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A collage containing an illustration of Sir John A. Macdonald with
Illustrations by Nazario Graziano/Colagene.com
Culture & Society

Whose Stories Do We Tell?

The Dictionary of Canadian Biography aims to record noteworthy lives from “all points of view.” Six decades into its mission, what that means is still up for debate

In an age when George Orwell’s worst fears seem to be realized, and facts are routinely reworked to fit the politics of the moment, the Dictionary of Canadian Biography stands as a bulwark of truth. Having documented the lives of nearly 9,000 prominent, influential and just plain colourful characters from Canadian history, the 61-year-old, bilingual reference work is, in a sense, the anti-fake-news factory. It pursues the facts with dogged diligence, although always with a keen feel for the twists and turns of historical “truth.”

The DCB – a collaboration between the University of Toronto and Laval University in Quebec – follows a strict process to ensure what it publishes is accurate. It starts with articles based largely (and sometimes entirely) on primary sources – the diaries, letters and other documents on which all good historical analysis is built – and continues at DCB headquarters on the 14th floor of Robarts Library, where the articles are subjected to rigorous fact-checking. Working with footnotes and documents supplied by the contributor, a manuscript editor tries to track every fact and quotation back to its source.

Sometimes it’s just not possible to get everything tidied away. In the case of a man known as Canada’s unofficial national executioner, the editors had to check his claim to having done hundreds of executions. The late executioner didn’t make any kind of research easy. He worked under a pseudonym, was vague about his life details and didn’t even tell his wife his true occupation. (He claimed to be a travelling salesman.) In the end, the editors couldn’t say more about his deadly abilities than that he “may have performed as many as 550 to 600 executions” over the course of his decades-long career.

Editors spend little time on details of questionable importance, such as the name of a subject’s high school, but they’ll go to great lengths to locate vital statistics such as a birthdate. If Ancestry.ca doesn’t deliver, they might request documents from abroad or, in rare instances, pay a visit to an archive. “We pride ourselves on being authoritative,” says Chris Pennington, one of two manuscript editors at the dictionary’s Toronto office. “That’s probably the defining characteristic of the DCB.”

The irony of all this attention to accuracy is that the DCB is always chasing its own tail. Many people think of history as a series of immutable facts, memorized, recorded and ordered, then venerated forever after as immutable truth. Whereas, in fact, it is occasionally closer to fiction than we’d like to admit – a creature of interpretation, conditioned by the assumptions of the writer and the time and place in which it was written. Nowhere is this more the case than with events from the distant past, where more times than not the documentation is missing or shaky and interpretation reigns supreme. As a result, the DCB’s mission is as much about shedding new light on history as preserving it: adding biographies, adjusting tone, righting historiographical injustices.

Sometimes it’s a matter of filling in the blanks, as in the case of the legendary explorer Sir John Franklin, where so much new material has been uncovered since his biography was first published in 1988 that an entirely new biography had to be commissioned.

Sometimes it’s a matter of redressing a historiographical imbalance, as in the case of a 19th-century writer named James McCarroll. An Irishman, he came to Canada in 1831 and became a popular writer and journalist, not to mention a key figure in the Fenian movement. He didn’t make the first cut of the DCB because for decades there didn’t seem to be enough material to support an article. About a year ago, however, a retired Trent University professor published a biographical book about McCarroll and now the DCB has commissioned an article. “We have to be careful,” says David A. Wilson, the DCB’s general editor. “We can’t do it with everybody but there are some people who are just too important to omit.”

Who’s important is of course the key question, and it’s here, in its role as gatekeeper, that the DCB probably has the greatest effect on the nation’s history. Like many reference works, the DCB favours the powerful and the famous. Indeed, one of the few surefire ways to get a coveted “category one” biography, worth 8,000 words or more, is to be prime minister. Influential intellectuals fare almost as well; Donald Creighton (BA 1925 Victoria) and Northrop Frye (BA 1933 Victoria) weigh in at more than 7,500 words each.

A collage of images of three women from different time periods, with the right image being an illustration of a nun; on the left of the images are the words "Dictionnaire Biographique du Canada"
Women are under-represented in the DCB. “We’re always on the lookout for women whose careers illustrate something about Canada or have made a major mark in a field,” says editor David Wilson

At the same time, and from its inception in 1959, the DCB has always tried to capture as broad a cross-section of Canadian society as possible. James Nicholson, the businessman whose bequest launched the dictionary, specified that the biographies should be of “those whose lives are noteworthy from all points of view.” So we have a Hamilton, Ontario, schoolgirl who was one of the first Canadian victims of the Second World War, a Newfoundland hunter who was caught in a sealing disaster and an Indigenous boy who died running away from a residential school in the 1930s. Not only are these lives interesting in themselves, they illuminate larger issues in history by focusing on the texture of everyday life. “We have the power structures,” says Wilson, “but we try to get beneath the power structures as well.”

Women were excluded from power for decades and are still under-represented in the DCB, accounting for only about six per cent of the total lives. But Wilson says they’re trying to redress the imbalance, which is especially acute in the earlier volumes. (It slightly diminishes with time so that in volume 15, which covers people who died in the 1920s, articles about women account for 15 per cent of the total.) “We’re always on the lookout for women who have left good primary sources and whose careers illustrate something about Canada or have made a major mark in a field,” says Wilson.

Historical interests and interpretations constantly shift. An interesting case is Sir John A. Macdonald. At 19,000-plus words, the original Macdonald biography is probably the longest and most in-depth of any in the DCB. But it was commissioned some 30 years ago, and, although very full in the context of its time, it says nothing about Macdonald’s contentious beliefs or policies on such topics as the treatment of Indigenous Peoples or Chinese immigration. “This is unacceptable,” says Wilson. So they’ve decided to amend the biography, adding supplementary sections, written by different scholars, on those topics.

Trickier to address is the problem of outdated language and assumptions. In its early years, says Wilson, the DCB had a reputation as being on the cutting edge of Indigenous historiography. It profiled dozens of Indigenous people from the 16th century and beyond and, what was more unusual for the time (the 1960s and 1970s), it used their Indigenous names as well as their English or Anglicized ones. (Today, there are more than 250 Indigenous biographies in the DCB.) But at the same time, some of these biographies carried colonialist assumptions and offensive language: words such as “savage” and “squaw,” for example.

What to do? Reinterpreting the past is always difficult and especially so in the case of the DCB, where the biographies themselves are part of the historiography of the country. As problematic as the terms are, changing them might mislead future readers as to the widely held values of the time in which they were used. The DCB’s solution was to remove or replace the offending words – unless they were part of a direct, historical quotation – and to add a note acknowledging the change and supplying a link to the original document, so that anyone wishing to observe the state of historiography or social attitudes in earlier decades can do so. Simply obliterating a biography that contains objectionable words would be Orwellian, says Wilson, whereas highlighting the change shows how a biography can or will evolve over time.

It could be years before we see how much the biographies evolve. The editors are proceeding chronologically, decade by decade, tackling subjects by the year of their death, and after 60-plus years of work they’ve only now just reached the end of the 1930s. Wilson would like to double the rate of production to about 100 new biographies a year, and perhaps finish the 1940s in eight years, but even so, it will be several decades before they reach today’s “present” and by then, of course, there will be new perspectives and attitudes to consider.

Of one thing you can be sure: the past will still be there, rigorously proofed and buttressed by evidence – though it may look a little different. A biography is the story of someone’s life, their personality and their relationship to broader currents in Canadian history, says Wilson. “Of course, there will be interpretation, and there’ll be arguments that must be supported by the evidence. But nothing is definitive and never will be. History is not written in stone; it will constantly change.”

Did you know you can “adopt” a biography to celebrate or memorialize a loved one? Find out more about how you can support the Dictionary of Canadian Biography.

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  1. 4 Responses to “ Whose Stories Do We Tell? ”

  2. John L. Williamson says:

    Very interesting to learn how DCB entries are updated as new facts emerge. On outdated language and assumptions: I hope you are careful not to be led by political correctness and related pressure groups. Please advise how I can provide some new factual data for an entry I wrote in Vol V, oh so many years ago. It sounds as though the very rigorous editorial process of my day continues to drive the process. Keep up the good work!

  3. David Wilson says:

    John, thank you for your positive comments. Please send us the new information you have for Samuel Andrews (I'm assuming that's the one), and we'll make the corrections. The easiest approach would be to go to our website, www.biographi.ca, click on Contact Us, and leave a message. Thank you very much!

  4. Ceta Ramkhalawansingh says:

    I suggest you change the image on the lead of this story. Sir John A is hardly a recommendation for the DCB.

  5. University of Toronto Magazine says:

    @Ceta

    Thank you for your comment. In fact, we chose Sir John A Macdonald precisely because the historical perspective on him has changed in recent years, illustrating the main point of the article.