“When death reigned, and the agony of pain.” – Private William Perover
When I was a boy and my father’s trauma from his service in Holland was raw in his shattered leg, our family mythology was still dominated by his father’s warrior pride. An argumentative man, my grandfather Marsh ended every dispute with a display of his scarred leg and the expletive “Vimy Ridge!”
For a long time, I did not know how to sort out the memories on November 11. As a student I wore a poppy, held silent in a school assembly, and watched the widows lay wreathes beneath the cenotaphs. I was always impressed by the lofty sentiments about sacrifice expressed in the speeches that day, but my mind struggled to make a connection with my own family: my grandfather who bared his scars and bellowed the words “Vimy Ridge!” as a threat, and my father, whose injuries from the second war sped him into alcoholism and an early death.
How does memory speak to us? Each November, over 13 million poppies blossom on the jackets, dresses and hats of Canadians. Everywhere we are moved by the sad words penned by the Canadian medical officer from Guelph, Ontario, John McCrae:
Canada’s national anthem was first heard one fine June evening in 1880, on the campus of Laval University in Quebec City. Joseph Keaney Foran and some fellow law students were relaxing in one of the buildings when they heard a commotion at the front door. They saw Father Pierre Rouselle, the university secretary, and three other men enter the building and head straight for the piano. In the lead was a small man with a halo of black hair around his balding dome. “He was very excited,” Foran later wrote of the little man, “and kept tapping his hands and saying ‘I’ve got it! I’ve finally found it; I’ve succeeded; come, listen.” He arranged himself at the piano and the others perched on a nearby dais. “Throwing back his head he played for us, for the first time, the masterpiece of his genius – it was Calixa Lavallée; he played O Canada.”
There were celebrations that first day, July 1, 1867, for the new “Dominion of Canada.” But neither the date, nor the name nor the designation was a sure thing even a few months before. The celebrations were hardly a spontaneous public outpouring.
After all, confederation had been strictly a political process that took place in the backrooms of Quebec City and Charlottetown, with the colonial politicians being urged on by their distant masters in London. “Here in this house,” wrote Agnes Macdonald, the new prime minister’s wife, “the atmosphere is so awfully political that sometimes I think that the very flies hold Parliament on the kitchen tablecloths.”
A frail, winged craft sat like a mayfly on the ice of Baddeck Bay, in central Cape Breton. A young engineer, Douglas McCurdy, perched confidently among the steel tubing, wires and friction tape. It was a cool Tuesday afternoon, February 23, 1909, and an expectant crowd had assembled to see what the ingenious Alexander Graham Bell and his local protégé were up to this time.
The encyclopedia genre has played a significant role in the digital world. Even before the World Wide Web, encyclopedias were among the most successful products of the CD-ROM interim. Microsoft’s Encarta was the prime example (though it was a second-rate text licensed, not created, by the software giant), while World Book and others sold hundreds of thousands of copies to schools. Our own Canadian Encyclopedia appeared throughout the 1990s and was successful in retail as well as schools and libraries. Read More
It was my good fortune on October 26 to attend the final lecture on Adam Gopnik’s tour to deliver this year’s Massey Lectures on the theme of “Winter.” It took place in the beautiful Koerner Hall at the Royal Conservatory, University of Toronto. Gopnik of course is the famous New Yorker writer, with a number of bestselling books, including Paris to the Moon. On “winter,” this most Canadian of themes, the author is careful to point out his bona fides, that though born in Philadelphia, he grew up in Montreal.
It is a great pleasure to attend a live lecture and I went with such anticipation, which was somewhat dampened by the length of the introductions and formalities.
It was heartening to see that the venerable organization National Geographic has released the first issue of a new magazine devoted to history, Exploring History. Even organizations that have “history” in their title or mouth lofty mottos about its importance seem to have little love or commitment to actual history. A glance for example at the Sunday night lineup for our “History Channel,” on whose board I served for a while—in fact I was one of its advocates to the CRTC—lists “Pawn Stars,” “Ice Road Truckers,” and the movie “Body of Lies.” (No better for the Arts the same night on A&E, which lists six straight episodes of the American series “Criminal Minds.”)
“Pierre Trudeau among us was his greatest contribution.” - Rex Murphy
Pierre Trudeau’s death on September 28, 2000, brought about a spontaneous outpouring of national pride and mourning perhaps unprecedented for any political leader in our history. To many Canadians, he was the very embodiment of the nation. Yet, by what means can we judge a life? In a recent book two historians ranked Pierre Trudeau a paltry fifth among Canada’s prime ministers. If criteria for eminence were to include vision, force of character, style or intellect, then surely none but Macdonald would surpass Trudeau. He would be considered truly the second father of his country.