Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Why Canadian History is Awesome

This post will not quite jive with what I normally do on this blog, but I have been known to take requests from readers – and one requested this so here we go.

For those of you who may not know, I am a graduate student studying history. History is often something not easily justifiable as a field of study. Within the study of history I am the only student studying Canadian history. I have had to endure many slings and arrows from fellow history nerds about the relative superiority of their subsection. Therefore I present to you:

Ten Reasons Canadian History is Awesome

10 - An Old Nation

A common criticism of Canada is that it is a young country, and therefore its history is very limited. This is a myth. Yes, the Dominion of Canada which has evolved into the country we know today was founded a little over 150 years ago. This is a limitation that virtually no other nation faces. No one measures French history at the start of the Fifth Republic in 1958, nor American history after the adoption of the Constitution in 1787, etc. Canada has had at least 10,000 years of human habitation. Even taking into account the incredibly narrow view that European contact is the marker of a start of Canadian history – our origins precede the United States with the 1497 discovery of Newfoundland by John Cabot, or the Viking colony from 1000 CE. We know far too little about Canada before 1000 CE, but that just means we have work to do.

9 - Canada in the World, and the World in Canada

Canada is a strange country in that in its long history it has been very strongly tied to the rest of the world. While at other times in history other nations have been able to bar its doors and turn its back on the world, Canada has been unable to. Therefore those things which shook the world hit Canada, often particularly hard. The best example of this is the Great Depression. Canada was one of the hardest hit nations in the world with 32% unemployment, only being surpassed by Germany. In geopolitics Canada always seems to be in the thick of it. Whether the imperial conflicts of English and French, or the Cold War, Canada is front and centre. The final part of this point is that the world has found a home in Canada. Multiculturalism has brought hundreds of ethnicities and languages to Canada and created connections to the rest of the globe. The history and on-goings of the world are deeply tied to Canada and her people.

8 - Canada, Battlefield of History

Within the borders of what we now know as Canada have been several major battles that have shaped the destiny of the whole world. The battles that took place in Quebec, Nova Scotia and Ontario have as much (or greater) role in determining the present than any battle in World War II. The Battles of Louisbourg and the Plains of Abraham are not merely important for the formation of Canada, but they also effectively ended the French Empire in North America. During the War of 1812 British and First Nations repelled repeated American invasions, and also torched Washington – for the win.

If these battles do not seem significant, please consider the counterfactual scenario, or alternative history. If the British failed to conquer New France the upper half of North America may have remained French. Canada may have still come to be, and may still have been called Canada, but it would be a French nation, not French and English. Had the Americans succeeded in their conquest of British North America, realizing their dream of Manifest Destiny, the United States would rule from Baffin Island to the Rio Grande, which assumes that after conquering Canada and the western United States they would be satisfied.

7 - Towards a Common Country

What Canada is is not a static idea. What is Canada and who are Canadian is constantly in flux. In each century, and in different parts of the country, different answers arose to the same questions. Much of Canada’s history is a debate of who can be included. The most prominent example of this is the narrative of the struggle between French-Canadians and English-Canadians. Most countries, I dare say, have not operated this way in its history. The complex relationship between groups to define Canada is a fascinating and on-going part of our history.

6 - Canada – Original Stormtroopers

This is the go-to answer for most Canadians of Canadian history’s greatness – our national accomplishments during the World Wars. For much of our history Canada has punched above its weight. As a relatively small country we have had a disproportionate impact on the shape and outcome of major conflicts. Canadian forces have long been hailed as highly skilled, motivated and capable soldiers, as evidenced by our performance at Vimy Ridge, Passchendaele, Juno Beach and the Liberation of Holland – to name a few. Our fearsome reputation was well earned.  

5- Voice for the Voiceless

The form of history most in vogue in Canadian studies these days – or so it seems to me – is social history. Historians are very interested in providing voices to the voiceless. The voiceless are those in society who did not have access to political or social power – women, the lower classes, immigrants, First Nations, and on. Canadian history offers a panoply of perspectives and scenarios. Traditional views of how society operated in Canada’s past is always being challenged, presenting a fascinating mosaic. These histories are often equally contentious and illuminating.

4 - A Nation of Nations

“Canadianness” is a construction, and many Canadians (presently and in the past) have multiple identities. Canada is composed of hundreds, perhaps thousands of competing nations – be they our First Nations, with their distinct cultures, or the new arrivals. Each nation within Canada has a distinct story. Figuring out the tale of how Canada came to be is more often deciphering a mosaic, rather than interpreting a paint-by-numbers. Even our distinct regions and provincial interests mean that a national narrative can always be challenged. This diversity of peoples means that Canadian history is a very simple narrative to learn, but a very difficult thing to understand.

3 – Protest, Revolts and Revolutions

Canadian history is often labelled as being dull. What people mean by this is that it is not very violent, and we really need a good spilling of blood to get excited. I blame Hollywood. That being said Canadian history has its share of spilt blood, despite the perception otherwise. First, to understand the formation of Canada you have to understand the American Revolution, which produced two countries, not one. In 1837, 1870, 1885, 1919 and the 1930s we see major revolts in Canada. Many of them have a revolutionary tenor. It is only through brutal suppression of the government that they were not successful. Each time the people of Canada rose up another mark was made on the history of Canada.

The social and political evolution of this country has been profound from its earliest origins. The roots are ancient, but since then the tree that is this country has grown and changed dramatically, shaped by the hands of its people – not just its elites. The social justice principles so many Canadians hold dear were not an accident of history, they came from a concerted effort to make this a better country. These movements and their histories make this country a richer place.

2 - Our ‘Great’ Leaders

Great is a difficult term, but sometimes I think as cynical Canadians we hesitate to heap praise on our historic leaders. The truth of the matter is that many of our leaders can stand proud amongst the leaders of the world. Richard Gwyn has just put out a second volume to his biography to Sir John A. Macdonald, in an interview he said that Macdonald may be a better leader than his contemporaries, which include Benjamin Disraeli and Abraham Lincoln. But there are many figures from our past we can look to: Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Gen. Arthur Currie, Tecumseh, Joseph Brant, Tommy Douglas, Elijah Harper, Nellie McClung, Rene Levesque, Louis Riel, to name a few.

There are also the infamous, which I will not list. Canada has not shortage of colour characters shaping its past. None are saints, nor are they devils, they’re people who contributed to our present with fascinating stories.

1 - Who are we?

When I teach history I tend to start off with a simple idea, we cannot know where we are if we don’t know where we came from. We are products of our history. Even those new Canadians are part of a larger tapestry that fits within a larger patchwork assembled over hundreds of years. The actions of our forbearers have measurable impact on the lives we lead today. Our individual identities are inextricably tied to how we understand ourselves as a whole country or a nation.


Z said...


Genuine. Passionate. And there's a kind of self-affirmation, both for the subject and the author.

Finally: Fantastic.

Stay classy.

SJL said...

Thanks Z, it definitely justifies my choices, despite their lack of a economic benefit.