A Short History of Canada


295 pages
Contains Index
ISBN 0-88830-253-3





Reviewed by Andrew E. West

Andrew E. West was a librarian at St. Michael's College, University of Toronto.


Desmond Morton, historian and professor at the University of Toronto’s Erindale Campus, has written a short, concise, and at times humourous history of Canada. In the Foreword he writes that “Canadians believe that their history is short, boring and irrelevant. They are wrong on all counts.” And with clarity and the knowledge of his subject he proceeds to prove how wrong is that assumption.

This book is divided into five sections, each consisting of four or five chapters. Chapter one does not begin where one would most expect it to, with Cartier and Champlain, but rather with the chapter “New Nation,” in which Morton writes, “At midnight on July 1, 1867, church bells rang out from Lunenburg to Sarnia...July 1, 1867, was a time of hope and fresh beginnings. In fact, Confederation had not broken with the past. Unlike the American revolutionaries, who deliberately concealed their borrowings from colonial tradition, the Fathers of Confederation built deliberately, pragmatically, and cautiously from their own historical experience. They and their critics carried their memories intact across the narrow divide of the first Dominion Day. The history of Canada as a single transcontinental nation begins from that day. The histories of Canada had begun long before.” This then sets the stage for what follows in “A Mari usque ad Marem”; “The Century of Canada”; “Middle Age, Middle Power”; and the last section, “A Country Shared.”

This is a short history consisting of only 283 pages, the first 106 of which are devoted to the pre-Confederation period. But in spite of the apparent brevity, Morton covers the history with a conciseness and clarity that give the reader a grasp of the essential political, social, and economic events and conditions that led to Confederation.

The chapters in Section III, “The Century of Canada,” are concerned with the first forty years of this century and the tremendous changes brought about by World War I and the Great Depression. One sign of a nation’s maturation is the growth of bureaucracy, and here Morton writes with a sense of humour; in the year 1909, “A tiny Department of External Affairs opened over an Ottawa barber shop. Its task was to cope with what Laurier never quite managed, systematic replies to the relentless flow of British memoranda on diplomacy, defence, shipping, and utter esoterica.”

The premiership of Mackenzie King, World War II, and the post-war period are dealt with in Part IV, “Middle Age, Middle Power.” The final section, “A Country Shared” brings us to the Trudeau years, and here in thirty pages, Morton touches on the major events of the past twenty years. Along with such domestic issues as bilingualism, separatism, oil, and the economy, there are also the wider issues of foreign policy and Canada’s place and involvement in the world community. Morton concludes his work by saying that “History tells Canadians only that they live in a tough old country with a habit of compromise and a gift for survival... They have mastered the self-restraint of democracy, learned to live in peace with each other, and, on the whole, adapted to an environment their ancestors considered harsh and unforgiving.”

Desmond Morton said he wrote this book to make it a little easier for Canadians to understand their country. He has succeeded.


Morton, Desmond, “A Short History of Canada,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed April 21, 2024, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/37628.