Canada: Our Century|
by Mark Kingwell And C
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by Sophia Sch
Yet another snapshot album of the last 100 years of our country’s history is Canada: Our Century (Doubleday Canada, 512 pages, $50 cloth, ISBN: 0385258933), by Mark Kingwell and Christopher Moore. You’d think we could get some original titling going here...
Dividing up the twentieth century into decades, this tome is shaped from a montage of significant, and off-beat, events in the fields of culture, politics, sports, economics, the environment, society. The photos are striking, poignant, compelling, even frightening: the youthful Pierre and Margaret Trudeau swinging their son as they walk down an airport corridor, and years later the couple mourning their son’s death in a skiing accident; a farmer bending down to check the soil of his drought-devastated field; a Communist Party meeting at the Maple Leaf Gardens complete with portrait of Stalin; King’s visit to Hitler; fledgling air flights; a starving Inuit mother and child; an “Un Pays” sign trampled in a puddle of water... At points, the juxtaposition of photos is suggestive of the editors’ wit or audacity: a Miss Toronto 1926 beauty contest next to a rearview parade of elephants enticing onlookers to come to the circus; Americans and Canadians arguing over possession of the North beside a march of naked Doukhobors, Sons of Freedom, protesting on behalf of autonomy; a monument to the first Canadian saints (eight Jesuits killed by the Iroquois in 1648 and 1649), the photo’s iconography curiously echoed in the accompanying picture of a Ku Klux Klan meeting in Vancouver; first, Sue Rodriguez preparing to go to court for the right to die (Feb. 1993), second, killer Karla Homolka (Jan. 1993), third, a bare-shouldered Justice Minister, Kim Campbell.
Each chapter is preceded by fictional “oral testimonies” designed to reconstruct the temper of the ordinary folk of the time. This touch is in keeping with a pretty philosophical statement by Kingwell (one, incidentally, that sounds more like the sentiments of an immigrant reflecting on his homeland than of a Canadian on Canada): “A nation, like a life, is a mixture of fact and fantasy, of vivid memories that turn out to be mistaken and keen desires to return to something you never had.” Great idea. It’s just too bad the authors didn’t approach real people to share their reminiscences while these people can still be approached.
While the “500 visions” are beautifully chosen, the accompanying capsule descriptions cry out for an editor’s hand. Some are downright lame, others unnecessarily forced, still others unconscionably slapdash. Let me just cite a few of the choicest, and most annoying: “politicians couldn’t control another social blight—the perennial threat of fire”; prospectors head home because “their efforts in the gold fields were no longer panning out”; choosing to discuss the Group of Seven’s rural landscape painting with a picture of a Toronto stocking factory, the authors write, “you’ll look long and hard through their collected works for any sign of urban life”; “destruction and construction coincided uncannily in Toronto in 1954, with the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Hazel coming so soon after the opening of the new subway”. Such sloppiness smacks of cynicism.
There are two other textual components to this picture of the century—one successful, the other questionable. Kingwell’s general introduction on the theory of the photograph, the technology of the camera, and identity-building is okay, if incommensurable with the laudatory enterprise; but it careens into the treacly sentimental and self-indulgent when the author, feeling the need to explicate theory via concrete analogy, treats us to a verbal photographic album of his family and insipid remarks about how different photos “affected” him. What saves the textual component of the book is the fine and representative selection of quotes from our writers, politicians, artists, and thinkers over the century.