Manitoba History: Review: J. M. Bumsted, Dictionary of Manitoba Biography
by Linwood DeLong
Anyone looking for biographical information about Canadians has a large number of reference works to chose from. The most substantial, of course, is the Dictionary of Canadian Biography. Its lengthy entries, followed by substantial bibliographies, are indispensable for people who need in-depth information about a person, but this dictionary only covers Canadians who died before 1920 and it requires that one know the year in which a person died before one can find the appropriate entry. There are also concise biographical dictionaries, such as the Macmillan Dictionary of Canadian Biography, but the most recent edition was published in 1978 .
Biographical dictionaries devoted to individual provinces in Canada come in a wide variety of forms, but they are frequently either dictionaries of specific groups of people (such as businessmen, judges, lieutenant governors, pioneers, premiers, soldiers or teachers), one-time dictionaries of prominent persons, or else annual “Who’s who” type of publications that rarely extend back before the 1970s. Only a few provinces can boast an up-to-date, inclusive biographical dictionary. Jack Bumsted’s Dictionary of Manitoba Biography is the most recent.
Individual biographical entries consist of the person’s full name, birth and death dates (where known), a one- or two-word designation of the person’s career or occupation (e.g. physician, lawyer, journalist, animal rights activist), a one- or two-paragraph biographical sketch, and frequently a brief indication where more information can be found (either in a published reference work or in the papers held in a museum or archive). There is also a map of Manitoba, a “Select Bibliography” of biographical source books, and a list of abbreviations. Persons named in these biographical sketches who also have individual entries for themselves are designated with an asterisk. There are also judicious “see references” from variant forms of a name to the preferred one. In those instances where a married woman took on her husband’s surname, there is a “see reference” from the woman’s maiden name to her married name. The ever-perplexing problem of surnames that begin with “Mc”and “Mac” is solved by combing all of these names into a separate section, independent of surnames that begin with “M.”
Anyone taking on the task of compiling a dictionary such as this one is faced with two substantial challenges: deciding whom to include and actually finding reliable information about these persons. Bumsted’s criteria are quite sensible: the persons must be deceased, they must have actually spent some time in Manitoba, and must have either “made some impact upon Manitoba” or “have had their lives seriously formed or influenced by Manitoba residence” (p. viii).
A glance through the dictionary reveals that Bumsted truly has lived up to his intention to go beyond the usual scope of biographical dictionaries (elected officials, businessmen, clerics, professors, and judges) and to find people in other areas of society who also made an impact on Manitoba. A close comparison with some older reference works reveals that Bumsted has had to make some significant decisions concerning prominence and that perceptions of who is a significant person have changed somewhat over time. A comparison of one page from the biographical index to The Story of Manitoba, a 3-volume biographical dictionary that was published in 1913, with Bumsted’s dictionary shows that of the approximately 130 entries on the index page, only 15 persons are found in Bumsted’s dictionary. The Story of Manitoba, which seems to describe almost entirely men who pursued white collar professions, is probably the kind of dictionary that Bumsted did not wish to create and it should be noted that many of the persons listed in Bumsted’s dictionary do not appear in The Story of Manitoba. A comparison of the very brief biographical sketches in Ross Mitchell’s Medicine in Manitoba: The Story of its Beginnings (Winnipeg: Stovel-Advocate Press, 1954) with Bumsted’s dictionary shows that the two authors had different criteria for selection, even though physicians appear to be well represented in Bumsted’s work. The criteria for selecting “significant” people among all those who were elected for public office are not given, but politicians appear to be well represented. Somehow William J. Tupper (1862-1947), Lieutenant-Governor from 1934-1940 was missed, but all other Premiers and Lieutenant-Governors are included.
Many of the ethnic groups that have become part of Manitoba society are well represented in Bumsted’s work, though historians of these ethnic groups sometimes include more names in their ethnic histories than Bumsted does in this dictionary. As one goes through the names of prominent Ukrainians who are singled out in Paul Yuzyk’s The Ukrainians in Manitoba (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1953) and sometimes given short biographical sketches, one finds names that Bumsted may wish to include in a subsequent edition of this dictionary: Alexander Koshetz, the choral conductor; Michael Kumka, a poet; Bishop Nicetas Budka; or Theodore Stefanik, the first Ukrainian alderman in Winnipeg. Asian people are less well represented. This reviewer could only find one Chinese person and no Japanese names, even though people of Japanese origin have been living in Manitoba since 1906. This may be because biographical information about people from these countries was difficult to find, or because our history of continued discrimination against people of Asian descent made it virtually impossible, at least until recently, for them to make any impact on this province. In a subsequent edition of this dictionary Bumsted may wish to consider relaxing his criteria of “prominence” or “significance” slightly, perhaps to render people significant if they were among the first from their ethnic group to establish themselves in Manitoba and were thus significant within their own community.
Significance is a challenging concept because historians of an ethnic group or some other segments of Manitoba society frequently strive for inclusivity and may designate as “important” anyone who published any amount of poetry, held a major public office, or ran a successful business for several years. A historian must balance the potentially conflicting viewpoints of “significant in the opinion of other members of this group” (giving a voice to ethnic groups and them to evaluate their peers or predecessors) and “significant when viewed from outside” (including people whom a specific group may have disliked, disdained or overlooked). There is no golden solution to this dilemma, but a subsequent edition of this book might include a slightly larger “Select Bibliography” (p. x) that includes other biographical dictionaries such as Grant MacEwan’s ... And Mighty Women Too: Stories of Notable Western Canadian Women, the Jewish Historical Society’s study entitled Jewish Life and Times: Personal Recollection: The Jewish Pioneer Past on the Prairies, or the studies of other ethnic groups who feature prominently in Manitoba history, such as the Ukrainians and the Germans.
Significance or prominence can also arise, not from one’s own career or activities, but from extensive memoirs, diaries or oral histories that shed light on a time period, situation or ethnic group that is not otherwise well documented. Several Manitobans who are not found in Bumsted’s dictionary, but who are the subject of at least a 20-page document, include Heinrich Ewert, William W. Wilson, Hart Green, Jacob Hildebrand, Hugh Gourlay, Cha-Ske, and Edmund Folkes. In a subsequent edition Bumsted may wish to consider including some of them.
A subsequent edition of this dictionary might also incorporate some useful features from another recent provincial biographical dictionary, the Dictionary of Newfoundland and Labrador Biography (St. John’s: Harry Cuff, 1990). This latter work, which is approximately the same length as Bumsted’s dictionary and contains biographical sketches of similar length and style, also includes some very useful indexes: a list of the occupational designations that are used in the entries together with a list of all the people who fall under each designation, and a geographic index that indicates which persons are from which place. This dictionary deals with the question of which politicians to include by stating in the preface that Premiers, Prime Ministers and those who sat for at least ten years as a Member of the House of Assembly would be selected.
These suggestions aside, this is a carefully researched, well-conceived dictionary that fills a major gap in concise, biographical information about Manitobans from the beginning of the province’s history to the present. It is to be hoped that researchers in other provinces will follow Bumsted’s example and compile biographical dictionaries of their own provinces, and that readers of this dictionary will follow up on the author’s “Request to Readers” (p. xi) and suggest names that might be added to a second edition.
Page revised: 16 December 2012