What do you do when Ottawa publishes opinion as official history? How do you challenge a government historian’s allegations that malign the dead?
During the Second World War, both in and out of the Royal Canadian Navy, my father Andrew D. MacLean — Great War veteran, sailor and independent publisher — used his political connections and publications to advocate for modernisation of the fleet and an end to the discrimination between the three naval branches. His criticism of the naval leadership created a political crisis in 1943 that led the minister of the day to attack MacLean in Parliament, while his department quietly instigated many of his recommendations. And those reforms, in the opinion of some, helped to shake up the command structure that contributed to the success of the Canadian military, and ultimately to Allied victory. Twenty years later Prime Minister Lester Pearson wrote to MacLean, “I am indeed most appreciative of the contribution made by you and your family to Canada over the years.”
Betrayed — The Book
This chapter in naval history has been revisited in a book called Betrayed: Scandal, Politics, and Canadian Naval Leadership, published by UBC Press in association with the Canadian War Museum, which re-examines this chapter of naval history. In it, author Richard O. Mayne, one of a team of researchers engaged by the Directorate of History and Heritage (part of the Department of National Defence), makes speculative allegations about MacLean’s motivation in criticising department policy. These allegations leave readers to surmise the man was an over-privileged troublemaker, throwing his weight around for the sake of it. Mayne’s speculations do not entertain the possibility that MacLean might have been acting out of patriotism, because of a conviction that Canadian lives were being put in danger by bureaucratic intransigence.
Pearson’s letter is not mentioned in Betrayed. Indeed while researching his book Mayne chose not to contact MacLean’s descendants or to consult the business, military and personal papers held by the family and the Archives of Ontario. Instead he apparently relied primarily on Federal government records and interviews with two ‘Old Torontonians’ who were very happy to trash MacLean for reasons that have nothing to do with the Navy and everything to do with his divorce. Mayne appears not to have wanted to explore my father’s history either personally or in depth, and so his portrait succumbed to caricature. Such an approach would certainly be libellous if my father were alive.
Mayne’s knowledge of Canadian naval history, especially during and after the Second World War, is scholarly and impressive. Unfortunate for a government historian he seems to like a good yarn. As his subjective interpretation has been published as official history, his allegations about Maclean’s motivation and character – none of which are specifically referenced in the book’s footnotes — need to be corrected for the public record.
First, Mayne speculates that MacLean’s personal ambition was greater than his patriotism. His service record shows this to be incorrect. In the First World War MacLean volunteered, travelling at his own expense to the UK to engage in active combat against Germany (Canada had no overseas navy at the time). In 1939 ten days before the outbreak of the Second World War, at the age of 43, he offered his services to the RCN Reserve and then, with Ottawa’s permission, applied for sea-going service in Britain’s Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve. (No opportunity then existed in Canada for officers with his specialisation in high speed motor boats). In November 1940 on active service in British waters he wrote to his father, ‘What more can any sailor desire than command of one of His Majesty’s ships with a real live enemy close at hand?’
Second, in Betrayed Mayne differentiates two main antagonists for dramatic impact. He asserts that while another reserve officer, Louis Audette, lobbied for the improvement of equipment on Canadian warships, MacLean cared only for the issue of discrimination. In this classic Good Cop/Bad Cop scenario, Mayne alleges MacLean had a singular, selfish agenda that ‘blinded’ government to the more pressing problem of inadequate technology. This is not true.
From the earliest days of the Second World War MacLean was concerned with modernising the fleet. In October 1939 he wrote to the private secretary of the Minister of National Defence about ill-equipped minesweepers and the inadequacy of naval defences and convoy escorts. ‘Naval defences and convoy escorts in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and off the Atlantic coast are inadequate to meet expected operations of enemy submarines or surface vessels… nothing is being done to improve the fighting ability of those already in commission.’ Later he pushed for changes to the armaments, dinghy and power system of fighting ships called Fairmiles. He argued – provocatively — that ‘the many hundreds of capable business and professional men, of known ability in civil life’ (the volunteer reservists) could make these essential improvements and advance the development of the Canadian Navy ‘quicker and better’ than Ottawa-based, permanent naval staff.
Third, Mayne claims that MacLean remained ‘bitter’ for the rest of his life, a remarkable assertion given that he neither met him or his family nor consulted his papers. MacLean lived to see the enactment of many of his reforms: equal treatment of volunteers and regulars, streamlining of boat-building and supply, improvement in communication between different navy departments.
Criticizing the Military
‘…Men are dying while Ottawa fuddles,’ wrote my father in an editorial in ‘Boating’ in 1943. The job of expanding and outfitting the Canadian navy was not without difficulties. Unlike most, MacLean was prepared to voice his opinions. And he had the means to publish them which, naturally enough, was not welcomed by the brass or the bureaucrats. Criticism of the military is a tricky thing, especially in time of war. But challenging the status quo is not by definition unpatriotic. Mayne missed an opportunity to write about a rebel and member of the establishment turning on his own class for the national good. Moreover, some sections of Betrayed simply repeat old Toronto gossip, which to my mind undermines the academic credibility of the Studies in Canadian Military History series. Mayne’s unquestioning acceptance of the Department’s point of view has the effect of reducing one officer’s military life to a pastiche. DND and the Canadian War Museum’s acceptance of the manuscript without appropriate research lends an air of quasi-governmental endorsement to this interpretation.
Few reviewers of Mayne’s book mention MacLean by name, perhaps recognising – intuitively or not – that Mayne has dramatised his portrait of him. Among them is Michael A. Hennessy, Co-chair and Professor of History and War Studies at the Royal Military College of Canada. Hennessy wrote in the University of Toronto Quarterly (Winter 2009), ‘What could be described as disloyalty could also be portrayed as forthrightness unbeholding to rank or careerism. The reserves bore the operational brunt of the campaign. That in their frustrations and eagerness they could grow impatient with the rational bureaucratic staff processes of Ottawa and agitate for reform with powerful friends should be seen as rather normal in a mass democracy that relies on reservists to fill the military’s ranks in times of war. Was their subterfuge disloyal? Did they owe loyalty to their men, their minister, or their nation? Such questions strike at the heart of civil–military relations in a modern democracy. Mayne does not plumb the depths of those issues…’
As a writer, I defend the right of all writers to express their opinions. But in non-fiction there is the equally important principle of portraying subjects with fairness, and on the basis of balanced research without reliance on what may be one side of a story. UBC Press and the Canadian War Museum leave it to the author to provide a context and to ensure a balanced portrait. According to Dr. Dean Oliver, Director of Research and Exhibitions at the Canadian War Museum, the museum has ‘no real policy on the treatment and portrayal of real people’. Betrayed brings to light the silence in the code of ethics laid down by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (and followed by many Canadian institutions and universities) on the portrayal of deceased individuals.
The dead can’t sue. So what can you do? Should I build a website about my father? Post a Wikipedia entry? Send a bagful of documents to Ottawa that disprove the allegations? Mayne hasn’t answered my letters and emails, though they were forwarded through his publisher. As MacLean’s son I have an interest but ask only for what everyone expects from an historian — a fair report of what’s known, supported by demonstrably thorough and considered research. By treating one individual unworthy of this basic respect, it is Betrayed that betrays us all.