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Reviewed by:
  • Undiplomatic History: The New Study of Canada and the World ed. by Asa McKercher, Philip Van Huizen
  • Robert Bothwell
Undiplomatic History: The New Study of Canada and the World. Asa McKercher and Philip Van Huizen, eds. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019. Pp. x + 369, $34.95 paper

In 2016, McMaster University hosted a conference of mostly young historians with the objective of displaying and advancing the talents and careers of a new generation of international historians in Canada. The idea was also to bring international history in Canada closer to the historical mainstream, emphasizing a new and broader approach: transnational – outside government – rather than international – government to government or state to state. There is a lot to be said for this idea. After all, history is a mosaic along Rankean lines, with the pieces to be assembled into a larger whole. Over the years, historians around the world have produced a lot of pieces: the question is, is the result coherent or comprehensible?

It would be unfair to hold this volume to a pure Rankean standard. An edited collection of conference papers, however evolved through the editorial process, [End Page 155] is bound to be fragmentary, reflecting the varied interests of the authors. Indeed, these are broad: to cite only a few, Laura Madokoro examines the use of sanctuary in 1865 Lower Canada; Will Langford looks at the Canadian University Service Overseas in Tanzania in the 1960s and 1970s; Scott Johnston examines the Canadian origins of standard time; and Stephanie Bangarth examines “Canadian corporate irresponsibility,” a rich field, as she shows. Except for Madokoro and Johnston, all of the authors direct their attention to the period after the Second World War.

Some essays are broader and more inclusive than others, and, to my mind, these will prove the most useful if there is any thought of assignments to students: Daniel Macfarlane’s admirable and exhaustive study of Canada-us engagement over conservation; David Webster’s perceptive study of the impact of organized (and mainstream) religion on Canadian foreign relations, essentially the post-missionary period, as denominations struggled to redefine their overseas activities; and Bangarth’s study of Canadian foreign economic engagement – for example, the export of Canadian reactors to countries likely to misuse their radioactive products.

I must admit that I find Bangarth rather enthusiastic in her desire to find fault, and she falls into some rather hasty errors. She asserts that Canada transferred the technology for a plutonium-producing reactor to India “on the condition that it be used for peaceful purposes” (318). Alas, the reactor set sail without any such stipulation. When the Department of External Affairs noticed the omission and tried to rectify it, the Indians dug in and launched salvos of postcolonial righteousness in Canada’s direction. In the interest of harmony and a purported Canadian-Indian special relationship, the Canadians grumbled but continued a program of atomic exchanges and a large reactor program in Rajasthan. Diplomats pressed politicians to do something, but when the opportunity came during a visit by Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri to Ottawa, Prime Minister Lester Pearson remained mute. India, successive Canadian governments hoped, was Canada’s bridge to the Third World and a shining example of democracy. The best is often the enemy of the good, but Bangarth unerringly plumps for the best, which is what the hesitant Canadians of the day thought they were doing. Bad idea, as we can see now, but the motivation of the officials and ministers of the day was the conviction that they were pursuing the right path. Virtue is not easily transferred between generations.

Nevertheless, Bangarth is tackling a big subject, and it is not surprising that her context occasionally fails her. Context, however, is present in abundance in Macfarlane on the environment and Webster on religion. These are big subjects, but they receive comprehensive and intelligent analysis, based on truly formidable familiarity with primary and secondary materials. I felt instructed, and my knowledge improved, after reading them.

Laura Madokoro’s essay is a salutary reminder of issues of human rights, asylum, and the importance of religion in shaping international relations. Yet consideration of sanctuary is not...


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