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Wednesday, April 1, 1998

WELL, WHO IS WHO, ANYWAY? The Canadian Who's Who 199

 April 1, 1998, Books in Canada

Canadian Who’s Who 1997
Elizabeth Lumley ed.
University of Toronto Press
ISBN 0-8020-49966

There is nothing nosy about wanting to know who people are. It is natural and proper to want to know where people come from, what they do, what family they have, even how old they are. For years I have kept an old copy of Canadian Who’s Who handy and made regular use of it to fill in the background of people I have read about or run into or just heard mentioned but could not place. The earnestly casual manners under which people are introduced as Sue or Joe without even a surname to hang on to suppose that our mere humanity is all we need to know, while treating names like pets’ names, simply something to answer to. But we are constituted by every fact about us. If we can know some basic facts about each other, we can have a more genuine regard for each other than the abstract respect enjoined by modern correctness.

Nor is there anything vain about making some basic facts about oneself publicly available. It is a courtesy to save people the trouble of piecing them together over time and to be open and direct. Perhaps in time most of us will have Web pages on the Internet. For now, for most of us, a telephone book listing is the extent of published information available. To get any more detail into a volume even the size of the Toronto telephone book requires a selection to be made. It is the job of a Who’s Who to collect the basic facts about those people who, because of their activity, we are likely to hear of and want to know something about. The Canadian Who’s Who does that job for Canada and does it pretty well. It is the only biographical reference book in Canada that is not restricted to some profession or calling and that does not charge for a listing or expect people it includes to buy a copy. Its limitations perhaps say more about Canadians than any failure of effort or judgement in the editors or staff as they undertake their massive task each year. Now that it is available on CD-ROM it is more useful than ever. Every library and most offices should have one. Individuals should save up and buy one every few years. They never lose their interest and your grandchildren will be grateful for their inheritance.

The obvious test of any biographical reference work is who’s in and who’s out. With more than fifteen thousand entries, up from twelve thousand only six years ago, there should be room for anyone one might hear of. A conscious effort has been made since the University of Toronto Press bought the publication in 1978 to get beyond the politicians and businessmen who in the past made up the largest portion of the entries and to include artists, writers, scientists and sports figures. Despite the editors’ best efforts the list of prominent Canadians who are not in would be a long one. Not surprisingly, politicians are still well represented. The federal cabinet and party leaders, the premiers, are all there. But most members of parliament remain nobodies, though over eighty senators are in. Andrew Thompson is there, if not in Ottawa. He does not list his Mexican home. Perhaps Svend Robinson is the best known missing M.P. Ontario opposition leader Dalton McGuinty and NDP leader Howard Hampton are missing, though McGuinty’s predecessor Lyn McLeod, who always had a recognition problem, is in.

In the media Pamela Wallin, Wendy Mesley and Lloyd Robertson are in but Peter Mansbridge is not. In painting Alex Colville and Paterson Ewen are in but Atilla Richard Lukacs and John Meredith are not. In music the composers, Murray Schaefer, Harry Somers and the rest are well represented, but tenor Ben Heppner and conductor, impresario and Companion of the Order of Canada Nicholas Goldschmidt are not. Lawyer John McKellar is in but his son, actor, director and scriptwriter Don is not.

If distinguished and prominent Canadians are missing it is not for want of the editors trying. They are practically speaking completely dependent on their subjects responding to their enquiries for entries. Over five thousand invitations to submit information for new entries produced only about seventeen hundred new entries for this edition. They have tried to get a response from some people for years without success. Some people may just be too lazy to reply, or think that there is some catch, that they will have to pay to get in, at least for a copy of the book, as they would have to for many apparently similar books. Some may think it is pretentious to be in Who’s Who; but if you are a celebrity anyway such modesty must be false. Some people may be concerned about their privacy. For people who have already been the subject of media profiles, such concern would be equally false. The information provided is anyway is not compromising and under the control of the subject.

The entries follow a standard form: name with any title and degrees; occupation such as author, lawyer or politician; place and date of birth; parents; education; family; present position; career; memberships; politics; religion; recreations and address. Again Canadian Who’s Who is entirely dependent on its subjects for how and how much of this form is filled. The results can be disappointing. Barbara Amiel of course omits her date of birth. Alan Fotheringham omits his parents. So does Art Eggleton, who seems to have done nothing before being elected to Toronto’s City Council at age 26. One expects to find in Who’s Who where people went to school or university and for a politician what was his taking off point. Eggleton also omits his occupation. His cabinet colleague Pierre Pettigrew changed his occupation from politician to statesman for the 1997 edition, getting pilloried in Frank for his pains. Catherine Callaghan simply says she is Senior Editor at Chatelaine and gives her office address. As anyone who might look her up would know that much, there is no point to the entry. The editors must have been so grateful for any response that their judgement was clouded.

Knowing where people live can say a lot about them but many people just give office addresses. Some, like actor Donald Sutherland, just give an agent’s address. Mordecai Richler and his son Daniel both give “c/o McClelland & Stewart”. Gordie Howe gives no address at all.

Some people have altogether too much to say about themselves. Roberta Bondar’s trip in space has led to her receiving 22 honorary degrees in Canada together with many other awards and a whole column of special lectureships, fellowships and committee and patron appointments. The entry badly needs editing. The length of entries seems to have been left to the subjects and is no measure of their celebrity or achievement. Jean Chrétien says enough in three inches. Brian Mulroney modestly takes two. Trudeau takes six. Sculptor Elizabeth Holbrook goes over twenty inches describing all her works. If Canadian Who’s Who is ever going to bring in the large number of notable Canadians who are not in and keep the volume to a manageable size in readable print some limit on the length of entries will have to be set and the editors will have to do some editing.

Apart from the few like Catherine Callaghan, and Gordon Capital vice-chairman James Conacher, who are not prepared to say anything about themselves, there seems no reason to drop anyone. The more the merrier. Judith Anderson is a lawyer in Vancouver but nothing in her entry indicates why she should be in when perhaps two thousand other lawyers in Vancouver are not. The effort to include artists has relied too much on membership in the Royal Canadian Academy, sadly no longer the assurance of standing in the visual arts that it once was. But the book is most useful in its coverage of the more obscurely accomplished. The famous we may know well enough already or have other sources for. Several of the famous missing from Canadian Who’s Who are in The Canadian Encyclopedia: Heppner, Goldschmidt and Svend Robinson.

The book is about who is who and entries are dropped when the subject dies. Books in Canada founder Val Clery, however, is still in though he died in the fall of 1996 and this edition is sufficiently up to date to reflect at least partly the results of the June 1997 federal election. Conversely Idler magazine founder David Warren who is still alive and well and busy at the Ottawa Citizen disappeared when the Idler died in 1993. Generally people are in for life, though many stop responding when they retire.

A selection of foreign diplomats posted to Ottawa is included and there are several expatriate stars: Joni Mitchell and Neil Young; Christopher Plummer and Donald Sutherland. Oddly, Body Shop founder and C.E.O. Anita Roddick is in, apparently on the strength of her 118 shops in Canada and an honorary degree from Victoria University.

The editors must largely take the information they are provided on faith hoping that the embarrassment of published fibs will keep their subjects honest. They should however be strict about titles. David Berger, our ambassador to Israel, titles himself “His Excellency”. In accordance with diplomatic formalities he is His Excellency in Tel Aviv. In this country he is plain Mr. Berger. Not a career diplomat but for fifteen years a Liberal member of parliament, Berger may not know that. Who’s Who should. As should our man in Quito, David Adam, and our man in Brussels, Jean-Paul Hubert, both career diplomats. The couple of dozen other Canadian Ambassadors abroad, including Raymond Chrétien, do not make the same mistake.

A sillier instance is John Marvin Mitchell. His 1991 entry describes a plausible career in financial services. By 1996 he has added a series of publications on motivation and negotiation and several odd distinctions including listings in dubious biographical reference books such as International-Men of Achievment and International Who’s Who of Intellectuals and Most Admired Man of the Decade, American Biographical Institute and One in a Million, International Biographical Centre. In 1997 he adds “Mem., Order of the Holy Grail-Knight” and, on the strength of that presumably, titles himself “His Excellency The Hon.”. One hopes that most of this is tongue in cheek, but it is weak humour and the editors should not indulge it.

With the decay of political allegiance in recent decades few people now list their politics. Most who do are Liberals. Even most politicians do not bother to say what they are, perhaps because it is obvious from their career, though Bob Rae tells us that he is NDP. Many Conservatives who state their politics say just that: Conservative, without the official Progressive qualifier. It is a conservative thing to have a conscious long term political allegiance.

Perhaps 15% of the entries list a religion. Anglicans, oddly, seem the most numerous. Most who do not list a religion must still have some religious attachment. Religion is perhaps no longer seen as saying much about who we are. It is more seen as a private matter that the public need not know about.

There is no French edition of Who’s Who, but 195 entries are written in French. Parizeau’s entry is in French. Bouchard’s in English. French Canadians are under-represented in relation to their proportion of the population, but the 195 entries in French represent only a fraction of the entries for French Canadians.

Sport often brings fleeting fame. The inclusion of practically the whole synchronised swimming team from the 1996 Olympics brings in Valérie Hould-Marchand, who, turning 18 on May 29, is the youngest person in the book. Casting the net that broadly could bring in hundreds of amateur athletes destined for lives of obscurity after their moment of glory. Donovan Bailey belongs in, if he never accomplishes anything again, but amateur athletes had better wait until they show whether they are going to establish a career, like skier, now sports commentator, Steve Podborski. Generally professional players are under represented. The superstars of hockey are in: Beliveau, Gretzky, Howe, Hull, Lafleur, Orr. The heroes of 1972, Paul Henderson and Ken Dryden, are not. Alan Eagleson is perhaps the only convicted criminal in the book.

CD-ROM is an ideal medium for works of reference. Canadian Who’s Who has wisely not added any mixed media bells and whistles to its CD-ROM. It gives us just the text. The added value comes from search, copy, print and bookmark functions. You can find people by surname or given name, occupation, position or title, birthday, birthyear or birthplace, creative works, recreations, clubs, address by city, region or postal code or do a full text search for any words you like. Unfortunately there is no search field for education. If you want to find people who went to Trent University, you have to search the words Trent AND University. This calls up anyone who ever taught their or received an honorary degree or had any connection with any university and had a family member called Trent. The CD-ROM makes sticking to the format for entries more important. Future editions of the CD-ROM could be much more easily searched if the format was better used. As it is, many searches are tricky because information is given in different places and different forms. There is no easy way to find all the heads of the chartered banks or all the generals or admirals in the Canadian Forces. But you can easily find the oldest person in the book, retired diplomat and journalist Fulgence Charpentier, who will be 101 in June, or how many people were born in Kamloops, ten, including jazz composer Phil Nimmons and Diefenbaker cabinet minister Davie Fulton, or look up all the playwrights, of whom there are forty-seven.

Canadian Who’s Who cannot get much bigger. Perhaps another couple of thousand entries could be squeezed in. If it is to get any better notable Canadians will have to overcome their shyness and coyness and perhaps a bit of laziness and be more forthcoming in supplying material for their entries. If they do, the editors may have to make difficult judgments to accommodate the most useful entries. But, perhaps like The Canadian Encyclopedia, Canadian Who’s Who should abandon the book and once it has mastered the medium publish only in CD-ROM or, shortly, DVD-ROM. The editors might balk at the work and the cost might be prohibitive, but then there would be room for everyone and we could really get to know each other.