Empire Man

A new look at the complicated life and work of Donald Creighton.

Toward the end of his career, the Canadian historian Donald Creighton began to think “that I will be remembered, if I am remembered at all, as a pessimist, a bigot, and a violent Tory partisan.” Conservatives are usually right when they are wrong. That is, they sense the direction of change and cry out that a way of life is fading into history. They are often right about what is threatened, but wrong to think that anyone will care.

So it was with Donald Creighton.

He is remembered, when he is remembered at all, for all of those things: as a conservative historian who wrote the wrong kind of history, as someone who was unsympathetic if not outright bigoted toward French Canadians, the Métis and aboriginal peoples. He wrote Great Man history, long character-driven accounts of the nation itself—not the subjects or the peoples we now privilege. Old fashioned, prejudiced and seemingly irrelevant: why would anyone write a biography of Donald Creighton?

Donald Wright has two answers for us. For one, Creighton was more than this. He was, above all, a brilliant writer of history, the non-fiction equivalent of a great novelist. And second, Donald Creighton mattered. “The time in which he lived,” Wright argues, “can be fully understood only if we understand his life and his work.” These are forceful arguments, and convincing.

Donald Creighton was born into a reform-minded family of Methodists who immigrated to mid 19th-century British North America, earning their livelihoods on the land and in the pulpit. His maternal grandmother, Eliza Jane Creighton Harvie, helped found the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, the Women’s Medical College (the first medical school in Toronto to accept women) and the Ontario Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Creighton’s father, William Black Creighton, was a Methodist minister who spent most of his career editing the most important Protestant publication in the country, the Christian Guardian.

Donald Creighton, then, grew up like many a middle class Ontarian, in a world where the sinfulness of drink and cards were hot topics of discussion. He also grew up in a house full of Dickens and Tennyson, his imagination populated by Uriah Heep, David Copperfield and Miss Havisham. Creighton’s parents instilled in him the life lessons of turn-of-the-century common sense, the need for “discipline, hard work, personal responsibility, delayed gratification, patient accumulation, abstinence, and service.”

One of the great joys of this biography is the glimpse it gives us of the young Creighton rebelling against these strictures. The young Donald Creighton was a modern, the male intellectual version of the flapper, a reader of the works of D.H. Lawrence, Émile Zola and H.L. Mencken. His student essays on literature would have been a joy for professors to read. On the most successful Canadian novelist of the day, Creighton wrote that Ralph Connor “could have been a very interesting preacher or a very interesting novelist, but in attempting to be both, he became uninterestingly neither.”

In the mid 1920s, Creighton went off to Oxford and thence to the Sorbonne in Paris. By this time, he had also fallen in love with Luella Sanders Bruce, and the two discovered the joys of married life in France. Luella would eventually turn to writing, becoming a novelist in her own right. Wright’s biography is not a full double biography, but he sketches her life in several sympathetic and thoughtful sections.

When Creighton returned to Toronto in 1927 as a young professor of history, he took up Canadian history only as an afterthought. Unable to afford travels to archives in France, he opted instead for the cheaper, if utterly less glamorous, option of summer visits to Ottawa. It was there in the public archives that he had his first epiphany. Reading through the papers of colonial governors general, Creighton noticed exceptions to the usual colony-to-nation constitutional story, which he found uninteresting. He noticed the pleas of merchants about tariffs and taxes. If this does not seem the stuff of excited epiphanies, bear with me.

The merchants were talking, Wright notes, “about a commercial empire based on the St Lawrence River and the Great Lakes, the only waterway to connect the centre of British North America to Great Britain and, in turn, Great Britain to the centre of its greatest prize—the northern half of North America.” This became the theme of Creighton’s first book, The Commercial Empire of the St. Lawrence: A Study in Commerce and Politics. This book set up Creighton as someone who could explain the origins of Canada as a separate nation in North America not according to the logic of loyalty or constitutional bickering, but because of its geographically situated economy. Like his close friend Harold Innis, Creighton offered Canadians an explanation of their country’s origins, and its often perilous predicament, rooted in economics, empire and the country’s great northern waterways—the historical equivalent to the image of the country the Group of Seven was painting and promoting.

The real essence of Creighton’s legacy, though, came with his two-volume biography of John A. Macdonald. It was in these works that Creighton finally found his true calling. The character sketches were Dickensian in inspiration; the side flashes of detail and colour came out of his reading of the great late 19th- and early 20th-century fiction. Yet the biography itself told of the making of Canada, the continuation by other means (by confederation, tariff and rail) of the logic of Canada that Creighton first explored in The Commercial Empire. Creighton’s John A. is a man obsessed with an idea, the idea of Canada.

Everything that is right and wrong with the book flows from this. Creighton took on the prejudices of his main character, looking askance at John A.’s opponents. At a time when other Canadians were beginning to resuscitate the reputation of Louis Riel, Creighton had no time for the mad rebel who tried to derail Macdonald’s national vision. Still, by the mid 1950s when the second volume of the John A. biography was published, Creighton had become not just a pre-eminent historian but a true public intellectual. More books would come, but the solid edifice of his accomplishment had been established.

For all this, the life of Donald Creighton is more than just one book after another. If we trace Creighton’s life trajectory up to his death in 1979, we are following Canada’s history through the Great Depression to the struggles over national identity in the post-war decades as the ties to Britain weakened, as the American goliath loomed, and as French Canada redefined itself and demanded that the rest of Canada do so as well. Amid all of these debates Donald Creighton, national historian, stood out as an increasingly forlorn figure—a voice of authority, slowly seeming less and less reasonable to his bright young forward-looking contemporaries who were willing to bend and shift with the changing world. Creighton, tall and stiff, his gaze slightly off to the horizon, did not change—a lonely pine of British Canadianism.

He started off in good company. In the 1930s, Creighton was called upon to serve on the Royal Commission on Dominion-Provincial Relations. Sad, it is true, that in the midst of a national crisis of poverty and unemployment, Mackenzie King’s government opted to study federalism. But this is the essential Canadian question. Before we had the welfare state, before unemployment insurance and universal health care and universal old age pensions, we studied federalism.

Creighton was among the large consensus of scholars in these years who believed in a strong centralized federation. He came to this conclusion not out of a great support of socialism or the welfare state but from his reading of Confederation. It is a viewpoint that has long since gone out of fashion. But in the midst of the depression and then the Second World War, it made sense to many Canadians.

As the British Empire divested itself of (and was divested of) its colonies, Creighton was called upon to sit on a commission into the political fate of British colonies in southern Africa. Back in Canada, Creighton responded with increasing alarm to the way a rising Quebec nationalism was changing the symbols and national identity of Canada itself. In the 1950s the Liberals continued to slowly drain the country of British symbols, culminating in the creation of the new Maple Leaf flag in 1965. What is often forgotten is just how unpopular this move was among English Canadians. The slow drag of inevitability has meant that the passion is gone from this issue, but in 1965 it mattered to someone like Creighton.

Creighton also decried the rise of a bicultural view of Canada. These were the years of the Royal Commission on Biculturalism and Bilingualism, that Pearson-era committee that found a crisis in the Canadian federation. Creighton served on the Ontario government’s response to this crisis, Premier John Robarts’s Ontario Advisory Committee on Confederation (from 1965 to 1970). He played the role of increasingly truculent critic, dismayed at the extent to which his fellow English Canadians were willing to throw overboard the historical truths of the country (as Creighton saw them) in order to appease Quebec. His criticism grew stronger with the Trudeau ­government’s introduction of official bilingualism.

One must also throw into the mix Creighton’s anger at the Canadian drift into the American sphere of influence in everything from defence policy and economic affairs to popular culture. Creighton was a historical George Grant, the philosopher whose Lament for a Nation in 1963, although conservative in orientation, inspired anti-American Canadian nationalists from all political stripes.

In a series of articles, public lectures and books, Donald Creighton became an ever more strident critic of all of these developments. He had never shied away from expressing a point of view. At Oxford, Creighton helped create a club with other friends called the Hotbed of Virtues and Vices. Each member took a name based on the Seven Deadly Sins. Creighton took Ira—anger. In the 1960s and ’70s, Creighton became much more than a historian: he became a voice of anger, denouncing the destruction of the nation whose history he helped write.

It was not a pretty mix: anti-French, unsympathetic to aboriginal people and the Métis, anti-American, pro-British. It is hard to find a combination of viewpoints that could be less in keeping with the common ideas of national decency that have come to dominate in this country, especially among writers of our history.

It is not surprising, then, that Wright admits all of these faults, and in fact, gives Creighton’s critics more time than his friends (who became fewer and fewer over the years). As the book moves into Creighton’s middle and old age, we see a man with many faults, not especially likeable (not even by his children). He is increasingly bigoted and cut off from the country around him. He is a historian of a country he cannot understand. He is, Wright argues, a historian “without a thesis.”

The book itself is elegantly done, a tribute in style to a master stylist. Divided into four sections—the four seasons from spring to winter—Wright tells Creighton’s life as an elegy, from youthful spring blossom to the withering of autumn and winter death. Each chapter is prefaced with a line from Creighton’s John A. biography—Creighton on Macdonald, now turned back on Creighton. Wright’s first book was a history of the professionalization of history in Canada. In this biography we see a historian at the top of his powers, masterfully weaving Creighton’s life into the age in which he lived. It is a technical masterpiece.

The book’s one great weakness is its moral certainty. All historians add something of themselves to their books—their assumptions of right and wrong, good and evil. And so it is with Donald Wright on Donald Creighton.

Canadian historians today largely do not like the idea of the nation. We do not tell national stories. How, then, to write of a national historian except to find him lacking? Wright tells us that the very idea of Canada itself is a “lie.” The reader is warned to be wary that Creighton’s books “seduced readers into believing that there really was such a thing called Canada, that there really was a community of people with a shared history and a common purpose, and that there really was a ‘we’ and an ‘us’.”

Similarly, like many Canadian historians today, Wright is sympathetic to the critique of capitalism and the very idea of progress that is very much of our era—rooted in environmental concerns, sympathy for aboriginal peoples, and a left-wing critique of globalization and capitalism. You would be hard pressed to find a Canadian historian who would go on the record today talking about progress. To read the works of contemporary historians is to live in a world where nothing gets better, only different or worse. All of this means that we come at Creighton from a world view that he would not have agreed with. When you add to this the way the bicultural view of the country that was so hotly debated a generation or two ago is now simply taken for granted among the Canadian educated classes, then what you are left with is a recipe for mutual misunderstanding. But we are the only ones left talking. Creighton and his world are gone.

Historians only seem to have a soft spot for certain underdogs. Because we are so keen to define ourselves as better than an earlier idea of Canada, because we are supposed to be moving toward a view of Canada not just as a nation of two founding peoples but a country that ought to have been founded in a better relationship with aboriginal peoples, and which is now proudly multicultural, it is hard to look back on someone such as Donald Creighton and feel his loss. Yet surely that is exactly our task. When our morality supersedes the values of the past, what do we owe those with whom we no longer agree? This otherwise brilliant book offers some sympathy, but not enough understanding.