Notes on 34th Text Reading Field: Bernier and MacFarlane

Canadian History, Week Six

Serge Bernier, and John MacFarlane, eds. Canada, 1900-1950: Un pays prend sa place/A Country Comes of Age. Ottawa: Organisation pour l’histoire du Canada/Organization for the History of Canada, 2003.

This collection of seventeen articles, edited by Serge Bernier and John Macfarlane, is uneven in tone, somewhat tenuously related in to the subject suggested by the title, and grouped under subheadings that seem arbitrary. There is a decided emphasis on military matters that I find both confusing and interesting:

  • Confusing, because the reason for the emphasis is not clearly explained and a few articles have no military content whatsoever.
  • Interesting, because the military perspective is not one that receives much attention in academic Canadian historiography. In fact, until reading this collection, I had not been aware that there was a distinctly military Canadian historiographical perspective – I had understood the military and militarism to be an object of study (as in Desmond Morton’s A Military History of Canada , or Mark Moss’ Manliness and Militarism ), not a subjective stance.[1]

Generally, the more solidly constructed articles, which survey general themes, are written by established, professional historians. The other works, of more limited scope, are by students and amateur enthusiasts.

The collection opens with a lecture by Françoise-Marc Gagnon who argues that Canadian visual artists, such as those in the Group of Seven, and Paul-Émile Borduas, have sought to affirm social/national identities through modernism. He finds that their aim was problematic because the universal themes of modernism — such as inspiration in nature, or use of the idea of ‘Indian’ to express a sense of identity – are, by his definition, post-nationalist.

Of the two authors grouped together as presenting commentaries on Canadian society:

  • Patricia Ray describes Canada’s selective and increasingly restrictive immigration policies, particularly with respect to Asian populations;
  • Patrick H. Brennan gives an indication of ideological sympathies and mutually promoting ties between English-Canadian journalists and politicians immediately following the Second World War.

The economy is addressed by:

  • Jacques Rouillard, who summerizes economic development in Canada and notes that the two wars, particularly the second, increased the salaries, purchasing power, and living standards of workers;
  • Serge Durflinger, who supplies a case study of the benefits of federal support of wartime industry and post-war re-tooling in Verdun, Quebec;
  • and Jodi Perrun, who recounts how military pension policies were affected after the Second World War by the lobbying efforts of the Canadian Legion, and what types of support groups were formed for military families in Winnipeg.

The Armed Forces section features:

  • Desmond Morton, who ranges across Canada’s participation in South Africa, the two world wars and Korea, to argue that Canadians fought in foreign arenas — and dis so rather smugly, because from a relatively comfortable position given the power of Canada’s principal allies — primarily to increase their international influence.
  • Roger Sarty’s contribution outlines, and explains, the sometimes lackluster, other-times controversial, but by 1950 the finally respectable, establishment and progress of a Canadian navy.
  • Rick Walker supplies an emotionally charged analysis of the demise of Canadian Army corporatism, arguing that the creation of an unbridgeable distance between politicians and the military over the issue of conscription during the First World War became so pronounced after the Second that the Liberal government deprived the army of all political influence and power.

The section on external affairs features:

  • an edgy article by Norman Hillmer, who takes issue with the view that Canada experienced a ‘golden age of diplomacy’ between 1900 and 1950. He challenges assertions regarding Canada’s energetic internationalism and influence following the Second World War and instead argues that, as in the past, a wait- and-see approach was most typical. Further, although interests existed and rhetoric was rampant, planning was non-existent.
  • Magali Deleuze evaluates Canadian participation in diplomatic events (the International Commission of Control, and Supervision of French troop withdrawal from Indochina, 1954 -1969), that fall outside the time-frame set for the rest of the collection, though the evaluation is made in light of developments in Canadian foreign policy from 1940. Like Morton, she finds that Canada was interested in affirming itself on the international stage, unlike Hillmer, she implies that there was a conscious, long term design involeved —  that of positioning Canada as an internationally recognized peace-keeper.
  • Adam Chapnick’s study of Hume Wrong concludes that in the negotiation of the North Atlantic Treaty, Canada was more concerned about pragmatic issues related to having its own interests met than with promoting nationalist or internationalist ideologies.

Canadian politics is covered by three authors.

  • Christopher Moore argues that the move to party leadership conventions, which started with Mackenzie King in 1919, marked a shift in responsible government, in that the leader became responsible to the party instead of the caucus. This shift allowed executive power to become unaccountable between elections.
  • René Castonguay devotes his article to describing the political career of Rodolphe Lemieux, who is presented as an outstanding example of ‘loyalty-to-the-chief’ (the chief referred to being either Laurier or King).
  • Avery Plaw, seeks to rescue Henri Bourassa from ‘neglect,’ by arguing, much as Joseph Levitt proposed, but in slightly more depth, that Bourassa expounded a vision of Canadian nationalism that included English as well as French peoples.

The two final articles are on architecture.

  • Denyse Légaré, explores the creation of the Écoles des beaux-arts de Québec et de Montréal as an instance of provincial intervention that saw art education based on an international model of architectural standards put to service for regional industry.
  • Marie Josée Therrien describes how, in combination, the history of architecture, nationalism, identity, international diplomacy, and upper-class English Montreal fashion sensibilities led Ambassador Herbert Marler to construct a neo-Georgian building in Tokyo to represent Canada.

Overall this group of historians appears disappointed with the first half of ‘Canada’s century’ and bereft of any clear concept of what nationalism or identity is – or was – and are content with expressing a vague dissatisfaction that it was not something more pronounced, inspiring, or commanding (for the majority in a flag-waving sense, for the minority interested in art, in an awe-inspiring sense).


[1] Desmond Morton, A Military History of Canada: From Champlain to Kosovo. Revised 4th ed. (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart,1999); Mark Moss, Manliness and Militarism: Educating Young Boys in Ontario for War, The Canadian Social History Series (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).

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About hallnjean

PhD in Canadian History
This entry was posted in Book Notes, Canadian History, Week 6 and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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