Made in Bri­tish Columbia: Eight Ways of Mak­ing Cul­ture

Canada's History - - BOOKS -

This book is, as any­one who knows the au­thor and her work would ex­pect, a very lively collection of cameo por­traits of re­mark­able his­toric per­son­al­i­ties. It is also a fine ad­di­tion for the camp of those who be­lieve that peo­ple make his­tory and not the re­v­erse.

Re­viewed by Con­rad Black, a fi­nancier, colum­nist, and his­to­rian whose most re­cent book is Rise to Great­ness: The His­tory of Canada from the Vik­ings to the Present. He was the chair­man of Tele­graph News­pa­pers (U.K.) from 1987 to 2004, and of the Ar­gus and Hollinger com­pa­nies in Canada and the U.S. from 1978 to 2004. He founded the Na­tional Post in 1998 and has been a mem­ber of the Bri­tish House of Lords since 2001. by Maria Tip­pett Har­bour Pub­lish­ing, 272 pages, $32.95 Over the last three decades, his­to­rian Maria Tip­pett has writ­ten more than a dozen books about Cana­dian arts and cul­ture, in­clud­ing award- win­ning bi­ogra­phies of artists Emily Carr and Bill Reid. In her lat­est book, Made in Bri­tish Columbia: Eight Ways of Mak­ing Cul­ture, she re­turns to Carr and Reid and con­sid­ers them along­side six other “cul­tural pro­duc­ers” with ties to the province she now calls home. Her goal, as ex­plained in the epi­logue, is to tell “the story of how Bri­tish Columbia’s cul­ture was shaped dur­ing the twen­ti­eth cen­tury.”

The book be­gins slightly be­fore Tip­pett’s tar­get cen­tury, with an English­man who be­came “Bri­tish Columbia’s most fa­mous ar­chi­tect of the province-build­ing era from the 1890s to the end of the First World War.” Fran­cis Maw­son Rat­ten­bury ar­rived in B.C. in 1892 and be­gan work on his most il­lus­tri­ous com­mis­sion, the young province’s new leg­isla­tive build­ings, a year later. He went on to de­sign nu­mer­ous other land­marks through­out the province, most no­tably the Em­press Ho­tel in Vic­to­ria, be­fore re­turn­ing to Eng­land in 1930. Al­though his con­tin­u­ing fame re­sults partly from his sen­sa­tional death — he was mur­dered by his wife’s lover in 1935 — there’s no doubt that he left a last­ing mark on the province’s ar­chi­tec­tural char­ac­ter.

Tip­pett de­votes one bi­og­ra­phy-style chap­ter to each of her eight sub­jects, sketch­ing out a loose chrono­log­i­cal pro­gres­sion through to the 1990s, where she ends the book with an­other ar­chi­tect, Arthur Erick­son. In be­tween, we meet nov­el­ist Mar­tin Grainger, painter Emily Carr, writer and edi­tor Ge­orge Wood­cock, play­wright Ge­orge Ryga, com­poser Jean Coulthard, and sculp­tor Bill Reid. Tip­pett’s writ­ing is schol­arly and ex­ten­sively foot­noted, a boon for those who wish to dig deeper. In the first four chap­ters, she fre­quently em­ploys anec­dotes and colour­ful his­tor­i­cal de­tails that lighten the tone and pro­vide mo­men­tum. Un­for­tu­nately, these el­e­ments are largely ab­sent from the lat­ter half of the book, in which the ac­counts tend to read more like pro­fes­sional re­sumés, al­beit im­pres­sive ones, than sto­ries.

The blurb on the back jacket asks, “Is there such a thing as Bri­tish Columbia cul­ture, and if so, is there any­thing spe­cial about it?” and it tells us that Tip­pett’s answer to this “broad ques­tion [is] an as­sured ‘yes!’” Yet nowhere in the book does she ac­tu­ally of­fer a def­i­ni­tion of B.C. cul­ture or ex­plain what’s spe­cial about it. In the epi­logue, Tip­pett al­ludes to the in­flu­ence of “the province’s unique ge­og­ra­phy and its rel­a­tive iso­la­tion from the rest of the world,” but she gives equal at­ten­tion to the “var­i­ous way in which cul­tural im­pact came from out­side of the province” — from the epiphany about forests that Carr ex­pe­ri­enced while study­ing in Eng­land to Ja­panese and Ara­bic in­flu­ences on Erick­son’s ar­chi­tec­tural style. Ul­ti­mately, she seems con­tent to let read­ers come up with their own ex­pla­na­tions based on the eight bi­ogra­phies.

Nor does Tip­pett ad­dress the ques­tion of why she se­lected these par­tic­u­lar cul­ture mak­ers as her sub­jects: six men and two women, most of them from rel­a­tively priv­i­leged back­grounds (Ryga is the no­table ex­cep­tion), all but one of them white (Reid was half Haida). To her credit, she does grap­ple with the dis­par­ity in cul­tural op­por­tu­ni­ties for twen­ti­eth-cen­tury Bri­tish Columbians, not­ing that “such in­equities in­flu­ence the way that our cul­tural his­tory is writ­ten and who is cho­sen for at­ten­tion.” Be­cause of so­cial prej­u­dices, tal­ented in­di­vid­u­als like Chi­nese-Cana­dian pho­tog­ra­pher C.D. Hoy, Tsimshian di­arist Arthur Welling­ton Clah, Men­non­ite vi­o­lin-maker Hein­rich Friesen, and Ja­panese-Cana­dian artist Takao Tan­abe were “silently ex­cluded from the nar­ra­tive,” or de­nied a chance to gain early recog­ni­tion, Tip­pett says. But she doesn’t ex­plain why she chose to per­pet­u­ate this Euro­cen­tric view of the arts in her own nar­ra­tive. As in­ter­est­ing as Tip­pett’s eight cul­ture mak­ers are, I was left crav­ing a more en­com­pass­ing ex­am­i­na­tion of Bri­tish Columbia’s unique cul­tural roots. Re­viewed by Frances Back­house, whose books about Cana­dian his­tory in­clude Women of the Klondike, Chil­dren of the Klondike, Hiking With Ghosts and Once They Were Hats: In Search of the Mighty Beaver.

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