Robert Fulford's column about Canadian history

(Globe and Mail, May 22, 1999)

The champions of Canadian history have lately moved to a new level of rhetoric. They are beginning to sound like those movie critics, natural-born cheerleaders, who try to catch the public's attention by discovering a new masterpiece every week or so. History's friends are making claims for the Canadian past that it can never begin to support. Their motives are clear: They speak out of patriotism, out of love for their subject and out of anger at those who fail to share their views. They are also, understandably, justifying personal career choices and appealing for financial support. But they run the danger of making themselves, and the study of Canadian history, ridiculous. Two who have lately moved in this direction are Mark Starowicz, of CBC television, and J. L. Granatstein, the historian.

Starowicz, who has been preparing a series of historical documentaries, noted in a speech in Montreal early this year (reprinted in The Globe on Feb. 6) that the Canadian Constitution is still evolving, through such events as the Supreme Court of Canada ruling on secession, Nunavut and the Nisga'a treaty. He then went on to perform the equivalent, in Canadian studies, of reinventing the wheel: "That's why we're paralyzed about teaching or portraying Canadian history. Not because it's boring: Because it's alive! Because it's alive, we'd better not go into those dark woods. Everything is still in play."

Just about every writer who has ever discussed this issue has pointed to current tensions as inhibitors of frank historic discussion. It is still the case that a 240-year-old military engagement, the battle on the Plains of Abraham, cannot be discussed frankly in public and has never been depicted in detail on television: It makes us uncomfortable. Starowicz gives the strong impression that this famous problem has never occurred to anyone before and that we should be impressed by his acuity.

He goes on to say that he and his colleagues are delighted by the richness of material, previously unknown to them, on Canadian history: "I have never seen a more vibrant, living, extraordinary thing in all my years as a journalist: Shakespearean human drama, collisions of empire, land, legacy and identity, explorations that dwarf any other on the planet, survival of individuals and communities pitted against a fearful and beautiful geography. Every theme was there. And everything was alive and meaningful."

Has he lost all perspective? Does he not know that at some point in any long, worthwhile research project, everyone feels that way? It would be noteworthy only if he and his associates, having spent months on Canadian history, reported they had found little of interest. Certainly it's pleasant to know that spirits are high in Starowicz's unit at the CBC, but that says nothing whatever about Canadian history.

Granatstein is a more familiar walker on this path. On April 19, as part of an article headed "Canada needs its historical memory back" in the National Post, he delivered the following sentence:

"In fact, Canadian history is as exciting as any other, as worthy of study as American or French history."

I have been staring at that sentence from time to time since it appeared, wondering what in the world could have caused Granatstein to write it. The second part is easy to understand: Of course Canadian history is as worthy of study as is American or French history, if your goal is to understand Canada. The same can be said of Indonesian history, or Jordanian history, or anything else. It is the first part of the sentence, the "exciting" part, that gives pause. He seems to be saying that national histories can be compared as to interest; otherwise, the sentence would be meaningless. And if this is what he means, his assertion is nonsense. The kindest word you can apply to a claim of that kind is eccentric.

I like Canadian history, partly because it's mine and partly because I've read enough of it to know that the people and events are intrinsically interesting. It rewards study and sometimes it is, yes, exciting. But no one with even a modicum of objectivity, no one outside the tiny circle of the professionally committed, would dream of arguing that our history is as exciting as that of the French or the Americans (or the British, Russians, Germans, Greeks, Italians, Chinese and Japanese, to mention at random seven other nations). If we use the normal meaning of "excite" ("move to strong emotion, stir to passion, stir up eager, tumultuous feeling"), then Canada's past comes well down the list of exciting topics offered by the world's histories.

This should not be a cause of national shame. There's something irredeemably and wonderfully adult -- therefore, rather unexciting -- about Canadian history. Unlike the French in the 18th century, we have never promiscuously beheaded our leaders. Unlike the Americans in the 19th century, we have never set two halves of our society against each other in a war of unprecedented brutality. Those were two society-shaking, society-transforming dramas -- and really "exciting." I'm just as glad we missed out on that kind of history, even though it makes better books and movies. For those directly involved, it can be, to put it mildly, hideous.

Last year, in an intemperate tract called Who Killed Canadian History? (HarperCollins), Granatstein argued that Canadians know far too little of their background. Then he set out to assign blame. He placed the BNA Act first among the killers, because it assigned power over education to the provinces, allowing them to teach history regionally and ignore the story of Canadian nationhood. He blamed politicians and school boards because they marginalize history in the curriculum. He indicted the schools because they don't properly prepare students for university. He made students co-conspirators because they don't read enough, don't work hard enough and don't write well.

The list grew stupefyingly long, a cause of boredom in itself. Of course Granatstein accused his fellow historians (all of them unnamed, to make it really uninteresting) of abandoning national history in favour of women's studies, ethnic studies and other forms of social history.

Before his long, long book ended (actually it's only 156 pages), damned near everybody in the country was guilty of killing Canadian history. Just to be on the safe side, Granatstein threw in the whole population: "Canadians have not tried to understand their past . . ."

The guilt lay everywhere except on Granatstein. But wait. What happens when people take him at his word, commit themselves to studying the exciting national history of Canada and find themselves immersed in the Manitoba Schools Question, the reciprocity debate in 1911 and the King-Byng crisis? These are significant issues, to be sure, but hardly in a class with Napoleon and Lincoln. Students may decide, with some justice, that they have been conned -- and Granatstein and Starowicz, by overkill, will have joined the assassins of Canadian history.

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