Monday, May 08, 2023

Obituary: Mathews, Reid, McKenna RIP

Brian McKenna, historical filmmaker

Haven't done any obits for historians for a while, but time catches up on us all eventually, and suddenly there's a few. These three are all more "adjacents" that straight-up historians, but still...

Robin Mathews (1931-2023) was an English prof, poet, playwright, and theatrical impresario, but he's historical for his campaigns in the 1960s and 1970s for "the Canadianization movement" -- the idea that there should be some preference for Canadian academics in Canadian universities, rather than just having American deans hiring all their American proteges to come up north for a while. "He was a distinctive Canadian icon and is regarded as a Canadian nationalist par excellence," says his obituary, which rather suggests his heyday passed quite a while ago, doesn't it. Tant pis.

Dennis Reid (1943-2023), starting about the same time as Robin Mathews, was a great and pioneering historian of Canadian art at the National Gallery and the Art Gallery of Ontario, and later taught art history at the University of Toronto. The catalogue he produced for the fiftieth anniversary exhibition of the Group of Seven remains a standard reference, as does his Concise History of Canadian Painting, never out of print since 1973. His 1984 AGO exhibition "From the Four Quarters: Native and European Art in Ontario, 5000 BC to 1867 AD" was "the first time two artistic traditions, Native and European, can be seen integrating and influencing one another."

Brian McKenna (c1945-2023) is the only one of these I knew personally (a little). He was a longtime CBC documentary producer based in Montreal, and made many investigative programs for The Fifth Estate and other series. He was perhaps most committed to the big, elegantly-filmed historical documentaries he made on moments in Canadian history. Of those, the most remembered is surely "The Valour and the Horror" from 1992, a three-part series on Canadians in the Second World War that was seriously hated by many prominent veterans of that war, many Canadian Senators, and too many of the country's military historians, who formed common cause in what I thought was a disgraceful attempt to have the film permanently erased from memory. He confronted that attack gracefully and rather successfully: in 2007 he received the Pierre Berton Award in Popular History.

I wrote one of my early columns for The Beaver, now Canada's History, in defence of McKenna and his team and "The Valour and The Horror," and actually got one academic to say, "Well, these artsy-craftsy types get very concerned with their freedom of speech...," which I thought pretty much typified the quality of the opposition to the film. McKenna got in touch, and we talked a time or two in Montreal about some of his pending historical film projects.  I admired him greatly, but I think what we mostly learned from some thoughts I drafted for him was that I don't seem to think like a film maker.

Photo: Montreal Gazette

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