MICHAEL BLISS says: Sure, our history’s dull—that’s why we should be proud of it
CANADIAN HISTORY is pretty dull. We have to admit that, despite the best efforts of historians to dramatize our past. While the Americans, in the last two hundred years, have had a full-scale revolution, a Civil War, the wild west, the Roaring Twenties, a hair-raising missile crisis, the civil rights revolution and several presidential assassinations, all we can muster is the storming of a handful of fortresses by British redcoats, a few localized and fairly comical rebellions, the eccentricities of a couple of prime ministers, and a remarkably durable tendency to political corruption. Fairly tame stuff on the whole.
Dull as our history unquestionably is, 1 happen to be proud of it—precisely because it is dull. After all, what does exciting history mean? Only that a country has failed to live up to the ideals of a norma! human society.
Consider warfare. The boys in my grade ten history class would be utterly fascinated by every lesson I taught if I simply gave them a course in the history of twentieth-century warfare. They’re enthralled by wars. They watch all the war documentaries
on television; they devour war stories in the library; when we’re studying Britain in the 1930s I catch them skipping ahead to the chapter about the Battle of Britain. For the average teenage boy — and I suppose for men of any age — warfare is an “exciting” event — just as is any kind of violence or unleashing of passion.
But does this mean we should praise the history of nations which have fought a lot of wars? Does the excitement of the American Revolution and the Civil War make the history of the United States something to be admired? And is our country’s barren record of internal violence something to be condemned and ignored just because it makes our history dull?
Isn’t it true that “exciting” historical events are really rather pathetic? Isn’t the resort to warfare an indication that a society has failed to settle its problems by methods of peaceful negotiation and compromise which all societies are supposed to value? Isn’t the excitement we feel about warfare really the novelty of observing man at his lowest level, when he has abandoned all the standards that make his history worthwhile?
If this is so, we should admire Canadian history precisely because of the much-maligned Canadian genius for compromise. As a nation we have faced enormous political, economic, and racial problems. But we haven’t tried to solve them by shooting at each other. Instead we’ve worked out each problem patiently and gradually. Of course this process is dull; usually the leaders are dull too. But if our society still values rational, peaceful men and methods, then this is the kind of national history that we should be proud of.
Let’s consider some examples. Britain and her thirteen American colonies couldn’t work out a few minor political and economic problems, so they fought over them for seven years. Canada faced much the same problems in her relations with Britain, but our politicians worked quietly for more than a hundred years to gain our independence. In doing this, they established almost all of the precedents by which the largest empire in history has been voluntarily dissolved, paving the way for the independence of hundreds of millions of former British subjects.
None of our politicians ever fired a shot, led an army, or was in serious danger of being hung in the struggle for Canadian independence — there’s nothing in the careers of men like
Robert Borden or Mackenzie King that can be made into romantic legend. I wonder though, whether these unromantic statesmen haven’t achieved something far more valuable for future generations than the U. S. rebels.
In the 1860s the Americans fought one of the bloodiest civil wars in history, largely over their racial problem. A century after that war, they’re still unable to finish solving that problem without continued resort to violence. I am not suggesting that Canada’s racial or ethnic problems are nearly so difficult as those of the U.S., but they’ve been just as complex and certainly as persistent. Yet both French and English Canadians have nearly always faced their disagreements in a spirit of moderation, insisting that with enough discussion and tolerance our problems could be solved without a disastrous and violent breach.
It’s not too extreme to say that the conscription crisis in the Second World War contained the seeds of a Canadian civil war. But the desperate statesmanship of Mackenzie King and the infinite patience of French Canada combined to avert the catastrophe. Lincoln is an American hero mainly because he failed to avoid a Civil War; King and St. Laurent may have succeeded in avoiding one — and yet we revile them for their dullness!
Another example I use with my students is the opening of the Canadian west. Canada had practically no Jesse James, Wyatt Earp, Gerónimo, or General Custer, all of them folk heroes today — and all of them lawless, violent men.
On the whole our government handled its frontier problems so well that the situations which would give rise to violent (and therefore exciting) men and events just weren’t allowed to develop. We established law and order in our west before we sent in settlers, not afterwards. We negotiated treaties which put the Indians on. reservations before we settled their lands, rather than settling on them first and then worrying about the Indians.
Of course Canadian history does have a few men of violence — Papineau, William Lyon Mackenzie, Louis Riel. But students of their rebellions usually come away disappointed, because the revolts were so uniformly inept and unsuccessful. This was true precisely because the vast majority of their contemporaries wouldn’t condone such revolutionary methods. Canadians were horrified at the thought that a society should fail so completely that rebellion would be necessary. I wonder whether those of us who are excited by the exploits of these Canadian rebels would welcome them back to use the same tactics to solve today’s problems.
It’s understandable that many adolescents see only the surface color and superficial drama of events, and thus misunderstand Canadian history. What annoys me is that adults who should know better encourage this scorn for Canadian history. It seems that every layman who reviews a book
on Canadian history or any editor commenting on the teaching of Canadian history feels duty - bound to devote a couple of paragraphs to a plea for more exciting history; either the historians and teachers should dig up the really exciting events they’ve hitherto hidden, or they should portray the humdrum events as though they were just as intriguing as the Civil War.
These people aren’t as naïve as adolescents; they’re just unthinking. They’re annoyed at Canada’s past because it isn’t a gold mine of sensation. They “feel sorry” for our history (and our history teachers) because it doesn’t provide writers with the violence, brutality, and passion which sell newspapers or are the meat of popular TV series. Thanks to their misunderstanding of what really counts in a nation’s history, these commentators encourage whole generations of Canadians to continue indefinitely their foolish disparagement of Canada’s achievements.
If we are ever going to come to a mature appreciation of our country’s greatness we’re going to have to forget these childish standards of judging history: dullness and excitement. We’re going to have to realize that the “dull” is usually the good and the lasting and that the “exciting” is often the vicious and the pointless.
Once we’ve admitted this, we may be able to break through the crust of our immaturity and find out what really is worthwhile in Canadian history. Who knows? It may even turn out to be interesting.
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