Boring Old Canadian History

By Jeremy Baillie

Jack Granastein has written a book called, Who Killed Canadian History? My first response to that question would be every history or social studies teacher I have ever had. However, since chances are Jack Granastein probably does not know any of the history or social studies teachers I have had then that answer is probably wrong. I have not read the Granastein book. I want to and I am impatiently waiting for the Book of the Month Club to actually send me that book which I ordered months ago, but that is beside the point.

What is it about Canadian History that helps us all find cures for our insomnia?

What is it about Canadian History that helps us all find cures for our insomnia? Well, I think its partly how its taught. Actually, scratch that its largely how its taught and what is focused on.. Who does not know, for example, that Canada was formed in 1867? Ok, a few of us. Still most of us know that basic fact about our country. But let me ask you this, who among you knows that John A. MacDonald had a wee bit of a drinking problem and that throughout the House of Commons transcripts there are references to John A. being in England 'recovering from an illness', or translated that he was in England recovering from having gone on a bender.

But you see, we Canadians being the quiet folk we are, we shy away from the very things that make our history interesting. Yet we do not shy away from all these same things that make American History something we know so much more about.

It is true. Who among us could name more Canadian Prime Ministers than they could American Presidents? I know up until a few months ago I could not

You see up until about a year ago, I was one of you. I thought, Canadian History was full of boring tales about white haired old men in uncomfortable looking shirts. Then, I had an ephipany. Ironically, I was in a political science class on the Canadian Political Party System. You want truly boring, that is truly boring. However, the instructor kept throwing in lots of anecdotes about Canada's historical leaders from Confederation onward. I did not learn a damn thing useful about the Canadian Political Party System but two things happened. My curiosity about Canada was rekindled. The second thing that happened was that I was filled with great anger and shame that I knew more about our neighbors to the south than I did about our own great country.

So like anyone reborn with enthusiasm I went off on a quest. I did not go far, only to the bookstore, the library and thumbed through a book catalogue. The result of my quest was that in my personal library I now have four absolutely enthralling books about Canadian History. They are, in no particular order, 1867: How the Fathers' Made a Deal, Laurier and the Romance of Canada, Just a Minute, and Just Another Minute. These four books did more to convince me that Canada truly has an interesting history than 12 years of public school and 5 years of college history did.

Most of us know that Joe Shuster was the co-creator of the Superman comic, but how many of us know that Joe Shuster was the cousin of Frank Shuster of Wayne and Shuster fame? How many of us know that the Bluenose (yes, that little schooner on the back of our beloved dime), broke a mast in her final race and that her skipper was heard yelling, "Just one more time" to her and she responded by winning the race? How many of us have heard of Charles Tupper, one of the Fathers of Confederation, the Fifth Prime Minister of Canada and Canada's shortest tenured Prime Minister? Tupper lived until 1915. He was the last of the Fathers of Confederation. Imagine being a part of such a historical event like the carving out of a nation and then living another forty-five years and watching that nation grow. Imagine what it must have been like for Tupper. In 1915 he would have outlived all of his fellow Father's by years, he would have witnessed the Riel Rebellions, the growth of Canada under Sir Wilfrid Laurier and part of the First World War.

Ah, yes, Laurier, we can't forget about Laurier. How many of us knew Laurier was perhaps Canada's most reluctant leader yet he lead his Liberal party for 31 years and Canada for 15? He tried to resign several times but circumstances, or individuals would not let him. How many of us know that all his life Laurier was troubled by the fear that he had tuberculosis? How many of us know he fell to the floor of his home of a stroke and died just a few days later with his last words being, "C'est fini"?

This, in my mind, is the problem with how Canadian History is taught. We focus too much on the events and even at that we tend to focus on the more acceptable events passing over things like Canada's conscription crisis, the tragedies of Vimy Ridge, the Somme and Dieppe, or Lester Pearson's being grabbed by Lyndon Johnson by the scruff of his collar.

We forget history is about people. It is people who shape the events

We forget history is about people. It is people who shape the events. Sure sometimes circumstances make certain demands on people and only some people can respond to them. However, it is the personalities of the people that make the events what they are. Laurier, was haunted by a drive to succeed and a fear that he was not going to. This is what makes his 31 years as Liberal leader and his 15 as Prime Minister fascinating not the mere numbers themselves.

Canada has made history since day one here and all over the world. We were the first country really to go from being a colony to a nation without any bloodshed. Many years from now scholars will more than likely look at the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights as a landmark document in human history. Yet, how many of us know that a principle drafter of the Declaration of Human Rights was a Canadian by the name of John Humphreys?

Canada has a problem about creating heroes for itself. I am not sure if it is because of our dual cultures or not. However, I have begun to wonder that if Canada went about creating myths and made better use of its history if we could not once and for all solve the conflict between Quebec and Canada outside Quebec. Laurier Lapierre says, in Laurier and the Romance of Canada, that if the Riel Rebellions had occurred in the United States Riel would be celebrated as a hero. I have no doubt this would be the case. The United States celebrates the individual, Canada celebrates the collective. Scholars always argue this is so because Canada was carved out of such a forbidding landscape. So what? Why does that not mean we can not celebrate the individuals who overcame this forbidding landscape. Why can't we celebrate both General Wolfe and General Montcalm and what they did that day on the Plains of Abraham?

We need desperately to change the spirit of Canada or else we run the risk of forgetting our own past or leaving it to scholars to trivialize down to barren events leaving out the people who made those events what they were. Young people like myself should not be finding themselves suddenly turned on to Canadian History in a totally unrelated class. Young people should be turned onto Canadian History from day one of their education. They should be exposed to all of Canada's history, its finest hours, its darkest moments, its heroes and villains.

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