Canadians have long been convinced that we do not know much, or care much, about our own history, but a new study suggests that this truism is not true.
Every Canada Day, Canadians are treated to a form of ritualistic self-flagellation. Amid much wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth, the media release a poll revealing, yet again, that as a nation we are historically illiterate. Usually it is high school students who carry the blame for not knowing the name of the first prime minister (hint: he was once so drunk at a campaign event that he vomited onstage) or the date of Confederation or some other factoid from the past. But the inference is plain that results would not differ much if the same questions were put to adults. Canadians, we are told, just don’t know their own history.
But is this actually true? Does a set of random questions asked of teenagers reveal anything useful about the way Canadians engage with their past? I’ve always thought the answer was Not Much. Now I have the evidence I’ve been waiting for. A group of seven university historians calling itself the Pasts Collective (Margaret Conrad, Kadriye Ercikan, Gerald Friesen, Jocelyn Létourneau, Delphin Muise, David Northrup and Peter Seixas) has published the results of a series of surveys they and others conducted to determine the interest Canadians take in their own past. Canadians and Their Pasts (University of Toronto Press) provides answers to the three questions that I think are at the heart of this debate.
First of all, do Canadians know much, or care much, about their history? According to the professors, the answer is a qualified yes. Canadians, they say, are “profoundly interested” in their own past. “Have people lost contact with the past…?” they ask. “We say, emphatically, no. Do they express any interest in Canada’s history? Yes, quite clearly they do.” But this interest is not necessarily reflected in a way that shows up in polls that ask about specific events or personalities. We tend to think that the study of history is something that occurs in the classroom and involves the memorization of names and dates. “Those who do not remember the past,” the American writer James Loewen once joked, “are condemned to repeat the eleventh grade.” But in daily life there are multiple ways that people engage with the past. They read books and watch movies and television programs; they visit museums and historic sites; they trace ancestors on the internet; they compile a family archive; they research the history of their own houses; they attend lectures; they visit heritage fairs; they protest the destruction of old buildings; they play video games. All of these activities reflect an interest in, and imply a knowledge of, the past. Not surprisingly, survey results reported in the book show that family history is the most popular way that Canadians manifest this interest. Many of us are involved in genealogy, especially given the increase in the availability of resources on the internet. Nonetheless, of the people interviewed, fully 90 percent ranked national history—i.e., the history of Canada—as somewhat or very important to them. Hardly the result one would expect from a nation of historical amnesiacs. “Who killed Canadian history?” Jack Granatstein asked in his polemical book of that title sixteen years ago. Apparently no one; according to the authors of Canadians and Their Pasts, it is alive and kicking.
But surely Canadians today are not as interested in history as their parents or their grandparents were. This is another truism that leads the more excitable among us to despair not just of the younger generation but for the future of the country. For the alarmists, history is like broccoli: the more we consume the healthier we’ll be. They believe in the power of history to heal and unite the country. This belief dates back many years. In 1970, to take just one instance, the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism declared in its report that “if Canada is more than ever before threatened with schism… we must look for the cause very largely in the manner in which today’s citizens have learned the history of their country.” Yet according to the authors of Canadians and Their Pasts, there is no evidence that contemporary Canadians are any less knowledgeable than previous generations.
What has changed is the kind of history we care about. Not so long ago we all sang from the same hymn book. There was a narrative about Canadian history that we all more or less accepted, a narrative that was summed up in the familiar phrase “colony to nation.” The story of Canada was our gradual evolution from a dependent colony to a self-governing nation. As this master narrative fractured into competing, or at least multiple, narratives, the story became more complex. It was no longer the story of triumphant elites; other groups that felt excluded from the conventional version had muscled their way to the front of the stage. For most people Canadian history is no longer the “colony to nation” story, it is rather the story of family, diversity and community. But this reimagining of our history has not been accepted by everyone. The complaint that Canadians don’t know enough about their history is in many ways a lament for the death of the old, outdated master narrative.
A third truism subverted by Canadians and Their Pasts is that Canadians know far less about their history than other people. Sometimes it is argued that we are too young to have developed a historical consciousness, sometimes that we are too large and diverse to sustain a common story. For whatever reason, we believe ourselves to be not only ignorant of our history but uniquely ignorant. Americans and the British, we tell ourselves, are walking encyclopedias of their own past. Why can’t we be more like them?
Again, the Pasts Collective says not true. First of all, other countries share the same concerns about the historical illiteracy of their citizens. This is not a Canadian issue; it is an international one, and probably has more to do with the anxieties associated with modernity than with the failure of our education systems. Second, based on earlier surveys done by researchers in other countries, it seems to be the case that people know a lot more about the past than they have been given credit for. “History matters,” conclude the Collective members, whether you are American, British, Australian—or Canadian.
It is important that youngsters learn history in school, that historic sites be maintained, that major events be commemorated and that all the other things be done to foster a sense of the past. But at the same time it seems safe to conclude that Canada is not facing a national crisis of ignorance when it comes to our history. The authors of Canadians and Their Pasts have done us all a great service by proving that it is time to retire that tedious old cliché.