“Sesquicentennial Cerebrations”

With the July 1 sesquicentennial fading from view, the time is right to turn a critical eye to what the the last 150 years of the Canadian state has meant for Atlantic Canadians. With this in mind, the print journal has a series of “Past and Present” essays that look at the impact of Confederation on a number of groups. What follows is an excerpt from Donald Wright’s introduction to this important series.

by Donald Wright

cerebration, n. the working of the brain; thinking.

Reviewing six new books on the state of the nation put Ramsay Cook in a combative mood during Canada’s centennial year. And so he came out swinging in “Canada’s Centennial Cerebrations,” throwing the first punch in a carefully selected epigraph that in effect compared Canada’s “academic nationalists” and their “contemplations of the Canadian navel” to Chairman Mao and his teachings: “The unity of our country, the unity of our people, and the unity of our various nationalities,” Mao instructed, “are the basic guarantees of the sure triumph of our cause.”1 In Cook’s defence, Canada’s “National Liberation Frontists” could be insufferable and their appeals to national unity and the national cause, however defined, could be tiring. Besides, he had grown up on the Prairies and he understood that what was called nation-building in Ontario was really Ontario-building and that if the National Policy meant tariff protection for Ontario manufacturers it meant more expensive farm machinery for Prairie farmers. He also distrusted appeals to the unity of Canada’s nationalities. The Prairies were a mosaic, he said, not a melting pot, and to suggest otherwise was wishful thinking.2 Cook therefore urged historians to re-think their “frame of reference”: “Instead of constantly deploring our lack of identity, we should attempt to understand and explain the regional, ethnic, and class identities that we do have. It might just be that in these limited identities that ‘Canadianism’ is found.”3


Ramsay Cook

In a second and less well-known paper, presented to the Royal Society a few months later, Cook picked up where he had left off. Nationalism was a political and intellectual dead end, he said, and the nation, used as a “central focus,” had “distorted” Canadian historical writing in English and in French and “narrowed” our understanding of the past. Again, he urged historians to develop different categories of analysis, including region, ethnicity, and class in order to write “the social, intellectual, religious, economic, labour, and agricultural history of Canada.” He also reminded his audience that “were it not for the anthropologists we should know almost nothing of the North American Indian”: is it because, he asked, Indians “muddy the otherwise clear image we have of our nation, one and indivisible?”

Limited identities might have disappeared in the valley of the shadow of Canadian arts and letters had it not been for Maurice Careless. In a 1967 address to the American Historical Association, Careless offered his own cerebrations. “Hung up on the plot of nation-building,” he said, Canadian historians have reduced Canadian history to a teleological morality tale: “There are the good guys and the bad, the unifying nation-builders and their foes.” Like Cook, he urged his colleagues to study Canada through region, ethnicity, and class, or through limited identities. After all, there were at least two Canadas, French Canada and English Canada, and French Canada was more than Quebec while English Canada included “several English Canadas.”5 In short, Canadian history was plural, not singular.

To continue reading, please pick up the latest issue of the print version of Acadiensis.

Donald Wright is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of New Brunswick.


  1. Ramsay Cook, “Canadian Centennial Cerebrations,” International Journal 22, no. 4  (1967): 659, 660.
  2. Ramsay Cook, “Frontier and Metropolis: The Canadian Experience,” XIII International Congress of Historical Sciences (1970): 3. Thirty-five years later he wrote “Growing up in western Canada prepared me thoroughly for what became known as multiculturalism, the normal state of things in small towns and even large cities on the prairies.” See Ramsay Cook, Watching Quebec: Selected Essays (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005), viii.
  3. Cook, “Canada’s Centennial Cerebrations,” 663.
  4. Ramsay Cook, “Canadian Historical Writing,” in Scholarship in Canada, 1967: Symposium Presented to Section II of the Royal Society of Canada in 1967, ed. R.H. Hubbard (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1968), 80, 81.
  5. Maurice Careless, “‘Limited Identities’ in Canada,” Canadian Historical Review 50, no. 1 (1969): 1-10.

About The Acadiensis Blog

The Acadiensis Blog is a place for Atlantic Canadian historians to share their research with both a scholarly and general audience. We welcome submissions on all topics Atlantic Canadian. If you are interested in contributing to the blog, please contact Acadiensis Digital Communications Editor Corey Slumkoski at corey.slumkoski@msvu.ca.
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