April 2021

Contents Related Letters

Re: “Historical Friction,” by Patrice Dutil

I would like to thank Patrice Dutil for reviewing my book, Transforming the Canadian Hist­ory Classroom: Imagining a New “We.” Discussions about teaching, learning, hist­ory, the nation, and our identities within that nation are important to have, and I am always humbled when my ideas contribute to these conversations. These discussions can be fraught and difficult and are best held when they begin with respect for others and with clarity on one’s position. Forums for big issues often start with a version of this idea: respect for others and awareness of the “I” statements versus “we” assumptions. I think in hist­ory classes, in particular, this awareness of one’s self and of others is foundational for learning an honest and transformative hist­ory that helps one use knowledge about the past to make change in the future. As I’ve written elsewhere, if you’re not teaching hist­ory to make change, why the hell are you doing it at all?

While this is a bold statement, and I continue to stand boldly behind it, I recognize that not everyone will agree with this approach for “doing” hist­ory — and by “doing” hist­ory I mean any activity that mobilizes the past, be that research, teaching, writing, or curation. I may not agree with an approach to learning hist­ory that does not hold at its centre a desire to make the future a more just and equitable place, but I recognize that this is another approach to take. I am, and am always, clear about my theoretical and experiential approach to all things historical: it is feminist, it is anti-­racist, it is with a hope for decolonization. To me, approaching hist­ory in this way makes for a more honest hist­ory and a more honest experience in learning it.

If you disagree with any of the above statements, you will not like my book. I clearly position myself in traditions of intersectional feminism, critical race theory, post- and neo-­colonialism, and post-­structuralism. I write in ways that invite teaching and learning directed toward enhancing the students’ meaningful experience with the past — both connected and complex. For me, Transforming the Canadian Hist­ory Classroom is about identity in the twenty-first century and the ways we need to develop our classrooms to better meet the needs of diverse twenty-first-century students.

Dutil comes to Canadian hist­ory with a different purpose than I do. He is also not coming from a K–12 hist­ory education background, meaning the context of his comments and critiques do not necessarily fit the content of my book or accurately reflect the realities of classrooms and curricula across the country. Because of this, there are certainly things that he won’t enjoy or find useful. The issue is when his perspective is put forward as truth, and the expression of that “truth” is marked with disrespect.

In his review, Dutil writes things that are fundamentally not true. Other elements of his critique exist in a reality where we do not share essential understandings; thus, they are both true or false, depending on your values. I counter many such falsehoods or misrepresentations in the book itself, and therefore it wouldn’t be useful to go over them here.

But at the base level, Dutil wrote a diatribe against the type of inclusive, feminist, anti-racist, and decolonial hist­ory and hist­ory education that I present. Rather than discuss how he does not agree with such approaches, he took the opportunity to funnel his anger about them into a review that questions my knowledge, experience, and character.

You do not have to like my book, but Dutil’s review demonstrates the very tone and tenor of conversations about national identity that it is important to avoid. Ad hominem attacks, blanket statements, not clarifying one’s own position — none of this will move the needle
any closer to a more cohesive, inclusive, and, dare I say, a more just and equitable nation. Rather, it will solidify a polarity that can lead to righteous anger, even violence.

To transform the Canadian hist­ory classroom, in fact to transform the Canadian nation, is to recognize the important work that needs to be done in order to hold many truths at the same time, to be respectful of others whose truths clash with your own, and to move forward with versions of the truth that honour the experiences of the most people or the most-marginalized people in ways that can lead to a more just world.

You do not have to like my book to do this work, but it is important that we engage in respectful conversations that do.

Samantha Cutrara
Toronto


Thanks to Patrice Dutil for disrupting Samantha Cutrara’s plan to turn the teaching of Canadian hist­ory into an ideological mission built on tribal identity gibberish and a blinkered view of Canada as an entirely racist project, and nothing else worth mentioning. Certainly no arc of progress is in sight.

Others have predicted that this newish critical theory/postmodernist plague would play out in our schools of education, which would do their damnedest to infiltrate young minds. I say “newish,” because we’ve seen some of this before. But it is far more threatening now because there is such rejuvenated (and admirable) political sympathy for the downtrodden and marginalized. Let’s not confuse sympathy with documented hist­ory, however. There is such a thing as over-­correction. The pedagogical “transformation” that Cutrara advocates will be at the expense of objectivity, scholarly distance, and credible evidence. Dutil’s cautionary review is therefore particularly important, and it deserves wide circulation, including within the academy.

Robin Collins
Ottawa


I agree with Samantha Cutrara, in her letter in the May issue responding to Patrice Dutil’s review of her book, that Canada must continually reimagine a new “we,” especially as the country changes demographically and as we reflect on how to be a more just society. Yet as that delightful cliché has it, the devil is in the details. Rationally, the only way to update our “we” is to understand what we want to change. We must begin with a balanced and methodologically sound story about our country, focusing on the development of our crucial institutional structures that endure to this day. Many don’t know, for example, that Canada is near the top in most of the global indicators of what makes for a successful country — as imperfect as we are.

According to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index for 2020, only twenty-three countries of 167 assessed are “full” democracies, when considering such factors as electoral processes, pluralism, functioning of government, political participation, culture, and civil liberties. Canada ranks fifth in the world, with a score of 9.24 out of 10. In comparison, the United States is in the “flawed” democracy category, in twenty-fifth place, with a score of 7.92.

Canada is doing a lot right, and that should be celebrated. We must also study our collective failures and the injustices that have occurred and still occur on Canadian soil. A sound hist­ory course would include these failings as part of a fair and balanced overview. We must be rational here, too, with a strong dose of historical knowledge and realism: all countries and all peoples, including Indigenous peoples, have experienced conflict and chauvinism and have lost fights over territory. What separates them is how justly they deal with these realities. Thus, past battles do not necessarily taint our institutions today. If it is alleged that one is not treating all citizens fairly or does not effectively resolve problems, then we must carefully study it. What we should not do is presume its guilt before the inquiry.

Yes, prejudice, including racism, exists in Canada. Yet to focus exclusively on that as a cause often does not well serve those one wants to help. Many problems — like growing social inequality — have quite complex causes.

What concerns me about Cutrara’s method is that by rushing too quickly to “mobilize” hist­ory, to create the world she desires, she seems not to have understood the history she wants to mobilize, nor the world she wants to change. Another possibility is that she frankly believes in socialism, rather than communitarian democracy — where some will succeed more and some less, based on merit and healthy competition, with a social safety net for all. If so, she is entitled to her beliefs, but we must take care that our education system has a more balanced approach. If our children are taught only the negative parts of the past, without understanding the positive developments of our country or understanding how to think with historical rigour, then we are failing them as educators and as citizens.

Robert Girvan
Toronto


For anyone who thinks we don’t have dust-ups in Canadian history.

@DaleBarbour
via Twitter


As a subscriber, I was disappointed by the snarky tone and lack of real engagement in this review.

@dgrhist
via Twitter


I have now read Patrice Dutil’s review of Samantha Cutrara’s Transforming the Canadian Hist­ory Classroom four times, as well as Cutrara’s response in the May issue, and I don’t find the lack of respect she complains about. Impassioned argument? Yes. Diatribe and ad hominem attack? No. I can only presume they know each other outside these articles and are responding to something else.

It actually seems that they are talking about different things. Dutil is saying that ideas like those expressed in Cutrara’s book have the power, through finding their way into provincial curricula, to further vitiate the teaching of hist­ory in Canada, something already in a pretty low state. Dutil’s vehemence seems to reflect not only his passion for teaching the subject but also the difficulty of coming to grips with discourses like intersectionality and critical race theory, with their often opaque and self-­referential lexicons.

Based on what Dutil quotes and her own letter, Cutrara appears to be talking about a national myth and how she wants to change it. Perhaps the current version of our national myth is that we are tolerant and inclusive and multicultural — oh, and better than the United States. Let’s by all means examine this myth critically (and I think that’s what Cutrara may be saying). But Dutil is asking us to remember that few Canadians know any history at all, so please let’s not increase their ignorance by giving them reasons not to start learning it.

Near the end of her letter, Cutrara writes that we need “to be respectful of others whose truths clash with your own.” I agree, but don’t we need some standards of what truth is? That’s what good history teaching tries to provide. She also writes that we need “to move forward with versions of the truth that honour the experiences of the most people or the most-­marginalized people.” I fully agree that we need a more just world, but I don’t see that we will necessarily get there by always privileging what the most or the most-­marginalized have to say about themselves. That would be one aspect of hist­ory, but not the whole thing.

Cutrara writes, “If you’re not teaching hist­ory to make change, why the hell are you doing it at all?” To know where we came from, could be one reason. To help us make sure that the changes we’re making today are the right ones, could be another. The past doesn’t alter, but what we find in it of interest for the present does.

Sean Armstrong
Toronto


Re: “Blowing Changes,” by Jamieson Findlay

I was very moved by Jamieson Findlay’s essay on improvisation. One thing he didn’t stress, however, which I feel is worth mentioning, is the special kind of satisfaction that results from a successful ad lib. Like most people, I’m both cautious and incautious, depending on the context. But when it comes to the social sphere, my internal critic is decidedly strong. While I’m in conversation with others, thoughts of words and actions that seem potentially winning, but also risky, are unlikely to be promoted from the hypothetical to the actual. Thus, I often leave a gathering of friends with a vague sense of regret and feeling as though I’d left too much on the table.

Of course, despite my natural reserve, it happens that I’m sometimes put on the spot and forced to work from instinct. While at times this leads me to panic and freeze, or say something utterly inane, there are also times when I let go, jump, and somehow miraculously land squarely on my feet. This last outcome, the incredible feeling it always gives rise to, both thrilling and nourishing, seems to scream, “Do this more!”

So thank you, Jamieson Findlay, for writing just what I needed to read. And to the world, look out: I come bearing freestyles of all manner and form.

Franklin James Latin
Kamloops, British Columbia


The Literary Review of Canada welcomes your comments and feedback, which we may edit for length, clarity, and accuracy. Write to letters@reviewcanada.ca.

Download This Issue in PDF Format

to read it in its entirety