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20 Historically Speaking ยป June 2002 DISPATCH FROM CANADA Ian Dowbiggin When it comes to the state of history in Canada, there's plenty of grim news to go around. Pessimists pointto the factthatfewtopics receive less attention in Canadianpublic schools than history, buried as it often is in courses called Social Studies or Global Education. In Quebec , the provincewhose license plates read "je me souviens" (I remember), teachers do little but harp on the theme of French-Canadian victimization atthe hands ofEnglish-Canadians . It gets worse. A recent survey found that only 51% ofCanadians could correcdyname the country's first prime minister (John A. Macdonald), and an appallingly low 17% of Quebeckers (where the vast majority of Canada's French-speakingresidents live) were able to name the nation's first francophone prime minister (Wilfred Laurier). To compound matters, the federal government in Ottawa seemingly can't resist the Orwellian temptation to airbrush the past in politicallycorrectfashion. Lately, itpaid tributeto twenty-three Canadiansoldiers executed as cowards and deserters in World War I. It also appears poised to proclaim Louis Riel, who was hanged in 1885 for leading a rebellion againstthe federal government, a "Father of Confederation." The attempt to rehabilitate Riel, a selfstyled religious prophetand ex-mental patient ofmixed French-Canadian and Indian blood, indicates that official Canadian historical interpretations usually bend in the direction of identity-group politics, andnowhere does this kind ofpolitics thrive more than in Quebec. Hardly a year goes by there without some heated controversyover the past, and 2001 was no exception. Normand Lester, a television reporterwith the French language side ofthe Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), published Le livre noirdu Canada Anglais (the Black Book ofEnglish Canada), modeling it after The Black Book ofCommunism, a text originallypublished in France thatcatalogued the millions of deaths due to the spread ofcommunism in the 20th century. For his part, Lester listed the many real and imagined abuses English-Canadians have inflicted on French-Canadians throughout history. After he was suspended with pay by the CBC, Lester's supporters rallied to his side and helped to make his book a provincial bestseller . The controversy over Lester's book indicates that though other Canadians argue amongthemselves, the country's principal fault line still runs between English-Canada and French-speaking Quebec. The Lester debate also demonstrates thatsome Canadians chiefly regard the past as a fertile land hiding sinister tales ofabuse and victimization. Indeed, like all nations, Canada has its share ofdark secrets. Take the story ofits flirtationwith eugenics. In the early20th century, manyin Canada's elite classeswere impressed by the spread of eugenics, a term coined in 1883 by Francis Galton, Charles Darwin's cousin, and defined as the science ofhuman breeding. Like thirty American states, and Hider's Third Reich, two Canadian provinces (Alberta and British Columbia) enacted eugenic laws that permitted the forcible sterilization ofindividuals deemed unfit to reproduce and raise families. When over 700 victims ofAlberta's law sued the province for damagesinthe late 1990s (and setded in 1999), the countrylearned forthe firsttime aboutits eugenic past. Apublic outcryensued as Canadians asked: howcould ithave happenedhere? The answer more often than not was that right-wing Albertans were responsible. But now, thirteen women victims of British Columbia's sterilization law are suing that province, raisingfurther questions thatCanadians may have more difficulty answering. The doleful and sordid storysurrounding British Columbia's experiment with eugenics might seem just another in a series ofevents teaching Canadians to be embarrassed about their history. But there are indications that a deeper and more appreciative attitude toward Canada's past may actually be evolving. Perhaps the most positive sign is Canada:A Peoples History, a bilingual television documentary, now in its second season. Canada: A Peoples History chronicles Canada's growth from the arrival of the aboriginal Amerindians to the presentday. Inits coverage ofthe pre-film era, itrelies on remarkablyeffective recreations of events, such as the 1759 Battle ofthe Plains of Abraham, where France lost its North American colony to the British. ToMarkStarowicz, the documentary's creator and executive producer, "the myth that Canadians are not interested in their history died" the daythe series debuted. Noted Canadian historianJack Granatstein, author ofthe best-selling Who Killed Canadian History? (1998...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-6438
Print ISSN
1941-4188
Pages
p. 20
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Ceased Publication
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