Monday, June 29, 2009

Another Canada Day, another crank theory

It would not be Canada Day, perhaps, without some really loopy piece in The Globe & Mail announcing that "historians" have got Canadian history all wrong, and we need a radical new truth to set us straight. This year Doug Saunders got the assignment. He starts:
We are not the Canada we think we are.

The country of our imagination – northern, colonial, rooted in a history of British settlement and only recently becoming pluralistic and multihued – is an illusion.
Well, so far so good. I would have thought our historians have been working for decades to demonstrate the diverse sources of the Canadian population over many year. Surely Saunders has been to the prairies sometime and noticed that lots of those Ukrainian Canadians descend from people who came quite a while ago, or that the Jewish communities of our big cities are quite old, or that the Chinatowns of the west really go back quite a long way.

But when Saunders says "historians" he seems to mean what he remembers from his grade five. If he has the notion that Canada was uniformly British and French until 1967, it must be the fault of "historians."

Doug Saunders's radical discovery is that not all 19th century British immigrants who came to Canada stayed, that population growth was slow between confederation and 1896, and that, gee, quite a few immigrants before 1967 were non-British. Somehow he turns these data points into an assertion that, for all practical purposes no British immigrants came to Canada in the 19th century, and that Canada did not exist until the twentieth century.

I look across to my bookshelf. Where's my copy of Brown and Cook, Canada 1896-1921. Didn't it have quite a bit of influence in its day? Doesn't it have the subtitle "A Nation Transformed"? Isn't the transformation laid out in great detail there pretty much what Saunders is on about? Except Brown and Cook did not feel obliged to claim there was no British immigration pre-1867 or that British inheritances had no role in shaping the nation the early 20th century immigrants came to. That's Saunders' contribution.

The northern part -- okay, he may have something there.
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