Monday, October 30, 2017

Prize watch: Chalmers Award to Wright

At the Champlain Society AGM on Saturday, the Chalmers Prize (best book in Ontario history) went to David Wright for Sick Kids, his history of Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children, a good book and a deserving winner. Wright, a historian at McGill, attended (despite Via Rail's attempts to keep him away) and gave a lively amusing little thank you talk.  The only note that jarred was his mention that he thought it was a good book even though it was a commissioned history. 

He has in fact written in compelling detail about various crises and scandals at the hospital, some of which continue to be painfully live issues, and of course he wrote about them with absolute freedom.  Which is something that ought to be celebrated and not apologized for. 

I chatted with him afterwards, and put it to him and some other historians present that lawyers and engineers and architects and many other professionals have no difficulty in accepting clients' money and nevertheless providing them with objective and detached professional opinions, and that academic historians need to grow up a little and accept the same principle.  I'm not uninterested here, having written a few commissioned histories in my time.  But it's always good to assert that the principal threat to the integrity of a commissioned history is the willingness of the commissioned historian to toady. And academically-employed historians have not always been heroic in writing objectively about their own institutions

The Champlain Society book for this year is David Sutherland's We Harbor No Evil Design, an edited collection of documents about relations between the Halifax Relief Commission and those it served in the wake of the 1917 Explosion.  Sutherland presented the work of the book nicely through the case of perhaps the most famous victim of the Explosion, the Heritage Minute telegrapher Vince Coleman. Coleman left a widow and four children in a demolished house; their experiences dealing with the Relief Commission over many years are not precisely typical but provide a vivid example of what transpired. 

If you were a member of the Champlain Society like you oughta be, you would already have the volume in hand and could look up all the details at page 129ff, as I just did.
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