I have only a vague recollection of the Canadian history I learned in school. Canada was sandwiched in somewhere between Britain and Europe and presented as a romantic pageant of savage Indians, saintly missionaries and intrepid explorers which began, as we were taught to say in Canajan, when John Kabit discovered Noophun Lund, and worked its way with a kind of historic inevitability through the British conquest to the miracle of Confederation. The remaining 90 years were covered in a cursory fashion: it was spring and our thoughts did not turn to Mackenzie King. So expurgated, truncated and distorted was this official version of our past that almost every Canadian has emerged from school with a deep-seated conviction that Canadian history is phony, irrelevant and unspeakably tedious. For those who, through their own investigation, discover that this is not true, the revelation is a shock.
Pierre Berton unearthed a great deal of astonishing information for his history of the CPR, published in two volumes as The National Dream and The Last Spike. He tells a story of ruthless political manoeuvring and territorial ambition, of graft and bribery involving members of the cabinet, of treason, swindle and financial speculation by people who, with a few admirable exceptions, were drunks, thieves, maniacs and the most powerful and respectable people in Canada. It’s a marvelous story and Berton is thorough and honest. His only fault is to romanticize his villains, to glorify corruption or cruelty when it takes place on a grand scale and to celebrate its practitioners as heroes of the Canadian frontier on the premise that great power excuses everything. It’s a queasy prejudice and, unfortunately, one which is picked up and hammered at us in the CBC’s eightpart documentary series The National Dream (CBC — Sunday, 9 p.m.)
The National Dream is the kind of art which in Soviet countries is called socialist realist. It’s propaganda art, simple, exaggerated cliché designed not to raise questions but to reinforce political and moral beliefs. The Hollywood equivalent is the Biblical epic and The National Dream has much of that lugubrious pace, galloping music and cardboard photographic grandeur — a train silouetted against a sunset, a lone man riding, riding, riding across the prairie, Van Horne staring with furrowed brow into the west and growling “Those mountains, they’re in my way.” Berton, wearing a pukka khaki safari suit, appears to say “History was being made!” Like snapshots from a summer vacation, Berton crops up periodically to explain and interpret the dramatic sequences which recreate the Canada of the 1870s when the CPR was born. He is more effective and informative than the drama, which carries the unmistakable whiff of the school pageant. Events which are historically significant are not necessarily dramatic; the attempt to recreate them in fancy dress is often muddled and confusing. The complexity of the Pacific scandal is lost in a wash of Hansard rhetoric and the effect of Sir John A. Macdonald’s great speech is blunted by a series of parliamentary scenes that look like the Fathers of Confederation portrait come to life. William Hutt plays Sir John A. as an amiable sot, an interpretation which captures the Prime Minister’s charm but conveys nothing of his intelligence or cunning. Scenes of marginal importance — villains plotting over brandy and poker (see John Wayne
and Rio Bravo) — are drawn out while major confrontations, such as the encounter between the railway and the Indians, are shuffled over. The result is inconclusive, fumbling, a feeling of embarrassed posturing to cover a lack of conviction. The script is written in stone.
The pretentiousness of The National Dream — well-scrubbed navvies artfully posed on top of boxcars, well-scrubbed Indians artfully posed on ponies — is silly unless the series is seen not as history but as mythmaking. The dirty reality of the CPR is obscured by hokum, romanticized into an epic confrontation with the wilderness which enshrines the winners, the bankers, speculators and politicians, as gods in top hats in the Canadian pantheon. It’s bad art and false history; it doesn’t help much to know our national heroes are scoundrels if we are now expected to admire them for their skulduggery. Perhaps some of us, especially the children of the immigrant laborers who laid those rails, can be forgiven our disrespect.
Disrespect is the joy of True North, a series of documentaries produced by the Ontario educational network and shown on the CBC during February. Its sarcastic and ironic sketches look at Canada from the viewpoint of the ordinary citizen, a person who is more likely to view the national dream as the national scheme. True North is fun, a little slick, but full of shocks and revelations that ring true. It opens a lot of doors and lifts a few rocks; I hope it is the beginning of a new look at Canadian history. We have lived with myth for 300 years; what we need now is the truth.
THIS MONTH’S TV SHOWS
Watch: We’re Here To Stay (CBC — March 27, 10 p.m.)»
Watch for: Academy Awards (CBC— April 2, 9 p.m.). Skipper And Co. (CBC — April 3, 5 p.m.). Tommy Hunter Special (CBC — April 12, 8.30 p.m.).
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.