Canadian History if Necessary, But Not Necessarily Canadian History


THE CHIEF THING that I remember of high school Canadian history is that it was boring. I suspect the same is true in your case. Here is my summary of high school Canadian history, roughly as I recall it: Canada was a pristine land inhabited by some Indians, and discovered by John Cabot in 1497. Jacques Cartier later explored the interior. It’s thought Vikings were in Canada before Europeans, but in any case Samuel de Champlain first colonized the land adjacent to the St. Lawrence (Upper Canada). The French settlers took to fighting the English over control of the resources. A number of alliances with the Indians were made by each side, and trade networks were established. This was the era of the courier de bois, or ‘woods-runner,’ usually a “half-breed” who moved goods from indigenous supplier to white trader. The English gained the upper hand over the French at the Plains of Abraham, in the 1750s or so. The Treaty of Paris ceded North America to Britain. The Yankees then took to fighting the British. In the War of 1812 the Yankees were finally driven back for good. Isaac Brock fought heroically and died beside Chief Tecumseh at Queenston. Troops from Halifax invaded Washington and burnt down buildings, most famously a building which was afterward painted white and called the White House.

Canada was formed, in 1867, under the British North America Act. Sir John A. Macdonald was the first Prime Minister and the Father of the Nation; he proposed the National Plan, which involved the building of a great railway ‘from sea to shining sea.’ The railway was used to put down the Northwest Rebellion of 1885, and Riel was hanged for high treason. By 1949 the provinces as we know them had all joined Confederation (Newfoundland was the last).

At the turn of this century Canada became an industrial nation, contributing to the war efforts of 1914-18 and 1939-45. After the first world war there was great unrest, culminating in the Winnipeg General Strike. Workers fought for better wages and working conditions, and after the Depression R.B. Bennett introduced the New Deal. During the war conscription was bitterly debated, and Prime Minister William Lyon MacKenzie King said, “Conscription if necessary, but not necessarily conscription.” After the war social programs were introduced by successive Liberal governments, especially under Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau in the 1960s and 1970s. French separatists were inspired by Charles de Gaul (“vive le Québec libre”) to renew their campaign for an independent state, and after a FLQ kidnapping, Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act and placed Canada under the control of the police state. Pierre Laporte was then kidnapped and murdered.

This, then, is the summary. If pushed, I can provide further facts and legends. For examples: that Laura Secord walked barefoot through woods with a cow to warn the British of an impending attack, that Prime Minister King often spoke to his dead grandmother, that the Dionne quintuplets were born in the 1930s, that Fenians were given periodically to insane raids, and that Sir Frederick Banting discovered insulin. But these I suppose are stray details, outside of and in addition to the main story of Canada. I say ‘suppose’ because I was unsure what the main story of Canada was. Perhaps this is what made history so tedious.

I recall especially that I was forced to learn the details of the War of 1812, which seemed to consist of an endless stream of indistinguishable battles. In fact, history class is almost for me another way of saying The War of 1812; the two are in my mind synonymous. Again, I suspect this is not unusual. In retrospect, it seems the Canadians of high school history were ceaselessly getting themselves killed for England or else doing nothing much of anything. And yet even the summary I’ve provided is punctuated by truly remarkable details, such as the October crisis. Nonetheless, the boredom stubbornly obtained. I’ve often wondered if Americans have the same experience (I’m told that they do). Consider the era of the FLQ kidnappings, circa 1970, from a US perspective. The Kennedys had been shot, as had Martin Luther King. The Civil Rights movement had pretty much come to an end. The Vietnam War was at its height. Nixon was soon to leave office. All of these events have been mythologized in the United States. I’ve always imagined, incorrectly it turns out, that US high school history would be so much more exciting to learn. Even the Canadian role in the World Wars, which was doubtless dreadful for the combatants, was dull.

The common explanation for boring high school Canadian history is that Canada is the poor faithful colony that stuck by Britain for the first half of its history and then got cosy with America for the second. The story of a loyal sidekick is a heart warming but not terribly interesting affair. American history is about revolution, independence, and confrontation, all marvellously interesting things. Boil American history down to its essentials and you get a single theme: America Triumphs. Do the same with Canadian history, the argument goes, and you get William Lyon MacKenzie King.

It’s true that the American culture is more dramatic, and more violent, than the Canadian. The American habit of speech, which you’ll find represented in Canadian fiction at least as early as Thomas Haliburton, is directness. Teddy Roosevelt carries a big stick. One does not imagine him talking in the roundabout fashion of a MacKenzie King (‘Big stick if necessary, but not necessarily big stick’). American symbols, heroes, and history are invariably attended by pyrotechnics, while Canadian are not. The bald eagle soars, the beaver chews down another tree. From the former we may infer a culture of ostentatious spectacle, from the latter a pulp-and-paper industry. And so on, in a million instances, the character of these nations may be contrasted. Yet there are many similarities as well. Both American and Canadian histories are involved in a project we may term ‘nationalism’; only the modes differ. Both histories are self-flattering and to this end advance demonstrable falsehoods (‘America’s involvement in the world is motivated only by an altruistic desire to spread democracy,’ ‘Canada is a land of peace-loving environmentalists’). Worst of all, from the point of view of this essay, both are badly taught.

As proof of this last assertion I submit the following. The Canadian history which I was taught either ignored or wholly misrepresented my own ancestors, the Haudenosaunee. Such is the case for other indigenous peoples in Canada. I also note that I’ve spent the past eleven years of my life writing about something unknown to many Canadians and still not widely covered in curricula: Canada’s Indian Residential School System. It’s discouraging and even a bit weird to have intimate familiarity with something you know is invisible to the mass of people among whom you circulate in the daily course of things.

It’s probable that the boringness of Canadian history is related to its propaganda functions, and the consequent necessity of leaving out anything that contradicts its central trope: Canada is not the United States of America. Any honest reckoning of the means by which the land was taken would call into question the sharpness of this distinction. Canada has occluded the violence in its history, but the violence is nonetheless there. Soon you will be reminded (those of you who have forgotten) that the “Oka Crisis” took place twenty years ago. The conditions for a similar and even worse conflict (and Oka could have been very much worse) exist today. But of course most Canadians go along with their business unaware, even as it happens. Present ignorance and indifference follow from historical ignorance and indifference. Canadian schools ought to bear much of the blame.

There is nothing new in the case which I am here making. James W. Loewen makes it more eloquently than I in his book Lies My Teacher Told Me. The ‘histories which might have been’ are all well-documented, and most are published. They contain unpleasant truths and challenges to orthodoxy; hence, they are meaningful and interesting. They restore to the study of history depth, complexity, and controversy — those things which we know characterize life on planet Earth.

– July 1998, rev July 2010.

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