Monday, April 24, 2017

How to commemorate Canada 150

Jerry Bannister from Dalhousie's History Department writes regarding the "Story of Us" controversy, noted here previously:
The main point lies not with the process of putting together such a program (and the inevitable difficulties that the process of selection entails), but rather with the basic concept of trying to create a single national history in the first place. Making claims about national inclusiveness -- i.e., the story of all of "us" -- invariably sets the project up for failure, because there is no way that any program or initiative can include everyone, every experience, or every perspective. In other words, it's not the execution of the project but the idea behind the project.
Thanks, Jerry.  Hmmm.  I think I disagree pretty comprehensively!

This year I have been quoting Benedict Anderson: "Any nation is an imagined community."

(Not, let me emphasize, "an imaginary community." You don't have to stop calling yourself a Canadianist for fear of being accused of studying unicorns.)

I take it as evident that a Canadian national community does exist, that bringing it into being and keeping it in being is an enormous feat of political/social/cultural/ideological imagination, and that it should be worthwhile and fascinating for scholars, writers, journalists, and citizens to study that process, this year or indeed any year.  I've been arguing something like that at the lecture I've been doing at universities around the country this spring, under the title "The Canadian Constitution at 150 -- and Today"  (Bookings still available for the fall.  Call me.)

Pace Jerry, the problem with "The Story of Us" is not that the task cannot be done, but that it needs to be done well. Our public culture in Canada mostly holds that Canadian history must either be boring or trivial. The idea that history should be an ambitious cultural pursuit as is music or theatre or science does not have much traction at the CBC as elsewhere. "History! It's so important for the kids" I am told constantly. And you can see how that ethos pervaded the making of "The Story of Us."

The journalists and broadcasters who made "The Story of Us" are probably smart and hardworking people. It's not that they could not have made something worthwhile. It just never occurred to them that such was their assignment.

Update, same day:  Bannister holds his ground:
I guess I just don't think it can be done well, at least not in the way that it's conventionally formulated.

As I've argued in print and online, I support national history and Canadian Studies -- otherwise, I wouldn't be coordinating our CANA program -- but I think that there is a significant difference between studying (and thus debating) the nation, on the one hand, and trying to give it a single, unifying voice or perspective, on the other.

On your point that a "Canadian national community does exist," you will get no argument from me. But, for me, that national community is a diverse space defined, from its inception, in large part by debate, dissension, and discussion of difference.

Christopher Dummitt also worries about how to do Canada150 without being ashamed:

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