Canada Day this year, apart from providing the fireworks-induced impetus for many a barking dog, also marked the beginning of the first annual Canadian History Week. Being that I am not from Canada but from a completely separate continent in a completely separate hemisphere you might think me ill-equipped to write on the subject of Canadian History but you would be wrong. Australians are, after all, Commonwealth citizens too. Besides, I never let ignorance of a subject intimidate me into silence.
Here is what people like me think about when we think about Canadian history: Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, safe haven for draft dodgers, maple syrup, deer, bears, referendums not revolutions, health care, Niagara Falls and hockey. A recent survey ranked Canada "the most favorably viewed nation in the world". Everyone thinks you’re cool. But everyone learned what they know about Canada from that Michael Moore documentary about gun control, South Park and Joni Mitchell so I am going to assume it’s not really a comprehensive summation of your national identity.
The same article that asserted that Canada was the most favorably viewed nation in the world also said that many Canadians do not know much about their Nation’s history. Now, this could have been a non sequitur but something about it stuck in my mind and it got me thinking. National identity is not a brand position. National identity is not even patriotism. It’s something deeper, more honest and changing than any of those things and it is certainly not created by ‘others’. But, for what it’s worth, from an outsider’s perspective that recognition is one of the admirable things about Canadian History Week.
This week, at its launch the Hon. James Moore, federal Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages, announced that Canadian History Week “will be an opportunity for Canadians to explore our local museums, to visit our national historic sites or to develop a local event where people live so that they can celebrate their history in their community. Funding will be made available… so that Canadians can tell their stories in their communities to each other so that we can all better understand our histories”. As a foreigner I think this focus is important because history is not something definitive, it changes and there is more than one.
Those people surveyed about their knowledge of history said they didn’t remember much about what they were taught about Canadian history in school. But that’s not what history is! That’s what history was. While I am not Canadian I come from another British colony with a complicated history. Sure, I might know nothing about Canadian history but I can say one thing with certainty, what you and I were taught in school about history probably doesn’t completely apply any more. It’s what history was according to the state of the conversation at the time. Remembering what your 1988 high school text book said about “Canadian History” will tell you about as much about Canadian history today as a 1988 map of Berlin will tell you about German history today.
The very slippery thing about ‘history’ is that it changes as you get more people involved in talking about it and that is a really wonderful thing when those who have a claim to speak on the matter are given a chance to do so. The more perspectives you have, the more you realize that history is actually a whole bunch of different things. And it’s ok for something to be more than one thing.
When it comes to national identity, it’s vitally important that all of those things that a nation’s history is, be included, talked about, understood, acknowledged and heard. It’s perfectly fitting that Canadian History Week puts the focus, not on re-writing schoolbooks (although some rewriting will always be required) but rather on talking to each other about our respective histories. Oh Canada indeed.
Let us know what you’re doing in your local community for Canadian History Week. I'll be the one eating maple syrup and listening to Joni Mitchell.
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