Teaching Canada–U.S. Relations in 2020

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Happier times in Canada-U.S. relations, when President Franklin Roosevelt and Prime Minister Mackenzie King inaugurated the Thousand Islands Bridge and sought to span the border in a more figurative way. Three years later, 90 percent of respondents in a U.S. survey supported American entry in the war if Canada were invaded by Axis powers. Ogden Standard-Examiner, Aug. 18, 1938; Salt Lake Tribune, Aug. 19, 1938; Oakland Tribune, May 11, 1941.

Patrick Lacroix

Didn’t you guys burn down the White House?

– Donald J. Trump

From television news programming to social media, a politically unaware visitor to Canada would easily believe that we are in the midst of a heated national election. We aren’t, of course, but we have had front-row seats—the mediatic splash zone—to unending American electioneering. Early reports suggest that the current presidential campaign may not end today, nor even this week. In that uncertainty, bruised relations and misperceptions between our two countries will also persist. I believe that history teachers have a special duty to counter those misperceptions as well as inflammatory media coverage.

Last winter, I had that very opportunity: for the first time in my career, I taught the history of Canada–U.S. relations. In light of my experience teaching both Canadian and American history courses, this seemed like the next logical step: I could now put two national surveys in conversation with one another. I would like to think that I offered my students at least a very small introduction to the subject. Here, however, I propose to ponder challenges of teaching Canada–U.S. relations and open a conversation about what lies in that history and how it is informed by our politics.

The nation in Canada–U.S. relations

The first challenge in this course was to cover 250 years of relations between the United States and its boreal neighbour(s) in thirteen weeks. Still, somehow, that sizeable issue was dwarfed by the prospect of teaching undergraduate students two national histories at once. Some of my students had not taken history since high school; to my knowledge, no more than one had taken an American history course. It sometimes seemed we were putting the cart before the mule.[1]

It is, in fact, difficult to approach Canada–U.S. relations without bowing to a national approach to history. This is no small beast—nor a new one. We can date it at least from the War of 1812. As Alan Taylor states in The Civil War of 1812, the significance of that conflict lies in the construction of national narratives on both sides of the border. Americans could believe that they had fought a second war of independence; they had confronted British depredations at sea, secured the West for settler society, and, in the guise of General Jackson, affirmed their valour. The country proceeded with newfound confidence. British America emerged with its own symbols of resilience and the war helped to cement the Loyalist myth.[2]

For two centuries, people of European descent have proven largely uncritical of these narratives, which tend to assert the inevitability of their political projects and to confirm their place as the drivers of North American history. The national paradigm has thus framed our political activity, but also our understanding of the past. Could I somehow steer away from a comparative approach that enhanced national distinctions and instead offer an integrated history that hinted at a common story?

In retrospect, we might have profited from using Robert Bothwell’s Your Country, My Country: A Unified History of the United States and Canada or some close equivalent (rare as these are). Instead, I decided to go with a virtual course pack. I provided context in lectures and relegated primary sources and analytical perspectives to assigned reading, which we then discussed.

I chose documents that said something of both countries at specific moments in time. Of primary sources, we might think of Henry David Thoreau’s Quebec travelogue and reflections on annexation throughout the nineteenth century. Greg Marquis’s “Commemorating the Loyalists in the Loyalist City” (Urban History Review) worked well as a critical perspective on changing views of the United States; so did Greg Kennedy’s Myth-Making and the Non-Commemoration of the War of 1812.

Views and perceptions were, ultimately, the chief concern of this course. Nationalistic blinders and misunderstandings have regularly exaggerated differences between the two countries (or whatever we might call the northern half of the continent before the twentieth century). As I suggest below, Canadians in particular remain prisoners of these easy ruts. Time has not helped us become any more enlightened in our discussions of the United States.

Ordering the Past

In the century following the American Declaration of Independence, the shared history of these countries is easily captured by armed struggle or the threat thereof. The first half of my course reflected these flashpoints:

  1. The American War of Independence, which ruptured the possibility of a common future under British institutions for territories from the lower Mississippi to Newfoundland.
  2. (or 1a) The War of 1812 is, in my view, far from a sequel, but I thought we ought to address it precisely in consequence of its ideological legacies.
  3. American ideological influences in the 1820s and 1830s and the Patriot War of 1837-1842. (Here I highly recommend Revolutions across Borders: Jacksonian America and the Canadian Rebellion, edited by Maxime Dagenais and Julien Mauduit.)
  4. Annexation debates on both sides of the border in the 1840s.
  5. The U.S. Civil War and its immediate aftermath, when a series of controversies soured Anglo-American relations and put British North America again at risk of invasion.

We then delved deeper into the big issues of the late nineteenth-century. Although we had discussed the place of Indigenous peoples in these battles between colonial states, now we focused more intently on commonalities in the Canadian and American conquests of western territories. We also discussed the various political options open to Canadians following Confederation—and what those options said of Canadian views of the southern neighbour.

The first half of the twentieth century offers up few convenient flashpoints.[3] In the end, we discussed Yukari Takai’s wonderful “Asian Migrants, Exclusionary Laws, and Transborder Migration in North America” (OAH Magazine of History). With a little more time and the benefit of experience, I would probably now discuss the North American struggle for women’s suffrage and legal equality. Further on, we read George Grant’s brilliant-yet-dubious Lament for a Nation, discussed the war resisters of the 1960s and 1970s, and tackled the Mulroney-era free trade debates—just as NAFTA 2.0 returned to the headlines.

But I didn’t have to wait for the end of the course to sense that current events were intruding on our dutiful historical detachment. From the first day, it was very clear that we had to acknowledge our political moment.

What history—for what present?

Those of us who teach seek to erode our students’ presentism.[4] We want them to approach the past on its own terms—using hindsight selectively and critically. When it comes to Canada–U.S. relations, however, that is a near-impossible task, and all the more so in the age of Donald J. Trump.

It was not merely that Trump was and is constantly in the Canadian media cycle. This is a man who decided to reopen and renegotiate NAFTA and damaged relations with disparaging and inaccurate remarks about Canada. I decided to address the issue at the outset by using Renee Lafferty-Salhany’s perceptive reflection on one such remark—which brought us directly to the myths inherited from the War of 1812.

But the reality is that Canadian discussions of Trump are only marginally about the man himself. He has served as a stand-in for Americans as a whole and his presidency has exacerbated latent anti-Americanism. The media has seized on the most attention-grabbing events in the United States and misrepresented an entire country. This is not to deny policy failures or ineffective and self-interested political leadership. But, between Trump, these media depictions, and a near-absence of historical training, my students brought into the classroom an anti-American bias that might imperil our ability to view historical events with some detachment.

Let’s be frank: many Canadians currently view the Great Republic as the real s—hole country. Americans are the neighbours who can’t quite keep it together—whom we visit because they have a heated pool and a really great recipe for fried dough. I aimed in this course to shelter the past from high-profile events from our current news cycle and to avoid easy caricatures.[5]

One doesn’t need to know a great deal of history to be altruistic, but history remains no less a great way of imparting and cultivating empathy. History is meant to penetrate prejudices and show where societies have struggled and overcome—and, typically, struggled yet again. It can also foster a healthy citizenship in which people understand that they themselves are agents of history.

But caricatures of the United States ultimately undermine that healthy citizenship. They feed into a triumphalist narrative that can be read back in time. They encourage Canadians to rest on their laurels in a spirit of self-congratulation. In the age of Trump, that feeling comes more easily than ever before. I hope that an integrated history of Canada and the United States would help erode the “us versus them” approach and lead my Canadian students to see the common issues that they too must tackle as everyday historians and active citizens.

That is the spirit that I carry into all of my courses—and I sense a special urgency and duty when discussing the history of Indigenous peoples, racial minorities, and recent immigrants who face marginalization. This business of Canada–U.S. relations only serves to show that misperceptions can arise even between countries as close and as similar as these two—and those false impressions are, again, present on both sides of the border.

To the readers of ActiveHistory, this scepticism of national myths may seem commonplace. However, such scepticism, if widely shared, has yet to seriously challenge the continued centrality of national survey courses to undergraduate history education. The next step for historians and teachers may be to re-evaluate these courses’ relevance and to consider how much better we might fulfil our mission without them.

Patrick Lacroix earned a Ph.D. in history at the University of New Hampshire in 2017. He has since taught at Bishop’s University in Sherbrooke, Quebec; Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, N.H.; and several institutions in Nova Scotia. He blogs at querythepast.com and tweets from @querythepast.


[1] Luckily I was spared the fate of Buridan’s mule, though pulled equally by the weight of Canadian and American histories. We must count our blessings.

[2] French Canadians and African Americans have their own twists on these narratives, though without escaping them wholly. The war also holds special significance for Indigenous peoples of the Great Lakes region, whose loss of a geographical and cultural middle ground accelerated.

[3] Nonetheless, we can trace to this period the story of the “special relationship,” as emblematized by a common cause in two world wars; the election of Mackenzie King, the most pro-American prime minister to that point; shifting trade relationships; and the publication of Canada–U.S. studies by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

[4] In our pursuit of a usable past, ever eager to assert the significance of our findings, we historians may nevertheless be the greatest presentists of all.

[5] In “‘And, We Burned Down the White House, Too’: American History, Canadian Undergraduates, and Nationalism” (The History Teacher), James Tagg considers that Canadian students have an advantage over their American counterparts in the study of this bilateral relationship. On both sides of the border, Tagg argues, increased emphasis on social history helps us understand shared experiences better than high politics.

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