Magazine | March 9, 2015, Issue

The Epic of Canada

William Lyon Mackenzie King (William C. Shrout/The Life Picture Collection/Getty)
Rise to Greatness: The History of Canada from the Vikings to the Present, by Conrad Black (McClelland & Stewart, 1,120 pp., $50)

All too often Americans have taken Canada for granted — “Our Giant Neighbor to the North” has been voted the magazine headline most likely to make them turn the page — while Britons sometimes also dismiss Canadians as “our colonial cousins” with barely any more respect. Now here comes a book that proves that, for centuries, Canada has been subtly playing the Americans and the British off against each other, and in doing so has created one of the best countries in the world in which to live. It hasn’t been its sheer size that has saved Canada from the domination of its neighbor or of what it used to call its “Mother Country” (Britain), or even of France, but instead centuries of immensely impressive statesmanship.

“In order even to be conceived,” argues the author, Conrad Black, “Canada had to be, first, French so as not to be easily assimilated by the American colonists and revolutionaries, and then British, to have a protector to avoid being subsumed later into the great American project.” After that, it needed to wrest autonomy from Britain while continuing to be protected from the United States, which it managed by 1867, yet all the while “it had to be resistant, but not offensive, to the inexorably rising power of America.”

An enormous, underpopulated, and thus militarily weak country, Canada needed great diplomacy, especially as one-third of its people were ethnically French and thus culturally alienated from the British Crown. “It has been a protracted and intricate, unheroic, but often almost artistic survival process,” says Black. “Canada was never threatened with a tragic or pitiable fate but has faced a constant threat to its will to nationality for more than two centuries.”

Black, a Canadian citizen who has been a businessman in America and is a British peer of the realm, argues that Canada might well have suffered a tragic fate if she had lost the War of 1812, or if the British had made the cardinal error of entering the American Civil War on the side of the Confederacy, after which nothing could have saved Canada from being captured by the victorious, million-man veteran Union army. Black covers the outbreak of the first of these conflicts with admirable fair-mindedness. “The War of 1812 was a response by the Americans to Britain’s high-handed exercise of her control over the world’s oceans,” he writes. “The unsubtle British and Canadian assistance to [the Indian chief] Tecumseh and his coalition in 1811 had naturally rankled with the Americans, and there were incidences of Indian raids from Canada into the United States that the Americans could hardly have been expected to tolerate in silence.” It was in response to the Union victory in 1865 that, two years later, Canada formed itself into the world’s first transcontinental, bilingual parliamentary confederation.

Starting this history as far back as the Vikings is a slight conceit — over 700 years are covered in 16 pages — and the book really begins with Samuel de Champlain’s extraordinary voyages of exploration and conquest in the early 17th century, but Black is robustly politically incorrect when dealing with the issue of the native Canadians in the late 15th century. When the Europeans came to settle Canada, he states, there were probably about 200,000 native Indians living there, mostly nomadic. Their tribes tortured one another, including women, in endless wars that make pre-European Canada sound like a Hobbesian nightmare. “It was an interesting sociological divertissement for arriving Europeans,” Black writes, “but not an attractive life, and problems were compounded by an Indian tendency to define a treaty or pledge in temporary and flexible terms, subject to change according to circumstances. This was a legitimate cultural difference, but it led to great animosity, as the Europeans accused the natives of treachery and were accused in return of hypocritical sanctimony. Both charges were often accurate.” Black had best prepare himself for a howl of outrage from the (admittedly now discredited) school of history that sees white settlers as the Original Sinners who destroyed the Eden-like idyll of the native peoples.

An attractive feature of Black’s writing — and although this book is long, it bowls the reader along like an adventure story — is his ability to sum up the essence of major historical figures in a sentence or two. Thus Andrew Jackson was “a drummer boy in the Revolutionary War and veteran of successful operations against the southern Indians. He was a violent man who had survived much personal combat and many duels, and he was a fierce and Anglophobic nationalist.” This talent for summation particularly comes in useful for some of the more obscure 19th-century Canadian politicians. This book never bores.

Canada was almost half French at the start of the American Revolution, but even by then the English had the whip hand there. French Canadians still refer to General James Wolfe’s seizure of Canada during the Seven Years’ War as “the Conquest,” and it is clear that Black finds tiresome “the fickle mood swings of Quebec” in the modern era. He writes of the way the Quebecois’ “non-French compatriots discreetly pick up the bill while the official Quebec apparat gambols in the trappings of subsidized nationhood.” That said, he rightly lauds the “genius” of Canadian politicians over the centuries who have managed to keep a lid on the Quebec issue and prevented it from tearing the country in two.

“For 150 years,” Black writes, “Canada’s lot was the honorable but unglamorous one of tugging at the trouser leg of the British and Americans and even, in its most unpromising circumstances, of the French, trying to navigate between the ambitions and aversions of those countries, aligning now with one and now another, but almost never against any of them, while avoiding the extreme inflammation of Quebec nationalism.” When the achievement is phrased in this way, the word “genius” is clearly valid.

As one might expect from the best biographer of Franklin Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, and the Quebec premier Maurice Duplessis, the 20th century looms large in Black’s narrative. In the Great War, the Canadian Expeditionary Force numbered 425,000 men in Europe and won the important battle of Vimy Ridge in April 1917. In World War II, this nation of only 11.5 million saw over 1 million people volunteer for active service, an astonishing proportion of the population. It also produced $4 billion for the U.K. in Lend-Lease and ended the war with the world’s fourth largest navy. In the immediate aftermath of the retreat from Dunkirk in 1940, two Canadian divisions were the only thing standing between the British beaches in southern England — where the Germans were hoping to invade — and London. Although Black calls Canada’s diplomacy “unheroic,” he makes it clear that its war record was anything but.

In a chapter titled “King and the Art of Cunning Caution,” Black tells the story of William Lyon Mackenzie King, for 29 years leader of the Liberal party and Canada’s prime minister during World War II. A spiritualist, King communicated with ghosts in a room adjacent to the one in which he received Winston Churchill, Dwight Eisenhower, King George VI, and Presidents Truman and Roosevelt. He also got on well with Charles de Gaulle even though (or perhaps because) neither spoke the other’s language.

Black goes into the whole story of Canada’s wars — two of the most important Allied conferences were held in Quebec in 1943 and 1944 — with the élan of a writer at the top of his game, covering his subject with a staggering degree of erudition while not expecting too much knowledge from his non-Canadian readership. The narrative positively sparkles with ironic witticisms and aperçus that make this book as much a work of literature as of history.

Describing Canadian statesmanship as displaying “half feline precision, half the plucky earnestness of the eagle scout,” Black argues that the present decade of American retreat provides Canada with a unique opportunity to shine. “Canada’s hour, not of celebrity, much less of dominance, but of confidence and world significance, has struck,” he argues persuasively, “whether Canadians . . . yet hear the peal of the summons or not.” If, after this splendid book, they don’t, the fault certainly can’t be laid at the door of Conrad Black.

– Mr. Roberts is the author, most recently, of Napoleon: A Life.

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