Dominion Institute

Recent article Globe and Mail / April 29, 2002

Charlotte Gray

Has the Dominion Institute triggered a new interest in Canadian history?

Five years ago, a 26-year old Torontonian with a degree in history and political science wangled $125,000 from the Canadian Donner Foundation to establish what he calls, "A History NGO." The stated intent of his NGO, or Non-Governmental Institution, was to help Canadians "rediscover the links that exist between our history, civic traditions and common identity." The NGO's activities triggered a new popular interest in the past. Since then, a surging appetite for Canadian history has had publishers, television producers and politicians scrambling to catch up. The rest, as they say, is history.

Or is it?

The young man in question was Rudyard Griffiths, founder and CEO of the Dominion Institute which celebrates its fifth birthday this month. In 1997, the Institute made its inaugural splash with its first annual history survey, which tested general knowledge. The discovery that only 54 percent of Canadians polled could name Canada's first Prime Minister (Sir John A. Macdonald), and only 36 percent knew the date of Confederation (1867) sparked national headlines about collective ignorance. Each year since then, the Dominion Institute has provided further polling evidence that most Canadians graduate from high school without the most basic historical knowledge.

The Institute's polls quickly filtered into the national discourse: they have been quoted in more than two thousand print and electronic media stories and are routinely incorporated into political speeches, such as the 1997 Throne Speech. The polls played into a general concern that history was no longer a core subject in school curricula - a concern expressed most dramatically in an attention-grabber published the following year: the book "Who Killed Canadian History" by Jack Granatstein, professor emeritus of history at York University. Granatstein pointed out that Canadians were graduating from high school with a distorted view of Canadian history. They either knew nothing, or had been told that Canada was "a monstrous regime with blood-stained hands," with past lawmakers responsible for "brutal expropriation, genocidal behaviour, and rampant racism."

The annual History Quiz is the Dominion Institute's best-known initiative. But in the past five years, Griffiths and his team (the Institute now has seven full-time employees) have been busy on several fronts, and have raised $3.1 from government and the private sector to fund them. There is the LaFontaine-Baldwin Symposium, a prestigious lecture and round-table series about Canada's civic culture co-sponsored by His Excellency John Ralston Saul. There are publications of both political debate and historical fiction, the latter including stories by such well-known authors as Margaret Atwood and Timothy Findley. There is a website of Canadians' Top Twenty heroes, at which visitors can download mini-biographies of outstanding individuals and nominate a personal hero (48 percent of Canadians consider Terry Fox Canada's greatest all-time hero). The programme that Griffiths himself regards as the Institute's most substantial achievement is called "The Memory Project - Peace and War," which honours Canadian veterans and educates students and the general public about Canada's military heritage. "We train veterans to share their stories," explains Griffiths, "and we market them to schools. Students listen to their experiences, then record their stories on a website. Last year, 90,000 students took part in this project."

All these programmes have sparked growing admiration for what historian Christopher Moore calls "Canada's history impresario": the entrepreneur who saw that there was a vacuum in public debate on how our political culture has evolved, and who used all the communication techniques of the Internet age to fill it. "Rudyard sees doing historical research as part of developing public policies," says Moore. "And he is really good at creating buzz."

But is this history? The annual History Quiz exasperates some observers, who accuse Griffiths of dealing in "factoids". Knowledge of random events in our past, they suggest, is a Trivial Pursuit approach to history, divorced from the comprehensive framework that a serious student of history requires to contextualize such History Quiz highlights as the Riel Rebellion or the Conscription Crisis.

"It is all very well to know that Sir John A. Macdonald was Canada's first Prime Minister," says Senator Laurier Lapierre, "But if you don't know what he did, what the hell is the point?" An obsession with names and dates, he argues, "is a return to rote learning, which was the bane of my youth." Even Moore, an admirer of the Dominion Institute, suggests that if you ask most Canadians, "What month was the October Crisis?" they are so conditioned to assume ignorance they will automatically reply, "I don't know, they never taught us that at school."

And how far can the Dominion Institute claim credit for a resurgence of interest in popular history? There is certainly a great deal more Canadian history available these days, whether it is the 2000-2001 CBC Series, "Canada, A People's History" or the "Heritage Minutes," produced and financed by Montreal's CRB Foundation (headed by Tom Axworthy). But both these projects pre-dated the Dominion Institute's foundation. In Winnipeg, four years before Griffiths put together the Dominion Institute, Senator Lapierre chaired the first of an annual series of local and regional "Heritage Fairs" which involve schoolchildren in historical activities (everything from cheese-making to law-making) and which last year involved over 110,000 students.

In 1999, another History NGO - HISTOR!CA - was founded, with money from the Royal Bank, Imasco Ltd., Bell Canada, the Toronto-Dominion Bank, and several other major corporations as well as the CRB Foundation. Focussing on television and new broadcasting media, HISTOR!CA produces materials for improved history teaching in schools. "Our over-riding goal," L. R. (Red) Wilson, the former CEO of BCE Inc., who chairs its board of directors, explained at its launch, "is to make Canadian history a priority - to make it more accessible, more enjoyable and more exciting for Canadians of all ages."

The biggest burst of new activity is at the National Archives of Canada, the forbidding 1950s building (shared with the National Library of Canada) that is a couple of blocks west of Parliament Hill in Ottawa. For years, only Canadians who turned up in person (plus a few persistent letter-writers) could visit the extraordinarily rich holdings of the National Archives: the 146,685 metres of documents, the 2.3 million maps and drawings, the 21.2 million photographs, the 341,500 hours of film and sound recordings, the 1 million philatelic items. Since 1995, however, access to the National Archives has widened exponentially. Material such as the 1871 Ontario Census, the records of the 1914-1918 Canadian Expeditionary Force, and Immigration Records from 1925-1935 are now available on line.

The National Archives website is only one of several similar enterprises funded by the federal government. Investment in Canadian history has become a major priority within the Department of Canadian Heritage. Within the next few years the capital will see an ambitious new building for the Canadian War Museum and, right opposite the Parliament Buildings, a new Canadian Portrait Gallery.

This catalogue of new history initiatives suggests not so much a growing hunger for history, as a spreading smorgasbord of accessible historical material. There has always been an appetite for history, argues Christopher Moore: "I would have starved to death years ago if there wasn't." Back in the 1960s and 1970s, Pierre Berton achieved sales of over 100,000 per volume (outstanding by any standards, and phenomenal by Canadian standards) for his books about the Klondike Gold Rush and the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Since then, Moore (a Governor-General's Award winner) has racked up sales of close to 100,000 on such volumes as "An Illustrated History of Canada," (1992) co-authored with Janet Lunn.

The same appetite for historical material was visible with the success of the CBC series, "Canada - A People's History." Two and a half million Canadians tuned in to the first five episodes, making it the most popular Canadian documentary series ever produced Equally spectacular has been the traffic on the National Archives website. In the year 2000-2001, the National Archives site received 73 million hits, and provided 1.3 million user sessions. Pre-website, the largest number of visitors the Archives ever saw was about 50,000. "Genealogy and family history," says National Archivist Ian Wilson, "are the fastest growing hobby in North America." According to a recent poll conducted for the National Archives, 40 percent of Canadians now intend to trace their ancestry and ten percent have already done so. The reactions of many of the NAC's electronic clients are touching: "Your [web] site page [the Immigration 1925-1935 database] brought me to tears," wrote one visitor. "For there was a picture of the SS Metagamma sailing into Quebec City… My Mom was on that ship on that day. She was 14 years old, with her family. They had left Belfast Ireland to homestead in Canada."

But the recent surge of interest in the past has not increased the level of scholarship. History remains the Cinderella of the high school syllabus, omitted altogether in some provinces and disguised as "Social Studies" in others. There has been no increase in the funding for university history departments, or in the number of applicants to undergraduate history courses. "History has not dawned on anybody as a vocation," says Professor Duncan McDowell of Carleton University. When he joined the history faculty there in 1987, it had 32 members: today it is down to 24. "At orientation sessions with high school students," reports McDowell, "You can overhear their parents telling them: 'There are no jobs in history'." Despite studies showing high earning levels for arts graduates, history has lost its appeal as a rigorous academic discipline. "The new interest in our past has not rubbed off on our history departments," reflects Professor Michael Bliss of the University of Toronto. "If anything, they are becoming more irrelevant."

If much of today's history is nothing to do with scholarship, what is it? There is a touch of the Antiques Road Show to some of the new historical offerings, which are little more than a search for glittery knick-knacks and "bygones." A snappy "Heritage Minute" about a hockey player, the hunt for a great-grandparent on the Archives website, or the Dominion Institute's annual History Quiz, is good fun, but hardly leads to a serious appreciation of Canadian history.

But most of the recent historical initiatives share a clear political purpose. Those responsible for them admit that their efforts are geared towards building a shared sense of national identity. Archivist Ian Wilson insists that family histories are an excellent way to connect Canadians with the larger story of our past. "The immigration story is shared by everybody in this country except the First Nations. Our challenge is to capitalize on genealogy as the point of entry into the larger story of the Canada that our clients' ancestors settled in. Then a sense of community builds." Alex Himmelfarb, deputy minister of the Department of Canadian Heritage, explains, "Our working assumption is that knowing our history is a key to knowing ourselves. With globalization and our increasing economic integration with the U.S., it becomes more urgent every day that Canadians understand their own history and the enduring elements of our nation."

At the Dominion Institute, Griffiths himself argues that historical amnesia has led to a dangerous absence of national mythology, without which "Canadians lose any sense of national identity or civic engagement." National institutions such as the monarchy were downgraded, everything for which veterans of two world wars fought was ignored, in an attempt to separate Canada from its colonial past. Only through a revival of respect for our history, he says, will Canadians develop "social cohesion."

However, what sets Rudyard Griffiths apart from the rest of the new breed of historical popularisers is his ability to make history "hot" by being cool - to talk about it in social marketing terms (history as "product"); to hook the Nintendo generation with interactive media; to generate adrenaline by exploring rather than avoiding the touchy issues of Canada's past. In September, for example, the Dominion Institute is plunging into one of the running sores of Canadian history, the story of the French-speaking Métis leader Louis Riel who was executed for treason in 1885. CanWest Global TV will broadcast a mock retrial of Riel, in which Quebec gadfly Guy Bertrand will take the role of Riel, celebrity lawyer Eddie Greenspan will defend him, and former Supreme Court Justice Peter Cory will preside. After the broadcast, viewers will vote via Internet on the verdict.

Griffiths hopes such projects will reconnect Canadians with a history that, he argues, was deliberately suppressed. "During the Pearson and Trudeau years, there was an elite-driven attempt to dump our history because it was seen as the source of French-English conflict and an impediment to national unity," he says. "The Maple Leaf flag is the perfect example of the Pearson-Trudeau rebranding of Canada: we exchanged a symbol that rooted us deeply in our past with the equivalent of the Nike swoosh."

"You can never take the view that history is good in itself," says Professor Bliss. "There is always an instrumental purpose." And Canadian history as a tool of nation-building has a history as long as Canada itself. In October 1907, a Globe editorial noted that "the surest basis of national feeling is found in interest and pride in the past, and the sooner Canadians study and understand the complex movements involved in their origin, thebetter for their ambition to be a nation." What Rudyard Griffiths and the Dominion Institute have achieved in the past five years, according to Alex Himmelfarb, "is to tantalize us with new possibilities."

Historians themselves seem amused by all the new attention now paid to the subject that was once universally dismissed as "boring." Christopher Moore recalls sitting at the 2001 Writers' Trust literary dinner party at a table booked by the law firm Cassels Brock. "I told these lawyers what I write, and one of them instantly said, "It must be great to be doing Canadian history now that it is so HOT!"

"I've never before been told I was hot for being a historian!"

Charlotte Gray's two historical biographies ("Mrs. King" and "Sisters in the Wilderness; The Lives of Susanna Moodie and Catharine Parr Traill") were both bestsellers. HarperCollins will publish her next book, "Flint and Feather; The Life and Times of E. Pauline Johnson Tekkahionwake" in September. CBC is currently making a documentary of "Sisters in the Wilderness."