Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Canada 150: Yesterday

To mark our country's 150th birthday I will be writing a trio of posts. I want to look at Canada's past, present, and future. It, of course, won't be definitive in any way, but figured it would be a valuable way to talk about our sesquicentennial. Before I go on to the topic I would like to take a moment to point out that this week marks the seventh anniversary of this blog. What a strange idea that is.

I've written about Canada's history before. I've written on specific topics and on the general notion. This post will fall firmly in the latter category.

The 150th anniversary of Canada has stirred significant controversy. The first is setting Canada's birthday and age at 150. Critics argue that setting the date there inherently cuts the narrative of people before 1867 off. Our country does not exist in a vacuum so there is an inherent time before Canada that led to Canada. You can tell our story 1867 forward but I think many Canadians don't see it that way. Quebecois, First Nations, Inuit, and Acadians and on want to see their deep history reflected in this national narrative.

This fundamentally reveals the truth that any historian can tell you: Canada doesn't have history, it has histories. This isn't just about identity politics. We can examine history through a social lens, an economic lens, a regional/local lens, a cultural lens, and on and on. If you look at a generic history of Canada you will find an exceptional amount of attention on personalities which loses marginalized voices. The story of Canada as we traditionally tell it doesn't give insight into life in Saskatchewan in 1890s, or the impact on the collapse of the fur trade on workers and our economy, or any other number of voices that aren't 'central' to understanding how we got to where we are.

Canadians are tragically ignorant of their history. I have seen this as a teacher and in my interactions with normal Canadians who have no idea what I'm talking about when I have mentioned fundamental parts of our history. Obviously I likely set an unreasonably high bar, but the critical failure surely doesn't inspire confidence.

Canada's histories are certainly things to be celebrated, learned from, criticized and enjoyed. One of the problems our ignorance causes is that blind celebration seems ignorant. Canadians can be tremendously proud of their history. Likewise we don't need to feel damaged every time a figure or moment in history is problematized by critical commentary. This feedback enriches the project.

Take for example the connection of this country with the national railway. I think the 'traditional' telling of that story is quite boring. It's about how great men and visionaries stitched together the country with a ribbon of steel. Now that story is incomplete without discussing Chinese labourers, the corruption and graft on the railways, the state of the West at the time, and the dramas all those entail.

Richard Gwyn wrote a fascinating biography of Sir John A. Macdonald, which I reviewed on this blog. The human portrait of one of our great leaders does not diminish the man, but elevate him. Being critical of our national heroes does not mean we are tearing them down.

As we mark our 150th birthday, and the centuries that preceded it, I would strongly urge Canadians to take some time to reflect upon their history. Visit a museum, read a book, watch a documentary, or talk to someone about our shared history.

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