Canada: A Pluralist History

Canadian Speeches, March-April 2003 | Go to article overview

Canada: A Pluralist History

Canadian history is a work in progress which cannot be viewed from a single perspective. National history is possible, if Canadians embrace the good, the bad, the minority and majority perspectives. Canadian history cannot be the history of one people, but of many, with many common threads: our ancestors' quest for riches, the general disdain for our southern neighbor, and pride in nationwide healthcare. Speech to a Canadian Studies lecture at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario, January 7, 2003.


Is national history possible? As author of five editions of a book called The Short History of Canada, I answer, as did Count Frontenac,: "par la bouche demes canons." But is this book really a "national history of Canada?" In these post-modern days, that would be unfashionable. Ostensibly, I insist that it is nothing but a "User's Manual" to help the current residents to take advantage of the country with the least damage to themselves and their fellow citizens. No doubt my critics could have done better and will.

L' "histoire nationale:" ideologique ou metaphysique?

Indeed how can we describe a book that comments on the evolution of two self-conscious national ideals, and perhaps 600 of them if we accept Native usage? And is national history bound to be celebratory, exclusive and positivist? If so, then we will repeat ancestral errors by excluding those unwilling to cheer. But could a history of Quebec that ignores minorities who do not naturally see themselves as Quebecois be any more truly nationalist? Not unless, like Abbe Groulx, we conflate nation and race. What about history which seeks a sober re-evaluation of our shared human experience of this part of our small planet? Is that "national history?" If not, does anyone show much enduring interest?

For Canadians, Confederation maybe a success, a failure, or a work in progress and still sparking creativity and conflict. One common theme of Canada's history is the emergence of different linguistic, cultural, sexual, regional, religious, and economic identities, federally or regionally, whatever the desire of authority, be it in Ottawa or Quebec, to make us take a broader view. In 1995, Jacques Parizeau sent out regional commissions to promote the common interests; they returned laden with parochial concerns, from road repairs to opening hours for local CLSCs. How Canadian.

Histoire d'un peuple

In such a pluralist society, needless to add that a national history can have lots of meanings. My own approach was to open with all the different histories Canadians shared at Confederation. The carpenters of this structure added their own places in the plan because, as Toronto suburbanites, their histories came from the whole world. In the end, my own choices had to be imposed but they were not those I would have made at the outset and some have shifted in each edition. Anyone who sets up a survey course will recognize the grand ambitions, hard choices and the modest fulfillment.

Manuel de l'usager

In this book, as in my teaching, I endeavored not to be carried away by pride or patriotism. My chosen theme was to write a users' manual for Canadians who wanted to understand how their country had worked. The Short History was for me a narrative of events, personalities and developments which were remote from my life and experience but which I wanted to understand. Was Canada a country of one, two or several nations? There was, for me, no correct answer but there was some fascinating working out of contradictory principles. Canada was a nation with frontiers where the inhabitants shared some experiences in common and many more which were different and, in consequence, Canadians came in many sizes, shapes and identities.

My model, if any, was Maurice Careless, possible because he was unquestionably among the most charming and open of my senior colleagues when I moved to the University of Toronto in 1969 but chiefly because of his brilliant vision of a Canada of "limited identities". …

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