Naomi Buck is a Toronto-based writer.
Canada: The Story of Us has been deemed a flop. The CBC miniseries that finished last month attempted to present this country's post-Confederation history in a dramatic and informative fashion. It was denounced from all sides as anglocentric, ahistorical, superficial, politically correct yet incorrect and very, very official.
We beg to differ – "we" being a tri-generational family whose weekends, for the past few months, were punctuated by the eager question: "Is tonight The Story of Us?" Every Sunday, I leveraged the series to get broccoli eaten, fingernails clipped and pyjamas on by 9 p.m.
"There's fighting in every one," my delighted seven-year-old son said after the first few segments. Ever since episode three (the War of 1812), his bedroom floor has been a battlefield pitting his collection of foreign coins (the Americans) against row upon row of marbles (the British). While fewer in number, the British are ever victorious thanks to their Native allies (oversized marbles).
He now patrols our driveway armed with two hockey sticks and chatting with his (invisible) friends in the Haudenosaunee Confederacy or the Wendat. Growing up in the 1970s, I did not know either of these names – kids were still playing Cowboys and Indians.
When he watched the re-enactments of early encounters between Europeans and Indigenous groups, Liam swelled with rage. "It's SO not fair," he said, with the authority of a younger brother. "That's THEIR land."
So critic John Doyle was right – the series did appeal to "impressionable 10-year-olds" (and younger). But not just. Impressionable kids ask their less impressionable parents to explain or confirm things, opening up chasms of knowledge in what we thought was a passable understanding of Canadian history. And many of the historical moments and individuals highlighted in the series were totally unknown to the elders in this house (one of whom has a masters degree in Canadian history) – from Kathleen Blake Coleman, Canada's first female newspaper editor who refused to write about fashion and food (my new personal hero), to the Canadian Stove, to the role of Indigenous sappers in the liberation of Holland, to the lives sacrificed in the building of the Welland Canal.
Of course, many important moments and individuals were also left out – how could they not be? The mayor of the Nova Scotia town of Annapolis Royal was peeved because the series portrayed Quebec City as the first permanent European settlement, rather than Port Royal, established three years earlier. Too bad Leif Ericson is 1,000 years dead, otherwise he could have written in to make a bid for the Viking settlement of L'Anse aux Meadows, Nfld., 600 years before both.
This is the series' achievement: It got people talking and caring about Canadian history. It did not present a perfect, exhaustive chronology – the most deadening approach to history – but highlighted the drama, the stories within the histories, some of the main historic arcs. When I asked my kids what they learned from the show as a whole, they said: That the land does not really belong to us, that there was a lot of risk-taking and fights for power and justice.
I find it frustrating to read, in this paper, that the Canadian History Hall to be unveiled on July 1 at the Canadian Museum of History, is set "to succeed where the CBC failed" and to show Canadians and their broadcaster: "This is how you tell Canada's story."
There is no one way to tell history. The "unrivalled collection of artifacts" on display at the history hall may well provide a "level of authenticity that historical recreations simply cannot match," but even those objects – their authenticity, provenance, meaning and selection – will be up for debate, as they should be.
Plus which, to date, I have had no luck getting my kids excited about objects on display, no matter how authentic, whereas nothing could drag them away from the drama of a well-staged bison hunt by horse-riding Nakota, or Viola Desmond refusing to relinquish her seat in a movie theatre or Waneek Horn-Miller reflecting on what it meant to be stabbed in the chest by a soldier's bayonet in the Oka standoff.
The Story of Us may not have got everything right, but it did make us question, and think, and feel something about Canadian history. That is an achievement.