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Ottawa at war: the Grant Dexter Memoranda, 1939-1945.

Frederick Gibson and Barbara Robertson, eds., Ottawa at War: The Grant Dexter Memoranda 1939-1945, Winnipeg: The Manitoba Record Society Publications, Vol. XI, 1994. Pp. xxviii, 513. ISBN 0-9692101-4-0.

Let us be honest right at the beginning. Some 25 years ago, I asked Alice Dexter if I could publish a collection of the superb wartime memoranda her husband sent from Ottawa to John W. Dafoe and George V. Ferguson at the Winnipeg Free Press. She agreed, and the University of Toronto Press undertook to do the book. I spent a summer getting material ready, and then received a telephone call from an excruciatingly embarrassed Mrs Dexter. Prof. Fred Gibson, the historian who had acquired the Dexter Papers for the Queen's University Archives, had reminded her that years ago she had agreed that he could do a book on the wartime memoranda; as a result, I was out and Gibson was in. I arranged to see Gibson, but he was senior, I was junior, and he bluffed me out of my shoes. I then turned elsewhere in my work, and Gibson promptly closed the papers to researchers without his permission. Permission was often hard to get, and I know of at least one scholar who had to get Mrs Dexter to intervene on his behalf. For my part, I quite deliberately loaned my large collection of Dexter Papers to everyone who wanted them.

Worse still, as I discovered a few years ago when I last looked at the Papers at Queen's, Gibson had taken boxes of material from the collection and kept them in his cellar. The collection at the Archives, in other words, was incomplete, some very important material simply unavailable to any researchers. The Archives staff, very competent at running the best medium-size archives in the country, were embarrassed. They had clearly believed the collection was intact, and Gibson, the man who built the Archives into the great repository it is, could not really be challenged by any of the staff who might have had suspicions. I think now, and have thought for a quarter century, that the fate of the Dexter memoranda was an academic scandal. Fred Gibson was a great teacher by every report, but this little affair was not one of the bright spots in his long career. Certainly, no one could ever accuse him of being quick to publish.

That I remember all this and that I continue to feel so strongly about it, is a testimony to the extraordinary value of the Dexter memoranda. I first saw some of them in the Dafoe Papers in 1961 when I was doing by MA, and the inside dope from an array of sources instantly impressed, captivated, and titillated me. I was writing on the wartime Conservative Party, and Dexter's largely bureaucratic and Grit informants were not necessarily the best source of information on the Tories; nonetheless, there was little that I could see then or now that was incorrect. Grant Dexter was clearly the recipient of leaks from everyone -- from Manitoba minister Tom Crerar, from Defence ministers Ralston, Macdonald, and Power, from bureaucrats like Pearson, Wrong, Clark, Alex Skelton, and Mackintosh, and from apparatchiks in all of the political parties. He understood the bureaucracy, he knew enough economics to make sense of the key financial questions, and his prewar posting for the Free Press in England had exposed him to foreign policy. The one gap in his understanding was Quebec, a shortcoming that probably afflicted most English Canadians in that wartime era.

Given the centrality of conscription as the issue of importance, however, that gap was a critical one. There was scant sympathy for Quebec in Dexter's memoranda (or in his reporting from Ottawa), and almost no understanding of just why French Canadians might have been loathe to volunteer for an overseas war. He can even tell Dafoe and Ferguson that the army didn't want French Canadians, that there was nothing to be done with them -- and not even offer the thought that such attitudes might help keep French-speaking volunteers out of the army. Ordinarily Liberal and liberal, Dexter's view was narrow and insular in at least one area.

Nor was he -- like almost all his sources -- very sympathetic to Mackenzie King. The Prime Minister almost invariably appears in these memoranda as shifty and devious, a sly old fox who manoeuvres around issues and men without scruples. That view of King was common among Dexter's contemporaries, and thanks to the Dexter memoranda (among other sources) it is shared by most historians. That it may not be right, that King might have had some principles beyond staying in office for its own sake, scarcely crosses Dexter's mind. We can excuse him for his blindness -- living close to King, he quotes Senator Lambert, was like living close to some filthy object! Dexter adds Lambert's closing comment -- stand off a ways, however, and King looks better and better -- but he clearly does not believe it. Still and all and without question, the Dexter memoranda are one of the very best sources on wartime Canada, a treasure trove of usually reliable gossip and inside information.

The foreword to this book by University of Manitoba historian Barry Ferguson, while generally clear and sensible, offers one comment that deserves a word. Ferguson suggests that Dexter's memoranda make clear that everything did not run smoothly in wartime Canada, that "policy options were debated amidst consideration [sic] uncertainty. The sense of inevitability conveyed by the recent utterly contradicted by Dexter's version." Curiously, this seems to surprise Ferguson. Of course, there was debate and uncertainty -- the problems confronting the government and country during the war were horrendous, and any government of men is sure to have different and competing viewpoints. Dexter reported brilliantly on these currents. But the task of a historian, using Dexter's memoranda and a myriad of other sources, is to make order out of the chaos of contemporary opinion, policies, and personality clashes. The historian stands back, surveys the tumult, and then attempts to create coherence. Good history, of course, outlines the debate, but if it simply reproduced it, it would be worthless. Dexter was a journalist (though one with a good historical sense), and his task was different than that of the scholar. Barry Ferguson is a very good historian as his own work clearly demonstrates. It is odd that he would misrepresent what he and his contemporaries do and how they do it.

J.L. Granatstein

York University
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Publication:Manitoba History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1996
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