- Canadians and Their Pasts by Margaret Conrad et al.
I offered to review this book because I assumed that I would be given some idea of what Canadians know about their history and why they know what they know. I assumed the model would be Jocelyn Letourneau’s extremely valuable studies of the collective historical memory of Quebeckers of French-Canadian heritage. In fact, this book does not really address questions of the specific historical memory of Canadians, though it does conclude that Canadians have less interest in national history than either Americans or Australians (for reasons which are not discussed). Basically the book is a sustained and somewhat repetitive statistical analysis of a general survey of 2,000 Canadians, a more specialised survey of 100 Acadians, 100 immigrants in the Peel region in Greater Toronto and 100 Aboriginal people in Saskatoon, and Parks Canada interviews of 3,419 residents [End Page 262] of five of Canada’s major urban centres. The purpose was to discover how engaged Canadians are in ‘past-related activities’. The wording here is significant for the terms ‘history and ‘the past’ were used ‘interchangeably’ and included ‘everything from the very recent past to the very distant past, from your personal history to the history of Canada and other countries’ (p. 8). This meant that anything from looking at a photograph taken yesterday of a member of your family to reading a past-related book (even a fictional one) or watching a television show or movie set in the past (fictional or not) counted as a past-related activity. Even playing video games ‘situated in historical time’ is seen as a ‘major avenue for historical consciousness’ (p. 24), a useful argument young men can make when told by their parents they are spending too much time playing video games. Given the way the question was phrased it is hardly surprising that the Collective found that Canadians are engaged in an ‘extraordinary’ number of past-related activities (p. 8). Also not surprising is that the past that most people were interested in was the history of their own family. This leads the authors to praise what they call ‘me-focused’ history as a way of linking family history with ‘larger themes in Canadian and world history’ (p. 22) and to stress the need to dissolve the boundaries between professional and amateur historians in order to democratise the study of the past. Yet the authors gloss over the fact that only a minority of those surveyed came away from their past-related activities believing that they had learned ‘a great deal’ about the past (p. 33), that the level of education of the respondent was ‘a powerful predictor of participation in past-related activities’ (p. 38), and that those who studied history at university took a more critical view of information about the past than those who were essentially antiquarian or entirely me-focused in their interests. My conclusion is that we professionals must be doing something right and that history (as I would define it) must involve something more than simply engaging in a vague past-related activity.