CM . . .
. Volume XI Number 17 . . . . April 29, 2005
In his own quiet way, Sir Robert Laird Borden was probably one of Canada's most widely known, effective and respected prime ministers. He led the country through the greatest war ever fought up to his time, got the support of his political enemies to weather the crisis of war and conscription, and helped to achieve Canada's acceptance as an important and independent unit in the British family.
Sir Robert performed many services for his own country and others in significant international conferences, and led a delegation as a Canadian plenipotentiary at the Versailles Peace Conference. He was decorated not only by his sovereign but by the governments of France and Belgium and was laden with academic honours from world-famed universities.
Born in the historic hamlet of Grand Pre, Nova Scotia, June 26, 1854, Borden became a successful lawyer in Halifax. He went into politics and won a Halifax seat in the House of Commons in 1896. He was defeated in 1904 but won a by-election in Carleton (Ottawa); in 1908 he ran in both Carleton and Halifax and won both but chose to represent Halifax which returned him again in 1911. In the Union Government election of 1917, he was elected in his native Kings' County.
Canada's Prime Ministers, Governors General and Fathers of Confederation is an unusual book. What makes it unusual is that, in addition to having one-page biographies and portraits of Canada's prime ministers, it also has them for all the Fathers of Confederation and all of the Governors General. It will be the first time for many readers to learn about Governors General like Lord Willingdon (1926-31) and Fathers of Confederation such as George Coles and Charles Fisher. Most of the Fathers are not mentioned in standard history texts and have passed into historical oblivion. Nor are the Governors General mentioned unless something unusual happened while they represented the Crown in Canada.
Originally published in 1996, the book has been reprinted five times since. It is now up-to-date with a portrait and biography of the current Prime Minister, Paul Martin. It has an index but no other teaching aids. It is written in a style young readers will understand with the occasional help of a dictionary for words like plenipotentiary.
Many readers may recognize the work of Irma Coucill, the book's author and illustrator. Her political portraits have illustrated many books and been reproduced in newspapers across Canada. In addition to her political drawings, Coucill has produced portraits of well-known people from other walks of life which may be seen in museums like the Hockey Hall of Fame. Her portraits are the most important part of the book. The black and white sketches are very lifelike, and, if the dead leaders could see them, they would surely approve. Her biographies are only one page in length and more detailed information on all of the people mentioned can be found with a little research in libraries or on the Internet.
The shortness of the biographies means that a number of fascinating details are omitted. This is a pity because there are many interesting facts about both the politicians and the Crown's viceroys that could have been included. One example is the Pipeline Debate in the spring of 1956 when St. Laurent was Prime Minister which led to his party's defeat in the 1957 election.
Coucill's biographies, while brief, are factual and suitable for younger readers. They are a good starting point for further research. Coucill present facts but does not usually comment on them. Thus her biography of Brian Mulroney does not mention the controversy he caused when his government negotiated the Free Trade Agreement with the United States or the NAFTA with the U.S. and Mexico. She does argue that Mulroney's major interest while Prime Minister was "ensuring that Canada was able to compete on a world market." Those who remember the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accord debates and the referendum on the latter might disagree since trying to get Quebec to sign the constitution took up an inordinate amount of time for the Mulroney government. It would be more accurate to state that trade and the constitution were the two main interests of Mulroney while he was Prime Minister.
There is considerable potential in Canada's Prime Ministers, Governors General and Fathers of Confederation for teaching Canadian history at almost any level. Role-playing is one idea. Students could take the parts of Sir John A. Macdonald and Alexander Mackenzie and argue for and against the construction of a railroad to the Pacific. Others could take the roles of Lord Byng and W.L. Mackenzie King and prepare a dramatic scene based on the King-Byng Crisis of 1926. Another idea is to have students report on the highlights of the career of a Father of Confederation. Some, like Thomas D'Arcy McGee and Sir Charles Tupper, led quite interesting lives. The assassination of McGee could be reenacted, something students are not likely to forget.
Thomas F. Chambers is a retired college teacher living in North Bay, ON.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.