Allan Greer: Canadian History Is So Boring ... Or Is it?

Roundup: Talking About History

[Allan Greer teaches Canadian history and the colonial history of the Americas at the University of Toronto. His most recent book is Mohawk Saint: Catherine Tekakwitha and the Jesuits.]

As someone who has spent 30 years researching, writing and teaching the history of Canada, I hear two main messages from my fellow Canadians about my favourite subject: 1. It's boring; 2. We need more of it.

The same people who tell you that Canadian history is a snooze will nod in agreement with newspaper reports raising the alarm over the latest Dominion Institute poll showing that the average 14-year-old doesn't know the difference between John A. Macdonald and Ronald McDonald. We need more Canadian history in the schools, they will insist, more historical content in the media. If this is to be a self-respecting country, every citizen should have the names of prime ministers and the dates of battles at their fingertips. And by the way, zzzzz...

These two attitudes may look antithetical, but they're not.

Depending on how you look at it, the Canadian past can be exciting and challenging or deadly dull. For most people, the formative encounter with Canadian history takes place in school. And this subject, unlike math, chemistry and English, tends to be valued mainly as civic education. Designed to tell us who we are as a nation and help us to be better citizens, the accent inevitably tends to be on consensus and uplift. Not that the content is all uncritical celebration -- students learn that the internment of Japanese-Canadians during the Second World War was a bad thing and the hanging of Louis Riel may not have been a good idea -- but even in the hands of dedicated and imaginative teachers, this is a subject bathed in an atmosphere of national piety.

My point here is not to single out educators, since they only respond to the expectations of the society at large. Canada Day oratory, historic sites and reenactments and television "heritage moments" express a similar attitude towards Canadian history; together they proclaim, in essence, that this is about national pride and warm feelings. All very nice, I suppose, but hardly the stuff of intellectual excitement.

Leave out the qualifier "Canadian" and just talk about history for a moment. Under this broader rubric, thoughtful people might not expect affirmative tales of national identity, but challenging questions about the human condition. Did Christianity contribute to the fall of the Roman Empire? Was the Industrial Revolution a disaster for workers? Did Stalinism represent the culmination or the perversion of the Bolshevik Revolution?

Questions of this sort exercise the minds of historians, as well as the minds of their students and readers, and none of them is susceptible to an easy answer. Grappling with these historical issues requires erudition, hard thinking and a willingness to question comfortable assumptions. That is not the spirit in which most people approach Canadian history. It is as if "history" and "Canadian history" existed in separate universes. One of these universes is an unsettling place where curiosity, ambiguity and debate reign; the other is an environment constructed around reassuring certainties.

Why can't we close this gap and treat Canadian history as one dimension of the history of humanity? Even to pose this question is to invite ridicule. "We never had great wars and revolutions," everyone will tell you, "and so our undramatic story can only appeal to Canadians." (And only to dutiful and conscientious Canadians, at that.) Well, then, why are so many American historians showing an interest in Canada's past? As a 17th-18th century specialist, I attend conferences where U.S. colonialists meet to discuss their research. At this year's gathering at the University of California at Santa Barbara, much of the buzz focused on Yale historian John Mack Farragher's recent book on the deportation of the Acadians from Nova Scotia; Mr. Farragher sees the grand derangement of 1755 as one of the first instances of ethnic cleansing in the modern world....

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