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Donald Wright: Canada has no single national story—and that’s a good thing

Commentary

It was a weird December at The Hub. Reading it, I felt like I had fallen into a time hole and landed in 1998 when I was a PhD student at the University of Ottawa and everyone was talking about Who Killed Canadian History?, a slim volume by Jack Granatstein. To some, it was a much-needed counterpunch and a necessary corrective to the social history revolution. To others, it was a depressing diatribe by a scholar who hadn’t read the scholarship he so blithely dismissed. And to yet others, it was a bit of both.

To mark the 25th anniversary of Who Killed Canadian History?, The Hub published five—yes, five—op-eds and one podcast. As Hub editor-at-large Sean Speer explained, the series was intended “to grab Canadians and Canadian policymakers by the lapels, so to speak, and say this matters: a common sense of citizenship and a common national narrative.”

A been-there-done-that Rudyard Griffiths was nonplussed. In effect, The Hub’s executive director said, you can grab all the lapels you want, but you’re wasting your time. He should know, he added, because he had cut his teeth at the Dominion Institute where, in defence of national history, he “bled a couple of quarts of blood in the history wars of the late ‘90s and early 2000s.” 

The last 20 years have been more of the same, only worse, as “radical and I think dangerous ideas around decolonization” have taken root. “If you spend 20 years pushing your history into the proverbial dustbin, and then larding on top of it mounds of kind of racial and other cultural-induced guilt, and you assume that everything colonial, everything that happened, I don’t know, before 1867, is just an endless list of sins of omission and commission, I’m sorry Sean, there’s nothing to re-build. There’s no going back. Humpty Dumpty cannot be put back together again. The book isn’t Who Killed Canadian History? The book that is written today is Canadian History Is Dead.” 

Speer demurred, insisting that Canadian history isn’t dead, although it is on life support. And he held out hope for a national story. “It’s not an option at this point. It’s a necessity.” 

Listening to their conversation, I found myself wondering if I inhabited the same universe as Speer and Griffiths. Do they really think that a common national narrative or that a single national story is possible or even desirable? Trust me, no one wants to live in a country with a single national story.

Where does their anxiety come from? And what explains their pessimism? I don’t know. But I suspect that the taking down of, and in some instances, the toppling of statues—yet another front in the history wars—has confirmed their worst fears. And here I have some sympathy for them. I don’t like the idea of a city’s statuary being determined by vandals, even if I agree with their political motivations. But it’s an altogether different story if a statue is removed after a democratic, transparent, and deliberative process, as was the case with Halifax’s statue of Edward Cornwallis. After all, the past is reinterpreted all the time. That is the essence of history as a discipline.

I don’t want to revisit Who Killed Canadian History?. God knows enough ink has been spilled on it. Nor do I want to engage with each op-ed, although one in particular stuck in my craw. Instead, I want to invite Speer, Griffiths, et al. to conduct a simple thought experiment. I want them to start from a different place and ask themselves a different question, not who killed Canadian history, but who broadened Canadian history?

That’s not my question, by the way. It belongs to Ramsay Cook. In a recent conversation, Jack Granatstein described his former colleague as an essayist in the tradition of Frank Underhill and as an omnivorous reader: “He had a wide reading knowledge. Probably wider than anyone I knew.” In fact, it was one of his “great strengths” as a scholar. Despite their mutual respect, however, the two men didn’t see eye-to-eye on everything, including the state of Canadian history.

In 2009, Cook delivered the inaugural H. Sanford Riley Lecture in Canadian History at the University of Winnipeg, his alma mater when it was still United College. His title—“Who Broadened Canadian History?”—was an obvious riff on Who Killed Canadian History?, which in his words was “a polemical little tract.”

Canadian history, he began, is “alive and well,” not “subverted or sundered or murdered.” To make his point, Cook didn’t list book after book on this or that specialized topic (although he did some of that and, in the process, confirmed Granatstein’s observation about his reading habits). Instead, he looked at large-scale demographic, economic, and political changes across English and French Canada, as well as the rapid expansion of higher education and the growth of PhD programs. The old history—the history that he had been taught at United College and later studied at Queen’s and U of T with Arthur Lower and Donald Creighton—could neither contain nor explain these enormous, even tectonic, shifts. Something had to give, and it did in the form of history from the bottom-up written by a new generation of historians from diverse backgrounds.

History wasn’t killed. But it was broadened by, among other people, his PhD student Franca Iacovetta and her book on Italians in Toronto, Such Hardworking People (1992). “She nicely symbolizes my explanation for the emergence of a new, fuller understanding of Canadian history: a second-generation woman of Italian working-class origin, the first in her family to attend university and then graduate school, now a Professor of History at the University of Toronto. Work of this quality surely deserves better than Jack Granatstein’s slur: ‘multicultural mania.’”

To people like Griffiths who lament, in Cook’s words, that the “fragmented history of Canada, like Humpty Dumpty, can never be fitted together again,” Cook asked, “does it matter?” He didn’t think so, because history isn’t a civics lesson, much less a national consciousness raiser. It’s an intellectual discipline.

In a short essay published in 1967, Cook coined the phrase “limited identities.” There isn’t a single Canadian identity and there never has been, he argued. Instead of pining away for something that doesn’t exist, scholars should look at Canada’s limited identities, or its regional, ethnic, and class identities. The term stuck and soon took on a life of its own and came to include gender, religious, and Indigenous identities.

Participants run with a multinations pride flag during the Toronto Pride Parade, on Sunday June 25, 2023. Chris Young/The Canadian Press.

For his part, Granatstein never liked it. Writing in Who Killed Canadian History?, he argued that “Limited identities were almost openly anti-nationalist: it was not the nation that mattered, but ‘smaller, differentiated, provincial or regional societies’; not Canadians as a whole, but the components of the ethnic mosaic; not Canadians as a society, but Canadians in their social classes.”

Admittedly, Cook had an ambivalent relationship to “limited identities,” but not for the same reason as Granatstein. In his opinion, it wasn’t big enough to capture Canada’s complexity. Maybe “unlimited identities” would be better, he said in 1977. Or maybe, he said in 2000, it’s neither limited nor unlimited, but rather “multiple, relational, shifting, [and] contingent,” or intersectional, although he didn’t use that word. Still, that wasn’t quite right either.

In his 2009 Riley lecture, Cook took a final stab at identity, casting a wide and generous net that included an important nod to national identities. “Having been lucky once, let me try again: ‘multiple identities: national/limited/transnational.’ That conceptualization, I think, would help us better understand both the Canadian past and the world in which we live.”

If it lacks the pithiness of limited identities, it contains a lot of thinking, reading, and writing about Canada. It’s also optimistic and forward-looking and avoids the blame game inherent in trying to identify who, exactly, killed Canadian history when no one did.

On that note, and in my capacity as president of the Canadian Historical Association, I want to publicly invite Sean Speer and Rudyard Griffiths to our annual meeting in June in Montreal where they will see how Canadian history, and history in Canada, have been broadened, where they will meet scholars doing really cool things, from the social history of trans communities to the political biographies of prime ministers, where they will learn how the past is being communicated through tweeting, blogging, and podcasting, and where they can dip into any number of interesting monographs at the book display.

I’ll even pick up their conference fees.

‘Society, we have a problem’: The best comments from Hub readers this week

Commentary

This week in Hub Forum, readers discussed many topical and pertinent issues, including the role of international students in keeping institutions afloat, how American culture wars are reflected in Canadian reporting, the increase in businesses going bankrupt and the lack of new ones emerging, and the rising trend of student absenteeism.

The goal of Hub Forum is to bring the impressive knowledge and experience of The Hub community to the fore and to foster open dialogue and the competition of differing ideas in a respectful and productive manner. Here are some of the most interesting comments from this past week.

Sign up for our daily Hub Forum email newsletter today.

Are international students keeping Canadian universities afloat?

Monday, January 22, 2024

“I remember having this discussion when I was a student decades ago, and there were a LOT of people who felt that because International students were paying double for tuition than what local students were paying that they were indeed keeping Canadian universities afloat. Many felt that international students were also ‘favoured’ because they paid more.”

Mark

“The major issue is that the boards of so many of our institutes of higher learning are spending on programs and departments that have no marketable value. The boards need to start getting rid of wasted resources so that expenses are in line with revenues.”

— Vance Petersen

What a U.S. culture war story tells us about Canadian media

Tuesday, January 23, 2024

“If race and gender are accepted considerations and are in fact celebrated, it raises the possibility that someone attained their position at least in part due to their ‘identity.’ It can put the question in peoples’ minds and is a disservice to those who achieved their position by merit.”

— Gord Edwards

“Perhaps it has always been thus, but there seems to be an erosion of principles, specifically having them, let alone adhering to them, when the demands of one’s tribe are felt or other costs are required. This seems to be the case at the personal, institutional, and societal levels.”

— Paul Attics

The (one hundred) million dollar question: What is a journalist?

Wednesday, January 24, 2024

“If one looks at the video, the approach of Mr. Menzies to Chrystia Freeland seems rude and a little scary, and this accounts for some of the reaction. However, I would think this goes with the territory as she may not be otherwise available to him. Perhaps the latter is the main question: to what extent do publications with opposing viewpoints have access to government policy-makers in Canada?”

— Karen Quinton

“The secret sauce for the salvation of the industry is not secret. Listen to your audience, have a discussion with them and not a lecture, and talk about what they think is important, not what your colleagues or the special interest groups and nonprofits that clog up your inbox focus on.”

— Hugh Nicholson

“In a healthy and democratic society, the market for effective journalism would likely also be healthy. Sure, disingenuous agenda journalists and attention-mongers would ply their trade, but their audience would be commensurately small.

However, in a society in which many fellow citizens feel unheard, scared, disrespected, and ultimately angry, the market for journalism will be unhealthy as people with this chronic state of mind are more likely to want what panders to these feelings. This quickly becomes a flywheel of negativity, distrust, and falsehood as agenda journalists are rewarded with more and more attention by their tribe. This, of course, becomes an opportunity for disingenuous attention-mongers to also ply their trade successfully to bigger and bigger audiences. Their goal is only attention for monetary gain and personal power reasons. Even worse, there are those whose real goal is to disrupt society. These folks are trying to bring it all down.

Our society is unhealthy, despite all our riches of peace and prosperity, and our citizenry is increasingly spending attention on bad actors. We are all the worse for it.”

— Paul Attics

Business bankruptcies have soared. The bad news is many aren’t being replaced

Thursday, January 25, 2024

“In my opinion, which is shared by many other entrepreneurs, the banking system in Canada is one of the main barriers impeding the growth of new businesses. The risk tolerance of Canadian banks is so low, that a new business cannot get enough lift (financially speaking) to carry them to the stage where a bank would even consider offering a line of credit.”

— Greg Jackson

“In Canada, small business owners know that they can’t turn to the banks for help unless they are willing to pledge personal assets to secure credit. The banks here only want to help when you don’t really need it. So hence was born the idea that you go to the bank for money when you don’t need it because one day it may be needed and they won’t give it to you then.”

— Michael F

Is schooling becoming optional?

Friday, January 26, 2024

“There are laws on the books which school boards can use to ensure that parents have their children at school. It seems provincial authorities are loathe to use the laws they have. It is useless to talk about ‘back to basics’, as many provincial ministers of education are, and then not make sure that the students are in the classrooms. Unless students are convinced of the value of education early in life, it doesn’t stick later in life.”

A. Chezzi

“Children are suffering from an alarming increase in anxiety-related conditions. The pandemic response made this worse, but it was already happening. Obviously, anxiety correlates with absenteeism, and, as such, an increase in the former means an increase in the latter.

Society, we have a problem.”

Paul Attics