Knowing Our History

Knowing Our History

Posted on July 24 by Alan Bowker
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If I have learned one thing in over four decades as a student, teacher, and diplomat, it is that it is vitally important for Canadians to know their history, to understand who we are and why our experience matters in the world.

So why don’t we? One reason is that we can’t agree on what our history is. Instead of the “national” narratives other countries seem to have, we have multiple narratives that clash with each other. To many, who view our history through the lens of region, language, gender, class, or ethnicity, it is a story of conflict and oppression. Some even see it as a narrative imposed by elites to perpetuate their “hegemony,” which historians need to “deconstruct.”

This inability to develop a “national narrative” might appear a sign of national weakness. In fact it reveals the strength, uniqueness and relevance of our 150-year-old Canadian experiment. Canada has never been a typical nation-state. Yet it has succeeded and prospered, because we have been able to favour empiricism over ideology, live with ambiguity and contradiction, tolerate diversity, cherish multiple identities, and practice liberal democracy. We have come closest to failure when we have not done these things.

All this makes it more, not less, important for Canadians to encounter their shared history, in all its complexity and contradiction. To do so we must enter the past on its own terms, with discipline, imagination, humility, and the broad outlook that enables us to accept, embrace, and accommodate conflicting truths.

And, as it turns out, the qualities we need to bring to bear on understanding our past are also the very attributes we need if we are successfully to address the issues of the present and respond to the challenges of the future, in Canada and the world.

Alan Bowker

Posted by Dundurn Guest on October 30, 2014

Alan Bowker

Alan Bowker worked for thirty-five years in Canada’s foreign service, including serving as high commissioner to Guyana. He has a doctorate in Canadian history and has taught at Canada’s Royal Military College. He has edited two collections of essays by Stephen Leacock, including On the Front Line of Life and Social Criticism. He lives in Ottawa.