3/12/09

In the Literary Review of Canada (July/August, 2007), Mark Proudman reviews Robert Bothwell’s The Penguin History of Canada under the heading, “Why Canadian History is Boring.” Proudman doesn’t ask if/whether Canadian history is boring. No. According to Proudman it’s boring and everyone knows it. It’s not Bothwell’s fault that he’s written a boring book. “The fault is in the subject.”

So, are we a boring bunch? Well. There are worse things to be. But I think the trouble with The Penguin History of Canada lies elsewhere. The history it describes isn’t Canada’s real history. In Proudman’s words, the Penguin History shows readers, “The development of a conservative imperial nationalism into an often left-leaning anti-American nationalism.” And it’s true that many Canadians see their country this way. They’re convinced that we began as as a Conservative enterprise and continue today as a left-leaning one, laced with anti-Americanism. But the Canada envisaged by the Fathers of 1867 was not meant to be conservative. It was not intended to give members of the Conservative Party a boost. It was not intended solely for those who thought like members of the Party.

There were Conservative nationalists in British North America at Confederation. So what? There are left-leaning anti-Americans today. Of course. But the lean to the left and the anti-Americanism do not define us as a nation. You don’t have to be anti-American to be Canadian. Bothwell has missed the story. And Proudman’s in the same boat. I admit the history they describe is a staple in general history books and in texts in political science. But it is a fabrication. It was invented in the 1950s and 60s by Donald Creighton, Harold Innis, George Grant and Gad Horowitz, Seymour Martin Lipset and Louis Hartz.

So, what’s the real, the exciting history? More to come.

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5 Responses to “3/12/09”


  1. 1 oonae March 16, 2008 at 9:27 pm

    Not that I disagree exactly, but let me pose two problems. The first is that while left-leaning anti-Americanism might not have defined us as a nation even 50 years ago, it’s coming to. And there is something to be said for working with the vision of identity that is current, much as this one might be unhealthy.

    That we find Canadian history boring is a real problem. I heard a French woman on the radio the other day amazed that Canadians find their own history dull: she didn’t think it was at all. It has to do with the way history is taught here — not enough comic books or something. But, the point is that a case for a link between “boring” and “left wing” is tenuous. You might, however, be able to make a case for a link between “boring” and “defining ourselves as against something else instead of for what we are.”

  2. 2 William Denton March 16, 2008 at 10:11 pm

    Good to see you blogging.

  3. 3 janetajzenstat March 24, 2008 at 4:43 pm

    Yes. Left-leaning anti-Americanism defines Canada today. Only some of us are unhappy with the definition.

    So. Is it boring to be leftish and anti-American? I won’t comment. The left, anti-A definition has this one great fault. It isn’t supported by the documentary history and it covers up the real story of Canada – which is electrifying.

    We overthrew the colonial oligarchies (Family Compact, et al)- there’s excitement for you; and established liberal democracy. And in 1867 created a constitution that married parliamentary liberal democracy to federalism. It was a world first, as Donald Smiley tells us. It is the formula most free countries rely on today.

    The British North Americans adopted American federalism at at time when the American federation was tearing itself apart. A very bold move. And combined it with British parliamentary institutions – something many British theorists of the period believed impossible. And it is that combination of parliamentary institutions and federalism that offers the best guarantee of liberty.

    One last point – something you know well. The parliamentary regime is inclusive. The parliamentary constitution is neutral vis-a-via ideology – or as neutral as possible in this imperfect world.

  4. 4 oonae March 31, 2008 at 4:14 pm

    Yes. But, um, most people, you must know, don’t see any of that as exciting. I’m not sure why not. We certainly have a cast of colourful characters, and lots of symbols on which could be hung a naive jingoism. Maybe we just don’t teach it well. Or sell it well, or spin it well–these things being the despicable necessities of conveying “exciting” history. Or maybe we just don’t have enough blood.

  5. 5 Dennis April 9, 2008 at 4:30 pm

    Wait a minute — you mean that Pierre Trudeau didn’t just magically create Canada in 1982?!? I could have sworn that’s what I was taught in law school…

    Seriously, I’ve never been more worried about how Canadian history is taught as I am after my first year of teaching Canadian political science. I can accept (I suppose) that I have to explain who Duplessis is (he’s the guy trying to mess with poor Mr. Roncarelli…) but I was shocked to discover that I had to explain who Rene Levesque was, who Jean Lesage was, and — and this is the one that killed me — who Jean Charest is (as you can tell, my lecture on the ‘Rule of Law’ took a strange digression into Quebec provincial politics!).

    That said, none of this should be surprising, of course. What I find very sad is that even students interested in Canadian politics have a hard time finding books on Canadian history. Go to your local Indigo (“the World Needs More Canada” people) and look in the biography section for how many dead Canadian Prime Ministers they cover. With the exception of Macdonald and Trudeau, you’d be lucky to find any others. Imagine — a Canadian bookstore that doesn’t carry a single biography of Laurier! (In fact, I have discovered that the only biography of Laurier that they occasionally stock is a children’s storybook (‘The Weakling Who Stood His Ground’) — my 2-year old daughter has yet to express any desire to read it with me, but I have repeatedly pointed it out…).

    I know, I know, I need to forget about ‘bricks and mortar’ bookstores and concede that everything is online, but that’s really dependent on people seeking out books (‘knowing what you don’t know,’ to put it in Rumsfeldian terms) and surely something is lost by not having them presented to you in the same way that American biographies are often promoted. (I’m a big fan of Lincoln, but it is odd that the typical Indigo carries 4 or 5 Lincoln books and not a single Laurier — maybe I should apply for a SSHRC grant to study the Lincoln:Laurier ratio at Canadian book stores…).


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