The PM Series Interviews: Paula Johanson

We asked the same five questions of the authors of the Prime Minister of Canada series.

5R: There are those who persist in saying Canadian history is boring. Having undertaken to write part of that history, how would you respond to that assertion?
PJ: Good grief, Canadian history boring? Whenever I get a chance to learn some history from anything but a school textbook, our history is anything but boring. I’ve always enjoyed travelling on roads that follow the old routes used by First Nations long before European setters, but the only one I ever read about in school was the Yellowhead Highway. I was fifty years old before I learned about British gunboats firing on the west coast in Canadian history, and I had to learn about the cannon shots from novels and from church records. For anyone who thinks the only way to write about history is boring, there are plenty of other ways to write it. Follow the money, and a striking trend shows all through the Colonial time. Follow the tech, and there are fascinating stories about Cree women being essential members of any group travelling anywhere in Rupert’s Land because travellers need clothes and shoes and mittens. Why do jackknives still have an awl? Well, one reason is so you can make your own snowshoes and sled. But follow the people through your story of history, and you end up with a story that matters to people.
5R: Five Rivers’ senior editor, Robert Runté makes the statement: ‘Publishers have sometimes tried to protect school children and sensitive adults from any hint of controversy or scandal, and to pretend that our story is an unblemished example of rationality and progress.’ Do you feel that’s an accurate summation, and why?
PJ: Runté is putting it mildly — and ‘it’ is not merely the effort to spare children from controversy and scandal but ranges from wishful thinking to rank propaganda. We do our children and students no favours when we pretend through our history books that our Canadian past was free from controversy and scandal. One example is the War of the Pig. It’s a fascinating tale of homesteading and empire-building that gets very little attention.
5R: What does it mean for you, as a writer, to undertake writing about the prime ministers you’ve chosen?
PJ: To write about these prime ministers is to take on not only the facts that have been presented before in tedious fashion but to find ways to present these people as we would talk about them in conversation. There are few new facts for me to discover about Sir Charles Tupper or Sir Robert Borden, but I want to tell the facts the way I would tell stories, and in particular the way I would tell these stories when talking with people I know.
5R: Were there surprises for you during your research?
PJ: You bet there are surprises, when I’m doing research! I hadn’t known about Trudeau’s fascist beliefs as a youth. Or that Borden visited a hospital in Scotland caring for shell-shocked war poets. Or that after Tupper made much of his money investing in railway shares, he missed out on a chance to make $200,000 because he’d gone to England without leaving anyone the power of attorney to sell his shares.
5R: Your most memorable anecdote from the PMs?
PJ: So far the most memorable anecdote I’ve found tells of how as a young medical student and a Baptist, Tupper spent one dark night digging secretly in a Catholic graveyard — but not as a body-snatcher! He’d been given an amputated leg so that he could study anatomy, and the family of the patient explained that their religious beliefs required that body parts be buried in holy ground so that the man would be whole in the afterlife. Tupper wasn’t grave-robbing, he was keeping a promise to that First Nations family.