He kept up his keen interest—and often acerbic commentary—on the Canadian political process almost to the end of his long life. In 1982, at the age of 93, historian Arthur Lower declared in the journal Parliamentary Government that the quality of debate in the House of Commons had declined to such a low level that MPs revealed themselves “for the most part, as very little people.” With the books that he began producing more than five decades ago, Lower helped to create a serious body of modern Canadian historical scholarship. When he died at 98 on Jan. 7 at his home in Kingston, Ont., following respiratory problems, Lower’s fellow historians praised his pioneering work. “He took Canadian history out of the anecdotal and into the serious, scientific study of the past,” said J. L. Granatstein of Toronto’s York University. “He was one of the giants.”
Born in 1889 in Barrie, Ont., Lower graduated in history from the University of Toronto in 1914. Armed with a 1923 master’s degree from U of T and a PhD from Harvard, he began an 18year teaching stint at Winnipeg’s United College in 1929. In 1938 he published his first major book, The North American Assault on the Canadian Forest, which elaborated on a theme developed by historian Harold Innis and pictured the great lumber firms as exploiters of the Canadian frontier. Lower’s Colony to Nation, first published in 1946, was required reading for thousands of Canadian high-school students for two decades. In his later works, written after he moved to Queen’s University in Kingston in 1947, Lower documented the evolution of Canada’s fragile sense of nationhood in terms that were patriotic and sometimes uncomfortably blunt.
In his 1967 autobiography, Lower reflected on the pressures of Canadian nationalism and Quebec separatism that were straining Confederation and looked hopefully to the day when Canadian public life would be “raised up out of the gutter of bad temper, bickering, small-mindedness, dishonesty, immorality.” The bickering continues, but Lower’s achievement was to help define the central idea of Canadian nationhood that is now beyond debate.
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