Revisionist History

Written by Tim King

Throughout history oppressive regimes have rewritten history in order to justify their existence. By creating a fictional history, these authorities use a powerful form of propaganda to support their powerbase. Citizens under them are unable to act on historical truth and continue to develop their society in a meaningful way because what actually happened does not exist for them. When these same people see lies as truth, there is no chance of history being understood on its own terms, and no chance for a society to continue to improve. Nationalist or culturalist bias in a history text is a very dangerous issue because of the danger of lapsing into propaganda and societal lethargy.

Nationalism is found throughout the Oxford Canadian History text booked named Flashback Canada (4th edition). There is a general patina of British positivism in the description of Canadian history that tries to show the entire experience in the best possible light while simultaneously ignoring less positive elements such as aboriginal genocides, French oppression and rampant racism. This British-Canadian nationalistic agenda can be found in everything from the choice of materials to the radical rewriting of history inferred in many of the images selected for the text.

On page 20-21 students are introduced to the concept of the "Underground Railroad". The section ends with a somewhat overwhelming "Escaping from bondage, thousands of fugitive slaves from the South - men, women, and children ? found in Canada friends, freedom, and protection under the British flag." (22) Nowhere is the extreme prejudice they were met with when they arrived in Canada mentioned, nor how they were encouraged to move into isolated communities apart from those of white Canadians. There is no doubt that their experience in Canada was better than the slavery experienced in the South, but this text describes Canada as a shining paragon of human virtue, which it was not.

This redefining of Canada's questionable racial history continues as the artists who created many of the images for this text ignore historical fact in favor of a modern, liberal, colour-blind view of a Canada that never was. Front and centre in the mock political debate about Confederation depicted in the text (pictured above) are women, natives, Asians and blacks, all groups that had no interest in politics because they were not given the right to vote in Canada until many years after the fact. The reason white men fill the pictures of early Canadian politics is because they were the only ones allowed to partake in it. To recreate the history of the country in this way is one of the many reasons History itself cannot be taken as seriously as it should be.

If the people presenting it are more interested in nationalistic agenda and the politics of today, then they are little more than peddlers of propaganda and do a great disservice to a branch of human inquiry that should be held up to standards of honesty and accuracy at least equivalent to those found in science. As the second picture indicates, this reinvention of Canadian history in a racial and gender harmonious light is untrue and done purely to serve a false sense of nationalistic pride in a sense of multiculturalism that is a recent development. Reprinting multiculturalism into Canadian history is simply untrue.

I would also question if this type of fiction actually helps visible minority students to feel inclusive (this is the only possible explanation I can come up with for it), or if it makes the entire Canadian experience appear a lie. Surely these same children would hear a more culturally exclusive experience from their own parents and grandparents. How does a black child reconcile the "truth" in their text book, with the horrible racial experiences told to them by their grand parents? One of them is lying, and the text has the power of authority behind it.

A more complex example of cultural bias may also be found in the text. A group of Saskatchewan settlers, rich immigrants from England, are described in their glory, conquering the land and bringing their culture with them. European non-British immigrants barely survive by the skin or their teeth and natives are protected and appear grateful to the very people who have displaced them from their lands (p.142-144). Even though the Canadian Pacific Railway is covered in its own chapter of twenty pages, issues like the use of Chinese laborers on the railroad are covered very briefly in less than a page and summarized with, "It is not a proud chapter in Canadian history." (p.164) British North America is the foundation of the book as it opens and there is no doubt that a sub-textual element in the book is the maintenance of the idea that British North America is very much the core of the new, racially harmonious Canadian identity that the book is advocating and inventing.

If you're curious, you can lookup "Flash Back Canada" - it's a commonly used text book found in grade 8 classes across Ontario, and it's full of some truly fictional, revisionist history.