Manitoba History: Review: Contexts of Canada’s Past: Selected Essays of W. L. Morton, With an Introduction by A. B. McKillop

by Allan Smith
Department of History, University of British Columbia

Manitoba History, Number 2, 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 As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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This mixture of sound scholarship, intelligent polemic, and deeply felt personal reminiscence gives its readers an altogether welcome opportunity to take a comprehensive look at the thought of one of this country’s most accomplished historians. Thanks to the wide-ranging nature of the selections which compose it, those who avail themselves of that opportunity will, indeed, not only see much Canadian history treated in the volume before them; they will also get the point of view of a wise and humane observer concerning what it means to be a westerner, a Canadian, and a human being in the difficult world created by the extraordinary events of the twentieth century. The personal, in fact, looms large in this collection. From the point on the first page of the first essay where we encounter Morton, prompted by his memories of what it was like to break the land with a plough, contemplating the meaning of the severance of the direct and immediate link use of that implement established between man and the world in which he lived, to the place near book’s end where we find him reflecting on the stance it was in his view necessary to adopt in the face of the passing of the confident, British, Edwardian world he knew as a youth. we are admitted at regular intervals to the musings of a sensitive and thoughtful commentator striving to find balance, equilibrium, and meaning in a world where those attributes are by no means easy to locate.

A preoccupation with conservative themes—obvious enough in passages such as these—also manifests itself with force and clarity in the more purely historical portions of the book. There is an indulgent but never patronizing account of the basic rhythms and daily life of a small Manitoba town: a rounded and penetrating discussion, sustained through several of these essays, of the fundamental, land-based, historically validated patterns of prairie life; a continuing emphasis on the extent to which the country at large is made up of a congeries of groups and communities: and a deeply felt belief, expressed with notable vigour in the last essay, that however complex and extended the entity thus created might become, the particularisms of which it consists remain at once the real stuff of social existence and the true arena within which individuals express themselves. But if all of this means that one sees demonstrated yet again how important a role an appreciation for the local and regional has played in Morton’s work, it most assuredly does not signify—thanks to an equally consistent emphasis on the interrelatedness, mutual dependency, and shared experience of these communities—that we are prevented from getting a clear impression of what, in Morton’s view, gives vitality and a peculiar kind of strength to the nation as a whole.

Other themes—all of them, however, linked to this quite essential conservatism—are, of course, represented here. The utility of the metropolitan thesis in the understanding of Canadian history is consistently emphasized: there is a strongly put case for Canada to be seen as a society shaped by its northern environment: more than one essay contains a plea for the primacy of conservative, rather than liberal, practice, in the shaping of nineteenth century Canada; and, with respect to matters currently agitating the nation, readers will find a carefully argued brief against separatism and extreme duality as phenomena contrary to the spirit of Canadian history and the principles of interdependency and shared experience. The notion that communities and regions as well as individuals have responsibilities to each other is present, too, first in Morton’s 1946 plea that centralists take full account of the impact of what they do—and write—has on the outlying parts of the country, and then, later, in his concern that English Canadians as a whole strive to understand and accommodate—though always within limits—the changing reality of Quebec.

When all, however, is said and done, the reader remains struck most forcibly by Morton’s sense of the West—the essays dealing with it are the most rich, satisfying, and fully articulated of those reprinted here—his belief that the imperatives of interdependency and shared experience will enforce Canadian coherence in the future as they have in the past, and his conviction—set out explicitly in two essays—that conservative principles remain indispensable guides for the management of man’s affairs and his living of a tolerable life. In thus shedding their most powerful light on the themes which have been consistently at the forefront of their author’s area of concern over a period of thirty-five years, these selections do more than enough, then, to justify the editor’s hope—expressed in a sensible and informative introduction—that reading them will contribute to a grasp of the principles informing Morton’s thought at the same time that it provides a special and distinct view of the country’s experience. Students of many things—the west, the nation, and, not least, the Canadian mind—will, in sum, find much to engage them here.

Page revised: 23 April 2010