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Monday, May 1, 1989

The Canadian Encyclopaedia in 1989 - A mine of information and boosterism

The Canadian Encyclopaedia
May 1, 1989,  The Idler

The Canadian Encyclopedia, Second Edition
Editor James H. Marsh
Edmonton: Hurtig Publishers. $225.00

The Canadian Encyclopedia is not the first Canadian encyclopedia nor the unique achievement its fans claim. It is only a measure of Mel Hurtig's publicity and marketing achievement that it can hail itself as a "publishing landmark in Canadian history" and has almost literally consigned to oblivion the Encyclopedia Canadiana. First published in 1957 and updated into the 1970's, the eleven volume Canadiana drew on 800 largely academic contributors and contained, for instance, 3500 biographies to The Canadian Encyclopedia's 3700. It was more consciously pitched to the schools market. Rather than a landmark The Canadian Encyclopedia is a natural progression from the Encyclopedia Canadiana made possible by 1980's affluence and information technology and public money, the last necessarily unavailable to the American publishers of the Canadiana.  The second edition's four red, cloth bound volumes containing over 2700 three column pages are well made and hold the proverbial mine of information. Dissociated from Hurtig's strident and vacuous nationalism the Encyclopedia could have been better but there will not be another Canadian encyclopedia.

Hurtig's forward to the first edition says that his concept and intent were that the Encyclopedia should be "affordable" and "go on sale at a low price". When this has happened he has protested. His success in securing public subsidies and in marketing the Encyclopedia for quick sales have together realized his concept and intent. It is his finest achievement. At the $99 the major bookstores were prepared to sell it at in the fall every Canadian home could and should have a copy. But after months of controversy even W. H. Smith has forced up the price of its large stock of unsold copies to $129.95.

Picking out failings in a work of reference, errors, unjustifiable omissions and inclusions, is a cultivated pleasure that can be indulged in with even the best works. It has its use where the failings are systematic. Many of the failings of The Canadian Encyclopedia are systematic. Its very success demands that its faults be remarked.

The Encyclopedia's usefulness and the pleasures of dipping into it are limited by many of the long topical articles. Articles on "Transportation", "New Religious Movements" or "Industrial Strategy" lack the organisation and substance to make them useful for reference. Read through as essays they are dull and obvious or woolly and repeat (or contradict) information more readily found under specific headings. "Transportation" begins by telling us that

Since the earliest days of recorded history, transportation has been important to mankind. Transportation vehicles and transport systems facilitate the movement of people and goods from one place to another.
Later information includes that
Aviation technology has changed radically in recent decades. Today's planes are much larger than the planes they replaced.
In "Transportation" we are told that
In 1987 Air Canada had an operational fleet of 108 planes and had about 22200 employees.
Under "Air Canada" we are told that
In 1987 ....the operational fleet was 113 aircraft....employees numbered 22200.

"New Religious Movements" (found under "N") tells us
Social and psychological needs vary from person to person....Few Canadians seem to be on a quest for life's meaning and most seem content with their immediate goals. Yet most people have wondered at some time about the purpose or meaning of existence.
In the provincial government entry we are told that
The provincial Legislative Assemblies...are significant institutional expressions of the central values of Canadian democracy.

The subentry Public Relations Credibility reads
The credibility of public relations has occasionally been affected adversely by conscious efforts of some individuals to engage in "public-relations exercises" in an effort to obscure facts or even mislead public opinion. Responsible public relations, however, is concerned with communicating factual information, with full disclosure of sources and open discussion of all aspects of controversial issues.
This can neither inform, nor persuade sceptics of the value of public relations.

The scientific articles seem undecided whether they are to give a general survey of physics or mammals or biotechnology or to deal only with Canadian aspects of the topic. Recitals of Canadian research and discovery are little more than boosterism. Long articles on "Science", "Science and Society" (a pop ramble by David Suzuki), "Science and Policy" and "Scientific Research and Development" follow close on each other and make one long read impossible to refer to for specific information.

Among the more successful entries are those for flora and fauna and geography and geology, though oddly the Canadian emphasis in these is often unsatisfactorily weak. "Ants" just mentions that "about 186" of the estimated 12000 worldwide species occur in Canada in an otherwise completely general entry.

Seventeen columns on "Philosophy" swing from fatuous waffle
Through reason we assign meanings to events and defend ourselves from encroachment on meanings around which we structure our lives. Canadian philosophers were not alone in their concern with the nature and uses of  reason, but their interpretations gave a distinctive base for a unifying cultural identity. A kind of philosophical federalism was being developed.
to a laborious noting of scores of philosophers chiefly distinguished for having managed to get a book published, though Kathleen Okruhlik and Alison Wylie are just
...undertaking a 3 year study of feminist criticisms of science.
Half the article is devoted to philosophy in Canada since 1950.  The conclusion presents a lucid analysis of the possible significances of "Canadian philosophy" but  what precedes fails to establish any Canadian distinctness in the international academic trade.  The brief capsules of philosophic positions are crude and will be largely meaningless to laymen.

There are articles for "Classics" and "Comparative Literature" and "Sociology" but, perhaps fortunately, none for English Literature despite its vast presence in the universities. At their best the topical articles read like cribs for high school projects or first year essays. Teachers will do well to check the Encyclopedia for plagiarism.

The space wasted in such articles is the more surprising as more factual entries are gracelessly abbreviated. Of Vincent Massey and Mackenzie King in the entry on the former we read:
...relations between the 2 [sic] were formal and tense.

There is an ephemeral and popular tendency to many of the Encyclopedia's entries.  Celebrities like Adrienne Clarkson, David Foster, Alan Eagleson, Knowlton Nash and Jim Pattison, Carling Bassett, Helen Kelesi,  Laurie Graham, Dave Barr, Cliff Thorburn and a host of other sports figures, union leaders Shirley Carr, Grace Hartman and Jean-Claude Parrot, capitalists Hal Jackman, Andrew Sarlos and Jean-Paul Tardiff, radio and TV producer Mark Starowicz and security chief John Starnes, journalists Allan Fotheringham and Richard Gwyn and half the front benches in Ottawa and the NDP government leader in the Yukon "Antony David John" Penikett belong in a Who's Who or an annual almanac until the permanence of their significance is established. In a variation of Andy Warhol's promise of fifteen minutes celebrity to everyone Canada promises its own an entry in The Canadian Encyclopedia. Future editions of the Encyclopedia will have either to delete most of these entries or to grow gigantic with forgotten sports figures and other passing celebrities. A trawl of the "Halls of Fame" already accounts for too many forgotten sports figures.

There is a silly entry, new in the second edition, on "Canadian Expatriates in Show Business" including Glenn Ford, who moved to California when he was seven, Ruby Keeler, who moved to New York when she was three and Art Linkletter, who moved to Massachusetts "as an infant". The genuine Canadians in this entry, like Michael J. Fox, deserve entries on their own or not at all. Colleen Dewhurst, who left Canada at the age of five, has an entry of her own, presumably because of her appearances in Anne of Green Gables on TV. This nonsense seems confined to show business. There is no entry for Saul Bellow.

An effort has been made to include significant philosophers and natural scientists, including some pretty obscure lights from the past, and historians are, not surprisingly, fairly well covered, but other scholars prominent in their day such as English professor Pelham Edgar and classicist Maurice Hutton are omitted.

A contemporary bias is pervasive and reflects the conceit of contemporary nationalists, whose roots go back only to the 1960's and who hold that the last three decades are an epoch of national struggle and achievement. The myth of The Canadian Encyclopedia's achievement is part of this conceit. Only in the excited imaginations of these nationalists does the softwood lumber dispute deserve memorialization in a separate entry. Its place is in the Canadian Annual Review, itself wrongly without an entry.

Patriation is another nationalist myth and the contemporary bias results in the complete printing of the Constitution Act, 1982 and the omission of the equally important British North America Act, renamed in a legal manifestation of the nationalist conceit the Constitution Act, 1867. The omission is the more striking as the Constitution Act, 1982 includes amendments to the British North America Act. Printing the "constitution" in basic works of reference is an American practice, probably justified because after long struggles we have succeeded in making ourselve that much more like the Americans.

The far too many business entries show the contemporary bias again and a rather formal inclusiveness: business is important so there must be lots of business entries. Plumbing is important but there are no plumbing entries. Except for corporations of historical significance like the CPR businesses belong in something like The Financial Post Survey of Industrials. Useless information is offered such as that Triple Holdings Ltd owns 83% of Four Seasons Hotels Ltd. Who owns the unheard of Triple Holdings (the family of I. Sharpe according to the Survey)  is not said. There are entries for the Canadian Commercial Bank and the Estey Commission but there is no entry for, or reference in "Banking" to, the Home Bank, whose 1923 failure remains the last of the real bank failures and still more important than what happened in 1985.

Acknowledged drawing on the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada has lead to the inclusion of trivia such as Ida Haendel's Canadian premiere of Britten's violin concerto.  Estimable musicians like jazz guitarist Edward Bickert, soprano Mary Louise Morrison and conductor Jean-Marie Beaudet would perhaps not have got in if equally distinguished in another field. Cellist Ofra Harnoy receives a shameless boost
Prodigious technique, profound musicality and deeply emotional expressiveness combine with presonal charm to make Harnoy one of the most exciting young artists in the musical world....[her] solo recordings and her sensitive performances of chamber music round out the picture of an accomplished young artist of exceptional maturity, versatility and brilliance.

Many entries similarly lack the detachment or balance indicated for a work of reference.  Norman Hillmer is allowed an asinine comment on Bessborough
The handsome, rich, well-fed and impeccably dressed aristocrat must have been an incongruous sight at the height of the Great Depression, but he showed his sympathy with the plight of Canadians in small ways, and was granted his wish for a 10% cut in salary.
More often a fatuous enthusiasm is allowed. Of the almost unheard of Douglas Durkin, who lived the last 46 years of his life in the United States, P. E. Rider writes
Although long neglected by scholars and the public, Durkin's work is of enduring quality.
Elizabeth Trott uses language more at home in a publisher's blurb in writing of philosopher Leslie Armour
...The Idea of Canada and the Crisis of Community (1981)...reflects Canada's unique political and philosophical federalism and expresses his undaunted commitment to Canada.
Michael Gnarowski on Milton Acorn sounds like an old fashioned Communist Party tribute
Dedicated to the class struggle, Acorn peopled his poems with working men and women of the visage of Canada, and paid unceasing tribute to their suffering, their humble crafts and their utter reliability.

Several recent politicians come in for high praise. According to a more indulgent Norman Hillmer Marcel Masse
proved a resourceful defender of Canadian culture before being moved  to the energy portfolio.
According to David Laycock Allan Blakeney  established
a nationally admired provincial administration.... [and] came to be recognized as one of the most capable and intelligent advocates of a more decentralized yet equitable federal system in Canada, and as the political architect of a stronger and more diversified Saskatchewan economy.
Ed Broadbent is identified as a "political theorist" and according to Garth Stevenson in 1984 he
waged a brilliant campaign, emphasizing tax reforms, lower interest rates and equality for women.
Jean-Noel Tremblay, attaché culturel du gouverneur général [sic], writes of Jeanne Sauvé that
Thanks to her prestige and leadership, she commands respect for her attitude, opinions and pronouncements on major domestic and foreign issues of the day. As head of state [sic], she has become a rallying point for her compatriots and has become a leading example of Canadian unity.
French Canada's leading monarchist, Jacques Monet S.J., is almost as kind to Lèger
he maintained a serene confidence in the unity of Canada and inspired a renewed respect for his office by his dignity, kindness, prudence and courage.

Perhaps an acknowledged effort to include the results of research in "women's studies" explains the inclusion of painters Sarah Margaret Armour Robertson and Marian Mildred Dale Scott and printmaker Tobie Thelma Steinhouse in the face of the omission of Albert H. Robinson. Other painters unaccountably excluded include such staples of the art market as Manley MacDonald, Mower Martin, Marmaduke Matthews and J. W. Beatty as well as Sir Wyly Grier whose long prominence, ten years as president of the Royal Canadian Academy, knighthood and vast output of public portraits indicate his inclusion whatever his artistic achievement.

The host of contemporary artists supported by public patronage are haphazardly represented. They could not all be included and the prodigality and voguishness of public patronage provides no basis for selection. Most have no popular following. The impossibility of discrimination is indicated by the editor's admission that
...on advice from consultants.... in the case of contemporary painters, limited space required that an age criterion be imposed.
Among those who met this criterion are Robert Austin Scott, who
...has developed a style of drawing with his fingers through the top layer of paint to expose the underpainted colours.
and Michael Robinson
A self-taught artist with a lyrical and surreal style....[whose] concerns are the conservation of natural resources and revitalization of native cultural values.

For writers publication provides some basis of selection and boosterism assures a large literary contingent. The scores of minor novelists, poets and story writers, most, usually deservedly, with tiny readerships, are there to persuade us that we are living through a post-Centennial literary renaissance. Under the influence of Northrop Frye's refusal of evaluation "everybody has won, and all must have prizes".

Editor in Chief James Marsh says in his 1985 introduction
In all areas biographies are repesentative of a far greater number worthy of inclusion.
This may be an attempt to soothe living Canadians offended by being left out but it cannot be true. The selection, however faulty, is plainly not random. It shows a conscious effort to bring in as many putatively distinguished or interesting Canadians as can fit in the hope that we will be persuaded that we must be a fine country to have produced 3700 distinguished or interesting people. So many of these will be unheard of by readers and so many sound so dull or receive such banal boosts that the effort may have the opposite result and persuade readers that we are indeed a dull and unaccomplished lot. Passing references in survey articles would be more useful to readers, who will not look up people they will never hear of, and all many of the 3700 deserve, but it would not provide the boost the Encyclopedia aims at.

The second edition's greatly expanded index has been praised. But a properly organized and cross-referenced encyclopedia is its own index. 372 pages are largely wasted. An insignificant reference to New Brunswick in "Building Codes and Regulations" is indexed under "New Brunswick law".  "NB (1055)" from the 1981 census figures for Welsh descent gets "Welsh" into the index under "New Brunswick ethnic population".  But  more significant references to New Brunswick in "Germans" are not indexed.  Parkdale College (should be "Collegiate") is indexed for the passing reference in "Alan Jarvis" but there is no listing of the Upper Canada College old boys who have entries. It could be useful, at least for reviewers, to have lists of the painters or geologists, or companies or flowers that have entries but there are not. Only when the Encyclopedia becomes available as an electronic database will there be any prospect of satisfactory access beyond the alphabetical entries themselves and cross-references. Cross-referencing is spotty. Dray, Fackenheim and Macpherson among others are not cross-referenced from "Philosophy" to their individual entries.

"Reading" notes in fine print are so few and haphazard it is a puzzle why there are any.  Ian Kyer's entry on "Caesar" Wright does not mention his 1987 book on him. The entry on Byng does not mention Jeffrey Williams' Governor General's award winning 1983 biography.

Lest the rapid obsolescence of the first edition, published only in 1985, discourage buyers of the second Hurtig promises no new edition before 1992. There is much work to be done in the next three years if The Canadian Encyclopedia is to make the contribution to national understanding its reputation and finances demand. In producing the Encyclopedia in relatively few years the emphasis, to judge by the results, has been on recruiting contributors, assigning their entries and  getting them in and typeset and proofread. There are a minimum of typographical and simple factual errors. Where the Encyclopedia can be most readily improved is in the editorial judgment of what to include, too easily left to the enthusiasms of consultants and contributors, and the editing of entries to assure that they are objective, consistently say something that can be significant to the general reader, are fully cross-referenced and avoid unnecessary repetition. The contemporary bias and boosterism need to be fought but may be inescapable in the time and place.