The Magic Thread of 'Greatness'

Review by C.P. Champion


Rise to Greatness: The History of Canada from the Vikings to the Present. Conrad Black. Random House, 2014. 1,042 pages, $50.


This review of Rise to Greatness is republished from Vol. 4 No. 2 (Autumn-Winter 2014), pp. 55-60.


IN A 1991 BOOK, The Pursuit of Greatness, the British historian Robert Holland wrote of Britain’s world role from 1900 to 1970: “Overall, in what it set out to do as a nation, the United Kingdom was rather more successful than many might have predicted.” Compared to countries such as the U.S.S.R., India, and a host of others, the British did well in spite of their “fetid preoccupation with decline.” In his new book published by Random House, Conrad Black posits that Canadians today, “so long accustomed to an almost furtive and tentative political distinctiveness,” are slow to accept their “status as one of the world’s ten or twelve most important countries.” 

Rise to Greatness is a gigantic patriotic synthesis for Canadians who feel good about Canada and would like to be told why they should. Black’s rediscovered country is no mere Dominion, not some former colony, but a fully-fledged “Realm.” Away with mealy-mouthed self-effacement; it is time Canadians embraced the success story of a “strong country,” the product of “a continuous thread of genius and determination to build and improve an original and distinguished political society in the northern half of this continent.” Canada is “invincible,” its progress “ineluctable.” There is not a trace of nostalgia here, an undertone perhaps of repentance for past criticisms, and nary an axe to grind.

It is no exaggeration to describe Black’s weighty volume (whose cover is actually the colour of bricks) as a pyrotechnic display, a literary aurora borealis traversing the Canadian firmament. No living historian of Canada could rival its single-handed breadth of vision, or interweave the wide-ranging narrative with as much pertinent and cogent European and American background as he has done. No Canadian author could organize and enliven the whole consistently with the style and wit for which in his prime, when deploring the mediocrity of Canadian journalism (“the overwhelming avalanche of soft, left, bland, envious pap which has poured like sludge ...”) and establishing the National Post in the 1990s, Black gained so many admirers and detractors. There is something of that exuberance — and very little of it scornful — on most of the 1,042 pages of this book, now the most comprehensive single-volume history of Canada. 


Rise to Greatness is not, as some might expect, a predictable Tory interpretation. Lord Black is no Donald Creighton, scowling in some dingy gothic corridor of U. of T. He eschews partisanship, heaping far more praise on Liberal prime ministers than Tory ones, because what matters is not which party was in power but who did more to secure and advance “greatness.” Still, if the result is not a Conservative narrative, it is nonetheless a small-c conservative and small-l liberal one — that has already provoked hostile reviews and personal insults from the CBC and the Toronto Star and that will be loathed and envied by many less gifted professional historians.

The Grits had their classic narrative in A.R.M. Lower’s Colony to Nation, published in 1946. Lower’s Liberalism waxed indignant at the British connection: the panoply of Britishness that might be a profitable tourist attraction but was also, Lower believed, a millstone slowing national progress. To break free, we should stop calling ourselves a “Dominion,” get a “Canadian-born” governor general, a “distinctively Canadian” flag to “unite” the country, and “patriate” the British North America Act. Much of this nationalist doctrine — John Farthing called it the myth of “pure Canada” — was premised on the fable that Britain had inhibited independence rather than supported it. Ged Martin’s witty and original account of British backing for federation, Britain and the Origins of Canadian Confederation 1837-1867 (1995), was reinforced by Andrew Smith’s 2008 British Businessmen and Canadian Confederation, though Black cites neither book to show “the British demanding and incentivizing Canadian self-help.”

The Tory interpretation was written by Creighton, whose survey, Dominion of the North, was published in 1944, reissued many times, and was, until now, the best history up to the Second World War. His two-volume life of Macdonald rescued the Tory founder from decades of scoffing contempt as a crooked prevaricating drunk. Like Colony to Nation and W.L. Morton’s The Kingdom of Canada (1963), Creighton’s book was only half the length of Black’s volume but in common with all of them, began with the Norse seafarers. 

Creighton published his cynical but entertaining Canada’s First Century in 1967, reissued by Oxford in 2012. One historian called it “the full orchestration of Lament for a Nation” by George Grant. Creighton's was “a self-indulgent, brooding, and at times spiteful book ... an impious parody of the whig-liberal history in which the present was invariably judged as a desirable culmination of past progress.” Mackenzie King, whom Creighton despised, was an evil dwarf, “a short, stoutish man, with a torso like a barrel” and spoke with an “audible wheeze,” and in 1943, when Churchill and Roosevelt came to Quebec, his “role was very much like that of the general manager of the Chateau Frontenac Hotel.” Creighton is funny, and remains vital to the Tory canon despite his uncomprehending and maladroit hostility towards Quebec nationalism. 

Creighton’s Toryism upheld the British connection as a benign and necessary counterweight to the U.S.A., preserving for English Canadians a depth and rootedness to match Quebec’s jaded baroque and peevish, second-hand laïcité.

The Liberals’ obsession with the governor general and the flag were distractions from serious policy; having a distinguished British viceroy worked well: when St. Laurent named the first “Canadian” in 1952, Tories groaned to find that it was just Vincent Massey, the former president of the National Liberal Federation. King thought Massey “a self-serving toady, snob, and low careerist” (as Black reveals on p. 701). Black has little interest in the flag debate. Conservatives were not necessarily wedded to the Red Ensign until Pearson frontally attacked it; to them it was the familiar, distinctive, unassuming, battle-worn Canadian flag that had been personally chosen by Sir John A. Macdonald; Quebecers flew their own blue fleurdelisé anyway: so let them (they still do), and leave well enough alone. Black shares none of Creighton’s hostility to the outcome, a forgotten national wound whose reopening would avail the present-day Tory party nothing.

It is not true, as Black has said in interviews, that previous big histories were boring or that they failed to include the European background. Chapter two of Creighton’s Dominion begins, “On a March day in 1661 Cardinal Mazarin lay dying in his palace at Vincennes,” and chapter three with Bolingbroke pondering the “money-grubbing Whigs whom he affected to despise.” What is true is that Black stuffs in more of this transatlantic backdrop than any of his predecessors — especially prior to 1867 but whenever world events impinge. 

Many of Black's figures are “swashbuckling” or “redoubtable” and the “doughty French habitant” and “rugged Loyalist” and “ingenious and fierce natives” were “forerunners of the vast Kiplingesque gallery of the local pillars of empire ... who carried the British flag and civilization to the farthest corners of the world.” It will be a while before academic historians rediscover the positive side to this Boy’s Own approach to the past. (Hint: it is the only way to get boys interested in history; classical educators call this the "Poetic stage" of learning and teachers need to rediscover the value of that, or they might as well give up.)

Thanks to Black we know at long last the significance to Canada of the Salic Law, an “absurd relic of male self-exaltation” (in my view a cheap shot). The connection to Canada of the First Carnatic War has also never been as fully elaborated. The Catonian cry of William Shirley, governor of Massachusetts in the 1740s, Delenda est Canada (“Canada must be destroyed,” as must ancient Carthage) deserves to be better known — especially among Canadian luminaries who think Canada did not “exist” in 1812.

Very tiresomely, Black repeats his personal dogma that the British were solely responsible for provoking the War of 1812, about which he says there was “nothing sublime” — having only just described Sir Isaac Brock’s valiant death and legendary “Push on, brave York Volunteers!” There is a bare mention of Charles de Salaberry in connection with the battle of Chateauguay, though he reappears in 1869 as one of Ottawa’s delegates to the Métis. It is a pity Black neglects the extraordinary Salaberrys — Charles’ brother Édouard-Alphonse (born in Beauport) served under Wellington and was killed at Badajoz — while devoting a full (if interesting) page to Napoleon, Wellington, and the Congress of Vienna. Still, Black is certainly right that Canada’s status as a “victor” in 1814 goes “largely unappreciated.” (There was a Simcoe in the Peninsular Campaign, too, by the way.)

Black goes further than any of his predecessors in explaining the visits and attitudes to Canada of the “piercingly eloquent” Charles de Gaulle, France’s “greatest leader since Napoleon” who perceived that Canada’s existence was “a compromise between resignations, not at all a national unity.” This haughty  detachment led to de Gaulle’s “unspeakable outrage” on the Montreal city hall balcony in 1967 when “no one but a few loopies wanted to liberate Quebec,” Black writes, knowing its dependency as “a recipient of Canadian transfer payments.”


THE CONSERVATIVE disposition is imbued with a sense of loss: the capitol has been sacked, the vestals debauched, the republic betrayed. There is a certain nostalgia combined perhaps with a Restorationist will to put things right, to rebuild the temple and recopy the illuminated scrolls.

The pre-1960 Dominion was already great, as Tories knew: it was liberal, tolerant, open to progress. The old Canadianism was already a type of civic nationalism, never racial though occasionally xenophobic. It was Diefenbaker who brought minorities into political life: the first black MP, the first Chinese MP, the first Aboriginal senator, the first woman cabinet minister. Diefenbaker’s defeat prompted Grant to write his Lament (1965), and Scott Symons his Combat Journal for Place d’Armes (1967), a quirky novel of Loyalist resistance and despair.

Rise to Greatness has much more of Lower’s whiggish Liberal pride than Creighton’s resignation, let alone Symons’ Loyalist self-banishment to Morocco. Black is in no mood to pine for bygone days. Here is something of George Grant but without the lament. For Black, the vocation of Canada remains this: to be in the northern half of the continent a successful alternative to the great but flawed American republic. As Grant put it in 1965, “To be a Canadian was to build, along with the French, a more ordered and stable [British American] society than the liberal experiment in the United States.” Where Grant went wrong was in pronouncing the patient dead, “the end of Canada as a sovereign state.” For Black, in the 1960s we were on our way to greatness.

The Conservative disposition is imbued with a sense of loss: the capitol has been sacked, the vestals debauched, the republic betrayed. There is a certain nostalgia combined perhaps with a Restorationist will to put things right, to rebuild the temple and recopy the illuminated scrolls. (But not in this book.)

Canadians, then, should stand as tall with Laurier as with Macdonald, and with King, St. Laurent, Pearson and Trudeau, as with Borden and Mulroney. They were all “distinguished” and we should be proud of them. In the First World War, Laurier was “august” and “the dean of premiers” who saved Canada by rallying Quebecers to a party of consensus. (For an alternative view of Laurier’s actions, see “CPAC’s Liberal History” in the previous issue of The Dorchester Review.)

From the 1940s to the 1960s, it was Liberals such as C.D. Howe who fostered greatness and, later, Pearson who in his “creative agony” gave Canada a flag that was both “distinctive”  and “distinguished.” Trudeau, though formerly “a flippant, underemployed poseur” became the “right man” and “in some ways perfect” for the one thing that mattered during his premiership, “the battle with the separatists.” Black praises Trudeau for his constitutional settlement, ranking him “for all his foibles and lacunae” after Laurier, Macdonald, and King as the fourth greatest prime minister. Black takes James Coyne's side in the Bank of Canada scandal, blaming the Tories for the Liberals' mess.

All of this becomes rather cringe-making as Black out-Grits the Grits, attributing qualities and virtues to men whom Creighton and Grant disdained and whose success the Tories, lacking sufficient Machiavellian acuity until it was too late, could do little more than rhetorically undercut. Many believed Canadians excelled in the Second World War in spite of Mackenzie King, who would have preferred to keep the boys at home. Black deplores that when King visited the troops, they blew raspberries at him but declines to explain why.

Trudeau’s stunt in bringing about “a Canadian Constitution at last” Black calls his “parting trumpet” but he ignores the reality that few in the country were interested and not a single citizen benefited from patriation. Only in retrospect, after the stage-managed Liberal extravaganza with the Queen on Parliament Hill, did anyone in Canada have any idea what it was. Worse, many Canadians now associate 1982 and the Charter with “independence” and the birth of “rights and freedoms” as if we had never had any before — two more Liberal myths in which the Canadian Left is deeply and dishonestly invested. Black does at least concede, in one of his many splashes of vintage drollery, that Trudeau “devoted his last two years to the faddish hobby horses of his prolonged and comfortably idle youth,” such as the “woolly” and “sophomoric” peace initiative. But he should explain how the Liberals’ mass popular obfuscation of our history, flipping the British role in our national life topsy-turvy, has been a service to the country.

Black’s irreverence towards sacred cows of the Left (but too few) has already provoked apoplectic reviews, such as Don Marks’ tirade for the CBC, apparently based on the first three pages. Black’s preoccupation with “high politics,” federal and to a lesser extent provincial, and his neglect of social history, irritates them. As Jack Granatstein might have put it, this is not the place to turn for some assistant professor’s earnest revelations about the drinking habits of immigrant Manx road-sweepers in fin-de-siècle Bancroft, or the queer theory of postwar men’s undergarment catalogues. 

Most offensive, to some, is Black’s complete lack of ritual self-flagellatory adulation of pre-contact Aboriginal cultures. Where academics today prostrate themselves unquestioningly before the idols of Indigeneity, “spirituality,” and the clichés of victimology, he has this to say: 

The Indians were splendid woodsmen and craftsmen, but they were a Stone Age culture and economy that had not discovered the wheel. Their religion was largely superstitious ... It is fair to say that the Indians were capable people of much promise but that their civilization, though exceptional in some arts, crafts, and in physical prowess, was uncompetitive with much of Europe for the preceding two thousand years ... Despite the sentimentality of Longfellow, James Fenimore Cooper, Chateaubriand (with his bunk about le beau sauvage), Indian society was not in itself worthy of integral conservation, nor was its dilution a suitable subject for great lamentations.

Black unfortunately shows little interest in the pre-annexation rise of the Métis, one of the great Canadian epics (e.g., the Battle of Grand Coteau on page 21 of this issue). There is a swashbuckling story there, to be sure, somewhat akin to the siege of Rorke’s Drift in the Zulu War.

Black is mistaken in stating (p. 564) that John Horne Blackmore was the first Mormon elected to Parliament (in 1935). That distinction, though little known, belongs to Agnes MacPhail, also the first woman MP, elected in 1921, a teacher and farmer’s daughter, and a teenage convert to the Reorganized Latter Day Saints.

Black recounts how Mackenzie King, musing about Hitler as a mystical knight, discerned in a blob of shaving lather “the swan in Wagner’s Siegfried.” When the present writer read this I thought, “Lohengrin” — and sure enough, upon checking King’s diary online, the prime minister confesses on September 2, 1939, having consulted an opera guide, that he had misplaced the swan from Lohengrin. Black mistakenly puts the swan back in Siegfried (p. 591) and gives the diary date incorrectly as September 4. (He and King can perhaps both be forgiven for not being as great a Wagnerian as Creighton apparently was.) Also whoever prepared the index does not know the difference between the Richard Wagner named to the Supreme Court in 2012 and the 19th century composer.


Contemporary academics confine themselves narrowly to current fads, merely condemning past generations for their attitudes to race, sex, class, etc., like spiders sucking the lifeblood out of a corpse and leaving the exoskeleton as waste. 


“A force in the world at last” is the title of chapter ten, covering the period from 2000 to 2014, wherein Black rejects the peacekeeping myth and soft power “fraud,” which “the gullible Canadian left” naively believed gave Canada clout. And yet Black seems to accept readily enough the “middle power” myth, debunked in Adam Chapnick’s important 2006 book, The Middle Power Project (not in Black’s bibliography), which showed that postwar Australia and even Brazil had as good a claim as Canada to middle-power leadership and that Canada was peripheral to the founding of the United Nations, despite enthusiastic self-administered back-patting at External Affairs.

Above all, however, Black has an important “doctrine” to impart. It is that in order to attain and sustain greatness, leaders must uphold the continuous vision of Canada “from Champlain and Frontenac through d’Iberville and La Vérendrye, Dorchester, Brock, Baldwin, LaFontaine, Macdonald, Cartier, and Laurier,” and King, Pearson, and Trudeau too — “the romantic intuition that crystallized gradually into a full national ambition.” This touchstone of Canadian governance and unity he echoes again on the eve of Confederation:

The birth of a new nation, the consummation of the genius of Champlain and Carleton, of Baldwin and LaFontaine ... was at hand. The embryo that existed in New France a century after Champlain founded Quebec, which had become a mysterious conception a century later at the time of the War of 1812, was now, obviously, an autonomous country of novel composition and immense proportions, about to be born. 

This grand leitmotif appears again when Black explains why Trudeau “succeeded where no one else would have,” because 

 ... he had grasped and conserved the magic thread of a distinctive Canadian state, founded by Champlain, shaped by Carleton, reformed by Baldwin and LaFontaine, brought to maturity by Macdonald and built upon by Laurier and King and Lapointe and St. Laurent and, in his syncopated way, Pearson. He had grasped and preserved the French-English double majority ... (pp. 919-20)

If English Canadians have little appreciation of how Quebecers understood the federation it was because they’ve forgotten, as Paul Romney wrote in Getting It Wrong: How English Canadians Forgot Their Past and Imperilled Confederation (1999). A compact is what French Canadians signed up for, a treaty which Macdonald and his best successors maintained, as Black stresses repeatedly. Garth Stevenson’s 1993 book, Ex Uno Plures: Federal-Provincial Relations in Canada, 1867-1896, showed that Lower Canadians intended to perpetuate the accommodation of 1774. Quebec was never a province “like the others.” It should be added, though, that Quebecers have also forgotten much that made their culture great.

Lord Black has set the bar very high indeed. If another big history were to be written, in order to surpass Black’s it would have to be an even more comprehensive synthesis, incorporating newer scholarship from more books. It would have to offer a stronger response to the academic world’s contributions, positive and negative, to the study of Canada. The best, for example, have rightly brought the Empire and the Atlantic world back into Canadian history. Others, conforming narrowly to current fads, merely condemn past generations for their attitudes to race, sex, class, etc., like spiders sucking the lifeblood out of a corpse and leaving the exoskeleton as waste. 

Rise to Greatness ignores them. And defying the old Tory lament, it’s the boldest, densest, most whiggish history of Canada we are ever likely to get. Its author has returned to the Canadian fold, his heroic history a splendid fatted calf. It was short-sighted to take his Order of Canada away; they might just have to return it to him.


Sidebar published with the review above:

The Ante-Bellocian Black

C.P. Champion

CONRAD BLACK has written elsewhere that the murderously self-serving Henry VIII “never filled me with confidence in the legitimacy of the Church of England” (in his contribution to Canadian Converts, published by Justin Press in 2009). “More and Fisher were more morally compelling figures than the Henricians” and Britain’s great “pre-Wren” churches “were seized from Rome.” It seems likely that Black has read a good deal of the revisionist historical writings of G.K. Chesterton’s friend, Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953).

Or perhaps not.

In Rise to Greatness Elizabeth I is said to be “the greatest monarch in British history.” Her elder sister, Queen Mary, “conducted a vengeful sectarian persecution.” These are strikingly out-of-date judgments in light of Eamon Duffy’s Fires of Faith: Catholic England under Mary Tudor (Yale University Press, 2009), among many other newer histories of the Reformation. Out of date because Duffy and others have now largely vindicated, by means of dogged research, the interpretations of Belloc (and others, like Disraeli) in debunking the Reformation myths of Britain’s usurping Protestant ascendancy. 

Black writes in Rise to Greatness that Canada’s fourth prime minister, Sir John Sparrow David Thompson (1845-1894), was not “a theologically complicated convert like Cardinal Newman and the other leaders of the Oxford Movement who rallied to Rome” (p. 385) because, he implies, Thompson allegedly converted for his wife’s sake. 

Yet P.B. Waite’s biography, The Man from Halifax (1985), discloses Thompson’s affinity for Archbishop Connolly who, like Newman, was an Inopportunist on the question of papal infallibility at the First Vatican Council. That’s not complicated enough for Lord Black? “Nor was Thompson’s conversion sudden,” Waite goes on, quoting Thompson on “reading all the controversy I could get my hands on” (pp. 21-2). Thompson’s “favourite character in history was Sir Thomas More. ... He was not seeking a church but the church,” etc. It would seem that like other intellectual converts Thompson, in part, read himself into the Church.

Another noteworthy convert was Thompson’s younger contemporary, Sir Joseph Pope (1854-1926). Pope was Macdonald’s private secretary for nine years and for 30 years the Assistant Clerk to the Privy Council and Under Secretary of State. He was the son of Father of Confederation W.H. Pope, married a Taschereau, and became the father of Lt. Gen. Maurice Pope (seen on p. 41 of this issue). Sir Joseph published privately a 120-page memoir of his conversion in 1921, reproduced in 2001 by Ignatius Press as Why I Became a Catholic. He is mentioned in passing in Rise to Greatness but with no hint of his complexity as a former Anglican in high office.

Some readers may mildly object to Black’s account of what he calls the “absurd” Guibord Affair of 1869-75, when the Catholic bishop of Montreal refused to bury an “unrepentant” excommunicate anti-Catholic, Joseph Guibord, in the Catholic cemetery. Ultimately the Law Lords in London ruled, usurping the bishop’s authority and ordering the burial. The government deployed the military to force the gates. It was the 19th century’s most notorious example of the secular power trampling on the rights of the Catholic Church. In Rise to Greatness, Black sides entirely with the state and says it was the clergy who were “extreme.” 

Originally published in  Vol. 4 No. 2 (Autumn-Winter 2014), pp. 55-60.

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