Political Autobiographies | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Political Autobiographies

Canadian politicians have never been particularly literate, their skills running more to the mastery of stump orations and the management of patronage than to writing literate accounts of their political lives.

Political Autobiographies

Canadian politicians have never been particularly literate, their skills running more to the mastery of stump orations and the management of patronage than to writing literate accounts of their political lives. While this was particularly true for the early years of the country, this comment stands unchallenged to the middle of the 20th century, too. Not until the ready availability of ghostwriters and the advent of the taped interview that could be transformed into prose did politicians rush into print, often aided by large advances from publishers. Even then the numbers stayed surprisingly small.

Among the earliest memoirists was Sir Francis HINCKS, whose Reminiscences of His Public Life (1884) covered a long career that ran from the Rebellions of 1837 through the 1850s in the Canadas and then into the imperial service. Hincks's book was not very revealing, stuffed full of speeches and public correspondence. It was in every way a model for what was to come. Sir Charles TUPPER's Recollections of Sixty Years in Canada (1914), the first account by a Dominion prime minister, was also anodyne, although Sir Richard CARTWRIGHT, a free trader who was always difficult in the Liberal caucus, put more bite into his Reminiscences (1912) which unfortunately ended in 1896, before his years in the Laurier Cabinet. George W. ROSS's memoir (Getting into Parliament and After, 1913) covered 11 years in Ottawa and almost a quarter-century at Queen's Park, Toronto, including service as premier. But there is nothing by Laurier, Mowat, Mercier and other major figures.

Sir Robert BORDEN 's Memoirs (2 vols, 1938) are unreflective and dry as dust, a bare bones chronicle out of which all life has been squeezed. E.M. Macdonald, a lacklustre Maritime politician who served as Mackenzie KING 's minister of national defence, left an unrevealing account (nd), and so too did Armand Lavergne (1934), a fiery nationaliste of a conservative bent. E.C. DRURY, the Farmer Premier (1966) who led the UNITED FARMERS OF ONTARIO to victory and defeat, revealed little of how he had managed this. Senator Raoul Dandurand (1967) could have added something to our understanding of 1920s foreign policy, but his book was riddled with errors, despite its being edited by an academic and published long after his death. Another politician-diplomat of the period, Vincent MASSEY, also left a bland account in What's Past Is Prologue (1963).

Dr R.J. "Fighting Bob" MANION 's Life Is an Adventure (1936), written before he became Conservative leader in 1938, demonstrated the dangers of rushing into fine print. His comments about the CONSCRIPTION crisis of 1917 hurt him in Québec in the 1940 election. The winner of that contest (and many others), Mackenzie KING, died before he could write one word of his story, but his massive diary is, literally, among the great ones of our time.

Chubby POWER, the able and engaging Québec Liberal who first won election in 1917, wrote, with the assistance of Norman WARD, a very helpful (and humorous) account of his distinguished career, notable for its shrewd comments on Québec Liberal organization (1966). From Alberta, there is Alf Hooke's 30+5: I Know I Was There (1971), the story of a Social Credit MLA and Cabinet minister from 1935 to 1968 who makes it all sound as simple as A+B. And Tim BUCK, the engaging little man who led Canada's communists legally and underground, left a party-line account (1977).

Joey SMALLWOOD's immodestly titled I Chose Canada (1973) was a rich tale of the life of Newfoundland's Father of Confederation, a book that could be paired with those by his friend and political ally J.W. PICKERSGILL, My Years With Louis St. Laurent (1975) and The Road Back (1986), and his huge, undisciplined, but very informative Seeing Canada Whole: A Memoir. Pickersgill's volumes follow the course of parliamentary debate closely from 1948 through to the first months of the Pearson government. John DIEFENBAKER 's One Canada (3 vols, 1975-77) a ghostwritten work, nonetheless conveys the flavour of the prairie populist who led the Conservatives to the heights in 1957 and 1958 and then to disaster in 1963. His great opponent, Lester B. PEARSON, had already published 3 volumes of his own (Mike, vol 1, 1972), the last 2 of which (1973, 1975) were put together after his death by Diefenbaker's ghostwriter. Pearson could laugh at himself, he could keep the facts straight, and he won the battle of the memoirs just as he won the political struggles.

Donald FLEMING, Diefenbaker's minister of finance, left a huge account (2 vols, 1985) that, while tedious and self-serving, contains immensely useful information and a ringing denunciation of Diefenbaker. Pierre SÉVIGNY's story (1965) is very discreet, as is Saturday's Child: Memoirs of Canada's First Female Cabinet Minister (1995) by Ellen FAIRCLOUGH who held a variety of lesser ministerial posts in Diefenbaker's governments. Life of the Party: The Memoirs of Eddie Goodman (1988) tells the colourful story of one of the Conservative Party's key backroom operators, but Heath Macquarrie's Red Tory Blues: A Political Memoir (1992) by a long-serving Prince Edward Island MP unfortunately adds little to either national or Island political history.

Judy LAMARSH's Memoirs of a Bird in a Gilded Cage (1968) had the best title of any Canadian political memoir and was feisty, especially in its attacks on Pearson, while Walter GORDON's A Political Memoir (1977) spoke sparely of the hurt his break with Pearson caused. Paul MARTIN, the longtime MP and Cabinet minister from Windsor, Ontario, produced 2 well-written volumes (1983-85) that are historically accurate and often self-revelatory. The only autobiography in English that compares in quality is Dalton CAMP's Gentlemen, Players and Politicians (1970), a book that ends well before his battles with Diefenbaker. Other stories by Tories include those of Jack HORNER (My Own Brand, 1980) and Sean Sullivan (Both My Houses, 1986).

Erik NIELSEN is one Conservative minister who held high office and considerable power in the cabinets of Brian MULRONEY. Known as "Velcro lips" for his discretion in office, his The House Is Not A Home: An Autobiography (1989) was remarkably frank in its descriptions of the patronage operations of government. Kim CAMPBELL has also published memoirs of her time in office.

On the left, there is Thérèse CASGRAIN's autobiography available in French (1971) and English (1972), chronicling the career of that most unlikely of mid-century species - a female, French Canadian socialist. David LEWIS wrote of The Good Fight (1981), an occasionally moving account of one of the men who was the heart and soul of the CCF and NDP. Sadly, all we have of the remarkable Tommy DOUGLAS is The Making of a Socialist (1982), based on interviews done in 1958.

Québec politicians who have gone into print include Jean CHRÉTIEN, whose Straight From the Heart (1985) sold extraordinarily well both before he became prime minister in 1993 and equally well in a revised version after. The sales were attributable more to Chreétien's personal popularity than the content. Other Québec politicians who have left written accounts of their time in office include René LÉVESQUE (Memoirs, 1986) who had the embarrassment of correcting errors in public after his book was released; and the lesser known and very sober Georges-Émile LAPALME (1969-73) who led the Liberals in the dark days under Duplessis, and another rouge of the same era, Lionel Bertrand (1972). Much the best memoir by a Québécois was that of Gérard PELLETIER, Pierre TRUDEAU's longtime friend and colleague. His account - in French (1983-86) and English (1984-87) - was perceptive and beautifully written.

The one Canadian prime minister who was intellectually capable of producing superb memoirs, Pierre Trudeau, unfortunately could be pressed only into writing a book intended largely as a companion volume to his television autobiography. Trudeau's Memoirs (1993) are largely superficial and unrevealing, both about the man and his policies during his long years in office, though they proved a commercial success. The end of the Trudeau government produced a flood of autobiography, some of which verged on campaign literature. Gérard Pelletier (1984), Roy MacLaren (1986), Keith DAVEY (1986), James Jerome (1985), Don JAMIESON (1989, 1991) and Mitchell SHARP (1994), Donald Johnston (1986), Eugene Whelan (1986), and Keith Davey (1986) all offered their interpretations of Trudeau's years. The best volumes are Davey's, the tales of a backroom "rainmaker," and Jamieson's, not least for its insider's account of the OCTOBER CRISIS of 1970.

Most Canadian political autobiographies are little more than ephemera, written for self-serving purposes or to promote a cause. The few that are reflective and relatively honest - Camp's, Martin's and Pelletier's, for example - stand out like beacons on a wasteland.