Discover Canada Errors

13 11 2009

I’m posting some quick thoughts about the Discover Canada handbook.

I was struck by the fact the authors of this pamphlet decided to focus on abstract rather than practical knowledge about life in Canada. The citizenship test and pamphlet in the UK assesses knowledge of historical facts and political institutions, but it also tests practical knowledge, such as the emergency number or how to pay a gas bill.  In contrast, the Discover Canada document betrays the ivory tower origins of the people who worked on it.

I respect the academics who worked on this document, including Jack Granatstein, Margaret MacMillan of St Antony’s College Oxford, and fellow WordPress blogger Janet Ajzenstat. I like the life of the mind, but I’m also down to earth.I pride myself on my ability to socialize with people in a wide variety of occupations and do an ever-growing number of practical things with my hands. I’d like to think I’m a better academic for stepping outside the ivory tower every now and then.

I say this to explain why I am so appalled by certain parts of this document. This document suggests that it was written by people who are totally out of touch with modern-day Canadian popular and political culture. It’s a document for people who meet Prince Charles more frequently than they pump their own gas.

I listed the consultants on this document in an earlier post. They include a variety of academics, a former governor-general, a retired army officer, the spouse of a former governor-general, civil servants who work for Rideau Hall and other individuals drawn from the elite of various branches of the public sector. I don’t think any people who have had careers in the private sector (net taxpayers) were consulted. The consultants are mostly people who live and work in Ottawa or who have lived there in the past.

This document’s version of Canada is distorted by the Ottawa-centric and anglophile biases of its creators. Among other things, Discover Canada is dripping with the colonial cringe and monarchism so typically of upper-middle class “intellectual” Canadians. The document is replete with references to the Queen and Canada’s British heritage, etc. One feels tempted to pronounce the word tomato tomAHto just reading it. The ghost of Vincent Massey stalks the land.

It would have been nice had the document been vetted by a randomly-selected group of Canadian adults. The result would probably have been a much greater emphasis on practical knowledge. The document would have been less politically correct. In fact, maybe we should investigate using a Wikipedia-type process to write a real guide for new citizens. A more widely distributed process would be best way of coming up with a statement of consensus values in modern-day Canada.

Section 1. Inaccuracies in the History Section (Non-Exhaustive List):

“Cartier heard two captured guides speak the Iroquoian word kanata, meaning “village.” By the 1550s, the name of Canada began appearing on maps.”

This is misleading because it presents a disputed theory as fact.

“At the time of Confederation, the vote was limited to property-owning adult white males.”

Simply not true at all. Newfoundland had manhood suffrage—there was no property qualification. Moreover, the last provincial election in Nova Scotia before Confederation was also on the basis of manhood suffrage: all male British subjects over 21 were allowed to vote, regardless of their wealth or property.  No statute in British North America prohibited Blacks from voting provided they fulfilled the other criteria. Natives near Brantford Ontario voted in federal elections until the 1890s.  The Chinese were disenfranchised well after Confederation.

“The “Roaring Twenties” were boom times, with prosperity for businesses and low unemployment.”

True in the US, not really true in Canada. Sadly Canada experienced in the prosperity of the United States in the 1920s to a very limited extent.  The 1920s were tough for Canada because of the many barriers to cross-border trade, even before Smoot-Hawley kicked in.

Important Omissions from the History Section (Elephant in the Room Department):

There is no mention of the two conscription crises, or the fact the Great War set Quebec at odds with English-speaking Canada.

There is nothing here about gay history and the dramatic transformation of Canadian attitudes to homosexuality over the course of the 20th century. This is something I talk a bit about in the first-year Cdn history survey course. This is an important bit of our history for immigrants to know, especially those who come from non-Western countries (the vast majority nowadays).

Section 2. Questionable historical interpretations in the document.
“Canadian television has had a popular following.”

That’s not what the ratings say. Maybe this was true in 1955, when CBC was the only channel available in most of Canada. Maybe the guy who wrote Discover Canada doesn’t have cable.

“Canadian society today stems largely from the English-speaking and French-speaking Christian civilizations that were brought here from Europe by settlers.”

This is really debatable. Canada is more of a Western country than a Christian one. (Serbia and Ethiopia are parts of Christendom, but they aren’t part of Western civilization). It is more accurate to say that our civilization, based as it on railways and jet aircraft and so forth, is an outgrowth of the Enlightenment.
“The great majority of Canadians identify as Christians. The largest religious affiliation is Roman Catholic, followed by various Protestant churches.”

Yeah, for census purposes. But immigrants should be informed that this is now a predominantly secular country. They need this fact to understand the society in which they are living. The authors of the document have ignored our history, or at least a major theme in Canada’s 20th century history (secularization).

“Most Canadians were proud to be part of the British Empire.”

Debatable, since Gallup polls didn’t start in Canada until 1940. It would be more accurate to say that the political class, including MPs and newspaper writers, were strongly pro-British. The generally low enlistment rates in the First World War in small-town English-speaking Canada suggests that the average Canadian farmer was a North American who didn’t give a crap about the British Empire except insofar as it influenced the price of wheat.

Section 4. Comments on the Non-Historical Sections of the Discover Canada document.

1) Sports

“Canadian football is the second most popular sport. Curling, an ice game introduced by Scottish pioneers, is popular. Lacrosse, an ancient sport first played by Aboriginals, is the official summer sport. Soccer has the most registered players of any game in Canada.”
By which statistical measure is “Canadian football” the second most popular sport in Canada? No way! The authors of this section must have been on crack appear to have grown out of touch with Canadian culture in the decades since the advent of cable TV. Most young Canadians are unaware of the existence of the CFL. If they watch football at all, they watch the NFL or U.S. college football—or Toronto FC. Few of my students would be able to name three CFL teams, but they could all name a dozen NFL or professional baseball teams based in the US.

2) One of the defining things about Canada is that it is automobile-based society. This fundamental fact about Canada goes unmentioned here. Outside of the CBDs of the largest cities, one must have a car and driver’s licence to be a fully functioning member of society. The centrality of the car to Canadian life should have been stressed in Discover Canada, perhaps with a sentence reading “In Canada, it is expected that all able-bodied men and women will know how to drive a car”. Too many immigrant women are trapped in their homes because they don’t drive.
3) My major disappointment with this document is that the authors chickened out and refused to deal with the issues of arranged marriage and inter-ethnic marriage, a big issue for 2nd generation immigrants.  To be fair to its creators, the document did contain the following statement regarding gender equality:

“In Canada, men and women are equal under the law. Canada’s openness and generosity do not extend to barbaric cultural practices that tolerate spousal abuse, “honour killings,” female genital mutilation, or other gender-based violence. Those guilty of these crimes are severely punished under Canada’s criminal laws.”

Criticizing spousal abuse is relatively uncontroversial. As someone who has heard immigrants from backward cultures say truly appalling things, I would have liked the document to have gone further. Perhaps it should have included a statement about contemporary Canadian sexual mores:

“In Canada, most people meet their life partners through a process called ‘dating’.  Parents are expected to respect the romantic choices of their adult children. Because you are now living in a modern society, it is probable that your children will marry someone of a different ethnicity and religion. Intermarriage had been an important theme in Canadian history for centuries, which is why many Canadians are of some sort of mixed ancestry. Modern Canadian society does not attach a positive value to female virginity or having an intact hymen. Virginity at marriage is nowadays regarded as, at best, neutral. It is normal for both men and women to have had a variety of sexual partners before marriage. In Canadian society, homosexual children are increasingly accepted by their parents. If this makes your uncomfortable, you may wish to leave Canada. P.S., if your daughter doesn’t want to wear a headscarf, you shouldn’t make her.”

Now that would be a “muscular” citizenship guide. This guide is anaemic and, in its own way, far too politically correct.

Christopher Moore has more on this. Historian Jerry Bannister also has some thoughts. For press commentary, see here, here, and here.

Debate on the Conquest of New France

10 11 2009

Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum will be hosting a debate tomorrow, 11 November, on the consequences of Battle on the Plains of Abraham. In an earlier post, I proposed inviting the descendants of Wolfe and Montcalm to this year’s Remembrance Day ceremony in Ottawa. The federal government, alas, did not act on my blog post, and invited Prince Charles instead! But I am glad that at least some people in Canada will be thinking and talking about the Plains of Abraham on Remembrace Day 2009, the 250th anniversary of the battle.

I have posted the ROM’s press release below.

“Bernard Landry versus Jack Granatstein

The impact of one of Canada’s most significant battles will be debated at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) as part of its Director’s Signature Series. The debate, between Bernard Landry and Jack Granatstein, examines whether Britain’s victory over France on the Plains of Abraham in 1759 was ultimately good for New France, its inhabitants and their descendants. The two-hour debate, moderated by ROM Director and CEO William Thorsell, will be held in the Samuel Hall Currelly Gallery on level 1 of the Museum’s Historic Wing on Wednesday November 11, 2009 beginning at 6:30 pm.


Benjamin West's Death of General Wolfe

“The topic of this debate is inspired by the ROM’s painting The Death of General Wolfe by Benjamin West. This year also marks the 250th anniversary of the Battle on the Plains of Abraham. It seems fitting to discuss the impact of these events, not only on the nation’s history, but also on current relations between French and English-Canada. It promises to be a lively debate,” says Thorsell.

In addition to the debate, General James Wolfe’s copy of Thomas Gray’s poem An Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard will be on display in the Hyacinth Gloria Chen Crystal Court on level 1 of the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal. On loan from the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, this copy of Gray’s famous poem traveled with Wolfe on his voyage from England to Canada. Wolfe is said to have referenced the poem frequently while preparing for the Battle on the Plains of Abraham. For many, Gray’s Elegy represents a direct link with a critical point in Canada’s history.

The Director’s Signature Series features renowned thinkers and intellectuals discussing topics of historical and cultural importance. In June, the series featured three provocative presentations analyzing the Ten Commandments and offering suggestions for new commandments. In this edition of the series, visitors are invited to witness what is sure to be a lively discussion about the significance of the Battle on the Plains of Abraham on French and English Canada. Desmond Morton will introduce the evening and give a historical overview and context of the battle. Admission for the debate is $22 for the general public, $20 for ROM members and $10 for students.


Bernard Landry

Bernard Landry is a Quebec lawyer, teacher and politician. He served as Premier of Quebec (2001-2003), leader of the Opposition (2003-2005) and leader of the Parti Québécois (2001-2005). In 2008 he was appointed Grand Officer of the National Order of Quebec, the highest civilian honor in Quebec.


J.L. Granatstein

Jack Granatstein is a Canadian historian who specializes in political and military history. He is the Distinguished Research Professor of History Emeritus at York University and the author of more than 60 books. In 1992 the Royal Society of Canada awarded him the J.B. Tyrrell Historical Medal and in 1997 he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada.

Desmond Morton is a historian who specializes in Canadian military history. Morton is a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and in 1996 was made an Officer of the Order of Canada. He is also the Hiram Mills professor of History at McGill University.” He published an article on the Plains of Abraham in the National Post on 10 November 2009.

Merger of the Dominion Institute and Historica

9 11 2009

The National Post recently carried a story on the merger of the Dominion Institute and Historica, two rival charities devoted to increasing public knowledge of Canadian history. Historica is well-know for its Canadian history TV PSAs. Here is an example:

The NP story explains why the organizations were separate for so long and how they were recently able to overcome their differences. The article recounts how Historica’s establishment was sparked by the publication in 1999 of historian Jack Granatstein’s book Who Killed Canadian HistoryLynton “Red” Wilson, a prominent business leader, read Professor Granastein’s book and decided to fund an organization to promote awareness of Canada’s past, Within six months of Historica’s foundation, however,  Granatstein had left its board of directors. He had come to the conclusion that the organization had been taken over by social historians. Granastein: “Historica had been taken over by the people I thought were the killers of Canadian history”. Granastein then joined the Dominion Institute, which promoted a more conservative interpretation of Canadian history. The future direction of the merged organization remains to be seen.

Seventieth Anniversary of Canada’s Declaration of War on Nazi Germany

10 09 2009

Several Canadian newspapers have covered this anniversary. See here, here, and here. Perhaps the best anniversary-related item to appear in the press today was J.L. Granatstein’s piece in the Globe and Mail.