By: Rob

Historians Ramsay Cook (left) and John English chat in Soldiers’ Tower

Historians Ramsay Cook (left) and John English chat in Soldiers’ Tower

Geoff Vendeville

With Remembrance Day approaching, the Government of Canada announced that it would donate $3 million over three years to the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, a joint project between the University of Toronto and Laval University documenting the lives of important Canadians, including war veterans.

U of T President David Naylor, general editors of the DCB Professors John English and Réal Béllanger, and representatives of Heritage Canada made the announcement at Hart House on Monday. Professor English said the new funding will be used to expand the Dictionary by commissioning biographies into the 1950s and 1960s, and to improve past entries.

The DCB comprises more than 8,400 biographies, available in English and French, covering the period between the 11th and early 20th century. There are also a few entries for people who lived after 1940, such as the 18,000-word article on Pierre Trudeau.

The DCB chronicles the lives of historical figures of all backgrounds: politicians, businessmen, explorers, artists, and soldiers – such as U of T graduate Lt. Col. John McRae, author of In Flanders Fields. The Dictionary is also the “single largest source for Aboriginal history in Canada,” editor John English said. The first volumes of the DCB were published in 1966. It went online in October 2003 and now receives more than a million visits per year.

President Naylor called the DCP, “A great Canadian resource [made possible by] the close and longstanding partnership,” which began in 1959 between Laval and Toronto. “The dictionary is an unparalleled survey of the men and women who have shaped Canada’s history. It is free, highly accessible and it touches the greater Canadian public,” said Naylor.

MP for Oakridges-Markham and parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Canadian Heritage, Paul Calandra, represented the Canadian Government at the event. “The Dictionary of Canadian Biography,” said Calandra, “is widely recognized as the fundamental research and educational tool as a masterpiece of scholarship. In fact, it is arguably one of the best biographical dictionaries in the world . . .” Calandra continued, “the Government of Canada is pleased to have supported this important project.”

With the federal government’s donation, access to the DCB will thankfully remain free of charge, while equivalent national collections of biography in other countries require paid subscriptions. The British Oxford National Dictionary of Biography, for example, costs £205 ($344) to use per year.

Unlike the “free encyclopedia,” Wikipedia, the DCB’s entries are carefully researched, objective, and edited for errors. In addition, many of the DCB articles are based on original research of primary sources. “The Wikipedia biographies are certainly not always reliable,” English said. “It’s not edited in the way we’re talking about… I went to Tony Blair, for example, and read that he had a homosexual love affair with Gordon Brown, and it was all about Iraq. It’s simply not reliable.”

The editors of the DCB hope it will help dispel certain misconceptions Canadians have about their own history – most of all, that Canadian history is dull. “There’s a lot of lively people in this biography,” said English, “You’d be surprised going through it. We’ve got prostitutes, miners, Chinese businessmen from 1900. If you sit down a read the biography it will change many of your perceptions.”

“We don’t have many projects like this – in fact, this is the only one.”

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