It's impossible to present history in a way that won't offend someone: Neil Macdonald

CBC is apologizing broadcasting a series rather inoffensively titled "Canada: The Story of Us," produced to coincide with the country's 150th anniversary celebrations.

All history is political. It's always told by the winners

CBC is apologizing for broadcasting a series rather inoffensively titled "Canada: The Story of Us," produced to coincide with the country's 150th anniversary celebrations. (Canada: The Story of Us)

Shortly after I arrived in Jerusalem, in the summer of 1998, foreign reporters were summoned to a news conference in excavations under the old city – "Lower Jerusalem" as archeologists jokingly call it.

The chief archeologist and some of his staff led us along planks through a tunnel that opened into a cave lit by naked bulbs. They were pretty excited about what they'd found: some Bronze Age implements, some carved stone columns and some fortifications, all dating to the period before King David took the Holy City from the Jebusites.

Naturally, we asked what the significance of all this was. Repeatedly, and somewhat stubbornly, the answer was that people would have to form their own conclusions.

It was a queer response. Why would scientists, proud of what they'd uncovered, be so reluctant to say why it was important?

Changing the story

After the press conference, in private asides, we were given the answer: the discovery demonstrated that the Jebusites were a good deal more advanced than generally believed. And, in the words of one Israeli official: "There are a lot of people who don't like the story to change."

Indeed, most Israeli excavations have concentrated on underground strata meant to showcase Jewish development in Jerusalem over the millennia, avoiding the Christian and Muslim strata altogether if possible.

Because all history is political. It's always told by the winners, it is necessarily infused with bias, and once a generally accepted version of events is settled upon, revisionist evidence is unwelcome in the extreme.

As the Israeli official who briefed us later put it, if anyone ever uncovers evidence proving or disproving the existence of Jesus Christ, he'd better either bury it or go into hiding, because that sort of thing can get you killed.

The Valour and the Horror

The McKenna brothers, Terence and Brian, discovered the perils of re-examining settled history in 1992, when CBC aired their series The Valour and the Horror.

One segment of the series, "Death by Moonlight," basically argued that under the command of Sir Arthur "Bomber" Harris, allied crews were dispatched to deliberately firebomb civilian centres in Germany – by any definition, a war crime. The McKennas further asserted that some of the air crew, Canadians included, were not made aware of what they'd been sent to do, usually at night.

The backblast from veterans intent on guarding their legacy was ferocious. The McKennas suddenly found themselves under investigation by a Senate subcommittee (which ruled against them, with one senator accusing Brian McKenna of Holocaust denial), the CRTC (which sided with them, saying that "history cannot be considered as a single immutable truth") and the CBC's ombudsman, who chastised the segment for lacking "context and balance," but didn't argue with its main contention.

The Globe and Mail editorialized that the CBC was crawling before its critics. (CBC)

CBC management, by then under extreme duress, issued a statement expressing "sincere regret at any distress the programmes may have caused members of the audience," which Terence McKenna says was an "apology that tried to say it was not an apology," which in turn prompted the Globe and Mail to editorialize that the CBC was crawling before its critics, and that its "journalistic reputation lies in pieces today, slit wide and deboned like a fresh-caught trout."

That in turn prompted journalists, writers and free-speech advocates to line up behind the filmmakers, who won several awards.

A few years later, an official history of the Canadian Air Force was published; it concurred with the McKennas' version of what happened. That history was immediately attacked, too.

The Story of Us

Now, a quarter century later, CBC is sort-of apologizing again, this time for broadcasting a series rather inoffensively titled Canada: The Story of Us, produced to coincide with the country's 150th anniversary celebrations.

The series has been denounced for ignoring the role of Acadians, the importance of Annapolis Royal, the role of the Mi'kmaq, for being "anglocentric" and condescendingly playing down the role of New France (Samuel de Champlain looks scruffy, while the British are well groomed), and for being "Eurocentric" in not devoting sufficient time and compassion to the marginalization and suffering of Indigenous people.

The premier of Nova Scotia is complaining. So is the premier of Quebec.

Well, setting aside the quality of the series – these sorts of popular history productions will never be taught in grad school – it's probably not possible in this day and age to present a version of history that won't offend someone.

In this case, such an effort would have to view Canada's founding equally through English and French eyes, as well as those of Indigenous people, the Métis, the Acadians, the Catholics and the Protestants. (But not too much so, as to avoid cultural appropriation).

Any depiction of what happened at the Plains of Abraham would have to take care not to name a winner, but rather characterize it as just one development in the history of Canada's two founding nations.

If your main goal is to avoid giving offence, it's safest to ensure efforts at retelling history are terminally boring. (Bristow Global Media)

It would need to avoid androcentricity, while at the same time recording that men were completely in charge and made all the big decisions.

The exploits of "Radishes and Gooseberries" we were all taught in Grade 5 would have to be acknowledged as a racist anglicism meant to downplay the accomplishments of Radisson and Groseilliers.

The ritual torture of Jesuits Jean de Brébeuf and Gabriel Lalemant, including the drinking of their blood, would need to be told through a culturally sensitive lens.

And, of course, the fact that one of the great reasons for Canada's exploration was to slaughter innocent animals wholesale in order to satisfy fashion whims in Europe would need to be made clear. Belatedly making the beaver a national symbol was hardly a redress.

In other words, if your main goal is to avoid giving offence, it's safest to ensure such efforts are terminally boring. Because everyone wants to own history. In these hypersensitive times, there is no canon.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.


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