Thursday, April 20, 2017

CBC talks Canadian history, and somebody noticed

The CBC is in trouble again, but not due to a funding crisis. In honour of Canada’s 150th birthday, the national broadcaster is airing a new history of the country called “Canada: The Story of Us.” Each episode​ uses key historical​ figures (many who have received little public attention) to retell Canada’s history while relating it to themes central to Canadian identity, such as hardiness, courage or diversity. By breaking away from a rigid chronology and choosing a more thematic approach, the series is remarkably complex and allows for a more academic concept of history to be given a more public audience.

So far so good. Each hour also features commentary from historians and prominent Canadian figures (politicians, actors, activists and so forth) talking about how the history relates to identity. Herein lies the problem. The CBC has received significant complaints from Quebec and the Maritimes surrounding a lack of diversity in the selection of stories. Quebec has complained that there is a lack of content on New France, while the Maritimes charge that the Mi'kmaq and early British settlements are forgotten.

Four episodes in, some of these allegations are true. Eastern Canada​ features very little, other than a link to privateers making Halifax a vital port during the War of 1812 and beyond. The Mi'kmaq do not feature at all. On the other hand, French Canadians were the focus of most of the first episode. My personal pet peeve has been why the CBC couldn’t find a fluently bilingual narrator, an oversight which leaves some French names comically Anglicized. I also found the discussion of the alliance between Brock and Tecumseh to be fleeting. Apparently they both died and faded away into obscurity.

There is no doubt that a history of Canada is an ambitious undertaking, especially when it is done so infrequently. In order to condense the narrative, a selective presentation is necessary. Academic history does this all the time, but it is also speaking to an audience the author can assume had a solid grounding in the context of the topic. When the audience isn’t so familiar, things get difficult.

I don’t agree with many of J.L. Granatstein's arguments, but I do agree that history curricula in Canada and the public’s knowledge of even the most fundamental facts in Canadian history are both dangerously inadequate. That the CBC undertook to provide a new history is commendable (the broadcaster will also add two new episodes to its epic "Canada: A People’s History" series to bring the story up to date), but I question whether it has the clout to make its voice heard. Outside of hockey and the national news, their programming rarely enters the top 20 TV ratings.

Still, I applaud the show. Never have women and indigenous people featured so prominently in a popular history of Canada. As we begin to digest the truth and reconciliation committee's report, we need a much better understanding of how we got to where we are so that we don’t make the same mistakes again.

I also applaud the criticisms. By unpacking the content of the show, people have begun a conversation about what Canadian history is. This can only be a good thing.