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How a Book of Humour Shaped Modern Canada

I felt inspired.

After hearing Professor Symons describe the impact of his father’s book Ojibway Melody, I imagined myself writing an essay, maybe even a learned paper, on how a book of humour had shaped modern Canada.  The thought amused me.

Professor Tom, son of humorist Harry Symons, established institutions, advised politicians, mediated thorny issues, and may have done more than anyone else to create the field of Canadian Studies.  He told me that his father’s self-published Leacock Medal winner had influenced that life and career profoundly. All I had to do was roll up the evidence and frame it with a few quotes.   Still, I needed some help with the details.

This prompted me to contact another Professor, one closer to home.

Ralph Heintzman, a former senior government official and now a prof at the University of Ottawa, knew my subject well and even edited a highly regarded essay collection Tom Symons: A Canadian Life.  We met at his office one afternoon in the spring of 2015.

Heintzman, a man honoured for his commitment to integrity, ethics, and service, has a hard time being unkind.  But he might have been justified in this circumstance.

“Well, it’s an interesting idea,” he said after I laid out my proposal. “Tom Symons is a romantic though - and might also have had motive in attributing things to his father’s book.”

We commiserated about government and governing and talked a lot about the subject at hand, but I left the office unsure.  Had I received a light endorsement or a kindhearted pat on the head?  Regardless, I resolved to re-read A Canadian Life.

My first reading, in 2013, was a search for biographical bits about Harry Symons for reference in my book on Leacock Medal winners, and I found a lot.  But this time, I focused on the son not the father and realized that the argument I wanted to make in my imaginary paper had already been laid out thoroughly and gracefully in this essay collection.

The book not only documents how Tom Symons pioneered the academic and multidisciplinary study of Canada, but also his leadership in establishing Canada’s first department of Native Studies, his political policy work and his contributions in promoting French-language education in Ontario and human rights in Canada and abroad.  It also frames these subjects with reference to the philosophy and tone found in the pages of Ojibway Melody, which Heintzman read as it should be read, sitting in a chair by a cottage on Georgian Bay. 

Referencing quotes from the Leacock Medal book, Heintzman says directly that its “stories are filled with appreciation for certain human qualities of kindliness, gentleness, integrity, and courage” and the kind of character recognizable in the life and work of the humorist’s son Tom.

I learned a lot from re-reading Tom Symons, A Canadian Life including that Ralph Heintzman is too polite to ask “Did you really read my book?”
January 2016