It is not that we do not have such a history. It is simply that we have chosen not to remember it.
— J. L. Granatstein
As the Cold War ended, with liberal democracy seeming to prevail, the American philosopher Francis Fukuyama famously argued that “the end of history” had arrived. A few years later, the Canadian historian J. L. Granatstein was more bloody-minded: history had not ended, it had been killed. Vigorously written and published by HarperCollins, his Who Killed Canadian History? was praised and panned. For well over a decade, any conversation among historians was likely to invoke it. But the book was mostly ignored by decision makers.
Granatstein’s 156-page J’accuse alluded to many guilty parties. The first pistols were the “provincial ministries of education.” I use the quotation marks deliberately, because the normally punctilious and precise Granatstein was uncharacteristically vague: he blamed the anonymous bureaucrats and let the politicians off the hook by not naming any of them. They would have been easy to identify: all the provinces from Newfoundland and Labrador to British Columbia — except for Quebec, Ontario, and Manitoba — had washed Canadian history out of the high school curriculum by the 1970s and ’80s. Who killed history? The assassins are Stanfield, Lougheed, Bennett, et al.
Granatstein also blamed people in Ottawa (again, namelessly) for failing to give Canadians “what they want and need: a sense that they live in a nation with a glorious past and a great future.” And he scolded the “ethnic communities” who demanded an “offence-free education” that prompted the loss of “the idea that Canada has a past and a culture.” He feared that history was deliberately misread to clobber majority populations for the errors of their great-grandfathers. The media in general came in for a kicking for feeding “half truth” and “cynicism.” Granatstein also targeted some of his wrath at university presses, but his ire was mostly directed toward his colleagues: history professors who published little if at all, allowing their field to die on the vine. Too many of them worked on “unreadable books on miniscule subjects.”
The year before, in 1997, Granatstein had published, with David Bercuson and Robert Bothwell, with whom he had had a long collaboration, a searing indictment of academia. Petrified Campus: The Crisis of Canada’s Universities was an all‑out attack on the profound hypocrisy they found on modern campuses: students pretended to learn and professors pretended to teach. The three authors complained about the political correctness that was stifling debate and called for the creation and funding of a few elite institutions where dynamic researchers would teach and write for an elite student body. They hated tenure and argued against it entirely. No cows were sacred.
In 1984, the trio had published The Great Brain Robbery: Canada’s Universities on the Road to Ruin, which attracted a heap of criticism from their colleagues. Their research was denounced as shoddy, but their attacks — on the mushrooming administration that was choking off university resources, on the already worn‑out facilities from the ’60s, on the feckless government-appointed governors, and, not least, on the lazy faculty members protected by unions who did not give a fig about excellence — hit a nerve. Although they were painfully accurate, the authors’ cry ultimately went unheeded.
Who Killed Canadian History? turned into a bestseller. People paid attention because Granatstein was without a doubt the most important Canadian historian — the most productive and the most read — of his day. In 1967, barely out of graduate school at Duke, he started churning out monographs, scholarly articles, book reviews, and commentary of all sorts. By 1998, he had written, co-written, edited, or co-edited no fewer than fifty volumes of all sorts: deep, innovative studies of Canada’s military and foreign policy, biographies, picture books, and shorter polemics. He would go on to publish dozens more; no Canadian historian has come close to matching this record, or ever will. (Whether they like his work or not, people are unanimous: Granatstein does not sleep.)
Fed up with academic life at York University after twenty-nine years, Granatstein had retired prematurely in 1995, but he was by no means ready to be pensioned off. He was about to turn sixty when Who Killed Canadian History? came out and was starting a two-year tenure as CEO of the Canadian War Museum, tasked with transforming the dusty old institution then on Sussex Drive in Ottawa.
Twenty-five years ago, Granatstein declared himself history’s coroner, but Who Killed Canadian History? itself remains remarkably fresh (it was revised in 2007). In fact, much of it could be read as an exploration of trends today. The absence of Canadian history is clear for those who have even a passing knowledge of it. For others, less knowledgeable about historical facts but still sensitive to history, the absence is felt as a malaise, a sort of phantom pain. Granatstein’s complaint about the media, especially, is even more valid now. Thousands of stories that cry out for historical context go unwritten. The CBC, the country’s most subsidized media enterprise, walks away from its public duty and offers news coverage that seems as if it was created yesterday. To compare its awareness of history with that of its counterparts in the United States or in Europe is to invite ridicule.
Politicians have also continued doing damage to the discipline. Only the disregard of history can explain the removal of most of the monuments to Sir John A. Macdonald, from Victoria to Charlottetown by way of Hamilton, Kingston, and Montreal. Statues erected in the prime minister’s honour have been withdrawn from public view (some torn down by mobs) without a debate on the historical importance of the man and his achievements. Statues of Samuel de Champlain (Ottawa) and Queen Victoria (Winnipeg) have been taken down as well. The political class thinks this is proper. In Ontario, the government stood by silently as the third-largest university in the province changed its name and allowed the wrecking of a 130-year-old monument to Egerton Ryerson, a precious work of art. And in continuing a devaluation of history that started under Bill Davis, Doug Ford’s education minister recently doubled down on the erasure of Macdonald by rubbing out the significance of Confederation from Ontario’s new elementary school curriculum.
The same could be said on the issue of renaming Dundas Street in Toronto. The rationale for removing a street label known to Torontonians for over 225 years was delivered by a staff that proved itself gravely incompetent in understanding history. It proposed a “commemorative framework” that declared the history most worth remembering to be that of “Indigenous Peoples, Black communities, and equity-deserving groups,” which need not be peer-reviewed. City council adopted the framework. Elsewhere, schools, streets, and public squares bearing names from the past are being renamed on the argument that former accomplishments mean nothing when the twenty-first century retroactively picks the straw out of the past’s eyes. In fact, these figures were deeply revered in their day because they stood for something admirable. The arguments against them cannot hold water, but in a world so bereft of knowledge about Canada’s past, such ahistorical initiatives are tacitly accepted. How else does one explain that the centennial of the First World War was practically ignored here or that the sesquicentennial of Confederation elicited no lasting tributes or memorials?
It is now clear that school boards and municipal councillors, mayors and premiers are the ones who truly killed history. The current tone was set by Justin Trudeau and his cabinet early in their mandate as they removed Hector Langevin’s name from the building that houses the Prime Minister’s Office. (Sir Hector, who faithfully served as the public works minister at a time when the government was building the country’s infrastructure, had been wrongly accused of corruption. The dedication had been a sort of apology.) More recently, a federal deputy minister was removed from his post for refusing to participate in an event that aimed to underline the colonial nature of Canada’s past. A teacher was removed in Abbotsford, British Columbia, for refusing to accept the new dogma that Canada pursued genocidal policies toward Indigenous people. In Toronto, a former school principal died by suicide after facing overwhelming pressure to accept that Canada was particularly heinous in its racism.
Granatstein’s book could be faulted for its shortcuts. It could have named names and could have provided more evidence, more detail. Had it done so, perhaps the author’s message would have been not just heard but acted upon.
Beyond that, I believe Granatstein was wrong twice. First, he should have been kinder to university presses. After all, he has continued to publish with them since 1998 and for good reason: thanks to (dwindling) government subsidies, they are practically the only ones still willing to publish Canadian history. Their texts may be too often unimaginative and focused on narrow subjects, but at least they are blowing oxygen on a weak, flickering flame. For that, they deserve to be heartily celebrated. Commercial publishers fear (with reason) that the Canadian public won’t buy the work of historians: over fifty years of neglect at school has dried up the market. Canadian readers easily feel intimidated, and unless a historical book has the word “war” in its title, acquisition editors will pass on it. There are exceptions, but they only prove the point. The same could be said for this country’s film and television industry. Few want to risk capital on a subject no one knows.
Also regrettable is that Granatstein did not offer a more pointed rationale for learning history. He argued that an understanding of the subject was “the prerequisite of political intelligence” but without going further. The cost of not knowing history is much deeper, in my view. It creates a real disquiet and robs the community of its ability to find nuance in any dispute. Indeed, one could argue that the incoherence of a vast array of policy areas in this country — from cultural and global affairs to housing and homelessness — can be explained only by a general loss of historical consciousness.
To talk historically about any episode — a court case, a medical issue, a construction problem, even a love dispute — is to inquire about “what really took place last time.” It naturally invites subtlety, attention to context, and storytelling that can lay the groundwork for compromise. It calls for clarity in sequencing events and necessarily examines what’s behind the story: “Well, we didn’t have the tools” or “Our thinking was wrong” or “We simply didn’t know.” It can build respect and, not least, modesty. But it can also bridge solitudes and open the road to cooperation, better understanding, and perhaps even reconciliation and forgiveness. No one who studies history seriously can be insensitive to the anxieties and cruelties of humanity or unimpressed by its resilience, creativity, and kindness.
But that sort of discipline has been evacuated from popular culture. For over a dozen years now, history departments have seen their student numbers decline. Consequently, new hires are even rarer than before. Governments seldom consider the failures and successes of previous policies; museums dedicated to the past are shrivelling without money for new exhibits and programs. Historians, terrified of being misunderstood, refuse to engage in public debates that could bring nuance to policy issues. Canada is not in a state of post-nationalism but is rather a place of hiber‑nation — a country that has fallen asleep and forgotten its past.
This is dangerous. Historical awareness bolsters democracy and democratic instincts. Take away history and you undermine the ability to discuss, to debate, and to share knowledge on how things evolved. Without such skills and knowledge, democracy as we know it will wither and die.
Granatstein was not simply nostalgic but genuinely concerned that the roots of this fragile country were being neglected by thoughtless gardeners. Thinking historically requires courage, perhaps even real bravery in trying to overcome ignorance. In its absence, mere assertions become weapons — missiles designed to hurt. That’s the tragedy of a lost history. It is more than the loss of memory; it’s the presumption that life begins anew each day, in a spurious environment where the accumulation of cultures is assumed to be of no value. When history is dead, there is no room for comfort and solace, no refuge for those who wish to draw on it to shape their destiny.
Good history is intelligence itself, and Canadians can’t afford to live without it. The loss of history affects everybody and reaches deep into the governments of our country. When no knowledge can be anchored in a common past, how can a new set of ideas be validated? The vacuum creates an atmosphere that can accommodate all sorts of crazy notions from abroad.
Long live history and Jack Granatstein’s eloquent defence of its vital place in our way of thinking.
Patrice Dutil is a professor in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at Toronto Metropolitan University. He founded the Literary Review of Canada in 1991.