Governor of the Bank of Canada Stephen Poloz, right, and Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Finance Ginette Petitpas Taylor look on after the unveiling of the Canada 150 commemorative bank note in Ottawa on Friday, April 7, 2017. Justin Tang / THE CANADIAN PRESS
It turns out that Canadian history is a lot more complicated than what we learned in school, as we see in the early commemorations of the 150th anniversary of Confederation.
What you see on the commemorative $10 bill to be released on June 1 depends on what you know about our history — or histories.
To reflect the country’s diversity, the design features four historical figures in a sort of Canadian Mount Rushmore on banknote polymer: an English-Canadian (Sir John A. Macdonald), a French-Canadian (Sir George-Étienne Cartier), a woman (Agnes Macphail, Canada’s first female member of Parliament) and an indigenous person (James Gladstone).
Someone who’s read James Daschuk’s best-selling book Clearing the Plains might find it ironic to see Macdonald together with Gladstone, Canada’s first Senator of First Nations origin.
The book describes how Canada’s first prime minister deliberately starved Gladstone’s people, the Kainai, and other Prairie First Nations onto reserves to make way for the transcontinental Canadian Pacific Railway.
And someone who knows about the 19th-century precursor to the sponsorship affair would recognize Cartier, Macdonald’s Quebec ally, as well as Macdonald himself as leading players in the Pacific Scandal, so-called because it also involved the construction of the CPR.
It remains to be seen whether any of this will be mentioned in the ongoing CBC television series The Story of Us.
The rose-tinted, anglocentric docudrama series has been much-criticized since it premiered last month, not only for what’s in it, but also for what isn’t.
Showing that it’s not only Québécois who are sensitive about their representation in national (read English-language) media, the first episode drew complaints from Nova Scotia’s premier and French-speaking Acadians that the original French settlement there was ignored.
The series premiered while French Quebec was already on high alert to signs of “Quebec-bashing” in the English-language media after the recent Potter affair.
After the first couple of episodes aired, even the Couillard government, which has been called the least nationalist in the province’s history, added its voice to demands for an apology from the national public broadcaster.
Notably, the founding “Father of New France,” Samuel de Champlain, was depicted as dirty, unkempt and possibly crazy. After Montcalm out-blundered Wolfe at Quebec, the French were dismissed from sight, and the English took over.
Eventually, the CBC did issue a grudging half-apology for the people who were too thick to understand that the series wasn’t supposed to be a complete history of Canada.
But that’s the CBC’s fault, for misrepresenting what is really a selection of stories, many of them unfamiliar, in the very title of its series. “The Story of Us” implies that there is a single, all-inclusive history of Canada, and that the series would tell that history completely.
In fact, Canada has as many histories as it does peoples, and as many angles from which to view the same events.
That was apparent again this week, on the 35th anniversary of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Outside this province, there was celebration of the charter. But in French Quebec, it was recalled that the charter, which has been used to protect minority rights against the legislated will of the majority, was imposed on this province in a constitution it hasn’t formally accepted.
To some in Quebec, the continuing absence of this province’s signature from the constitution is a sign of a decline in the influence of francophones in an increasingly multicultural Canada, from original founding people to just another minority group among others.
So is The Story of Us. But only the official history is written by the victors. As we are seeing in connection with the commemorations of the 150th anniversary of Confederation if we know where to look, there are other histories, written by the survivors.
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