Edited by Nelson Michaud and Kim Richard Nossal
Vancouver: UBC Press, 2001, xviii, 326pp, $85.00, ISBN 0774808640
It is a truism that no period in history is as mysterious as the recent past - colours but not images, facts sensed but beyond immediate recall, just outside the useful grasp of memory. In terms of history there is often a bridging operation, in which memoirs or authorized biographies carry us to the point where archives are opened and documentary history begins. In the United States, for example, Ronald Reagan has enjoyed multiple biographies, including one of the authorized variety, as well as an 'autobiography.' George Bush senior and his national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, have written a joint memoir of more than passing interest. In Great Britain, Lady Thatcher has committed to print a lengthy and vigorous memoir.
Students of recent Canadian history have a problem. The Mulroney era has produced very thin stuff in the way of memoris - Erik Nielsen, Pat Carney, and John Crosbie are by my count the only memoirists. There was a celebratory conference on the tenth anniversary of Canadian-American free trade hosted by Desmond Morton at McGill; but it was mainly interesting as a recreation of the lingering animosities of the Mulroney era: Pat Carney, Mulroney's trade minister was emphatically not invited; John Turner, who as leader of the Liberal opposition nearly derailed the project in the 1988 election, was first invited and then dis-invited. Whatever may be said about the McGill conference and the book that issued from it, it was selective in orientation and appealed to equally selective tastes.
It is a relief, therefore, to greet the publication of a collection of academic essays reviewing the Mulroney record in foreign policy. The sense of relief would ordinarily be mitigated by the fact that, coming from the academy, the book has a better than average chance of being incomprehensible as well as irrelevant, since academic authors are known for their capacity to pursue microcosmic fantasies secure in the knowledge that they will have few readers to hold them to account.
So, it is a pleasure as well as a relief to report that the Michaud-Nossal collection is not only timely but comprehensible, with generally well written essays assigned to important topics. Readers will come away vastly better informed about the twists and turns - and continuities - of Canadian foreign policy in the 1980s - what it was, how it was made, and where it fits.
The book is bracketed by introductory and concluding essays by the editors, outlining the events of the Mulroney period and discussing how, and whether, Mulroney's conduct of foreign policy differed from the Canadian standard. It was more than a matter of new issues: under Mulroney, Michaud and Nossal argue, the process as well as the substance of policy changed: not entirely, or all at once, but enough. …