Keeping it interesting:
Ask Trent University history professor John Milloy, and he will tell you Canadians have been “much too polite” about their history.
While the FLQ was blowing up mailboxes in Quebec in the 1960s, Canada became so bent on selling an uncontroversial national narrative that it neglected all the meaty details: The hard-drinking Prime Minister who lied and cheated his way towards a cross-continental railway; anti-government rebels shot dead on Yonge Street in Toronto; voyageurs who slept their way across the frontier; and the hundreds of 1940s Vancouverites who looked the other way when authorities came for the Nakumura family next door.
“Blood, sex, greed,” he said. “That’s the good stuff, that’s what brings people into the movie theatres.”
Do not succumb.
This is not teaching history. It is not educating the public on our history. It is trivializing the past in hopes of getting some fleeting interest from a gore and gossip addicted public. If the goal is to get Canadians to appreciate their history as important, and by extension that Canada is a nation worthy of preserving, playing to the cheap seats is self-defeating.
This is, sadly, not a new phenomenon. I have come across more than a few educated people whose knowledge of Canadian history is derived from some long ago history professor who tried to keep things "interesting." There are two ways to make history interesting. You can try to explain cause and effect, place events into a broad narrative, while pointing to genuine accomplishments along the way. Try to connect the student to the lived reality of the past. The alternate method, and the more popular method because it is easier, is to make fun of the falling down drunk who founded the country.
The amusing drunk theory of Canadian history will certainly keep the kiddies interested. But when they walk out of the classroom all they'll remember is the falling down drunk. They won't remember much else John A Macdonald did. More importantly than what they think of John A is what they think of Canada. America might have founded by slave owning hypocrites, a crude simplification of the reality of colonial America, but Canada was founded by alcoholics. Funny, eh? Problem is that no one will take seriously a country founded by drunks.
The attempt to make Canadian history interesting, because it is suppose to be intrinsically boring, is insulting. We have to emphasize the falling down drunk, the raving bigots, the philandering politicians and the corrupt speculators because otherwise this stuff is a real dud. This approach is less a criticism of Canadian history than of a certain type of mediocre Canadian historian. There are library shelves groaning with well written, compelling and intellectually serious material.
Instead we have slapstick Canadian history. This is a foolish approach at anytime. In modern Canada, which is one of the most ethnically and racially diverse nations in human history, it is positively suicidal. Do you really want to tell the Somali refugee that the nation they've arrived in is nothing more than a rich man's joke? That will be their understandable reaction. There are worse things than being boring: Being ridiculous is one of them.
The greatest long-term threat to the survival of this country is the idea of Canada as a multicultural hotel. A sensationalistic, as opposed to a balanced, approach to Canadian history will only speed up that process. It will help convince the waves of immigrants that have arrived, and those yet to show up, that there is no need to take Canada seriously. We are not a serious country. Our values are a joke. Our great historical figures were either clowns or monsters. Why should that immigrant care to assimilate? There is nothing to assimilate into. Why not retain his primitive customs? At least those customs are taken seriously by someone.
It is the operating assumption of this blog that history should be taught warts and all. This is the warts only approach. Here is something better: Don't whitewash the past but explain it properly. Yes, John A Macdonald was a high functioning alcoholic. But here is the rest of the story: Alcohol consumption was often high in frontier societies. There isn't much else to do and life is very hard. Clean water, especially in urban areas, is not always available, so drinking beer is often safer than drinking water. Macdonald himself lead a difficult life. His first wife had a mysterious illness that left her near death for years. All the while he was responsible for leading a fractious colony only a few steps away from religious and ethnic violence. For much of his time in office Macdonald did not lead the government, he was the government, it being so difficult to find talented or even competent people to enter politics.
The above is something closer to John A in full. A skillful, often devious man confronting a complex set of problems. Try to place the students in John A's place, making the choices he had to make, knowing that the wrong decision could lead to disaster. In a best case scenario Canada might have been annexed by the United States. In a worse case scenario we might have collapsed into a civil war and then been annexed by the United States. The man who avoided either fate, for all his many faults, deserves something more than the Three Stooges treatment by Canadian history teachers.
What goes for John A also goes for scores of other prominent historical figures.
It is an old cliche, though a very true one, that a nation without a history has no future. What about a nation with a joke for a past? For that country the future is unlikely to be amusing.