Who Killed Canadian History?
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 17 Sep 1998, p. 91-98
Granatstein, Dr. Jack L., Speaker
Media Type
Item Type
The success of the speaker's book "Who Killed Canadian History?" Why the speaker became interested in the idea of doing this book. Two very different events that made him fell that he had to do this. Some of the speaker's background. What history is about and why it matters. Effects of it not mattering, as the speaker sees it in Ottawa every day, with examples. Why our history is almost dead. The Ontario government, along with other provinces, putting some history back into the public schools, but not enough. Fundraising for a foundation for Canadian history. Who can resurrect Canadian history.
Date of Original
17 Sep 1998
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Full Text
Dr. Jack L. Granatstein, Director and CEO, Canadian War Museum
Chairman: George L. Cooke, President, The Empire Club of Canada

Head Table Guests

The Hon. Barnett Danson, P.C., Q.C., Chairman, Advisory Committee of Canadian War Museum, former Defence Minister and Honorary Director, The Empire Club of Canada; Rev. Vic Reigel, Honorary Assistant, Christ Church Brampton and Padre, Royal Canadian Legion Branch 15, Brampton; Phyllis Bruce, Publisher, Harper Collins Publishers; Richard Nielsen, President, Norflicks Productions and Producer of TV Series "No Price Too High" and Member of Advisory Committee, Canadian War Museum; Prof. Robert Bothwell, Professor of History, U of T Trinity College and Member of Advisory Committee, Canadian War Museum; Adam Zimmerman, Author of "Who's in Charge Anyway?" and Member of Advisory Committee, Canadian War Museum; General Paul Manson, former Commander of Air Force and Chief of Defence Staff, Vice Chairman of Advisory Committee of Canadian War Museum and Chairman of "Passing the Torch" Campaign; Patrick Luciani, Director, Donner Foundation; Jeffrey Sack, Q.C., Partner, Sack Goldblatt Mitchell; and Marcia McClung, President, Applause Communications and a Director, The Empire Club of Canada.

Introduction by George L. Cooke

Dr. Jack Granatstein is the Director and CEO of The Canadian War Museum in Ottawa. He is the Rowell Jackman Fellow at the Canadian Institute of International Affairs, a member of the Royal Military College of Canada Board of Governors and distinguished Research Professor of History Emeritus at York University. These represent only a few of the many activities in which Dr. Granatstein is involved.

He has held the Canada Council's Killam senior fellowship twice, was editor of the Canadian Historical Review, and was a founder of the Organization for the History of Canada. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada which, in 1992, awarded him the J.B. Tyrrell Historical Gold Medal "for outstanding work in the history of Canada." He has many other significant distinctions. If I were to mention them all, we wouldn't get the opportunity to hear him speak today.

His recent book "Who Killed Canadian History?" one of many that he has authored, is the background for his talk today. It has been described in a recent book review as "a well written, insightful and provocative book." This particular review goes on to comment: "Having witnessed the 'death' of our national history he (Granatstein) proceeds to attribute blame citing boring academics, cowardly politicians, ineffective teachers and advocates of official multiculturalism." It seems no wonder that this book has created interest and debate.

When he is not writing or teaching, Dr. Granatstein comments regularly on historical questions, defence, and public affairs in the press and on radio and television.

If one believes that history is the foundation for our future, Dr. Granatstein's book is required reading; and I suspect that today's talk will be well received. Enough said, we're honoured today to have the chance to hear Dr. Granatstein's views and let's welcome him to The Empire Club of Canada's luncheon meeting.

Jack Granatstein

Ladies and gentlemen, it was very good of you to come out on a nice day.

My favourite publisher in Canada, Phyllis Bruce, is at the head table and I know that she was as surprised as I was by the success, at least in terms of sales, that "Who killed Canadian History?" has had so far. I don't think we expected this book would sell more than a couple of thousand copies but it has in fact done a good deal better. So much so that Phyllis is now suggesting that I do a series: "Who maimed Canadian Mathematics?" "Who Bludgeoned Canadian Physics?" "Who Pushed Canadian Political Science in Front of a Truck?" I don't think I really want to do it but I think the titles all should be written by someone.

Why did I get interested in the idea of doing a little polemical book on the state of the country's history? There were two very different events that made me feel that I had to do this.

The first came in May 1995 when I had the very good fortune to go with the CBC to cover the 50th anniversary of V-E Day in the Netherlands. For a historian of the Second World War this was something that was simply too good to pass up but it turned into the single most extraordinary event of my life. To see the veterans, now mainly very old men, being hailed by those they had liberated 50 years before was deeply moving. In the Canadian War Cemeteries I saw Dutch parents putting down flowers and telling their children that these young boys had come from across the sea to liberate them and that too was extraordinarily moving. To watch the incredible parade in the little town of Apeldoorn a few days before V-E Day, to see half a million people in the streets cheering themselves silly as 10,000 Canadian veterans went by, was incredible. To see 20-year-old mothers holding up infants to kiss a veteran, so they could say that they had touched one of the men who had liberated their country, left me in tears.

We marked the anniversary of V-E Day in Canada but there were no crowds of 500,000 in our streets. There were no banners as there were in Holland saying "Bless you boys" in English. The Dutch who had to be liberated, who had lost their freedom, remember. Present-day Canadians, I regret, if they ever knew that there had been a Second World War, probably remembered only that this country had been unkind in the way it treated Japanese Canadians. How could this have happened? Who killed Canadian history?

The second formative event in pushing me to write this book came when a very good friend showed me five essays written by his eight-year-old son at a private school. Brad, eight years old, was in grade two and he was being taught Canadian history. If he had been in a public school he wouldn't have been. In a private school he was and I suppose that's a good thing but what concerned me was what his essays were about. Five essays from a first introduction to Canadian history. The first one concerned Samuel de Chaplain's abuse of his thirteen-year-old bride; the second, the extermination of the Beothuk by the white man in Newfoundland; the third, the execution of Louis Riel by the Government of Canada; the fourth, the maltreatment of Canada's first woman doctor by her medical peers; and the fifth, the internment of Japanese Canadians. That was Canadian history as presented to an eight-year-old child by his teacher. Our history, Canada's history in other words, was about sexism, racism, and the abuses of government. Nothing else.

There was no attempt to have a chronology, a basic tool of Canadian history or any other. There was no attempt to put events in context. There was no attempt to balance evil with good. Instead incidences were pulled from the past and stuffed down children's throats to prove a point that a particular teacher deemed important. Why? How could this have happened? Who killed Canadian history?

These two events convinced me that I had to write this book. As someone who has been obsessed with history since the day I learned to read, as someone who taught in a university for 30 years, I assumed that I knew why history was important and how it was being taught. And I was wrong. History is or should be about the way humankind has moved, not always progressed, but moved through time. History is about how ordinary men and women lived in different eras, how great leaders changed the course of events and here in this country how Canadians settled the land and built a great good society through the efforts of countless millions from all over the world. History is not a grab bag out of which moralising lessons are pulled. It is not distortion. It is not a wilful forgetting of hard-learned lessons. It doesn't matter; after all our history is boring isn't it? Does it matter if it is forgotten or maltreated? Yes it really does matter.

Without a sense of our past, we are like poor souls wandering lost in a forest without a map. Without a sense of our history we can have no future. Without a firm grasp of whom we were and whom we are, we cannot hope to successfully integrate the newcomers who come to Canada to build a new and a good life in this most favourite of nations. Without history our children will know nothing of what made Parliament, our laws, our society the way they are. Without history and the techniques that study teaches us, the ability to read, write, reason can never be well taught. And speaking from my war museum post, without history our sons and daughters will never know what their fathers and grandfathers did to help save the world. The Dutch know but we do not.

I see the effects of this attitude in Canada every day in Ottawa. The Canadian War Museum is over 100 years old but it exists in makeshift quarters--the old public archives building on Sussex Street. Its warehouse is an Ottawa streetcar barn. It has inadequate funding, grossly inadequate exhibits and yet the Canadian War Museum has one of the world's great collections of art and you didn't even know that. Twelve thousand five hundred pieces of art are in the Canadian War Museum. The National Gallery of Canada has 9,000 pieces of Canadian art. We have one art historian, one conservator to look after 12,500 pieces of art. The National Gallery has five curators and uncounted numbers of conservators and may I say about 10 times the space that the War Museum has.

And this isn't just dabblings by amateur painters that we have. We have paintings by the Group of Seven all of whom were official war artists in the First World War. There are astonishing pieces of art there and almost no one in Canada has seen them. We are seeking funding from the Donner Foundation to send a great travelling exhibit of the best pieces of Canadian war art across the country and into the United States.

The War Museum has more than art though. It has an astonishing collection of vehicles including a World War I tank that we have just acquired, an operating DUK, and virtually every model of military vehicle made in Canada. It has a huge uniform collection including General Brock's coat that he was wearing when he was killed during the War of 1812. It has just about half a million artifacts of different kinds. And all these treasures, and they really are treasures worth hundreds of millions of dollars, are in danger because the buildings they are in are unfit museologically and we haven't got the money to take care of them the way we should. The buildings are simply inadequate. In a prolonged fit of absence of mind we are on the verge of seeing a precious part of our heritage disappear into dust and mould.

If we cared for our past at all this would not be. We would have war art galleries properly displaying the magnificent art that came out of the horror of war. We would have a museum that spoke proudly about Canadian efforts in Vimy, in The Hundred Days, in Sicily, in Italy, Normandy and the Schelde, in Korea, and NATO and in peace-keeping. Instead we have to scramble to try to keep Canadian military history alive at a time when almost no one except a few veterans and a very tiny number of academics seem to care.

Why? Why is our history almost dead? Because the federal government is unwilling to leap over the provinces to try to reach the people with their history. Because our provincial governments preach regionalism instead of teaching the history of the country. Because well-meaning people fear that if we teach about war we are glorifying conflict. Because school bureaucrats fear that teaching art history will offend someone, will make a child or a recent immigrant group uncomfortable. Because we believe wrongly that our history is divisive or boring or so undistinguished that it is not worth learning. Because academics study increasingly smaller and unimportant subjects and write their books and articles in the most boring way imaginable. Because the media deliberately sensationalises and applies 1990's morality to past events. Think for example of the television series "The Valour and the Horror."

All of these things have been disastrous in my view in their impact on our consciousness of ourselves as Canadians. Let me be clear. We should study our failures and learn from them. But we should also study our successes and not just wallow in our failures. History matters. Perhaps we are just starting to realise this.

The Ontario government has put some history back into the public schools although not enough. It has, however, done nothing for the high schools where there is only one compulsory course on the history of Canada--Twentieth Century Canada. It's frankly a hodge podge of civics and social studies and English as a second language, and a bit of politically correct history. And there's no signs that it will do anything more. This is important because in the high schools kids are able to actually grasp what they are being told whereas in the public schools it's simply stories. The Alberta government is talking about putting more history in the schools and so is Quebec and that I guess I could say is a bit of a mixed blessing.

Red Wilson, the chairman of BCE, has put up half a million dollars of his own money for a foundation for Canadian history. And the fundraising for that worthy foundation will soon get underway.

We do have a history and we do need to study it and to learn from it. Canadians have worked together to build a nation, a nation that is far stronger than the misguided fools who would try to tear it down. We made a nation by working together, by doing great deeds in the past, knowing we can do more in the future--the usual definition of a nation. We need to know this for if we kill Canadian history, we will surely destroy our present and future.

So who killed Canadian history? Who are the guilty people? You and me by not paying attention to what was going on in the schools we sent our children to, by voting for school trustees and MPPs who have literally no interest in education.

Who can resurrect Canadian history? Again you and me by demanding changes, by voting for those who promise to restore the past, the understanding of the past for the present, because if we can do that then maybe we just might have a future.

Thank you very much.

The appreciation of the meeting was expressed by The Hon. Barnett Danson, P.C., Q.C., Chairman, Advisory Committee of Canadian War Museum, former Defence Minister and Honorary Director, The Empire Club of Canada.

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Who Killed Canadian History?

The success of the speaker's book "Who Killed Canadian History?" Why the speaker became interested in the idea of doing this book. Two very different events that made him fell that he had to do this. Some of the speaker's background. What history is about and why it matters. Effects of it not mattering, as the speaker sees it in Ottawa every day, with examples. Why our history is almost dead. The Ontario government, along with other provinces, putting some history back into the public schools, but not enough. Fundraising for a foundation for Canadian history. Who can resurrect Canadian history.