Inventing the Loyalists: The Ontario Loyalist Tradition and the Creation of Usable Pasts


244 pages
Contains Photos, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-8020-7913-X
DDC 971.3




Reviewed by Terry A. Crowley

Terry A. Crowley is a professor of history at the University of Guelph,
and the author of Agnes Macphail and the Politics of Equality.


Voltaire’s definition of history as the bag of tricks that we play on
the dead was a cynical way of saying that history is a process through
which we re-create ourselves. In a book that examines the Ontario
Loyalist tradition from 1784 to 1918, University of Calgary historian
Norman Knowles attempts to illustrate the way in which Western societies
have employed the past for their own purposes. Knowles analyzes the
commemoration of Loyalism in print, celebrations, and monuments to show
how women and Native peoples dissented from the appropriation of the
past by white, largely professional, males.

Beginning with a discussion of Loyalist settlement following the
American revolution, Knowles documents how Loyalism gained significance
as a historical phenomenon after the middle of the 19th century. In
1896, an United Empire Loyalist Association was formed in Ontario, and
another was formed in Nova Scotia the following year. Sections devoted
to Laura Secord and Joseph Brant are sure to enlighten anyone interested
in those Ontario Loyalist icons.

Unfortunately, the book’s overall presentation is marred by
conceptual problems. The simpler ideas of the professional and clerical
middle classes promoting an interest in the Loyalists are juxtaposed
with the supposed superior “reality” that the author tries to
outline as the actual Loyalist experience after 1784. In attempting to
explain why Loyalism captured increasing attention among small groups,
he invokes an outdated American explanation of a displaced elite rather
than viewing these Ontarians as living in a rapidly changing world in
which other countries were engaged in similar exercises.

The concept of “usable past” is itself as problematic as the idea
of “invented tradition” when it is applied to the few who promote
history in any way. The past is always dead except as it lives on in the
minds of people like Norman Knowles. Would that he had extended his
analysis to the academic Loyalist industry created by university
scholars. We might then have understood more fully why the province’s
1984 bicentennial celebration fizzled in contrast to that of a century
before. History might well have been revealed as a bag of tricks played
on the living as well as the dead.


Knowles, Norman., “Inventing the Loyalists: The Ontario Loyalist Tradition and the Creation of Usable Pasts,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 20, 2024,