Sunday, April 06, 2008

Boring? Surely Not Canadian History!

Part 1: Wherein your author rants about the geopolitical relevance of Canadian history.

I was speaking with some work colleagues the other day, and the conversation turned towards my area of historical specialty. I did the usual "I studied this in grad school", which leads to "so I am very knowledgeable of A, B, and C", which is why today I am doing (X). Usually, turning to this area tends to be a bit of a conversation killer. My area of specialty is rather esoteric, so most hear about it, nod their heads, agree that it is quite interesting and that I must have done a lot of work, and then: silence.

This time, however, a rather interesting remark was made: "well, it makes sense that you don't do Canadian history, because it is just so boring." I was more than a little taken aback. First, I thought I had made it clear that although I am not a Canadian-ist, I am very familiar with Canadian history. I have studied events in Canadian history for the purposes of comparative analysis, as well as for case studies. So in a way, although I may not identify as a Canadian historian, I certainly do believe that there is merit to the study.

My response to the statement was a little long-winded, but I'll summarize it here: Canadian history is more than just about Canada, it is a case study of modern state building. Now, a quick definition for a "State": a political entity with clearly defined geographical borders, autonomous authority over that territory, and effective power with which to coerce its population. "Modern States", IMHO, are characterized by a central government with a complex bureaucracy, having the power to levy tax(es) and legislate policy. In Europe, the "Modern State" GREW out of the ancien regime. Parliamentary democracy and bureaucratic institutions came about through a slow trial and error process.

Canada, on the other hand, came into existence with the entire arsenal of a modern state. Parliament and various federal ministries came into being with the ratification of a single document, the BNA Act. Now, quibbling about the nature of the ruling British authority aside (not to mention the transfer of power from the colonial office), the Canadian state came into existence with all of its modern machinery intact.

This is different from the experience of the United States (equally interesting, but different) where the people making up a territorial region chose the incarnation of their state, and determined its structure and powers.

Is Canadian history boring? Certainly no one who has studied any of it would say it is. I think, however, that the intent of the person from whom the original statement emerged was to conflate uninteresting and irrelevant into one term: boring.

As far as the relevance of Canadian history is concerned, I tend to think that it is more relevant than the histories of most other nations. This is not just because I am both Canadian and an historian. If you just look at Canadian history "from afar", you are looking at the colonial and post-colonial experience of the people living in Canada. The fact that Canada came into being with a fully-formed modern State, and continues to exist today is incredible considering the problems that the nation has had to face: uniting an ethnically and religiously divided population, as well as uniting and maintaining control over a vast geographic area.

I think that if you want to find out what has gone wrong in other areas of the world where a post-colonial modern state has crumbled, it is more than useful to compare that story to the Canadian one. By understanding what went right in Canada, and what made the Canadian state as successful as it has been; one can gain a useful understanding of the problems facing other regions and other peoples today.