Sunday, May 5, 2013

Wrestling with 'A People's History'

Over the past several weeks, I’ve watched a few episodes of a documentary series put out by the CBC titled Canada: A People’s History. Its 30 hours of content, spread over 17 episodes, chronicle the history of Canada from the earliest First Nations to the 20th century.
The visual medium has been a nice break from my usual reading in textbooks. The series is geared towards people who aren’t especially interested in history, so they spruce up the main narrative with lots of interesting side stories. I especially like how they tell much of the story in monologues given by the historical characters in period costume.

When I first started reading history last summer, I expected to find heroic stories, brave deeds, overcoming the odds and the like. Time and again, I’ve found myself surprised by episodes that would be better described as beastly and cruel.

Let’s take the Seven Years’ War for example (1756 – 1763). In Europe, France and Austria squared off against Britain and Prussia, and the conflict spilled over into their colonies around the world. While American settlers were pushing west into the Ohio Valley (claimed by New France), the French and their Native allies organized a campaign of guerrilla warfare. In one case, they raided a settlement of 55 families, burned all the buildings and killed many. The survivors were forced to run a gauntlet of Natives wielding clubs. Later, in 1756, one French commander reported that he had been “occupied more than eight days merely in receiving scalps” (1). These ghastly tactics crushed the western expansion.

But the French didn’t have a monopoly on brutality. During the siege of Quebec (June – Sept 1759), the Canadien Habitants had evacuated their villages to the safety of the citadel. Seeing this, General James Wolfe sent 1600 soldiers to lay waste to the countryside; they destroyed the crops, slaughtered the livestock, and torched all the buildings. After the British got the upper hand on the Plains of Abraham, they captured the town. But because the winter food was destroyed, both the garrison and the defeated population had to face a winter of deprivation and disease.

The battered shell of Quebec after months of bombardment

I could go on. What does all this mean? I’m struggling to reconcile my idealism with what I find in the historical record. Maybe this is one of the values of studying history. History would say to us “Look at the sort of world we live in. Take off your rose-coloured glasses, rub your eyes, and look at it long and hard. What do you see? Men die like beasts, good men like bad, wise men like fools. You see evil running rampant” (2). 

That quote comes from a theologian talking about the book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible, and I’m finding the same message in the book of history. From our human perspective, the ways of this world are inscrutable. Any honest person who would set out to make history a collection of noble stories that favour their nation must, in the end, conclude “behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind” (3).

(1) Margaret Conrad and Alvin Finkel. History of the Canadian Peoples. p161.
(2) J.I. Packer. Knowing God. p113-114.
(3) The Bible. Ecclesiastes 1:14.
Mark Starowicz, Executive Producer. Canada: A People’s History.

1 comment:

  1. I haven't seen this doc but it reminds me of the movie, Last of the Mohicans (based on book by James Fennimore Cooper). It is set in colonial Canada, and describes a major battle between French and English forces, with a side story of a half British, half Mohican messenger. The movie contains a similar scene where settlers are brutalized.