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The Late Francis Peter Cundill


Hon. Serge Joyal: Honourable senators, I join our colleague, Senator Michael Meighen, in highlighting the exceptional contribution made by the late Peter Cundill, who recently passed away.

Peter Cundill, born in Montreal, educated at McGill University and very involved in the world of financial institutions, has left us his unique perspective based on his experience as an investor and financial advisor.


However, Peter Cundill was not only a successful businessman, he was also a humanist. He held the strong conviction that in an ever-changing world where technologies command continuous adjustments, where diversity of population accelerates through the steady flow of immigration and where various ideologies may appear to be in conflict, the knowledge and mastery of history is fundamental to peace and respect of others.

Canadians generally do not even know the basic tenets of their own history. Our fragmented education system does not teach history as a compulsory subject but more as an optional choice. At the end of their school curricula, Canadian students may graduate from a specialized school or even a university without knowing anything, for instance, of the history of the 20th century — one of the most violent.

According to a survey conducted in 2009 for the Dominion Institute, only four Canadians out of ten can recognize Sir John A. Macdonald as the first Prime Minister of Canada, even though his picture and name appear on the $10 bill.

Peter Cundill was deeply convinced that Canadians had to be better aware of the importance of history and that it must be made more accessible to them. To that end, he proposed an initiative to establish an annual prize in history at the level of the well-known prestigious Nobel Prize.

He spoke to his longstanding friend from McGill University, Senator Michael Meighen, who shared his interest. Senator Meighen took the initiative to the dean of the political science faculty at McGill, Mr. Christopher Manfredi, to establish the Cundill International Prize and Lecture in History. Thanks to the Cundill Foundation, the Cundill Prize in History was financed at the level of an annual grand prize of US$75,000 and two Recognition of Excellence prizes of US$10,000 each, making the Cundill Prize the world's richest prize in history.

The winning historians are selected by an independent jury of at least five members selected by McGill University, drawn either from well-known professional historians — for instance, from Germany, France, England, United States or Canada — and from qualified persons having expressed, through their past activities or publications, a genuine interest in history.

I served as a member of the jury for the first two years of Cundill Prize and can testify to the enthusiasm of the contestants. The first year of the prize, there were more than 190 different book submissions from six countries around the world. The first recipient of the Cundill Prize in 2008 was the historian Stuart B. Schwartz from Yale University for his work entitled: All Can Be Saved: Religious Tolerance and Salvation in the Iberian Atlantic World.

In 2009, the American historian David Hackett Fischer from Brandeis University received the second prize for his book entitled: Champlain's Dream, on the life and thoughts of the first French explorer, Samuel de Champlain, so important for his explorations and his writing on Canada, Quebec and the U.S. The book is a library success and will be translated into French this year.

Thanks to the vision of Peter Cundill and the dedication of Senator Meighen, history is now elevated to the level of knowledge essential to peace and respect of others. As Peter Cundill reminded us:

You have to study the past to understand the present and predict the future.

Canadians will always remember Peter Cundill for his deeply held conviction of the strategic importance of world history and the history of Canada.