The Beaver Hall Group and Its Legacy by Evelyn Walters Dundurn Press, 180 pages, $60
The Beaver Hall Group’s first art show in early 1921 was organized “to give the artist the assurance that he can paint what he feels, with utter disregard for what has hitherto been considered requisite to the acceptance of the work at the recognized art exhibitions in Canadian centres.”
Active between 1920 and 1922, the Montreal group consisted of men and women in almost equal numbers — a gender-neutral stance uncommon for the era. Its second show, in 1922, was greeted with high praise from newspaper La Presse: “The club consists of … the most individualistic, the most enthusiastic and the most gifted of the young generation.”
Its members studied with William Brymner at the Art Association of Montreal, forerunner of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Best-known among them are A.Y. Jackson, Edwin Holgate, Anne Savage, Sarah Robertson, and Prudence Heward. Most went on to individual careers, and five of the women were later joined by five more, forming the cluster known as the women of Beaver Hall.
Dozens of the group’s bold, energetic paintings — primarily portraiture and landscapes — are reproduced in Evelyn Walters’ The Beaver Hall Group and Its Legacy. (The book is her second foray into the topic, after The Women of Beaver Hall: Canadian Modernist Painters, published in 2005.)
Concise but thoughtfully organized and beautifully written, the book includes an introduction to the group’s place within modernist art, a list of group and individual exhibitions (both during and after the group’s existence), an appendix of newspaper reviews of its two major exhibitions, an index of works, and a general index.
The highlights are the colourful, brief chapters, with paintings and endnotes, for each of the twenty-five artists associated with the group. For every artist Walters provides a balance of career path and context, demonstrating the painters’ roles in shaping a unique and distinct Canadian art. — Mariianne Mays Wiebe
Towards a Prairie Atonement
by Trevor Herriot
University of Regina Press, 154 pages, $22.95 In this compact, politically charged book, writer, naturalist, and activist Trevor Herriot examines two centuries of Métis presence on the prairies. Often bordering on the poetic, Herriot’s language pulls the reader into the book’s prairie setting, where “the wind all around us was strung with the bells of chestnut-collared longspur song.”
It is on these very prairies that Métis communities developed their own sustainable community farming models. However, such ways of living were smothered when Métis families were dispossesed of their lands during settlement of the West.
Herriot traces the impact of Métis dispossession as well as subsequent colonial violence and development on the prairie ecosystem — where, as of 2014, more than forty wildlife species were at risk of extinction.
This impassioned book does more than simply relay historical information; it also offers a call to action: a call to recognize the value of Indigenous land-based knowledge, to develop and implement conservation methods on the prairies, and, in rebuilding these lands, to strive for reconciliation with contemporary Métis peoples. — Joanne DeCosse
Grain Dust Dreams
by David W. Tarbet Excelsior Editions, 121 pages, $22.50 David W. Tarbet has written a fascinating book about the rise of the great grain elevators, first in Buffalo, New York, and then at Thunder Bay, Ontario. At a young age, Tarbet followed his father by working inside the Thunder Bay elevators. But only later, after working as a university professor in Buffalo, did he come to study their history.
Trade routes and the geography of shipping grain resulted in the far-apart Great Lakes cities being home to numerous massive terminals. Scottish- born Canadian engineer Robert Dunbar helped Buffalo merchant Joseph Dart erect a large grain elevator in the 1840s, before overseeing the building of many others in Canada and Europe. Then, beginning in the 1880s, railways built several towering elevators in the Thunder Bay area. By the onset of the Second World War it had the world’s largest grain storage capacity.
“Elevators make you feel small,” Tarbet writes. “The bins may be only ten or twelve stories high, but they stretch upward without interruption in domi- nating concrete columns that make them appear much taller than other buildings of the same height.”
Reinforced concrete became their preferred material in part because of its resistance to fire. Continuous-pour, slip-form construction allowed the building of the tall, sturdy bins whose shapes influenced twentieth-century European architecture. According to Tarbet, “When modernist architects looked at a grain elevator, they saw a building whose form was perfectly suited to what they thought of as its function.”
Along with the challenges of working amidst the dust and noise of a large terminal elevator, fire and explosions have always been a serious threat in grain handling. The Thunder Bay area has seen its share of calamities, including a huge 1945 explosion that killed or injured dozens of workers.
Tarbet also tells of the history of labour unrest — including a tumultuous 1909 grievance that resulted in a bloody clash between striking workers and CPR police, before the military was called in — as well as efforts today to revitalize disused elevators and to see them gain historic designation. — Phil Koch
My Decade at Old Sun, My Lifetime of Hell by Arthur Bear Chief AU Press, 194 pages, $19.95
Arthur Bear Chief ’s My Decade at Old Sun, My Lifetime of Hell is a deeply personal memoir about the author’s years at Old Sun Residential School in Gleichen, Alberta. In a series of vignettes he details the horrific sexual and psychological abuse he suffered at the hands of school administrators. He also includes a number of important insights about the power of identity and culture in the process of healing.
An afterword by Fritz Pannekoek provides an important lens through which readers may critically assess the process of reconciliation so far, ten years after the original Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement was announced.
While some Canadians may view reconciliation as something that has already been addressed, the story of Arthur Bear Chief —
which stands with those of thousands of other survivors — reminds us that reconciliation is not only about apology but also about personal and collective healing. — Karine Duhamel
Filling the Ranks: Manpower in the Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914–1918
by Richard Holt McGill-Queen’s University Press, 377 pages, $39.95 Filling the Ranks is an important study developed from the Ph.D. dissertation of historian Richard Holt. It traces the development of the Canadian Army during the First World War, from its militia roots and enlistment criteria through to the training of reinforcements.
“God may be on the side with the big battalions, as Napoleon is said to have remarked,” explains Holt, “but keeping them up to strength depended very much on how the nation managed its manpower.”
The issue of manpower was central to the ability to field an effective army during the First World War, and Holt’s study adds a great deal of knowledge to our understanding of the conflict.
A career soldier in the Canadian Army, Holt died in April 2017 shortly after the publication of his book. Filling the Ranks is a testament to his dedication to history and to the Canadian Forces. — Joel Ralph
Drawn to Change: Graphic Histories of Working-Class Struggle
edited by the Graphic History Collective with Paul Buhle
Between the Lines, 208 pages, $29.95 Drawn to Change is a fascinating anthology depicting the efforts of hard-working men and women as they fought for a better standard of living across Canada.
The book is produced by the Graphic History Collective, a group that includes activists, artists, writers, and researchers who are passionate about comics, history, and social change. The collective uses black-and-white sequential art to illuminate the stories of workers from across our nation who organized to create better working environments.
These people often found themselves at odds with the governments and corporations of their times. Whether it is a story of Coast Salish peoples facing the pressures of settlement and new industry on British Columbia’s Burrard Inlet, activist and On-to-Ottawa Trekker Bill Williamson, or the women who formed the Service, Office, and Retail Workers’ Union of Canada, each is told clearly with a distinctive visual style.
For those with a love for comics and an interest in the Canadian labour movement and its history, Drawn to Change offers an engaging journey of discovery. — James Gillespie