by Edith Cody-Rice
In my youth, there existed a pervasive impression that Canadian history was boring. But then, we didn’t study much of it. At the end of high school, I knew much more about British history than Canadian and what I did know stopped before World War I.
A few brave Canadian writers have put paid to that wholly mistaken impression: Pierre Berton, Charlotte Gray, Tim Cook, Roy McGregor and a handful of others have taught and are teaching us that Canadian history is not only interesting but fascinating and absorbing. Given the number of adventurers, drunks, gamblers, womanizers and generally weird characters who dot this country’s history, Canadians should be surprised and grateful that we still have a functioning democracy. I describe these authors as brave because, notwithstanding our exotic history, it is very difficult for writers of Canadian history to eke out a best seller in their own country.
Mark Bourrie is one of the current crop of excellent authors who devotes his time to telling us about our past. A journalist, university professor and lawyer, he wrote Bush Runner, the fascinating tale of Pierre-Esprit Radisson a name briefly mentioned in history books along with that of his brother-in-law Groseilliers. In Bush Runner, Mr. Bourrie delves into Radisson’s diaries and his life to reveal a multi talented fur trader who became an Iroquois warrior, understood the many different indigenous tribes with which he traded and led a life of adventure, narrow escapes and high stakes ventures such as the Hudson Bay Company, which he cofounded with his brother-in-law and British financiers.
In his new, just published book Big Men Fear Me, Mr. Bourrie takes on the subject of George McCullagh, a modern dynamo largely erased from Ontario history but who was a very important figure in mid twentieth century Canada. Raised in London Ontario in poverty, George McCullagh attained great wealth by investing in mining during the depression and used that wealth, along with his connection to fellow horse lover and wealthy gold prospector William Wright to buy first, the Globe, then the Mail and Empire to fuse them into the Globe and Mail. This platform, along with his personal wealth, gave Mr. McCullagh enormous political clout and he hobnobbed, advised, and criticized the governments of Mitch Hepburn (Ontario) and McKenzie King (federal), using his editorial pages to shape public opinion. But George McCullagh had a secret. He was bipolar (so Mr. Bourrie assumes from evidence of Mr. McCullagh’s conduct) in a mid twentieth century world that could accept alcoholics, as Mr. McCullagh allowed people to believe he was, but could not countenance mental illness.
In the course of telling his tale, Mr. Bourrie guides us through a fascinating era in Ontario and federal politics before, during and after World War II. His meticulous research allows him to quote from McKenzie King’s diaries of the period. People surrounding Mr. McCullagh knew that his health was fragile, but they did not know the cause. Although lacking a deep formal education himself, George McCullagh was able to spot talent and hired good journalists to make the Globe the trusted national news source that it is today. He was a man of contradictions, generous to his employees, but resistant to the idea of increasing worker rights. He was thought to be in thrall to the mine owners who had made him rich and who desperately tried to keep unions out of their mines, and Mitch Hepburn and George Drew were assumed to be in thrall to him. He was seen as the puppet master of these important politicians.
This is the rich and fascinating story of a largely forgotten Canadian public figure. George McCullough has handsome, dynamic, generous and blessed with excellent social skills but after a stunningly successful career in both publishing and sport, he committed suicide at the age of 47. As Mr. Bourrie writes, “The stigma of his death is one of the reasons you’ve probably never heard of him.” His name was removed from the masthead of the newspapers he owned and his picture was taken down from the wall of the Globe and Mail’s board room. His papers were burned by his angry and bitter widow making writing a definitive biography of this media star difficult. Mark Bourrie sets out to correct this glaring omission in our history and he succeeds. Nineteen years in the making, this account is an excellent read in itself, but also illuminates the political history of the province of Ontario and of Canada and the machinations of both competing newspapers (his main competitor being the Toronto Star) and political masters of the day.
Mark Bourrie will be at Mill Street Books in Almonte between 11 am and 1 pm on Saturday, November 19 to sign copies of his book.