Arrivals: Stories from the History of Ontario, is a book most people didn’t know needed to be written. Many people probably couldn’t imagine anything more boring. But John Bentley Mays, a well-known Toronto newspaper columnist and author, has a different perspective. Originally from one of the American South’s largest plantation families, Bentley Mays came to Ontario over 30 years ago. Finally, he has expressed his love for his adopted homeland by writing the first-ever popular history of Ontario.
Why would we want to read a book about Ontario written by a white man, and an American at that? Because Bentley Mays is a gifted writer and researcher. His main motive (like that of any good investigator) is to address the complexity of truth in a fashion that is easy to understand but not overly simplistic.
In this history, which is really not a coherent history so much as a set of 30 anecdotes about the lives and accomplishments of 30 historically significant Ontarians, Bentley Mays limits himself to “people who have come to Ontario from elsewhere and done something interesting, horrible or wonderful here since the withdrawal of the continental ice sheet, some 11,000 years ago. These include the pioneer writer Catherine Parr Traill, a professional assassin, the explorer Etienne Brule, the missionary De La Roche Daillon, Alexander Graham Bell, and, most interestingly, several movers and shakers from Ontario’s First Nations.
The collection of stories in Arrivals is refreshing because it tries to express moments in history through the voices of the people who experienced them – in that way, it leaves room for many perspectives and individual points of view, which is of course the way history happens – it isn’t some oppositional story of united peoples and opposing points of view, since everybody has a different experience. The French settlers, for example, each had their own motives for being there – and their own perspectives on the situations they encountered. He tries to describe people’s actions based on their experiences and not on whether they were “bad” or “good” people simply exercising their natures.
Whether or not he got it right (and I’m sure every single long-dead historical figure whose story he tells would have something to say about the way he tells it), the thing that makes Arrivals worth reading is the hugeness and daring of the undertaking. First of all, no comprehensive popular history of Ontario has ever been written, certainly not one in which the role of individual Native historical characters have been fleshed out so fully.
Did he get it right? Maybe. Maybe not. These are stories, after all, and more often than not truth is in the eye of the beholder. But this is definitely a good place to start for readers interested in Ontario’s past, a past which is fraught with violence and war but also with negotiations, alliances and innovation.
In the first section, titled “Origins,” Bentley Mays anchors his history in a Wendat creation story called “The Woman Who Fell From The Stars.” However, he does not limit his examination of Native peoples’ starring role in the history of Ontario to the typical clichés of warlike tribe and passive savage accepting conversions from New France because they didn’t know any better. He doesn’t privilege the white settlers’ point of view, nor does he unthinkingly assume that, in hindsight, they were forcibly in the wrong by “taking advantage” of the inhabitants of the New World garden of Eden.
Bentley Mays has a much more complex worldview, and his book is valuable because it puts the complexities of white-Native interaction (and human-human interaction in general) ahead of any desire to make history into a long, linear narrative of progress. He even refuses to call First Nations people by the names, like “Huron” and “Iroquois,” which came from settlers’ racist slurs. Rather, he prefers to call the Huron the Wendat, and the Iroquois are called the League of the Great Peace or People of the Long House.
His inclusiveness and fairness extend beyond polite name-calling, though. He relishes the stories of struggles for primacy between the early French and British colonists, pointing out early on in the book that the first ruling power in Ontario was the League of the Great Peace, or the so-called Iroquois Confederacy.The most powerful political organization north of Mexico, it existed for hundreds of years before Europeans arrived and for 250 years thereafter.
All the ancient nations that inhabited Ontario were under the rule of the Confederacy, whose headquarters were in present-day New York State. When the settlers came, things changed in a multitude of ways, and Bentley Mays portrays the First Nations Doq’s Ear people not as passive victims, but rather as major players in the push-and-pull of history.
The most interesting thing about Bentley Mays’ approach is his insistence that the history of this land doesn’t belong to any one nation or people -his approach isn’t to theorize about what “should” have happened, what is fair or unfair, but rather to focus on what “did” happen – the good, the bad, and the ugly events that make up the course of history, which belongs to all historical people and their descendants. Arrivals is a great book because it gives equal time to the points of view of everone whose story he tells, making good foundation to understand how things came to be the way they are today. And after all, isn’t that what history is for?