montreal journalist with no academic or institutional credentials, has been going to the North and listening to Inuit elders talk of the old days The tapes and transcripts she has collected during many visits have become a precious source of information about Inuit life during its transformation from the hunting life to today’s Nunavut. Though she speaks no Inuktitut, the books she has made of those conversations offer us kabloona [Inuktitut: a non-Inuit person] a remarkable window on the Inuit history of the north.

Art, not history, first took Dorothy Eber north. She was a freelance journalist in Montreal when she first saw an exhibition of Inuit prints and sculpture at the Montreal Museum. “Immediately I knew I wanted to go and write about that art.” It took a few years, but in the late 1960s she made her first trip to Cape Dorset on southwestern Baffin Island in what is now Nunavut. “The weather was so bad, and I only had a day and a night there. But I had a good interpreter, and I was able to talk with several of the leading artists of the day. I went back in the summer of 1970, and that time I stayed a month and I did the Peter Pitseolak interviews.”

In the 1940s, Peter Pitseolak (1902-73) had acquired a camera and began photographing Inuit camp life. In order to develop his pictures, he and his wife built darkrooms in igloos in the midst of hunting expeditions. Eventually Pitseolak wrote a memoir (in Inuit syllabics), and his story, combined with Eber’s interviews with him and with his photographs and prints, became a book, People from Our Side, first published in 1973 and still in print today. Eber believes it was not just the first Inuit oral history, but the first Canadian one.

On a later interviewing trip, Eber took with her an 1881 photo of an Inuit family who had travelled south to New London, Connecticut. She thought her hosts might be interested in the century-old news story. “Hey, that was Johnniebo!” they said. To her surprise, they knew all about the family in the photo and why they had gone south. Their account of his story was much more detailed than the historical record, at least about the Inuit side of things. Eber grasped the richness of preserved memory among this story-telling people – and she began to listen.

Johnniebo and his family had gone south with a whaling crew. In the nineteenth century, whaling was the main source of contact between Europeans and Inuit along the coasts of the Eastern Arctic. From the rich fund of stories the Inuit elders retained, Eber wrote When the Whalers Were Up North (1989), an oral record that is a substantial history of Arctic whaling as well as a vivid recapturing of the Inuit communities that participated.

In her latest book, Eber turns to the British naval expeditions sent to discover the Northwest Passage in the mid-nineteenth century – culminating in John Franklin’s doomed expedition. Impressed by the way another book, Unravelling the Franklin Mystery by David C. Woodman, found new light on Franklin’s fate in century-old Inuit testimony collected by Franklin searchers, she decided to see what further stories might still be in the repertoire of today’s Inuit storytellers. In communities across the Arctic, she sat down as a guest in one small home after another, with a pot of tea at hand and Discovery Channel (Nunavut’s favourite channel; it’s the animals) in the background, and let her informants talk.

Encounters on the Passage is alive with suggestions for enthusiasts still seeking Franklin’s grave or his lost record books or his sunken ships. But what stand out is how the Inuit experienced those crazy incursions. Eber’s stories bring home the true weirdness of these aliens and their great vessels, suddenly planting themselves amidst the people. Were they human? Who dared approach them? No wonder they fuelled a thousand stories worth retelling for the next hundred and fifty years.

If someone finds the Erebus and Terror wrecks this summer – and they will be looking – Inuit testimony will have been crucial to their success. But the richest material in this book, as in all of Eber’s, is not what it says about a few doomed intruders from the south, but the role it plays in storing and preserving Inuit storytelling.

The future of Inuit oral history, Eber is sure, lies with the Inuit themselves. “There will be Inuit authors in the next decade who will take this over.” Already local elders’ societies and research centers are compiling their own story collections, preserving an Inuit heritage for an Inuit future and adding to oral traditions recorded as long as a century ago, many of which still await editing and analysis.

Many of the elders Eber first listened to, men and women who absorbed community lore during long nights, are now long in traditional hunting camps are now long dead. But their voices endure, and northern history continues to be told and collected.

“I have met some who did not want to speak and thought others should not either. But most of the people want to pass on an understanding of the old ways. Pitseolak Ashoona said to me, ‘After I am dead, the book will be there, so that they will know it was not all a myth.’ People like her believe they are doing something worthwhile, recording the stories.”

Dorothy Harley Eber’s new book, Encounters on the Passage: Inuit Meet the Explorers was published by University of Toronto Press in 2008.

©Christopher Moore Editorial Ltd, 2008

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