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Manitoba History: Review: Robert Bothwell, Ian Drummond, John English, Canada Since 1945: Power, Politics, and Provincialism

by J. M. Bumsted
University of Manitoba

Manitoba History, Number 5, Spring 1983

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

The writing of historical analyses of the recent past is simultaneously the simplest and the most complex task facing the historian. At first glance, dealing with the events of one’s own times seems relatively easy work. After all, the historian need not depend solely upon the records and recollections of others; he has his own experiences upon which to draw. On the other hand, the historian’s memory is only marginally better than that of any other observer, and what the historian himself chooses to remember—and thus select as important—is influenced by his geographical location, his interests, and his likes and dislikes, from the political to the aesthetic. Unfortunately, the historian often cannot do better than employ his own memory as a selection screen when dealing with recent events, for the passage of time has not yet provided a filter for eliminating the inconsequential and ephemeral, for distinguishing the trends from the trendies.

Canada Since 1945 represents the choices of three scholars regarding what is important to recall from the historical record in the years since the close of World War II. Presumably the subtitle, “Power, Politics, and Provincialism,” embodies their collective judgment as to the significant themes of the period. Like most broad syntheses, this one is decidedly idiosyncratic, complicated by the relative absence of agreed-upon trends of importance. No reviewer or reader could possibly agree with everything in this book; to do so would be to deny the independent authority of one’s own memory banks. But any critical comments must be prefaced by more than a smidgen of humility. This book is one of the first serious scholarly efforts to make sense out of the broad sweep of Canadian development since 1945, and it is essentially a very good job, however much one might disagree with it. Moreover, the only real way to take issue with such a wide-ranging and well integrated synthesis is to produce one’s own alternative study. Comments by reviewers must be regarded as disagreements rather than criticisms.

At the same time, an occasional husbandman in the fields of the period is perhaps entitled to a few general remarks on this particular version of Canada since 1945. It would be well to identify the overall perspectives of the authors, which are federalist and centralist, whiggish and Whiggish, and fundamentally elitist. For none of these points of view do the authors need to apologize, and they do not seek to disguise their preferences. But they do tend to produce a certain sort of book, one which leaves a good deal unsaid. Furthermore, this book may annoy some readers because its authors have picked up too many of their stylistic mannerisms from the newsmagazines, presenting a slightly breathless air of omniscient skepticism which reflects the tone of much modern journalism. If the authors need not apologize for their principles of organization, selection, and interpretation, they must also accept that not everyone will accept their choices.

Perhaps the most obvious point to even the most casual reader from the Canadian hinterland is that the subtitle of Canada Since 1945, “Power, Politics, and Provincialism” marks the most serious attempt made by the authors to deal with the Canadian provinces. “Provincialism” does not necessarily imply a pejorative sneer, but in this volume it certainly does have that edge. The vantage point of the book is federalist central Canada looking outward, and despite (or because of) the many talented provincial leaders in this period, the provinces are viewed essentially as obstructions in the way of Canadian progress. See, for example, the impatient treatment of the 1945-6 dominion-provincial negotiations over post-war reconstruction (pp. 91 ff). Here, as throughout the book, the authors equate progress with the federal government, and there is little discussion of the roads, hospitals, schools, and universities built and maintained by the provinces and the municipalities in the post-war years. Margaret Trudeau or Jack Pickersgill get as many index entries as W. A. C. Bennett (the genius who showed politically what could be achieved with Crown corporations), Ernest Manning, Joey Smallwood, or Ed Schreyer. Jean Lesage and Rene Levesque do considerably better than Margaret or Jack, but then they have led Quebec (a.k.a. French Canada), which is part of a national problem. Suburbanization as a social phenomenon is virtually ignored, perhaps because it is not susceptible to discussion from the vantage point of Parliament Hill.

As I have already suggested, this book is aggressively whiggish. The authors, perhaps led by economic historian Ian Drummond, emphasize the extent to which things have become better and better:

In general, it seems clear that all the regions and most identifiable groups have shared in the economic advance of Canada since 1945. Living standards have risen everywhere, and the vast majority of Canadians are far better off than their parents were thirty years ago. They are also better off than they would have been or could have been if the income levels of 1945 had continued to 1964 or 1979. The fruits of growth have been widely shared and widely enjoyed. Whether the sharing has been fair, just, or equitable is of course another question (p. 21).

In fairness, the sentence following this paragraph admits “It would be foolish, however, to claim that everyone is better off or that nobody has lost, whether relatively or absolutely.” But to single out as “the most obvious losers” the wheat farmers is to overlook a lot of other people. This chapter, dealing with economic growth, concludes with a roundhouse swing at those who criticize it, characterized as people who “know no history.” Economic growth, we are told, “has provided an escape from a life of grinding poverty” and permits Canada “to subsidize the arts, run a decent social security system, look after the poor and aged, deal with pollution if it chooses to do so, and develop new technologies that will offset, wholly or in part, the depletion of natural resources.” The terminology may have changed a bit, but these sentiments would be quite comprehensible to the great Whig historians of Victorian Britain. So too would be the author’s organizational structure, basically a chronological one based upon prime ministerial “reigns.”

In place of the old monarchs of Macaulay we have federal leaders, and the “Diefenbaker Years 1957-63” are followed by the “Pearson Years 1963-68.” Whether the absence of “Trudeau Years” reflects a realization by the authors that not even as prominent a figure as Pierre can stand for a decade is not clear. Canadian development has always been badly skewed and out of synchronization with other parts of the world, and nowhere is this fact more evident than in the realization that Canada has never before enjoyed a Whig historical tradition against which later generations of historians could react. Goldwin Smith might have provided one, but he was too busy with other matters. Thus this volume, however belatedly, helps fill a real historiographical gap.

If Canada Since 1945 is centralist and whiggish, it is predictably and almost inevitably elitist, discussing the great social and cultural transformations of the post-war years in the superior and often patronizing tones of the Faculty Club or commons room. Yes, authors, this reader does regard as special pleading by university professors “the suggestion that the major factor in [the] creation of new tastes among Canadians is the expansion of educational opportunity in Canada” (p. 438). Throughout this book little attention is paid to culture as appreciated and experienced by the average Canadian; haute culture is given the emphasis. Robertson Davies gets as much coverage as football, and much as one may admire Davies as an author, this allocation of attention pays little attention to hard audience realities. The vastly expanded audience for football and hockey—live and on TV—owes little to expanded educational opportunity. Neither does the popularity of Dallas. Like most of the limited secondary literature on mass culture, this work concentrates on the medium rather than the message. Thus while we have some discussion of radio programming—it was balanced and Canadian, at least on the CBC—at the outset of the period, we have little about the programmes themselves, and virtually nothing about audience reaction or preferences. The discussion of television is little better. There is also, one must add, some inconsistency between the economic continentalism expressed by the authors and the spirit of cultural nationalism which surfaces when talking about popular culture. Economics and culture are like Love and Marriage: “you can’t have one without the other.”

Canada has, as I have been suggesting, long needed more historical works like this one. It does not matter whether all its readers agree with it, or that many critics will point out its deficiencies. Books with the chutzpah, scope, and vision of this one need to be published, if only to rouse the historical profession out of its monographic torpor. That academic historians should produce a book of this kind gives us all encouragement for the future.

Page revised: 27 October 2012

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