National holiday nostalgia .. should Canadian history just be forgotten in new global village?

Jul 4th, 2007 | By Randall White | Category: Heritage Now

Only in Canada would the self-confessed national newspaper take the annual national holiday as an occasion for debating whether the national history should be banished as a subject in the tax-supported public schools. It is, on the other hand, part of what many Canadians like about Canada that such things do happen – and did yet again the day before this past July 1, widely rumoured to be the 140th birthday of Canada as we know it in 2007. The crucial point, some would say, is that Canadian history – as opposed to a politically correct “sort of rot that fills too many teachers’ heads” nowadays – is not actually being taught in the (provincially operated) public schools of the present confederation in any case. Yet on the other side of the argument, it still seems true enough, a country that does not have a history finally will be swallowed up by one that does. And is that what the critics want? (On the other hand, again, what about such current complications as “le fils d’immigrants mexicains ayant choisi les tats-Unis comme patrie“? And similar syndromes in Europe, India, and other parts of the world today?)

What is history?

The British historian E.H. Carr famously asked What is history? back in the early 1960s. But it is the Toronto Globe and Mail‘s always interesting John Ibbitson who has been arguing that we should just forget about Canadian history nowadays. And Mr. Ibbitson would almost certainly put Mr. Carr into an improbable Canadian box called “the NDP urging that Marx be given a second chance.” (Where the NDP, or New Democratic Party, for those who may have forgotten, is still at least Canada’s allegedly socialist political party, even in the early 21st century.)

The kind of history that John Ibbitson apparently does think should be taught in Canadian civics classes is the somewhat more recent and much more right-wing British historian “Paul Johnson’s history curriculum” – “splendidly defended …. in his introduction to The Offshore Islanders, way back in 1972.” Yet in fact this is just the same kind of history that used to be taught in most English-speaking Canadian public schools – in the days before what Mr. Ibbitson calls the current “sort of rot that fills too many teachers’ heads” had a chance to develop.

Take, for instance, two historical examples from Mr. Ibbitson’s home province of Ontario. The first is a book published by The Ryerson Press in Toronto in 1939, for Grade VIII students in the province, and called The Empire Story. It was divided into four parts : “Great Britain”; “The Dominions”; “The Colonies”; and “Empire and Commonwealth.”

If you are looking for the roots of Canadian multiculturalism today, at least a few of them are here. Consider, e.g., pp. 190 and 203, which explain how : “The Empire includes many races of people … white men, black men, yellow men, brown men. Over sixty per cent of the white race (including the Hindus), twenty per cent of the Negroid, six per cent of the Semitic (such as the Arabs), six per cent of the Polynesian (brown-skinned) and smaller percentages of the Mongoloid (yellow-skinned) and Red Indian races have their homes within the British Empire.” (And nowadays, someone might want to add, in Canada itself, although in rather different proportions – and using what we now see as less overtly “racist” language.)

The second example is what some still find a memorable book for “the intermediate grades of the elementary schools” called Pirates and Pathfinders, published in Canada by Clarke, Irwin and Company Limited in 1954. It was divided into seven parts : “The Road to Cathay”; “To the New World”; “Around the World”; “Discoveries in the South Seas”; “Light on the Dark Continent”; “The Search for the North-West Passage”; and “To the Ends of the Earth.”

This volume, critics today might urge, was far too much focused on how various Europeans “discovered” the rest of what Marshall McLuhan started calling the global village in the 1960s. But it did focus as well on what John Ibbitson has approvingly termed “the role that our nation has played in the ongoing advance of Western civilization.” (More or less, and allowing, even if Mr. Ibbitson would not seem to quite agree, that the term “Western civilization” itself is now fading. The real rising global village has proved to be a bigger and more diverse place.)

What is Canada?

What both John Ibbitson and his June 30, 2007 Globe and Mail debating opponent, Mr. Michael Valpy, seem to agree on is that Canadian history is not seriously being taught in most Canadian tax-supported public schools nowadays anyway. And that is a shame. Because the real history of the most northern parts of North America over the past 500 years, say, is in fact quite interesting. And it ought to be informative and even useful for the diverse Canadian people of today, and for almost all the public policy issues they face in the early 21st century.

The Globe and Mail tells us that in current Canadian public schools, according to “Ken Osborne – a professor emeritus at the University of Manitoba who has spent most of his career training history teachers … If you take all your history credits … you are likely to learn these core points: Canada has a long aboriginal history … and aboriginal peoples occupy a key place in our history … Canada was once a colony of France, then of Britain … Bilingualism, multiculturalism, regional diversity, federalism and parliamentary democracy are defining characteristics of Canada … U.S. relations have been a formative element of our evolution … Immigration is a major factor in Canada’s development … International events play an important role in our past … History as a subject is characterized by ongoing debate and interpretation.”

Yet even for those few who do “take all your history credits” this is vague stuff at best. It does not do much to help you figure out what Canada is today and what its future might be – and how this relates to you, no matter what your own background may be in 2007.

From this angle, it is almost certainly true that the best and most interesting – and most useful – book on Canadian history written to date is still Harold Innis’s The Fur Trade in Canada: An Introduction to Canadian Economic History, first published as long ago as 1930. The single best update of Innis’s pioneering struggles to understand the Canadian past is probably still the first volume of the Historical Atlas of Canada, edited by R. Cole Harris, and first published in 1987. (And Innis’s still quite sketchy 1950 book, Empire and Communications, remains probably the most interesting introduction to Marshall McLuhan’s “global village” of the 1960s – even if none of this is given much weight or attention by most history teachers in Canada today.)

In fact, Canadian academic research over the past half century has produced a wealth of material that follows up provocatively on all the pioneering work in the first half of the 20th century. Some complain that “social history” has replaced “political history” in the stories of the past offered by the tax-supported public schools. It may be more apt to say that the new kind of Canadian political history towards which Innis and others pointed has yet to be written.

That may be the challenge for the generation coming into its own as the 21st century gets underway. However you look at it, the ultimate truth still seems to be that a country which can’t figure out any political history for itself is unlikely to have much of a political future either. (And just falling back on old or new British imperial historians – or French or American ones, for that matter – as John Ibbitson proposes, doesn’t really help.)

Two rather clear hints about the kind of political (and social and economic) history that lies in wait for the Canada we increasingly seem to have today loom on the horizon. The first is that modern Canada is much or at least considerably older than the public school textbooks of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s proposed. And the second is that the history of the diverse (and even, as Stephen Harper puts it, eclectic) Canadian political nation rising around us now is still very new.

“As Innis maintained,” R. Cole Harris told us in his preface to the 1987 first volume of the Historical Atlas, “the pattern of Canada has been taking shape for almost 500 years and by New World standards is old.” Put another way, the story of today’s rising Canadian multiculturalism has its deepest roots in the “Indian-European” fur trade of Canada that began in the 16th century – and had spread from the Atlantic to the Arctic to the Pacific oceans by the late 18th century.

By its golden age in the early 19th century the transcontinental Canadian fur trade embraced people of African and even Asian descent, as well as all the assorted North American Indians and Europeans. And, as Innis somewhat poetically explained in 1930, the romantically adventurous fur-trading North West Company, headquartered in Montreal, was “the forerunner of the present confederation … built on the work of the French voyageur, the contributions of the Indian, especially the canoe, Indian corn, and pemmican, and the organizing ability of Anglo-American merchants.” (And again: “We have not yet realized that the Indian and his culture were fundamental to the growth of Canadian institutions.”)

At the same time, the present confederation that began in 1867 – and whose 140th birthday was celebrated on July 1, 2007 – was not when it began the independent and almost grown-up Canadian political nation we have at last begun to know today. It was just the first self-governing dominion of the old British empire. The emerging free and democratic Canadian nation of today only began, in an altogether serious way, after the Second World War.

There was no such thing as a Canadian citizen, for instance, until the first Canadian Citizenship Act was passed by the Parliament of Canada in 1947. (Before that inhabitants of the Canadian confederation were legally just known as British subjects.) Newfoundland and Labrador did not round out the emerging Canadian nation geographically until 1949. There was no Canadian flag until 1965. Until Pierre Trudeau’s Constitution Act 1982, many parts of the Constitution of Canada could still only be legally amended by the Parliament of the United Kingdom.

Still more importantly, no doubt, the emerging Canadian political nation of the present day is still emerging. The Parliament of Canada only last year recognized that the Quebecois constitute a nation within a united Canada. There is still much work to be done on reforming the present Senate of Canada, to properly represent all Canadian regions equitably in the federal Parliament. We have only begun to realize what the original racial diversity and multiculturalism of the ancient fur trade era means for the long-term future in Marshall McLuhan’s global village. Though section 35 of the Constitution Act 1982 declares that the “existing aboriginal and treaty rights of the aboriginal peoples of Canada are hereby recognized and affirmed,” we are still far from any serious agreement on what this means practically.

Much remains to be done, in other words, to bring the present-day emerging Canadian political nation into the full light of day. And it is going to be done by the remarkable assortment of people from virtually all parts of the global village who are assembling within Canada’s vast geography today. Our tax-supported public schools ought to be teaching the kind of Canadian history that can help this happen.

The best thing about Canada Day, July 1, 2007, as you watched all the diverse young and old people alike, heading home from the fireworks by your local lake or river, was that it almost seemed certain this finally is going to happen, soon enough.

And why not? As Michael Byers, who “holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law” at the University of British Columbia, has just put it: “We have the world’s second largest expanse of real estate … well-educated, globally connected people … abundant natural resources …. Our location, halfway between Europe and Asia and next door to the United States, gives us easy access to the world’s largest markets. We have the eighth largest economy and are the only G-8 country (apart from oil- and gas-rich Russia) with balanced books.”

There must be something a bit interesting about the history of the past 500 years that has brought all of us from all parts of the global village to this point in Canada today. Our tax-supported public schools, in all provinces (and territories) and both official languages, ought to be giving our diverse children a few broad hints about just what it is.

Randall White is the author of a number of books on Canadian history and politics, including Ontario 16101985: A Political and Economic History, and (with the Toronto artist Michael J. Seward) On the Road in the GTA: An eclectic guide to the exurban sprawl of Greater Toronto.

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