In this year of Canada 150, it’s not uncommon on university campuses to hear a lot of scepticism about “celebrations” of confederation. This isn’t especially surprising. Scholars rarely celebrate anything (unless it is the end of marking season). But celebrations of the nation state often seem intrinsically troublesome – something we study rather than take part in.
Our scepticism is deeply rooted. Since Lytton Strachey, if not before, the main mode of historical writing has been irony. Just as Strachey showed the not-so-eminent underside to his Victorians, historians too expose the darker realities of what might otherwise seem to be historical respectability. We clarify and correct myths that omit unpleasant realities; we question the convenient silences in certain versions of the past. Years ago the great Canadian historian Arthur Lower claimed that the task of the historian was to chase around after those who create myths of the past, hectoring them with shouts of “That’s not how it really happened!” If this can sometimes seem pedantic (never go to historic films with historians) it also has a serious purpose – to correct false assumptions and to insist on complexity.
In the case of Canada 150, there is the added element of political earnestness. Over the last thirty years the moving force in the historical profession has been to replace an older history of the nation state with a people’s history of Canada. In these people’s histories, the Canadian nation has often been either irrelevant to the everyday realities of people’s lives or, when it has been relevant, historians show how the state has often been the enactor of discrimination, harsh treatment, or neglect. Who wants to celebrate that?
Especially in recent years, in the wake of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the idea of celebrating Canadian history can seem to some like a sick joke. The @resistance150 twitter account is but one gathering space for an activist voice which wants to call attention to the history of cultural genocide, land expropriation and degradation that has gone hand in hand with the creation of this nation called Canada. While it used to often be said that Canada had an “Indian Problem” my Trent University colleague David Newhouse has written compelling about how it is Indigenous people who have had, and continue to have, a “Canada problem”.
In other words, the idea that any celebration of Canada’s 150th anniversary needs to be problematized speaks to two powerful scholarly trends and impulses – our academic scepticism and rigour as well as a politically engaged scholarship.
I come to this discussion as someone who has been involved in several ways in trying to mark the Canada 150 anniversary in ways that account for this critique but aren’t neutered by it.
Along with other Trent colleagues and with the help of private benefactors, I helped to co-create a private Canada 150 project called Canadian Difference. The project has created a gathering place online where engaged, thoughtful Canadians discuss key political issues related to Canada’s past, present and future. The website was launched in the summer of 2016 and is still running today (though not for much longer). The project focuses on the idea of mutual accommodation – on the tradition (sometimes successful, sometimes failed, or not even tried) of accommodating differences within Canada. These includes differences between French and English Canadians, between Canadians of different ethnic backgrounds, and even between Canadians and others outside the country, notably our closest neighbours, the Americans. Even though there is arguably, though not undebatably, a compelling Canadian history of mutual accommodation, we also insisted that we take on current issues of fundamental difference which could not be so easily celebrated, such as the politics of reconciliation and Indigenous peoples, and the place of Muslims in contemporary Canada.
I raise my experience creating Canadian Difference because it showed me how traditional scholarly scepticism towards historical celebrations has in many cases veered into hostility. Scholarly scepticism is easy to respect – it’s an ideal we should all strive for. But in organizing Canadian Difference, I was struck often by the outright hostility of colleagues who wanted nothing whatsoever to do with anything associated with Canada 150. Canadian Difference relies upon experts in the field to lead the discussions. Here was a chance to step forward and engage with the broader public on pressing contemporary issues connected with our research. Yet our open calls for volunteers at the university went largely unanswered. Although I was exceptionally grateful for the academics who did step forward to volunteer, I was also struck by those who shied away from any involvement whatsoever.
This hostility to Canadian Difference was mirrored in plans at the university to mark the anniversary of Canada 150. When we discussed the possibility of holding events in connection with the university administration and other local groups, colleagues dismissed the idea of marking Canada 150 outright. Even when the university administration suggested we make Indigenous reconciliation a key theme, colleagues shot down this idea as being too accommodationist: it would merely legitimate the Canadian project and the idea of Canada. So long as scholars could control how Canada was going to be interpreted, this was fine. But if it was left open to allow for celebration, this would be a problem.
This mirrored my experience in another Canada 150 controversy – the debate over whether to erect statues of Canada’s prime ministers on the campus at Wilfrid Laurier University. When the university initially approved the plans of a citizens’ group in Waterloo in 2015 to erect the statues, a group of activists on campus (faculty and students alike) lobbied to quash the plan. They claimed that having statues of leaders like John A Macdonald would be emotionally damaging to students, especially to Indigenous students. The university, they claimed, ought to be a safe space, free of this kind of harmful material. Their arguments won the day and the university administration backed down, cancelling the program.
I penned an op-ed in the Globe & Mail about the issue and was later invited to a roundtable organized by the Canadian History of Education Association to rehash the debate. At the roundtable, I was the token opposition – the only person in the room to suggest that having statues of Canadian prime ministers was not intrinsically offensive. The case I tried to make there was that Canadian history was complex – that Canadian leaders had multiple legacies which couldn’t be judged on single criteria. We can simultaneously commemorate the history of the Canadian state and political leadership and still be aware of the darker side of our history.
The discussion in the question and answer session was especially telling. Speakers came back again and again to the idea of a broader public in need of education. Yes, we should be interested in Canadians who wanted to erect statues of prime ministers various commentators said. But our goal should be to educate them – to reveal to them a critical history of the Canadian state and the negative legacy of these prime ministers. So education in this context was not far off what might, in other cases, be called indoctrination.
It was, for me, a surreal conversation. On the one hand, the participants were imagining this audience of people in need of a proper education. And there I was in the room, the one voice of dissent, and yet also a historian of Canadian politics. I spend my life writing and teaching about Canadian political history. I was as aware as anyone in the room of the full history, for example, of John A Macdonald and his policies towards Indigenous peoples and non-white immigrants. Yet I was offering a different interpretation of what this meant. Despite my very presence in the room as proof, it didn’t seem to occur to the speakers that differences of opinion were possible – that disagreement did not equal ignorance. This view of the scholar’s role in commemoration implied a singular and homogenous truth that we needed to pass on to an uninformed public. It’s more akin to a missionary spreading the gospel truth rather than fostering thoughtful inquiry. That there could be Canadians who are aware of their country’s darker side but who still want to identify proudly as Canadian and celebrate some parts of the nation’s history simply did not fit into this view.
Scholars aren’t always critical of celebrations of collective belonging. For obvious reasons, it’s hard to find many Canadian historians who challenge the myths of collective belonging being put forward by Indigenous peoples. And the Andrew Potter affair this past spring showed that many historians were happy to defend the collective honour of les Québécois when it seemed to be under attack – even going so far as to countenance a serious breach of academic freedom. But these are collectivities which are seen to be marginalized and in need of support. Not so with Canada writ large. The early wave of the Canadian Studies movement at Canada’s universities was pushed by a belief that the very idea of Canada was threatened and needed to be bolstered – that we needed to “know ourselves” in all of our complexity.
What has changed, I would suggest, aren’t the details or the knowledge about Canada that we now have that previous generations did not. It’s not a question of knowledge vs ignorance. What has changed is our political sympathies and our sense of which collective identities matter and which do not.
In this, historians are not especially in touch with the broader public. In survey after survey, Canadians show themselves to be proud of their national identity. It might be worth taking them at their word – and not assuming that this pride is an uninformed opinion that needs to be educated out of the ignorant. Identities are complex. So are nations.
I am not suggesting that Canadian historians should plan wild celebrations for Canada 150. Nor should we abandon scholarly rigour. Unpacking myths is a key part of our job. But it might be worth questioning some of our assumptions about which myths and which national stories and which events need to be unpacked and which do not. Even if we don’t want to celebrate Canada 150, we ought to be open to why others might want to do so, and not assume that celebration is itself intrinsically a display of ignorance–or worse.
Christopher Dummitt’s latest book is Unbuttoned: A History of Mackenzie King’s Secret Life. An Associate Professor at Trent University’s School for the Study of Canada, he is a historian of Canadian politics and culture.