- A Little History of Canada
A Little History of Canada is just that - little in size and short in length. It deserves, perhaps, a little review. It has five chapters, evenly distributed, with Confederation, like most university survey courses in Canadian history, right in the middle. H.V. Nelles is a distinguished historian of Canada, and in the same way that an experienced diplomat sits to write his [End Page 209] or her memoirs, Nelles has earned the right to give us his take on Canadian history. He calls this book an 'interpretative essay' and it is brief, far from comprehensive, and personal. Who will read it? He has aimed it at travellers, visitors, new Canadians, and anyone who wants a quick overview of the main currents in Canadian history.
His focus is on transformation: Native to European, French to British, colony to 'quasi-autonomous Dominion' and then to 'distinct society.' His emphasis is on government, politics, and public policy, and along the way there are relatively few people, especially the little people or those that inhabit the far-flung regions of the country. He also appears to have no axe to grind. Having earned the right to a public platform, he situates it firmly in the middle of the road rather than using it to challenge old interpretations or offer new ones. The deportation of the Acadians was 'a shameful policy, brutally but not lethally administered.' The Rebellions of 1837 were a 'classic Canadian revolution' in that they lacked public support and most Canadians 'believed that the issues could be better addressed through ordinary means within the existing political framework. In Canada revolutions fail as action, but triumph in recollection and history.' Confederation was no 'popular crusade'; indeed, 'the journey from a cluster of colonies to Dominionhood begins not with a stirring manifesto on the part of the colonists yearning to be free, but rather a forthright declaration of independence of the mother country from its Empire. Canada was born of imperialism going in reverse.' As for expansion and consolidation, 'the Canadian West wasn't won; it was traded.' In more modern times, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms becomes 'Trudeau's finest hour' and Nelles ranks him up there with the greatest prime ministers. On the other hand, Brian Mulroney 'set about undoing much of what Trudeau had accomplished.'
Nelles makes a number of insightful observations on the Canadian character and, even though his views might be contested by many others, he slips them effortlessly into the text. For example, he makes a connection between modern Canadians and the earliest Europeans in his description of the reorganization of New France in 1663 by the French Crown. 'A strong, interventionist government, with a coherent economic and social plan, well supplied with taxpayers' money, and served by an able and imaginative public service, restored the colony to health, made it a vital player in North American geopolitics, and set its course for the next century. This is the sort of effort - systematic public policy, properly pursued - that Canadians instinctively respect. In this regard they are very French.' For those readers already versed in Canadian history, passages like these are the best part of the book.
Nelles's aim was to write a little history that a person could read on an airplane. It is not the most ambitious of goals, but he has achieved it. The book is interesting, well written - and little. [End Page 210]
David MacKenzie, Department of History, Ryerson University