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The Canadians: Biographies of a Nation, Vol I and II

by Patrick Watson
336 pages,
ISBN: 1552783189


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Those Big Fish ¨ Well Drawn from the Historical Well
by Clara Thomas

The three volumes of The Canadians¨Vol I and II by Patrick Watson, III by Watson and Hugh Graham¨began as a series of television programmes for the History Channel, broadcast over four years beginning in 1998. Patrick Watson, whose long and groundbreaking association with CBC television is an important part of its history, was asked to take over from Shelley Saywell as Commissioning Editor of the series at the beginning of the second broadcast season. Since 1988 he had been working on Heritage Minutes, the successful series of tight-packed mini-dramas funded by the Bronfman Foundation and shown in movie theatres as well as on Canadian television. This, he says, had been "a preparation for my taking the material of documentary storytelling and investing it with the mythic power of fiction...I had become fascinated with invented drama that probed into the human realities behind the documents."
He was also concerned about the growing tendency to mix fact and fiction in the making of documentaries. In the never-ending skirmishes between professional historians and popularizing amateurs, even including successful, highly-trained television directors and producers, the use of dramatic recreation was a constant and growing bone of contention, not only in Canada, but internationally as well. The producers of historical drama are always tempted to create their own versions of events, especially when authentic documents are scarce: "producers were being tempted by the excitement of these frauds¨a form of pure deception or television lying that is especially reprehensible because, presented as documentary, it leads viewers to believe that what they have seen actually happened." Watson accepted the offered challenge of The Canadians, believing that he could help the series avoid that pitfall and "convey authentic and useful information." In fact, the series, and these volumes, the series' spin-off, do more than that. Perhaps the phrase that best describes them is "surprising, vastly entertaining and informative." Every one of the biographies printed contains its startling surprises for the reader. Whoever would have thought that such colour, such variety, existed in these lives or that we Canadians, "bland" by reputation, have thrown up such consummate rogues and rascals as well as our fair complement of worthy, but also brilliantly colourful citizens?
The pilot for the series was Rattenbury: A Tale of Murder and Genius, written by Bob Duncan, another veteran of CBC's documentaries. An embezzler, fraud and liar on a monumental scale, Frances Rattenbury had emigrated to Vancouver from England in 1892, claiming to have been the senior architect of the public buildings of Bradford and Leeds. With wonderful luck and timing, he began to make himself known in Vancouver just before the province announced a competition for the design of the provincial legislative buildings in Victoria. He won the anonymous competition, signing his entry with "For Our Queen and Country," a clever move to trumpet his loyal patriotism. At age 25 he was well embarked on a career of enormous success, shady practices and cost overruns. Those who worked with him were appalled, but as the buildings took shape their exterior magnificence quieted all controversy. Ratz, as he was called, became British Columbia's man of the hour.
A born gambler and entrepreneur, his next big venture was an attempt to cash in on the Yukon Gold Rush of 1898. He bought 1000 cattle and shipped them to Dawson where a steak cost an astronomical price. Next he began to build a fleet of boats to carry prospectors across Bennett Lake to the goldfields. In the midst of all this he married Florence Nunn, took her to the Yukon where they climbed the notorious Chilkoot Pass and claimed that, contrary to its reputation, it was a charming hike. By the time his steamship company was in operation, however, the gold rush was over. He lost his investors' money and his own. He still had his reputation as a brilliant architect and he made the most of that, building in the grand manner and scorning his detractors in the profession. He became the principal western architect for the Bank of Montreal and succeeded in winning the contract for the CPR's Empress Hotel. "Magnificence" was his byword and the public was dazzled by his successes. Until the twenties he seemed invincible though his blatantly dishonest business practices were certainly known to all his business associates.
Then his downfall began. He started an affair with Alma Pakenham, a popular pianist, already twice married. He also began to drink heavily. As Florrie wouldn't give him a divorce, he deserted her and the two children she had borne, went back to England with Alma and retired in Bournemouth. There one night, he was bludgeoned to death by George Stoner, a young man he had hired as chauffeur but who had become Alma's lover. The death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment; then with the outbreak of war Stoner was released on parole to join the army. He finally died in the '90s in a nursing home in Bournemouth. The whole melodramatic story is well documented, even to a quoted comment from John Rattenbury, the son of Alma and Ratz. As Watson planned and promised when he involved himself in the series, there is no fake material here. On the contrary, the true story is strange beyond imagining and a very good pointer to the strengths of the entire series.
Each of these three volumes contains 16 of such biographies, each of them approximately twenty pages long. That length allows for a satisfyingly detailed account of each life, reminiscent of a New Yorker Profile. Together they make a wonderfully varied tapestry, nicely portioned out between men and women and among the various regions of Canada. They are not formulaic; they are as individual as the subjects themselves; their choice for these volumes was not constrained by politically correct requirements, regardless of what the original televised shows may have demanded: French Canada is represented only by Jacques Plante and Georges Vanier, and Native People by Pauline Johnson, Jay Silverheels (Tonto) and Robert Markle.
Understandably, some stories lend themselves to this treatment better than others. Nell Shipman, for instance, born Helen Barham in Vancouver, was for a time a dazzlingly successful screen writer and star in early Westerns. In Back to God's Country in 1919, which she had adapted from a novel by James Oliver Curwood, a popular writer who was a publicist for the CPR, Nell dipped nude into a mountain pool, thereby giving the film a particularly saleable, scandalous reputation. From a very early age Nell had been enchanted with films which were just beginning to be shown as part of the entertainment in vaudeville theatres. She took an acting course in Seattle and at age 13 was travelling with a repertory company on the west coast. The ups and downs of her life after her marriage to Ernie Shipman become confusing to follow, mixed as they are with information about the recovery of her films and their historical value today. Obviously, her story lends itself more successfully to a television presentation than to the printed page. The same is true of Robert Markle, an artist, born to a Mohawk couple, Bruce and Kathleen Maracle, at the Tyendinaga reserve. He and Patrick Watson were close friends and his story is told with great affection, but a reader is bound to miss seeing examples of his art which of course would be an essential part of the television treatment. His is a tragic story and a complex one; it does not translate well into this print format.
Less complex stories which can be told with an uncomplicated narrative line are completely successful. Ruby Keeler, Kathleen Ryan (Klondike Kate), Grant MacEwan, Sam Hughes, Arthur Currie¨all these and more give us compelling insights into lives that well deserve to be known and celebrated. In the category of "surprising" the story of Northrop Frye takes the prize: instead of a conventional account of Frye's extraordinary learning and his ground-breaking publications, Watson adapts his biography from the prize-winning television broadcast, "A Love Story", by Daniel Zuckerbrot. Its centre is a moving celebration of the enduring love of Northrop and Helen Frye.
The astonishing tale of Mona Parsons is in a class by itself: it begins with the actual script for a Heritage Minute and continues to tell the "stranger than fiction" story of Mona, born in Middleton, Nova Scotia, in 1901, who spent four years in a German prison because she and her Dutch husband had harboured Allied airmen shot down over Holland, in their Amsterdam home. In the confusion and panic of the war's ending she and a fellow prisoner simply walked away from their prison and made their way across Germany to the Dutch border. She gave herself up to a group of Canadian soldiers who, by a staggering coincidence, turned out to be the Nova Scotia Highlanders, several of them from her home town of Wolfville. With their commander, Harry Foster, whom she married after the death of her husband, she lived in Wolfville until she died in 1976. This story presented ideal material by Patrick Watson's standards: every detail of Mona's adventurous life is verifiable from childhood on. Andria Hill, a young scholar at Acadia, had traced and written Mona's entire biography¨drama school in Boston, teaching drama in Arkansas, New York stage, chorus line of the Ziegfield follies, a career switch to nursing, marriage to a rich Dutch merchant, social life in Amsterdam and then the Dutch Resistance, ending in a German court martial and a death sentence finally commuted to life imprisonment. The script for a Heritage Minute begins with her identification: A young soldier questioned her: "she said, 'I am a Canadian.' And he said, 'If you are a Canadian where are you from?' And she said¨'My name is Mona Parsons and I come from a little tiny village in Nova Scotia called Wolfville.'.... Harry Foster pushed forward : `Mona Parsons! From Wolfville? Mona! It's me! Harry Foster. My God, what's happened to you?'
Watson has appended to his biographies short reading lists, information about the writers of their original television debuts and in many cases notices of their repeat showings. His purpose in writing the series, as he states it, was simply this: "If even one of these reviews provokes enough interest in you, the reader, that you want to know more about the person and send for the video or head for the library to track down one or more of the Additional Reading Titles I have noted at the end of chapters, then my hopes for the book will have been realized." In interest as well as informational and educational value his achievement in these three volumes far outdistances such a modest aim. ˛
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