Beyond the Books: Canadian History in the Digital Age

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Talking History focuses on a wide range of topics in Canadian history, and it consists of articles by Canada's foremost historians and history experts. Our contributors use the power of narrative to bring the past to life and to show how it is not just relevant, but essential to our understanding of Canada and the world today. "Talking History" is a series made possible through a special funding grant from the Department of Canadian Heritage.

Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail is an award-winning writer, speaker, and historian, and occasional CBC radio columnist. She is the author of For the Love of Flying  and Polar Winds: A Century of Flying the North, and is currently at work on a serialized online history project, www.ghostsofcamsell.ca; an anthology tentatively called Unsettled (Brindle & Glass, 2016); and a WWII-era novel, Chasing Skies. She was writer-in-residence at Berton House in Dawson City, Yukon; Chatelaine’s  Maverick of the Year in 2011; and is currently serving as Edmonton’s Historian Laureate.  

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Though most of us historians still have a 50 Shades-level fetish for published books, that is changing, and that’s a good thing.

Don’t get me wrong—I love books. I’ve read a gazillion, have published two, and am in the process of writing several more. I’m writing this now on a website devoted to books. Ask any author and they’ll tell you: there’s nothing quite like holding your physical book in your hands. Sometimes it even beats out holding your first child in your arms. (Sorry, baby A.)

But history books—especially Canadian ones—have gotten a bit of a bad reputation. Folks like Pierre Berton, Charlotte Gray, Thomas King, and others (many of whom are not academic historians by training but rather journalists, English profs, and so on) have helped rebrand them through superior storytelling, but there are still readers that boycott them like unsustainable seafood. I can’t help wondering if that’s one of the reasons King’s The Inconvenient Indian got voted off Canada Reads earlier than expected this year.

I was thinking the other day that it was probably authors and historians who freaked out the most when the internet came along. There were likely muffled screams when e-books were touted as the next big thing, and several near-breakdowns when apps and social media looked destined to replace "book learning."

Of course, many of us then and now shrugged our shoulders and thought, okay, digital revolution. I can work with that. We were the first preteens and teens on the internet, hanging out in early text-only chat rooms, and punishing our parents with dial-up modem charges.

As a social and cultural historian with a social justice bent, I actually think it’s all been for the best. Through blogs, vlogs, tumblrs, podcasts, and other online platforms, we can democratize the creation and understanding of narratives. Not to get too meta, but here I am, writing about history and its relevance today on a blog.

Of course, then we as historians can’t control the canon, can’t shape the message as much as we’d like (unless we write textbooks for schools, maybe). Yes, "citizen journalists" can be a crock of unpaid, unvetted labour, and some news organizations are getting in hot water over libellous live-cast Twitter feeds. But despite what the comments sections after news stories suggest, I think people are generally intelligent and thoughtful (I know, ever the optimist). So maybe citizen historians aren’t such a bad thing, either.

These citizen journalists can speak up when pundits, politicians, or even parents out there put troublesome slants on current events drawing on history to do so. Kids of all ages can consult the hive mind on Facebook, Google something, and go down several internet rabbit holes in search of different perspectives.

Which is where teaching about critical thinking and confirmation bias come in handy. I’m sure many of us real live historians would love to buy these "citizen historians" a coffee and chat about those questions, especially as we all move from information scarcity (think one box of crumbling handwritten letters) to the age of the Twitterverse. Even Google, as the post-modern uber-relativist pendulum is settling somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, is apparently recognizing that some sources of information are more reliable than others and will begin ranking accordingly. Bye bye, Jenny and Gwyneth.

Book Cover Polar Winds

Speaking of getting together for coffee, perhaps this is one way historians can get away from dusty old books and soak up some Vitamin D. Maybe we need to leave the archives and our writerly caves to interact with people sometimes. This can be scary since most of us are naturally introverts or shy, or both. But having seen folks like David O’Keefe, Desmond Morton, and Tina Loo in action, I know there are quite a few historians with a flair for public presentation.

This talking thing is also an important part of the whole movement away from the "book as god" idea. It’s just one more step, really. Social historians started valuing the stories of subalterns or peasants or people who didn’t have privilege to write and keep documents. Then historians like Arthur J. Ray started wrangling with acceptable forms of historical evidence for Aboriginal rights cases, land claims negotiations, and so on. Suddenly historians and courts were looking at oral histories or wampum belts, or other non-paper artifacts, as important perspectives beyond what one person wrote down once. They’ve been balancing the written with the oral, giving more respect to the storytellers and the storykeepers.

Like true raconteurs, those of us who are public historians and want everyday Canadians to engage with capital H History have to remember our audiences. We need to make our content interesting and relevant to our readers and listeners, but not at the expense of analysis and accuracy, of course.

This isn’t a new idea. It was Pierre Berton himself who pioneered it for Canadian History, as far as I can tell. According to A. B. McKillop’s biography of Mr. Canada, it also got him into some trouble with academic historians such as Jack Granatstein who apparently accused Berton of intentionally making history interesting, to which Berton retorted: “Well, I certainly didn’t try to make it boring.”

So let’s think of new ways to present and package our historical information. Is it through pop-up museums, Jane’s Walks, Curiosities Bus Tours, podcasts, webinars, hashtags, or grassroots heritage cafés? Or by "gamifying" heritage experiences through apps, geocaching, or trans-media storytelling? Or even through elders-in-residence programs or living history books at libraries, where respected community members can share their memories and wisdom. Maybe it’s just slipping interesting historical factoids into conversation as you and your friends walk by urban ruins, civic spaces or public buildings.

And who knows? These things might even lead to people reading history books—as long as we make those interesting and accessible too. Because in the end, it’s not about being hip. It’s about being heard.

Suggestions for further reading:

The Joy of Writing, by Pierre Berton

About the book: Drawing on his 50 years as an award-winning journalist and author of some of the finest books on Canadian history, Pierre Berton has written a witty and practical guide for writers. With almost every book a bestseller, clearly this writer knows what it takes to succeed in the publishing world. From the all-important rule of "knowing your audience" and other essential writing tips to down-to-earth advice on dealing with agents, publishers, and editors, The Joy of Writing covers every aspect of non-fiction writing and includes interviews with 27 of Canada’s leading writers. Illustrated with more than 30 manuscript pages from Pierre Berton’s own works.

Telling It to the Judge, by Arthur J. Ray

About the book: In 1973, the Supreme Court's historic Calder decision on the Nisga'a community's Title suit in British Columbia launched the Native rights litigation era in Canada. Legal claims have raised questions with significant historical implications, such as, "What treaty rights have survived in various parts of Canada? What is the scope of Aboriginal Title? Who are the Métis, where do they live, and what is the nature of their culture and their rights?" Arthur Ray's extensive knowledge in the history of the fur trade and Native economic history brought him into the courts as an expert witness in the mid-1980s. For over 25 he has been a part of landmark litigation concerning treaty rights, Aboriginal Title, and Métis rights. In Telling It to the Judge, Ray recalls lengthy courtroom battles over lines of evidence, historical interpretation, and philosophies of history, reflecting on the problems inherent in teaching history in the adversarial courtroom setting. Told with charm and based on extensive experience, Telling It to the Judge is a unique narrative of courtroom strategy in the effort to obtain constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and treaty rights.

Pierre Berton: A Biography, by A.B. McKillop

About the book: From his northern childhood on, it was clear that Pierre Berton (1920—2004) was different from his peers. Over the course of his 84 years, he would become the most famous Canadian media figure of his time, in newspapers, magazines, radio, television, and books—sometimes all at once. Berton dominated bookstore shelves for almost half a century, winning Governor General’s Awards for Klondike and The Last Spike, among many others, along with a dozen honorary degrees.

Throughout it all, Berton was larger than life: full of verve and ideas, he approached everything he did with passion, humour, and an insatiable curiosity. He loved controversy and being the centre of attention, and provoked national debate on subjects as wide-ranging as religion and marijuana use. A major voice of Canadian nationalism at the dawn of globalization, he made Canadians take interest in their own history and become proud of it. But he had his critics too, and some considered him egocentric and mean-spirited.

Now, with the same meticulous research and storytelling skill that earned him wide critical acclaim for The Spinster and The Prophet, Brian McKillop traces Pierre Berton’s remarkable life, with special emphasis on his early days and his rise to prominence. The result is a comprehensive, vivid portrait of the life and work of one of our most celebrated national figures.

Book Cover One Day in August

One Day in August, by David O'Keefe

About the book: In a narrative as powerful and moving as it is authoritative, David O’Keefe rewrites history, connecting Canada’s tragedy at Dieppe with an extraordinary and colourful cast of characters—from the young Commander Ian Fleming, later to become the creator of the James Bond novels, and his team of crack commandos to the code-breaking scientists of Bletchley Park (the closely guarded heart of Britain’s wartime Intelligence and code-breaking work) to those responsible for the planning and conduct of the Dieppe Raid—Admiral John Godfrey, Lord Louis Mountbatten, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and others. The astonishing story critically changes what we thought we knew. 
 
For seven decades, the objective for the raid has been one of the most perplexing mysteries of WWII. In less than six hours on August 19, 1942, nearly one thousand Canadians—as well as British and Americans—lay dead or dying on the beaches around the French seaside town, with over two thousand other Canadians wounded or captured. These awful losses have left a legacy of bitterness, recrimination and controversy. In the absence of concrete reasons for the raid, myriad theories ranging from incompetence to conspiracy developed.
 
Over almost two decades of research, sifting through countless recently declassified Intelligence documents, David O’Keefe skillfully pieces together the story like a jigsaw puzzle to reveal the prime reason behind the raid: a highly secret mission designed, in one of Britain’s darkest times, to redress the balance of the war. One Day in August provides a thrilling, multi-layered story that fundamentally changes our understanding of this most tragic and pivotal chapter in Canada’s history.

Book Cover True Crime, True North

True Crime True North: The Golden Age of Canadian Pulp Magazines, by Tina Loo and Carolyn Strange

About the book: The covers are bold and brassy, the advertisements are spicy and the stories recount cases of murder, robbery, sex and violence. Who can resist true crime magazines? The pulps are typically considered a quintessentially American art form, but Canada developed its own pulp industry and Canadian publishers turned out scores of magazines during World War II. With lively text that is both entertaining and informative, alongside eye-popping samples of full-colour magazine covers, True Crime, True North leads readers back to the pulps of the 1940s, exploring the themes that characterized true crime in Canada: the unquestioned adherence to retributive justice, the unwavering faith in lawmen and the enduring affection for the men of the RCMP.

A Short History of Canada, by Desmond Morton

About the book: Most of us know bits and pieces of our history but would like to be more sure of how it all fits together. The trick is to find a history that is so absorbing you will want to read it from beginning to end. With this book, Desmond Morton, one of Canada’s most noted and highly respected historians, shows how the choices we can make at the dawn of the 21st century have been shaped by history.

Morton is keenly aware of the links connecting our present, our past, and our future, and in one compact and engrossing volume he pulls off the remarkable feat of bringing it all together—from the First Nations before the arrival of the Europeans to the failure of the Charlottetown accord and Jean Chretien’s third term as prime minister. His acute observations on the Diefenbaker era, the effects of the post-war influx of immigrants, the flag debate, the baby boom, the Trudeau years and the constitutional crisis, the Quebec referendum, and the rise of the Canadian Alliance all provide an invaluable background to understanding the way Canada works today.

April 10, 2015
Books mentioned in this post
Polar Winds

Polar Winds

A Century of Flying the North
edition:eBook
also available: Paperback
More Info
The Inconvenient Indian

The Inconvenient Indian

A Curious Account of Native People in North America
edition:Hardcover
also available: Paperback
More Info
The Joy of Writing

The Joy of Writing

A Guide for Writers Disguised as a Literary Memoir
edition:Paperback
tagged : reference
More Info
Telling It to the Judge

Telling It to the Judge

Taking Native History to Court
edition:Paperback
also available: Hardcover
More Info
Pierre Berton

Pierre Berton

A Biography
edition:Paperback
also available: Hardcover
tagged : literary
More Info
One Day in August

One Day in August

The Untold Story Behind Canada's Tragedy at Dieppe
edition:Paperback
also available: Hardcover
More Info
A Short History of Canada

A Short History of Canada

Sixth Edition
edition:Paperback
also available: Paperback
tagged :
More Info
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