- Settling and Unsettling Memories: Essays in Canadian Public History ed. by Nicole Neatby and Peter Hodgins
This important collection maps the rapidly expanding field of collective memory in Canada, presenting a sampling of articles that usefully balances older pioneering studies by established practitioners with more recent work by emerging scholars. The editors have produced [End Page 104] an exemplary volume that demonstrates the remarkable scope and depth of English-Canadian contributions to memory studies since the 1990s.
The editors provide a brief but useful introduction, sketching the main conceptual frameworks and theoretical approaches that have been applied to the study of collective memory over the last century, from the French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs, who first coined the term in the 1920s, to the historian Pierre Nora, whose monumental compendium on the lieux de mémoires of France helped to launch the memory boom of recent decades. The editors include brief but illuminating discussions of the contested, multivocal nature of collective memory; the ways in which memory is constructed in response to the needs and agendas of the present; the increasingly blurred and problematic relationship between memory and history; and the symbiotic relationship between memory and forgetting, among other crucial issues. I could not help thinking that the usefulness of the introduction as a primer would be enhanced if some of these themes were addressed more fully. However, an extensive (though far from comprehensive) bibliography of Canadian and international work provides the interested reader with ample resources for further study.
The editors acknowledge the contributions of Québécois historians to the field of Canadian collective memory since the 1980s but have chosen to confine themselves to works originally published in English. A number of chapters address issues of French-Canadian memory and identity, but in an ideal world, a collection on Canadian memory and historical consciousness would also include key works by francophone scholars in French or translated from French, if only to allow for the possibility of intellectual cross-fertilization. Another decision – to include only complete articles rather than excerpts from book-length studies – means the omission of important work such as Vance’s acclaimed study of Canada’s mythologized memory of the Great War or Gordon’s book on the politics of commemoration in early twentieth-century Montreal.
Unsurprisingly, for the majority of contributors the main locus of memory and identity is the nation. A long line of eminent social theorists, from Emile Durkheim to Benedict Anderson, have argued that an official consensus on what happened in the past is a prerequisite for holding together the fragmented, stratified “imagined community” of the modern nation in the face of the centrifugal pull of region, class, religion, and other alternative sources of allegiance and identity. But these unitary “collective representations” (the phrase is Durkheim’s) are neither arbitrary nor ideologically neutral. They are [End Page 105] designed to legitimize the nation-state and the social, economic, and political status quo. Their objective truth is secondary to their political utility.
As a result, two main approaches have characterized the study of these narratives of nationhood, both of which are represented in this volume. The first and most common approach looks at the construction and dissemination of hegemonic national narratives from above and is concerned primarily with unmasking their falsehoods, distortions, and silences. Notable examples include Timothy Stanley’s critical dissection of the well-known “Heritage Minute” celebrating the role of Chinese labour in the construction of the cpr, and Eva Mackey’s analysis of the way in which museums, despite their newfound commitment to collaborative curatorial practices, continue to deny the autonomy of First Nations as historical subjects by selectively appropriating Aboriginal memories for the construction of Eurocentric national narratives.
The second, arguably more challenging approach focuses on the ways in which subaltern groups – Native people, racial and ethnic minorities – respond to attempts to inculcate an official unitary collective memory. In some cases they assert their own alternative versions of the past in order to advance their claims to recognition, equality, and...