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Review

Canada’s Entrepreneurs: From the Fur Trade to the 1929 Stock Market Crash: Portraits from the Dictionary of Canadian Biography.

By J. Andrew Ross, Andrew D. Smith

November 4, 2013

Review By Ted Binnema

The editors of Canada’s Entrepreneurs assembled this book to appeal to a wide variety of Canadian readers (including non-academics), to inspire instructors to incorporate more business history into their courses, and to showcase the Dictionary of Canadian Biography (DCB) (xxv). It is difficult to predict whether these goals will be met, but a review of Canada’s Entrepreneurs is essentially a review of the DCB, for Canada’s Entrepreneurs, aside from a nine-page introduction, consists of 61 biographies previously published (but here published without the detailed references) in the fifteen volumes of the DCB. In the preface to the volume, the general editors of the DCB boast that the DCB is “generally recognized as the most authoritative of all national biographies” (x). Perhaps it is more appropriate to quote someone without a vested interest in saying so. In his remarkable Champlain’s Dream (2008), the Pulitzer Prize winner, David Hackett Fischer stated that “by comparison with the first British Dictionary of National Biography, and the original Dictionary of American Biography, the DCB/DBC is superior in coverage, documentation, and quality of writing” (557).

Fischer’s qualified praise gets at the current strengths and the weaknesses of the DCB, and thus of Canada’s Entrepreneurs. The biographies published in Canada’s Entrepreneurs, like the biographies in the DCB — including the freely available online version — have undergone nothing more than very minor revisions since they were originally published in the DCB (although the biographies in Canada’s Entrepreneurs are supplemented by updated suggestions for further reading). While many — even many of the older ones — are still the best available short biographies, others have been superseded. Furthermore, because other national biographies are being updated, bold claims of the superiority of the DCB are growing less convincing over time. Readers might wonder whether this reality has influenced the choice of biographies. The most prominent representative of the Hudson’s Bay Company chosen for inclusion is John McLoughlin, not George Simpson—an odd choice unless you consider the publication of biographies of George Simpson that supersede his DCB entry. The original DCB was made possible by a bequest of a Toronto entrepreneur, and other entrepreneurs have added their gifts over the years. Perhaps gifts from other Canadian entrepreneurs or government departments will make possible its updating.

Readers of this journal may be interested to know that seven of the biographies (those on Maquinna, John McLoughlin, William Van Horne, Robert Dunsmuir, Fanny Bendixon, Francis Jones Barnard, and Chang Toy) have a primary or important connection to British Columbia. Each of these biographies, and many others, are, of course, also freely available online.

REFERENCES

Fischer, David Hackett. Champlain’s Dream (Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2008).

 

Canada’s Entrepreneurs: From the Fur Trade to the 1929 Stock Market Crash: Portraits from the Dictionary of Canadian Biography.
J. Andrew Ross and Andrew D. Smith, editors 
Toronto:  University of Toronto Press, 2011. 580 pages Illus. $39.95 paper