Our national narrative, told properly

Happy Canada Day everybody. Despite that no-good low-down murdering rat Henry VII. No, really. Thanks to Robert Fulford’s The Triumph of Narrative, I’ve been pondering Canada’s story for the last year. And now I’m grinding my teeth because I finally read Josephine Tey’s 1951 The Daughter of Time, in which a bedridden policeman investigates whether England’s vilified King Richard III really murdered his nephews, and concludes it was an outrageous Tudor frame-up abetted by Will Shakespeare.

It matters because Canada’s story includes Britain’s long struggle for liberty. If we even have a story any more. Trendy post-moderns deny the very possibility of coherent narratives. But as Mr. Fulford says, woe betide the individual or the nation that loses the thread of its own. I fear we have.

In Tey’s book, protagonist Alan Grant borrows his nurse’s old child’s Historical Reader, in which “Canute rebuked his courtiers on the shore, Alfred burned the cakes, Raleigh spread his cloak for Elizabeth, Nelson took leave of Hardy in his cabin on the Victory, all in nice clear large print and one-sentence paragraphs” with full-page illustrations. Delighted, Grant muses: “This, after all, was the history that every adult remembered.” Not any more, in Britain or here. I don’t think there’s anything we all remember.

Americans don’t have this problem. As Andrew Coyne just wrote, they “are a nation because they believe themselves to be, a belief rooted not in … blood or native tongue, but in the willingness of each to enlist in a common historic mission — to be the light of liberty unto the world — and to the political creed from which it is derived.”

It is not a shallow story. Parson Weems’s Historical Reader of George Washington and the cherry tree is cloying. But imagine a nation conceived in liberty, grown rich and mighty, yet wracked by the “original sin” of racial slavery. Its key illustrations involve not just Washington crossing the Delaware or Jefferson drafting the Declaration of Independence, but Lincoln getting shot and Martin Luther King Jr. saying “I have a dream” as well as Valley Forge and Gettysburg and Omaha Beach and, yes, Khe Sanh too. It has Edison and Ford and Gates, and Neil Armstrong. And a national anthem that ends with a question about freedom’s flag.

Now imagine a Canadian Historical Reader. Single-page, large-print, naively illustrated stories of, I suppose, both Wolfe and Montcalm dying on the Plains of Abraham. Rowdies hurling William Lyon Mackenzie’s printing press into Lake Ontario. The Fathers of Confederation playing leapfrog on the lawn having finally made a nation. Alexander Graham Bell saying “Mr. Watson, come here, I want you.” It being a child’s reader, the illustration will gloss over the battery acid he’d just spilled in his lap.

Perhaps an aging Sir John saying “A British subject I was born, a British subject I will die.” Gallant lads riding off to the South African War. The Newfoundland Regiment going over the top at the Somme. Vimy. Tommy Douglas telling the legislature a Christian nation should have socialized medicine. Corvettes. Dieppe. Juno Beach …

At this point someone will start ripping the illustrations out as fast as I can scrawl them. Too much war. Or post-moderns will hurl the whole thing into the fire. But they are ironic people and will stealthily substitute the plot of Reese Witherspoon’s 1998 movie Pleasantville, where Canada is grim and repressed and black and white and nobody has fun or authenticity until the 1960s when we get naked and socialized medicine and everyone is fulfilled. Illustrations not suitable for children. Except the ugly tyrant Uncle Sam murdering medicare in the Tower before siphoning off all our water.

The advantage of this narrative, beyond legitimizing self-indulgence, is that it avoids the Wolfe-and-Montcalm business. Unlike, say, English Canada telling itself an anglosphere story of American energy plus British decency while in a corner Quebec mumbles Lionel Groulx fables about the revenge of the cradle and being more Catholic than the pope. The disadvantage is, the Pleasantville narrative is neither inspiring nor true and lies cannot bind people.

There is much that is glorious in our true story provided we tell it properly, and much that is tragic as well. But that’s fine; no story moves us unless it turns on one of the three classic themes of man against nature, man against man and especially man against self. (Lately the epic struggle of man against refrigerator has also become topical.) We’re not just a bunch of hosers drinking beer, not being American, and thumbing through the Kinsey report. Nor are we mindless progressives who think newer is always better including in politics.

So a toast, on Canada Day, to that sunny son of York, noble handsome Richard III.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson