Daniel Francis

Reading the National Narrative

History Lives

Feb 21, 2014


If there is one thing Canadians know about their own history it is that we do not know, or care, much about it.

With depressing regularity, poll after poll reveals that we do not know the name of our first prime minister, or when BC joined Confederation, or yadda yadda yadda. We extrapolate from these dismal surveys to conclude that Canadians consider their past to be one giant yawn and the more excitable among us warn that there is a national crisis of ignorance.

But this is one of those truisms that turns out to be false, at least according to a new book written by a group of leading historians. Canadians and Their Pasts (University of Toronto Press) collects a bunch of data to explore for the first time how Canadians actually relate to the past: how we learn about it and what use we make of it in our daily lives.

The results are varied and provocative but for me the main takeaway is that Canadians turn out to be "profoundly interested" in their own history. We read books and watch television programs, we visit museums and historic sites, we trace our ancestors on the internet, we attend lectures, we visit heritage fairs, we protest the destruction of old buildings. In other words, we take part in many, many different activities that offer a far better understanding of our relationship to the past than a simple recitation of factoids.

According to Canadians and Their Pasts, history matters to most of us, and to as many of us as people in other countries. "The past is not past," the authors conclude. "History lives."

Perhaps it is time to retire the cliche that we are a nation of historical ignoramuses.