Speeches That Changed Canada

By Dennis GruendingFitzhenry & Whiteside,
Markham, ON and Brighton, MA
May, 2018. 270 pages. $27.95 CAD.
ISBN #978-1-55455-112-5

Publisher’s Promo:

Author and former MP Dennis Gruending has chosen dramatic speeches from 10 of Canada’s finest political orators, beginning with John A Macdonald’s arguing Confederation into being in 1865 and ending with Pierre Trudeau’s ‘No’ to Quebec separatism during the 1980 referendum campaign. The book also contains Louis Riel’s speech to the jury; Wilfrid Laurier’s warning the Catholic clergy to stay out of politics; Nellie McClung’s demand that women receive the vote; Agnes Macphail’s call for both political reforms and the full equality of women; Arthur Meighen’s divisive speech on military conscription; Richard Bennett’s attempt to give Canada a New Deal during the Depression; Tommy Douglas introducing medicare; and Lester Pearson’s epic debates with John Diefenbaker over a new flag for Canada. Gruending is the author of Great Canadian Speeches, a best-selling, wide-ranging anthology that contains 68 edited selections. In this new book he focuses on only 10 speeches. For each speech Gruending:

  • Describes in detail the rich historical context in which each speech was delivered,
  • Pays close attention to both the content of each speech and rhetorical techniques employed by the orators, and
  • Examines the speech’s immediate and long term impact upon Canada and Canadians.

Macdonald’s speech established him as the drafter and dealmaker of Confederation and he was to remain the dominant presence in Canadian politics for many years. Riel’s failure to convince a jury to spare his life created fault lines in Canada which persist to this day. McClung’s withering satire in a 1914 speech paved the way for women’s getting the vote; and Trudeau’s speech shortly before the Quebec referendum in 1980 is widely believed to have ensured victory for the ‘No’ side in the referendum on separation.

This book will be a welcome companion to anyone interested in Canadian history, politics, literature and rhetoric. It will also be a useful source and guide for those who write speeches or deliver them.

Author’s Words:

A good speech is a literary work but it also aims at persuading an audience to do something.

There is something basic and enduring about the relationship between a speaker and an audience and the best orators continue to move us for better or worse.

(to demonstrate his point, the author writes of the speeches of Hitler, Lincoln, Roosevelt, King, Kennedy, Mandela and Havel.)

The enthusiasm generated by Barack Obama’s speech-making in the United States in this decade proves there is still a receptive audience for well-crafted messages that offer hope and vision.

Canadians have been just as eager to be moved and persuaded, and this book provides examples of such oratory drawn from our history… Our story in Canada is not as dramatic as that of nations born in revolution or in which violence reigns in the streets, but it is if anything more admirable… Where others have used bullets and  bombs, our projectiles have been words. They are the essence of all politics and negotiation. Words are incomparably better than artillery or marching armies.

(At this point, the author writes of John A. MacDonald, Wilfrid Laurier, Louis Riel, Nellie McClung, Arthur Meighen, Agnes Macphail, Tommy Douglas, Lester Pearson, R.B. Bennett, Pierre Trudeau, and Chief Joseph Gosnell of the Nisga’a First Nation.)

(For each of these speechmakers) I explore the speech, the persona chosen by the speaker and the speech’s lasting impact upon Canada and Canadians. I also pay close attention to the speech itself and analyse the rhetorical techniques employed by the speaker to win over his or her audience.

This book will be of interest to those who love Canadian history… and those who write and deliver speeches… also for those who want to become more skilled at analysing the words spoken by others.

– edited and interpreted from the Introduction

Author’s Bio:

Dennis Gruending is a former Member of Parliament from Saskatchewan. A journalist by profession, he has worked for three newspapers and as a producer and host for CBC Radio in western Canada. His previous books include Great Canadian Speeches, The Middle of Nowhere, and biographies of Emmett Hall and Allan Blakeney. His articles, stories, and poems have appeared in NeWest Review, The Canadian Forum, New Internationalist, Maclean’s, and Reader’s Digest. Dennis lives in Ottawa, Ontario.

Colleagues List Background to Dennis Gruending –                        February 25th, 2012

Review by Dr. Wayne Holst

My Thoughts:

Earlier this year on Colleagues List (January 28th, 2018) I presented my thoughts on another of Gruending’s books on the subject of rhetoric. It was entitled Great Canadian Speeches. Here is that notice: 

This book builds on that one and is helpful, not only for Canadian historical perspective and leaders who used words to convince their fellow-country persons to follow certain courses of action, but also for the study of the meaning and technique of rhetoric.

When I read this book I couldn’t help but think of my training as a pastor fifty years ago. My theological seminary chose wisely in its selection of those who taught homiletics (the science of proclamation). I will always be grateful for the coaching I received from a specialist in rhetoric from a nearby college. The skills he taught our class have stayed with me all my life. Even today, I tend to critique homilies based on the guidance received half a century ago. 

Encountering this volume made me aware that rhetoric today has suffered considerably from the advent of radio, TV, movies and social media. I mourn the loss of meaningful words and well-shaped phrases.

I despair of the crassness of modern communications. 

Conversational, humour-based and off-handed preaching do not cut it with me. I am still of the school which taught that if your subject matter is important, you must work to convey the message in a high-quality manner.

I am also grateful to the author for providing me with examples of rhetoric from pivotal points in the history of Canada. Most Canadians will recall the speeches of Hitler, Lincoln, Roosevelt, King and Mandela.

But what about MacDonald, Laurier, Riel, McClung, Douglas, Pearson, Trudeau, and Gosnell of the Nisga’a First Nation?

Including a member of a Canadian First Nation in this collection is admirable. But it is only the beginning of coming to understand our history more completely. Add to that the fact that Indigenous Canadians possess pre-literary skills that surpass many of us trained with books.

I hope that colleague Dennis Gruending continues to add to this series. Now, more than ever, we need to counter the cheapness of words appearing in the modern media.

Rhetoric is a classic discipline, and its importance continues, in spite of whatever so many seem to be doing with words today.

Do you agree or differ from me on this topic?

Buy the book from Amazon.ca:


Dr. Wayne Holst teaches religion and culture at the University of Calgary and  helps  to co-ordinate Adult Spiritual Development  at St. David’s United Church in that city.

Colleagues List, Vol XIII. No.44. May 6, 2018

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