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Manitoba History: Book Review: Hugh A. Dempsey, Always an Adventure: An Autobiography

by W. B. Yeo
President, Kootenay Lake Historical Society, Kaslo, BC

Number 68, Spring 2012

Hugh A. Dempsey, Always an Adventure: An Autobiography, Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2011, 405 pages ISBN 978-1-55238-522-7, $34.95 (paperback)

Late in the spring of 1877 the Sioux leader Sitting Bull and Chief Crowfoot met at a Blackfoot hunting camp north of the Cypress Hills. In his 1972 biography of Crowfoot, Hugh Dempsey describes the encounter:

The warriors were invited into the camp and Crowfoot was surprised to learn that Sitting Bull himself was among them; he had come to visit and make peace. The two men shook hands and exchanged tobacco. Pipes were produced and, for the first time, Crowfoot consented to speak with the Sioux chief. A long discussion was held between the two men and an immediate friendship was established. [1]

Twenty-some-odd books later, Hugh Dempsey has now written about Hugh Dempsey. In this recently published autobiography he ranks the book on Crowfoot as his best. The excerpt above demonstrates the author’s signature style, written as if by an eye-witness. It also reflects his work as a collector and researcher. Who else but Dempsey would have found rare recorded testimony of one who had been present at this historic meeting?

Most people have come to know Hugh Dempsey through his books and from hearing him speak about western Canadian history. He has also been editor of Alberta History as long as most of its subscribers can remember. “Story of the Blood Reserve,” his first article in what was then known as Alberta Historical Review, appeared in 1953. This piece is one of the first of a large and significant body of work that deals with First Nations history, particularly that of the Blackfoot-speaking people of western Canada.

In addition to writing, Dempsey has collected rare historic objects, some of them sacred, and recorded the stories of elders. In his autobiography he describes his objectives, his approach to ethical issues, and how a network of close friends and in-laws, of scholars and fellow researchers, has supported and guided him. In 1956 Dempsey began his long career with the Glenbow Museum, then known as the Glenbow Foundation, established by wealthy lawyer Eric Harvie. While his new job offered him a wide scope as collector, researcher, writer and exhibit planner, he also faced a number of significant challenges.

Here is how Dempsey describes “the early years at Glenbow”:

If a person was willing to work, they could find themselves involved in just about any aspect of the organization. Yet there were two cardinal rules that had to be followed. The first was the recognition that there was only one boss—Eric Harvie. He owned the Foundation and, in effect, he owned us. Anyone who didn’t accept this fact had a short-lived career with Glenbow. Jack Herbert found this out and so did art director Moncrieff Williamson. The second rule was that the staff collected western Canadian material and Eric Harvie collected whatever he wanted. Another one of our directors, Jim Garner, got that one wrong and he suffered for it.

The Glenbow Museum today is an important institution with a sometimes troubled history, and an uncertain future. Dempsey’s insider’s report of its ups and downs over more than three decades should make interesting reading for Glenbow’s many friends, as well as his former colleagues. There are successes—important archival acquisitions such as the CPR land documents, publications and new displays—as well as traumatic incidents such as the controversy surrounding the1988 exhibit, The Spirit Sings.

In addition to his role at Glenbow, Hugh Dempsey has played a significant part in historic site preservation and commemoration, and in the development of national standards for archives management. He served as member for Alberta on the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada. Following a 1978 meeting in Newfoundland, the Board’s chairman and several other members and staff were killed in a plane crash. Dempsey was aboard another aircraft. He writes vividly of the traumatic effect of this incident, as he and the other survivors struggled to deal with it.

Dempsey’s autobiography is full of names, like a classical Russian novel. Many of them would be unknown to most readers, but there are also encounters with the more famous, such as John Diefenbaker, Margaret Trudeau and Prince Charles. Others include important figures in the Indian Association of Alberta, such as John Laurie and Ruth Gorman, elders and leaders of First Nations, as well as Glenbow managers and staff. Dempsey can be quite forthright, expressing negative opinions as readily as praise and admiration. [2]

One omnipresent “character” is Dempsey’s diary. An important record, certainly, but at times it hijacks the narrative and breaks up the flow of the author’s prose. On the other hand the diary makes up for it by supplying first impressions, observations and expressions of feeling -- the life force of an autobiography.

Notes

1. Hugh A. Dempsey, Crowfoot, Chief of the Blackfeet, Edmonton, Hurtig, 1972, p. 91.

2. Ruth Gorman was the volunteer legal advisor to the Indian Association of Alberta. An alternate view of her role in the Hobbema affair and other matters can be found in Frits Pannekoek, “A Strongminded Woman,” in Remembering Chinook County, Calgary, Detselig Enterprises Ltd., 2005.

Page revised: 7 January 2017

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