Manitoba History: Review: Ramsay Cook and Jean Hamelin, general editors, Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Volume XIV, 1911-1920
by Robert Wardhaugh
The impressive tradition set by the Dictionary of Canadian Biography continues with the fourteenth volume in the series, covering the years from 1911 until 1920. Despite financial constraints that have threatened the viability of the entire project, Ramsay Cook and Jean Hamelin (as the general editors), as well as the commendable staff at the DCB, have again produced an attractive and thorough work. Much of the credit, of course, has to go to the numerous contributors who, for very little financial reward, put together meticulously researched biographies.
The first thing that strikes the reader is the artistic appearance of the massive volume. The over 1200 pages of text are bound in a durable red cover with a “colourful, modern design” (vii). The new design may indicate a new look but the contents continue the trend set by past volumes. Inside, the reader will find a highly literary work that, through the medium of peoples’ lives, ultimately attempts to tell the story of Canada.
The continuing success and popularity of the Dictionary of Canadian Biography is rather ironic, considering the condition of the genre of biography in Canada. Biography is an almost taboo medium for contemporary Canadian historians who generally avoid the single-person, subject-oriented approach to the writing of history. As a result, the DCB remains one of the few places today where the Canadian public can still find what remains (ironically again) one of the most popular historical genres. It serves, therefore, as one of the few bridges between popular and academic history.
The fourteenth volume of the DCB covers the second decade of the twentieth century. It was a time of nation-building. The western boom was ending and with the flood of immigrants ebbing, the Canadian elite focussed on shaping their desired country. Cities such as Winnipeg were rapidly transformed into industrial centres; the move was on from the rural into the urban areas. It was a time of commercial development. The Maritimes were attempting to diversify their economy to the new manufacturing realities of the day. In Central Canada, amid continued industrialization, railway expansion still dominated the business and national enterprises of the day.
But the boom was over and the decade from 1911 until 1920 would witness serious disruptions to the dreams of the nation-builders. The might and power of the British Empire was being threatened by Germany and the result was an increase in aggressive imperial sentiment. This inevitably heightened ethnic tension in an increasingly culturally diverse nation such as Canada. World War One, probably the most traumatic event ever to occur in this country, tore the very fabric of Canada, and much of the world, from 1914 until 1918. Cleavages between French and English, and among the newly settled immigrants in the West bore testimony to the difficulties faced by the new nation. The decade would witness one of the most powerful reform movements ever seen in Canada, and this movement would result in some impressive advances for such groups as women and labour. By the end of the decade, however, a serious economic recession was pressuring the Canadian establishment to return to the status quo and much of the reforming impetus would fall on the backburner.
Volume XIV of the DCB includes the biographies of such “prominent” Victorians as Edward Blake, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, and Sir Charles Tupper, and “brings to a close, for all practical purposes, the 19th century” (vii). It contains the biographies of individuals who died during this period and as a result there is a predominance of soldiers killed in World War One, of clerical leaders, and of industrialists involved in the age of expansion and development. It also highlights the lives of prominent labour leaders, reformers, educators, and artists. The volume contains 622 biographies produced by 459 different authors: “Through their research into primary sources, they have built on secondary studies, enriching and sometimes revising or superseding them” (vii).
This volume of the Canadian Dictionary of Biography stands with the others as testament to a very ambitious project, and one which, we can only hope, will continue. The other volumes in the series are also available and include:
Page revised: 13 October 2012Back to top of page