National Narrative

Seeking the Ghosts that Keep us Alive: Reviving Popular History in Canada

Stephen R. Bown
December 12, 2023
“I never set out to be a patriot or a popular historian. I just liked storytelling.” So said Pierre Berton, Canada’s most successful popular historian, two years before his death in 2004. Today, Canadian popular history appears to have little to do with honest storytelling and even less with patriotism. Rather than a “National Dream” – the title of Berton’s most famous book – the telling of Canada’s story has descended into a “National Nightmare” full of accusations of genocide and evil characters who must be purged from public view. Stephen R. Bown, one of the country’s few remaining practitioners of the craft, charts the recent trajectory of popular history, the many fascinating tales it has to tell, and its importance to creating Canada’s national narrative.
National Narrative

Seeking the Ghosts that Keep us Alive: Reviving Popular History in Canada

Stephen R. Bown
December 12, 2023
“I never set out to be a patriot or a popular historian. I just liked storytelling.” So said Pierre Berton, Canada’s most successful popular historian, two years before his death in 2004. Today, Canadian popular history appears to have little to do with honest storytelling and even less with patriotism. Rather than a “National Dream” – the title of Berton’s most famous book – the telling of Canada’s story has descended into a “National Nightmare” full of accusations of genocide and evil characters who must be purged from public view. Stephen R. Bown, one of the country’s few remaining practitioners of the craft, charts the recent trajectory of popular history, the many fascinating tales it has to tell, and its importance to creating Canada’s national narrative.
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The world is alive with the spirits of the dead. I felt this acutely last summer when my wife and I stayed in a 600-year-old walk-up apartment in the Venetian Empire-era town of Piran, on the Slovenian coast of the Adriatic Sea. The groaning of the internal staircase every time we entered and exited the building seemed to warn of imminent collapse. And raised visions of past lives.

How many generations had walked up this staircase to the same odd collection of rooms with exposed beams and tiny windows? How many young couples started their lives here, how many children were born and elders passed away? How many meals were eaten in the same kitchen where I prepared my morning coffee? In places like Piran, history is impossible to ignore.

The ghosts all around us: Canada’s past is filled with the tales of those who came before us. Among them, Indigenous hunters participating in a pre-contact buffalo cull at Alberta’s Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo Jump (top), voyageurs from the fur trade era (middle) and workers constructing the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa in 1865 (bottom). (Sources of images: (top) artwork by Gerald Lazare, retrieved from The Canadian Encyclopedia; (bottom) Samuel McLaughlin, retrieved from The Historical Society of Ottawa)

In other places – Canada for instance – creaky old reminders of the past are less commonplace. Here, we have to work harder if we want to understand the lives of those we have displaced in time. But if we know where to look, their ghosts are all around us.

They are present along the canyons of the Fraser River where labourers blasted a railway through mountains. They stride the halls and fields of the fur trade forts at York Factory and Fort William, where thousands of canoe brigades unloaded and transferred precious cargoes. They haunt the corridors of the Parliament buildings in Ottawa, the ramparts of Fort York and the plains above Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump. It is my job to bring these ghosts back to life.

As a popular historian, I am proud to follow in the footsteps of this country’s greatest practitioners of the art – titans such as Pierre Berton, Peter C. Newman, Richard Gwyn, Ken McGoogan and Charlotte Gray – who have brought the past alive for the Canadian book-buying public. As popular as they may have been, however, every author is the product of his or her own time. Berton and Newman, in particular, wrote highly-nationalistic and narrowly-focused books that tended to overlook key aspects of the story readers today consider important, such as the Indigenous perspective.

 

My most recent book, Dominion: The Railway and the Rise of Canada, tells the familiar tale of the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) in a way that 21st century readers will hopefully find new and appealing. I try to take a broader view of this history and include the previously-untold stories of many minor characters who lived in this fascinating era. As a product of my own era, I strive for a nuanced middle ground, acknowledging the less savoury aspects of our collective story and incorporating those perspectives into the larger narrative.

By continually refreshing our past, popular history has an important role to play in educating a country about itself. Lately, however, it seems Canadians would rather run from their past than learn about it. And the reason for this is that my favoured genre of popular history is in retreat.

The Role of the Popular Historian

Shh, popular historian at work: Stephen R. Bown’s new book about building the Canadian Pacific Railway seeks to fulfil the first task of popular history by telling lively stories about the past to attract new readers.

Popular history can be defined as narrative or biographical history written for a broad audience. It is a form of literature with three primary functions or objectives. The first is to make history accessible to the common reader. Academic historians scour archives to uncover dusty old details about what happened when and by whom. It is vital work, but of little interest to most readers. A popular historian’s task is to combine this dry academic search for evidence with his or her own original research to create a format that the general public can enjoy and appreciate. This means telling lively and engaging stories about the people who preceded us.

In taking a narrative approach to history, I seek to entertain and inform with revealing anecdotes and colourful tales. When I read a journal entry describing a sunset that made a traveller feel lonely or lost in a foreign landscape, I put it in. When I come across the description of what roasted skunk tasted like or how to suck warm blood from a bullet hole in a freshly shot caribou, I put it in. If the city of Ottawa in 1867 was a filthy construction pit full of cesspools and muddy streets that everyone tried hard to avoid, that detail goes in too. Popular history strives to breathe life into old stories to attract new readers.

The second role of popular history is to place these interesting stories and people into their historical context so we can better understand them. The world of the past isn’t just our current world shifted backwards in time. It was a radically different place, and the people who filled it had values, influences and technologies quite unlike those guiding our decisions today.

At Confederation, for example, there were hardly any roads in Canada, and no electricity or telephones, let alone internet. Deeply-felt religious beliefs animated the daily lives of nearly everyone. Montreal was the country’s only major city. Ontario was mostly rural, filled with poorly-educated farmers living on isolated farms, plowing rocky soil with oxen. Victoria was the capital of a far-away independent colony on the Pacific Ocean that could be reached only by travel through the U.S. or by sailing all the way around Cape Horn. The Prairies were the domain of largely nomadic Indigenous nations, plus a Métis settlement near Winnipeg. When new immigrants arrived in Canada, they often looked around at all the emptiness and promptly fled to better opportunities in the U.S. For that matter, so did tens of thousands of Quebeckers over the decades.

Putting the past into context: The second task of popular history is to explain to readers that the inhabitants of the past shared values, beliefs and technologies that are different from those of today. Shown, the HBC bastion overlooking the busy coal harbour of Nanaimo, B.C., circa 1906. (Source of photo: BCcampus Open Publishing)

After illuminating these many outward differences, however, it is also the job of the popular historian to remind his or her readers that the people of the past were biologically and mentally the same as the people of today. They were us, but shaped by a different environment. In 1754, for example, HBC fur trader Anthony Henday was driven by his curiosity about the mysterious interior of the continent to join Cree trader Attickasish on a multi-year excursion from York Factory on Hudson Bay to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. In so doing, Henday satisfied his own personal impulses to explore his world while gaining a commercial advantage for his employer.

One-hundred-and-thirty-years later, similar urges animated CPR surveyor R.M. Rylatt. He was a young man from England who needed a job and sought adventure. Working for the CPR survey team, Rylatt spent years scouting wilderness valleys, rivers, lakes and mountain passes in the Canadian West to plot the route for the coming railway. It was exciting but solitary work. “We felt the cold very severely during the night,” he wrote. “As I watched and shivered, I felt very lonely…I made me a blazing fire, and the crackling of the burning wood was at least some company. You in England cannot understand all this. You think you can, but you cannot.” The HBC and CPR employed these men for their labour, while the men used the companies to satisfy their own wanderlust.

Similar motivations drive us today. Henday and Rylatt can be considered pioneers on the frontiers of contemporary knowledge, no different in spirit than software developers or scientists today who push boundaries for the benefit of society and their own bank account. And that goes equally for the corporations that employed them: in their efforts to turn a profit, HBC and CPR were also expanding the possibilities of their time, as do Google, Facebook and Tesla today.

Eternal urges: Despite great differences in circumstances and values, most basic human motivations remain unchanged through time. In the 1880s, R.M. Rylatt sought a job and adventure when he joined the CPR survey of the Canadian West. At left, surveyors at work near Brandon, Manitoba; at right, Rylatt’s published account of his experiences. (Source of left photo: Archives of Manitoba, retrieved from virtualmanitoba.com)

Building a National Narrative

This revelatory aspect of popular history is significant because it helps us realize that we still live in our ancestors’ world, just as they still live in ours. Learning about the dead makes our own world a richer place as we understand we are not alone in our dreams and aspirations, our setbacks and tragedies, our desire to change the world and our responses to the big events of our era. It is the combined effect of these first two aspects of popular history – making the facts of the past easily accessible and placing them in their proper context – that makes possible the third, and arguably most important, role of the art form: the creation of a common body of knowledge that becomes our national narrative.

The audience for Canadian popular history is comprised of intelligent and curious people from all walks of life. I receive emails from police officers, engineers, teachers, real estate agents and physicians all eager to engage with my work. It is a group that includes everyone from fifth-generation Canadians to newly-arrived immigrants, as well as many Indigenous and Métis Canadians. Providing them with an enjoyable and factually-correct story about how Canada evolved is more than just entertainment. It forms the basis for how we think about our country.

Writing Canada’s story: The giants of Canadian popular history, including Pierre Berton (top left) and Peter C. Newman (top right), constructed a common narrative of endurance and perseverance that explained the Canadian experience to generations of readers. (Sources of photos: (top left) Martin Tosoian, retrieved from Penguin Random House; (top right) The Tyee; (bottom) Archives of Manitoba, retrieved from virtualmanitoba.com)

This construction of a common narrative for Canada was the greatest achievement of previous generations of popular historians, including Berton and Newman. It can be briefly and egregiously summarized as follows. Early Canadians were a hardy folk who endured many obstacles of nature and geography. The odds were often against them. But they survived. And later thrived. In the process, a country was created. Sharing these stories broadly allowed contemporary readers to see themselves in the actions of their forebears, even if these older versions of our history ignored some crucial aspects of the Canadian experience, such as the Indigenous perspective.

Today, those same great national accomplishments are still there to be considered. But we seem to have lost any sense of connection to our past. In equally succinct fashion, our current national narrative holds that Canadian colonists were universally a bunch of despicable, racist thieves. They sought the extinction of Indigenous people and discriminated against other vulnerable populations whenever they could. And in the process our land was desecrated. It is a situation that can apparently only be remedied by completely repudiating our past.

The outward result of this new, self-loathing narrative that deliberately ignores Canada’s  most significant achievements can be seen in the wave of name changes, statue removals, museum purges, decolonization initiatives and assorted other historical refutations plaguing our country. If the ultimate purpose of popular history is to build links between current and previous generations, it doesn’t seem to be working in Canada today.

History Estranged from Facts

Unlike in previous generations, there are very few writers today who pursue popular history in its traditional book-length literary form. Rather than being produced by serious authors, it is now delivered via opinion pieces in the media or reports from governments and various activist groups and organizations. The analysis is often simplistic, offers minimal context and makes little attempt at nuance or balance. Instead of striving to understand Canada’s past and the people who made it happen, these new narratives condemn, censure and erase, either from a fundamental ignorance of the difference between the past and our present, or in pursuit of ideological “presentism.” The end result is a clear break in the connection with our own past.

While these new narratives may appear to be telling “interesting” stories about the past, they fail as actual history because they lack a grounding in fact. Popular history has become largely “afactual.” One troubling example is the persistence of claims perpetrated by the CBC that the HBC deliberately distributed smallpox-infected blankets to Indigenous people. Such an allegation fits neatly into the current narrative that Canada actively sought to commit genocide against its native population. And the CBC does its part by claiming there are two sides of this debate to consider. But it is pure nonsense.

History, but without the facts: Repeated “investigations” by the CBC into false claims the famous HBC blanket was used to spread smallpox are examples of a new, ideological strain of popular history that ignores historical evidence in favour of making political statements. (Source of photo: Hudson’s Bay Company Archieves)

As I discussed in an earlier book The Company: The Rise and Fall of the Hudson’s Bay Empire, until the mid-19th century the HBC was as much a cultural institution as it was a business. HBC employees spoke Cree and other Indigenous languages and had deep social connections to the native community. They often married into Indigenous societies as a means of advancing commercial objectives; many children from these “country marriages” worked for the company in various capacities, as traders, hunters, labourers, translators and guides. Sometimes they ran their own enterprises transporting goods across the heart of the continent, using the HBC forts as wholesale distribution centres.

No business deliberately murders its customers, employees or their families. And the HBC was no exception. There is simply no evidence to back up repeated CBC efforts to “investigate” the smallpox blanket claim. Giving the impression that the HBC was possibly engaged in such despicable behaviour is both disingenuous and libellous. A more serious approach would be to explain how the company often extended aid and credit to support Indigenous societies during epidemics; their survival was its survival, after all. It might also reveal that as early as the 1830s, the company offered primitive smallpox vaccines to all people within its trading regions.

Another example of our current preoccupation with twisting facts through a misrepresentation of popular history is the widespread blame pinned upon Sir John A. Macdonald for the entirety of Canada’s Indian Residential Schools. Macdonald died in 1891, many years before these schools were massively expanded by Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s Liberal government in the early 20th century. We cannot know what Macdonald would have thought about this expansion, the later decision to make attendance compulsory (if only some of the time) or to place everyday operations in the hands of churches. This is because he had no role in it. He was dead, and the country was governed by a different prime minister from a different political party. Readers of popular history should know all this. Instead, the new purveyors of popular history insist it was all his fault. As a result, Macdonald’s name and likeness have been stripped from innumerable schools and public places.

Wrecking crew: Canadian popular history has lately transformed itself into an attack on our country’s past. Among the recent targets for cancellation and statue removal are British Columbia judge Matthew Baillie Begbie (top left), Halifax founder Edward Cornwallis (top right) and Ontario educator and Methodist minister Egerton Ryerson (bottom). (Sources of photos: (top left) Matt Flemming photo, special to Postmedia News, retrieved from Vancouver Sun; (top right) Atlantic CTV News; (bottom) Global News)

The “cancellation” of British Columbia’s Judge Matthew Baillie Begbie for his role presiding over a jury trial of the native leaders of the 1864 Chilcotin uprising provides yet another example. Begbie had a strong sense of justice that he enforced during his many years as an itinerant circuit judge during the chaotic and violent Gold Rush era. Later, as the head of B.C.’s Supreme Court, he ruled against discriminatory laws targeting Chinese immigrants and refused to convict an Indigenous man for holding a potlatch. He was often an ally to First Nations, learning their languages and accepting their testimony on equal standing with white citizens.

After the jury found the leaders of the uprising guilty of murder, Begbie shared his opinions on the matter with B.C. Governor Frederick Seymour: “The Indians have I believe been most injudiciously treated and if a sound discretion had been exercised towards them I believe this outrage would not have been perpetuated.” He then wrote, “I do not envy you your task of coming to a decision” on granting clemency. Despite all this sympathy, today Begbie is unfairly caricaturized as an oppressive, insensitive colonizer unfit for representation in 21stcentury B.C.

The same goes for the many other cast-offs of Canadian history: Catholic Bishop Vital Grandin, Quebec Confederation-era politician Hector-Louis Langevin, Halifax founder Edward Cornwallis, Ontario educator Egerton Ryerson and on and on. All had their faults, as do today’s leaders. But an honest review of the facts of their lives reveals none was so flawed as to deserve to be purged from public sight. Vilifying them without trying to understand them violates the second duty of popular historians: placing the past in its proper context so that readers can appreciate the continuity of the human condition. Pretending these figures never existed doesn’t help society move forward.

Keep in mind that the initial task of a courtroom trial in any democratic country is to establish the facts. This is a key part of any trial lawyer’s job – and the same should hold true for historians, whether of the academic or popular variety. Like lawyers, historians may disagree and argue over the interpretation of a given set of facts. But they cannot make stuff up or ignore a preponderance of evidence contrary to their favoured opinions. Popular history needs to return to its time-honoured framework of putting facts ahead of opinion and ideological objectives.

Through New Eyes

This is not to say that history must remain static, or that the stories of our past can never be revised or revisited. There is always room for new perspectives and new research. A country’s foundational stories should be reinterpreted as additional information becomes available. So long as accuracy and facts remain the basis of these revisions, this process enhances and expands our understanding of the past. In my biography of the Norwegian polar explorer Roald Amundsen – the first man to reach the South Pole – I was able to provide a new perspective on his final years thanks to the digitization of the New York Times’ archives. More than 350 articles, many from the paper’s society pages, revealed that Amundsen had not retired to a quiet life in Norway, as previous biographies had claimed. Rather, he lived a well-publicized life as an American celebrity.

Likewise, in Dominion, the inclusion of newly unearthed information revitalizes a story last told in a comprehensive fashion by Berton over 50 years ago. Significantly, Berton didn’t have access to many sources that shed light on key aspects of this story, such as the diary of Dukesang Wong, the only known first-hand account of a Chinese labourer working on the CPR during the 1880s.

“These mighty lands are great to gaze upon”: The diary of Dukesang Wong is the only known first-hand account of Chinese railway workers during the construction of the CPR; incorporating his story is crucial to a fulsome understanding of the era. Shown at right, Chinese labourers working west of Rogers Pass, B.C. in 1889. (Source of right photo: William Notman and Son, courtesy of Libraries and Cultural Resources Digital Collections, University of Calgary)

Approximately 17,000 Chinese workers were brought to Canada to help build the transcontinental railway. More than 600 of them died in industrial accidents, mostly in the Fraser River’s canyons. Yet they have received insufficient recognition for their major contribution to Canada’s greatest civil engineering project. Wong’s journals open a new window on the living and working conditions of Chinese railway workers, their perception of their new land and their ill-treatment by the larger population. “These mighty lands are great to gaze upon,” he wrote in 1885, “but the laws made here are so small.” It is a fascinating and unique perspective that was only recently made available to historians.

Berton’s jingoistic two-part series on the CPR (The National Dream and The Last Spike) also paid little attention to Indigenous voices. Yet the Great Buffalo Famine and the signing of the numbered treaties also constitute an integral part of the railway’s story. The CPR was pushing across the Prairies at the same time as the region’s Indigenous people began to starve because of the near-extinction of the buffalo. Significantly, it was the earlier construction of American railways that enabled the mass slaughter of the buffalo; U.S. trains also brought great numbers of migrants west who then spread diseases such as smallpox and tuberculosis.

Such information is essential to understanding the full story of the CPR, and an important reason why old stories need to be updated and retold. In the retelling, however, it becomes necessary to accept that some terrible things happened that earlier popular historians such as Berton ignored. Macdonald’s involvement in the federal government’s failed humanitarian response to the Prairie famine has become a key element in the contempt shown him today. But while academic research has shown his relief program was disastrously incompetent, and some of the officials involved were cruel even by the standards of their era, the blame for all this cannot be laid at Macdonald’s feet.

Fall guy: While building the CPR was once considered his greatest achievement, today Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, (left) is better known for his involvement with residential schools and an Indigenous famine that was caused by the near-extinction of North America’s buffalo (right). Focusing exclusively on Macdonald’s mistakes and oversights is a distortion of the historical record and does a disservice to his legacy. (Source of right photo: Library of Congress)

Some version of this tragedy was inevitable due to the buffalo’s sudden collapse, mainly caused by outside forces. And evidence from Parliament shows Conservative and Liberal MPs alike held what we would today consider a callous disregard for Indigenous suffering on the Prairies. Yet the propagators of our new, unjust version of popular history are determined to turn Macdonald into the famine’s sole culprit. This is not only grossly unfair but historically inaccurate. In many cases, supposedly damning statements made by Macdonald have been selectively manipulated to disguise his well-established concern for the Indigenous condition. Do we really want to live in a society where history is distorted or fabricated in such fashion?

Going Forward into the Past

We must be able to comprehend both the good and bad of our past – and try to understand the society in which these things happened. Done properly, popular history should do more than simply declare our past to have been filled with a host of despicable evil-doers who need to be erased from the record. This is not only historical malpractice, it’s a disservice to the millions of Canadians who quietly lived their lives within the context of these bigger stories. And it leaves us without any collective understanding of our past. This lack of a coherent national narrative contributes to a rudderless society that knows no common ground and shares no common beliefs – a situation, some will argue, that already defines Canada today.

Same as we ever were: Done properly, popular history should reveal the similarities as well as the differences between modern-day Canadians and the ancestors of their country. Shown at top, Toronto residents flood Bay Street to celebrate VE Day on May 8, 1945; at bottom, the Canada Day parade makes its way through the streets of Vancouver on July 1, 2017. (Sources of photos: (top) John H. Boyd, City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1266, Item 96241; (bottom) CC/Flickr/GoToVan)

To reclaim the story of Canada, we must make an honest effort to put ourselves in the shoes, boots and moccasins of our predecessors. Rather than simply declaring the people and events of the past to have been unremittingly bad, we should ask ourselves whether those terrible things were done by truly malevolent individuals. And to arrive at a well-grounded answer, we need to put those questionable actions alongside all the good that was done in that era – often by the same individuals. Doing this requires us to see the denizens of the past as real, living, breathing actors coping with a changing and unpredictable world. In other words, people just like us. To make this possible for readers, a popular historian must be prepared to put facts before judgement.

Canada as a nation has plenty to celebrate. And we should do so more often. We should also examine our mistakes in honest fashion in order to better grasp how and why they occurred and ensure they don’t happen again. Popular history that distorts the actual evidence to produce a cadre of aged villains marked for censure and deletion won’t make Canada a better place to live today. Just emptier. And a land without ghosts can never truly be alive.

Stephen R. Bown is the national bestselling author of The Company: The Rise and Fall of the Hudson’s Bay Empire (winner of the 2021 National Business Book Award) and the recently published Dominion: The Railway and the Rise of Canada.

Source of main image: Alexander Ross/Library and Archives Canada/C-003693; for the purposes of this article the original photo was turned into a negative.

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