In this year of Canada 150, it’s not uncommon on university campuses to hear a lot of scepticism about “celebrations” of confederation. This isn’t especially surprising. Scholars rarely celebrate anything (unless it is the end of marking season). But celebrations of the nation state often seem intrinsically troublesome – something we study rather than take part in.
Our scepticism is deeply rooted. Since Lytton Strachey, if not before, the main mode of historical writing has been irony. Just as Strachey showed the not-so-eminent underside to his Victorians, historians too expose the darker realities of what might otherwise seem to be historical respectability. We clarify and correct myths that omit unpleasant realities; we question the convenient silences in certain versions of the past. Years ago the great Canadian historian Arthur Lower claimed that the task of the historian was to chase around after those who create myths of the past, hectoring them with shouts of “That’s not how it really happened!” If this can sometimes seem pedantic (never go to historic films with historians) it also has a serious purpose – to correct false assumptions and to insist on complexity.
In the case of Canada 150, there is the added element of political earnestness. Over the last thirty years the moving force in the historical profession has been to replace an older history of the nation state with a people’s history of Canada. In these people’s histories, the Canadian nation has often been either irrelevant to the everyday realities of people’s lives or, when it has been relevant, historians show how the state has often been the enactor of discrimination, harsh treatment, or neglect. Who wants to celebrate that? Continue reading