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Thursday, February 1, 2007

EMINENT CANADIANS The Dictionary of Canadian Biography Volume XV 1921-1930

Dictionary of Canadian Biography
Volume XV 1921-1930
Ramsay Cook and Réal Bélanger editors
University of Toronto Press
1266 pages, $125.00 hardback
ISBN: 0-8020-9087-7

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.

Money 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.

Twelve 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.

Modern 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.

And 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.

The 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.

Anne 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.

The 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.

If 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 appears.

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 magazine contributions.

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.

There 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.

We cannot get close enough to many of the subjects to make realistic claims about them. Lee Gibson says 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 forms."

Many 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.

Susan 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.

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