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Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente.
Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente.

Margaret Wente

History is a minefield. Just ask the CBC Add to ...

History is a minefield. Just ask the CBC, whose Canada 150 series, The Story of Us, has blown up in its face. The outrage is running high. With their blood still boiling after the Andrew Potter-McGill affair, Quebeckers say the French role in nation-building doesn’t get nearly enough play. On top of that, they’re incensed because the French fur traders and explorers are portrayed as scraggly ruffians with bad grooming. Major victim groups such as the Acadians are ignored (at least through the early episodes). The series is an insult to aboriginals, say some. Even the mayor of Annapolis Royal is upset because his town doesn’t get a mention, even though there was a settlement there. To set the record straight, he wants the CBC to do another episode – a prequel – presumably in time for tourist season.

Following the path of least resistance, the CBC’s president has now issued a craven apology to all those who were, are and remain to be offended by any errors of commission, omission, or lack of sufficient air time. Their numbers will no doubt swell beyond counting. The truth is that the poor old CBC was doomed the moment it commissioned the project. History is so contentious these days, and identity groups so aggrieved, that almost everyone was bound to be upset.

In fact, the series is so politically correct that it makes your teeth ache. It faithfully reflects the mainstream narrative of our time – the one Justin Trudeau repeats ad nauseam – that Canada is a diverse nation of many different people who have united to forge a common future. Aboriginals are depicted as equal partners with the fur traders and the early settlers, and as inspiring examples of democratic governance. “Indigenous peoples dominated the relationship and controlled the terms of the relationship,” we are assured by no less than Hayden King, a noted Indigenous public intellectual. He is just one of the many, many Indigenous politicians, actors, writers and artists who were enlisted by the producers to pepper the dramatic narrative. (Joseph Boyden weighs in too, so I guess they didn’t have time to edit him out.)

Women mattered as well. Just when you think this series is getting a bit top-heavy with dignified chiefs, stalwart soldiers and scruffy voyageurs, up pops Laura Secord to rescue our nation-in-the-making from the dastardly Americans. To make sure you get the point, guest celebrities Wendy Crewson and Clara Hughes are on hand to marvel that women can do anything. Cameron Bailey and Clement Virgo are there to help explain the crucial role that black soldiers played in the War of 1812 – and indeed, it’s quite a story. Blacks, British, local Canadian militia, and their fierce Indigenous allies fought side by side and whupped the Americans good. (Or maybe not. Historians disagree.)

To be honest, I like the series a lot so far. Sure, it’s simplistic. It’s anglocentric. Chauvinistic, too. But it’s also engaging, entertaining, and reasonably accurate, with good storytelling, great production values and nifty use of CGI. Most of all, it makes the subject matter interesting. So what if it lacks the nuance of a graduate seminar? It’s television – aimed at a mass audience of people who’ve barely heard of Samuel de Champlain, and at attention-deficient students who no longer learn much history in school. Considering the limits of the genre and the requirement to respect the obligatory pieties of the day, the series does an admirable job.

The history wars are not going to go away any time soon. Two years ago, the 200th anniversary of Sir John A. Macdonald’s birth ignited a firestorm of controversy over whether Canada’s first prime minister should be celebrated as the foremost father of Confederation, or condemned as a racist, genocidal drunk. The federal government took note and decided to avoid that trap again. That is why Canada’s 150th anniversary celebration is almost completely ahistorical. Instead of courting controversy, the government chose themes that reflect the sunny aspirations of the Trudeau government. They are: Diversity, First Nations, the environment, and the future. (How you celebrate the future when it hasn’t happened yet is a bit of a mystery to me, but never mind.)

“We were told that history is too divisive,” says one person who applied (unsuccessfully) for a Canada 150 grant. “They want to sponsor projects that are celebratory.” This is why we are about to be deluged with a neverending stream of feel-good projects, such as community murals that celebrate “diversity, equality, social justice and respect for cultural differences,” according to the account in a local newspaper. Nothing to complain about there. Personally, I’m looking forward to the Grand Woolly River Ride, when 150 canoes decorated with donated knitting, sewing and crocheting will float down Ontario’s Grand River. There are many diverse ways to celebrate our nation. And who’s to say that’s not as good a way as any?

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