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Bliss, Michael

Toronto. McClelland and Stewart, 1987, 640pp, cloth, $39.95. ISBN 0-7710-1577-1. CIP

Grades 10 and up
Reviewed by David Chadwick

Volume 15 Number 5
1987 November

This ambitious book chronicles the history of business development in Canada beginning with commercial fishing off the Atlantic Coast in the late 15th century. The underlying thesis could be summed up as saying that Canadian business ventures, from the fur trade, railroads, canals, manufacturing, energy developments, and beyond, were rarely if ever begun as national dreams, and became so mainly in myth.

Bliss takes special pride in attacking nationalist historians from A.R.M. Lower, Harold Innis, and Donald Creighton, to Pierre Berton. Despite the length (over 600 pages), Bliss often makes startling original claims for which he doesn't supply conclusive evidence. For instance he says that if the CPR had gone bankrupt during construction or if it had not been built until later the broad history of Western Canada development would not have been greatly different. Considering that almost all Western Canadian cities owe their origin to the CPR, that is a rather surprising theory. Certainly it needs some evidence beyond disappointing CPR traffic in the 1980ís to be convincing. Similarly his case against the National Policy could have been developed much more.

The other major controversial thesis of the book is that Canadian governments and businesses (particularly the former) have rarely understood the limitations of the Canadian market and resources and have forced growth with often tragic results. The National Energy Policy and the collapse of energy projects and companies are the most spectacular examples he uses of this.

Bliss devotes many pages to detailing other examples of large joint ventures that failed. Perhaps his most important conclusion is the warning that expectations of rising demand and prices for raw resources are unfounded.

The book is deliberately provocative as it attacks the record of such sacred cows as the Hudson's Bay Company. For the unique perspective alone it deserves a wide audience. As well, it is well written, lively, and surely the most appropiate business book of the year for high school libraries. Bliss won major awards for his previous books and is likely to repeat that record with this book.

David Chadwick, Winnipeg, Man.
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