Examining Canadian history with open eyes

Around the globe, people are hoping for a fresh start now that we’ve turned the page into a new year. In Canada, Jan. 1 marked the beginning of a special year when we’re sure to spend nearly as much time looking back as forward. July 1 will mark 150 years since Confederation in 1867, and while the celebrations ought to include some forward-looking festivities, hopefully they’ll offer a chance to reckon with some of our past as well.

I’ve had the opportunity lately to talk about Canadian history with people and to realize that our common knowledge of our collective past is a bit lacking. A little research bore that out. In 2014, an Ipsos Reid survey found that while Canadians are very patriotic, they aren’t very knowledgeable about their own history. And In 2008, another of their surveys even found that Canadians knew more about American history than our own.

For example, the history of this land doesn’t begin in 1867 with Confederation, or in 1534 with Jacques Cartier, or even with Vikings over a thousand years ago, but our history books have relegated First Nations to chapters and side bars. Even the Government of Canada opens the history section of the citizenship manual with a whitewashed paragraph under the heading Aboriginal Peoples.

The history also glosses over slavery in Canada, mentioning that it “existed all over the world, from Asia, Africa and the Middle East to the Americas,” but never specifically acknowledging that there was slavery in Canada.

Obviously, the brief history provided by the Canadian government to newcomers isn’t the be-all and end-all of information sources. But if the rest of our history lessons were filling the gaps, we wouldn’t have a nation full of people who are largely unaware of the realities of our nation’s past. In fact, a lot of us believe a version of our history that runs opposite to reality.

Our national myth is the tale of a prodigiously altruistic society of ragtag trailblazers who cleared the bush, defended the weak, and nurtured nature. It’s a lovely tale, but it’s just not the whole truth. There are no Heritage Minutes about the dark chapters, but maybe there should be.

I think our 150th anniversary is the perfect time to set our story straight. To abandon the myths we’ve told ourselves and respect the suffering and progress in our past. And if that topples our Canadian values, then maybe it’s time to embrace some new ones.

When I look back at our past, I see a part of the world that has had deep flaws and made painful mistakes. What made Canada great was never some mythical perfect subscription to a superior morality. It was always a simple collective willingness to do better. But we can never really inhabit that value — of continuous improvement and mindful progress — if we don’t acknowledge that we were always improving on something that wasn’t quite right, or progressing from someplace that we shouldn’t have been. And that we still are. Every day.

If we can find a way this year to tell that tale, it’d be a truly inspiring origin story.

Originally published in Our London on January 5, 2017.