Friday, November 13, 2009

Canada: My part in its discovery

The first I heard about the government’s new citizenship initiative, the booklet now published as Discover Canada (downloadable here), and currently all over the headlines, was when the minister’s office emailed last June, proposing to schedule a phone conversation with Jason Kenney, minister of citizenship and immigration.

I fenced a bit. What did the minister want to talk about? Well, they had a new guide to Canadian citizenship he wanted to discuss.

Don’t people usually get a backgrounder or something before they are briefing the minister? Well, she just scheduled appointments, she said, she could not discuss policy. Eventually someone else took over, and in time they agreed to courier a draft of something they were working on, a guide to Canada for immigrants they would like some input on.

But by then I was growing increasingly doubtful about a Canadian history text coming straight out of the minister’s political staff. (And looking for freebies. My hints about what kind of fee we might be considering for my expertise had been smoothly but pointedly evaded.) “I'm sure you have competent public servants and consultants who have worked long and hard on this project, and I'm reluctant to second-guess them without adequate preparation,” I said in an email. I was busy, and I never actually read the draft they sent.

Well, turns out sometimes you can stand on principle and get away with it. I’m just as happy not to be on the list of helpers of Discover Canada. But in the recommendations for immigrants wishing to know more, along with The Canadian Encyclopedia and such, there is only one independently written book: The Story of Canada by Janet Lunn and Christopher Moore. Sweet. As they say, it is not enough to be chosen; to make it really satisfying, all your friends must be rejected at the same time.

I’d say Discover Canada is all right. It’s true, it’s a pretty political, constitutional, building-of-the=nation kind of history. But to introduce immigrants to the gist of their new Canadian citizenship, that is probably the way to go. A generation of historians has done heroic work in developing new Canadian histories, but the genius of social history is creating 33 million different stories. It is not supposed to cohere. All their work, our work, precious though it is, has not produced an alternate narrative to the history of a nation politically conceived and politically maintained. To us longtimers, Discover Canada may look a bit like the old story. But there are no old stories when it’s a new audience.

It’s still troubling, however, how much Discover Canada is a political document in that other sense. It’s this government’s take on Canadian history, explicitly presented as a replacement for the Liberal version of the same from 1997. I’m all for debates about history, but shouldn’t an official document, the statement of Canada to prospective Canadians, rise above this kind of political one-upmanship? And shouldn't it be written outside the minister's office? I know some pretty talented historians in the public service. What are they for?

Update: The Historians' Gaze weighs in.

(The Story of Canada, by the way, is widely available -- and coming soon to the Scholastic Book Club market too.
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