________________ CM . . . . Volume XX Number 15. . . .December 13, 2013


Canadian Folk: Portraits of Remarkable Lives.

Peter Unwin.
Toronto, ON: Dundurn, 2013.
226 pp., trade pbk., pdf & epub, $21.99 (pbk.), $21.99 (pdf), $11.99 (epub).
ISBN 978-1-4597-1027-6 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-4597-1028-3 (pdf), ISBN 978-1-4597-1029-0 (epub).

Subject Headings:

Grades 9-12 / Ages 14-17.

Review by Val Ken Lem.

**1/2 /4



By the 1930s, it was reluctantly conceded that Native populations in Canada were increasing rapidly both on and off the reserve and had been for some time. With this finding, “the vanishing race” assumption of the previous century was laid to rest. With it was also exposed the perplexing difficulty posed by the legacy of Paul Kane. As late as the 1970s, commentators still praised his work as “an ethnographically rich series of paintings of Indians from a day when their culture was still comparatively pure.” Kane sometimes requested his subjects dress in more “authentic” garments. In this demand for purity, white observers denied what is perhaps the greatest achievement of First Nations’ culture: the ability to change and negotiate, to choose and adapt, to transform, incorporate, improvise, to withstand famine, ice, smallpox, tuberculosis, residential schools, even Hollywood. It denies their right to move to the next stage of history.


Peter Unwin is a talented storyteller with a dry sense of humour who makes history interesting. In this collection consisting of 20 chapters, he introduces historical figures who were active in many fields of endeavour including literature (John Richardson, Pauline Johnson, and the poet of cheese James McIntyre), visual art (Paul Kane and Robert Markle), business (J.R. Booth), conservation (Jack Miner and Grey Owl) and sport (Tom Longboat, and the history of lacrosse). In addition to biographical essays, he includes a few essays on topics such as the history of duelling in Canada, the history of trees, the death of Jumbo the elephant in St. Thomas, ON, and the sinking of the Mayflower in 1912. To his credit, Unwin avoids hagiography; he relishes controversy and helps to burst the myths that surround some of the subjects. This is very obvious in the essay on Jack Miner who is regarded as a leading conservationist yet whose actions often contradict such a label. Similarly, Grey Owl, born Archibald Furmage (later Belaney) who portrayed himself as a Native North American and conservationist is also shown to have led a somewhat un-admirable life, especially with regards to his relations with women. In balance, Unwin highlights Grey Owl’s accomplishments as a writer, lecturer and conservationist.

     The excerpt above from a biography of Paul Kane illustrates Unwin’s desire to expose as racist attitudes and opinions expressed by the subject and his contemporaries. He is unafraid of making his own biases clear, as in his critical tone surrounding J.R. Booth’s lumbering empire that saw the decimation of the virgin pine forests of Ontario during one man’s lifetime. Even in this account, Unwin demonstrates the humanity of his subject. Unfortunately, he does not include any formal footnotes, endnotes or sources for further reading. This will frustrate readers wanting to explore the topics more fully. Perhaps one reason for not doing this was to hide the fact that many of the chapters have previously been published in a different form in the popular historical magazine The Beaver (now called Canada’s History). The magazine versions typically include bibliographical notes and relevant images that are also absent from the present work.

     There are a number of factual errors that this reader noted that should have been caught by good fact-checking editors. Unwin identifies John Richardson’s novel Ecarté, published in 1829, as being likely the first novel published by a Canadian-born author. In fact, it is Julia C.B. Hart’s St. Ursula’s Convent, or, The Nun of Canada, published in Kingston, Upper Canada, in 1824 that is regarded as the first Canadian novel. He refers to a Paul Kane painting at the Art Gallery of Ontario by the title Indian Encampment at Georgian Bay. The AGO’s website gives this work the title Indian Encampment on Lake Huron. More obvious errors are his statement that the sinking of the Mayflower on Lake Kamaniskeg in Ontario that claimed nine lives “remains the largest inland marine disaster in Canadian history.” The loss of the Edmund Fitzgerald on Lake Superior in 1975 claimed 29 lives. Another glaring error is the reference to Leslie Frost, who wrote a preface to Selwyn Dewdney’s Indian Rock Paintings of the Great Lakes as the prime minister of Canada. In fact, Frost was the premier or first minister of Ontario from 1949-1961 and certainly not a head of state. Dewdney’s book identifies Frost correctly.

     Canadian Folk is currently being marketed by the Toronto Star alongside other works of popular Canadian and local history. It is most suited to recreational readers interested in short biographies of some of the colourful Canadians of the past. The publisher emphasizes the quirky content with its “fresh look at the saints, sinners, oddballs, and outright nutbars who have populated the Canadian landscape.”

     Despite the entertaining read that most of the chapters allow, the abundant errors of fact and lack of scholarly features earn this work at best a recommendation with reservations. The book is most suited to public libraries.

Recommended with reservations.

Val Ken Lem is the liaison librarian for History, English and Caribbean Studies at Ryerson University in Toronto, ON.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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