"Through a reference book's pages, we step into Canadian history"
by Robert Fulford

(Globe and Mail, July 1, 1998)

On certain pages of the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, an article suddenly turns a key in the lock of history. A door opens and we step into the past, that foreign country where much appears familiar but rules and obsessions are strikingly different. In the life of Dr. Albert Laurendeau (1857-1920), for instance, we encounter a still-familiar passion for French-Canadian survival, alongside an almost forgotten struggle between science and religion for control of the future.

Laurendeau's life is among 622 in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Volume XIV, 1911-1920 (University of Toronto Press, 1,247 pages, $100--a remarkably low price), edited by Ramsay Cook and Jean Hamelin. The DCB, now in progress for nearly half a century, arranges its subjects by year of death. This volume includes historic figures like Wilfrid Laurier, Tom Thomson, and William Osler; beside them we can find remarkable people now remembered for one accomplishment each, such as Sandford Fleming (invented standard time) and William Van Horne (built the CPR).

And then there are heroes now forgotten, like Laurendeau, whose life is written by Cook. A doctor in a small Quebec town, he loved French Canada so much that he wanted to educate it. In 1907, when Origin of Species was 49 years old, Laurendeau lectured admiringly on Darwin. Archbishop Joseph-Alfred Archambeault insisted that this violated the church's authority. Laurendeau fell silent for a while but in 1911 published a book claiming that on evolution, Catholic Quebec was backward, like earlier societies that denied Copernicus and Galileo.

Archambeault forbade Catholics to read the book and told Laurendeau to recant. Despite the threat of excommunication, he held out for a year. Finally he wrote a letter admitting error, hoping it would be private (Archambeault published it in a church paper). In 1918, with Archambeault dead, Laurendeau again publicly supported evolution, adding that Quebec remained in the Middle Ages. This time the church ignored him. In 1920 he was buried as a Catholic.

Every few pages in the DCB, a notable minor character emerges. Kathleen Fraser outlines the great Toronto mystery of the 1920s, Ambrose Small (1866-1919--maybe), a womanizing impresario whose Grand Theatre had a secret room with bar and bed. He disappeared one day and was never seen again, except in fiction, such as Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of the Lion. Some DCB stories have a mythic quality. Dorothy Harley Eber describes Inukjuarjuk (c.1849-1915), an Inuit camp leader and nomadic hunter who as a boy in the 1860s took part in the murder of shipwrecked European whalers, the last incident of its kind and the inspiration for James Houston's novel, The White Dawn. Inukjuarjuk fathered 16 children, one of them Peter Pitseolak, the historian and photographer.

The soul-shaking, nation-shaping event that dominates this volume is the Great War, with its astonishing valour and unspeakable waste. It shattered even the life of William Osler, the doctor who was perhaps the greatest Canadian of his time; the death of his son with the Royal Artillery in 1917 destroyed Osler's spirit.

The war pursues us even as we read sports history. Bruce Kidd, himself a famous runner, relates the story of Jimmy Duffy, a Toronto man called "king of marathoners" by the Boston Post when he won the 1914 Boston marathon. In 1915 he was in a Toronto Scottish unit of 305 men that assaulted a German position near Ypres; 278 died, including Duffy. William Houston of The Globe and Mail sports department tells us about One-eyed Frank McGee, the nephew of D'Arcy McGee. A hockey player who lost an eye in adolescence, he nevertheless became a star with the Ottawa Silver Seven and set a still-standing record of 14 goals in one 1905 Stanley Cup game. In 1914 he somehow passed his medical exam and served as a lieutenant in France, where he died in action in 1916. David Macfarlane, the author of The Danger Tree, describes Hedley Goodyear (1886-1918), a heroic Newfoundlander who won the Military Cross in France and then was killed by a sniper's bullet.

Sandra Gwyn, who wrote about Talbot Papineau (1883-1917) in her book Tapestry of War, here condenses his story into two intense, eloquent pages. Papineau was an articulate young man of infinite promise, sometimes called a future prime minister. Like so many of his generation, he went to war for reasons that we can now analyze but never quite understand. In 1914-18 the great powers and their colonies spent the lives of young men with unthinking abandon, robbing many societies (Newfoundland, for instance) of their finest talent and thus of their future. Even when they understood the careless cruelty with which the war was directed, young men continued to serve a cause that was dubious, under leaders who were odious: king and empire mattered to them in a way that's nearly unimaginable now. Papineau, who won the Military Cross and became a major, knew what was going on. Spearheading an assault at Passchendaele, he was killed by a German shell as he left the trench. He spoke his last words to another officer: "You know, Hughie, this is suicide." Of all the sentences I encountered in this rich, noble book, none is more truthful, or sadder.

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