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Ramsay Cook passes away on July 14, 2016

Published on July 20, 2016

A tribute to Ramsay Cook (1931-2016)

The CHA/SCH is saddened to hear of the passing of one of Canada's foremost historians who pioneered and transformed the writing of Canadian history since the 1960s. Ramsay Cook was President of the CHA/SHC in 1983-1984.


Ramsay Cook's death on July 14 sent a shockwave among his formers students and the entire historical community. Indeed, the country has lost one of its ambassadors at the age of 85. A native of Alameda, Saskatchewan, Cook was a historian for thirty-six years in the Queen City after earning his doctorate from the University of Toronto under the supervision of another giant of Canadian history: Donald Creighton. The latter has often said that he admired the work of his protégé, although they often disagreed.

Cook is known in English Canada in particular because of its notion of "limited identities", which stresses the importance of social class, gender and ethnicity not only as fundamental factors in the construction of Canadian identities, but as analytical frameworks in historical research. He is one of the pioneers of the New social history in the country. He also directed 39 doctoral students - both Canadian and Québécois - some of whom have had long careers in universities. He was one of the artisans of the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, a massive undertaking undertaken by the Universities of Toronto and Université Laval, was editor of the Canadian Historical Review in addition to being president of the Canadian Historical Association in 1983-1984.

Cook has been a great ambassador of Canadian history abroad. He made trips to Harvard University (1968-69) and Yale (1978-1979; 1997), and went abroad numerous times to visit universities in the former Soviet Union, China, India, Australia and Japan. In short, we have just lost a builder.

An interpreter for Québec
A great Francophile, he was among intellectuals in English Canada who sought to understand Quebec and to reconcile it with Canada. He was an avid reader of Le Devoir and authored numerous articles for André Laurendeau and Claude Ryan who he considered good friends. He firmly believed in the benefits of bilingualism and registered his children at Toronto French School. In fact, his daughter, Margaret Michèle Cook became an award-winning Franco-Ontarian writer and poet in Ottawa.

Cook was an intellectual widely engaged in debates about national unity and Quebec's place in Canada. It can be said that he held the role of "interpreter" of Quebec for English Canada, in particular with his books Canada and the French Canadian Question (1966) and his anthology of key Quebec nationalist texts, French Canadian Nationalism (1969). He pondered the consequences of nationalism in Canada with Maple Leaf Forever (1971) that cemented his place as an intellectual.

The historian also had an impressive correspondence with many Quebec intellectuals and historians and he communicated with Fernand Dumont, Michel Brunet, Jacques-Yvan Morin, Fernand Ouellet and others. He gave several courses on Quebec and French-Canadian history and supervised numerous theses on these subjects as well.

Cook left no one indifferent. A man of principle, he fiercely defended individual rights. He often said that George Orwell’s books were a source of inspiration for him. An anti-nationalist, he was part of Lord Acton’s philosophical tradition. As such, he admired Trudeau and he strongly supported him in the leadership race of the Liberal Party of Canada in 1968. A great fighter, he loved to challenge Quebec nationalist intellectuals like Michel Brunet.

Cook's legacy is immense. He tried to push the country’s historians and intellectuals to improve and communicate excellence in their work. He helped expand the boundaries of the discipline outside of its comfort zone. He was the archetype of the intellectual committed to his scholarly research, his teaching and training of a whole generation of Canadian and Québécois historians.

Serge Miville

Assistant Professor
Research Chair in the history of Francophone Ontario
Laurentian University

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