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book review

Conrad Black fails to tell the full story of Canada’s “greatness”Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press

The recorded history of Canada begins in medieval Icelandic sagas that recount Norse seafarers being blown off course and making landfall on a distant shore they named Vinland. The Norse were impressed by Vinland and its bounty, but were no match for its inhabitants. "Good land have we reached, and fat is it about the paunch," was the description of Thorvald Eriksson, who is also described being killed by an arrow shot by a "skraeling," as the Norse called the various aboriginal peoples they met.

Many tellings of Canadian history skip over its fascinating Norse prologue. The appeal of Rise to Greatness, by contrast, with its ambitious subtitle and stunning length, is completeness. Here at last, its heft silently suggests, will be the story of Canada in all its vastness and terror and glory, right down to the Vikings. If Conrad Black (my former employer) is its author, this is not immediately implausible. Black has written biographies of historical figures such as Maurice Duplessis and Franklin Roosevelt. Since Black's high-profile fraud conviction, his writing has shown concern for African-Americans and other groups over-represented in the U.S. justice system, demonstrating a capability for empathic identification that, if applied to the past, can be a powerful tool of understanding.

Rise to Greatness lives up to this foreshadowing in its early chapters on New France and colonial Canada. Black writes sympathetically about establishing a French Catholic society in North America and brings to life subjects such as explorer Samuel de Champlain, who converted to Catholicism, and Guy Carleton, who protected the rights of Catholics as Governor of Quebec. As Black's story unfolds, however, a second theme soon crowds out the minor interest in Catholicism.

This theme recalls a view in the international relations field known as realism, which sees international affairs as an amoral struggle for power among states. Realism downplays the influence of international law or moral norms on foreign affairs. Where the Catholic tradition looks to Thomas Aquinas and the New Testament, realism draws on Hobbes and Machiavelli. Black makes too many moral judgements to be a pure realist, but his approach to history shares with realism an intense preoccupation with the prerogatives of power, statecraft and foreign relations. Power is understood narrowly, as something concentrated in the hands of a small group of politicians. Hence the book's tight focus on elite decision makers, particularly prime ministers, to the exclusion of mass movements, moral reformers, ordinary Canadians – everything else.

Given this approach, when Black calls Quebec's Cardinal Villeneuve a "cunning and unsentimental observer," it is high praise. Conversely, when he characterizes Louis Riel as lacking "the tactical sense to try to entice the United States to do some of his bidding and frighten the British," it is a damning criticism, marking Riel as a feckless leader.

Black's approach has some high moments. The portraits of Macdonald and Laurier are gripping, even inspiring. Black shows us the morning of Canada, when bold leaders could indeed do great things, such as create a new confederation or people the Prairies through a daring plan of mass immigration. Black's recounting of Trudeau's battles with René Lévesque is also compelling. Whatever Trudeau's flaws, Black suggests, in his greatest hour he kept Canada together, and this outweighs all else.

But these moments are too rare in this long book. Black's view of national history as the history of the one percent, to paraphrase the Occupy movement, would be inadequate anywhere, but is especially ill-suited to the history of Canada.

Canada has achieved much of its influence through means other than force of will. In 1973 Australian immigration minister Al Grassby discovered official multiculturalism on a trip to Canada and brought the idea back to Australia. Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms has influenced laws in Eastern Europe, South Africa, Israel and Hong Kong. The Supreme Court of Canada now exerts a leading influence on courts around the world, surpassing its U.S. counterpart, because "Canada, unlike the United States, is seen as reflecting an emerging international consensus rather than existing as an outlier," in the words of U.S legal academic Frederick Schauer. Canadian experience as crystallized in the Clarity Act holds that secession requires democratic affirmation in response to a clear question, an idea recently endorsed in Scotland.

These examples highlight Canada's role as a generator of new norms that outside observers then embrace. This power-by-example cannot be reduced to a great personage pounding a negotiating table or calling in an air strike, and so is devalued on Black's approach, which fails to tell the full story of Canada's "greatness."

It also fails to explain Canada's leaders who, like leaders everywhere, are shaped by their society. Take William Lyon Mackenzie King, not only a wartime prime minister but the longest serving, and so someone Black's approach would presumably fit. In fact, Black struggles to make sense of King, who believed that he could communicate with dead relatives, historical figures, even his dead pets. This aspect of King was influenced by the spiritualism movement, which peaked in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and acquired influence in part because it allowed women an influential role when this was often denied them. Black ignores King's historical context and labels him "complicated," "strange" and an "eccentric mystic." This misleadingly suggests King's spiritualism was just a personal quirk, when it was also a product of Canadian society.

King sometimes consulted Kingston fortune-teller Rachel Bleaney. Bleaney thus exerted a kind of power over King, but not the kind that wins many elections or wars, and so Black scants it. This typifies not only Black's take on spiritualism but the temperance and labour movements, feminism, the Quiet Revolution – every social trend that originated outside parliament. In their place, the book contains exhausting detail on European and American leaders out of proportion to their influence on Canada, often one senses because Black has written about them before (Roosevelt) or has a personal interest in them (Cardinal Richelieu). The result is an undisciplined narrative that spends more time describing the dimensions of British naval guns before the First World War than the Winnipeg General Strike.

On the rare occasions when disadvantaged groups are discussed, it is often in an obnoxious way. An early decision by Laurier concerned "a 'gentleman's agreement' limiting Japanese immigration to Canada of unskilled labour to four hundred people per year. It was a good but modest start on sovereignty." Japanese labourers are unlikely to have considered it good, but no matter. Black remarks of the 19th-century U.S. that "there was only an economic reason for slavery in the South, where African and Caribbean workers were more productive in agriculture than Caucasians, being more adapted to tropical weather." Black fails to engage the complex debate on the economics of slavery and instead relies on a crass racial generalization. The Meech Lake Accord died in the legislatures of Manitoba, where Elijah Harper blocked it, and Newfoundland, where leaders of both major parties had promised a free vote it could not pass. "It was absurd that such a measure would be derailed by one legislator in Manitoba and parliamentary niceties among the Newfies." Important matters are decided in Quebec and Ontario. Mere "Newfies" should know their place.

Rise to Greatness is particularly disappointing in regard to Canada's native peoples. It was because the natives beat off the Norse that Columbus could later be credited for making contact with North America. "If it had not been for the Native Americans," U.S. author Jared Diamond has noted, "Vinland might have undergone a population explosion, the Norse might have spread over North America," and Icelandic would be the primary language of North America. The native defeat of the Norse was a military victory of the kind Black's approach purports to emphasize, but Black gives them no credit for their influence on world affairs. Their culture he characterizes as "Stone Age," ignoring how aboriginal tools, such as kayaks and snowshoes, gave them an edge over Europeans in adapting to Canada's environment.

Inevitably, there are factual errors. Riel did try to have the U.S. do his bidding. In a meeting with President Grant, he proposed that the U.S. fund an assault on Manitoba in exchange for which Riel would govern Manitoba in a manner beholden to U.S. interests. Black endorses the libel that some of the 911 terrorists entered the U.S. through Canada. There is a full-page map that identifies a large island off the coast of Canada as Newfoundland. The exotic terrain in question is in fact Cape Breton. (Say what you want about Newfoundlanders, but they can usually identify the major landmasses of Atlantic Canada.)

Rise to Greatness ultimately dashes one's hope for empathy and completeness. It does however bring one historical lesson home. Our skraeling land is a graveyard not only of lost seafarers, but ill-prepared historians as well.

Andy Lamey teaches philosophy at the University of California, San Diego and is the author of Frontier Justice: The Global Refugee Crisis and What To Do About It.