People's Citizenship Guide: A Response to Conservative Canada

People's Citizenship Guide: A Response to Conservative Canada

Esyllt Jones, Adele Perry

Reviewed by Elise Chenier

People’s Citizenship Guide: A Response to Conservative Canada is just that. It uses Discover Canada, the new Canadian Citizenship Guide, as a launch pad for critiquing the current federal government’s ideological leanings, leanings expressed in Discover Canada through a greater emphasis on the British monarchy, the military, and the rule of law. The usual centrist suspects Jack Granatstein and Rudyard Griffiths of the Historica-Dominion Institute appear in the acknowledgements, but so too do Desmond Morton, Margaret McMillan, and Jim Miller. We cannot know how well Discover Canada reflects their contributions, but with respect to indigenous peoples, Quebec, and “ethnic diversity,” a progressive view of Canadian history as represented in books like Margaret Conrad and Alvin Finkel’s History of the Canadian Peoples runs through the text. Women and labour do less well. A statement about gender equality is followed by the assertion that Canada does not tolerate the “’barbaric cultural practices’ such as spousal abuse, ‘honour killings,’ female genital mutilation, forced marriage and other gender-based violence,” thus denouncing sexism while simultaneously invoking a history of Western racialization and xenophobia (9). Responsibilities appear more prominently than rights, and nowhere does the federal guide indicate that Canadians have the right to join a union, for example. A Maclean’s editorial praised Discover Canada for reinforcing “the responsibilities of all Canadian adult citizens: including jury duty, getting a job and obeying the law,” suggesting that despite the open acknowledgement of Canada’s long history of inequality, Discover Canada validates anti-immigrant and anti-social welfare stances. Equally disconcerting to progressive centre and left Canadians is the emphasis on Canada’s link to the monarchy and the military (8-9).

The People’s Citizenship Guide offers an interesting and engaging counterpoint to the current re-branding of Canada’s once peaceful, rights-championing image (although we quarreled with that, too). Penned by historians Esyllt Jones and Adele Perry, the Guide is a testament to the discipline’s deeply political nature, especially where it concerns our understanding and interpretation of nation and state. It paints its own ideologically driven portrait, informed, as the title suggests, by the needs of the people rather than the objectives of the state. It is not a people’s history so much as a history of the way in which the state has negatively impacted the experiences of people living within the region now known as Canada. By choosing to counter the current government’s messaging with a critique of the state rather than a record of everyday experiences, the Guide reminds us that Canada’s progressive left is overwhelmingly social democratic. Where Discover Canada characterizes the tools of the Canadian state as enabling “ordered liberty” (8), these historians see the state as a potential tool for ensuring full equality. The book documents how it has failed to do so.

The Guide oversimplifies the Conservatives’ representation of history, especially as it appears in Discover Canada. The commemoration of the War of 1812 showed us that the current government can get their history wrong, but Discover Canada at least does not “exclud[e] whatever facts and experiences [that] complicate its nostalgia for a simple past that never really was”(6). Nevertheless, the Guide offers something valuable and rare: an opportunity to bridge the gap between the kind of history produced in academe and the general public. As Discover Canada’s counterpoint, the book seems particularly targeted for new immigrants and would make an excellent text when teaching English as an additional language to new immigrants. It can also be read by everyday Canadians and young students of history. It is a strong reminder that history is about the present, not the past.

People’s Citizenship Guide: A Response to Conservative Canada
By Esyllt Jones and Adele Perry
Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring, 2011 *** 80pp, $14.95 paper

BC Studies, no. 178, Summer 2013.

BC Studies 178 (Summer 2013)