Canada’s National History Society is very saddened to hear of the passing of Canadian Historian Michael Bliss. The publisher of 14 books on Canadian history and politics, Bliss was an icon of Canadian history and will be sorely missed.
Bliss served at the University of Toronto for 38 years, where he achieved the rank of University Professor Emeritus. The rank of University Professor was reserved for “unusual scholarly achievement and pre-eminence in a particular field of knowledge” and is reserved for less than two per cent of all tenured faculty at the University. He was also an Officer of the Order of Canada, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, and the only historian to be named a member of the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame.
In 1985, Bliss was first approached by Toronto publisher Bill Nobleman, who was reviewing what the Hudson’s Bay Company should do with its publication The Beaver. The magazine, described by Bliss in his memoir Writing History: A Professor’s Life, “published stories about the fur trade, life in the north, and other aspects of Canadian history. But its corporate secretary, Rolph Huband, believed the journal could be saved, or at least spill a lot less red ink.”
Bliss joined a new advisory committee for the magazine that included Nobleman, Huband, and HBC archivist Shirley Smith. “The team soon learned how to put out a vastly improved magazine whose circulation more than doubled in a couple of years,” Bliss explained. “The Beaver was not only saved, but began to be noticed and subscribed to by history buffs across the country, and in the best years even made a few dollars for the HBC.”
Bliss continued his connection with The Beaver and was still involved when Rolph Huband convinced the Hudson’s Bay Company to donate its archival and material collection to the Province of Manitoba and to use the tax receipt to create a new foundation to support of these collections.
“Rolph carried this out adroitly, leading to the folding of The Beaver into a new organization, Canada’s National History Society. The Beaver advisory board became the core of the CNHS Board of Directors.”
Joe Martin, President Emeritus of the History Society, recalls how he first met Michael in the late 1980s. “He was a distinguished History professor at the University of Toronto,” Martin recalls. “At that time I was Partner in Charge of a large Canadian management consulting firm whose 40th anniversary was approaching. I bought 100 copies of Northern Enterprise: Five Centuries of Canadian Business for our Partners, Principals and international guests. Buying copies of a book tends to make an author like you and Michael gave me a copy of his award-winning A Canadian Millionaire: The Life and Business Times for Sir Joseph Flavelle.”
When Canada’s National History Society was forming, Martin reconnected with Bliss on the flight from Toronto to Winnipeg. “We worked well together and kept in touch, even after he had left the Board,” explains Martin.
It was during this brief tenure as a founding board member of Canada’s National History Society that Bliss recommended the creation of a new award in honour of Pierre Berton. Bliss had worked with Berton as a reviewer and contributor to his many publishing projects.
“When we discussed possible activities for the new society I suggested that we fund a prize for a significant contribution to popularizing Canadian history, that we called it the Pierre Berton Award, and that we make Pierre Berton the first recipient,” explained Bliss. “We did and he was and The Berton Award has become one of the most prestigious in a now-crowded field.”
Bliss, who dedicated his life to education, also played an important role as a founding board member in the establishment of the Governor General’s History Awards. He attended the awards in the fall of 2016 and remarked to his former student and current Canada’s History board member Sasha Mullally that the creation of the awards was always intended to reward the efforts of school teachers in Canada who helped instill a love of Canadian history in their students.
Sadly, Bliss is the third member of the original advisory committee for The Beaver to pass away in recent months. Both Bill Nobleman and Rolph Huband also passed away in the fall of 2016.
Michael Bliss leaves behind a tremendous legacy of contribution to the field of Canadian history. His influence will continue to be felt through his publications and his many students who now are leaders in their own right at universities and institutions across Canada.