Historian Peter Waite wrote several scholarly, yet popular, books that have not only made a significant contribution to Canadian historical literature but continue to bring the country’s past to life for readers.
A compelling storyteller and writer, Prof. Waite, who died on Aug. 24 at the Camp Hill Veterans Memorial Building in Halifax at the age of 98, was best known for his analysis of the events leading to Confederation and the subsequent years from 1867 to 1896. His best-known books are his 1962 work The Life and Times of Confederation, 1864-1867, and Canada 1874-1896: Arduous Destiny, which covers the decades immediately following Confederation and was part of a series marking the centenary of Canadian Confederation in 1967.
“Peter had things to say about Confederation that no one else was really saying,” said Peter Russell, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Toronto and author of Constitutional Odyssey: Can Canadians Become a Sovereign People? “He understood that to create a new country you need a social union and not just a political and constitutional union.”
Prof. Russell added: “He was our first historian who understood and appreciated the social side of Confederation.”
The Confederation Debates in the Province of Canada, which Prof. Waite published in 1963, is another important book for Canadians and is still used by students, Prof. Russell said. After patiently reading thousands of pages of debates, Prof. Waite edited them to make them more accessible to readers. For his work and contributions to historical literature, he was invested as an officer of the Order of Canada in 1993.
After retiring from Dalhousie University, where he spent 35 years as a charismatic history professor, Prof. Waite continued to write. He published his last book, In Search of R.B. Bennett, in 2013 when he was 90. Exploring the life of Canada’s 11th prime minister, who led the country during the worst years of the Great Depression, the book won the Democracy 250 Atlantic Book Award for Historical Writing. He wrote two other biographies of Canadian prime ministers: Macdonald: His Life and World and The Man from Halifax: Sir John Thompson, Prime Minister.
“He was very interested in people and what makes people tick,” said Donald Wright, chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of New Brunswick. “He understood it is people who make up history.”
When Prof. Wright was a graduate student in Ottawa, he contacted Prof. Waite to ask if he could help research the biography of Bennett. Being close to the national archives, he thought he might be of help to Prof. Waite, who was in Halifax. “I don’t use researchers. I like to see the documents for myself,” Prof. Waite told the graduate student.
In the late 1980s, Prof. Waite was approached by the president of Dalhousie University asking if he would document the institution’s long history. Prof. Waite agreed and quickly discovered the project would not only take him longer than originally planned but would require him to write not one, but two volumes. More than a decade in the works, The Lives of Dalhousie is not just a list of milestones and accomplishments but tells about the people who made them possible. Prof. Waite wasn’t afraid to include stories of presidential feuds, illicit affairs and departmental squabbles. “Academic rows are almost as good as ecclesiastical ones,” he once said.
Born in Toronto on July 12, 1922, Peter Busby Waite was the eldest of three children to Mary (née Craig) and Cyril Waite, a manager with the Dominion Bank. As a young boy, he loved exploring the outdoors, which sometimes got him into trouble. At age 10, he knocked out his teeth trying to use broomsticks as ski poles. His father relocated with the bank frequently and the family moved 22 times. He attended high school in Saint John and then enlisted with the Royal Canadian Navy. During the Second World War he served on corvettes, achieving the rank of lieutenant. After the war, he studied at the University of British Columbia before earning his PhD from the University of Toronto. He returned east when Dalhousie University offered him a teaching job in 1951.
“He was a joyful presence, quick to laugh, a superlative raconteur addicted to punning and bons mots, especially in French or Latin, not infrequently unfathomable to his less well-informed interlocutors,” said Norman Pereira, professor emeritus at Dalhousie’s Department of History.
In 1957, Prof. Waite met Masha Gropuzzo, a young Croatian woman who was in Halifax visiting her sister. They went to a symphony ball together, fell in love and were married the following year. She spoke seven languages and had a deep understanding of linguistics. Mr. Waite often gave her the first chapters of his books, which she would edit for grammar and for anything that hinted of pretension. The couple had two daughters and were married for 45 years; Ms. Waite died of a heart attack in 2003. In his 80s, Mr. Waite fell in love again. He and Lorraine Hurtig were together until her death in 2014.
A member of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, Mr. Waite helped to preserve important historical spaces for Canadians. He also helped to protect a now-popular beach south of Halifax. In the 1950s, he and a group of young academics used old survey maps to explore Nova Scotia’s back woods. On one adventure, they discovered pristine, white-sand crescent beaches. They pressured the government to protect the area and save it from future development. The beaches, then marked as Coot Cove, eventually became Crystal Crescent Beach Provincial Park.
Mr. Waite loved to return to the beaches and nearby hiking trails throughout his life, often with his daughters.
“He took us everywhere,” his daughter Nina Waite said. “He was an all-encompassing and devoted father.”
As a history professor, he made arcane subjects come alive. Pacing back and forth in front of the class, black robes trailing behind him, he told animated stories about Canada’s history.
“Prof. Waite seemed to make history personal,” said Halifax Mayor Mike Savage, who graduated from Dalhousie University in 1980. “He made us believe that while books, tests and essays were important, they were less important than understanding and loving our shared history and learning from its imperfections.”
At home, he often retreated into his book-lined study, where he would work on his typewriter, until he got his first computer when he was in his 80s. Among all the classics, German poetry books and an Encyclopedia Britannica from the 1890s were journals and meticulous records he kept all his life. He recorded, dated and organized everything.
“He was always so vigorous intellectually,” his daughter Anya Waite said. “He always had the sparkle in his eye; he was always onto the next thing.”
Mr. Waite leaves his two daughters; grandchildren, Christopher, Lindsay, Eleanor and Andrew; and several nieces and nephews.