The 21st century is a poor vantage point from which to judge Canada’s history, writes Jack Granatstein.
This item is based on the motion “Canada’s history is nothing to be ashamed of”, which was up for debate at the Great Canadian Debates on March 28. Granatstein argued in favour, while Noah Richler argued against.
By Jack Granatstein, April 7, 2017
History matters. Canadian history matters. And certainly it matters to the industry that has sprung up in this sesquicentennial year of Confederation to those who have set out to dump on founders such as John A. Macdonald, Hector Langevin, and a host of others. Such men were racists, men who wanted to rid the land of aboriginal peoples and bring in only Aryan immigrants. Or so we are told, as some historians and others shamelessly apply the ideas and attitudes of the present to the past.
But the past is a foreign country. Men and women were different then, and they held beliefs and biases that are not ours today. Women knew their place was in the kitchen, and men ruled. Children were kept in line at home and in school with corporal punishment. It was a given that the First Nations were a dying race, savages whose only hope was to adjust to life as farmers on reserves or to living in white society. It was a fixed belief that whites were superior to blacks and Asians, and that the British, Scandinavians, and Germans were by definition superior to Italians and other southern Europeans. Of course, Christianity was the only true religion, all others by definition almost unholy. Jesus Christ was certainly a superior being to Mohammed, or so my history teacher in Grade 11 told us with complete certainty.
We no longer share such beliefs (or, if we do, we do so in hushed whispers), but when we talk about Canada in the past, we must understand the context of those times. We believe our attitudes to be superior to those of our forefathers, but we cannot understand them unless we walk in their shoes. That is the first lesson that historians are supposed to learn but, for far too many students of the past, it is a lesson they are quick to forget.
Imagine how some of our present attitudes might look in the 22nd century. Parents no longer spank their children and the strap has disappeared from the schoolroom. Has that improved discipline? We’ll see what historians of childhood say in 2117. The best we can hope is that they will try to understand the beliefs and attitudes of Canadians in 2017.
Yes, there have been grave errors with prejudice, racism, exploitation, and bias occurring all too often. Is there any nation in which that was not so? Where is such a paradise? Canadians can say with a clear conscience that they have never fought a war of aggression, never sought territorial gain, never engaged in genocide or created concentration camps (the foolish comments of Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin notwithstanding). We were and are not all saints, but there are relatively few blots on our escutcheon. We have no reason to be ashamed of our history.
But we won’t learn much about this as we mark Canada’s 150th birthday. Our Minister of Canadian Heritage is forward-looking, telling us that the government plans to celebrate diversity, reconciliation and the environment, all worthy subjects. Yet she and her department apparently know nothing of heritage (what we wish had happened), let alone history (what did happen). There is nothing wrong with a celebration that looks forward, of course, but it would be much better if this anniversary were firmly based on knowledge of our history.
But that seems to be too much to ask of a nation whose Prime Minister believes that we have a “pan-cultural heritage.” There is, he has said, “no core identity, no mainstream in Canada … the first post-national state.”
This, I suggest, is utter nonsense. Canada’s success, Canada’s glory, has come about because we remain firmly part of Western Civilization, because we have brought in peoples from all over the globe and made them part of us. We would be better Canadians if we taught our history to our newcomers and our native-born but, at the very least, we all absorb the tenets of freedom and democracy in the air we breathe. That matters, and Canadians who fought and died for those core attributes of our civilization left us a legacy of which we can and should be proud.
Canadian historian J.L. Granatstein writes extensively on political, military, and diplomatic history. On March 28 in Ottawa, Mr. Granatstein and Noah Richler argued the resolution “Canadian history is nothing to be ashamed of” at a debate hosted by the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.