A Short History of Canada

By Desmond Morton

“Canadians believe that their history is short, boring, and irrelevant. They are wrong on all counts.”

So historian Desmond Morton begins his Short History of Canada, a work – now in its fifth edition – that has become a popular standard.

Still, some of us may need a little convincing.

One of the difficulties facing Canadian historians, especially the ones who write popular books on the subject, is the lack of dramatic moments. Take 1759. What is its real significance? There never was a “conquest” of New France. The union of Upper and Lower Canada was the result of horse-trading between Imperial powers in Europe, the French ultimately preferring the island of Guadeloupe to the land Voltaire dismissed as “several acres of snow.”

Because Canada has always been a country dependent on the fate and fortune of foreign powers, its history has, to a large extent, never been its own. As European influence waned, that of America waxed. Today one could make a strong argument that Canada is less independent than it was before Confederation. Ours is a tradition of being taken for granted and falling into line – reaffirmed as recently as Bosnia, or the last time the Bank of Canada matched the Federal Reserve’s move on interest rates.

Canadian history also seems uneventful because that is the way we wanted it. Canadians have been described as Americans who didn’t rebel, a definition which makes inertia into a virtue. And yet the charge sticks: Canadians are a people of the status quo. Our comfort with establishments – political, financial, artistic – is the major cultural difference between us and the United States. Instability – revolution – is foreign to our understanding. Commenting on Laurier’s first election victory Morton writes: “Like most revolutions, the political upheaval between 1886 and 1896 changed symbols, not substance.” Coming from anyone other than a Canadian historian such a statement would be incomprehensible.

We don’t like change. Our greatest Prime Ministers, according to a recent survey, were simply the ones who managed to hang around the longest (and we have a habit of keeping them for a long, long time). Yet how many of these leaders were truly inspiring, or “great”? More often than not they were merely the safe, familiar choice. Was Mackenzie King ever more personally popular while in office than Jean Chretien – a man we seem to merely tolerate?

But maybe we didn’t want them to be great. The key to political survival in Canada is usually regarded as a mix of situational ethics – see our long history of hypocrisy over free trade – and compromise – a cherished Canadian euphemism for doing nothing and simply hoping things will get better. The Manitoba Schools Question was punted by a succession of administrations in the nineteenth century, and was still being tinkered with in the late1970s. In both World Wars conscription was avoided like the proverbial third rail until after the issue had become practically irrelevant.

Yet, paradoxically, it is this very continuity that makes Canadian history relevant. Our history is nothing if not predictable, not repeating itself so much as staying on course. Things don’t happen in Canada; Canada is always happening (albeit slowly). Even our Constitution remains a work in progress. Arguing for the relevance of Canadian history Morton writes “The choices Canadians can make today have been shaped by history.” As an example, “The governors of New France launched arguments that federalists and sovereignists repeat in present-day Quebec.” But even this may be less a repetition shaped by history than the same argument being continued.

A Short History of Canada is a good overview for the general reader and is the kind of book one would like to see in every Canadian home. Yet one also wishes Morton would stop with the revisions and make a final edition, perhaps taking Canada up to 2000.

The revisions Morton has made fall into two categories. The first are mainly cosmetic adjustments of style. Yet even slight changes in wording can result not only in different emphases but different meanings. Compare the following two passages describing the post-War baby boom:

Not since the 1880s had Canada’s population grown more slowly. But by 1947, natural increase alone was adding two per cent a year. Women were leaving the work force not through coercion – that had been tried in 1919-20 and the numbers of working women had actually climbed – but through choice.

That is from the second revised edition of 1994. In the latest edition the same paragraph reads:

Only in the 1880s had Canada’s population grown so slowly. That changed. By 1947, natural increase alone added 2 per cent a year. Women left the workforce through choice because a single salary could support most families.

There is more here than an attempt to spruce up the language, and it is not obvious that even the style is an improvement.

Then there are the updates. In some cases these have been inserted into the text, reflecting new understandings of the past. In an earlier edition, sticking with the example of post-War population growth, we read that “Between 1945 and 1957, a million and a half people came to Canada, including war brides, concentration camp victims, even thirty-five thousand refugees from the 1956 Hungarian uprising.” After “concentration camp victims” in the new edition Morton adds “perhaps some of their oppressors,” an attempt to deal with recent headlines that is too vague and qualified to be an improvement.

The all-new material takes us to Lucien Bouchard’s retirement from the political stage. But revised editions that attempt to bring the story up to the minute are ill advised. The events of 2001 are too fresh to be dealt with effectively in a general history. As a result, the book moves much too quickly through its final chapters, rattling off information without any real attempt at analysis and dissolving into banalities like “Canada’s climate and scenery make it a good place to live.”

Canada is a good place to live. At least on that we can all agree.

Review first published June 30, 2001.


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