College Quarterly
Fall 2008 - Volume 11 Number 4
Reviews A History of Canadian Culture: From petroglyphs to product, circuses to the CBC
Jonathan F. Vance
Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2009

Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

As a high school student in the late 1950s and early 1960s, I was taught history the “old-fashioned way.” It was pretty grim. I was exposed to chronology and to a “Whig” interpretation of the legacy of the past. Unlike contemporary students, however, I did learn something of ancient, medieval, renaissance and modern history (all European and North American, of course). I was expected to memorize important dates, be familiar with important rulers and commit to memory the alleged “reasons” for important events.

I did not openly rebel at the notion that there were only five “causes” of the fall of Rome, American independence and World War II, but I was not persuaded that the political, economic and cultural evolution of our species could be so neatly drawn down into cookie-cutter formulae. There had to have been more to it. I also was unhappy with the underlying optimism in the narrative. Even then, it seemed to me that there was something inadequate about a story in which great evils existed, but that they were ultimately, seemingly inevitably and apparently permanently to be overcome—if not in the past, then in the present and if not in the present, then in the foreseeable and ineluctable future. Tyranny, I was assured, would be dissolved and the promise of the Enlightenment would eventually be fulfilled.

As a university student in the mid-1960s, I had it in mind to become a journalist. So, taking a preponderance of my courses in English and History seemed to be a sensible course of action. My ambitions in English were quickly dashed, and I was lucky to escape from my compulsory introductory course with a barely passing grade. History, alas, was only marginally better. My first (and only) course focused on British history since 1760. There was much reading and more attention to detail, but it remained what I would later call conventional “ruling class” history—the comings and goings and doings of prime ministers and generals and monarchs. If common folk, working people, dissenters and reformers appeared at all, it was mainly as problems for the authorities to solve. I quickly abandoned the study of history. Lacking a moral centre apart from applause for success, it lost me.

Unknown to me at the time, of course, genuinely exciting work in what came to be known as “social history” was emerging. Its core was in the United Kingdom. Its theoretical underpinnings were unabashedly Marxist. It explored the structures and dynamics of power and change. Men like Edward Thompson, Christopher Hill, John Saville and Eric Hobsbawm were loose in the land, creating an approach to historical research and theory that would have inspired me to remain within the discipline. It was not to be.

Only years later, under the tutelage of students and friends of Thompson and Saville would I again address the history of Europe and of North America, but I would come at it from a different perspective than the one from which I had originally been taught. I would continue to find catalogues of events, inventories of artifacts and narratives punctuated by battles and Hegelian “world historical” heroes and villains tedious. I would especially recoil from historical accounts that were satisfied to list and not to explore the social formation of notables. I had become focused on political economy.

Jonathan Vance’s book, A History of Canadian Culture, I am afraid, fits largely within the tradition that I found unsatisfying in youth, and have not much enjoyed in the decades since. My judgment may seem harsh; but, if it does, it is more from disappointment at a promise unfulfilled than with any singular failure of scholarship or explication in the book itself.

In fact, Vance does a creditable though necessarily a somewhat superficial job of linking culture in general and the arts in particular to larger political and economic issues. The impact of Europeans upon indigenous peoples is duly noted, and the comprehensive efforts to “obliterate” native cultures are described. The importance of elite patronage in defining what was (and what was not) deemed art is recognized. Foreign dominance and the centrality of imported culture, whether from Britain or the United States, are carefully elucidated. Finally, much attention is given to the role of government both as patron and as regulator.

Vance is properly concerned with the demise and rise of First Nations and Inuit people as indigenous culture was first repressed and later celebrated, especially when Arctic soapstone carvings became temporarily fashionable as gifts to loyal corporate employees upon retirement. The distinct society of Québec is elaborated at some length. Even Canadian nationalism gets its due. There is much talk of voice.

A History of Canadian Culture, of course, does not dawdle. It does not become mired in the past for the past’s own sake. It is not wholly antiquarian. Contemporary “hot button” topics such as the differences among traditional, folk, mass and high cultures are investigated. The economics of continentalism is made relevant in discussions of that hideous oxymoron, “cultural industries.” There is even mention of emerging electronic communications and such tendentious matters as intellectual property and international copyright.

This is all to the good. A genuine history of anything from Etruscan pottery to contemporary research in particle physics is limited when considered sui generis and rendered abstractly and without context. Also good is Jonathan Vance’s skill as a storyteller. He tells a tale and tells it well. It is, however, a tale that would have fit nicely into my antique history courses. It is “interesting.”

Let me explain the scare quotes. Whenever I come across a phrase such as “it is interesting to note …” whether in an academic treatise or a student essay, I cringe. Whenever a perfectly sincere and well-intentioned student approaches me shyly at the end of a semester and thanks me for my efforts in the classroom, saying “it was a really interesting course,” my teeth grind as I force a smile and encourage the youth to have a nice life. The reason is that “interesting” is about the most insipid excuse for a compliment that I can imagine. And Jonathan Vance’s book is enduringly interesting. It is the sort of work that has to be done, I suppose, in order to survey a subject without getting into specialized (not to say arcane) detail. It makes a serviceable background text for someone anxious to learn the basics of Canadian culture in less than five hundred pages. Nonetheless, it lacks defining structure and a clear explanatory principle.

Still, Jonathan Vance completes his project with some artistry of his own. So, perhaps I am merely giving expression to disappointments and resentments that I have only barely repressed for half a century. If so, I am not according author Vance the respect he deserves. If anything, I am decrying the genre and not the particular example. So be it.

I will say this in support of scholar Vance. Although his book remains mainly merely “interesting,” I do wish there were many more like it covering subjects as broad as his entire tome, or as narrow as any of its chapters in fields from agriculture to zoo-keeping. I applaud “histories” of all sorts, especially if they can engage young people and inspire them to look backward to help understand the present and present a guide to the future. Perhaps Vance’s book will do so. That would help a little bit.

You will recall that I mentioned taking high school courses in ancient, medieval and modern history. They were compulsory at the time. They are no longer.

A few years ago, I had both specific personal and specific professional reasons to be concerned with Canadian high school curricula. I learned, I am appalled to say, that it was possible for a young person to graduate from an Ontario secondary school with only a single, one-semester course in “current events.” In Alberta, I am told, a youth can escape high school with no exposure to history whatsoever.

So, if exposed only to Professor Vance’s text, I still might have fled the study of history—but I would, at least, have been exposed to it, perhaps locking away a few exhibits and some half-formed ideas for future reference. Of course, for those with a pre-existing commitment to the subject of Canadian culture and seeking a wide-ranging introduction, this book might actually be engaging. If nothing else, it contains a commendable inventory of dates, personality portraits and a catalogue of events which further study might illuminate to good effect. For this alone, and despite my misgivings, Jonathan Vance deserves appreciation.


Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. He can be reached at howard.doughty@senecac.on.ca

Reviews

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