Columns

Umpire of the St. Lawrence

Daniel Francis

Donald Creighton was a bigot and a curmudgeon, a cranky Tory with a chip on his shoulder. He was also the country’s leading historian, who changed the way that Canadians told their own story.

Canada’s centennial, 1967, was not a good year for Donald Creighton. He was sixty-four years old when the year began and still riding high in his profession, recognized as the country’s leading English-language historian, but it was becoming clear that for many of his colleagues he had become a reactionary old fogey. Principally it was his views on Quebec. The previous autumn he had published an article in Saturday Night magazine, “The Myth of Biculturalism or the Great French-Canadian Sales Campaign.” This essay expressed his impatience with French-Canadian nationalism and the concept of a bilingual Canada. “The Fathers of Confederation reached a settlement which gave the French language the best chance it will ever have on this continent,” he insisted; the Fathers didn’t need any help from modern-day appeasers seeking to improve on their work. Creighton had to be convinced by the magazine’s editor to delete a final paragraph in which he harrumphed that Quebecers should go ahead and separate and leave the rest of the country in peace. The article brought down a storm of criticism on his head, which only got worse early in the Centennial when he gave a speech reiterating his view that the makers of Confederation had never intended Canada to be a bilingual, bicultural nation. “Come off it, Professor,” responded an Ottawa Citizen editorial. Michel Brunet, perhaps French Canada’s leading historian, wondered if Creighton was going senile and called him “an Anglo-Saxon racist.” Other colleagues were less extreme but equally appalled at his views. “I am a very old-fashioned nationalist who is completely out of tune with the present,” Creighton admitted to his diary as 1967 drew to a close.

But French Canada was just one of the subjects about which Creighton was finding himself on the wrong side of history. As Donald Wright, author of a new biography of the historian, Donald Creighton: A Life in History (University of Toronto Press), recounts, Creighton’s view of Canada had other significant blind spots. His books paid little attention to the lives of Aboriginal people and what they did say was dismissive. (Louis Riel was a “megalomaniac,” for example; the First Nations would “inevitably dwindle away.”) The labour movement, women, social history in general: all of these subjects were becoming increasingly important to younger scholars in the 1960s, and none of them interested him at all. For Creighton, history was about the accomplishments of the dead white male elite and not much else.

That said, when I began studying Canadian history in the 1970s, Creighton’s early work had a tremendous influence on me. I still recall how excited I became while reading The Commercial Empire of the St. Lawrence, his first book. I didn’t care much about the ambitions of the Montreal merchant class in the early nineteenth century. What impressed me was the way he marshalled his facts in support of a clear argument—that the St. Lawrence River was the progenitor of modern Canada—and deployed them dramatically to tell a sweeping story. It was not history as one damn thing after another; it was narrative storytelling that imposed a logic and an eloquence on the material. If this was how history could be written, I thought, I wanted to write it too. The Commercial Empire, “by any definition, a great book” according to Wright, was published at the end of 1937 and established Creighton’s reputation. Later his two-volume biography of John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister, won a Governor General’s Award for each volume and solidified his place as the nation’s top historian.

More important than Creighton’s impact on me, his impact on Canadian historical writing was immediate. Wright reminds us just how boring the subject of Canadian history was in the 1930s when Creighton began his career. English Canadian historical writing was “traditional, political, constitutional, at times sentimental, and too focused on the story of self-government,” Wright says. It was “unimaginative and lifeless,” aspiring to nothing “other than being factual.” Creighton gets the credit for changing all this. He saw himself as a writer as well as a historian. He was convinced that, in Wright’s words, “history should be accessible and that it should be written for a general audience.” It was not a “conversation between experts” but a dramatic story of nationhood that had to be constructed so as to appeal to non-academic readers.

As well as his approach to writing history, Creighton’s anti-Americanism appealed to me. During the 1950s he was outspoken in his attacks on US foreign policy, once calling Canada’s closest ally a “diplomatic gangster.” And he was ahead of his time in warning about the impact of American culture and economic power on Canadian independence. For Creighton, the whole point of Canadian history was to create a nation that was independent of the US. He thought that the Americans were an imperial power whose aggressive reach had to be resisted. In the context of the Cold War this was not a popular position to defend. As time passed it became more acceptable, at least among the “new nationalists” on the political left. But this was not Creighton’s natural home either. He was an old-fashioned Tory; his Canada was a conservative, white, British nation. The various radicalisms of the sixties appalled him. He shared the left’s antipathy to the US, but nothing else.

The life of an academic historian in Canada follows a fairly predictable path: university studies, research in the archives, faculty appointments, administrative responsibilities, academic infighting, a few books. Not a lot here to interest the biographer, or the reader of biographies, looking for incident and drama. Yet Wright manages to find enough of both to enliven his story. Ironically, one of the things that makes his book so readable is the fact that Creighton was such a horse’s ass; or, to put it more politely and in the words of one of his colleagues, “hell to get along with.” He was arrogant, insecure, self-pitying and bullying. Blinkered, rude, racist, pompous, a curmudgeon: these are just some of the descriptions Wright gathers from friends and enemies. He could be awful to his publishers—Alfred Knopf wrote to him that in forty-six years of publishing he had never had such a “rude, nay boorish” letter as Creighton had sent him refusing to accept editorial changes—and even worse to his family.

Still, Wright manages to produce a sympathetic portrait. One moment in the book stays with me especially. Wright describes the elderly Creighton, lying in a Toronto hospital bed recovering from a series of tests that would reveal cancer in his colon, reading… what? A distracting thriller like most of us? No. Dosed with painkillers and sucking on a sippy cup, he is absorbed in The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, Fernand Braudel’s massive study of the longue durée. This image of a committed scholar and a serious intellect helps to soften an otherwise unforgiving portrait of a man struggling, often with little success, to overcome the defects of his own character.

Donald Wright admits that in the end, warts and all, he likes Creighton. I wish I could say the same. Admire, yes. Like, no. But then, as Ramsey Cook, another historian, says, “you don’t have to like the guy.” What matters is the work, and for all its limitations Creighton’s work significantly changed the way that Canadians have thought about their own history.

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Daniel Francis

Daniel Francis is a writer and historian. He is the author of two dozen books, including The Imaginary Indian: The Image of the Indian in Canadian Culture (Arsenal Pulp Press). He lives in North Vancouver. Read more of his work at danielfrancis.ca.

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