- The Oxford Companion to Canadian History
The Oxford Companion to Canadian History is a tremendous achievement and belongs in the home of every reader interested in its subject. Following in the path of other Oxford Companions, the volume is first an authoritative source on all aspects of the country's history. As one might expect, major figures are covered – Tecumseh, Trudeau, and Tupper are all here – and major events, ranging from the Royal Proclamation of 1763 and the Rush-Bagot Agreement to the Persons case and Dieppe, are treated as well. It is also the place to go for basic information. How many Canadians died in the Second World War? What was the life expectancy at birth of British North Americans in 1801? When was Thanksgiving first celebrated in mid-October? What was the third most-spoken language at Confederation? (For the [End Page 198] curious: 42, 042; thirty-eight for men and thirty-nine for women; 1931; and Gaelic.)
The Companion's thematic entries are similarly wide-ranging and inclusive. The book features ones on aspects of Aboriginal life and culture, and the country's major ethnic groups, cities, economic activities, and sports. Most impressively, there are substantial entries on culture and the creative arts, from architecture and broadcasting to dance, fashion, film, opera, and photography. Other subjects are less obvious but just as central to the Canadian experience – advertising, capital punishment, citizenship, death and dying, fires, leisure, racism, and weather forecasting among them. A comprehensive index and the use of asterisks to connect readers of a given entry to related ones are useful for research and provide for some fascinating journeys (such as one I took from environmental movements to the lumber industry through entries on Africville, Halifax, Pier 21, war brides, refugees, and Sikhs).
But what makes the Companion more than a simple reference source is that editor Gerald Hallowell, longtime history editor at the University of Toronto Press, was able time and again to convince the country's preeminent scholars to write the entries associated with their respective fields. I am a Canadian historian (full disclosure: though in no way pre-eminent, I was one of the 527 contributors), and when I first looked at the volume I was greatly impressed by Hallowell's achievement. Bryan Palmer on class! Neil Sutherland on children! Carolyn Strange on crime and punishment! Mel Watkins on economic nationalism! Carl Berger on history and historians! Arthur J. Ray on the fur trade! Jack Granatstein on the Second World War! Wendy Mitchinson on women and medicine! Michael Bliss on the lives of Banting, Flavelle, and Osler! The list truly goes on, and, everywhere one looks, one finds lifetimes of scholarship distilled into a few well-written and jargon-free paragraphs.
Since the entries emerge from the authors' own scholarship, the medium-sized and longer ones are really thoughtful and original arguments about their subjects rather than recitations of facts. As a result, the writing is engaging and marked by telling observations about the subjects at hand. Hugh A. Halliday, for just one example of the latter, informs us that the country's worst shipwreck, seal fishery disaster, and mining accident occurred within three months of one another in, of all times, the first half of the year 1914. I will be accused of exaggeration in contending that Peter Waite's elegiac entry on winter is alone worth the price of the volume, but please read it and see what I mean.
On occasion the result of Hallowell's historian-driven approach is an apparent and actual contradiction. One entry finds that the retail giant Timothy Eaton held a 'sympathetic attitude towards his employees' while the one adjacent to it declares that workers in his stores [End Page 199] faced 'poor pay, long hours, the exploitation of child labour, and sexual harassment.' Other editors might have been tempted to paper over disagreements about the nature and meaning of past events in a false effort to be 'definitive,' but in acknowledging them Hallowell respects his readers' intelligence and curiosity to learn more...