Interview with Alan Bowker, author of A Time Such as There Never Was Before

Interview with Alan Bowker, author of A Time Such as There Never Was Before

Posted on October 23 by Alan Bowker
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Alan Bowker worked for thirty-five years in Canada's foreign service, including serving as high commissioner to Guyana. He has a Ph.D. in Canadian history and has taught at Canada's Royal Military College. He is the editor of two collections of Leacock essays, On the Front Line of Life and Social Criticism. Today Alan answers some questions for us about his new book A Time Such as There Never Was Before.

How did you come up with the idea for this work?

Alan: For many years I have been fascinated by the period after the First World War – among the most tumultuous, exciting and significant in Canadian history. There is a story to be told which is full of drama, with interesting characters and many important events all going on at once, all interacting with each other, as millions of people struggled to adjust to bewildering change, cope with political, economic, and social upheaval, define their country and their communities, and find their place in a world turned upside down.

The war had, as one might expect, produced massive changes in Canada’s society, politics, and economy; but it was the postwar period that would determine which of these changes would be permanent, which only transitory, and what kind of Canada would move forward into the future. The war had strained relations between Canada’s founding peoples, between regions and classes, and it had called into question Canada’s religious and moral beliefs, its commitment to democracy, and its role as a nation in the British Empire. To these were added the myriad problems of reconstruction and reconciliation.

How could a young country faced with so many challenges survive and move forward, at a time when other multi-ethnic countries and empires had collapsed, when the United States was erupting in class and racial violence and lapsed into isolation, when Britain was wracked with industrial conflict, economic decline, and disillusionment? There has been extensive academic study of specific elements of the postwar in Canada, but it seemed to me important to look at the wide spectrum of issues across the whole country, to see how, together, they shaped the new Canada that emerged from the war.

Tell us a little about the overarching theme of your work, and why you felt compelled to explore it.

Alan: The war had been fought for civilization, God, and the British Empire and it was widely hoped that victory would make Canada a nation, ensure social progress, and usher in a new world of justice and peace in which all things would be possible.  The country was full of, vociferous demands, impossible expectations, and irrational fears. Indeed, wrote JW Dafoe of the Winnipeg Free Press, anyone charged with leading postwar Canada would have to “do things that cannot be done; things that are mutually contradictory and destructive; and whatever he does will have more critics than friends.”

The book describes how all these various themes played out in the months between the Armistice and the federal election of December 1921: the attainment of national status and a new role in the world; bringing the soldiers home and remembering the war; the great influenza epidemic; the impact of the war on religious belief; prohibition; the new role of women; labour unrest and the Winnipeg General Strike; the agrarian revolt and the rise of the Progressive Party; business, new industries, nationalized railways and utilities, economic collapse and recovery; and the growth of a national spirit and inclusive national narrative that aimed at reconciliation – though some, like racial minorities and First Nations, remained left out.

How did you come up with the title?

Alan: The title comes from a line in Stephen Leacock’s Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice, written in 1919 and published as a book in 1920. “This,” he wrote, “is a time such as there never was before.  It represents a vast social transformation in which there is at stake, and may be lost, all that has been gained in the slow centuries of material progress and in which there may be achieved some part of all that has been dreamed in the age-long passion for social justice.”  This statement exemplifies the social and political turmoil, and the combination of fear and hope, that characterized postwar Canada. Leacock was one of the most perceptive observers of Canadian life in the early twentieth century and figures prominently in the book.

Did you have a specific readership in mind when you wrote your book?

Alan: The audience for this book should be general readers who want “a good read” based on solid scholarship. It flows from my conviction that, as I say in the preface, “Canadians need to know and understand our history if we are to be truly aware of who we are, what our country is, and why our experience matters in the world.”

What was the hardest part of writing your book?

Alan: I began doing research about a decade ago but began serious work when I retired in 2008. The initial challenge was discipline – keeping at it!  Then – though it may seem contraintuitive given the relatively short time-span covered – keeping the book to a manageable length and organizing it in a readable and understandable manner to bring out each theme while keeping in mind the big picture. There are things that had to be left out, details and stories that had to be compressed, and generalizations that had to be made. There is much more to be said on this subject. My hope is that readers will be stimulated by this book to explore the many themes it deals with in more depth, and gain understanding of how this period shaped our country.

Alan Bowker

Posted by Dundurn Guest on October 30, 2014

Alan Bowker

Alan Bowker worked for thirty-five years in Canada’s foreign service, including serving as high commissioner to Guyana. He has a doctorate in Canadian history and has taught at Canada’s Royal Military College. He has edited two collections of essays by Stephen Leacock, including On the Front Line of Life and Social Criticism. He lives in Ottawa.