Conrad Black is either so arrogant and ignorant that he considers the opinions of others totally beneath him, or he simply likes to fight so much that he deliberately tries to be as politically incorrect as possible.
He is all of this in his recent book, Rise to Greatness: The History of Canada from the Vikings to the present.
The title is completely misleading. This cannot be a history of Canada when it barely includes First Nations. When it does, Black is mostly negative and dismissive.
I thought we stopped publishing history books which ignored the contributions of indigenous people. And texts that called any battle that was won by the Indians a massacre and any won by the whites a great victory.
First Nations are mostly relegated to three of the early pages of Black's 1,000 page tome (other references to native people are minimal; Big Bear is named, Elijah Harper gets a sentence and Phil Fontaine is completely ignored).
Louis Riel receives more attention but, like the indigenous people who occupy those three pages, it would be better if Black excluded him entirely. His treatment of First Nations is so insulting and condescending and inaccurate, I am surprised there hasn’t been a major uproar.
Black describes indigenous religion as “superstition”. He claims their environmental practices consisted of “chasing away all the wildlife” or “fishing out” the lakes and rivers.
Indigenous women were promiscuous to the extreme and Indians were untrustworthy (according to Black, they were the ones who didn’t honour treaties).
Black makes broad accusations and sweeping conclusions as if he were there to provide a first-hand account, and he is so cocksure of everything that he writes it like fact.
Black concludes that “The Indians were splendid woodsmen and craftsmen but they were a stone age culture that had not discovered the wheel” and “Indian society was not in itself worthy of integral conservation, nor was its dilution a suitable subject for great lamentation."
It is conclusions like those that will provide readers with an indication of where this arrogant, ignorant snob is coming from.
Modern society has discredited Eurocentric historians who dismiss native culture and contributions out of hand. Yet Black can write like a dinosaur and seemingly get away with it.
Well, not here.
Connie, it’s not like the native peoples of northern North America were just sitting on the sidelines watching as explorers arrived and settlers began to farm and the business and political elite began to carve up their lands.
History books can be somewhat subjective but they must have a certain level of accuracy to gain credibility.
The absurdity of Black’s statements about “Indians” in those initial three pages are enough to make a conscientious reader put the book down right then and there.
How can you believe anything Black adds when he is so far off the mark with this most important element of our past?
We all know the most basic, simple stories of how the first settlers were saved by Indians who taught them how to survive Canada’s cold winters and ward off diseases like scurvy by drinking tea made from boiling the leaves of Eastern White Cedar trees when the citrus fruit ran out.
And how our country’s very name came from the Indian word “Kanata” which means “the village”. Black doesn’t even acknowledge this.
There is so much more that First Nations have contributed to the development (or history) of Canada than is generally known and any modern book which purports in its title to be a history of Canada must include more than three pages, especially since Black’s latest tree waste runs over a thousand leaves.
Black confines the contribution made by Indian tribes to their role as allies in the colonial wars.
He goes on to ignore the contributions made by the “caretakers of mother earth” in both World Wars but then again, he credits the political elite he is so fascinated with for shaping Canada as a country achieving international recognition as a distinct entity from England despite the fact this was more due to the acts of soldiers on the front lines who fought so fiercely and sacrificed so much in the uniform of our country.
Readers must constantly endure an overly long account of the political elite who are of most interest to oblivious aristocrats like Black.
“Lords” like Black just cannot seem to see beneath their supposed stature in politics and business. This makes for a most incomplete historical text.
And it is most likely why he ignores the indigenous social, cultural, spiritual and economic models which have helped to shape Canada.
Metis leader Louis Riel pretty much wrote the Manitoba Act, yet Black dismisses his contributions as “concerns”. Black labels the Metis leader as a demented, fallen Roman Catholic (without mentioning Riel’s sincerity in his faith which contributed substantially to his downfall on the battlefield and his refusal to consider the insanity plea his defence lawyers tried to save him with in the court room).
Instead, Black accuses Riel of trying to sell out the Rebellion which bears his name for a "sizeable payout".
We have developed the practice of conflict resolution from Indian sharing circles, many of our sustainable environmental practices are drawn from native cultures, the list goes on and on.
And whether or not you agree with Treaties and inherent indigenous rights, they have had, and will continue to have, a major influence on the development of our shared history and cannot be ignored (especially not as much as Black has).
Black does not even mention the foods and medicines or the many other contributions First Nations people have made.
Corn wasn’t just sitting there in its present form ready to pick and potatoes weren’t lying around ready to plant. It took science to develop the kinds of vegetables that were shared with the newcomers, just as it did to develop the cure for scurvy and drugs like aspirin (indigenous people knew about grafting and selective cultivation, medicine and dosages and so on).
Conrad Black is from a wealthy family and he is famous. His book will sell well because of his name and stature. It
may become required reading in some university courses.
Black has written a book about his favourite things that he also believes were most responsible for building this country. When he tries to pass off his book as some form of general history text that not only ignores, but gets the contributions made by an important founding nation completely wrong, it is a shame.
No, it is a disgrace.
Black comes from exclusive company. The book he wrote is definitely not inclusive, despite its title.
Don Marks is a Winnipeg writer and the editor of Grassroots News.