“…the object [of a biographical dictionary of Canada] shall be not only to supply an acknowledged want in Canadian literature, but . . . it should compete with or even surpass works of a similar character produced elsewhere.”
Foundation: James Nicholson’s Bequest
The Dictionary of Canadian biography/Dictionnaire biographique du Canada was made possible by an imaginative and public-spirited bequest of James Nicholson, a Toronto businessman, who, at his death in 1952, left the residue and bulk of his estate to the University of Toronto for the purpose of creating a biographical reference work for Canada of truly national importance.
Mr Nicholson’s bequest, probably among the most remarkable made thus far in Canada for a literary or historical purpose, arose out of his interest in Canadian and English history, which was maintained through a long life of varied activities. Born in Liverpool, he was the eldest of the three sons of John Nicholson of Forton, North Lancashire, England. In 1891, on the threshold of what must have appeared a promising professional career as an architect, Mr Nicholson came to Canada. The period was one of economic depression and there was little inducement to attempt a career in architecture. After a year of farming near Lindsay, Ontario, he went to the city of London and entered the office of “Bart Cottam & Co., Importer and Manufacturer of Grocer’s Sundries.” First among the numerous items in the firm’s advertisements was “bird seed,” and doubtless it was in Bart Cottam’s employ that Mr Nicholson decided to concentrate upon the product which was in the next half-century to reward his business acumen and make it possible for him to found and endow the Dictionary. In 1895 he settled in Toronto, establishing with J. W. Brock the firm of Nicholson and Brock, with which he was identified during the remainder of his active business life.
Mr Nicholson’s business interests kept him in touch for many years with all parts of Canada, and this was undoubtedly one of the influences which led him to think of what would become a grand project. He learned French at a time when this was certainly an uncommon accomplishment for a Toronto businessman. The idea for a dictionary of Canadian biography appears to have come directly from Mr Nicholson’s pleasure in and admiration for the Dictionary of national biography (now the Oxford dictionary of national biography).
Breaking New Ground
Of special interest and importance is the fact that the Dictionary has been published in two editions, English and French: the Dictionary of Canadian biography by the University of Toronto Press, and Dictionnaire biographique du Canada by Les Presses de l’Université Laval. This arrangement broke new ground since no comparable project of a similar kind in research and publication had previously been undertaken in Canada. At the time of the original announcement of the founding in 1959 it was stated that contributions would be accepted in either French or English and it was hoped that a French edition might also be arranged. An approach was made to the Université Laval, and there was sincere rejoicing at Toronto when the authorities at Laval enthusiastically undertook the responsibility. The formal announcement of the French edition was made at a lancement in Quebec on the evening of 10 March 1961. Since then work on the dictionary has been carried out in English and French by two teams, and under General Editor George W. Brown and Directeur adjoint Marcel Trudel, the first volume was published in both languages in 1966. In 2001 the two universities signed a legal agreement that officially recognizes the collaboration.
The dcb/dbc has been in existence for more than 50 years – an achievement to be celebrated. Change, as well as continuity, has been a major feature of the project in the first years of the 21st century. Nothing more satisfyingly portrayed continuity than the appearance of volume XV (in 2005) under the sign of Johannes Gutenberg represented by the University of Toronto Press and Les Presses de l’Université Laval. Nothing more dramatically demonstrated change than the electronic versions of the dcb/dbc. First, as a project to celebrate the millennium, a CD-ROM of volumes I to XIV was created and distributed without charge to every high school, CEGEP, college, university, and public library in Canada, and to select university libraries around the world in 2000. In 2001 the federal Department of Canadian Heritage, in conjunction with Library and Archives Canada, approached the two universities about establishing a website, and two years later the texts of the 14 published volumes, together with some additional biographies, including those of 12 significant individuals whose death dates are post-1930, were made available online through LAC, without the fees commonly required to use the online versions of major reference works. Biographies from volume XV were gradually added to the website before and after the release of the printed volume. The staff of the dcb/dbc has been especially pleased to make the results of the work done by hundreds of Canadian scholars, professional and non-professional, accessible to thousands of readers all over the world.
A winner of many prizes, most recently (2012) the Governor General’s Award for Popular History (the Pierre Berton Award), the Dictionary of Canadian Biography has been recognized at home and abroad as a “masterpiece.” Over the years public and private support has been demonstrated by individuals and institutions, most notably in 2011 when, through a contribution agreement, the Department of Canadian Heritage undertook to provide funding for three years.
In the introduction to volume XV, General Editor Ramsay Cook and Directeur général adjoint Réal Bélanger stated: “We believe we have again fulfilled the mandate set for us by our original benefactor and patron saint, Mr James Nicholson, who declared that ‘the object [of a biographical dictionary of Canada] shall be not only to supply an acknowledged want in Canadian literature, but . . . it should compete with or even surpass works of a similar character produced elsewhere.’ Again, we have competed and surpassed.” This is a motto, and a standard, that will remain constant whatever else may change.
There are now more than 8,400 biographies on this website, including the contents of volumes I to XV, which cover the years 1000 to 1930, and the stories of more than 30 people who died after this period. In September 2011 the dcb/dbc took over the website from Library and Archives Canada. This development represents major challenges, but also wonderful opportunities. We invite readers of the dcb/dbc, those who are familiar with our work and those who are learning about it for the first time, to join us in celebrating Canadian history and those who created it.