Thursday, August 26, 2021

A New Synthesis for Canadian History

[This post follows up on some previous ones, notably Commemoration and History of August 20, History of the Hunger for History of August 18, and On Genocide from August 12.]

A few days ago, in the post titled "Commemoration and History," I noted how Britain, to name just one example, is struggling with the need to reinterpret its narrative of history and commemoration as once secondary and minority populations stand up to assert their place in national narratives.

Beneath our feet, that kind of earthquake seems to be taking place in Canadian historical narrative. It may, in fact, be comparable to what happened in the 1960s.

Prior to the 1960s, it was common and acceptable to write surveys of Canadian history in which French Canada (at least for the post-conquest period) could be briefly summarized as a folkloric remnant, committed to small farms, large families, traditional ways and the leadership of the Catholic Church -- and otherwise largely ignored in surveys of the Canadian economy, society, politics, and culture.  French Canada did not play a prominent role in shaping Canadian events, and English-Canada's historians picked up on that cue. 

As Quebec asserted and reinterpreted its place in the national story in the 1960s, there was fierce resistance from some leading anglophone Canadian historians (Donald Creighton comes to mind) against conceding greater place and greater respect in their Canadian synthesis to the francophone parts of the Canadian nation. On the other hand, there were also anglophone historians (Ramsay Cook comes to mind) much more inclined to apply themselves to the history of Quebec and to participate in shaping a new Canadian narrative more inclusive of, more engaged with, French Canada. Critical to the making of the new narrative, however, was a tremendous surge of new francophone historians fiercely critical of the old Canadian synthesis and taking the lead in creating materials for a new one -- even if that was not precisely their intention.

Is that what we are seeing now? There is a new assertion from Indigenous peoples of the northern half of North America. Among other things, it attacks the traditionally marginalizing treatment of First Nations by Canada and by the Canadian historical narrative. It demands a much larger place in the Canadian historical narrative for the reality of settler-indigenous relations throughout Canada's history.  

In response, there are non-Indigenous historians taking an interest in re-integrating Indigenous matters into the Canadian narrative. And a rising wave of Indigenous historians and scholars are taking the narrative into their own hands, and creating the materials from which to reshape the history of Canada.

Yes, there are historians whose work had a place in the old synthesis who regret seeing it crumble, or fear that subjects they have devoted themselves to will become be neglected or even disdained, or have been offended by criticism of the narrative they helped create.  Who wants to be framed as an accomplice to genocide?

I don't think the traditional subjects will disappear. We are still going to need confederation scholars, and biographers of John A. Macdonald and Egerton Ryerson and Bishop Grandin.  "Canada" is not going to be cancelled, because it is going to have to be a partner in whatever "reconciliation" takes place.  

But our historical images of it are shifting. As historical images do....       

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