Monday, April 20, 2009

"Why I Like American History Better Than Canadian History" *

I’ll say it in three words, in case you don’t have time to read the whole thing:

Americans did stuff.

Do you know…wait, I won’t ask you about Canadian history. I don’t want to embarrass you. To which the wiseass American response would be

“Who’s embarrassed?”

Okay, you don’t know anything about Canadian history and you’re not embarrassed. But you’re not embarrassed for the wrong reason. You’re not embarrassed because you don’t care. That insults Canadians. To which, the wiseass American response would be a sarcastic

“Soh-ry.”

(Wiseass Americans are rarely at a loss for a provocative response, a situation which encourages me to renew my Canadian passport.)

The actual reason not to be embarrassed about not knowing about Canadian history is because

not a heck of a lot happened.

I may be, no, I’m sure I am insulting my Canadian readers with this opinion. For that, I’m sarry. (The American version of “Soh-ry.”) I’m not aware of how much Canadian history is taught in Canadian High Schools today, but when I went, I recall learning considerably more British history than I did Canadian. It’s like there wasn’t enough Canadian history for an entire term, so they threw in a little Battle of Hastings and Edward the Confessor to fill it out.

I don’t know if this is true of the majority of Canadians, but I know more about American history than I do about my own. This knowledge came less from study than from movies and television. They didn’t make many shows about Canadian history. And for good reason. To make entertainment from history, something at least moderately interesting would have had to have taken place.

Consider the comparison:

America became a country by battling the British until Cornwallis gave up. The British said, “We quit. The place is yours. We’ll be back in 1812.” (I’m not sure why they came back in 1812. The only worthwhile thing to come out of it was a hit tune by Johnny Horton. “In 1814, we took a little trip…”)

America became a country by fighting for its freedom. Here, as best as I can remember is how Canada became a country. In 1867, a delegation petitioned the British government for Canada to become an independent country, and the British government said,

“Okay.”

Anyone see the makings of an exciting miniseries in that story? A patriotic folk tale? A blood-stirring anthem?

We went to the British
One bright summer’s day
We asked to be a country
And the British said okay…

“Way to take it to ‘em, boys!”

A proud moment in a country’s history, a country that would not have its own flag for another hundred years, and would continue to have to stand for “God Save The Queen” at the end of every movie. (My friends and I always tried to gauge when the movie was about to end and sneak out early. Soh-ry, Your Majesty.)

Canada became a country by legislative fiat. The British North American Act. There’s something to set your heart to pounding.

“My Pappy died for The British North American Act. No, wait, he didn’t. But he did sign the petition. By Gum!”

America fought a four-year Civil War, where, since both combating sides were Americans, the American death toll was disturbingly high. Canada, as I cloudily recall, also had some form of civil-war type confrontation in 1837. I believe it lasted a day.

I remember hearing about the two opposing “armies” marching up (and down) Yonge Street (pronounced “Young Street”) to engage each other in battle, Yonge Street being Toronto’s longest thoroughfare, both then and now.

Apparently, what happened was that, when the two sides came within sight of each other, one of the combatants – p’rhaps nervous about the impending battle, eh? – accidentally tripped, his gun went off, and both sides immediately ran for the hills. There’s likely more to the story than that, but that, because it’s how the teacher told it, is what stayed in my mind – an accidental misfire, and that’s all she wrote.

Once again, no miniseries possibilities. Maybe a short Public Service Announcement. A fifteen-second recreation, followed by an actor playing a “typical Canadian” saying:

“Remember now, if you’re walkin’ with a gun – though I can’t for the life of me think why you’d be doin’ that – make darn sure your “safety’s” on. Holy Geez, you don’t want to trip and fall and accidentally shoot somebody’s eye out. Show some consideration, fer cryin’ out loud.”

Finally, this warning, flashing across the screen:

1837. It happened once. It can happen again.

I know it’s not deliberate, but it almost seems as if Canada was trying not to have a colorful past. Consider this little historical tidbit.

How Canada Became English Rather Than French

1759. The Battle of the Plains of Abraham. England versus France, for all the marbles – beaver pelts, the logging industry – the whole ball of wax. The battle itself, I know nothing about. It could have been magnificent. I have no idea, in no small measure because my teachers had no interest in dramatizing the material. Know when it happened, know how it turned out, and move on to the history of Hudson’s Bay Company.

The only thing I remember about The Battle of the Plains of Abraham – and this just makes me shake my head in dismay – is that by the time the encounter ended, both commanding generals – England’s Wolfe and France’s Montcalm – had been killed.

First question: What kind of generals stand that close? Second Question: Both of them? I know it’s actual history, but Americans wouldn’t stand for such an embarrassment.

“They both got killed?”

“They both got killed.”

“No.”

Americans would demand a rewrite. You can’t have both generals getting killed. It’s like a joke.

THE FRENCH: “We are surrendering. To ‘oom do we ‘and over our sword?

THE ENGLISH: “D’nno, mate. Our commanding general’s been killed.”

THE FRENCH: “Really? Ours too.”

Sound like Battle of the Bulge material to you?

I know. You don’t make history for entertainment purposes. Although America appears to have had that in mind. The Alamo? Custer’s Last Stand? That’s killer stuff. That’s sure-fire box-office.

What does Canadian history offer by comparison?

I believe we invented insulin.

Pretty good.

But it's no Davy Crockett.

* I know there are people who find American history problematic. I speak only from the perspective of its not being excruciatingly boring.

9 comments:

growingupartists said...

Okay, confession*...I haven't read your whole post yet, this is a knee jerk response. And good morning.

America's history is NOT more interesting, it is MADE more interesting. Through stories, mister storyteller.

Also, I know a Canadian who feels quite miffed that she's forced to teach her daughter all about American history (fellow homeschool mom), and quite disconnected from it all. As her friend, being who I am to my friends, I long to know HER history. I'll make it interesting in my own mind, I always do.

growingupartists said...

Second confession*...so bored by all the history, will have to read it later. But, Canada has more culture. I felt it when I was at one of their shopping malls, not just the freaky exchange difference, or all the unusual candies (which did seem to be copying America, and their drug stores)...weird highways too, and gloomy weather.

Canada has SOMETHING, doesn't it? Oh yeah, graphic designers and neon artists, NOW I remember! Collectors of classic toys, antiques. Fine gentlemen with manners. Um, awesome buildings. What is the history of those buildings, they were awesome.

The British, however IS where history should begin, for all of us. We are an arrogant nation because we aren't taught to honor British history, British folklore, any of the patterns of thought that have led us where we are today.

I have a great classical education website that is a comprehensive learn your British history lesson...and in time, THAT is who I want my children to be.

There is so much wrong with America, it almost feels wrong to continue celebrating it as if we're untouchable. We need Canada to stand proud in its parliament because it's good communication, ritual, and honor. We need MORE of Canada in our blood. NO, not blood. In our lampshades. Yes, in our lampshades.

MikeThe Blogger said...

I don't think it is a problem of the educational studying of Canadian history that is the problem. I am sure teachers make American history almost as boring. It is the entertainment industry that has fictionalized the history for profit. Take for example the film, The Great Escape. There was no Steve McQueen or James Garner involved. It was a Canadian/British operation. The tunnels were dug by Canadian miners. But WE DIDN'T MAKE THE MOVIE! (Earl we needed great writers like you to stay in Canada) And the war of 1812 was an American attack on Canada to expel the British, (and eventually the Spanish from Florida) so the US could expand unrestricted on the continent. But things did not go well. Another war the Americans lost - Detroit was gutted (much like today), the White House was burned, Brock repelled the American attack at Queenston Heights (and a spy started a candy company). He led his troops in the charge (like Caesar)but was fatally wounded in the battle. Exciting history if people told it well. And why would their National Anthem be created from a defeat - oh, well.

Willy B. Good said...

Ya but at least Canada has better hockey history!

A. Buck Short said...

Combining the best of both worlds, please enjoy the following Youtube video of Johnny Horton demonstrating what Davy Crockett might have looked like in ermine rather than coonskin.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LsRK3DNoa_Q

I would have to say that down here, we are taught an equal amount of the history of both countries, Texas and the United States. I’ll have to take your word about Wolfe and Montcalm, but this is absolutely true, my best friend Richard was arrested on the Plains of Abraham, or more specifically at the Citadelle, the walled fortress apparently left standing from that earlier confrontation to protect, this time, the Québécois from another French sneak attack. It was 1962 and my friend’s uncle, Col. “Didd” Guthrie, who was head of the Quebec VA hospital, was taking us on a privileged tour of a part of the fortification that was generally off limits to the general public. Even more so, because, at the time, the entire Citadelle had been restricted in anticipation of the visit by the Queen of England the following week, and there was considerable fear of disruption – or worse—from the French separatists. Explosives had been mentioned. (The Queen was visiting to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the city’s historic Black Watch regiment – and possibly to upgrade the unit to Rolex Oyster Perpetual Cosmograph regiment.)

For some reason Richard fell behind, and then suddenly disappeared altogether. We discovered that, traditionally comporting himself with a suspicious Clouseau-like bearing, and a vaguely European affectation in generally, this high school student had been taken into custody, perceived as a potential mortal threat to Her Majesty. Fortunately, by the time we arrived to explain the situation, the Mounties had determined that Richard possessed no discernable bomb ("Do you 'ave a bumb?") on his person.

The other thing I remember about that visit is we stayed in the Guthrie home, which was the actor Glenn Ford’s family home in Port Neuf, situated on an island in the middle of a river that was only accessible via a rope footbridge. A truly bucolic paradise, had it not been for the intrusive presence of the huge and cacophonous Ford family paper mill approximate 200 feet away on the riverbank, which is also where we parked the car. Apart from the logs flowing downriver, the only other thing I remember is one of the mill’s unusual specialty products: toilet paper with currency printed on each sheet in the roll. Those wacky Canadians!

David Wright said...

History, any history, is interesting if the people are interesting. That is why I have enjoyed so many books by Pierre Berton: Invasion of Canada, Vimy, Marching as to War.

Of course, the CBC blew it when they made a mini-series of "The National Dream" decades ago, it was terrible. However, the more recent movie about the Arrow was great.

Of course, there was that comedy duo on CBC, Earl and some other guy...

Anyway,

PD said...

Have you even heard of a guy named Louis Riel? Do a yourself a favour and look him up - who he was and what he did make for some interesting history. But then again he only led two rebellions against Canada and founded Manitoba. But maybe you're from Toronto, where there Canada doesn't exist west of Yonge Street.

How about the role Canada (as an British Colony) played in the American revolution? It did end with the White House being burned in retaliation for the Battle of York.

How about the Oka crisis, the October Crisis or even the fact that gay marriage was legalized 4 years ago? Or are none of those old enough to be considered historical?

Yes, a lot of Canadian history is boring. But then again a lot of ex-pats are lazy.

Gary Mugford said...

Got the reaction you expected didn't you?

Really, history is in the telling. I got a fine education in Canadian history. I cherish the characters that helped build our great nation and I'm glad we didn't go through a lot of murderous self-flagellation to get there. (Okay, we had just a little bit)

I like our dual cultural heritage and have no problem swiping the best parts of BOTH British and French history to colour up our own tall tales.

Really, separating truth out of many of the Bunyonesque tall tales that too many of our friends to the south accept as gospel, seems a bit beyond a lot of people. It's almost, as you point out, that Americans need their history to be interesting and entertaining.

There IS a reason why 'true' gets mentioned four times in the Canadian anthem, but not at all in the Star-Spangled Banner.

My only quibble is the seeming glee that so many Americans take in NOT knowing the history of their continental partners. Pride in ignorance is beyond my comprehension.

Yes, we learn too much American history at the expense of some interesting home-grown stuff. But better that, than thinking Americans ever beat Canada at war.

GM

Sorry, just not feeling it for Vancouver... like L.A., Las Vegas, San Diego, San Francisco, NYC, and Miami. said...

Overseas, it gets real annoying when you run across a bunch of hick Canadians who act like they know more about America than actual Americans when they never, ever set their "soh-ree" ass in our proud nation in their lives.

I grew up just south of L.A. in Orange County and they act like they know more about how life is like there than we do just because they rented a bunch of VHS films from a Canadian shack back in the 90's from their little neck of the woods...