Don­ald Creighton: A Life in His­tory

Canada's History - - BOOKS -

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

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