I belong to a group called the Canadian Association of Former Parliamentarians, and they have a publication called Beyond the Hill. Their current issue carries an interview with me by Wade Morris about my recent book Speeches That Changed Canada. He asks not only about the book and the political speeches contained within it, but also about my next projects. It’s always delicate for writers to talk about what they plan to do next, but I did answer the question. You can read about it here.
Q&A with Dennis Gruending about speeches that changed Canada
Many of Canada’s most historically significant actions took a bit of convincing. In his new book, Speeches That Changed Canada, former MP Dennis Gruending curates a collection of speeches that were pivotal in shaping the country. Dennis navigates through centuries of Canadian politics, looking at issues from confederation to women’s right to vote. He deeply examines the speeches, looking at both their context and delivery.
Aside from being a former parliamentarian, Dennis has written several books, including best-seller Great Canadian Speeches in 2004. Dennis also runs two blogs – Great Canadian Speeches and Pulpit and Politics.
Beyond the Hill: You wrote a book called Great Canadian Speeches over a decade ago, and you’ve blogged about speeches. How is Speeches That Changed Canada different from your past work?
Dennis Gruending: Great Canadian Speeches was really a big research project. I didn’t have the time or room to put speeches into context in any great detail, but I gave very brief introductions to the speeches. As I did the book, it occurred to me that there were so many interesting things to write about related to many of these speeches. In Speeches That Changed Canada, I would tear the speeches down, look at what the orator was doing to his or her audience to convince them to do what they wanted them to do. I got a contract to write such a book, but then I ended up taking a very busy job for six years, and didn’t get back to the book. I retired not long ago. I was asked by my publisher if I was interested in doing such a book, and I was very much interested. That’s how Speeches That Changed Canada came to be.
Beyond the Hill: The book talks about history, politics, language, and performance. What audiences were you considering while writing Speeches That Changed Canada?
Dennis Gruending: I was thinking of anyone who is interested in Canadian history, which, I am. I’ve always been interested in politics – I was briefly an MP. I have a degree in English literature and another in journalism, so I’m very interested in language, and its uses, and helping myself and other people know how to analyze what they’re being told, and to get some sense of what the person talking to us expects us to do and what tricks they’re using on us. So, it’s for anyone with an interest in Canadian history, politics, or literature, with a special emphasis on students, professors, and people on Parliament Hill.
Beyond the Hill: So the book combines several experiences that you’ve had.
Dennis Gruending: That’s one of the very exciting things about it. As I said, the first book was mainly an immense research project. I read for several years. This book contains some of the speeches from the first book, and some new ones. There are fewer – there are eleven of them. That gave me the freedom to write more about each speaker and each speech.
Beyond the Hill: What was the research process like for Speeches That Changed Canada?
Dennis Gruending: First, I had to find the speeches. Each had to be important, in the sense that there had to be something at stake. It couldn’t be an ‘after dinner’ speech. It had to be like Louis Riel trying to save his life, or John A. McDonald trying to convince the people of Canada to have confederation. The speaker also had to be able to rise to the occasion. They had to have the rhetorical skills to take on their topic, to take on a point of crisis in some cases. That’s how I chose the eleven speeches. Then, a lot of reading. For each speaker, I would read biographies, and give a great deal of attention to footnotes. I find that biographers will write about a speech in passing. I would go to the footnote and find that speech. Anybody who wrote about someone as a speaker, I would follow that. For example, someone wrote about John A. McDonald and they talked about how he spoke, and what his voice sounded like. Those nuggets are not very plentiful, so I kept and used the ones I found. I was looking for the person’s rhetorical ability probably more than I was looking at their ability as a politician.
Beyond the Hill: If someone is interested in speech writing or public speaking, what lessons could they learn from Speeches That Changed Canada?
Dennis Gruending: I think the message goes all the way back to Aristotle. In Greek society, rhetoric was highly prized. Aristotle was trying to teach his students how to analyze what they were being told. A very important thing for us in our democracy is for people to be educated, in a sense that they can assemble and tear down what speakers are telling them, and say, ‘well, he’s saying that, but that’s not really quite so’, or, ‘they’re playing around with my emotions’.
Beyond the Hill: Do you have any plans to publish more writing?
Dennis Gruending: I have no immediate plans, but I have a few ideas. One is about my family’s history, and the society in which I grew up: Saskatchewan in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s. I would go back in time to my grandparents – one came from Germany and another came from Ukraine – and try to look at what life was like for them, and why they came to Canada, and what happened when they came here. That’s a fairly commonly told story, but not deeply researched. Right now, I’m focusing more on Speeches That Changed Canada, and keeping my blogs going.
Source: Beyond the Hill, spring 2019
Dennis Gruending is an Ottawa-based author and blogger and a former Member of Parliament. See his website for his latest book, Speeches That Changed Canada.