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Rockefeller, Carnegie and Canada: American Philanthropy and the Arts and Letters in Canada (review)

From: The Canadian Historical Review
Volume 87, Number 4, December 2006
pp. 685-687 | 10.1353/can.2007.0009

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Jeffrey Brison's Rockefeller, Carnegie and Canada is an important addi- tion to a growing body of work that explores what Maria Tippet once described memorably as the 'walking sticks' of early twentieth-century Canadian culture. Brison takes a broad view, examining the two most important props for Canadian culture and scholarship in the first half of the twentieth century. In examining how individuals and institutions interacted with the Rockefeller and Carnegie foundations during the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, Brison challenges what he sees as a nationalistic 'creationist myth' that positions the Massey Commission as Canada's cultural watershed.

This book, which is a revision of Brison's PhD thesis, and, the introduction of the book still resembles a thesis in the way the author positions his argument against those of earlier scholars and lays out a chapter-by-chapter map of his argument. While this is one of the objects of a scholarly dissertation, it has a tendency to slow down the published work. But this is a minor point, because the narrative pace soon quickens and the prose throughout is fluid and engaging. Brison has drawn extensively on underused sources in the Rockefeller and Carnegie archives to argue that pre–Massey Canadian culture was not a simple struggle between elite and popular culture, or resistance to the perception of growing American dominance. The many characters from both sides of the border who appear in Brison's work are well drawn in what is largely a story about the interaction of individuals.

The nineteenth-century American industrialists Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller were two of the world's richest men when they established individual charitable foundations at the start of the twentieth century. The self-made Scottish immigrant Carnegie believed that a wealthy man should devote his fortune to fostering good in the community, while the devout Rockefeller saw his financial success as a sign of divine blessing. Carnegie began giving money to an almost whimsical collection of causes including libraries and churches that appealed to him personally, while Rockefeller favoured universities, hospitals, and scientific research. Little of this funding was directed strategically or sustained until the end of the First World War, when trustees were appointed and professional corporate structures put in place at both foundations. Under these new regimes, systematic funding programs were developed and both foundations shifted their focus gradually towards cultural projects.

As part of this professionalization, the foundations tried to develop coherent North American strategies. In Canada this meant identifying and endowing 'centres of excellence.' Some of the biggest beneficiaries of these schemes included institutions with countrywide aspirations like the perennially impoverished Ottawa-centric National Gallery, which was transformed into the country's cultural hub by Carnegie money in the 1930s. Others, like Dalhousie University, were singled out as regional centres, to the detriment of nearby institutions. And whole departments were built around outstanding individual scholars like Toronto's Harold Innis and Laval's George-Henri Levesque. At the same time, Brison amply shows that these men and institutions resisted the foundations' desires to manage their Canadian programs as though the country were a smaller reflection of the United States.

One great strength of this work is the way Brison frames the story as a continuous series of negotiations between and within the two foundations and Canadian clients. He is conscious of the greater cultural and historical contexts, so that the influence of any one individual is never overstated. What emerges is a story of neither American dominance nor reactionary Canadian cultural nationalism. It is a much more nuanced interplay of the public and private agendas of men and institutions motivated by varying combinations of opportunism, cupidity, pragmatism, and passionate belief in the projects for which they were seeking support. The stakes were high because successfully wooing the trustees might transform an individual or institution into one of the nation's most important and powerful cultural actors. That the Canadians did so without sacrificing their intellectual independence can be seen in the books that were produced with this funding, including such nationally focused ones as Graham McInnes's pioneering history...

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