Slouching Toward Abraham
After over a century of theory on the historical discipline, it seems people like John Macfarlane still believe Canadian history is about learning the narrative of our great nation by heart (“Editor’s Note,” September). In truth, there is no single, absolute Canadian narrative based on a chronological alignment of facts. The nature of historical work, and the central purpose of learning history, is to understand human agency in constructing the meaning of our lives and our collective experiences. Memorizing facts, like those Macfarlane cited in his editorial, is useful not for understanding the world we live in, but for succeeding at Jeopardy! or Trivial Pursuit.
Nation-building moments need to be studied in context, through the eyes of all actors—those who had the power to make them happen, those who resisted, those who had to adapt to their consequences—and through the rigorous analysis of sources and the interests of their authors. What is important, then, is not the date of Confederation but the conditions under which it was achieved. For the Metis nation, Confederation meant the beginning of systematic persecution involving the mounted police, just as the colonization of the St. Lawrence River by the French meant, for the First Nations, the violent restructuring of their way of life, the loss of their land, and even death. Commemoration shares characteristics with propaganda: it serves the interests of the culture that came to dominate.
To be clear, we’re not saying people shouldn’t have heroes or celebrate national achievements. We’re saying we should re-evaluate our definition of a “great Canadian moment.” Wouldn’t we be better off celebrating our diversity—the events that were important in building our capacity to live together as a nation?
How could one not endorse John Macfarlane’s remarks about the state of Canadian history education? To avoid teaching lessons that might cause offence is to allow political correctness to suppress historical facts. But while his editorial was an appropriate response to the cancellation of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham re-enactment in Quebec, the September issue, which included Helen Humphreys’ literary recreation of the engagement, failed to provide more than a sotto voce critique of this matter. Nowhere did The Walrus address cogently the question of why, 250 years after the fact, the battle was too controversial to stage as outdoor theatre.
Sections of the Quebec francophone community, too often placated by vote-hungry federalists, are persistent in their unwillingness to face history. September 13, 1759, was less a great victory for the British than it was a single day in a succession of well-known French missteps. And British Canada began long before the Battle of the Plains of Abraham. In 1666, Radisson and Des Groseilliers, having failed to secure French backing for their fur business, offered it to the British, who turned it into the Hudson’s Bay Company. In 1713, by the Treaty of Utrecht, France abandoned all claim to the business’s territories—a substantial part of Canada’s future geography.
In any case, Wolfe’s victory benefited French Canada. It was freed from the grasp of François Bigot, leader of one of the most corrupt colonial regimes in North America. The French kept their language, while the Quebec Act of 1774 and subsequent legislation preserved French civil law and assured freedom of worship, guaranteeing rights that would soon be lost in France due to the anti-clericalism fomented by the revolution. And Quebec went on to furnish federal Canada with notable leaders, men whose intellectual development wasn’t stunted by sensitivity to perceived Anglo domination.
Moreover, eighteenth-century British conquest didn’t end Roman Catholicism’s dominance in French Canada; Quebec’s twentieth-century modernization did. As it happened, the greatest reversal of civil rights in that province took place in 1974, more than 200 years after the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, with the enactment of Bill 22. Ironically, this legislation denied language rights to the province’s anglophones, privileges that their conquering ancestors prudently allowed the francophones. The initial enforcement of language laws was as rigid as any fiats of the Roman Catholic Church at the height of its power.
Walrus readers would benefit from more, not fewer, history lessons that offer perspective on the Canada of today. Next summer, how about sponsoring a re-enactment of the Battle of Sainte-Foy in 1760? It occurred less than a year after the Wolfe–Montcalm clash, on virtually the same ground, and it was a similarly decisive battle in settling North America’s future. This time the French were the attackers outside the city walls, and it was a bloodier affair, with almost 2,000 casualties and plenty of artillery fire. Hopefully, in this case, no one would object.
I was dismayed by Patricia Pearson’s “Ghetto Affect” (September), in which the focus is on Jason Ramsay’s provision of cognitive behavioral therapy services in Regent Park and not on the broader social issues faced by residents. By emphasizing individual psychology, the article fails to name explicitly social determinants such as racism, poverty, and sexism as factors limiting access to mental health care. Without sufficient attention to the discrimination clients face, CBT can only offer individualistic interventions, and this approach is likely to perpetuate racist stereotypes and do little to correct the unequal distribution of wealth in our society.
Ryerson University, School of Social Work
The French Connection
Although it’s not often acknowledged, New England Franco-Americans have a lively interest in Jack Kerouac (“Jean-Louis Kerouac,” September). He was no “Beauceron.” His ancestry can be traced to Kamouraska, one of the venerable old counties on the south bank of the St. Lawrence, and he was a first-generation Franco-American. As an “FA” myself, I find it hard to understand Kerouac as anything but. I sometimes get into arguments about his literary legacy, because people do not understand how much he resembles Quebec novelists like Marie-Claire Blais—more magic realist than beatnik. His prose isn’t so much about drug-addled bohemianism as it is the surreal perspective of a man who experiences his world out of time, out of place, and out of the cultural context in which he is comfortable expressing himself. The prose-tone poem appended to his novel Big Sur, for instance, resembles the comic songs of Old Quebec. I think his best works are his most franco-cultural novels, Visions of Gerard and Vanity of Duluoz. But who reads those?
David Vermette (online)
Karsten Petrat provided the illustration for “Connected to the Hip Bone” (September), not Neil Doshi as was stated. The Walrus deeply regrets the error.
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Raymond Biesinger has drawn for The Economist, GQ, and New Scientist.