Canadian History Needs More Great Men and Manifest Destiny: Ottawa Citizen

If you happened to read the unfortunately titled editorial “Birth of Nations” (an inexplicably racist allusion) in the Ottawa Citizen yesterday, you would have been treated to Leonard Stern’s confused opinions/fever dream about the “unremarkable” character of Canadian history. Based on his own close reading of one of the major texts in American history, HBO’s John Adams mini-series, Stern concludes that “[t]he American story is a glorious one,” and the Canadian story is not.

Boring John A. Macdonald

Stern’s rambling editorial and mediocre review of a nearly two year old mini-series (timely), falls comfortably into the familiar argument that Canadian history is boring and American history is triumphant and exciting. He leans so heavily on this tired invented tradition in Canadian historical memory, it almost buckles under the weight of an argument that is as much uninformed as it is cliché.

One astute commenter tried to take Mr. Stern to task by pointing out some remarkable events in Canadian history, including the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, the Red River resistance, and the Klondike gold rush, but I wonder if such a defence of the Canadian past is even necessary or appropriate. Must Canadian history be “exciting”? Must we have “patriarchs” with “huge hearts and powerful minds”? Let’s ignore for a moment (as Stern does) that John Adams, who opposed slavery, was too cowardly to support its abolition, and Thomas Jefferson was too busy sexually exploiting his own slaves to notice. Does it matter that these “great men” helped forge a nation through revolution rather than paperwork?

Heroic, Exciting John Adams

This whimpering lament for a more glorious Canadian history fails to question the nationalist underpinnings and purposes of the kind of historical fiction presented in works like John Adams. Nationalist histories serve nationalist purposes. They are meant to foster pride and consolidate allegiance to a particular national identity (to the exclusion of others). And at times, they are meant to rally these sentiments for the purposes of waging war or exciting racist fervour (as was the case with the film, Birth of a Nation).

The history of Canada, whether we like it or not, includes episodes of exploitation, valour, oppression, honour, shame, inspiration, and, yes, the mundane. Yearning for a history that celebrates high-minded ideals and glorious revolution, while ignoring the displacement of Aboriginal people, the enslavement of African-Americans, the oppression of women, and the exploitation of the industrial working-class is intellectually dishonest, ignorant, and foolish. But I suppose that kind of history makes for better television.

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4 Responses

  1. Great response. You should submit it to the Ottawa Citizen if you have not yet. I wrote a brief email asking them to consider inviting a historian to provide a rebuttal. So maybe they will publish it?

    • Thanks for posting the article to Twitter yesterday. I’m glad you liked my response. We’ll have to wait and see if the Citizen wants to publish a rebuttal, I suppose.

  2. Having just taught a Pre-Confederation Canadian survey, I can assure everyone that there is plenty of violence, nationalism and rebellion in our history. The fact that we have attempted to move beyond this is a testament to a Canadian culture that tries (even if it sometimes fails) to be more open and accepting of diversity. It exemplifies the difference between history and memory…the latter reflecting what we collectively choose to remember. We choose to remember peace, order and good government, even if we are deluding ourselves!

    Thanks for the piece, Sean…

    Greg

    • Very good point, Greg. Public memory obviously shapes the way we think about Canada’s past. We often forget the moments of rebellion, resistance, discord, and disorder (as I’m sure you taught your students this past semester).

      I hope all is well at Moncton these days. Send me an email some time and let me know how you’re doing.

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