Donald Creighton: A Life in History
By Donald Wright University of Toronto Press, 490 pages, $37.95
Donald Creighton ( 1902– 1979) wrote about the history of Canada “as if it mattered.” Biographer Donald Wright suggests that Creighton also matters and has produced an engaging portrait of a scholar and public intellectual who dominated his profession at mid-century but who came to be seen as quaint, even embarrassing, by many colleagues.
Wright tells the story of this complex and pivotal figure with sensitivity, respect, and a sharply critical understanding of his subject’s self-inflicted shortcomings. Creighton’s origins help to explain him: the proper Methodist upbringing in Edwardian Toronto (where “‘God, king, and country’ was not an empty phrase”), a classical education at Victoria College and Oxford, and the honing of an argumentative mind.
At the University of Toronto, Creighton rose professionally in “a department marked by strong personalities, ancient animosities, ambitious juniors, and brewing resentments.” He scrambled for research funding, mostly in the U.S., carried a heavy teaching load, and strove to construct a vision of Canada that explained its history and gave it meaning.
This vision — Creighton’s “Laurentian Thesis” — saw Canada as the product of its geography, from the St. Lawrence River and Laurentian Shield westward by rail to the Pacific. At the same time, Britain’s imperial, commercial, and military ties to Canada forestalled the country’s absorption by the United States. These twin realities, and not an urge to emulate the U.S. by separating from Britain, gave Canada its distinctive nationality and its reason for being in North America.
In his book The Commercial Empire of the St. Lawrence and his two-volume biography of Sir John A. Macdonald, especially, Creighton fleshed out his