Debunking the bunk that is Canadian history
People & Places

Debunking the bunk that is Canadian history

POLITICS CHATTER: Contributing editor Mark Bourrie encourages all to ditch the Canadian history test (and read this post instead)

It doesn't look good: King George V of Britain (1865-1936) watching the Battle of Pozieres, which took place during the middle stages of the Battle of the Somme — through a telescope.

This is the time of year that we’re nagged about our ignerence of our own country’s history, when newspapers try to make us feel guilty about we don’t know about Canada.

For the rest of the year, the country’s newspapers show their own ignorance of the country’s history by running story after story filled with inaccuracies and over-simplifications.

When history finds its way into the news, we read that Sir John A. Macdonald was a barely-functioning drunk. Canadians won the War of 1812, and among our great military exploits were the capture of Washington and the burning of the White House.

William Lyon Mackenzie King was a barely-functioning head case who relied on the ghosts of his mother and his dogs for advice. Louis Riel was a saint, who, like Joan of Arc, was guided by “visions.” Pierre Trudeau was a saint who gave us our rights.

The head of the Dominion Institute, which nags us every Canada Day with stories about our ignorance of Canadian history, wrote a column last year saying Quebec terrorists killed British trade commissioner James Cross in 1970. That probably came as troubling news to Mr. Cross, if he still reads the Canadian media online while drinking his morning tea.

Henry Ford, a man who has had his own recent troubles with historians, once said: “History is bunk.” At least, that’s how it was reported in an age when the word “bullshit” was translated into “bunk” for family audiences.

History is a dangerous thing in the hands of people who want to use it to grind an axe or make a buck, but otherwise don’t care about the past.

Take the Battle of the Somme, which began on July 1, 1916. This Canada Day was the 95th anniversary — hardly a round number, but still worth a press release or two.

“Today’s commemorative ceremony at the Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial is a pledge to our continued remembrance of all Newfoundlanders who fought and lost their lives in the Great War,” said Steven Blaney, Minister of Veterans Affairs, said in a press release last week. “They served with conviction, with pride, and with compassion. These remarkable heroes are the reason we remember.”

Indeed. Here’s what really happened: after nearly two years of using the same worthless and stupid tactics to try to break the German trench lines in northern France and Belgium, the Colonel Blimps, who commanded the British army, decided to really let the Huns have it. They amassed a huge army in the lower Somme Valley, in the north-western corner of France. Then they telegraphed their punch with a huge artillery barrage. The Germans, knowing where the attack was coming, set up their machine guns accordingly.

In those days, men from the same towns, the same colleges, even the same factories, were kept together in fighting units. That helped the troops fight off homesickness, but all it took was the flick of the wrist of a German machine gunner to make every young woman in a small town in England a widow.

Though it’s Newfoundlanders who are associated with the battle, Canadians did fight at the Somme, more than  two months after the start of the battle. On the first day, 57,470 British soldiers were hit by machine gun fire, rifle bullets, or artillery shells. Some 19,240 of these men died.

And 733 of 801 men in the 1st Newfoundland Regiment were killed or wounded. In less than half an hour, the work of three or four German machine gunners literally changed the demographics of Newfoundland and left village after village along the coast filled with widows and orphans.

The battle lasted another four and a half months and cost more than 600,000 Allied casualties.

“They served with conviction, with pride, and with compassion.”

Really? Or were their lives thrown away by generals who had no compassion whatever? Are these men “heroes” or victims?

We’ll see much more of this as the years go by. Next year, the government will start the commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, spending a lot of money to convince us that this was “Canada’s War of Independence,” a phrase that makes most Canadian historians roll their eyes.

But we still won’t hear about so much of Canadian history. No politician will issue a release commemorating the rigged federal election in 1917 or that the country’s generals blackmailed the government into imposing the draft by threatening to resign en masse in the last months of the Second World War.

We won’t hear that the bloodiest war on the Canadian mainland took place in southern Ontario between 1648 and 1651 when the Five Nations of the Iroquois embarked on a campaign of genocide against the tribes north of the Great Lakes.

If you’re curious about other parts of your country, you’ll have a real challenge. There’s one half-decent book on the history of Prince Edward Island, which is one more than there is on the provinces of Ontario, New Brunswick, and Quebec.

Politicians and most historians will continue to stay away from the great farmers’ revolts: the sometimes violent destruction of the huge estates owned by absentee landowners in P.E.I. by rack-rented farmers; the take-over of provincial governments in Ontario, Alberta and Manitoba by farmers’ regimes in the 1920s.

You want to read about the co-operative movements on the prairies or the development of the country’s resources, including the mines of the Canadian Shield and the oil fields of Alberta? Good luck with that.

We don’t hear any local history – of the great characters who created BC, built Toronto, developed the country’s financial markets, found the great gold fields, ran the timber trade in Ottawa. There isn’t a single good history of any of Canada’s cities published in the past 40 years.

There’s isn’t one good history of Canada’s media. No history of the Parliamentary Press Gallery at all. No book on the government’s massive propaganda campaign in the Second World War.

No objective bios of Pierre Trudeau, Brian Mulroney, John Diefenbaker. As for the less famous prime ministers, you’re pretty much out of luck.

So don’t feel guilty if you couldn’t pass the silly Canadian history trivia tests that ran in most of the country’s newspapers last week. A lot of people in governments, universities, and publishing companies make good salaries working with Canadian history every day don’t care much about it, either.