Commemorating Canada: History, Heritage, and Memory, 1850s–1990s by Cecilia Morgan (review)
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Commemorating Canada: History, Heritage, and Memory, 1850s–1990s. Cecilia Morgan. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016. Pp. x + 207. $65.00 cloth, $26.95 paper

Readers looking for a short description of this book need only turn to the back cover, which states that it is “[a] concise narrative overview of the development of history, historical memory, and heritage in Canada,” with a focus on historical pageantry, popular history, and heritage sites during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It also notes that the book “[e]xpands the historical narrative to include the involvement of women, immigrants, and Indigenous peoples in shaping history and commemoration.” All that is a tall order, but Canadian historians have done a considerable amount of work on the commemoration theme in recent years, and the goal of the Themes in Canadian History series to which this book belongs is basically to synthesize scholarly research for the “non-specialist reader.” There [End Page 169] are no footnotes, but a useful list of secondary sources has been compiled for each chapter. Comprehensiveness, such as we find in Canadian history textbooks, can make for dull history, but, like the more successful books in this series, Commemorating Canada does not attempt to provide complete coverage of the topic. It focuses, instead, on major themes such as war, tourism, and the role of the state.

This short, dense volume provides a solid and relatively up-to-date introduction for the post-secondary history students who are clearly the major market for the series. As such, it will be a useful resource for teaching how history has been used and abused for nationalist and other purposes. Or, to put it in Morgan’s more positive terms, by studying the processes that went into crafting the commemoration of a person or event, we can learn “much about the fears, hopes, and desires of the society that did so” (8). As she also states, then, the study of commemoration, whether it concerns the erection of a statue or the staging of a historical pageant, requires the integration of cultural, social, and political history. Finally, Morgan reminds us in her very useful introductory chapter that even though “heritage” has often been used by governments, nationalists, and institutions to oppose social and political change, it has recently been taken up by those who promote a more inclusive conception of the past, the Workers’ Arts and Heritage Centre in Hamilton being a good recent example.

The second chapter covers the period from the 1750s to the 1870s, with the focus being largely on historiography, but it also provides a brief overview of historical fiction, painting, parades, museums, galleries, and exhibitions. Chapter 3 examines the 1870s to the 1920s when throughout the industrializing world the past offered “a welcome refuge from widespread social, cultural, and political changes and challenges” (45). Conversely, there was in much of the relatively young and less industrialized country of Canada a strong desire to celebrate the country’s progressive achievements by contrasting the present with the past. This was the great era of monuments and historical pageants, generally forging symbolic links to the Mother Country in English Canada and the Catholic Church in Quebec. The advantage of monuments as well as pageants for commemoration, Morgan points out, was that they appealed to the emotions and senses of spectators as well as participants. War has been a particularly popular subject for commemoration in Canada, none more so than the First World War, which, we read in Chapter 4, “drew very much upon the conventions, genres, imagery, and symbolism used to commemorate the War of 1812, the Northwest Rebellion, and the South African War” (83). [End Page 170] In fact, the same cenotaphs were generally used for those killed in the Second World War and the Korean War. While Morgan states that most of the monuments “depicted war as a noble and dignified endeavour” (83), however, Ian McKay and Jamie Swift claim in their recently published The Vimy Trap that by the later 1920s Canada’s monuments “aimed not to commemorate the dead but to ensure nothing like the Great War would ever happen again” (137). Times have changed, for...