O ne would think that the man chosen to write the history of the greatest educational institution in the country would see himself as a titan sitting high atop the ivory tower of academia. Mighty pen in hand and an even mightier ego to match it.

But that’s not one of the many ways you can describe the man behind U of T’s landmark 175th anniversary history book, Martin Friedland, Professor of Law Emeritus. Actually, the above description would better suit his antithesis.

The first ego-testing question: Does Friedland see himself on par with the U of T titans he’s just written about?

He’s quick to say no. And he’s just as quick to thank his wife, his research assistants, past professors and mentors, and all those who read the history in its various drafts.

“I’ve been very, very lucky. I have had a good career and I have had a better career as an academic than I thought I would,” says Friedland.

He’s even modest about how good a job he thought he’d do writing the book.

“I knew that I’d produce a respectable history. Whether it would be a really good history or not I wasn’t sure.”

How the project of a lifetime began

After hearing through the grapevine that U of T wanted to commission a book for the university’s 175th anniversary, Friedland received a call in June of 1997 from Ron Schoeffel, the editor-in-chief of the U of T Press. Schoeffel wanted to know if Friedland would put a proposal forward.

“At the time I was working on other projects with two excellent research assistants,” says Friedland. “They both convinced me that it would be a terrific project, and the more I thought about it and worked on it, the more I realized it was more than an institutional history, but a history of Toronto, of Canada, and of ideas.

“I was trying to figure out what I would do in my post-retirement. And I had a fair number of irons in the fire. Should I continue to do what I was doing? Should I join a law firm? I was negotiating with the federal government to be a consultant on criminal law and be their resident professor, and that had some real appeal to it. And then this came along, and as I worked on it I realized it would keep me excited for five years and there was never a time where I said, ‘Why did I take this on?’

“I always liked history, even though I have no formal training in it. I didn’t even take history in Grade 13. On the other hand, I’ve done a lot of work subsequently in legal history.

“Maybe if I had been formally trained I would have found the task of writing the history too difficult. This way, I just did it.”

In the book’s epilogue, Friedland walks through campus on the last day of the millennium reminiscing. He describes looking up at McMaster Hall on Bloor Street and recalling his favourite undergraduate classes—those on economic history and international relations—courses rooted in history.

And when you look at Friedland’s own long history with the University of Toronto, it is clear to see why he was selected to write the university’s book. Friedland’s relationship with U of T began when he embarked on his Bachelor of Commerce degree in 1955. In 1958 he completed his L.L.B. After being called to the bar in 1960, he received his first academic appointment at Osgoode Law School. By 1965 he began teaching at U of T, where, with the exception of his term working on his Ph.D., which he received from Cambridge University in 1967, he has taught ever since.

Friedland was later appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1990. In 1995 he won a Molson Prize, a $50,000 award given in recognition of outstanding lifetime contributions to the intellectual and creative life of Canada. Friedland is also the author of 17 books and his legal scholarship encompasses disciplines from history and literary criticism to psychology and linguistics.

Before the glamour and glitz of academia

Friedland’s academic career was not always so grandiose. In high school he spent more time playing pool than attending classes.

“I was a very good pool player and I spent a lot time shooting pool out at Joe’s on Eglinton West (which is now a car wash).”

Friedland didn’t find his program at U of T—commerce and finance—all that exciting, either.

“I went into commerce and finance, and because I was relatively good in math it was not a difficult course. I didn’t find it stimulating, which was good because I was stimulated by other things. I got involved wtih the Hart House music committee. I played squash and water polo on both intercollegiate teams. Then I got involved with the U.C. Lit, which took a fair amount of time, and I became President of the Lit and I became very involved in the politics of the university.

“The Hart House experience played a huge role in my future career. I spent an enormous amount of time at Hart House. I was very involved and met a lot of people in other disciplines, so there was exciting discussion and conversation. I studied in the Record Room while listening to music. Took part in Hart House debates, one with Lester Pearson as the guest speaker. Got involved with the Music Committee. Read books in the library.”

The history behind the History

The last history of U of T was published in 1927 for the university’s 100th anniversary. In 1970 English professor Robin Harris was appointed University Historian. He subsequently spent the next 13 years working on a book from 1906 to 1972. In 1974, history professor Gerald Craig was appointed to write a historical account up to 1906. Neither project was successful.

“I’m certainly not going to retire before my wife does. We’ll travel, I’m sure, and then something new will come out of the blue and keep me busy for a few years.”

The likelihood of Friedland laying down his pen anytime soon is hard to imagine.

More likely he’ll find another project to keep him busy. Or he and his wife will take off to some exotic destination, only to have their retirement interrupted by another project Friedland can’t resist.

As for what’s next for Martin Friedland, even he doesn’t know.

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