Ian McKay on “The Empire Strikes Back” and Canadian Historiography

31 03 2011

Ian McKay, professor of history at Queen’s University, recently delivered an engaging and provocative talk titled “The Empire Strikes Back: Militarism, Imperial Nostalgia, and the Right-Wing Reconceptualization of Canada”.  McKay’s talk was the keynote address of the 15th annual New Frontiers Graduate History Conference at York University.

The talk is available here for audio download.

McKay argues that there has been in an attempt in the last few years by right-wing historians in English-speaking Canada develop a new narrative of Canadian history to counter the previously hegemonic left-liberal interpretation of Canadian history. The left-liberal narrative celebrates such things as the growth of Canadian independence from Britain, the development of multiculturalism in Canada, the advent of socialized medicine,  Canada’s efforts to remain separate from the United States, accommodation between French- and English-speakers, and Pearsonian peacekeeping.

The new conservative narrative discussed by McKay pines for the old days of the British Empire, is tinctured by monarchism, and has a celebratory attitude towards Canadian participation in imperial conflicts such as the First World War.  Some of its proponents are hostile to multiculturalism, although others argue (in my view correctly) that multiculturalism is part of Canada’s legacy from the British Empire.

I share McKay’s dislike of the neo-conservative narrative of Canadian history. However, I’m not certain that it has a lot of traction with ordinary Canadians, certainly not with the younger generation. I find that many Canadian undergraduates find the most visible institutions left over from the old British Empire, (e.g., the Governor-General) to be funny rather than either  awe-inspiring or offensive.  Many immigrants think it is hilarious that Canada requires them to swear allegiance to the head of state of another country as a condition of citizenship. This aspect of the citizenship ceremony makes it hard for immigrants to take Canada seriously as “real country”.

I suspect that the neo-conservative interpretation discussed by McKay will remain an unpopular paradigm for the simple reason that it is fixated on symbols that many Canadians regard as risible. I really don’t think that there is much of an appetite for people to re-fight the 1964 flag debate.