- In Search of Authenticity:Public Memory, Living History, and Folk Art in Modern Canada
IN THE SPRING OF 2017, WITH THE TEN EPISODES of the historical mini-series Canada: The Story of Us annoying CBC viewers from coast to coast, the feature film about Nova Scotian artist Maud Lewis, Maudie, became a surprise hit in theatres. With these evocations of the past on screens small and large, and with "Canada 150" commemorations of the sesquicentennial ubiquitous in the public sphere, it seems a fortuitous time to be reading books that deal with Canadians' attempts to connect authentically with their history. Yet, as the three books reviewed here might remind us – Cecilia Morgan's Commemorating Canada, Alan Gordon's Time Travels, and Erin Morton's For Folk's Sake – there have been many times over the last 150 years that would have been equally fortuitous.1 If dramatic changes have unfolded in the territory known as Canada in the modern era, turning to the past – for affirmation, justification, consolation, a sense of belonging, or, more crassly, to make a buck – has been one element of continuity.
To have been an actor in a significant historical event is relatively uncommon, but to have participated in the commemoration, preservation, and dissemination of the past in the modern era must be nearly universal. Certainly, this is what my grade school class was engaged in when, among hundreds of others, we were trooped off to the local hockey rink to sing in celebration of Ontario's bicentennial in 1984. Why this was an anniversary (when 1791 seems a more likely origin year), and what singing It's a long way to Tipperary had to do with it remain mysteries to me, but at the time we obliviously sang as instructed. And, of course, there were the annual Remembrance Day ceremonies, exposure to various history textbooks, and, at the time of the Meech Lake debate, our teachers directed us in a kind of historical play for Anglo Ontarian parents that included dramatized notable events drawn from the history of French Canada (I recall wearing a fake beard and being a member of the "Order of Good Cheer"). There were class trips to the local museum as well as to a pioneer village where, in the case of the latter, costumed interpreters showed us how people lived in the olden times. For someone who was ten years old, the distance of a century in the past might as well have been time immemorial.
Was my central Canadian childhood typical? Certainly, in other places and other times, the events and the historical narratives were differently accented. But, as Cecilia Morgan points out in Commemorating Canada: History, Heritage, and Memory, 1850s-1990s, children have long been an important group both as "participants in and targets of commemoration" (158). This indicates the degree to [End Page 243] which the multifaceted framing of the past in the present – the combination, Morgan suggests in her subtitle, of history, heritage, and memory – aims to influence the future. Sometimes literally carved in stone, commemorative practices select, highlight, bracket, and attempt to fix ideas about the past that, as each of these authors show, are rarely far removed from contemporary political, social, and economic agendas and aims.
Morgan's slim yet wide-ranging survey begins and ends by asking when, why, and for whom particular understandings of the past have been important. First Nations people created and transmitted narratives of the past – orally or materially through wampum or pictographs – long before the arrival of Europeans in North America. By the mid-19th century, Indigenous historians such as Kahkewaquonaby and Kahgegagahbowh wrote and published histories of their peoples.2 These and other First Nations histories, Morgan argues, tend to focus on "survival and persistence in the face of dislocation and upheaval" (19). These narratives did not feature much (or at all!) in the histories written from the perspective of the settler societies that had caused the dislocation. By the middle of the 19th century, these, too, had produced written histories tracing the origins of different "national" identities. French Canadian historians, notably F.X. Garneau, focused on the history of New France and the...