At this year's Congress of the Social Sciences and Humanities in Toronto, we will officially launch our new two-volume narrative overview of Canadian history: Conflict and Compromise: Pre-Confederation Canada and Conflict and Compromise: Post-Confederation Canada by Raymond B. Blake, Jeffrey A. Keshen, Norman J. Knowles, and Barbara J. Messamore. In this blog entry, the authors discuss their focus on cleavages as well as compromises, and the importance of understanding our nation's history. Visit us at Ryerson during Congress to receive your examination copies (along with some sweet little gifts) or email us with information about your Canadian history survey course and we will make sure examination copies are shipped to you.
As Canadians commemorate the 150th anniversary of Confederation, they are often asked to rethink the study of Canada’s past. We couldn’t agree more. Good history helps people know and understand the world in which they live and we believe that Conflict and Compromise, a two-volume history of Canada, will help students make sense of their own past. History is a continual process of understanding change and the challenges that we face as a society. We know it reflects the needs and ideas of the moment, and the predilections, prejudices, and ambitions of the generation writing it.
We believe that every period of Canadian history has been marked by cleavages and conflict—among Indigenous peoples, between Indigenous peoples and newcomers, between French and English, elites and rebels, workers and employers, rural and urban domains, immigrants and host society, and region and centre. Cleavages and conflicts have also been evident over ever-changing attitudes about women’s rights, fundamental economic trends, and culture and values. While those cleavages constantly challenge the idea of a single unified nation, Canadian history has also been marked by a process of negotiation and compromise that has enabled Canada to develop into one of the most successful, pluralistic countries in the world. Within that framework of cleavage and conflict, there have been winners and losers and less-than-contented compromisers. Some in Canada have not embraced difference and diversity, but rather used them to demonize the “other,” sometimes as a political lever; at various times, the country has drifted from negotiation and compromise towards a pattern of wedge politics.
Notions of conflict and compromise permeate these books. We believe they provide a basis for discussion and, we anticipate, vigorous debate. Our aim is to tell a story, and to demonstrate causation to students, as opposed to adopting a thematic approach, which does not treat time in a linear fashion and often leaves students struggling to understand how one event connects to, and sometimes causes, another. We are mindful, too, that Canada’s history was often messy and certainly never as neat as it might appear in the pages of these books.
It is our hope that this history of Canada will help readers to see their own country more clearly, to gain greater understanding of its complexity and its place in a wider world, and to appreciate the struggles of those in the past and present to achieve fairness and justice. We believe Canadians want a clear and compelling account to their country’s past. They want to understand its triumphs and setbacks, visionaries and villains, giants of industry and champions of social welfare and civic rights and freedoms. In that narrative it is instructive, for example, to reflect on how truly flawed some of our great Canadians have been. In the academic context, history is not an exercise for promoting pride in citizenship or glorifying some meta-narrative imposing false order on a diverse and complicated past. There are dark aspects of our history: too many people have been marginalized and persecuted, often on the basis of religion, race, or gender, and Canada remains a work in progress, a continuing project that began as a constitutional compromise in 1867.
Most of our readers will be Canadians, and one of our key goals is to enhance our readers’ understanding of the political traditions of their country. As citizens and voters, we have an obligation to be well informed. Canada’s history, as we demonstrate, was not without conflict, but, more often, has been a story of peaceful gradualism, and this history has yielded a nation founded upon compromise. “Unity” may sound like an admirable goal, but a successful nation must accommodate heterogeneity, disagreement, and conflicting visions, rather than seeking to stifle them.
We have traced the line between the many events of pre-contact, of colonial Canada, the formation of a nation, and the 150 years of struggling to build a successful society. Naturally, not all of the events and factors of Canada’s history conduced to this end, but they all created a context which shaped the nation that Canada became. The enormity of this intellectual task is evident. This is a long period of history in which many, many narratives unfolded, unrelated and guided by exigency and opportunity as opposed to any consistent concept of political or social structure. The breadth of this inquiry and the absence of formal markers for presenting the historical evidence require that these books look beyond economics and politics to show the interconnection between all aspects of society and the many connections among them. The problems of selection, description, causation, and relationship are immense.
The deep-seated problems in need of urgent redress do not undercut the fact that Canada’s story is fundamentally one of reasonable success when compared to many other nation-states that make up the international community—a point that is too often overlooked. Canada is one of the world’s most prosperous and welcoming countries, where the rule of law protects people and property and where citizens have access to a rich array of social programs. It is a beacon to many in the world with growing evidence of opportunity, diversity, and social inclusion. In 2015–16, it welcomed 25,000 Syrian refugees with much fanfare. Nearly 20 percent of Canada’s population was born outside the country. The dream of a diverse nation has a long history in Canada and can be traced at least to Robert Baldwin and Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine, and especially to George-Étienne Cartier, one of the really important proponents of Confederation, and others who insisted in 1867 that Canada had to embrace diversity. There is much still to be done, of course. We need only witness urban homelessness; First Nations reserves struggling with teen suicide, inadequate housing, and unsafe drinking water; regional inequities and alienation; gender discrimination and violence against women; and the lingering questions over religion and religious symbols in public spaces—all of which have their origins in Canada’s past—to realize the challenges of our own time.
The field of Canadian history has grown enormously in recent years and scholarly output has been immense. A brief survey of Canada’s history can never hope to cover all aspects of that past nor do justice to every approach taken by our colleagues. We continue to enjoy working in an environment of lively and varied, but civil and respectful, historical controversy. And we hope that some of the ideas raised in Conflict and Compromise will inspire students to explore further the wonderful work of Canada’s many historians.
Raymond B. Blake is Professor and Chair of the Department of History at the University of Regina.
Jeffrey A. Keshen is Dean of Arts at Mount Royal University.
Norman J. Knowles is Professor of History at St. Mary's University in Calgary, Alberta.
Barbara J. Messamore is Associate Professor of History at the University of the Fraser Valley.