By Michael Asiffo
Not many people know about Canadian Confederation, including Canadians. There is a growing concern that Canadian history is being lost on Canadians for many reasons.
In this VIBE TALKS interview, Correspondent Michael Asiffo speaks with Dr. Ron Stagg – Professor of Canadian history, Ryerson University about this development.
Michael: Canada is often considered a cultural mosaic, and what that means is that many different cultures come into Canada. But I think with that, a loss of Canadian history happens, where people are not very aware of Canadian history. Do you agree or disagree with that kind of concept?
Dr. Ron: It's a good deal of truth to it. Part of the problem is, the way that history is often presented in the schools, particularly in secondary schools. It’s kind of boring and people get turned off by that. As well, people who did not go through the school system are not exposed to Canadian history. Generally speaking, there's a lot more to be said about Canadian history than most people know.
Michael: Can you give us an example of that? Because you mentioned off the top that it’s boring, but there are aspects of Canadian history that are interesting.
Dr. Ron: Interesting in various ways. Some interesting because they're exciting, some interesting because they're funny, some interesting because they're unpleasant. A good example to start off is John A. MacDonald, our first Prime Minister.
A man of great accomplishments and that's often what you hear in the schools. He's the man who basically put four small colonies together into a country, and within six years it spread the country across what is now Canada. He was the one behind building a railway to unite the whole country at a time when the Americans, with ten times the population, couldn't put one together because they would go bankrupt. It was quite amazing. He also put in place an economic system, a protective tariff, that lasted for a hundred years and built up Canada. On the other hand, he's a man who ultimately is responsible for the residential schools, which are so much in the news of late. Very unpleasant thing, which ruined the lives of many, many Indigenous people over that period of the 20th century. On top of that, what’s often not talked about is that he was a drunk. He was a binge drinker, and he would disappear for weeks at a time. He's known to have taken a glass of gin into Parliament, at times when he was drinking, because it looked like water. There's a famous story about him being out on the hustings during the election, when he and his competitors were on the platform, and as he stood up to speak he threw up and he immediately took out his handkerchief, wiped his mouth and turned to the crowd and said: “Ladies and gentlemen, look what my opponent does to me.”
Michael: That is an interesting story and it's something that you don't really hear about. You kind of hear Sir John A. MacDonald, the first prime minister and that's it. So why is it that these prime ministers and moments in history kind of get glossed over in our school system?
Dr. Ron: It’s because of the way official histories have been written. We're getting away from that slowly, but its glorifying things by only talking about the good things, and it makes history sound like it's sort of an upward trend. This has been the way history has been done. Individuals may do it differently, but basically the standard line is we're advancing, we're doing these things, and here are the people who helped us advance.
Michael: There's also another thing you mentioned there, and that was the other aspect to that. The residential schools and the mistreatment of Indigenous people. You probably get this a lot, but this is another thing that isn’t talked about in schools, and in your opinion should it be talked about more in the schools?
Dr. Ron: Well, I think you're going to find that it will be talked about more. It's become such an important issue that school boards and departments of education and so on, are going to be bringing this into education to make people aware that there is this unsavory side to the development of Canada. It's basically, again, the old story was history and was written by the winners and the people who are not winners don't get talked about. So Indigenous people for many years were seen as sort of outside the norm, and they weren't talked about very much. But since this issue of the residential schools has really brought this whole question of Indigenous culture, Indigenous way of life and what has happened to Indigenous people since the Europeans came, that's very much more on people's minds. So you're certainly going to hear more about it now.
Michael: Let's go to your film side here. One of my favorite American history films, for better or for worse, back in the day was The Patriot because it was cool. Mel Gibson was running around and he had the musket and the Tomahawk and it was fun. So I was having a conversation with a friend of mine, and we were talking about The Patriot, and he said: “Wouldn’t that be cool if we had a Canadian movie like that.” And I guess two part (question) here: one, do we kind of have an aspect of that kind of sensationalism in our Canadian history and (two), why aren’t more stories around the time of Confederation put on the big screen for Canada?
Dr. Ron: Well, that involves a number of things. First of all, The Patriot is a terrible film from a historian point of view. But that's what people do when they make movies. They tried at one time to make a movie about the Riel rebellion of 1885. Riel, who is considered to be a 19th century villain because he went against a majority, is now very much considered to be a hero by many people. They tried to make a film about that, and it just didn't work. Historical films on a grander scale cost a lot, and it's hard to get money in Canada for a big feature unless it's American money, making an American film. You know a lot of the films made here now are basically financed from the United States. So the films that we have tend to be on a smaller scale, but that doesn't mean that they're worse by any means. They just don't have the money to put into these large scale extravaganzas, I guess I'd call it.
Michael: Is that just due to just socio-economics of both countries?
Dr. Ron: That and the fact that the American film industry has grown to be such a large industry. It really has a dominating effect. If you wanted to raise money, a lot of the money is in the States, but it's going to finance American films. You can get money to finance smaller films, and sometimes they are joint productions with Britain or France. They can do these things, but it's very hard to get a lot of money. And you also have to get a story that will sell internationally, and people worry that Canadian stories won’t sell in the American market. It's a very complex situation, until less than 50 years ago there really wasn’t a Canadian film industry, and it was very small for a long time. If you wanted to work you went to the U.S., and that's where the jobs were. So it's relatively new and it is expanding but still, they say to get the money for these big features to tell grander stories about Canadian history, it’s difficult.
Michael: Earlier in the interview you talked about the way we talk about history slowly changing, but that's for the students in school who grew up learning Canadian history. However, there immigrants who come here and they are accepted into Canada, but in the process of that I do find that a lot of times Canadian history kind of gets lost on them. Do you know of ways that we as a people can kind of learn about Canadian history?
Dr. Ron: It's a difficult thing. The best way is that we have a government paid for network, the CBC, and the CBC puts out material to tell people about Canadian history. In fact a few years ago, they put out a History of Canada, in a number of parts, and it was very popular on television then.
The whole point of that was to show people a) that it was interesting and b) what had actually happened; and so the CBC could do more. They've been a little pressed for money in the recent years, but it looks like they're going to get a little bit more put back into the pot, and the hope is that they will develop some of these fun educational things. I mean it's got to be interesting, it has got to be like the story of John A. MacDonald. It's got to have interesting aspects to catch people's attention, and that's one of the ways. Immigrants often want to know about our history by the way. My introductory Canadian courses at Ryerson University often have a large number of first or second generation students in Canada, and they really want to know about it. More so perhaps people whose families have been here for a while.
Michael: Where can people go for more information about Canadian history?
Dr. Ron: For Canadian history, a good source is the National Film Board of Canada. They have kept most of their materials, if not all of their materials. A fair bit of it is actually online, so you can look at things online and at the office. CBC also has an archive, and some of that stuff is online as well. You have to do some digging, but there are places where you can find this information.
For more information on Canadian history visit National Film Board of Canada.