Daniel Francis: History or Myth?

Book Cover National Dreams

This is the first of a new biweekly series made possible through a special funding grant from the Department of Canadian Heritage. "Talking History" will focus on a wide range of topics in Canadian history, exploring the notion of history as a compelling form of storytelling of interest to large audiences. Articles by Canada's foremost historians and history experts will use the power of narrative to bring the past to life, drawing connections between then and now to show how these stories are not just relevant, but essential to our understanding of Canada and the world today. 

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In an interview with the New York Times following his announced retirement from writing, the American novelist Philip Roth remarked that “the power in any society is with those who get to impose the fantasy.” It used to be the church, said Roth, or the “totalitarian superstate,” but now it is “the all-consuming, voraciously consumed popular culture” that is responsible for a nation’s dominant narratives. If we interpret Roth’s “fantasy” to mean the set of stories we tell ourselves about our own history, then his observation applies just as well to Canada as it does to the United States.

Everyone agrees that in a democratic society such as Canada it is important to be knowledgeable about our history. But there is much less consensus about what this history should consist of and who gets to say so. We can agree that Sir John A. Macdonald was our first prime minister or that Newfoundland joined Confederation in 1949. But history is more than a pop quiz. There is, in fact, no single “history” to be knowledgeable about. Instead, there are competing versions of the past. We know that the Métis rose in rebellion in 1885, for instance. But was it a good thing, or a bad thing? A success or a failure? The answers usually depend on who is telling the story.

In 1990 when I published my book National Dreams: Myth, Memory and Canadian History I was attempting to explore this idea of competing narratives. I tried to investigate some of the prominent stories that Canadians tell themselves about their past. Roth used the word “fantasy” to describe these stories; I used the word “myth.” Whatever you call them, they are the strongly-held, collective beliefs that every society has about its own identity. In the case of Canada, these explanatory myths include, among many others, the idea of multiculturalism, the iconic role of the Mountie and the powerful hold that “wildernicity” has on our imagination.

Let me give an example. One of my favourite myths concerns my hometown, Vancouver, and its most famous landmark, Stanley Park. When the city was created back in 1886 the area that became the park had been occupied for generations by ancestors of the Squamish and Musqueam people. But once the city was created, Euro-Canadian residents preferred to think of it as pristine, uninhabited wilderness. They created the park and evicted the First Nations, literally paving over their village sites. So far, so familiar. But then civic leaders decided it might be interesting for tourists to re-establish an Aboriginal presence in the park. Beginning in the 1920s totem poles were imported from villages up the coast and installed near Brockton Point. Over time this constellation of poles has become the most-visited tourist attraction in the city. In other words, after first eradicating the Aboriginal presence to promote the myth of wilderness, we then fabricated an imaginary “Indian village” to promote a more palatable, theme park notion of aboriginality.

Warrior Nation

Every generation believes it has a better grasp of the past than previous ones. Our forefathers used to believe such crazy things, we tell ourselves, but not us. We are too sophisticated, too knowledgeable, too broad-minded, to be taken in by their mistakes. Yet new historical myths are being created all the time. Witness the federal government’s recent efforts to burnish Canada’s military past. The so-called Warrior myth is the subject of a recent book by historians Ian McKay and Jamie Swift, Warrior Nation: Rebranding Canada in an Age of Anxiety. They argue that the Conservative government is rewriting Canadian history to make it a story of military achievement.

When I was writing National Dreams I didn’t consider for a moment that the warrior was an image Canadians had of themselves. Blue-helmeted peacekeepers, yes; sabre-rattling warriors, no. Wasn’t it the Americans who liked to turn every public event into a celebration of military might? We Canadians lived in the Peaceable Kingdom. But Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and some military historians who agree with him, seem to want to change that image. They are rebranding Canada as a more bellicose Warrior Nation whose martial past has been wrongfully ignored.

We will be hearing a lot about the warrior myth in the months to come as commemorations of the 100th anniversary of World War One continue to roll out. Canadians have long believed that the war played a pivotal role in our history. More than sixty thousand of our soldiers died to make the world safe for democracy. The Battle of Vimy Ridge, where members of the Canadian Corps captured a German position after a four-day assault costing 10,500 killed and wounded, has been mythologized as the moment when Canada came of age. The conflict is often seen as our war of independence; we went in as a subservient colony, we emerged as a proud, unified nation. Canadians, said Prime Minister Robert Borden, were filled “with an impelling sense of nationhood never before experienced.”

There is a counter-narrative, of course, one that argues that the war was as divisive as it was unifying. Relations between Francophones and Anglophones sank to a new low as the Quebecois did not support the war with the same enthusiasm as people in the rest of Canada. Conscription was also resented by the labour movement and farmers, who felt as the war dragged on that they were being asked to pay a disproportionate price. And the conflict pitted native-born Canadians against new immigrants, many of them from countries with which Canada was now at war. You could argue that the war split Canada apart far more than it brought it together.

This struggle for control of the collective narrative is what keeps history such a contemporary subject. The national myths are constantly shifting to satisfy new priorities. Things that we used to think defined us—multiculturalism, public broadcasting, global citizenship—these things are downplayed while other ways of thinking about ourselves—the Warrior Nation is just one example—are emphasized. The past is not past, to misquote William Faulkner. It is always being contested in the present.

Daniel Francis is a writer and historian who lives in North Vancouver. He is the author of two dozen books, including his latest, Closing Time: Prohibition, Rum-Runners, and Border Wars. Follow his work at danielfrancis.ca.

 

Further Reading:

National Dreams: Myth, Memory and Canadian History, by Daniel Francis

As Canadians, we remember the stories told to us in high-school history class as condensed images of the past—the glorious Mountie, the fearsome Native, the Last Spike. National Dreams is an incisive study of the most persistent icons and stories in Canadian history, and how they inform our sense of national identity: the fundamental beliefs that we Canadians hold about ourselves. National Dreams is the story of our stories; the myths and truths of our collective past that we first learned in school, and which we carry throughout our adult lives as tangible evidence of what separates us from other nationalities... (Read more)

Selling Canada: Immigrants, Soldiers, Tourists and the Building of Our Nation, by Daniel Francis

With compelling research, insight, and wit, Daniel Francis documents how three campaigns established Canada as a destination for immigrants and tourists and turned us into proud defenders of western civilization. In doing so, they also transformed the way Canadians and outsiders thought about Canada, inadvertently providing the raw material for nationhood. Each campaign produced images expressing what Canadians believed to be fundamental about their country. Those images were incomplete and misleading, providing an idealized portrait of Canada rather than a realistic snapshot.... (Read more)

Warrior Nation: Rebranding Canada in an Age of Anxiety, by Ian McKay and Jamie Swift

Once known for peacekeeping, Canada is becoming a militarized nation whose apostles—the New Warriors—are fighting to shift public opinion. New Warrior zealots seek to transform postwar Canada's central myth-symbols. Peaceable kingdom. Just society. Multicultural tolerance. Reasoned public debate. Their replacements” A warrior nation. Authoritarian leadership. Permanent political polarization.

The tales cast a vivid light on a story that is crucial to Canada's future; yet they are also compelling history. Warrior Nation is an essential read for those concerned by the relentless effort to conscript Canadian history... (Read more)

Peoples’ Citizenship Guide: A Response to Conservative Canada, by Esyllt Jones and Adele Perry

In 2009, Stephen Harper's Conservative government changed the contents of the official citizenship guide that is given to all recent immigrants. The new version contained a lot more military history and plenty of information about the monarchy, but little about public programs such as medicare or education, or our rich history of social justice movements. Ignoring the work and democratic struggles of generations of newcomers, it presumes that new immigrants need to be taught how to "take responsibility" for their families. In short, the official guide outlines an exceptionally narrow, conservative view of Canadian politics and society. In People's Citizenship Guide, a group of progressive scholars offer an alternative citizenship guide: a lively, political, humane—and more honest—alternative to Stephen Harper's version of the story... (Read more)

Contesting Clio’s Craft: New Directions and Debates in Canadian History, by Christopher Dummitt and Michael Dawson

The authors place a particular emphasis on international, transnational, and comparative approaches to the past. Essays cover such topics as the Atlantic World, oral history, postcolonialism, public history, historical periodization, Canada’s place in the British Empire, and French-English relations. The art of history as a discipline and practice is also discussed. A must read for Canadian historians, Contesting Clio’s Craft will also appeal to international scholars interested in these issues and curious about the contribution that Canadian history has made to the broader history of the Americas... (Read more)

The Uses and Abuses of History, by Margaret MacMillan

History is useful when it is used properly: to understand why we and those we must deal with think and react in certain ways. It can offer examples to inform our decisions and guesses about the consequences of our actions. But we should be wary of looking to history for dogmatic lessons.We should distrust those who abuse history when they call on it to justify unreasonable claims to land, for example, or restitution. MacMillan illustrates how dangerous history can be in the hands of nationalistic or religious or ethnic leaders who use it to foster a sense of grievance and a desire for revenge... (Read more)

October 10, 2014
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