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The second of two coffee-table tomes accompanying the CBC television series of the same name, Volume Two of Canada: A People's History is history with the good bits left in. That is, while its authors never lose sight of the big picture, they are just as interested in the details, personal remembrances, and minor characters as they are the numbers, facts, and prime ministers. Beginning just after Confederation, in the last quarter of the 19th century, Volume Two takes us through more than 100 years of Canadian history, up to and including the cod crisis on the East Coast (somewhat arbitrarily, it seems, since the Chretien government and the 90s in general receive short shrift). Within its 300-plus glossy, generously illustrated pages, the reader will find all-but-forgotten figures and incidents. These include Sir Arthur Currie, a former schoolteacher who became a brigadier general during the First World War and contributed significantly to the Canadian troops' success at Vimy Ridge. Or Elsie MacGill, a 35-year-old aeronautical engineer who was assigned the daunting task of producing 40 fighter planes at the beginning of World War II. Nor do the authors gloss over the country's more shameful incidents, such as the Dene nomads recruited to transport uranium from a mine on the shore of Great Bear Lake in the Northwest Territories for the atomic bomb. "The miners were paid three dollars a day to haul forty-five kilogram sacks of radioactive ore out to barges on the Mackenzie River," notes Gillmor. A few years later, they "died of cancer at alarming rates, and the Dene settlements became known as the 'Villages of Widows.'"
The scrupulously researched volume isn't without its drolly humorous moments, however. Regarding the cancellation, in the '60s, of ultra-square musical variety show Don Messer's Jubilee, the book quotes Opposition leader John Diefenbaker addressing the House of Commons: "Many people are asking that this show be continued, and they are not particularly pleased with the fact that the Black Panthers and the like apparently have an inside track at the CBC." While there is no evidence of any members of the militant African-American group working behind the scenes at A People's History, some readers might detect a bias, particularly regarding the Conservative Mulroney years. (The Trudeau passages are much better drawn than the Mulroney scenes, though this could be owing to the fact that Trudeau was simply a more exciting personality, and the period more tumultuous.) Whatever the party affiliations of those involved, A People's History transcends politics to become an indispensable, gorgeously illustrated addition to any curious Canadian's library. --Shawn Conner
An award-winning journalist and writer, Don Gillmor is the author of the highly acclaimed 1999 story of his family’s roots, The Desire of Every Living Thing.
Achille Michaud, co-author of Richard Hatfield: Power and Disobedience, is a producer with Radio-Canada in Montreal.
Pierre Turgeon is a well-known Québécois editor and writer, who won the Governor General’s Award for his 1991 book La Radissonie: le pays de la Baie James.