Canada! Heck yeah!

The thing I love about Canadian history is that it is the ultimate oxymoron – most histories that attest to be national are, but Canada is the master.  ‘Canada’ exists as a coherent, united entity in theory and politics only.  It is a country made up of disparate regions; each with a distinct flavour and history, each with a unique relationship to confederation.  There is no consensus on when ‘Canada’ came into being, as a twentieth century historian I am woefully under qualified to address the topic, but it definitely happened before 1867 and probably before 1840’s BNA Act.  Yet it is in these two events that the crux of the “Canadian history” problem lies – both created an idea of Canada based in bringing together French and English, and negotiating politics, economics, and culture emerging from Ontario and Quebec.  The history of the country created the paradox which has informed all attempts since the professionalization of Canadian history with Wrong and Short.  A paradox in which the country as a whole can only be understood through politics and economics and ‘Canada’ means Ontario and the politics of bilingual-biculturalism that sprang from the aftermath of the Plains of Abraham.  The only thing that connects the 10 provinces and 3 territories is their connection to the centre of power and where the vast majority of the population has always lived – Ontario.  This might sound like classic western alienation and the first time I voiced this opinion in a Canadian historiography seminar at a university in Ottawa surrounded by people from Ontario the immediate response was to humour the Albertan and rebut with “that is such a western thing to say.”  Despite the apparent regionalism of this assertion it is based first in historic literature on Canada, The Nation, which speak almost exclusively about Ontario as representative of the country with the other regions – Maritimes, Quebec, Prairies, BC, North – acting as exceptions to the rule.
The entire Canadian history project began with an elite group of men at the University of Toronto trying to make sense of confederation and the place of the young country in relation to the United States and Britain.  It used politics and economics as entry points to understanding what Canada was in the present and the past.  In many ways this is to be expected, the fathers of the field were generally Ontario WASPs who might have taught school on the prairies for a few seasons and saw the country through that lens.  Berger even asserts that for a long time being able to trace your academic genealogy to Wrong mattered.  Now it is just entertaining to see if there is any connection by tracing the complex lines of graduate supervision.  Even when places outside Ontario began to appear in the scholarship they were understood in reference to the center of power and population.  Take Stanley’s The Birth of Western Canada, the first history of the West, which presents the Riel rebellions as in large part symptomatic of French-English politics spilling west from Ontario and Quebec into what is now Manitoba.  Since Stanley, and shortly after Morton, what nationalist historian call fragmentation of Canadian began in earnest.  It seems that because of the French-English dichotomy historians didn’t concerned themselves too much with the parallel stream of history coming out of Quebec – it was in French after all.  But interest in issues specific to places outside Ontario gave way to working class, gender, urban, Aboriginal, and many other specified histories.  For nationalist historians, fragmentation undermines the unifying project of Canadian history because how can a country know itself if the histories written about it point not to a collective identity and shared history but a high degree of regional distinction.   It is not just the Granatstein’s of the world who are worried about what fragmentation has done to Canadian history.  Ian McKay’s 2000 article in the CHR on the liberal-order framework offers a remedy for the fragmentation ailing Canadian history.  His article sparked a new and rich debate in Canadian history that is will be the focus of an separate entry.  Here it is sufficient to say his solution for the problems in the field focus on politics and economics as the uniting forces between the variant streams in Canadian history, essentially taking the field back to where it started with Wrong and Shortt.
I think fragmentation is the best thing that has happened to Canadian history since to date.  It more accurately reflects the nature of the Canada, The Nation.  The country came into being in bits and pieces; BC’s entry into confederation was in many ways contingent on the promise of a railway, Alberta and Saskatchewan were cut from a chunk of land purchased from a private company, and Newfoundland held out until after WWII.  Multiculturalism is a national policy!  Despite all attempts to make Canada a homogeneous unit, it is heterogeneous and that diversity has become what defines the country in the past and the present. Let’s face it Canada is big, it is a nation of immigrants, it was not built on a grand idea like the US, and each entrant to Confederation after 1867 got a different deal from the federal government!  Trying to force a collective narrative on a country that has consciously made differences part of its identity is the ultimate whiggish crime (I may temper that comment later but for now it stands).

The first post on a Canadian topic deserves a Canadian tune and today the band of choice is The Hip.

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About Lauren Wheeler

A reformed history phd student working as a public historian and looking for connections between museums and environmental history from the often freezing reaches of Canada (aka Edmonton).
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