Canada’s History: More Than Medicare and Furry Beavers

By Eamonn O’Keefe

Flag lowering at York.
Flag lowering at York.

Redcoats. The King’s Men raise their muskets in a salute to His Majesty. The drums beat a staccato roll in perfect unison. The shrill notes of “God Save the King” echo across the parade square as the flag is lowered.

At Fort York National Historic Site in downtown Toronto, several visitors applaud the spectacle. Encircled by newly minted condominiums, a looming expressway and a jumble of railroad tracks, this fragile outpost was established in 1793 to defend the new capital of Upper Canada. Yet, cordoned off from the metropolis it spawned, Fort York is a fitting metaphor for all that is wrong with Canadian history.

As many visitors will freely disclose, the last time they toured the fort was during a seventh grade field trip. Thus, it should come as no surprise that only 14% of Canadians could correctly identify the nations involved in the War of 1812.

Our collective amnesia for the past is a systemic problem. Just 27% of young Canadians, aged 18-24, can recall the year of Confederation. What happened to our history?

Our heritage suffers from a widespread misconception: compared to the drama and upheaval of the American journey, our history is as animated and lively as a napping beaver. This is not the case. Canada is a nation with a colourful and eventful past, from the Battle of Queenston Heights to the fur traders in Hudson’s Bay. Centuries of exploration and nation-building have produced more than our fair share of heroes and leaders. Yet when provided with pictures of famous Canadians, just four in ten could recognize Sir John A. Macdonald, one in five could identify Tommy Douglas, 27% could recollect Louis Riel and a dismal 8% could recall Sir Frederick Banting, the discoverer of insulin. For this humiliating record, we have no-one but ourselves to blame. We, the Canadian people, have butchered our history, through a reluctance to celebrate our past, neglect in the classroom and machinations of crass political agendas.

As a nation, we have demonstrated a unique ability to consistently downplay our heritage, in contrast to our triumphalist southern neighbours. Americans steep nearly every medium, from Hollywood movies to patriotic Fourth of July and Memorial Day parades, with celebrations of their heroes. As National Post columnist Rex Murphy once stated, Americans “generously monumentalize” their historical figures. He remarked that: “The great Lincoln memorial, Mount Rushmore, the Arlington cemetery; these are part of America’s homage to its past.” This red-white-and-blue patriotic hoopla also infects Canadians, presumably due to our extensive exposure to American culture. In fact, more Canucks can recall the four-term president of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, than the name of our longest-serving Prime Minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King. When Rex Murphy visited Newfoundland and asked a local about Joey Smallwood, the last Father of Confederation, he was greeted with the disheartening reply: “Wasn’t he some kind of encyclopedia salesman?” Perhaps Canada’s reluctance to celebrate its past has done more harm than good.

Our schools also suffers from neglect in the classroom. Only four of Canada’s thirteen provinces and territories require that students take a high school history course. While Ontario is among the enlightened minority, this province’s curriculum still ignores the half-century following Confederation. Thus, Ontario’s students miss out on some of the most critical moments of this nation’s past. The British North America Acts, the Northwest Rebellion, the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, the Klondike Gold Rush and the settlement of the West all seem to have fallen through the cracks. With such a lackadaisical attitude from the education system, it’s little wonder that our youth remain so abjectly ignorant of this nation’s past.

In the latter half of the 20th century, Canada’s history fell victim to political agendas. Our national identity became a shallow pastiche of medicare, maple leaves and furry beavers. Our heritage, often at odds with our new self-image, was spurned. Our military history, from Crysler’s Farm to Vimy Ridge to D-Day, fell victim to political expediency. Distinguished historian Jack Granatstein argues that all political stripes have been engaged in “an unthinking conspiracy to eliminate Canada’s past”. Just five years ago the federal government cancelled a planned reenactment for the 250th anniversary of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in response to separatist threats. Our history was, and is, a source of shame, not of pride.

Yet our past can be a source of pride, solidarity and patriotism. Now, Canada’s history has not always been cheery. The treatment of First Nations, discrimination against immigrants, the wartime internment of Japanese and Ukrainian-Canadians: these are stories that must and should be told. Yet by telling the stories of our past, both those that engender pride and those that elicit penance, we gain a better appreciation of how far Canada has come. But those stories, by and large, are not being told.

Our nation’s history has fallen victim to our collective amnesia. Whether due to our reluctance to celebrate our past, insufficient education or the machinations of crass political agendas, our heritage has been largely forgotten by the Canadian people. However, we have a chance to reverse fifty years of neglect. 76% of Canadians admit they are embarrassed by our ignorance of the past. In the coming decade, the continuing bicentennial of the War of 1812, the 100th anniversary of the First World War and the 150th anniversary of Confederation all present opportunities to renew interest in our history as well as commemorate and honour our past.

A nation’s history is a uniting force. All of us, young and old, recent immigrants and long-time Canadians, can identify with our history. It’s not always an uplifting story, not always one of tolerance and humanity; but it’s our story. Canada’s history is the story of how our nation of tolerance and humanity came to be.