What is Canadian?: Answering the Unanswerable

The following post is the third in a series that features collaboration between the Acadiensis blog and the students in Jerry Bannister’s undergraduate and graduate Canadian Studies and History classes at Dalhousie University.

by Randy Westhaver

It seems to me that a significant number of the articles I have read lately with regard to history as a profession, and specifically Canadian history have been narratives of declension. We as historians ask the big questions, and then proceed at length to lament that there isn’t a more optimistic answer. What is our identity as Canadians? Have we lost it? Did we ever have one? Do we have more than one? Countless historians have attempted to answer these questions, and have generated a literary spiral. As a grad student, fresh into the field and naively believing that every question can be answered with a suitable application of effort, I was dismayed that the leading minds in my field struggle to reach consensus on topics so central to our profession.

I struggled to try to reconcile what I considered to be my identity as a Canadian with what I had read. Of course, my own conception of identity couldn’t be expected to function universally. Other Canadians with vastly different backgrounds and experiences could hardly be expected to fit exactly my mold. But are there certain things that unite all of us? Could I create a list of values and experiences we all share? These are the questions that would slip into my mind, uninvited, when I was trying to focus on my papers. After weeks of fretting about how I would postulate a single unifying theory that would magically unite the nation, and prevent the disparate remains of the “former Canada” from spinning off into oblivion, I stopped.

It occurred to me that perhaps it was pointless. No single Canadian identity exists, or is likely to have ever existed. Yet, the 35 million of us that occupy this northern segment of North America seem able to relate to each other. We’re content to add our skills and resources to a common pool and work together to better ourselves. To be sure, we have our disagreements like any family would, but we are a family. We don’t, and have never needed a universally acceptable national mythos to function together. We each personally understand our identity or identities, and that seems to be enough. Perhaps our nation will undergo geopolitical and cultural changes and become completely unrecognizable in days to come. Perhaps it will fragment and evolve in several different directions. But it hasn’t yet.

I don’t believe the questions I posed above can possibly have answers that are universally true. There are too many variables and complexities involved. Each Canadian experiences Canada in a personal way. There appear to be forces that bring us together, which are at the moment stronger than forces which would divide us. Maybe it isn’t important that we be able to identify and quantify them. Accuse me of touting “happy history” if you will, but I would prefer to believe that than the doomsday rhetoric which has become so prevalent.

There are however, smaller questions about our profession which I believe can have, and do deserve answers. For example, the common worry of historians that the general public is increasingly disengaged from academic history. We as historians spend vast amounts of time locked in small rooms churning out brilliantly researched, thought-evoking tomes which can transport other academics to wondrous fields of possibility. These tomes are unfortunately only ever read by a handful of academics in our highly specialized fields, and never enter the public consciousness. We argue that specialization is necessary for true insight, and that using plain language would dull our intellectual tools. Alternatively we claim that the public could never truly appreciate the topics that are most deserving of study. So we toil away, becoming increasingly insular, and loudly bemoaning a public consciousness rife with misinformation, and sharply decreasing student enrollment rates.

Decreased enrollments are the symptom of this loss of engagement that most directly affects us. Shrinking history department enrollment eventually results in a shrinking history faculty. By declining to engage the public, we are slowly doing away with our positions. Popular histories, which evade (and often could never withstand) peer review, are sufficient for non-academics to feel informed, and they see little reason to struggle through a thoroughly boring academic work. Many historians are firmly against “pandering” to the public, but without funding few professional historians could survive.

So what can we do? I would suggest that we would do our profession no harm if occasionally we refrained from using jargon to pat ourselves on the back. A truly effective teacher should be able to explain their curriculum in terms that their student can comprehend. For example, I have recently read, and reread Tim Cook’s At the Sharp End: Canadians Fighting the Great War 1914-1916 (2007). In 600 pages, Cook manages to relate the frontline experience of Canadian infantry during the first half of the Great War. Cook’s work is thoroughly researched, scholarly by any definition, and yet eminently accessible to the average reader. I thoroughly enjoyed it, will be citing it in my thesis, and would recommend it to anyone who wants to learn about the Great War. Admittedly, he doesn’t delve into whether the decentralization of command among fighting units was a battlefield necessity, as well as a symptom of Marxist revolution by the rank and file. He also neglects to ponder what Hobbes or Locke would have prescribed at any point, but perhaps we can forgive him this.

I believe that striving to make our efforts more accessible is not only a good idea, but also a necessity of continuing our discipline. We can provide enlightened syntheses of the human condition, which can be appreciated by the general public without compromising ourselves. Should we make an effort to engage the public? Some questions may be unanswerable, but this one isn’t.


Randy Westhaver is a graduate student at Dalhousie University writing a thesis on WWI Canadian history.

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About cslumkos

Corey Slumkoski is an associate professor of history at Mount Saint Vincent University.
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