Pushing Past Canada and its (National) Histories

March 29, 2011 at 5:05 pm 3 comments

Posted by Mary Chaktsiris

Over the past week, I’ve found myself immersed in a pile of undergraduate essay marking. The comment I find myself writing constantly into paper margins and scribbling at the end of essays is one urging students to think critically about not only the content they included within their essays, but also about the overarching narrative of national history itself. From the Conquest, the American Revolution, and the War of 1812 to the post 9/11 world, many Canadian history courses at the undergraduate level attempt to present students with a narrative that makes sense of the past through the lens of the Canadian nation-state. In a retelling of Canada that moves through the past as a series of events and developments culminating in the birth and maturation of a “nation,” how can we encourage students to think about the construction not only of nations but also of their histories?

Jack Granastein’s now infamous question Who Killed Canadian History? presents an appeal for the preservation not necessarily of “Canadian history”, but of a certain vision or version of Canada’s past. A belief in the importance of certain names and dates, or the upholding of Confederation or the Great War as defining moments in Canadian history, exposes the seemingly supreme importance placed on the development of the nation in this vision of Canada’s past. I read essays talking about a Canada that is coming together during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, of a maturation of nationhood that starts in infancy with the arrival of French settlers, reaches adolescence through Confederation and the Great War and finally achieves its adulthood through the cultural nationalism of the 1960s and Constitution of 1982. Is this really what we mean by “Canadian History?”

Katie Pickles argues that in Canada, history as a discipline has played an important role in the construction of national identity and there remains a tendency to marginalize history as easy, boring or common knowledge. The legacy of nation-bound approaches in historical inquiry remains pervasive despite a growing climate of ‘trans’ and ‘post’ ideas in historical studies that has challenged the idea of the nation as the only entry point for history inquiry.[1] Pickles suggests approaching history “on a transnational and local scale, and only incidentally national.”[2] This would widen the field of “Canadian History” beyond the parameters of the nation-state to explore how people, places and things are historically important in ways other than their importance to the development of the nation.  Even though historians are debating and discussing the place and nature of history in Canadian contexts from calls to reinvigorate a “boring” subject to the theoretical revolution proposed by Ian McKay’s Liberal Order Framework,

this debate seems limited to academic historians who are largely speaking to each other.   To borrow the words of Alan Greer, what would it mean to drop the “Canadian” from “Canadian History?”[3]

Student analysis of history, and perhaps even the general analysis of history more largely, needs to be pushed further to think critically about not only history generally but also its presentation in textbooks, newspapers, exhibits and institutions. This “pushing further” is not necessarily about completely discounting events deemed importance to “Canadian history,” but it is about a perspective that takes into account how these events are placed in relation to each other to construct the past in potentially artificial ways. As Margaret MacMillan points out, history can be both used and abused; it is up to us to tell the difference.[4]


[1] Marilyn Lake, “Nationalist Historiography and Feminist Scholarship: The Promise and Problems of New Transnational History.” Journal of Women’s History 19(1) (2007): 180-186.

[2]Katie Pickles, “Transnational Intentions and Cultural Cringe: History Beyond National Boundaries,” in Contesting Clio’s Craft: New Directions and Debates in Canadian History, edited by Christopher Dummit and Michael Dawson (London: Institute for the Studies of the Americas, 2009), 146.

[3] Alan Greer, “Canadian History is so boring…” Ottawa Citizen, 20 August 2005, Citizen Special, Metro Edition.

[4] Margaret MacMillan, The Uses and Abuses of History (Toronto: Viking Canada, 2008).

Entry filed under: Public History, Teaching. Tags: , , , , , .

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Cynthia Wallace-Casey  |  March 31, 2011 at 1:00 pm

    By “pushing further” perhaps we all have to be asking ourselves how are we being led by the taken-for-granted conventional wisdom of our time. When history becomes too easily consumable – then it is also ahistorical. There are no easy answers about the past… Thanks for this, Mary…

    Reply
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