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Arrivals: Stories from the History of Ontario

by John Bentley Mays
417 pages,
ISBN: 0143013408


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Discovering Ontario
by Clara Thomas

ARRIVALS' sub-title is well chosen, for this is a book of stories and a story-teller's book as Bentley Mays makes abundantly clear in his first chapter. He is telling stories about "people who have come to Ontario from elsewhere and done something interesting, horrible or wonderful here since the withdrawal of the continental ice sheet, about eleven thousand years ago." His chosen subjects are idiosyncratically his own and he makes no claim to absolute historical accuracy¨in fact he admits to delighting in playing with the available information, taking a certain liberty with its arrangement and willingly sacrificing bedrock documentation for memorable dramatic effect. His prime concern is always the voices he hears speaking through the printed words and wherever possible he quotes those words. His own voice is of prime importance to his readers: it is informal, chatty, light-hearted, and enthusiastically in command of all his wide-ranging material, directed to a readership widely diverse in age and interests. The result is a wonderfully varied compendium in five parts: Origins, Strife of Empires, The World Upside Down, The Settling, and Dominion. Ontario has had no overarching mythology such as the West's "The Land of Beginning Again," or British Columbia's "Lotus Land"; Bentley Mays does not pretend to supply one, but he supplies material for a dozen. He links numbers of disparate tales into an on-going, open-ended chain.
John Bentley Mays Beginning with aboriginal people and their creation stories, he serves up a mix of lore and legend to form the foundation of his structure. Its reach is surprising; Part II begins with a chapter called "Roads to China" with Christopher Columbus its prime mover. We all know a few tag lines about Columbus, but here we are instructed on the essential importance of Columbus to our world today. He believed that the success of his voyages was Divinely ordained: "'God made me the messenger of the new heaven and the new earth of which he spoke in the Apocalypse of St. John... and he showed me the spot where to find it'.... From the time of Columbus to this, the notion of the New World as a place of untainted freedom and unfettered opportunity has never faded entirely. New generations of immigrants will probably keep the legend alive always."
Gradually, weaving through stories of the French explorers, the Jesuits and our aboriginal tribes, he narrows his focus to Ontario's primary existence as a pawn in the imperial struggles of Britain and France. De La Glissoniere, one of the governors of New France, termed the whole colony "always a burden to France," but at the same time "the strongest barrier that can be opposed to the ambition of the English." Accordingly, the French sailed along the north shore of Lake Ontario and established an important fort at Kingston, Fort Frontenac, and an outpost called Fort RouillT on the site of Toronto, "nothing more than a military trading post manned by about ten soldiers and a few struggling traders." When France lost the battle of the Plains of Abraham, the troops stationed at RouillT burned the fort and retreated to Montreal."
Once into the decades of settlement Bentley Mays's choices begin with Elizabeth and John Graves Simcoe whom he credits with creating Ontario "more or less as it exists today; surely not La Nouvelle France, but just as definitely not the United States." Simcoe decided that London was to be the capital of the province, only to be overruled by his superior, Guy Carleton, who dispatched him to Toronto. There is always a spice of humour in his telling: Elizabeth Simcoe, well remembered for her voluminous diary, he categorizes as "a diarist who is observant, clear, specific, unoriginal¨curious, but not astonished; engaged but never losing a sense of herself in the wilderness, which God created not to amuse her or leave her wonder-struck, but to be organized."
He is governed by no rules of precedence or historical importance. The Quaker, David Willson, dreamed of heavenly glory and built for his congregation, The Children of Peace, "the Sharon Temple, a monument of goodness, openness, civility, democracy without parallel in Canadian sacred building." The nineteenth-century traveller and writer, Anna Jameson, came to Canada to arrange a permanent separation and allowance from a husband she had long since ceased to care for. Always industriously gathering material for her devoted readers, she left us Winter Studies and Summer Rambles in Canada and its most memorable vignette, her portrait of the reclusive, powerful, lonely "Lake Erie Baron", Thomas Talbot.
In a loosely chronological sequence, we read of the Family Compact, Mackenzie, the instigator of 1837's rebellion, Benjamin Wait, a rebel who was punished by exile to Tasmania, and the Traills and the Moodies, who suffered great hardships in their settling years but left us priceless accounts of their experiences. In Catharine Parr Traill's case, all her writings are suffused with her love of the natural world around her which for her, compensated in large part for the trials she endured. After Confederation, Bentley Mays casts his net widely over a province that was developing rapidly "from a colony of settled yeoman farmers" to the prosperous province of a newly independent country. From the "swamp murderer", Reginald Birchall, to men of remarkable gifts, Adam Beck, Alexander Graham Bell and Maurice Bucke, he celebrates the diversity of Ontario's men and women. He began by dedicating his work to Greg Curnoe, a London, Ontario, artist whose work, he says, "embodied the most profound investigation of Ontario attempted so far." He ends Arrivals with the words of Antanas Sileika, the son of a Lithuanian immigrant, whose memoir, Buying on Time, brings us up to the catastrophic Hurricane Hazel of 1954. Every word of Arrivals is chosen to reiterate Bentley Mays's bed-rock belief in the importance of stories: "A few will remember, but some will resist forgetfulness by carefully handing on what they remember. This book should surely end, not with despair about what we have lost, but with hope for the stories held in trust for the future."
Penguin has produced a beautiful book, its many witty line-drawings adding layers of resonance to the text. I wish for it a readership far beyond those who are already converted to history as story¨teenagers, for instance, who might well find in it attractions beyond their prescribed texts. ˛
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