12.1 Introduction

Exterior of National Film Board of Canada building
Figure 12.1 The National Film Board came under heavy fire in the early 1990s when it produced a 3-part series, The Valour and the Horror, on what it claimed were less-than-noble moments in Canada’s WWII record. The CBC aired the series and was excoriated by politicians and veterans alike.

Just as 1914-1918 marks a watershed in the history of the modern world, so does 1989-1991. The end of the Cold War signalled to some a turning point in international affairs and, thus, the end of the “short 20th century.”

Francis Fukuyama (b. 1952), an American political economist, argued in his 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man that the centuries-long struggle between competing ideologies was essentially settled and that liberal democracies with market economies had won. It wasn’t that “history” itself was over but that the idea of history as an unfolding of alternative models of social and economic relations was done. This constitutes a response to Karl Marx — the 19th century political economist — who predicted, instead, the inevitable triumph of the industrial proletariat, the elimination of national governments and states, and the emergence of global (though not Soviet) communism.

One could debate endlessly whether Fukuyama was on target, premature, or a decade late. His work nevertheless underscored the fact that the world had reached a watershed in the early 1990s. The growth of the nation state since the 18th century — as an idea and a phenomenon — had dominated thinking about history for two centuries. The Western perspective was severely linear and, after the mid-19th century, evolutionary as well. Nations developed from antiquity through feudalism, absolutism, capitalism, and sometimes communism, to something new. Each nation moved along this course at its own speed because its economic needs favoured one system over the last. This view was at the heart of Marxist theory but also the models of most other Western thinkers, journalists, and — importantly — historians. For example, the Whig historians of the 19th and early 20th century argued that the history of humanity was a constant movement forward — progress — toward a better and better society. However, the Whigs were no Marxists; they were small-l liberals who believed that greater freedoms — from feudalism or monarchism, for example — led to greater happiness and a better nation state. For the most part, the business of writing history has been bound up with the question of how nations form and operate. This has been done in the service of the idea of a Fukuyama-esque history, the unfolding of a nation’s story from beginning to end (or more cheerily) to a continuously brighter and better future.

If History (with a capital “H”) existed to serve (and serve up) the national story of progress, it was deeply rooted in modernity. The modern age, with its emphasis on social and technological progress, was both the environment of the state and a measure of its success. Democracy, a wider distribution of wealth and opportunity, and the latest infrastructural fashions were the means and ends simultaneously. The blueprints of modernity, as we have seen nearly two centuries ago, would inevitably require revision.

At the end of the Cold War, the balance of global power changed dramatically. International bipolarism was over, and when the stand-off between the two superpowers evaporated, the necessity and perhaps the possibility of mutually assured destruction (MAD) also went out the door, even though more nations had joined the “nuclear club.” The urgency felt by successive governments in Canada to deliver the “good life” so to make communism look less appealing was effectively gone as well. Beyond foreign affairs and domestic policies, however, the “end of history” also suggested the end of the meta-narrative. In this new postmodern era, the saga of the nation had outlived its purpose. History — that assembling of stories about the past that offer insights into the affairs of humans then and now — could shift its focus away from what the popular historian Pierre Berton (1920-2004) called “the national dream.”[1] The spotlight could now fall on stories that had either been viewed as unimportant or irrelevant to the main event, or to histories that actually countered modernity’s forward march.

The most visible facet of that postmodernist trend in the writing of history has been post-colonialism. At one stage in the history of Canada — for something like 200 years — colonization (biological settlement and populating) and colonialism (the intentional suppression of Indigenous peoples) were regarded approvingly as two of the foremost elements of the Canadian project. Through that lens, “Aboriginal history” was almost an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. Post-colonialism made room for histories of First Nations that provided other perspectives and, from time to time, spoke with Aboriginal voices.

This chapter engages with several of these ideas. What was Canada like in the first decade or so at the “end of history”? In what ways was the postmodern made manifest in domestic, social, economic, and international affairs? How had our world and historic view changed? Could Canada continue to hide from its colonialist past in a post-colonial world? Canada’s emerging international and domestic preoccupations are explored, including the fringe political movements of the day. As the meta-narrative of Canadian history began to fray, it became possible to look with some detachment at the ways in which national identity and alternative identities were constructed in the 20th century, which included challenges to the “normal” that were increasingly launched in the 1980s, 1990s, and the new millennium. If the histories that sustained the national project were no longer vitally necessary or particularly welcome in the academy, what replaced them? As the postmodern world fractured storylines into increasingly specialized fragments, historians began to question whether a national history was even possible. This chapter explores some aspects of the newer historical interests, including two considerations of digital histories.

History Wars

The idea that historical method has responded to this changed world is also engaged in this chapter. If the focus of historical research is no longer the political history of the state, it moves from the parliamentary archives into different places and employs different tools while asking different questions. History itself changes along with the society that has emerged at history’s end.

The writing of history proceeds unevenly for many and diverse reasons. In the 1960s and 1970s, there was a sudden explosion of excellent social and political history for three reasons. First, as a response to the baby boom and a national Cold War-era commitment to further education (which, notably, replaced an earlier ideology of exclusivity), there were vastly more university and college campuses and seats available to a rising generation. Second, that cohort was itself more diverse than any other in Canadian post-secondary education to that time, and it brought to the seminar table its own concerns about society and the stories we tell. Third, out of that hothouse came a generation of scholars — larger than any before it — with a shared cultural experience and language that enabled the transformation of historical studies. The benefits have been a rich legacy of investigations into the society and culture of Canada with the chief liability being a bottleneck of Cold War-era academics whose views continue to dominate as successive generations of historians strive to be heard.

By way of an example, we can look at histories of the West. Valerie Korinek, an authority on Prairie and queer history, offers some insight into where Canadian history has failed to go, and calls for Western historians in particular to pay attention to the late 20th century:

This was a time of considerable transformation for the Prairie West (some might argue Western ascendancy, albeit uneven) as it reconfigured from a primarily rural to an urban place, as it became an economic powerhouse, and as demographic shifts made it an increasing social and political force within the country. This transformation needs to be explored and assessed historically. Regretfully, Western historians have failed to participate in enumerating and evaluating these substantive historical changes in the second half of the twentieth century….[2]

It is not fair to say that Western Canadian historians are stuck in the past (insert winking emoji here), but the truth is that contemporary or even post-centennial histories are rare. What Korinek identifies is, in part, the challenge of contemporary history. How old do events have to be before they slip from one side of the ledger (made up of Politics, Economics, Sociology, etc.) over to the other side (where we find History)? There’s no ironclad rule on this front. The 20th century historian Kenneth McNaught (1918-1997) is said to have claimed that everything after World War One constituted “current events.” To someone born in 1918, that might make some sense but, as all historians come to realize, that boundary is always in motion. The historians who came of age in the late 1960s — mostly born in the 1940s — might be excused for feeling uncomfortable with histories of life after 1939, although that has not held back everyone. Alvin Finkel’s Our Lives: Canada after 1945 and Doug Owram’s Born at the Right Time: A History of the Baby Boom Generation show baby boomers successfully tackling the mid-century as an historical environment. However, as Korinek points out, older discourses persist, narratives become embedded within narratives, and we risk becoming unaware of the changes that history might reveal to us.

In Canadian History: Pre-Confederation, I describe the current state of historical writing, including the conflict between generations of historians that took place in the 1990s. The so-called History Wars pitted the older nationalist historians against the rising generation of scholars who argued there was no longer one meta-narrative of the Canadian experience. Building a national identity out of a shared historic experience was the task set before modern historians; deconstructing those stories to show how they implicitly privileged certain groups and perspectives was the challenge taken up by newcomers to the field.

The nationalist historians went down swinging.[3] While their leading figures — Jack Granatstein among them — remained productive but increasingly marginalized from the innovative work in the discipline, their advocates did not completely surrender the battlefield. Efforts to recast Canadian history as something comfortably familiar were undertaken in the last decade by conservatives who regard the Pearson years and its “pennant” as the point in time when Canada drifted from its moorings. For example, a cohort of British, imperialist, and fans of military history sought to restore a common curriculum of nation-serving historical studies in the schools and universities. They failed… mostly. While English-Canadian historical research turns its back on nationalist histories, nationalist views are increasingly embedded in the teaching of French-Canadian history in Quebec. “The History Wars,” writes University of Guelph historian Mark Sholdice, “are really not about history, but rather politics.”[4] The great English historiographer E. H. Carr wrote: “The facts speak only when the historian calls on them”; the historian “decides to which facts to give the floor….”[5] We make those decisions based on, among other things, the politics around us and the politics we live, be that green, feminist, conservative, separatist, religious, or nationalist. It isn’t that political history is at an end; rather, the net we cast to capture political change must necessarily be larger.

Learning Objectives

  • Account for the rise of “identity politics” in the post-Cold War era.
  • Explain the failure of both the Charlottetown Accord and the 1995 Referendum.
  • Describe the ways in which the end of the Cold War changed Canada’s foreign policy and domestic politics.
  • Identify ways in which historians have adapted their craft in a postmodern world.
  • Outline the ways in which the Canadian national character and symbols have been crafted and changed since Confederation.


Figure 12.1
Office national du film montreal by Chicoutimi is used under a CC-BY-SA-3.0 license.

  1. Berton’s history of the CPR, The National Dream, was first published in 1970 and was followed the next year by The Last Spike. Both describe the project and the politicians and capitalists behind it in heroic, nation-building terms. These are, in all likelihood, the best selling Canadian history books ever. A great popularizer of history, Berton was also a champion of the nationalist school.
  2. Valerie Korinek, “A Queer-eye View of the Prairies: Reorienting Western Canadian Histories,” in The West and Beyond: New Perspectives on an Imagined Region, eds. Alvin Finkel, Sarah Carter, and Peter Fortna (Edmonton, AB: Athabasca University Press, 2010), 281.
  3. There is no universally accepted collective noun for historians, but the phrase, "an argumentation of historians" is sometimes preferred.
  4. Mark Sholdice, “The History Wars in Canada,” Toronto Review of Books, May 5, 2013, accessed January 27, 2016, http://www.torontoreviewofbooks.com/2013/05/the-history-wars-in-canada/#_edn1.
  5. E. H. Carr, What is History? 2nd ed. (Markham, ON: Penguin Canada, 1987), 11.


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Canadian History: Post-Confederation Copyright © 2016 by John Douglas Belshaw is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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