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J.B. McLachlan: A Biography

by David Frank

During the 1970s, one of David Frank’s Dalhousie professors wondered aloud when someone would produce a definitive biography of Canadian labour radical and Cape Breton miners’ hero J.B. McLachlan.

A quarter-century later, Frank has risen to the challenge with a thorough, highly accessible social history of a period largely forgotten by most Canadians. It was a time when activists struggled for an eight-hour day and an end to child labour in the mines, when the most familiar use of Canadian soldiers was putting down industrial strikes. It was also the era before mass electronic media, when town halls and theatres were filled nightly with lively discussion of the day’s issues.

The story of Scottish immigrant McLachlan is interwoven with the history of the pivotal role played by coal mining in the evolution of Canada into a modern industrial nation, and of the struggles waged by miners and their advocates for the kind of decent working and living conditions taken for granted today.

Frank ably integrates large chunks of social and political history as he traces the many steps in McLachlan’s life. While this is one of the book’s greatest strengths, it is also the source of its only weakness. An overabundance of facts (unnecessary details about particular union meetings, lengthy biographical background of incidental characters) tends to slow the story at key points.

Biographies about people who struggled to make the world a better place are a rarity in a culture so focused on self-gain. While Frank is much enamoured of his subject and the times in which he lived, he nonetheless manages to create an objective portrait. It serves as an eloquent reminder of the challenges facing Canadians as we regress toward the very social conditions that McLachlan fought at the turn of this century.