Dictionary of Canadian Biography
Volume XV 1921-1930
Ramsay Cook and Réal Bélanger editors
University of Toronto Press
1266 pages, $125.00 hardback
It is forty years since the first volume of the Dictionary of Canadian Biography
was published. The continuation of the massive project has in latter
years been a struggle. The imaginative bequest of birdseed millionaire
James Nicholson, which made it possible, conservatively invested in
times of high inflation, was inadequate to keep it going. Granting
bodies did not always give it the priority it deserved. The first
twelve volumes came out at about a two year clip up to 1990. The last
three have taken fifteen years.
has been found for a CD-ROM of the first fourteen volumes, which has
been distributed to schools and libraries across the country. Those
volumes are also available free online, with a selection from this
volume and samples as far ahead as the projected volume XXII - Rocket
Richard, who died in 2000 - at http://www.biographi.ca.
These searchable digital media are a wonderful resource, but they raise
a question whether the printed volumes should continue to be published.
This sleek tome says yes.
hundred hardbound pages are not for the beach or bed. But for those
with access to the books, the CD-ROM or the website will seem
just a handy index. Who would want to read 8800 words on Alexander
Graham Bell on screen or would want to waste toner and paper on
printing them out. Except for researchers, the shorter entries are best
come upon turning the pages rather than on some Boolean basis. The
geographical and occupational indexes and cross-referencing in the
books are the best guides to dipping in. The Dictionary of Canadian Biography
is Canada's finest and most important work of reference and history. We
must hope that the pace of publication picks up, bringing us up to date
by the 2020s.
and post-modern historiography and the growth of the academic industry
put new strains on the project. A dictionary of biography must be
faithful to the logic of its project. It is a book of lives, which must
be selected for their eminence, for their role in our history. It
cannot be great man history. 600 great Canadians did not die in the
third decade of the 20th century. Neither can it be a random sample of
600 Canadians who died in that decade about whom enough information
survives to write a few hundred words. Modern historians may have
distinguished careers with many publications hardly naming any people
besides other academics they rely on or disagree with. But theirs is
another endeavour. The compilers of a dictionary of biography must
believe in the importance of individual lives in history, and not just
as samples or representative cases, but in themselves.
Volume XV includes many eminent lives. Bell is the most famous but
there are also poet Bliss Carman (a brief entry, perhaps because of his
long residence in the United States), longtime Quebec Premier Lomer
Gouin, opera diva Emma Albani, painter James Wilson Morrice, CPR
magnates Lord Shaughnessy and Lord Mount Stephen and banker and
Maecenas Sir Edmund Walker.
grounds for inclusion of many others are open to question. About
Alikomiak nothing is known save that he murdered another Inuit and two
white men and was hanged for the crimes. Consequently the entry for
Alikomiak is a conspectus of relations between the Inuit and white
authorities in the far north but not a biography. Jeanne Anctil was one
of the first formal teachers of household science in Quebec. The entry
for her, twice as long as that for former Governor General Lord
Lansdowne, is a history of the teaching of household science in Quebec
with passing references to Anctil.
Quinlan, a catholic school teacher in New Brunswick in the late 19th
century, is given a proper biography. But it does not appear what
distinguishes her from perhaps hundreds of other teachers about whom
enough is known to write about 900 words. Is she included as a
representative or has the entry failed to explain her importance?
It is often difficult to descry just how important many of the lives treated were. The Dictionary
has evidently been influenced by the keenness of post-modern
historiography for digging up the putatively marginalised and making
forced claims for them. That, and the sheer scholastic growth of
Canadian historiography, in which more and more obscure topics are
researched, feed back into the Dictionary's
massive collaborative effort. Academics will naturally feel that people
they have spent much time researching merit inclusion whatever the
generalist or general reader may think.
format and writing of the entries is often unhelpful. Generally, after
the subject's name, there is an occupation. This should be a pointer to
the subject's importance. But Charles Augustus Semlin is described as
"teacher, miner, packer, hotel owner, rancher, politician, and school
trustee". This is simply confusing. Semlin is in because he was briefly
Premier of British Columbia. We may want to read about his other
activities, but we should be told where we are heading. You might
expect "politician" to trump all other occupations but you would be
wrong. George Weston, "baker, businessman, and politician" is not in
because he served four years as a Toronto alderman but because he
founded the eponymous company, the parent of Loblaws.
it is not always clear why some people are in, who may wrongly be out?
Perhaps another school teacher, or a plumber, but I could not say. In
Canadian art it is easy to find upwards of a dozen painters represented
in the National Gallery, staples of the auction market and noted in the
histories, but absent from the Dictionary. Frederick Arthur Verner is perhaps the most eminent. He is in The Canadian Encyclopedia.
If Verner did not make the cut, many of the farmers, soldiers, teachers
and the rest who did must be far more eminent than from their entries
As the Dictionary
moves into more recent times the challenge of selection becomes
greater. For the decade 1851-1860, covered by Volume VIII, there were
perhaps 70% fewer Canadians dying. The surviving sources are still less
and roughly adhere to lives in proportion to their eminence. A right to
fifteen minutes of fame had not been established by the 1920s but it
was the heyday of newspapers and magazines and the chances of anyone
getting noticed by a newspaper or getting a story or poem published
were far higher than they are today. Many entries on obscurer lives are
able to quote fulsome tributes in the local press and cite several
The compiling of the Dictionary
is a massive undertaking and the editorial team have evidently worked
hard and intelligently at their task. But they could be stricter with
the contributors. The writing could be crisper. In his biography of
Alexander Graham Bell Lawrence Surtees writes: "In 1867 tragedy struck
the family,...when Aleck's younger brother...died of tuberculosis." It
would not be unfeeling to leave readers to judge for themselves the
impact of the death.
is a frequent vagueness, unsettling in a work extensively grounded in
primary sources. Nurse Sibella Barrington "may have been influenced",
"would have gone", "is credited with", all in 150 words. Other entries
repeatedly use "reportedly" (Emma Albani, for whom the sources should
be rich) leaving us to wonder who reported and why, if the source was
reliable, whatever was reported is not simply stated as fact.
The standard format for an entry in a dictionary of biography, established in the Dictionary of National Biography
in the late 19th century, is a straightforward account of the life
followed by an appreciation, assessment of reputation and description
of appearance, manner and character. This is generally followed in the Dictionary
but some entries begin with strong claims for their subject, which are
not always supported by what follows. H. V. Nelles calls Sir Adam Beck
"the Prometheus of Canadian politics in the first quarter of the 20th
century" in an effusive appreciation at the beginning of his life of
Beck, but ends describing a raging authoritarian running a shambolic
Ontario Hydro as a personal fiefdom with, no doubt, the best
intentions. By the time Nelles was writing in his penultimate sentence
that Ontario Hydro "had become an Ontario institution that would
outlive changing governments and passing ideologies", it was in ruins.
cannot get close enough to many of the subjects to make realistic
claims about them. Lee Gibson say of Sir James Aikins "His strong work
ethic and assiduous attention to detail were recognised in his election
as a bencher of the Law Society of Manitoba in May 1880." Was Aikin's
election as a bencher evidence in itself of his "work ethic". Was that
notoriously the only basis on which benchers were elected? Is it
recorded that that was the key to his election? Likely he was no
slacker, but as a prominent, well-connected Winnipeg lawyer, his father
in Macdonald's cabinet, might he not have been elected if he had been?
An appreciation of the subjects' characters is wanted so far as it is
possible. Dry details of life and career would be tedious. As tedious
as bland encomiums.
The Dictionary of National Biography was largely written by independent scholars and men of letters, vanished breeds. With few exceptions, the contributors to the Dictionary of Canadian Biography
are academics. Theory and special pleading for academic interests
intrude. Marjorie Pickthall by Barbara Godard is only half biography
and half defensively feminist critical study concluding with praise for
Pickthall's "ability to construct the poetic process in female-centred
of the subjects are presented as representative or typical. Missionary
Jessie Munro "was typical of the hundreds of single, well-educated,
middle class, and small-town women who pursued careers as missionaries
in late 19th and early 20th century Canada." Logger and farmer William
Henry Curran "typifies the resourceful 19th-century wanderer who did
nothing outstanding, yet persevered and left an imprint in the form of
numerous descendants. He exemplifies the generation of men who arrived
in British Columbia during the gold rush of 1858–65...".
Despite the Dictionary's
scholarly foundations, some entries raise too many questions. Janet
Kennedy Smith, described as "servant, diarist, and alleged murder
victim", was at the centre of a sensational case in Vancouver in 1924
involving anti-Chinese racism. Scott Kerwin quotes from Smith's diary.
But the extent and history of the diary are not explained and the
references give no clue as to where the diary is or whether Kerwin was
able to consult an original copy.
Marsden in her entry on Sganism Sm'oogit writes, without reserve,
qualification or explanation, that "northwest coast peoples reincarnate
within their own lineage....The biography of Sganism Sm'oogit then is
that of countless generations of individuals...". By her account
Sganism Sm'oogit has no place in this volume as he is still alive.
Any book will reflect the culture of its time. The new Oxford Dictionary of National Biography published in 2004 is a very different work from the Dictionary of National Biography
of a century before. It was excoriated for factual errors and the
editors replied that with computers it was easily corrected. The first
two volumes of the Dictionary of Canadian Biography have been reprinted with corrections. But we are not likely to see a wholesale revision of the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, though no doubt the selection and treatment of lives in the early volumes would be different if they were done today.
The Dictionary of Canadian Biography
should strive to be a work for long time. When we come to the volumes
dealing with the recently deceased, the challenge of selection and
objective treatment will be daunting. The editors will have to be true
to their magnificent project.