Tuesday, November 17, 2020

The New Dictionary of Canadian Biography

The Dictionary of National [i.e., British] Biography was first published in 1885, and was completed in 63 volumes in just fifteen years. They published quite a few updates and supplements during the twentieth century, and then went whole hog on the New DNB, starting in 1992. The intention of the new DNB was to completely replace the Victorian original and its updates with a whole new work. By the time the New DNB was complete in 2004 (60 volumes in print and online), it had changed its name to the Oxford DNB

At the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, going since 1966 and fifteen volumes in so far, the intention seems to be different. The aim there seems to be just one DCB in perpetuity, with a sort of continual rewriting of individual entries as historical knowledge changes.  

So recently the DCB published a new Pierre Radisson biography, with Radisson scholar Martin Fournier replacing American historical novelist Grace Lee Nute as the author. And last week the DCB released a new version of its entry on the Mi'kmaq leader Membertou:

Today we are pleased to announce a completely new entry for Membertou (d. 1611), Micmac (Mi’kmaq) chief, mainly known as the first chief of a First Nations community to be converted by Roman Catholic missionaries. After re-examining what is known about his life, however, one realizes that it cannot be limited to that single spiritual dimension.

You can still read earlier versions of the entry on Memberbou in the "Document History" section of the online DCB (though the earliest provided is a 1979 revision of the original). There one can still find original biographer Lucien Campeau's declaration, 

The fact that this Micmac sagamo was the first Indian to receive solemn baptism in New France remains his principal claim to distinction. 

For 2020 Stephanie Bereau revises that to: 

He is mainly regarded as the first chief of a First Nations community to be converted by Catholic missionaries. After examining what is known about his life, however, one realizes that it cannot be reduced to that single spiritual dimension. Membertou was indeed a sagamo whose personal and diplomatic qualities visibly impressed the French to the point that, on his death, he was accorded the honours reserved for men of high rank.

This still seems a Membertou as seen by the French rather more than a Membertou as his own community would have understood him. But it presumably means that rather than let the DCB gradually become entirely an artifact of the late twentieth century, its editors and contributors will be at work forever producing an eternally revising DCB for endless new generations of readers. 

Image: from the DCB.



Follow @CmedMoore