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Party Boat, 2011, from Sarah Anne Johnson's "Arctic Wonderland" series.

Party Boat, 2011, from Sarah Anne Johnson’s “Arctic Wonderland” series.

(For the introduction to this series on national narratives click here.)

Last year an archaeological discovery was announced from the northernmost region of the world, one that could change the way we think about history – and it all started with a yarn. Continue Reading »

Henry Sandham's "The Coming of the Loyalists" (1910) reveals a romanticized conception of Canadian history common in his day.

Henry Sandham’s “The Coming of the Loyalists” (1910) reveals a romanticized conception of Canadian history that was common in his day.

(For the introduction to this series on national narratives click here.)

It’s the 4th of July. The skies of America are lit up by a bouquet of colours as fireworks announce another year of that country’s independence from Britain. With the Stars & Stripes on full display, crowds waft between watermelon picnics and baseball games, stopping now and then to listen to a marching band play “Yankee Doodle.” Magically, amidst all its political gaffs and global blunders, the sentimental face of the “Home of the Brave” reveals itself with an unabashed blend of pride and kitsch. It gets to you.

Just a little ways North of the border in a dingy but well-loved campus bar in Halifax, Nova Scotia an altogether different sort of celebration is taking place. Instead of the Stars & Stripes, you find the old “loyalist” flag of Britain tacked to the wall, while in some place of prominence – in front of an old speaker, perhaps – an image of Canada’s reigning monarch, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, smiles down upon the revelries as undergraduates hoist their drinks in the air and stumble their way the lyrics to “God Save the Queen.” Continue Reading »

"The Impending Nisga'a' Deal. Last Stand. Chump Change" (1996). Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun.

“The Impending Nisga’a’ Deal. Last Stand. Chump Change” (1996). Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun.

(For the introduction to this series on national narratives click here.)

It is a breezy July morning, and a group of weary men are trudging their way up a sloping hill. In their midst they carry a 10-metre long plank of wood. A smaller beam has been nailed perpendicularly to the plank’s upper third to form a cross, the symbol of their God.

The men are nearing the end of what had been a long and difficult voyage along the shores of this strange, new continent. Their captain, Jacques Cartier, led them here in search of a waterway that would lead to the riches of the Orient. That discovery, however, would have to wait. Finding only false starts and dead ends, Cartier and his crew have at last decided to turn return home, and all preparations are in order for the perilous journey back across the Atlantic. No doubt looking forward to their return, it is easy to imagine the minds of Cartier’s men on the sights and smells of their home ports as they work through this final task: the raising of a cross on the banks of a great bay. Continue Reading »

Detail from BC artist Jin-Me Yoon's "A Group of Sixty-Seven."

Detail from BC artist Jin-Me Yoon’s “A Group of Sixty-Seven,” 1996.

Last year, Canadian cinephiles were treated to a wonderfully curious documentary in Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell. Moved to uncover her own family’s murky history, Polley sets about interviewing close friends, old acquaintances, and key players in order to dig into the rich strata of her past. The film’s brilliance arises from a peculiar curatorial decision on the director’s behalf: rather than sort through the often conflicting stories of her interviewees to find a narrative that most closely approximates “fact,” Polley chooses to let each story speak for itself amidst the voices of the others, thereby allowing each perspective to take a shape of its own. Though the juxtaposition of these would-be narratives, Stories We Tell rises far above a typical family drama to say something truly profound about the stories from which truth, like a mirage, appears to emerge.

The stories we tell help define and give meaning to every aspect of our lives, from personal relationships – as Stories We Tell so deftly illustrates – to the places we inhabit. Long before the first Europeans arrived in the land now commonly referred to as Canada, the original inhabitants of the country had fostered a great number of rich story telling traditions as a way of understanding and being in this place, and you can bet that new stories were fostered and cultivated from the moment that Leif Ericsson laid his Viking eyes on the vast forests of Newfoundland. In the many centuries since that fateful encounter, historians, artists and politicians alike have spent a great deal of time and energy try to pin down the elusive nature of this country. It would seem that Canada is ever in question, and has been so since well before there was a “Canada” to speak of. Continue Reading »

When I began this blog last October, I little idea of what I was getting myself into. The amount of online content out there is simply staggering. No matter what you have to say somebody has probably already said it, faster and more eloquently than you could ever hope. As such, I don’t know if I could tell you exactly how I came to the decision that starting this blog would be a desirable use of anyone’s time.

And yet, and yet… Continue Reading »

The Hon. James Moore, talking about... something.

The Hon. James Moore, talking about… something.

As plans for the Canadian Museum of History continue to ramp up, I find myself wondering exactly whose Canada will be presented behind the glass displays of our new national museum. Our current government has taken a peculiar interest in Canadian history and national narratives – most notably, in the 1812 Bicentennial celebrations, and, now, in their unfolding plans for Canada’s 150th anniversary in 2017.

If you have been following this blog for a while, you will know that one of my motivations in writing it is my belief that talking about our history is important. The way we perceive the past influences the decisions we make in the present. That old adage rings true, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

There is no doubt that the Harper government’s policies have gotten Canadians talking about the past. Who beforehand had even heard of the War of 1812? The question that lingers in my mind is what histories are we still not talking about, and how do they inform our present actions? Continue Reading »

(For the first in this series on great French Canadian music, click here.)

There is an ongoing trope running through popular Canadian history that ours is a divided nation. According to the myth of the “two solitudes,” French and English Canada, Quebec and the ROC, are doomed to spend eternity in the miserable company of the other, unwilling to speak, unable to get along.

Well that is a load of malarkey. Show a colonist a country with over sixty indigenous languages, and he’ll spend the next four centuries fretting about two European ones. Typical.

It must be said, however, that sometimes our linguistic differences get the best of us. I’m not prepared to say that’s at all unique to Canada, but it does have its downsides, and one of them is the lack of musical exchange between the different languages. This is a loss for listeners, of course, but it is more unfortunate for those musicians – French, English, and otherwise – who lose would-be fans and audiences. Continue Reading »

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