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Rory Gilfillan: Who killed Canadian history? We did

Commentary

To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, the history that we teach is the history that we deserve. Twenty-five years ago, historian Jack Granatstein called it. Writing about the dearth of history in provincial curriculums, Granatstein’s seminal work, Who Killed Canadian History? wasn’t so much a critique as it was a prophecy. 

The most pernicious aspect of our selective memory isn’t what’s redacted but what never sees the light of the day. If you haven’t heard of Captain Gilday and the Black Devils Brigade, or Canada’s first female lawyer, Clara Brett Martin, you’re not alone. It’s a consequence of choices that have persisted and even accelerated since Granatstein issued his prophetic warning a quarter century ago. As he wrote then: “The history omitted is that of the Canadian nation and people.” 

Second World War soldier Tommy Gilday, who was one of those people, likely didn’t carry stickers that said “the worst is yet to come,” helpfully translated into German. But it’s plausible.  

Stuck on the helmets of the enemy his unit killed in the night, the idea was effectively this: become a folktale. Operating first in the Aleutians, then behind the lines in Italy, and finally in Southern France, the First Special Service Force was a new innovation in the art of war. The idea was as simple as it was brutal. Recruit lumberjacks, hunters, skiers, and forest rangers from both sides of the Canadian border. Teach them to leap from airplanes, scale mountains, and fight in close quarters. Teach them to be ruthless and then unleash them on the enemy. A journal taken from a captured German officer gave them the moniker that stuck: The Black Devils.

Gilday grew up in a Canada that most of us would hardly recognize. In the 1920s he taught himself how to ski when ski hills barely existed and equipment was primitive. Later on, he climbed mountains suspended by hemp rope, steel pitons, and guile. Gilday was part of a vanished generation of Canadians who prided themselves on being rugged and self-reliant. When the war came, like most men his age, he enlisted, did his duty without fanfare, was decorated for valour, and went on to live a productive life. He would not have seen his service as extraordinary and in many ways, it wasn’t. This is just what you did.  

Canadians going overseas in the first half of the 20th century would be all but unrecognizable to us now. They weren’t the caricature of Dudley Do-Right. They weren’t self-deprecating and apologetic. Many were inveterate gamblers, some like Gilday were adventurers, others were heavy drinkers prone to brawling, and most of them were not only irreverent but also downright hostile to rigid British class structures. But they were tolerated and welcomed because despite being rough around the edges, Canadians were just the kind of people you could count on. Men good in a fight. Men who wouldn’t back down and above all, men who showed up and stayed for the duration.  

It’s unlikely that Canada was born on the bloody slopes of Vimy Ridge or in the cockpit of a Halifax bomber flying straight and level through flak bursts at twenty thousand feet, but I suspect that Granatstein was right: the stories we tell matter, and the ones we teach to our students (and certainly the ones we don’t) at best generate indifference and at worse encourage self-loathing. 

The decay of the ruddy Canadian that people like Gilday represented is the result not so much of the lack of Canadian history that is taught today but the content which reads more like a 16th-century morality tale rather than a balanced and relentless search for objective truth. The consequences of this ideology are now being reaped. We have repeatedly told a generation that, unlike their great grandparents, they can’t handle anything—and then have recoiled in disgust when it turns out they can’t. We have insisted that, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, our country is bad and then lament the fact that most people can’t be bothered to vote anymore. We’ve been left with what Granatstein characterized (citing the famous 20th-century political scientist Gad Horowitz) as “the masochistic celebration of Canadian nothingness.” 

We hold historical figures to standards that either weren’t available at the time or were part of a worldview that is no longer valid and then judge them to be lacking. Ironically, Clara Brett Martin’s antisemitism may not be so distant after all. I often wonder, what people 150 years in the future will think of our trigger warnings and safe spaces. 

Where Canadians served and sacrificed at home and on the front lines, today we have decided to leave the heavy lifting to others; a notion that would have been repugnant to Gilday’s generation. In the absence of duty to others and the conviction that citizenship comes with obligations, we have chosen to venerate a health-care system that is neither free nor accessible, forsaken a military alliance where we don’t pull our weight, and outfitted our armed forces with sidearms so antiquated that they aren’t merely the same models but literally the same pistols that our forefathers would have carried in the 1930s. It is not without some poetic justice that we now have an identity synonymous with an American-owned franchise that peddles tepid coffee and a multinational corporation that sells watery beer.

I have spent my career telling stories about men like Tommy Gilday, the Canadians who flew the Dam Busters Raids, and the women who worked in the factories and then fought for the vote. These stories reveal intrinsic truths about the human condition and also define what it means to be a Canadian citizen. Canadian history reminds us that people have endured far worse, and squandered much better, and that sometimes in the darkest hour ordinary people are called to do extraordinary things and face impossible odds. Outside of my class, these are not stories that are often told anymore, and as classical scholar Richard Livingston put it: “One is apt to think of moral failure as due to weakness of character: more often it is due to an inadequate ideal.” 

The ideals we have instilled over the last forty years have bred complacency and indifference. Where our grandparents responded to evil with action, we deny its existence, wear rubber bracelets, post on Twitter, mouth platitudes from great a distance, and then wait for others to take our place on the sharp end. Consequently, we have the country that we deserve.

Every fall, I show my students the picture of the man in the crowd; the one man at the Nazi rally who is not saluting. I ask them what would it take to be that man. We all think that we will be the one who will stand up to tyranny. We all think that we will join the resistance and swim against the tide. We all think we will be the hero of the story. And yet, history tells us that most of us will not. 

Isaac Newton once said, “If I have seen further, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.” In Canada, we have cut our giants down and, in the process, answered Granatstein’s question: who killed Canadian history?

We did.

Patrick Luciani: We need more than civility to defend civilization

Commentary

In the latest Hub book review, Patrick Luciani reviews The Soul of Civility: Timeless Principles to Heal Society and Ourselves by Alexandra Hudson (St. Martin’s Press, 2023) and argues that while maintaining civility in society is all well and good, it will take more than that to push back against the forces determined to undermine our civilization.

More civility could help heal our broken world. That’s what Alexandra Hudson argues in her new book, The Soul of Civility. We should go beyond our selfish nature so that our social nature can flourish. For those who think civility and politeness are the same thing, they aren’t. 

Politeness is the appearance of looking good and has little in common with the gentle virtue of kindness. Politeness comes nowhere near repairing a world divided by political conflict. It just smooths over our differences. Civility, on the other hand, forces us to be good by respecting others as individuals. As Hudson says, politeness is easy. Civility requires effort.  

For the author, civility is essential for a civil society and a healthy democracy. Here, she draws on the wisdom and inspiration of thinkers and philosophers from Homer and Erasmus to Martin Luther King and Robert Putnam. The Soul of Civility isn’t so much a political book as a meditation on keeping an open mind while recognizing the dignity of others. There is little to disagree with as far as it goes. 

When confronting others who hold to different politics, we should respect their “personhood.” Yet, such tolerance and understanding are hard, especially after the tragedy of October 7th in Israel and the following wave of antisemitism, much of it on college campuses. How greater civility might change that reality is hard to understand, particularly when higher education institutions have subordinated notions of civility to other values. 

As a consequence, Hudson’s book seems out of step with the march of postmodernism and postcolonialism through our universities. Hudson never mentions these two ideas in her book, which is odd given their immeasurable damage to the practice of civility. 

In the House of Representatives congressional hearing on December 5, the presidents of Harvard, MIT, and Penn cited their version of free speech as justification for not acting to punish or condemn those who advocate killing Jews, an incomprehensible stance given their duty to protect all students under their care. When Congresswoman Elise Stefanik asked whether advocating the genocide of Jews is hate speech, the presidents qualified their answers with the cryptic mantra—it depends on the “context” of the threats. 

As postmodern ideas have come to dominate political ideology on campuses, the answers by the three presidents were not very surprising. A fundamental tenet of postmodernism is that the meaning of words and the use of language are slippery concepts without fixed definitions: any words’ exact meanings need to be contextualized and, therefore, subject to perpetual deferment. 

The presidents blundered, thinking they were addressing a university faculty meeting or graduate seminar. They were at a congressional hearing open to the public, of whom most are unfamiliar with how academics understand language. 

There is another reason the presidents were trapped. Postcolonial studies, as taught at universities, divide the world into victims and victimizers. It is asserted as fact that the main reason we have poverty between and within countries is the inequality of power among races caused by discrimination and exploitation. 

When Hamas ventured out of Gaza to kill over 1,200 Israeli citizens, the question of guilt was certain to be “contextualized” based on the relative power of Jews and Arabs. As Palestinians are cast as poor and vulnerable, they are, by definition, blameless. Any retribution by the Israelis will be seen as disproportionate and illegal to the point of negating Israel’s right to self-defence. 

The three presidents seemed more intent on not offending aggrieved groups and DEI constituents than on defending the rights of Jewish students. One would think that students should be kept physically safe but intellectually exposed to “dangerous” ideas, not the other way around. The presidents mistook the vacuous virtue of politeness as a substitute for harder requirements of truth and civility. Then again, Truth—which is Harvard’s motto—is an unstable concept that shifts depending on the “context.”

The blowback has already begun with the resignation of Liz Magill, president of the University of Pennsylvania. Others may follow as alums and members of Congress have their say and demand accountability. Words may be slippery in the academy, but in the real world, they have consequences. (The day after the hearings, Harvard President Claudine Gay has already repented and has now seen the Truth, or perhaps what she saw was her position slipping away.)

The Soul of Civility is a well-meaning contemplation on the need to get beyond our anger while respecting those we disagree with. But in today’s political climate, we are required to do more. We cannot allow the attributes of politeness to be a substitute for integrity, even when there is no easy comfort in confronting hard truths, judging intent, and taking up the responsibility to protect.