Manitoba History: Review: J. L. Finlay and D. N. Sprague, “The Structure of Canadian History”

by Desmond Morton
University of Toronto

Manitoba History, Number 1, 1981

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 As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Textbook creation has become a familiar process. Most university instructors soon persuade themselves that the existing texts in their field are outdated, inadequate, boring or all three. Publishers are still eager, even in these austere times, to add titles wherever large markets can be guaranteed. The marriage of author and publisher is consummated in promises of fame, influence and easy money. After all, the old lectures, moderately reworked can make a new book. Textbook publishing remains one of the few lucrative opportunities of an academic career. Even more appealing than royalties is a chance to impose one’s own collection of facts, theories and prejudices on the minds of a generation. Through the slow, ineluctable process of teaching, children yet unborn will regurgitate the doctrines of professors long since buried.

Whether such dreams have motivated Professors Finlay and Sprague we are not told. In addition to typographical errors and a mangled index, Prentice-Hall failed to allow them any explanation of their purpose or even an explanation of their title. If there is a “Structure of Canadian History” readers must hunt for it in the table of contents or interpret from the text.

Lacking more formal guidance, one must conclude that Finlay and Sprague set out to rewrite Canadian history to the intellectual fashions of about a decade ago. Accordingly, they offer a stirring defence of most things Quebecois, relentless denunciation of all things American, and an ingenious application of that doctrine of “Red Toryism” invented by that shrewd simplificateur of the Sixties, Gad Horowitz.

The revisions are most fascinating when applied to pre-Confederation period. New France under the ancien regime emerges in an almost idyllic light, unrecognizable to loyal disciples of Marcel Trudel or William Eccles. The contemporary English colonies along the Atlantic seaboard, authors insist, can only be judged a success in “libertarian terms. “Those who prefer human development to material progress,” claim Finlay and Sprague, “will point forever to New France for the availability of its justice, the balance of its authorities, the joie de vivre of its citizenry and the adventure of its clandestine economy ...”

How, then, have generations of Canadians acquired an image of rigorous thought control, intermittent famines and the ripe corruption of Francois Bigot? The blame, as with most else, rests with the Americans. Francis Parkman, as an apostle of American liberal free enterprise, has had too many disciples.

The authors’ admiration for the authoritarian little utopia on the banks of the St. Lawrence leads them to a comparably High Tory view of the Thirteen Colonies. The rebellious Americans are presented as people too selfish to pay their taxes, appropriate ancestors for the proponents of Proposition 13. The revolutionary leaders were “obscure political hacks,” fearful lest British concessions might rob them of a following. Needless to say, it was the “American” methods of Papineau’s Patriotes and the “American” ideology of Mackenzie’s appeals which doomed rebellion to failure in 1837 and to dismissal at the hands of Finlay and Sprague.

However perverse and infuriating some of the judgements in the first half of Finlay and Sprague’s book may be, they are exciting, controversial and occasionally brilliant. They contain enough truth and enough controversy to send teachers and students scurrying in defence of inherited truths. Unfortunately, the post-Confederation half of the book is merely perverse. If, as the authors admit, Canadians had much to celebrate on the centennial of Confederation, their version of history offers little proof.

Gloom and criticism may well be justified. Politicians have been opportunists, electors complacent and business leaders self-interested. Reform in Canada has largely been a middle class monopoly, a fact as true of the CCF-NDP as it was of the women’s suffrage movement. Opportunities have been missed although it is hard to take seriously the authors’ passing claim that water transportation might have been a better investment than railways.

However, the real criticism of the second half of The Structure of Canadian History is not its relentless if characteristic negativism. It is a relative failure to integrate the rich flood of social and regional studies which, in the past decade, have done much to save Canadian history from merely being “past politics.” Such a failure, culpable in anyone writing amidst the stagnant self-satisfaction of central Canada, is almost inexcusable for historians from a region where much of the best new history is being written.

The secret explanation may lie in the closing sections of the book. One suspects, from the overly-long account of the 1972 election, that Finlay and Sprague wrote their lectures and perhaps their book a good many years ago. Then, at their insistence or the publishers, they added a hurried and mildly incoherent section to carry events forward to the Parti Quebecois triumph of November. 1976. The effort was excusable but ill-advised.

With its ideology and its outlook, The Structure of Canadian History is already a decade out of date. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the neglect of the rise of the modern West and the consequent decline of Ontario. In retrospect, the Turgeon Commission has become more significant than the Laurendeau-Dunton Commission. Lougheed matters as much as Levesque.

History may be timeless; its interpretation is ephemeral. Revisionist texts become durable only because of the brilliance of their insights and the solidity of their information. Finlay and Sprague have achieved a partial success. The brilliance of the pre-Confederation chapters is balanced by the drudgery of the second half. As for factual accuracy, at least some of it depends on the collaboration of authors and typesetters. In this case, as in others, the radical authors have been let down by the workers.

However, no typesetter could have dreamed that 100,000 men belonged to the First Canadian Division in 1915. The claim that the government put a Methodist minister in charge of Quebec recruiting in the First World War was a lie when it was first uttered in 1917 but it has been repeated by one lazy historian after another. The truth may be found, inter alia, in G. W. L. Nicholson’s Canadian Expeditionary Force (Ottawa, 1960). p. 221.