In response to John Macfarlane’s Editor’s note in the September 2009 issue of the Walrus Magazine.
We have to admit, we were thrilled to receive our September issue of the Walrus. “Two 18th century soldiers on the cover, this is going to be good!” we thought. We were glad to see that one of our favourite magazines was going to devote an issue to the 1759 Battle of the Plains of Abraham. But then we read the Editor’s note. What ?!? Are we still there? After more than a century of analysis of what history as a science should be?
After the works of Marc Bloch, Foucault, E.P. Thompson, Carr, Collingwood and the like, it seems surreal to see that some still think that the principal reason some people devote their lives to the study of the past is so that everybody will know the narrative of our great nation by heart! “The year of the Canadian Confederation.” “What is 1867, Alex ?” This is not history, its Jeopardy! Would the Editor be shocked to learn that historians and History don’t exist so we can display our vast knowledge or so we can answer Trivial Pursuit questions? History exists so we can understand the world we live in. Macfarlane explains that the Battle of the Plains of Abraham is a “iconic moment in the country’s historical narrative: literally the beginning of the story of Canada.” Brilliant! Had Canada no history before then? Did Canada not exist before 1759? Funny thing, we thought Canada was one of New France’s colonies… and we actually thought that regardless of the issue of the battle, the war was actually won (or lost, it depends) in Europe…
What that short sentence of Macfarlane’s also puts forth is the existence (or lack thereof) of a single or absolute Canadian “historical narrative”. That narrative — who could possibly say the contrary — is made of facts (regardless of our opinions) of our national history. 1759, 1812, 1867, 1982, etc. Well, that’s fine, but where are the women, where are the First Nations, where are the immigrants in this narrative? Easy, the First Nations exist before 1534 (or 1492, it depends on your perspective) and women, well they’re there and then they get the right to vote and, voilà! The idea of a single, common historical narrative is not only narrow-minded and false, it is also dangerous!
What if we put forth an innovative idea ? What if we say that to know the date of Confederation doesn’t help you a bit when comes time to really understand our country and what it is in the 21st century? We’d go even further… what if we say that we don’t care that our students can’t tell the difference between MacDonald and Olivier (as Macfarlane puts it)? What we care about though is that our students understand, really understand that Canada is a nation rich with diversity, a diversity which has often caused problems in our living together but that helped us create a nation like no other..
What needs to be known and taught is not the date of Confederation, but the conditions under which it was achieved. Can we really understand Canada without exploring the importance of the railroad barons in forging this grand and lucrative dream? Shouldn’t we also explore what Confederation really meant for workers, immigrants, First Nations? The 1867 Confederation is an important moment of our history and it needs to be studied — and taught — in context, through the eyes of its actors (all of its actors, those who had power to make it happen, those who resisted, those who had to adapt to its immediate consequences) and the rigorous, methodological analysis of sources, including the interests of their authors. That is the nature of history, historical work, and the core purpose of learning history : to understand human agency in constructing the meaning of our lives, our collective experiences, the historicity of all things human.
As for Macfarlane’s own lament about the National Commission of Battlefields “capitulating” before some sovereignists’ complaint: nobody’s arguing that the outcome of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham is anything else but the complete victory of the British forces. That is not the question! That being said, what Macfarlane chooses to forget, as Granatstein does, is that our brilliant historical narrative tends to put a lid on the suffering of hundreds of thousands of men, women and children that are not of the elite. What the Battle of the Plains meant for thousands was the destruction of their land and homes; just as Confederation meant, for the Métis nation, the beginning of systematic persecution involving our great Mounted Police; or as the colonisation of the St-Lawrence River by the French meant, for the First Nations, a violent restructuring of their way of life, a loss of their land and even death.
If history really is nothing but a sum of facts in a subjective narrative, one could ask why did we not commemorate the Acadian Deportation by such a re-enactment as was planned for the events of 1759? What about a re-enactment of the opening of the first Residential schools? Or a re-enactment of the Battle of Batoche? These are all facts! They are not disputed! Of course that could send a strange message to part of the Canadian population, as a re-enactment of the 1759 Battle would have done… unless, of course, Quebecers aren’t really part of the “historical narrative”. The problem is that the idea of commemorating is intrinsically linked to a positivistic conception of history that belongs more in the field of propaganda than in that of history. A commemoration is always ideologically situated, it serves the purpose of those promoting it. It this case, the people promoting re-enactment would like Canadians to believe that we all see the defeat of the French (and the first Canadiens) at the Plains of Abraham as a positive, nation-building moment. Denying that such an enterprise is ideological in nature does not make it any less so. It only underscores the importance of teaching history not as a chronological alignment of facts, but as human, contextualized, subjective interpretation, only rendered scientific through the use of critical historical method. Had all actors in this story been taught how to think historically and critically, has they had historical consciousness, such commemoration would never have been considered. In sum, if you really need an example of our lack of real historical teaching and learning, it is not to be found in the answers of pollees to absurd questions but in the fact that somebody, somewhere thought that such a re-enactment could actually be a good idea… or even a moral idea!
To be clear, we’re not saying people can’t have heroes or celebrate events, we’re saying that we should probably re-evaluate what we understand to be a “great Canadian moment”. Granatstein’s critique on what social historians have done to the collective psyche of our nation is simply ridiculous! The narrative that he seems to want to glorify and celebrate excludes large numbers of our compatriots! Wouldn’t we be better off celebrating our diversity and the events that really had an importance on our capacity to live together as a nation? But, of course, that means that History as a scientific discipline and as a school subject can’t be a simple game of Jeopardy!
Cégep de l’Outaouais
Université du Québec en Outaouais