Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Shaughnessy Cohen Prize Series, with Richard Gwyn

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Richard Gwyn

This year marks the twelfth iteration of the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing, presented by the Writers’ Trust of Canada. The prize rewards the year's finest book tackling a political subject of interest to Canadian readers.

This year, Open Book speaks to each of the five finalists as the April 25 announcement approaches. Be sure to visit our site and catch all of the interviews!

Richard Gwyn is shortlisted for Nation-Maker. Sir John A. Macdonald; His Life, Our Times, 1867 to 1891 (Random House Canada). His previous volume of our first prime minister, John A, The Man Who Made Us; The Life and Times of John A. Macdonald, 1815-1867, won the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction.

Richard talks with Open Book about Macdonald's achievements, the relevance of political writing and having a chance to re-charge after an intensive project.

Open Book:

Tell us about the book for which you were shortlisted.

Richard Gwyn:

The book is a biography, of Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister and by any measure our most-important one. It is the first such full-scale study since Donald Creighton published his magisterial two volumes on Macdonald in the 1950s. The essential story set out in the book is expressed by its title, Nation-Maker. Macdonald was this doubly so, first by achieving Confederation, then by ensuring that the fragile new nation could actually survive. During this period, until Macdonald’s death in 1891, Canada’s existence was put at real risk by the triple challenges of Americans’ attachment to Manifest Destiny, by Britain’s indifference to the fate of its trans-Atlantic colony at a time when next-door to it a powerful Germany was emerging and, lastly, by the doubts about their country’s future many Canadians developed during a prolonged global, economic depression. He made mistakes of course, most obviously that of allowing the execution of Louis Riel to proceed and also, this despite a life-long record of tolerance, that of imposing a racially-discriminatory head tax on Chinese workers.

His accomplishments were exceptional, and at times were heroic: the intercontinental, Canadian Pacific Railway, of course, which attached irrevocably the west, then a prime interest of many Americans (among them, the incumbent President), to the geographically quite-limited country achieved by Confederation; the creation of the North West Mounted Police, the first distinctively Canadian institution; the National Policy of high, protective, tariffs which began the process of creating a national community in which citizens bought and sold to each other; his extraordinary performance at the 1870 Washington conference to settle outstanding British and U.S. disputes where he successfully defended Canadian interests while having no authority to even speak about them because only a member of the British delegation; his victory in the 1891 election, convincing voters to vote against their individual best-interests by voting against cross-border free trade, that, according to another American president, would have led on inevitably first to cross-border economic union and then to political union.

At the level of the personal, he succeeded in over-coming his best-known habit (certainly so today) by ceasing to drink too-much. At the level of the political, he won six of seven elections, two of these victories being accomplished, in a record with few if any equals, in the midst of an all-out depression. Had the poor had the vote (as he resisted), and women, (as he attempted), his majorities would have been incomparably larger.


In your opinion, what qualities or characteristics signify that a book can be considered political writing?


Political writing is about public events, planned or accidental, that substantially affect people, whether as individuals or collectively and whether for the good or the bad. Political writers set out to describe and analyze the actions taken by those in power at the time, focusing on their characters and upon the contemporary ideas and attitudes that shaped their responses. More simply, political writing is about the way public happenings happen, and then are managed, an intervention that either makes things worse or betters peoples’ condition and prospects.


The prize is presented at an evening event in Ottawa called Politics and the Pen. What are you most looking forward to about P&P? Have you attended before?


The Politics and Pen event, its philanthropic activities aside, is a bazaar. It brings together those who possess political power, actual or assumed, and those who attempt to influence their decisions or to comment on or to criticize their actions. It is thus a market-place where connections are made and ideas and information, and gossip, are traded. Nothing is ever actually done at such events in the sense of any decisions being taken, but during it a good deal may be begun.


If you were to recommend one past finalist or winner of the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize to readers, which title would you choose?


Can I sneak it a double choice?, because both contained such important new information and insights: Janice Stein and Eugene Lang for The Unexpected War, and Max and Monique Nemni for Young Trudeau. If the unalterable limit is one, then Unexpected War.


What can you tell us about your next project?


No, because I don’t have one. After seven pretty intensive years on John A., my main objective now is to re-charge my battery. Also, it’s not easy to abandon Macdonald because his bicentenary comes up in 2015.

Richard Gwyn is an author and political commentator. He was born in England, educated at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst and emigrated to Canada in 1954. He has long been well-known as a columnist for the Toronto Star and a frequent contributor to TV and radio. The first volume of his current work, John A, The Man Who Made Us The Life and Times of John A. Macdonald, 1815-1867, won the 2008 Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction. Last September, Random House published the second volume — Nation-Maker. Sir John A. Macdonald; His Life, Our Times; 1867 to 1891. This work has been short-listed for three major non-fiction prizes. An Officer of the Order of Canada, Gwyn is the recipient of five honorary degrees.

For more information about Nation-Maker. Sir John A. Macdonald; His Life, Our Times; 1867 to 1891 please visit the Random House Canada website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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