For a 1,374-page reference book that sits regally on the shelf and sells for $170, the 1998 edition of Canadian Who's Who (University of Toronto Press) often exhibits a strikingly personal tone. There's a reason: This collection of 15,000 brief biographies has 15,000 authors. Eminent Canadians chosen for inclusion submit their own entries, at whatever length they choose, and no one edits their egotism or whimsy.
Allan Fotheringham, for instance, says in his entry that Time magazine once called him "Canada's most consistently controversial newspaper columnist," and Charles Pachter announces he's "one of Canada's leading contemporary artists." Rev. Allen Spraggett, self-described "writer, broadcaster, psychical researcher, consultant, neo-astrologer," gives us the name of his psychoanalyst.
Brian Mulroney's article runs only 197 words, while Pierre Trudeau's is 506. But Thomas Symons, founding president of Trent University, takes 862 words. Hume Cronyn rattles on for 1,123, William Hutt for 1,430. Elizabeth Holbrook, a sculptor in Dundas, Ont., writes the longest item, 1,712 words, citing locations of her sculptures. Richard J. Doyle carries modesty to a fault: His 120-word item doesn't even give the years when he was editor of The Globe and Mail (1963-83) and the most influential journalist in the country.
Canadian Who's Who now appears in CD-ROM as well as book form. (The CD-ROM costs $195; book and disc together are $275.) The CD-ROM works with brisk efficiency when you know which biography you want and it can tell you how many people in the book went to Upper Canada College (80) or how many attended my own Toronto high school, Malvern (17). You can learn that 2,139 people list golf as a recreational activity -- and two, one of them Jane Urquhart, list tap dancing. But as you search for more data, limitations become clear. Try to count the lawyers in the book and you find that some call themselves lawyers (733), some say they're barristers (113) and some simply say they were admitted to the bar. This means that finding all of them would require going through the book entry by entry, just as in pre-electronic days. The material isn't edited to a standard style, which is part of the book's charm, but computers can work only in organized patterns.
Who decides who's to be in Who's Who? Seven advisers, sprinkled across the country, and Elizabeth Lumley, the editor. They don't give reasons, but Doug Fetherling recently speculated that they follow a secret alchemical formula based on the number of times one is mentioned in The Globe.
Many famous individuals are missing, but that's usually not the editors' fault. Often, people chosen for inclusion don't want to appear -- though you need not give your address (Margaret Atwood gives her publisher's office), your age (Liona Boyd doesn't) or any other detail you don't want in print. Once, needing to know Peter Gzowski's age, I was surprised that he wasn't included. When I mentioned it to him, he said he didn't bother to send back the form. I insisted that journalists are duty-bound to co-operate, for the convenience of fellow researchers, but my argument apparently didn't work: Gzowski remains absent.
Certain mistakes are editorial, however. Joanna Trollope and Margaret Drabble, two British novelists, clearly not Canadian, have somehow slipped into the 1998 edition (they'll disappear in 1999). There are odd inconsistencies: Prime Minister Jean Chrétien wears an acute accent, and so does his nephew, Raymond, the ambassador to Washington; but Jean's younger brother Michel, the Montreal endocrinologist, doesn't.
The lack of fact checking tempts the mischievous. One respondent who yielded to temptation is Leo Simpson, a novelist in Belleville. Years ago, he began inserting outlandish fantasy in his entry; for instance, he currently notes that his season as viola player with a Bulgarian string ensemble in Rome was cut short by his deportation from Italy on suspicion of involvement in a plot to fix the 1958 Papal election. He occasionally lapses into truth, and the facts of his life are there. The editors have never complained; perhaps they'll learn only this morning about the tiny work of fiction they publish annually.