Unwritten Histories

The Unwritten Rules of History

Why Does Canada150 Give Canadian Historians a Headache?

Why canada150 gives historians a headache

*Danielle Robinson get the credit for coming up with this title! She’s hilarious. 😉

So, in case you’ve been living under a rock for the past six months, you know that this year Canada is celebrating it’s 150th birthday. While July 1st is technically the day that Canada was “born,” governments at all levels as well as a range of institutions have events planned for the entire year. I’ve mentioned a couple of these on various roundups, like the Canada150 series that many newspapers are running, featuring locals who made significant contributions to Canadian history.

All this sounds great, right?

So why is it that so many historians (and others) are endlessly grumbling about Canada150? Are we all killjoys? Do we hate Canada? Are we secretly lizard-people planning to take over the world? While I can’t comment on the last question 😉 I can tell you that no, most historians aren’t killjoys, nor do we hate Canada. But there are very important reasons why Canada150 is a very problematic campaign. So in today’s blog post, I’m going to talk about a few of the reasons why many Canadian historians start gnashing their teeth whenever someone brings up Canada150.

 

Caveat: These are just some of the problems with Canada150, and the ones that are, in my view, the most significant. Other people will have completely different problems with Canada150. For instance, quite a few people are concerned about the amount of money being spent. At the same time, the PQ is planning to do a campaign called The Other 150. So this blog post should be viewed as part of the conversation, rather than the definitive word on Canada150.

 

1867: Here a Date, There a Date, Everywhere a Date Date

Ok, let’s start with the most common, and perhaps obvious, complaint: “Canada is more than 150 years old.” This begs the question: “when did Canada start?”

Unfortunately, there really isn’t an answer to that one. Many people far wiser and more educated than I am have attempted to answer this question. Witness the many and sundry debates over when to divide Canadian history survey courses. (Usually, but not always, history departments in Canadian universities divide Canadian history into “pre-Confederation” and “post-Confederation” courses.) Probably the most famous recent attempt to make sense of periodization has been by Ian McKay in his “The Liberal Order Framework.” In this article, McKay argues that we should redefine Canada as a project rather than Canada as a place. In this instance, he is referring to a

“project of rule,” in which “Canada-as-project can be analyzed through the study of the implantation and expansion over a heterogeneous terrain of a certain politico-economic logic – to wit, liberalism.[1]

I am not going to go into detail about this article, mostly because I don’t have the space, but the point is that there are as many different ideas about “when Canada started” as there are Canadian historians. The start date that has been selected by the Canada150 project is July 1st, 1867. This particular date was selected largely due to the belief that Canada started with Confederation, and because the Dominion of Canada came into being on that very date. But did Canada really start with Confederation? It’s not really clear. Further, you could make a case for any number of significant dates, and the ones that you select will largely depend upon your personal opinions and/or politics. Some contenders could include:

  • 1000 C.E.: Arrival of the Vikings
  • 1608: Establishment of Quebec City
  • 1725-1779: The Peace and Friendship Treaties
  • 1870-1921: The Numbered Treaties
  • 1917: The Battle of Vimy Ridge
  • 1982: Repatriation of the Canadian Constitution
  • 1999: Creation of the territory of Nunavut

Each one of these has their pros and cons, and makes a statement about how you define Canada.

Expert Tip: I do want to make a point about one day that IS NOT a good option for a starting point: the arrival of Indigenous peoples in North America. There are many problems when it comes to determining when Indigenous peoples arrived, many of them detailed in this blog post.

 

July 1st: Dominion Day, Canada Day, or Moving Day?

The official Canada150 celebrations are set to kick off on July 1st, 2017, a holiday that is currently known as Canada Day. Today, Canada Day is a public and national holiday that often coincides with huge parties and lots of people waving tiny Canadian flags. But this is a relatively new phenomenon. That’s because prior to the 1960s, most Canadians defined themselves through their relationship to the British Empire. As a result, most people were more invested in holidays like Empire Day and Victoria Day (as you’ll recall from my previous blog post on Victoria Day). Canada Day, or Dominion Day, as it was called at the time, was relatively low-key in comparison, usually celebrated with picnics and fireworks.

But as the British-centric notion of Canadian identity declined, the centennial approached, and increasing numbers of non-British immigrants arrived, the federal government moved towards promoting a much more “Canadian” nationalistic celebration. But even then, it was still relatively quiet until the 1970s — in 1960, fireworks were cancelled because the Ottawa General Hospital filed a noise complaint. Moreover, Canada Day was still officially known as Dominion Day right up until 1982, and it wouldn’t be until closer to the 1990s that Canada Day Celebrations would resemble our current practices.[2]

Expert Tip: This is a late addition, but as Christo Aivalis (@christoaivalis) pointed out on Twitter, there was no such thing as Canadian citizenship until after 1947. Before that, if you were born in Canada, you were a citizen of the British Empire. And the first Canadian citizen? William Lyon Mackenzie King.

(At the same time, not everyone in Canada celebrates Canada Day. In Quebec, Canada Day is known as ‘Moving Day,’ since all leases traditionally begin and end on July 1st. If you’re planning to move, you’d better book a truck several weeks in advance, or you will end up screwed. Instead, most Quebecers celebrate la Fete nationale, St. Jean Baptiste, instead (perhaps, not coincidentally, because that’s also my birthday. 😉 )

When you consider the history of Canada Day, Canada150 rings a bit hollow – a politically-charged celebration of a politically and historically contingent anniversary.

 

True North Strong and Free: Nationalism, History, and Celebration

As I’ve mentioned previously on the blog, history is often co-opted for political purposes, often in the service of “inspiring pride in our nation.” Our current national identity is heavily invested in the idea that Canadians are “nice,” “polite,” and “progressive.” Most of the programming that has been or is being produced for Canada150 reinforces this narrative. Just consider this teaser for “Canada: The Story of Us” which is premiering on March 26th:

 

 

In case you missed it, or the video isn’t working, here’s what the narrator says:

“Explorers, risk takers, and dreamers. Fighting the odds, in a land of extremes. Across a vast continent, we build a nation, truly strong and free.”

I can guarantee you that a significant percentage of historians rolled their eyes upon reading that statement. Why? Because it is a distortion of our actual Canadian history.

Obviously, I haven’t seen this series yet. But the Canada150 train has been rolling along for several months now, and overall narrative is clear to see: Canada is awesome. But the reality is that you can’t just pick and choose which parts of our history we want to acknowledge or remember. As I’ve said previously on the blog, “we need to understand what really happened without romanticizing the past, and editing out the parts that don’t fit with a larger national narrative. We need to understand what did and what didn’t happen, to learn from our mistakes, and to do better next time.” Further, by framing past oppressions as “something we have overcome,” we ignore the fact that the repercussions of historical oppressions have continued into the present. (Just witness the appalling ignorance of Lynn Beyak and the damage her comments has done.)

Not only does nationalistic history ignore the less flattering aspects of the past, it also serves to reinforce a narrative of who is and who is not Canadian. Again, this is something I’ve discussed previously, but it bears repeating. Traditional historical narratives emphasize a history that is almost uniformly white, male, and middle-class. Sure, there are guest appearances by Indigenous peoples (usually in relation to contact, the fur trade, and residential schools), or Chinese-Canadians, discussed with respect to the Head Tax. But these are always presented as exceptions to the general experiences of “regular” Canadians. This reinforces the idea that “real” Canadians are white and have been in Canada the longest (with the exception of Indigenous peoples), and are somehow more authentically “Canadian.” These individuals are always contrasted with ”non-Canadians” or immigrants, who constructed as non-white people who are somehow less invested in their Canadian identities.

These narratives have real-life repercussions. How many times have you heard about Canadians of colour being interrogated about “where they come from?” or about the problems inherent in so-called “hyphenated” Canadian identities? (Check out this really funny yet depressing video on the subject.)  I’ve certainly been on the receiving end of that question several times. And ironically, my white husband, who actually is an immigrant (from the US), never is. Or just listen to Srosh Hassana speaking before the House of Commons this past International Women’s Day:

As a Muslim woman of colour, in a time of overwhelming stigma, I fear being othered, profiled, and killed in a country I call my own.

Countless Muslim women in Canada are being verbally and physically harassed on the streets, told to “go home,” as if wearing a hijab somehow makes them less Canadian.

 

What Exactly Are We Celebrating?

Finally, there is probably the most glaring problem of all: Canada150 ignores or only pays lip to service to the fact that this country has been built on the exploitation and marginalization of Indigenous peoples. In other words, in celebrating Canada150 uncritically, we are celebrating colonialism. The land that we currently call Canada was largely stolen or misappropriated by settlers. When Indigenous peoples weren’t killed outright, displaced into locations where they were unable to survive and/or thrive, lied to, and forcibly removed from their families, communities, cultures, they were and are subject to injustice and oppression from a colonial regime that continues to endure. Again, Canadians often like to see themselves as kinder and gentler than Americans, but governments at all levels have committed horrifying atrocities in the name of “Canada.” And then, to add insult to injury, the history of Indigenous peoples is then co-opted by the federal government in the name of nationalism.

Let me give you an example. Last November, the official Twitter account for the Ministry of Indigenous and Northern Affairs posted the following:

 

 

To which Ryan McMahon aptly replied:

 

(Possibly the most epic clap-back in Canadian history…)

And we also need to be clear that colonization is still in effect in Canada — it is not a relic of the past. For instance, just in the past couple of weeks, new information has surfaced that despite earmarking millions of dollars to help Indigenous communities, only a fraction of that money has actually been spent. For instance, last summer, the government made $382 million dollars available through a program called Jordan’s Principle, designed to help Indigenous children to more easily access health care. Since then, only $11.4 million has actually been used. Most requests for assistance are denied, with only 45 children having received assistance through the program as of January 2017. [3]

 

Some Concluding Thoughts: Should We Be Defined By Our History?

When I was still a teenager, the Quebec education system required that all high school students take a Canadian history course in grade 10 in order to get a high school diploma. I absolutely loved that class, so much so that I even dressed up as a “habitant” to do a class presentation about what life was like for female farmers in early New France (including an “authentic” bonnet made out of a piece of fabric and a wire coat hanger). In the years since, one moment has stood out with astonishing clarity: while taking notes on the Seven Years War, I wrote down the following: British = Evil, French = Good.

While the problems with this statement are numerous (sigh), I later found myself reflecting on the absurdity of a fifteen-year-old Jewish-Canadian girl taking sides in a history that didn’t actually belong to her. After all, my ancestors were probably living in a shtetl (small Jewish village) eating potatoes in Russia at the time.

Perhaps instead of using Canada150 as an opportunity to celebrate Canada’s achievements, we could use it as a time of reflection and renewal. A time to have honest discussions about the state of our country and set out to make real and lasting changes to make our country into the Canada we want it to be, rather than the Canada we imagine it was.

 


I hope you’ve enjoyed this blog post on Canada150. Obviously there is a lot more than I would write about this subject, but if I tried to include everything, this would be a book rather than a blog post. 🙂 If you did enjoy this post, please consider sharing it on the social media platform of your choice. And don’t forget to check back on Friday for a new Upcoming Publications post! See you then!

 


Extra Credit 

 

To Learn More

 

Sources

[1] Ian Mckay, “The Liberal Order Framework: A Prospective for a Reconnaissance of a Canadian History,” Canadian Historical Review 81, no. 4 (December 2000): 621.

[2] Matthew Hayday, “Fireworks, Folk-Dancing, and Fostering a National Identity: The Politics of Canada Day,” Canadian Historical Review 91, no. 2 (June 2010): 287-314.

[3]  http://www.cbc.ca/news/opinion/first-nations-health-care-1.4007404 and http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/first-nations-children-health-care-fraction-spending-1.3969042

 

PS: Also, a number of historians have noticed that the original sign/logo for this year’s Congress went from this:

Congress 2017

 

To this:

Congress revised 2017

It’s not entirely clear what happens, and no one seems to know why the change was made. But ouch. If anyone knows what happened, I’d love to know! (thanks to Laura Ishiguro for noting this on her Facebook page and Joanna Pearce for suggesting I mention this change in my Canada150 blog post.

 

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7 Comments

  1. Curious to say celebrations of 1 July were quiet until the 1970s. Remember 1967, Expo, Bobby Gimby and thousands of kids marching to Parliament Hill singing the Canada song?

    • Andrea Eidinger

      March 14, 2017 at 12:47 pm

      Well, relatively quiet. But I think what you’re referring to is mostly the Centennial, which was definitely a big deal!

  2. Great article! For a long while now I’ve been tossing the problem of Canada around in my head, thanks for giving attention to this. Mind if I write a “review” on my blog?

  3. Sorry, not trying to spam. My computer is a bit, problematic, at times. The last comment posted before I was ready. Here is a link to my blog so you can check it out.

    https://kdbellblog.wordpress.com/

    • Andrea Eidinger

      March 16, 2017 at 7:30 pm

      Hi Kevin! Glad you liked the article! You are more than welcome to go ahead and review it. Cheers!

  4. Great article, Andrea. You have articulated quite a few thoughts that have been kicking around in my mind for awhile. I have tweeted it out on my account, I hope that is ok with you?

    • Andrea Eidinger

      March 17, 2017 at 9:11 pm

      Thank you! Of course you are welcome to Tweet a link to the article, or share it in on any other social media platform! 🙂 The more the merrier, as far as I’m concerned.

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