A History of Canada

by J. M. Bumsted,
512 pages,
ISBN: 0195406907

The Peoples of Canada:
A Post-Confederation History

by J. M. Bumsted,
600 pages,
ISBN: 0195409140

Post Your Opinion
The Smooth with the Rough
by Don Akenson

DESPITE what they taught you in school, Canadian history is boring. On the other hand, Canadian historians frequently are interesting. Take Jack Bumsted. He's the kind of guy you'd want to know, have a few drinks with, argue a bit. A mensch.

Jack is one of the American immigrants from the generation that was worth having: the one that wasn't so keen on killing all them Viet Congs. While completing his Ph.D. at Brown University, he taught at Simon Fraser, then at McMaster, and then back at Simon Fraser. Although he had no great enthusiasm for American foreign policy, he did something important: he integrated his knowledge of American colonial history with a sophisticated view of Canadian society as it evolved before Confederation. He twinned his research on American colonial history with a sharp book on Henry Alline, the Maritime charismatic. Jack's later works included a major study of Scottish migration to British North America and the editorship of the Selkirk papers. Since 1975 he has been a professor of history at the University of Manitoba and has been causing trouble in the historical profession, in the nicest possible way.

The two volumes of The Peoples of Canada are as good a read as one can make of Canadian history without cheating. That is not a slur: the problem is that any time one writes a history of all Of Canada, for its entire history, one has to include the smooth with the rough, the tiresome with the troublesome, the sane with the psychotic. And, smooth, tiresome, and sane are not a lot of entertainment. "Until you've done one of these, you never know the problems of these damn things," Jack says, and with reason.

He has tried here - and with a good deal of success - to include women, Native peoples, and various special-interest groups in the narrative. The "traditional male histories" of Canada have been about politics and about battles, not broad social forces. Jack mixes his discussion of multicultural and gender groups into his narrative, rather than placing them in segregated chapters. This is very courageous. The old-fashioned Canadian histories could be criticized by any special-interest group as not having anything to say about them, but once that point was made, their authors were home free. Jack Bumsted has the backbone to say things about every group and to tie this into the main narrative. He will, therefore, be toasted - to a crisp, one assumes by everyone he has written about.

This book started out to be 100,000 words and ended up more than 300,000 and two volumes, not one. Oxford deserves credit for letting Bumsted roll. However, the editor (or, probably, editorial committee) who decided how to package this thing should be given a life membership in the voluntary Euthanasia Society. These two volumes break naturally at 1885. Yet, because of the industrial categories of Canadian university education, they are broken instead at Confederation. The editors obviously know that this is a mistake, for they reprint in the post-Confederation volume the last chapter of the pre-Confederation volume.

What this really means is that Oxford is trying simultaneously to sell a trade book (Jack on Canada) and a university text (Professor Bumsted's text on Canadian history). They've made a mess of both.

I would suggest that you read the parts of this book that interest you while standing up in a good bookstore. Then, make a point of going to the annual meeting of the Canadian Historical Association. Seek out Jack, buy him a drink, have a talk. That's a real historical experience.


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