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Manitoba History: Review: Suzanne Zeller, Inventing Canada: Early Victorian Science and the Idea of a Transcontinental Nation

by Norman R. Ball
Systems Design Engineering, University of Waterloo

Number 21, Spring 1991

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Suzanne Zeller, Inventing Canada: Early Victorian Science and the Idea of a Transcontinental Nation. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987, 356 pp., illus. ISBN 0-8020-2644-3.

Inventing Canada is profound but deeply enjoyable. More important, it is potentially significant in an era characterized by malaise, handwringing, sectional wrangling and apparent inability to see the sense underlying the creation and continuation of a country which is blemished but still one of the world’s finest. The reviewer has long argued that understanding our historical relationships with science and technology are essential keys to comprehending Canada and Canadians. Professor Zeller’s Inventing Canada: Early Victorian Science and the Idea of a Transcontinental Nation reveals the richness and depth of understanding gained by skilfully and imaginatively examining those historical relationships.

In the nineteenth century, British North America both confused and challenged the Victorian mind, a mind deeply enamoured with the achievements and potential of science and technology. Simply understanding what British North America contained, and what it might become, posed a major challenge to those contemplating its future. Hence the importance of what Zeller calls inventory science which is aimed primarily at determining what is there and secondarily with turning it to use. Zeller concentrates on four sciences: (1) geology (pp. 13-112); (2) terrestrial magnetism along with (3) meteorology (pp. 113-180); and (4) botany (pp. 181-268). In each area Zeller ably shows how and why Canadians looked to science and technology for “a chance for real prosperity, more than mere survival” (p. 3). Canadians found not just an understanding of science but a vision of culture, of society, and of continuity towards a promising future. There was, for example, in the geological work of William Logan and the Geological Survey of Canada, “a reinterpretation of Canadian landforms as an important key not only to the history of the earth but to the very future of British civilization” (p. 51). Organized meteorology was important, “particularly after the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, in encouraging immigration and efficient agriculture” (p. 139). Readers familiar with David C. Jones, Empire of Dust: Settling and Abandoning the Prairie Dry Belt (Edmonton: The University of Alberta Press, 1987), surely one of the most moving and compassionate pieces of modern Canadian historical scholarship, will realize that not everything worked out as envisioned by some scientists. But Zeller’s work on the origins and nature of the theory of climatic progress (pp. 53, 122-3, 140, 156, 171-3, 174-5) helps to make these more understandable and allows us a glimpse at possible consequences of government choosing not to understand, or heed, scientific understanding.

Collectively, the growing knowledge generated by inventory sciences linked, or integrated, otherwise seemingly unconnected areas, made sense of, and “supported the idea of a transcontinental Canadian nation” (p. 240). As Zeller writes in her conclusion, “both inventory and nation-building were important organizational processes which Canadians believed would arm them to meet the challenges of industrialization and modernization” (p. 269).

Inventing Canada offers even more. Descriptions of William Logan, for example, provide insights into our vision of the scientist as the eccentric, with “singular disregard for appearances, and ... often mistaken for the care-taker” (p. 62). More important, we see “science” as “an important part of popular culture” (p. 273) and we observe scientists, such as Logan, who knew the importance of public relations and “campaigned tirelessly to keep the accomplishments” of science “before the public” (p. 272). How very different from later generations of scientists—many still living—who, in addition to doing little or nothing to encourage public understanding, often took perverse pride in being incomprehensible to public and politician. Surely they were, or are, their own worst enemies. Is there a relationship between several generations of scientists who saw no reason to be understood, and a society investing less and less in the science and technology so crucial to its future? Zeller points out that “the sciences could not impose unanimity on all rival cultural, regional, and social visions of the country. But the assumptions and values they carried were so deeply absorbed by our industrial society that a century later they are seldom recognized” (p. 273). It is time to pay attention to, to understand and to capitalize on those ideas so common, and thoroughly integrated, as to be overlooked in Canada’s frantic pursuit of differences.

For a nation seemingly intent on showing that its components have little in common, Zeller’s Inventing Canada is an important reminder of common bonds. Beyond that, it is refreshing evidence that while good historical scholarship and writing are enjoyable to read they are also stimulating to the mind and relevant to our existence, identity and future.

Page revised: 11 April 2010

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