- - Sunday, August 31, 2014


By Robyn Doolittle
Viking Canada, $29.95, 304 pages

By Tom Flanagan
Signal, $29.95, 256 pages

By Michael Ignatieff
Random House Canada, $29.95, 224 pages

As a Canadian contributor to The Washington Times, I’ve occasionally included analyses of my country’s history and politics. It provides American readers with a small window into the Great White North. In that light, I would like to recommend five fairly recent nonfiction releases about Canada that Americans should take a look at.

The first is Robyn Doolittle’s “Crazy Town: The Rob Ford Story.” The Toronto Star reporter (who now writes for the Globe and Mail) created the first in-depth examination of Toronto’s controversial mayor.

Mr. Ford was elected on a fiscally conservative platform of lower taxes, reduced spending and stopping the “gravy train.” He then became the subject of international scrutiny owing to his drinking, crack smoking and horrible language captured in videos.

Ms. Doolittle writes from both a critical and sympathetic standpoint. Her journey to the underbelly of the crack video is detailed and engaging, noting, “Keeping a secret is tough. Keeping a secret that I’d seen the mayor of Toronto smoking from what looked like a crack pipe was exhausting.” Ms. Doolittle’s admission that you can’t count Mr. Ford out, in spite of all he’s done, is honest and forthright. It’s a solid volume of work.

Second is Tom Flanagan’s “Persona Non Grata.” The University of Calgary political-science professor has managed many political campaigns, including for Prime Minister Stephen Harper. (Full disclosure: Mr. Flanagan and I know each other well, as I am a former speechwriter for Mr. Harper, and I’m briefly mentioned in this book.)

Last year, Mr. Flanagan’s successful career was almost derailed. During a speech, he discussed child pornography and mentioned, “I certainly have no sympathy for child molesters, but I do have some grave doubts about putting people in jail because of their taste in pictures.”

He was, therefore, trying to think like an academic about personal liberty and freedom, but on an issue few people can sympathize with. His speech was put on YouTube without permission, and the whole thing exploded. Mr. Flanagan’s well-written personal account, including his stunning fall from grace and gradual recovery in the public’s eye, will make free-speech advocates shudder.

Third is Michael Ignatieff’s “Fire and Ashes.” An author and university professor at Harvard and Oxford, he entered Canadian politics and became Liberal Party leader. While many pundits were confident he would become prime minister, his disastrous showing in the 2011 federal election briefly left his party in shambles.

Mr. Ignatieff is a fine writer, but his self-indulgent tone often weakens his personal tale. He notes, “[d]efeat invalidated me as a politician, but also as a writer and thinker. I was an embarrassment both to my former political colleagues and to my new ones at the university.” Yet he also claimed it “brings lucidity and … liberation. You get your freedom back when you least expect it. The most surprising reaction to failure is relief.”

To understand why Canada’s Liberals nearly collapsed, Mr. Ignatieff’s story is a good place to start.

Two final books will complete this swift tour of Canada in books. One is Brad Lavigne’s “Building the Orange Wave” (Douglas & McIntyre, $34.95, 296 pages). An insider in the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP), he was principal secretary and director of strategic communications for then-leader Jack Layton. He was the party’s campaign director during its successful 2011 federal election.

Mr. Lavigne’s association with Mr. Layton (who passed away in August 2011) and his wife, Olivia Chow (a former member of Parliament running for mayor of Toronto), makes this a compelling story. The ups and downs of the NDP campaign, and the individuals who made the Orange Wave a success, are profiled. As for the leader, “Jack’s approach to politics was motivational,” he writes, “and … helped define what leadership at the federal level can be.”

Even if you disagree with the NDP’s social democratic philosophies (as I do), it’s a solid examination of a successful, left-wing populist campaign.

Then there is Paul Wells’ “The Longer I’m Prime Minister” (Random House Canada, $32, 448 pages). A longtime journalist and political editor of Maclean’s Magazine, he’s written a fair, evenhanded analysis of Mr. Harper’s Tory government.

Mr. Wells is a skilled wordsmith, and he weaves an intriguing story about the prime minister and his senior staff. For instance, he describes Mr. Harper as “fiercely intelligent, combative, secretive, intense.” Mr. Wells also points out “a conversation with Harper is a real conversation. He listens, is curious, asks questions, responds with something that relates to what you said, contests your conclusions if he disagrees, shuts up if you know more.”

As the prime minister’s former speechwriter, I can honestly say Mr. Wells regularly hits the nail on the head with authority. It’s an excellent book, and well worth reading.

That’s Canada at a glimpse, folks.

Michael Taube is a contributor to The Washington Times.

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