Cultural apartheid in the digital age

DANIEL McCABE | According to Mark Starowicz, the head of documentary production for CBC Television, "There is a crisis in the transmission of our society's memory. In fact, I think there is no real memory."

A keynote speaker for the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada's recent conference, "Giving the Past a Future," Starowicz, a McGill history graduate, argued that "there is a very profound crisis in the teaching of history in Canada." Namely that we know so little about it -- and by extension, so little about each other.

French Canadians rarely encounter English Canadians on television shows outside of news and sports, Starowicz claimed. The same is true for English Canadians, who are far more likely to watch American programs like Dawson's Creek than to learn anything about their counterparts in Quebec City.

Borrowing a phrase from former TV Ontario head Peter Herrndorf, Starowicz said Canadians are becoming "citizens of Video-America." The country is experiencing a form of "cultural apartheid in the very middle of the satellite and digital age."

Starowicz believes the CBC has done its part in recent years.

Shows such as Duplessis, Les Filles de Caleb and Omerta have appeared on the English CBC, while The Arrow, The Boys of St. Vincent, The Sleep Room and Dieppe have appeared on Radio-Canada.

But such efforts don't amount to much in a world in which the CBC is just a minor player in a galaxy of viewing choices. For every Canadian program, other channels offer dozens of American alternatives.

"It is no longer a mixed public and private system. It is a private, market- driven communications system with a minority public presence," argued Starowicz.

"In the very midst of the thousand-channel universe, in the borderless world, we have become more provincial than ever. This is not a problem of cultural colonialism. This is a problem of the failure of the Canadian body politic to give us choices.

"A lot of academics, historians in particular, don't like television and tend to dismiss it. This is a mistake," said Starowicz.

"A Canadian child, by the age of 12, will have spent more of her life in front of a television set than in a Canadian school. Maybe they shouldn't watch that much TV. But they do."

He urged his audience to call for more Canadian stories and more Canadian history. "Communications policy is the legitimate business of historians."

Starowicz believes Canadian history is anything but boring.

He pointed to the example of American scholar Clark Cahow, the long-time director of Duke University's Institute of Canadian Studies, who dedicated his life to studying Canada.

"Why? Because he said American constitutional dynamics were set in concrete decades ago. He saw Canada as a vibrant example of evolving dynamics between local, regional and federal power, between aboriginal and European. It is a living and evolving political model."

Starowicz agrees, citing the examples of the Nisga'a Treaty, the impending birth of Nunavut and the Supreme Court's recent deliberations over Quebec's right to secede unilaterally.

"That's why we're paralyzed about teaching or portraying Canadian history. Not because it's boring. Because it's alive! We're afraid of it."

Starowicz is one of the driving forces behind Canada: A Peoples' History, a mammoth 30-hour documentary, co-produced by the English and French CBC, that is scheduled to air in 2000.

"The overwhelming reaction has been: Finally. It's about time! What took you so long?

"We've been stunned by the appetite we encounter everywhere we shoot, and we have shot in every province and territory of the country. There is a genuine vacuum and yearning among Canadians of all origins."

Whose history to tell?

PATRICK McDONAGH | Recently, Jack Granatstein's much-reviewed new book Who Killed Canadian History argued that an emphasis on "alternative" histories is robbing Canadian history of coherence. Granatstein's list of assassins might include Peggy Hooke, head of the Etobicoke Educational Institute's history department.

Hooke, part of a panel discussion on "How can a country with so many histories learn to share them?" argued that we need to discard mythologies of a single true record and outlined why it is important to include "new" histories in the curriculum, including those focusing on women, natives, blacks and labour.

"Alternative" histories, argued Hooke, encourage students to understand how history is relevant to their own experience, and requires an engagement with the differences and similarities of immigrant experience, gender, ethnicity and class.

Historian and television producer Jacques Lacoursière noted the difference between anglophone and francophone treatments of Canadian histories: what is "Unity in Diversity" in English is rendered "Unité et diversité" in French.

This diversity/é demands a range of histories, with an emphasis on specific provincial and local histories, as well as native histories and those of other groups. These particular histories would then provide a foundation for a study of broader national and international histories.

Overtly identifying herself as a "killer" of Canadian history, Veronica Strong-Boag, a professor at the University of British Columbia's Centre for Research in Women's Studies and Gender Relations, suggested that her three sons -- in grades five and eight and first-year university -- are better prepared to understand Canada than she was in the 1960s as a University of Toronto student, thanks to the rise of alternative histories.

Canadian history was then (and still is) seen as the "dullest" subject on the curriculum. But this perception is a disservice to the past: while dominant groups have attempted to impose a particular "past" upon Canada, in reality, history has always been a contested place. Dull history is history stripped of controversy, she argued.

During the question period that followed the presentations, the historians agreed on one thing: alternative histories shouldn't be a simple case of "add women/natives/labour/etc., and stir," but rather, these histories must be part of a synthesized picture.

Historians for hire

LESLIE STOJSIC | History students are used to fielding that wonderful question: "What are you going to do with your degree?" -- and typically, the expected response is either law or teaching.

But some history students at the University of Western Ontario are bucking that trend -- they fully expect to make a living as salaried historians.

Their program, public history, is specifically designed to market history students and their skills to the world beyond courts and classrooms.

The public history graduate program explores the so-called non-academic fields of history, such as archives, museums and historical consulting agencies. The philosophy is a relatively simple one: train history graduates to work in their trade -- not just within the confines of a library, but in the community.

The program's curriculum was created in response to the challenges students and practitioners of history were facing during the '70s and '80s.

"The program addressed the decreasing number of jobs in academic history, the increasing specialization of history and the need to promote historians in local communities," said Michelle Hamilton, a second-year Ph.D. student in public history. Western instituted the program in 1986, and is one of only two schools in Canada to offer it (the other is Waterloo).

Along with academic history, students in the two-year master's program take courses for non-traditional historical skills, such as designing surveys, museology and group work.

Rather than write a thesis, students in the program participate in internships in the community. The research has ranged from the history of a summer camp to designing a museum dedicated to local hockey to learning the marketing and administrative side of curating. These experiences provide the contacts and the practical training that can, at times, be lacking in history's academic world.

"It's true that some people have the perception that you're not living up to your full potential as a historian, but many, if not all, of the students in the program have found it to be a much more rewarding experience than strict academic history," commented Claire Campbell, a second-year Ph.D. candidate with an MA in public history.

On a practical level, it seems to be working: statistics indicate that graduates in public history have higher rates of employment in the field than those who earn traditional history degrees. Graduates of the program have found work in parks, museums, as civil employees and as historical consultants.

Public history's students say that history itself benefits from the program's practical focus. "We can bring history back to the community with innovative programs like these, which strike the right balance of academia, entertainment and education."

The trouble with television

PATRICK McDONAGH | Question: What makes good TV?

Answer: Narrative, character and emotional impact.

Question: How do you do history well on TV?

"History on Television: The Challenge of Representation" may not have provided all the answers, but it explored the question with spirit and humour. Panel members Desmond Morton, director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, and Antonia Zerbesias, TV critic for The Toronto Star, focused their discussion on two recent TV "histories," Big Bear (CBC) and the upcoming

War of 1812 (on TV Ontario in April).

When it comes to television, Zerbesias opined, historians are stuck in the past. They aren't sure what to do with the medium. Yet television still has the potential to be the Great Educator, she reasoned.

"I was barely aware that there was a war of 1812 -- is this the one with Laura Secord and the cow?" Zerbesias asked her historian-heavy audience. Positioning herself as the Common Viewer, she exclaimed, "I was not interested, until I met Sir Isaac Brock. Whatta guy!"

Using a clip from the miniseries, Zerbesias demonstrated her point.

The passage has suspense and drama, it has humour, it has visual variety: thus it is good, gripping TV, she argued.

Narrative, although it need not be linear, is common to good television, as is a moral. In 1812, she claims, the message is "We had our own John Waynes." While military strategists may question Brock's decision to lead his men into battle and thus expose himself to enemy fire, his action was undeniably heroic.

On the other hand, there's Big Bear, a miniseries about a powerful and influential aboriginal leader. Zerbesias called it a "noble effort," but also stodgy, dull and unemotional, as a consequence of tepid direction.

In summary, said the critic, good TV and good TV history share the same elements: an engaging script, sympathetic characters, and a good story.

Morton (who said he was "intrigued and disturbed" by his co-panelist's comments) criticized television treatments of history primarily in light of the medium's need to simplify and reconstruct complex people and events in order to reach the broadest possible audience.

In television, money, audience and actors are more material concerns than history. When a historian writes a text, there are few intermediary figures (other than editors). Film and television, however, are cooperative efforts, and the historian must negotiate with a host of script writers, assistant directors, voice coaches and actors, among others.

As a consequence, television rarely produces "history," but often presents "heritage." While the former is concerned with what happened, the latter is what we make of what happened. The War of 1812, notes Morton, makes good use of archival material; however, Americans are portrayed reductively, so we get "heritage" rather than a "history" version of the battle in which Brock fell.

In history, all people are complex. In television, they usually aren't: one or two complex characters is all that can be sustained by a narrative.

Thus, summarized Morton, if there is going to be a story told, there should be a variety of stories told.