The Great Canadian History Robbery

William Lyon Mackenzie lost a rebellion. Can he win the battle of the books?

RICK SALUTIN April 1 1973

The Great Canadian History Robbery

William Lyon Mackenzie lost a rebellion. Can he win the battle of the books?

RICK SALUTIN April 1 1973

The Great Canadian History Robbery


William Lyon Mackenzie lost a rebellion. Can he win the battle of the books?

In grade nine, I suddenly noticed History. The Little Rock integration crisis erupted in the U.S., and it upset me greatly. I listened to radio reports and determined to dig into its roots. History was coming alive for me, but it was someone else’s.

How I envied Americans their past. Something had happened to them. Battles and crises and issues. Leaders who spoke as though they knew posterity was attending. A revolution set them up and a civil war sawed them apart — and the scars still showed. That was the exciting part: their past lit up their present.

It never occurred to me that Canadian history could explain anything. There didn’t seem to be anything to explain. I followed up the American interests for years after, but what had happened to my sense of Canadian history?

Nothing. I had a typical Canadian education.

I trekked over the early trade routes with my teachers, learned a little about the seigneurial system and promptly forgot it, hailed the army of Wolfe, who died content (or was it Montcalm?).

We did the Acts: the Quebec Act, the Constitutional Act, the Act of Union, the BNA Act — so many dull acts, it was like the Ed Sullivan show.

The War of 1812 lifted our spirits briefly, and the Rebellion of 1837 gave us comic relief: Mackenzie led his ragtag gang of stableboys down Yonge Street to Toronto and everybody scattered at the first good-natured volley from the local loyalists.

Then, with a fanfare, Responsible Government. What a letdown: the phrase itself was fatal. Even Irresponsible Government would have been catchier.

Confederation. They made a hero of John A. Macdonald. Our Lincoln, who said, “A British subject I was born, a British subject I will die.” If this is founders, who needs sellouts?

The expansion of Confederation: 1870, 1871, 1873, 1905, Riel, the CPR. No one bothered us with purposes or connections. We were expected to memorize. “Î could never understand how the Causes of the War caused the war,” a friend recalls.

Quebec made rare appearances as a troublemaker. The Indians were “savages.” There was no labor movement and no women.

Canadian history began to peter out toward the end of the 1930s, either by curriculum design, or because summer holidays had arrived. It was upstaged by the international scene — the Wars, the Fascist Menace and the Communist Threat side by side, the UN — and somewhere in the mid-Fifties Canadian history came to a definite stop. Whatever we were living through ourselves, it was clearly not history.

Canadian history read like the biography of a well-born son. He went from strength to strength, marked by two outstanding successes: the success of the binational experiment, and the successful passage from Colony to Nation. It was a tale of progress, with scarcely a bump and no detours. The historians and teachers couldn’t suppress their yawns; why should we?

The worst of all this was not that it was so boring, but that it was false. What, for instance, has become of those two notable successes we heard of in our schooldays? Quebec is now loudly unhappy within Confederation and may well take off on her own. And the whole nation is more firmly a colony — economically, culturally and politically — than ever, though with a new and different Mother Country. It is as though Canadian history got up and talked back to its writers and its teachers.

The history they gave us was not just amiably false; it was perniciously false. We learned that all our problems were resolved “peaceably” long ago; that there is nothing in our history to get excited over; that Cana-

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dians don’t get excited; that they never fight back against things as they have always been.

That approach made it difficult to explain things like rebellions, strikes, electoral reverses, and Louis Riel and the Métis. So such examples of resistance in our history were either dismissed as buffoonery — because they failed — or they were ignored altogether. The whole period between the wars, full of instances of Canadians fighting back, slipped out of sight.

The On-To-Ottawa Trek of 1935, for example. Canadian workers done out of jobs by the Depression were herded into “relief’ camps in the interior of BC to labor for 20 cents a day. They decided not to take it and headed east from Vancouver in boxcars. The Canadian people on the move via CP Freight — and being hailed in communities along the way. When they got to Regina, more than 2,000 of them, the government temporized until the Mounties broke their heads — and their march.

I am not a professional historian and have only stumbled on a bit of our missing history of resistance. It is hard to come by and you find it mostly by accident.

Once, through the haze in a bar, an American journalist informed me of the Winnipeg General Strike.

“The what?” I blinked.

“The most important general strike in the history of North America,” she said. “Workers took over the city and ran it for three weeks in 1919.”

“What happened then?” I asked.

“It got shot down,” she said. “The federal government, the Mounties. The American unions told their branches not to support it. Even Eaton’s supplied horses free for newly hired policemen. But it was a great moment.”

Indeed it was.

The point about resistance such as this is not that it failed, but that it continued. In spite of our long history of foreign domination, there has always been a will among Canadians to fight for control over their own and their country’s destiny. The question is why our historians and teachers never told us about it. And what effect our ignorance has had on us.

In 1968, a “very strong indictment” of the way Canadian history is taught in our schools was published in a book titled, with un-Canadian indignation, What Culture? What Heritage? Its author, A. B. Hodgetts, took two years off from his post as chairman of the history department at Trinity College School in Port Hope, Ontario, to direct this privately funded study. He and his researchers observed 850 Canadian history teachers in 247 schools in 20 cities across Canada. They held 800 personal interviews and sent out 10,000 questionnaires. They found out what everyone

had known at the start: most of the Canadian history being taught across the land was “antiquated and fundamentally useless.” From sea to sea the Canadian people were being robbed of a past, or of a past that they wanted any part of.

By the time the study was done, of course, some Canadians — Canadian Indians, for example — were already indicating that they knew they had been robbed. A few more had pinpointed the source of their discontent and started doing some digging of their own to recover their past: by now we must have a small army of people on OFY grants carting tape recorders around the country, doing oral history, social history, people’s history. We turned up enough labor historians to form a nationwide committee (under Irving Abella of York University in Toronto) and we’ve got at least one first-rate play, Carol Bolt’s Buffalo Jump, out of all the activity.

Hodgetts’ study helped open school curricula to this kind of work. There are new strategies and tactics, new teachers and texts. The new methods and materials certainly look trendier, but it is fair to wonder whether educators grasped the substance of the trends. Have they made Canadian history any less “antiquated” and more “useful” to students?

Everybody is jumping on the Canadian Studies bandwagon. There are new teaching units on Indians, women, labor, and new resource materials to use for them. The big word for the new materials is “McLuhanesque.” Writers and publishers talk about getting “lots of activity on the page,” and gossip over who has “really made a killing in Canadian history.” Old-style textbooks are the least of it.

There are “kits” on Gold In The Cariboo, The Winnipeg General Strike and Wheat. These contain reprints of newspapers, photocopies of letters in the original handwriting, canceled cheques, rubbery recordings of R. B. Bennett speeches — audio-visual finds from the attic of Canadian history. The idea is to let the kids drag them down and rummage through them.

Since American companies have taken over many of our big publishing houses at this point, they are the ones putting out a lot of these materials. They have adapted cheerfully. In one book (Violence, Protest And Social Change, from Prentice-Hall), the publisher’s subject divisions sound distinctly south-ofthe-border — Youth, Blacks, Marxists, the Poor — but the readings are all from Canadian sources.

The same publisher does not even flinch at putting out a resource book on the take-over of the economy by U.S. corporations. The title, though, Canada And The U.S.: Continental Partners Or Wary Neighbors? neglects certain al-

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ternatives (Enemies? Master and


Among the textbook titlêrs we have a virtual mania for suggesting alternatives instead of imposing dogmas. We get The Canadian Identity: Fallacy Or Fact?; Regionalism In Canada: Flexible Union Or Fractured Nation?; and Louis Riel: Rebel Of The Western Frontier Or Victim Of Politics And Prejudice? These are titles from tortured minds, and they sometimes tend toward open-mindlessness.

It is true that most Canadian history classes still use those relentless old textbooks, and the old despotic techniques. (“In the words of Canada’s first Prime

Minister, Sir John A......”) Still, the

new openness is creeping ahead.

Do the new materials produce a healthier awareness of Canadian history? That is hard to see. There is even a hint of despair beneath all the glitter. The assembly of “boxes,” the grubbing in the sources, the attempts to generate heroes, the Prentice-Hall series of Questions Without Answers — all these earnest, even frenetic efforts to make Canadian history more “colorful” and “interesting” often seem like the pathetic efforts of adults to liven up an unsuccessful birthday party. They are applied like bright Band-Aids to a terminal case. They mask and yet reveal a basic fear that Canadian history really is uninteresting and colorless.

The new materials, in the end, don’t break new ground, though they do a better job of covering the old ground. They don’t ask basic questions and they don’t attempt to rethink the patterns of Canadian history.

A lot of the blame must go to the historians we’ve had. After all, they are the ones who gave us this unteachable history. If the meaning of it all must be dug out anew, it is their job, not that of history teachers preparing seven classes a day, five days a week.

When you have heard it once, many things make it difficult to go back and take a fresh look at the past. You have to keep in mind that history does not write itself. It is always written by someone. We get only their version of how it happened. Other versions are possible.

The Canadian history we learned in the classrooms of the Fifties and Sixties — the steady progress of the well-born son — was based on a version of Canadian history that developed between the wars, with the transfer of Canada from the British to the American empire. Strangely enough, the liberal historians who created it are indefatigably proAmerican.

Before them, historians in the British mold predominated. Donald Creighton is probably the last and best of them. He is the John Diefenbaker of our history-

writing world, just as attractive, cantankerous and incongruous in this age.

For him the high point of our nationhood came in the time of Sir John A. It has been downhill ever since, especially with the Americans. To the smug refrain of the liberals — from Colony to Nation — Creighton guffaws, from Colony to Nation to Colony\ Funny thing is: his version is at least as true, and far more appealing, than theirs.

We now seem to be entering the age of the New Technocrats in history writing, a time of specialization and compartmentalization among historians. They write articles with such titles as: “A Successful Military Settlement: Earl Grey’s Enrolled Pensioners Of 1846 In Canada.” They are enough to send you back to Creighton. Even the liberals tried to make sense of our past. Now their visions have crumbled on our reality — Quebec’s unrest and the American take-over — and the new professionals don’t even try; they do quantitative studies on the American model, writing for each other and an ever-growing audience of captive students.

These main strands of Canadian history writing till now have left out those parts of our past that could have been most helpful to us.

For instance, there is a repetitive sensation as you read along that it is literally not all there, that Canadian history is a series of answers without questions, events without causes. That is because here in Canada we often got only the results of decisions; the decisions themselves were made elsewhere — in Paris, London or Washington — based on the needs of those centres.

Another important absence is that the people who built the country, and rebuilt it day by day as they still do, appear almost nowhere in its accounts. Where are the fishermen, farmers, miners, loggers, sweepers, secretaries? Surely someone had to grow the food and build the houses for all those energetic legislators as they pumped out Act after Act.

This is partly a problem with the sources. We have innumerable firsthand accounts, for instance, of the daily life of gentlewomen in Upper Canada. They bemoan their hard life in the woods — in books written for the British market — and you can sympathize until you reach the part about how hard it is to hire servants and you realize that most of the labor they describe in such a verbal sweat was done for them by others. These “others” haven’t left us memoirs of their life in the woods because they didn’t have the time, if they had the literacy, to write them.

From In The Days Of The Canada Company, by the Lizars sisters, you get the idea that there were maybe a dozen families in the Huron Tract in 1840.

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There were 7,000 people. Thomas Langton runs into an English gentleman who has just brought over “800 immigrant pauper laborers” and proceeds to write up the gentleman. These people who went Roughing It In The Bush — and usually removed to the “centres” of Kingston and Toronto after a few years — had their couches, their bureaus, their mirrors and their pianos sent over from England and hauled up those rotten roads and tricky rivers, and what I would like to hear about is the people who shlepped those items and what they thought about it.

No wonder I wonder what the elevator operator taking me to an interview makes of Canadian history. She doesn’t appear in our history as we have it. Who is she going to identify with — Susanna Moodie?

There are a few writers about our past who fill in the gaps and tell a different story. They are readily identified by the fact that they have been generally ignored. Above all, Harold Innis.

Part of the upshot of my own Canadian education was a period of years spent in American universities. But when I discovered The Fur Trade In Canada in a New York bookstore, I started to consider coming home. This book made Canada plausible. Even the title was an advance on anything I’d learned before. Innis took facts I’d always known and explained them. Why has the country always been underpopulated? Because the early use its rulers had for it — furs — required large uninhabited areas for trapping, and that pattern was maintained when the use shifted from furs to timber to wheat to minerals to energy. The same pattern kept producing the same results: overconcentration, underdevelopment, dependency on foreign markets and capital, control by an outside power using Canada as a resource depot for its economic needs. God bless Innis; he made sense of the present by making sense of the past.

Innis should have become the founder of a native social and historical science. But the main Innis authority these days, Robin Winks, teaches at Yale. Meanwhile, the Americans and Americanizers have taken over our universities — including Innis’ own department — for their traditions.

Or Stanley Ryerson. His Unequal Union, published in 1968, is the most prescient statement of the relationship between Quebec and the rest of us. With a sure hand, Ryerson interweaves the forces of nationalism and class conflict in our past. That is no easy task. He is also our only historian who writes from the viewpoint of the ordinary working people of the country. He treats them not just as human interest, at the side of the historical stage, but as central to the

directions and decisions that were taken.

Unequal Union had a first press run of 6,000 and not one daily paper in the country reviewed it. There is less of a mystery about the blackout in this case: Ryerson is a Marxist, and his books are published by the press of the Communist Party of Canada.

One of the best of all the books about us was published in Chicago (!) in 1912 and was not even reprinted here until last year. It was written by an American muckraker, Gustavus Myers. His History Of Canadian Wealth (Vol. 1) explains, for example, something I used to ponder between naps in history class: why anyone bothered sitting in those idiotic colonial legislatures. Answer: they were voting themselves bundles of public money for their private rail and land projects. “Mygawd!” you’ll shriek as you read this book. “The history of the country is the holdup of its people. John A. Macdonald was the GWfather of Confederation!”

Innis, Ryerson and Myers offer us information we can make something of. It was Ryerson who drew my attention to a line in Economie Québécoise, a study prepared by a group of professors at the


University of Quebec in Montreal: “If the fisheries proved to be quite profitable, allowing profits of the order of 35%, the fur trade was vastly more so, allowing profits of perhaps over 1,000%.” That is a “fact” you can take off from. It is unlike, “The Constitutional Act was passed in 1791.”

In Quebec, concerning the teaching of history, they started out far behind us, but they are now well ahead. Before the Sixties, history, like all subjects taught to the French-speaking majority, was in the hands of the church. The aim in history class was, in the words of the official syllabus for elementary schools, to “reveal to the child the action of Divine Providence” and show “the purity of our French-Canadian origins . . . and the visible protection of Divine Providence in the survival of our nationality.”

The Québécois got a history that read like a passion play, drenched in the blood of saints and martyrs. It was very different from the history taught in the rest of the country. Seventeen-fifty-nine was not the year of Wolfe the dauntless hero; it was “the year of doom.” The Durham Report was “iniquitous”; the French opened up the West; and no one ever heard of Joseph Howe. Confederation was another piece of legislation, noted without enthusiasm.

Things are changing now. Education

has been secularized in all but name and there is a boom on in history. The church’s favorite hero was Adam Dollard des Ormeaux, who got himself massacred by the Iroquois in 1660. He finished last in popularity among heroes, according to a recent French CBC poll of schoolchildren. First came Dr. J.-O. Chénier, one of the leaders of 1837, who, unlike Papineau, fought to the death against the British. And the most popular book in Quebec today is Léandre Bergeron’s Petit Manuel d’Histoire du Québec. It is a historic event in itself.

Someone has suggested that with Bergeron, Quebec history writing has passed in 10 years from intransigent mysticism to intransigent Marxism. The Petit Manuel is certainly the opposite in every way of the old religious texts. It is a short, cheap Marxist survey of the Quebec past, written from the perspective of, and in the language of, the working class. It has sold 105,000 copies and spawned an industry. Comic-book versions (70,000 copies), long-playing records, stage play, greeting cards, — it has even sold 35,000 copies in English translation. The Bergeron phenomenon shows what a void existed in the literature on the Quebec past and how desperate people were for something that explained that past instead of explaining it away. “At last I understand why I have been miserable all my life,” wrote an old woman from a small town to Bergeron.

The main impetus to the rediscovery of history in Quebec comes from what is happening outside the classroom. For 200 years, Quebeckers have left most of their government and economy in the hands of the English. The church buttressed that tendency by assuring them that their special talents lay outside.the ordinary world. For the last decade, though, they have thought it over, separatist and federalist alike, and intend to reclaim control of those earthly pursuits.

This accounts, for instance, for the current fascination with the history of pre-Conquest Quebec (New France). In English Canada it would be almost unthinkable to interest students in a past so remote; in Quebec, people are digging into that period. It proves to them that they were once a normal historical people, not an ascetic company of saints. Before the British, they had what it took: a mercantile class running their economy, developing indigenous leadership, perhaps a war of independence against France on the way. They even had sex.

A popular new study, La Vie Libertine en Nouvelle Lrance, describes sex life in New France. A dean of students told me — and a grin as wide as Mount Royal spread across his face — “When I read it, I recalled Georgette, from my own vil-

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lage. Everyone knew why the farmers visited her one by one on Saturday when they brought in the milk, and nobody minded, including the priest.”

The teaching of history has become part of the current federalist-separatist struggles. The provincial Ministry of Education is trying to impose a relatively “federalist” Canadian history curriculum. It downplays Quebec and does not mention, for instance, the conscription crises during the wars. Even the English-speaking teachers in Quebec have objected to it. The French-speaking teachers are in potent opposition; the battle is now being fought out in the classrooms, where the teachers have the last word.

We are not so different from Quebec. We have had our own secular version of their sacral myths. We have thought of ourselves as living in a charmed land — the Peaceable Kingdom, according to historian William Kilbourn — safe from the clashes and ugliness that inhabit elsewhere. It lulled us to sleep while the country was drifting apart.

It is not so surprising, therefore, that our teachers act as if they don’t know what to do with history. As if they have been thrown a ball, but don’t know what game it is for. In other countries they know, almost instinctively. In Quebec, they are learning. But what kind of history are teachers to teach in a country that continues to romanticize its colonial past?

What are you going to do, for instance, about instilling national pride in a nation that still celebrates Queen Victoria’s birthday; whose sporting awards commemorate a series of foreign overseers?

We have an anh-nationalist tradition that fights us. Wasn’t Lester B. Pearson a great internationalist? Wasn’t Hitler about nationalism? The best history téacher I met, a department head in a suburban Toronto high school, refused to let his kids skip Canadian history to watch the final game of the Team Canada series. “The set was in the library. I never saw so many kids in there!” He taught fine innovative courses about Canada, yet he seemed afraid that they might have some effect. “I showed Countdown Canada last year,” he told me. (It is a TV drama in which Canada becomes the fifty-first state of the U.S.) “I had four girls crying!” he recounted with horror. What amazes is that national feelings have survived in the students despite the teachers and politicians.

When we do get some nationalist leadership, it is lukewarm. Other countries have People’s Armies and wars of national liberation. We get committees and telethons. “Send in those dimes and dollars for more research on the takeover of the economy,” will not rally the masses in the way “Remember the Alamo!” does.

Why, oh why is it that Robin Mathews and Milton Acorn sound so un-Ca-

nadian when they rail with passion against the sellout of the country? In times past Canadians have shouted their convictions and fought for their rights. Yet that has been hidden from us. We have been given a history for colonials — a history to keep the natives from getting restless. In a certain way, it has suited us — as long as we remained a colony. When we decide to do something different about the country, we will know better how to write its history.

At any rate, our choices are limited. The old routines have collapsed. We have to start from somewhere else.

As a place to start over, I propose 1837. Eighteen-//i/r(y-seven, not 1867. Confederation was another half-measure, 1837 was not.

One sure sign of its importance is the denigration it has received from the historians. With few exceptions they have done it as historical farce, an unnecessary accident on the road to Responsible Government. And yet, at the same time, the most mild-mannered historians rave wildly when they come to Mackenzie. He is the only Canadian in 400 years of history who gets a rise out of them. He must have been doing something right.

Eighteen-thirty-seven was a serious movement for national independence, our most important one so far. Its leaders knew the need for political and military organization and they had widespread popular support. In Ontario they held 200 meetings in the summer and fall of that year and enlisted thousands of supporters; more than 800 were arrested in the aftermath. Two were publicly hanged. Ninety-two were shipped to a prison colony in Van Dieman’s Land (later named Tasmania). They failed, but they were no joke. Any selfrespecting nation — say, China or the U.S. — would glorify the crudity of that people’s army, not deride it.

Eighteen-thirty-seven was also the high point of French-English cooperation. Meetings in Ontario began with “Three cheers for Papineau and the brave French Canadians.” They got together (the first and last time) in united struggle against a common enemy. Can you imagine three cheers for Quebec leading off a political rally anywhere in English Canada today?

The movement of 1837 never did meld into that dreary chain of constitutional reforms and half-measures. It was killed on the spot, crushed by the imperial power of the time, so firmly that it has yet to reemerge. The proof is that we are still not independent. The issue remains as unavoidable today as it was then.

I asked some kids in a high-school cafeteria what they knew about 1837.

“Eighteen-thirty-seven . . .” they said. “Act of . . .? Repeal of . . .?

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“Give us a hint,” they said.

“Mackenzie,” I said.

“Mackenzie King?”

I grimaced.

“Aha,” said one. “William Lyle Mackenzie.”

But over in Quebec, a new highschool text titled Canada-Québec: Synthèse Historique has a picture of five of 12 patriotes who were hanged in Mont real for their part in the revolte (no mere “rebellion”) and it says there: “In every country in the world, those who shed their blood for their homeland deserve to be known as patriots. A free people knows how to commemorate its heroes.”

At least they’ve made up their mind about where they stand on national independence. In December 1971, an Ontario foundation concerned with preserving the historic site of the rebellion in Upper Canada staged a mock battle between the “rebels” and a militia unit, but they couldn’t decide which were the good guys and which the bad.

At Mackenzie House in Toronto, elderly women serve tea for 75 cents and distribute frontier recipes. They show little blond girls from private schools Mackenzie’s printshop and neglect to tell them what he printed. The kids go home persuaded to stick with Lightfoot

and Joni Mitchell for their Canadiana.

Mackenzie was not our George Washington, our Gandhi or our Mao. He failed, but what can you do — he was the best we’ve had so far. When the country is finally free, it will be because we’ve had better heroes. In the meantime, as Dennis Lee says:

Mackenzie was a crazy man,

He wore his wig askew.

He donned three bulky overcoats In case the bullets flew.

Mackenzie talked of fighting While the fight went down the drain. But who will speak for Canada? Mackenzie, come again. ■