Review: The Encyclopedia of Manitoba

The Encyclopedia of Manitoba

all the power of those rivers (200 years of floods) in contrast to the placid plains, and always glancing over one’s shoulder to the looming presence of Hudson Bay and the granitic Shield.

Managing Editor Ingeborg Boyens

Great Plains Publications

With this marvelous new creation Manitoba takes its place, along with Newfoundland and Labrador, British Columbia and Saskatchewan, as a province with its own encyclopedia. While the old door-to-door marketing and educational prestige of encyclopedias are things of the past, the idea of “all the knowledge” inherent in that magic word “encyclopedia” still carries a certain magic. What indeed is the World Wide Web but “all the knowledge” hyperlinked together? These days, we are bound to ask why this encyclopedia is a book and not a web site. A book is expensive to produce, limits content and is unsearchable, but, economic imperatives aside, the reference book still excels as a medium of communication. That very heft (814 pages) carries import—this is an important subject! There is a clarity of organization, an ease of reading, an enjoyable splash of colour, but above all there is a “browsability” that the web cannot duplicate, a serendipity and adventure of discovery. Take for example alighting on the entry on the writer (our “greatest novelist”) Margaret Laurence, and following the alphabetical bread crumbs to singer Daniel Lavoie, hockey player Reggie “The Rifle” Leach, Leafhopper, journalist “Uncle Vince” Leah, experimental artist Winston Leathers, Leech, Legal Aid and Legislative Building (“on the short list of CBC’s Seven Wonders”). How can you not follow your curiosity?

A second obvious question is why a provincial encyclopedia? What is specifically Manitoba? Well this is the point. It is a question of identity and we Canadians are such a modest (or unimaginative if you prefer) group that we dare not speak proudly of some of us for fear of offending others of us. It is better to show ourselves and an encyclopedia does that nicely, and it can cover all the caveats in the way that a single narrative cannot. The impression offered by this encyclopedia is that Manitoba (so-called because Louis Riel did not like the sound of Assiniboia) is a remarkable place and that the people of Manitoba are remarkably diverse and accomplished.

For the reader’s information, the article format of this encyclopedia lies somewhere between the more concise (the BC encyclopedia) and the lengthy (the Saskatchewan encyclopedia). This perhaps leaves out topics that might have been covered, but has the advantage of allowing the writers more room to breathe (in their enthusiasm—and one can sense the passion here—they always exceed their word allotments) and there is a real enjoyment in reading this encyclopedia. An ant is “a small insect that would hardly be noticeable were it not for its remarkable abundance.” “Weather, in MB, is often a topic of conversation, varies from hour to hour, from day to day and from season to season.” Thomas Scott was “the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

It is fun to see another encyclopedist deal with the sometimes annoying interest Canadians have in claiming provenance for anyone who has had a cup of coffee amongst us. Understandable are biographies of Kenny Ploen and Leo Lewis, both born in Iowa, who are icons of Manitoba sports. Marshall MacLuhan at least went to high school in Winnipeg and Bif Naked, born in India, joined a band named Jungle Milk in Winnipeg at age 13. Cartoonist Lynn Johnston, partially of Lynn Lake, does not make it. But Deanna Durbin who left Winnipeg at the age of 1! Then there is that bear, Winnie, of whom Manitobans seem inordinately proud.

The history of Manitoba is very thoroughly covered here with the BCATP, a thoughtful general essay by Gerald Friesen, the fur trade and Hudson’s Bay Company, Red River, Seven Oaks, the Strike, a clear explanation of the dreaded “Schools Question,” the railways and historical backgrounds to all the places. Fittingly for the lofty goals of objectivity and authority, these articles avoid controversy. The Citizens’ Committee were “thugs or patriots,” depending on one’s point of view. There is a fine essay on First Nations, articles on all the major Aboriginal groups, and biographies of Aboriginal leaders such as Phil Fontaine, Aboriginal artists such as Jackson Beardy (dead at age 40), Canada’s most decorated Aboriginal soldier Tommy Prince, as well as less well-known figures such as Jacob Berens, whose Native name means “Light Moving in the Centre of the Sky.” The balanced entry on that most heartrending of subjects, residential schools, is laudably co-authored with and elder.

There is a strong impression of the importance of the arts in Manitoba, with entries on theatre, literature and dance and the visual arts and music and biographies of a galaxy of creators and performers, including Burton Cummings (“American Woman”), Lemoine Fitzgerald (who rarely left Winnipeg), architect Etienne-Joseph Gaboury, Icelandic poet Gutti Guttormsson, Evelyn Hart, Dorothy Livesay, Miriam Toews and many more. It is a delight also to uncover alternate artistic forms, such as Gladys Balsille, “queen of the strippers.”

In scanning the encyclopedia for a sense of the province, two other impressions emerge. One is geography: all the power of those rivers (200 years of floods) in contrast to the placid plains, and always glancing over one’s shoulder to the looming presence of Hudson Bay and the granitic Shield. There is ample coverage of the flora and fauna (the last wild bison, pursued by hunters, “escaped” into Saskatchewan in 1861), often accompanied by sad warnings for the future (polar bears, the monarch butterfly). Inevitably, there is virtually a mini-encyclopedia on Winnipeg, with 34 articles with that name in the title, but one can sense a real attempt by the editors to attend to the “periphery” of disappearing towns, right down to ghost towns. The second impression of the province is of course the diversity of the people and the strong multicultural demography, with articles on all the major groups from Blacks, Chinese, Filipinos (the 5th most common mother tongue), Icelanders, Jews, Mennonites, Poles, Sikhs, to Ukrainians, etc.

However comprehensive the variety of subjects covered in an encyclopedia, attention predictably turns to biography and the Manitoba Encyclopedia contains a strong cast of characters. There are the premiers and lieutenant governors of course. One is struck by the successful families, the Aspers (Izzy was born in Minnedosa), the two Axworthy boys, the Bronfmans (whose patriarch Ekiel was an unsuccessful wheat farmer before going into the hotel business), the Patricks and the Richardsons. There are VC winners Andrew Mynarski and Billy Barker, brilliant and eccentric guitarist Lenny Breau, writer Tomson Highway, confidence man Lord Gordon (real name unknown), cult figure and filmmaker Guy Madden, Louis Riel (a major biography by J.M. Bumstead written with his usual clarity), chess master Abe Yanofsky, and Canada’s greatest Olympian Cindy Klassen.

There is ample ore here for the trivia buff: the world’s second helicopter (design unfortunately never registered and opportunity lost—now that is a Canadian theme!), Bill Mosienko’s astonishing 3 goals in 21 seconds, Sir Arthur Meighen as Manitoba’s only prime minister, Gerry James as the only athlete to play in the Stanley Cup and Grey Cup finals in one year.

Lastly, there is some regional anger here to supplement the “coming-of-age” pride, notably in the bitter memories of the relocation to the East of Trans-Canada Airlines and the CF-18 scandal, a “defining and nation-changing event in Canadian politics.”

The encyclopedia is well illustrated, contains a useful index and 13 pages of references to other books. It is not only a considerable contribution to the mind and identity of the province but a strong chapter in the story of Canada itself.

James Marsh is editor in chief of The Canadian Encyclopedia

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