Adam Talks to Richard Gwyn


In our ongoing series of interviews regarding new book releases, I (Adam Coombs) talked with Richard Gwyn regarding his new biography of John A. Macdonald, entitled John A: The Man Who Made Us. This is the first volume of a projected two volume biography on Macdonald. The interview first aired in October and is available at the end of this post.

In the 1840s Britain began to move toward complete free trade. Combined with a worldwide economic downturn, manufacturers and farmers in the United Provinces of Canada began to rightly fear economic ruin. Over a three year period, property values in Montreal had fallen by over 50% while Canada’s exports had fallen by over 40%. In response, over 1000 Montreal businessmen, including two Molsons and two Redpaths, supported annexation into the United States. During this period John A. made no speeches nor did he write letters to a sympathetic newspaper. Rather, in typical fashion, he quietly helped to organize the British America League which argued for unrestricted reciprocity, or free trade, with the United States. By the time the group disbanded in 1850 the same Montreal businessmen had embraced the idea of reciprocity. Macdonald had never made any definitive statement regarding his own beliefs yet the current crisis was averted.

The entire annexation crisis and Macdonald’s reaction exemplify both his leadership style and the political culture of pre-confederation Canada. Macdonald was, by supporters and enemies alike, called “old tomorrow” for his strategy of avoiding taking positions on issues and delaying decisions until a suitable result was achieved. Fiery speeches and declarations caused division and in the multi-religious, multi-lingual patchwork of 1850s Canada and a successful politician could never afford to be divisive. Furthermore, Canada as such didn’t exist yet and was constantly threatened by both internal tensions and the ever preset specter of the United States. It is both the personal style of Macdonald and the challenges threatening our early country which Gwyn focuses on.

In popular culture and Canadian historiography, John A is portrayed either as the loveable drunk who was utterly corrupt or as a the mythic figure that created our nation with his own bare hands. Gwyn seeks to deal with both these perceptions and create a new version of Macdonald. Unlike other biographies of Macdonald, Gwyn focuses on the man’s personal life beyond simply his drinking. There are engaging accounts of his attempts to care for his sick wife Isabella and of his attempts to re-connect with his estranged son Hugh John. These snippets of his personal life serve to add much needed depth to a man who is too often portrayed as someone devoid of true human characteristics. Gwyn doesn’t minimize Macdonald’s accomplishments but rather seeks to allow the reader to understand the man behind the Canadian myth.

The largest complaint about the book is it is pop academia. While it is extremely well written and engaging, the lack of footnotes, for a history geek like myself, occasionally got annoying. As well anyone well versed in Canadian history will find many of the sections which provide context as dull. Gwyn even warns readers with a basic knowledge of early Canadian politics to skip certain sections. If you are expecting a scholarly, in depth biography then you will be disappointed. However if you want an entertaining and engaging read then this book is certainly highly recommended.

Adam Coombs

John English on Citizen of the World

This is the interview I did with John English regarding Citizen of the World. It is a bit old -a little more than a year- but is worth posting nonetheless. I suspect that under many christmas trees will be some of the latest crop of political autobiographies, while biography of a dead figure is different, this book really sets the standard for what political writing should do.

When you read it, and you should, it’s important to remember that as much as the book looks at the rise of a young Trudeau, it is also a good primer in the changing intellectual and cultural climate in Quebec from the 30s through to the late 60s, at least for someone like me that is not very well versed in Quebec historiography. In that sense the book is a double success: a thorough and interesting biography, that in a very accessible way offers real insight into a political figure, but also into the times in which he inhabited. English’s book is as good as any at reminding that even the most powerful figures come from somewhere and someplace, and if that were to change, so to would the person as we know them.

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Amethyst Women’s Addiction Centre

As part of what has become an occasional series looking at various community and not-for-profit organizations in and around Ottawa, this morning I spoke with Kate Van Slyck of the Amethyst Women’s Addiction Centre.

Amethyst, based in Sandy Hill, is as the name implies an addiction counseling centre for women. As is usual with not-for-profits, they work to balance demand for their (I can only assume) top-notch services with the confines of a budget built on government grants and donations.

Amethyst also suffers, I think, from something that troubles all sorts of mid-sized operations: they do excellent work, but sit at the back of most people’s minds when they think about their charitable donations. This isn’t to say that the larger charities are more or less worthy, just that awareness for smaller organizations is always going to be difficult as compared to the CHEOs and Canadian Cancer Foundations of the World.

In any case, Amethyst, like the other people that we’ve spoken with, is the sort of organization that makes communities better: dedicated people working very hard with limited budgets to make the city, and people’s lives, that much better.

Coming later in the week: Me vs. Warren Kinsella and Me vs Janet Stein and Eugene Lang.

Previously in the series: David Gladstone on the O-Train. Phil Robinson of People for a Better Ottawa. Kathleen Okatcha.

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Radio Topics, December 18th

December 18th? Seriously?

That means that next week is Christmas day. For those that would like to include Adam and I (and Josh Prowse and Giacomo Panico) in your Christmas mornings, we will be broadcasting our annual “Top 5 Least Important News Stories” of the year. These are the sorts of things that we all ended up talking about a lot, but in the end we probably all are poorer for doing so. In any case, that will take place at the usual time next week, and will be put up on the website sometime shortly thereafter. For real.

But what is the usual time? Tuesday Morning, 7-9am on 93.1fm for those in Ottawa, the CKCU website for all the rest.

As for tomorrow:

At 8:30, we’ll be joined over the phone by Kate Van Slyck of the Amethyst Women’s Addiction Centre as part of our ongoing series on Ottawa community organizations.

It’s December 18th. Do you know where your snow removal budget is?

Ottawa to close Swantanamo Bay, release Swans to someone else.
Zero may not mean zero, but good science still means no crackpipes.

Baird agrees to binding targets at bali. WTFBBQ?
Another “scandal” in the works? In other news, Noted lifelong liberal suggests ill of the mother corp on a competitors political talk show.

Santa writes to small children, signs “ho! ho! hoes!”

Props where props are due: NDP appears before Bouchard-Taylor Commission, sending their best star to not Ottawa on the day that Mulroney appears before Ethics Committee.

WSIB to keep up with controversial (but engaging) television ads.

Apparently it is racially motivated when Asian fisherman are attacked at night.

‘Topes Win: Ottawa restarts reactor despite best advice of Science, Common Sense.

Radio Topics for December 11th

As usual we air on CKCU 93.1fm from 7 to 9:00am. For those outside of Ottawa you can listen live on the web at the CKCU website.

At 7:30 I will be speaking with Dave Bidini, former member of Canadian indie-rock institution The Rheostatics and the author of the new book Around the World in 57 and a Half Gigs.

Larry O’Brien challenged the OPP to either end their investigation or lay charges, looks like he got his wish.

Robert Pickton is guilty…but not of the crime the RCMP wanted to get him for.

Schreibergate continues today. Once he is done we get Mulrooney.

Philip Pullman and his books are creating quite the stir. Another school pulls The Golden Compass.

Robert Latimer, who ignited a national debate on euthanasia, is denied parole.

City of Ottawa to help businesses affected by the partial building collapse.

Planned Parenthood vs. The Ottawa Senators Foundation.

The CIA used “alternative interrogation methods” and then destroyed the tapes. Wow!

Radio Topics for December 4th

As usual we air on CKCU 93.1fm from 7 to 9:00am. For those outside of Ottawa you can listen live on the web at the CKCU website.

Ottawa City Council wants 1% of the GST but not really sure how to go to go about getting it.

Bernard Lord will find out what the deal regarding bilingualism.

When the city’s traffic control manager says we have a traffic problem, we have a traffic problem.

Don’t give panhandlers change, give the money to a kindness meter instead.

Opening up the cellphone market in Canada. 40% of the spectrum to be reserved for new providers.

Centretown Movies future up in the air.

No cuts to front-line services in Ottawa.

Discover child porn and fail to report it? You’re off to jail.

Canadian Islamic Congress launches a human rights complaint against Macleans for this.