Regarding Canada's history on Canada Day, the consensus is that there is no consensus.
BY ROGER HALL
Not long ago a colleague from our science faculty stopped me on campus. His new
parents-in-law, he explained, were arriving from New Zealand for a protracted visit.
“Anyway,” he went on, “they're history buffs, and they want me to send them a readable
but serious volume on Canada. So what do you recommend?”
This set me back. There were plenty of readable books, and any number of serious ones,
but a readable and serious general history in a single volume that was more problematic.
Thirty years ago, on Canada's centennial, there would have been little difficulty. They
could have read Arthur Lower's Colony to Nation (1946), Donald Creighton's old
Laurentian warhorse, Dominion of the North (1944), or if they were a little more
adventurous, W. L. Morton's then fresh Kingdom of Canada (1963). These representative
accounts were relentlessly optimistic, shamelessly enthusiastic and, although the precise
definition varied a bit, energetically celebratory of a very English-Canadian nationalism.
They told the national tale with grace and wit, and they were serious. But even then, they
were as much relics from the past as accounts of it.
The historical world was fragmenting. What had been a relatively simple consensus of
the triumph of men, money and politics became multiplex. The profession itself moved
from numbering a couple of hundred (basically males) to several thousand men and
women working in dozens of new fields that had been left out of the old synthetic
complacency: women's history, labour studies, ethnic history, sports history, legal history
and science history, to name just a few.
We've been immensely enriched by these studies, but they have brought their own
problems. Specialization has led to a confining narrowness. Methodology has too often
assumed primacy over interpretation. Clio, History's Muse, learned to count, but may
have forgotten how to write. As a result, we historians have lost our public; history
remains popular, and popular history - through television, literature, drama and film -
seems ever more popular, but students are turning away from professional history in
universities, and in high schools mindless administrators are virtually shutting it down.
This is partially because of a general degradation of objective scholarly inquiry. After all,
the study of science itself is no longer the realm of certainty that it was, and objective
analysis is an impossibility for postmodern scholars, since "texts" (arguably the basis for
most historical inquiry) are open to multiple interpretations. What we need to pump new
life into our past is a fresh synthesis, one that blends all the exciting research of the past
three decades into a readable narrative. My colleague's New Zealand in-laws are either
too soon or too late for their pithy, one-volume benchmark.
In the meantime, however, they might profit from any of the following a baker's dozen
that, in my view, should form part of any new synthesis. These books all go some
distance to integrating fresh research and new fields of interest. At the same time, they
are eminently readable, and mostly serious.
To begin at a beginning, and this summer of Giovanni Caboto makes it most appropriate,
is (1) archaeologist Robert McGhee's splendid, well-illustrated Canada Rediscovered
(Canadian Museum of Civilization, 1991). This, the 13th book by this able writer, is
popular history at its best: well-researched, sprightly and endlessly interesting. McGhee
is particularly good on the contact period, and reminds us that the peoples who flourished
before the Europeans arrived managed to stave off the invaders for almost half a
millennium. Incidentally, despite all the hoopla - 1497 and all that - it was not at all
impossible that Cabot knew exactly where he was headed, or at least thought he did.
It is difficult to know where to start with histories of native peoples, since so much fine
work has been done both by historians and anthropologists. For a solid, sympathetic
survey, I am partial to (2) Olive Dickason's Canada's First Nations: A History of
Founding Peoples from Earliest Times (McClelland & Stewart, 1992). Her work might
be supplemented by (3) J. R. Miller's Skyscrapers Hide the Heavens: A History of
Indian-While Relations in Canada (University of Toronto Press, 2nd ed., 1991),
which is exceptionally good on the emergence of modern native political organizations.
Women's history has been the most lively (and arguably the most important) of the new
sub-disciplines. It has stretched the historical imagination in many ways, but the core
change has been to redirect the focus of the study of human experience away from
politico-economic roots toward social and cultural ones. Two recommendations: first, (4)
a macroscopic study by a group of fine collaborators -- Alison Prentice, Paula
Bourne, Gail Cuthbert Brandt, Beth Light, Wendy Mitchinson and Naomi Black -
Canadian Women: A History (Harcourt Brace, 2nd ed., 1996); second, (5) a
microscopic analysis. Joy Parr's superb The Gender of Bread-Winners: Women, Men
and Change in Two Industrial Towns, 1880-1950 (University of Toronto Press, 1990).
Collective works are significant as well. The greatest monument that the historical
profession has built to itself is (6) the massive Dictionary of Canadian Biography
(University of Toronto Press. 1966 onward). No serious student of Canada's past can
function without access to this thorough, balanced and reliable source. The innovative
feature of arranging volumes around death dates means that a whole period of history
may he "read" within the chronological sweep of a single biographical volume. The
series has now moved into the 20th century, but is having trouble gaining financial
backing as grants have dried up. It seems a perfect candidate for re-issue as a CD-ROM.
Speaking of collaborations, a model from the old heralding the new is (7) Craig Brown
and Ramsay Cook's Canada 1896-192I: A Nation Transformed (McClelland &
Stewart, 1974), from the classic Canadian Centenary Series.
At one time, document collections formed an important part of Canadian historiography.
The Champlain Society still publishes important compilations in elegant quality editions,
but the practice has largely fallen out of favour. A fascinating recent collection, providing
essential background on such contemporary issues as native land claims, the environment
and French-English relations, is (8) Dave De Brou and Bill Waiser's Documenting
Canada: A History of Modern Canadian Documents (Fifth House, 1992). Here is the
powerful history of unfolding public policy, writ raw and unadorned.
Regional studies can show the limits of our limited identities. In my view, the best
regional account by far is (9) Gerald Friesen's beautifully composed and authoritative
The Canadian Prairies (University of Toronto Press, 1984). Geography, politics, the
economy and the people of the west are bound together in a seamless tale grounded in
wide reading and solid research. British Columbia awaits its imaginative chronicler, as
does Ontario, but the Maritimes are well-served by the broad-based journal Acadiensis
(produced since 1975 at the University of New Brunswick), which has published (10)
two fine collections of articles separately under-the title of The Acadiensis Reader
(edited by Philip Buckner and David Frank, 1985 and 1990).
As for Quebec, the vaunted solitude may still exist, but publishers have certainly tried to
vanquish it in both official languages. The best survey is (11) the two volumes of Paul-
Andre Linteau, René Durocher and Jean-Claude Robert, Quebec: A History, 1867-
1929, vol. 1(Lorimer, 1983), and with Francois Ricard Quebec Since 1930. vol. 2
(Lorimer, 1991). Cultural and especially urban developments are featured. For the earlier
period see (12) Brian Young and John Dickinson's A Short History of Quebec: A
Socio-Economic Perspective (Copp Clark. 1993).
So there's a Canadian sampler for our visitors. But this list leaves out so much: the arts,
science, law, military, economic and business history, medicine, immigration and ethnic
history, photography, intellectual history, foreign relations and, of course, labour studies,
where there's been much good work.
Thus my final suggestion, an end and a beginning, is (13) the two-volume set Canadian
History: A Reader’s Guide, vol. 1 Beginnings to Confederation, edited by Brook
Taylor, and vol. 2 Confederation to the Present, edited by Doug Owram (University
of Toronto press, 1994). Twenty-two specialists show in as many essays both the need
for and the challenge of writing a fresh synthesis.
Our disciplinary malaise need not be considered terminal. The raising of doubts is what
the scholarly process is all about. Francis Bacon had it right four centuries ago -gender
bias notwithstanding - when he wrote in The Advancement of Learning: “lf a man will
begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with
doubts, he shall end in certainties."
Roger Hall is a member of the department of history at the University of Western
Saturday, June 28, 1997, Page D16
© 1997 The Globe and Mail