As a kid in Canada, every school year meant another unit on Louis Riel and another on the Hudson’s Bay Company. All of us know these stories by heart, because this is what Canadian history meant to the school board. We’d speed through our own history in a fortnight and get back to the serious business of American history and European history and the Ancient Egyptians. By the time I graduated, I could give you a play by play of each world war, complete with battle names and details. I could tell you the story of how America achieved independence and how slavery ended and at least fourteen different theories on who shot JFK. I could recite half of the Nazi party’s 25-point plan and all but memorized all forty pages of the Communist Manifesto. The Bay of Pigs, Watergate, FDR’s New Deal, all solidly lodged in my permanent memory, easily recalled for anyone who asked.
When we learned about the two world wars, we learned about them from a European perspective. Sure, there was mention of the achievements of the Canadian armed forces, but they were footnotes and afterthoughts. When we learned about the Great Depression, we learned about it from an American perspective. There aren’t many Canadian kids graduating with a good grasp on how the depression affected Canada. It just went on and on… we all grew up nearly certain Canadian history was a dull affair, too dull to even teach in school.
For many, that was it for their Canadian history education. Not many people tried to find out more. We left it behind us when we graduated, like our lockers and our gym strip. Despite the fact that I loved history and read about it as voraciously as I did the criminal justice system, it just never crossed my mind to read about Canadian history. Not unless I wanted to be bored out of my mind, anyway.
In mid-july of this year, I drove to Vancouver and stayed with my in-laws for a night. My father-in-law and I get along great, him being an atheist union negotiator and documentary filmmaker, and me being a lifer lefty, atheist and writer, we have a few interests in common. I sat up chatting the night away with him, when I made the mistake of calling the First Nations land in Canada, a reservation. My FIL launched into a passionate rant about Canadians not knowing what is Canadian.
“It’s not a reservation in Canada. It’s a reserve.” He said, lit up with frustration.
Our conversation quickly turned towards the failure of the Canadian school system to impart Canadian history and Canadian-specific knowledge to its students. When I told him I had always just assumed Canadian history was dull, he wouldn’t hear it. I was quickly given a list of things to read to prove that Canada had as interesting a history as any other country.
So, I read. In the time since I was in Vancouver, which is a matter of weeks, I’ve learned he is absolutely right. Canadian history is fascinating, with wild stories of survival, tales of police brutality that perfectly mirrors the events occurring in the U.S.A. today, images of suffering, prejudice and abuse, murder, war and rebellion. Canada, it appears, is not just that quiet, polite country sitting above America. There’s a thick, juicy history lying under this tundra and no one is teaching it to young Canadians.
I learned that the Germans attacked Canada during World War II, getting their U-boats up the St. Lawrence on several occasions and sinking 23 merchant ships, 4 Royal Canadian Navy ships and killing 340. Our armed forces kept the Germans from landing on the shores of Canada, despite their attempts to do so, and so it is recorded as a victory for Canada.
I learned that the Great Depression had a devastating impact on Canada that saw work camps popping up across the prairies – these camps were sweatshops, make no mistake, and men were cut off from all relief if they dared to leave. Hardworking Canadian citizens were held captive and forced to work for pennies an hour.
I learned that a rash of police brutality broke out at the beginning of the depression, that saw police marching on peaceful gatherings and beating attendees to a pulp. Despite many eyewitness reports and mountains of other evidence to the contrary, police and the media would refer to these events as riots, and still do.
I read that there was a cult in the gulf islands of British Columbia during the twenties and thirties, led by an English mystic named Brother xii. He amassed a ton of followers by telling them he was the reincarnation of the Egyptian god Osiris, and began to get more and more paranoid as time went by. He built up the defenses of his little island, amassing firearms and building walls. Everything began to fall apart, and Brother xii increasingly treated his followers poorly, not allowing them to leave and forcing them to work. Eventually, charges were brought against him by ex-followers and he destroyed his own compound and fled.
This is just a tiny sampling of the eye-widening things I’ve learned about Canadian history in recent weeks. I’ve caught some kind of bug it seems, as I’m now bound and determined to learn as much as I can.
If you want to learn about Canadian history, I have to recommend you start with the works of a true Canadian treasure, Pierre Berton:
- The Klondike Fever: The Life and Death of the Last Great Gold Rush
- The American Invasion of Canada: The War of 1812’s First Year
- The National Dream: The Great Railway, 1871-1881
- The Last Spike: The Great Railway, 1881-1885
- Flames Across the Border: 1813-1814
- The Great Depression: 1929-1939