Friday, January 19, 2018

Revisiting Canada 150

And so the 150th anniversary of Confederation has come and gone. I have to say that it was a bit of a disappointment. Or was it? Growing up with the popular memory of 1967, Canadian exceptionalism compared to the United States, and the echoes of Pierre Trudeau, I couldn’t wait to experience the next chapter: 2017, a chance to renew Canada, break free of Stephen Harper’s legacy and be the coolest place on the planet once again.

Given Brexit, Donald Trump, economic uncertainty and continued global unrest, a big Canadian party seemed to be the easiest thing to imagine. The traditional feeling of superiority over the United States had returned, the federal/provincial system looked stable compared to European strife, and we had the world’s hippest leader in the form of – who else? – the son of Pierre Trudeau, superstar of Canadian popular memory (the Anglophone/Eastern part at least).

Yes, there were big celebrations on July 1; yes the Canada 150 logo was plastered on trains, buildings, advertising and a few front lawns; and yes, there was even a memorable political gaffe when Justin Trudeau forgot to list Alberta as a province during his Parliament Hill address on Canada Day. But the tone was far from festive. People didn’t seem in the mood to celebrate. The CBC’s special Canada 150 programming didn’t generate much discussion (even two new episodes of the wildly popular Canada: A People’s History felt rushed and feeble) and much of the coverage focused on those who felt that the party was not a celebration, but a betrayal.

If 1967 was a chance for Canada to come of age and show the world a new model for a diverse (ish) and inclusive (ish) society at a time of ideological conflict, then 2017 was a moment to advertise to the world just how awful a place Canada was: Indigenous people living without clean drinking water, scarred from decades of cultural (and, at times, literal) genocide; police brutality directed disproportionately at urban black communities; and an economy still firmly rooted in the destruction of the planet for the purpose of selling off natural resources. Within the academic sphere, this mood was especially pronounced.

At this year’s Congress, the annual meeting of over 100 academic associations, the conclusion was that Canada in its 150th year deserved a universally failing grade. The country had never done a good thing for the world. Instead, it has secretly practised genocide and was continuing to oppress all who were not what a census might consider ‘average’. I personally beg to differ: Canada is not currently facing a crisis of its existence; our Prime Minister actually believes that science is real and that facts cannot have alternate equivalents; and, in almost every imaginable circumstance, one can walk down the street with a reasonable expectation of still being alive once you have reached your destination. None of these points were made. Academic discussion was not a debate, but a relearning of an alternate reality, free of critical reflection.

Of course, both Canadas are real and need to be acknowledged and confronted. There are lots of truly wonderful things about Canada, from the wide expanse of land to the world-class and affordable health care (which is at risk of being eroded). But there are many, many things which Canada has done wrong (and continue to do wrong) that need to be rectified as soon as possible. History feeds off nuance. Public debate should too.

And this is why I found Canada 150 to be such a disappointment. I for one actually wanted a party. There was a great deal to celebrate. Instead, the year became one long telling off from every possible angle. But it was a telling off without a remedy. Yes, we should feel bad, but to what end?

But maybe that was the whole point. From the disappointment came a renewed understanding of all the things that needed to be improved. All the things that Canada had ignored for too long. Fireworks would fade; feelings of guilt in the face of injustice might not. Maybe then, the true meaning of Canada 150 was to highlight a country that was willing to give up its birthday party to consider those who didn’t feel much like celebrating.

To salvage some optimism, we can see Canada 150 not so much as a commemoration, but as a new beginning. Many Indigenous leaders chose to focus on the next 150, an opportunity to try again, to make Canada (Turtle Island even) a place of fairness, inclusivity (not just tolerance) and genuine custodianship of this country and those who live here. History cannot really show us the way forward, but a nuanced understanding of it can show us what has worked and what hasn’t. Let us hope that for Canada 200 (maybe even 175), everyone can truly have a reason to celebrate.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Reconciliation: When History is Now and it Means Something

For a very long time, I’ve felt that history must always have a contemporary relevance. It’s the activist in me, but I do believe that we must understand the past in order to make the present and future better. Now, this belief does make understanding the medieval mind a little more challenging (but by no means impossible!) and it also compels the historian to become an active participant, rather than a hidden figure in the ivory tower.

Canada is at a crossroads, a true tipping point. One fork leads to more of the same, the other leads to a redefinition of the country, its government and the way indigenous people fit into the mix. Yesterday, Prime Minister Trudeau announced plans to abolish the Ministry of Indigenous and Northern Affairs (let’s face it, everyone still called it Indian Affairs) and replace it with two new departments: Indigenous Services (with a focus on the social service-type issues) and Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs (more politics). The move is contingent on legislation being tabled, but it is almost guaranteed to pass given the majority government.

According to reports, the move is based on recommendations made as part of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples back in 1996 and is designed to put First Nations on a level playing field with Ottawa. It’s too soon to tell what this will mean (and, given the history of Indigenous issues in Canada, “if anything” is a very valid answer), yet it could be a true turning point in history.

“In the spirit of reconciliation” is a phrase being used more at all levels of government and it stems from the 2015 Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC), which investigated the residential school system, its impact and how to move forward. Although Trudeau’s move apparently draws inspiration from 1996, it is no doubt formed in the moment of reconciliation - something which his predecessor decided to quietly ignore.*

I finally read the executive summary of the TRC’s report this summer. It felt like an appropriate gesture in what is the 150th birthday of Canada. In fairness, executive summary is a misnomer: this abridged volume still weighs in at over 400 pages and it is difficult to find any way to shorten it. It’s a long and methodical read, but not as emotive as I had expected. Backed up by the most copious endnotes I have ever seen (the chapter on the history of the residential school system has a staggering 674), the report outlines the origins, goals, realities, impacts and future of the residential school system and its aftermath.

For more than a century, native children (mostly from Western Canada, the North, Northern Ontario and Northern Quebec) were removed from their communities to be educated (and often housed) in schools run by either the federal government or a religious denomination. On paper, this was to offer them the best start in a modernizing country in which there was no place for the traditional life of First Nations people. For many of the students, it was a difficult time away from all that was important and familiar to them, cut off from their families. For many others, it was a living hell of abuse. Incredibly, the last residential school only closed in the 1990s, but the damage began from the earliest days.

What I found most interesting was that the report was ambiguous as to the cause of the abuse. On the one hand, some school staff were clearly evil, given the ultimate control over a vulnerable group. On the other hand, chronic underfunding meant that inadequate resources were available, so even those with the best of intentions couldn’t make the system work, meaning that it would always fall short.

It is far more clear that the impact of the residential schools was overwhelmingly negative. Yes, there were opportunities for further education and extracurricular activities, but the few shining moments cannot outweigh generation after generation of students who grew up unable to fit into either their birth society or their ‘adopted’ society. If we accept that childhood trauma shapes the rest of our lives (and those of our descendants), then all the ills that plague Canada’s First Nations can be blamed on the residential school system: a group so distorted by the schools that they were unable to look after the next generation, which was further hobbled by their own residential school experiences and so on. Based on this argument, the statistics on health, criminality, suicide and unemployment among First Nations point to a country that has completely failed an entire group of people for over 150 years.

The apologies have been made (still waiting on the Catholic Church to step up though), the TRC report has been published and Trudeau’s government is making steps to change the route forward, but what next? Prejudices on both sides must be overcome: Canadians must drop the “drunk Indian” stereotype and First Nations must believe that there are politicians and other Canadians who do want things to change. Non-indigenous Canadians must learn a hidden chapter of history and must be ready for things in the country to change, especially in terms of government, land ownership and culture.

The TRC makes 94 recommendations to make Canada a better place for everyone who lives here. There is a lot of work to be done and it will not happen overnight. One step at a time, one recommendation at a time. Let’s talk. Let’s make this work.

Oh yes, and read the TRC executive summary, or at least the recommendations

*It is no secret that I believe that Stephen Harper’s government was one of the worst things to ever happen to Canada. Yes, Harper did issue the official apology for the residential school system in 2008, but his commitment to reconciliation ended there. One thing that struck me from the TRC report was how much it relied on census data for its analysis. In 2010, Harper abolished the long-form census, citing privacy concerns. While Trudeau reinstated it in 2016, we will forever have a dark age with no data. A true commitment to reconciliation will require as much data as possible to create the most detailed picture of the situation. Any government willing to abolish its core source of demographic information cannot have been sincerely committed to reconciliation.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

CBC talks Canadian history, and somebody noticed

The CBC is in trouble again, but not due to a funding crisis. In honour of Canada’s 150th birthday, the national broadcaster is airing a new history of the country called “Canada: The Story of Us.” Each episode​ uses key historical​ figures (many who have received little public attention) to retell Canada’s history while relating it to themes central to Canadian identity, such as hardiness, courage or diversity. By breaking away from a rigid chronology and choosing a more thematic approach, the series is remarkably complex and allows for a more academic concept of history to be given a more public audience.

So far so good. Each hour also features commentary from historians and prominent Canadian figures (politicians, actors, activists and so forth) talking about how the history relates to identity. Herein lies the problem. The CBC has received significant complaints from Quebec and the Maritimes surrounding a lack of diversity in the selection of stories. Quebec has complained that there is a lack of content on New France, while the Maritimes charge that the Mi'kmaq and early British settlements are forgotten.

Four episodes in, some of these allegations are true. Eastern Canada​ features very little, other than a link to privateers making Halifax a vital port during the War of 1812 and beyond. The Mi'kmaq do not feature at all. On the other hand, French Canadians were the focus of most of the first episode. My personal pet peeve has been why the CBC couldn’t find a fluently bilingual narrator, an oversight which leaves some French names comically Anglicized. I also found the discussion of the alliance between Brock and Tecumseh to be fleeting. Apparently they both died and faded away into obscurity.

There is no doubt that a history of Canada is an ambitious undertaking, especially when it is done so infrequently. In order to condense the narrative, a selective presentation is necessary. Academic history does this all the time, but it is also speaking to an audience the author can assume had a solid grounding in the context of the topic. When the audience isn’t so familiar, things get difficult.

I don’t agree with many of J.L. Granatstein's arguments, but I do agree that history curricula in Canada and the public’s knowledge of even the most fundamental facts in Canadian history are both dangerously inadequate. That the CBC undertook to provide a new history is commendable (the broadcaster will also add two new episodes to its epic "Canada: A People’s History" series to bring the story up to date), but I question whether it has the clout to make its voice heard. Outside of hockey and the national news, their programming rarely enters the top 20 TV ratings.

Still, I applaud the show. Never have women and indigenous people featured so prominently in a popular history of Canada. As we begin to digest the truth and reconciliation committee's report, we need a much better understanding of how we got to where we are so that we don’t make the same mistakes again.

I also applaud the criticisms. By unpacking the content of the show, people have begun a conversation about what Canadian history is. This can only be a good thing.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Back to Thinking

After a very long hiatus, I am back with a series of articles based on my MA research into model railways.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Upcoming Roundtable: Activism and Academia

I have been helping to organize a roundtable discussion at the University of Toronto on February 24. Professors + Publics: A Roundtable on Academic Activism will explore how activism and academic work fit together.

The panel includes:
  • Prof. Nadia Jones-Gailani (University of South Florida)
  • Prof. Michelle Murphy (University of Toronto)
  • Prof. Melanie Newton (University of Toronto)
  • Melonie A. Fullick (York University)
  • Prof. Sean Kheraj (York University)
The roundtable will be moderated by the host of CBC Radio's Ideas, Paul Kennedy.

The discussion takes place at the University of Toronto Arts Centre at 1:30pm. You can register for free here.

It promises to be an interesting afternoon. Join us if you can!