Book reviews – Canada and Quebec: One Country, Two Histories

Preston Jones
The Next City
June 21, 1999

 

by Robert Bothwell (University of British Columbia Press, 1998. 279 pages)

THIS REVISED EDITION OF UPDATES IMPORTANT EVENTSCANADA AND QUEBEC in Canada from 1994 through Quebec’s 1997 referendum on sovereignty, with snippets from some 100 media interviews of Canadian historians, politicians, columnists, and assorted intellectuals (pseudo and real). Among the serious brains who contributed to this project are Ramsay Cook and one of his students, Michael Behiels — Trudeau enthusiasts both — and Thomas Flanagan and Stephen Harper. Bothwell’s historical narrative and commentary link the words of these disparate individuals.

Being a literal cut-and-paste job, this book is sometimes difficult to stick with. Not because the material is challenging — most literate Canadians could follow what is essentially an outline of Canadian history, with an emphasis on the past 30 years — but because reading the comments of different interviewees requires regularly shifting gears to adjust to their various syntaxes, manners of speech, and so on.

Though awkward, this book is nevertheless useful, particularly for high school students and university undergraduates approaching Canadian history for the first time. It addresses events — such as French President Charles de Gaulle’s cry from the balcony of Montreal’s City Hall in 1967 — succinctly and usually fairly, and on many occasions, it offers different points of view on a particular event or phenomenon.

That said, in at least two instances, this text comes up short. In one case, journalist and author Ron Graham says mid-20th century French Quebeckers viewed non-Catholic anglophones as “the devil incarnate.” To the uninformed reader, French Quebeckers appear as a rather nasty bunch, yet Bothwell includes not even one corresponding peep on the outrageous anti-Quebec propaganda of prominent Torontonians such as Thomas Todhunter Shields, nor on historian Donald Creighton’s less-than-charitable anti-Québécois brooding.

The most unfortunate generalization, however, is A. I. Silver’s claim that Quebec’s ultramontane Catholics viewed Jews as “always evil.” Surely antisemitism was as alive and well in Quebec as in many other places in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but Silver goes over the top. Given his proclamation, how is it that Quebec’s ultramontane literature frequently includes admiring references to ancient Israel and to the favored status of the Jewish people within the divine economy? How such admiration could have coexisted with a general derision for modern Jews is perplexing, and the matter deserves more attention than Silver, or Bothwell, allows.

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