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November 18, 2019

J. L. Granatstein and the Message of Multiculturalism in Canadian History

J. L. Granatstein, a renowned and rather prolific Canadian historian with focuses in both political and military history, was born in Toronto, Canada on May 21st, 1939 to Polish immigrants. He received his BA from the Royal Military College in 1959, his MA from the University of Toronto in 1962, and his PhD from Duke University in 1966. From 1956 through 1966, throughout his entire academic career, Granatstein served in the Canadian Army. His decade of service serves as a sturdy foundation for his interest in military history, a dying breed of academia in a world cluttered with social and new aged historians.

After graduating with his PhD in history, Granatstein taught at York University for nearly thirty years as a distinguished research professor. From 1998 to 2000, he held the position of director and CEO of the Canadian War Museum, where he played a leading role in finding and setting up a brand-new building for the institution. Throughout his public life, Granatstein has been a rather loud defender of traditional narrative history. He has gone as far to say his fellow colleagues are trapped within their own obscure cubbyholes of knowledge and that history as a profession has devolved into being an echo chamber of who can write the most academically and get the least amount of “average” people to read their work.

Granatstein’s “Who Killed Canadian History?”

Although he begins his most famous work – his 1998 Who Killed Canadian History? –  with “conservatives falsify the past, socialists falsify the future, and liberals falsify the present”, Granatstein himself has shifted towards the right-wing of political thought in recent years. He supported the Iraq War in 2003 – defending his position in his 2007 book Whose War Is It? – and has dabbled in Canadian politics through his favorable opinions of conservative Stephen Harper. He’s shown extreme hatred towards the idea of giving independence to Quebec and has gone as far to call Lucien Bouchard, the 27th Premier of Quebec, a liar. As far as political involvement goes, Granatstein was a member of the Board of Governors, was involved with the Canadian Security in the 21st Century Council, and currently sits on the Advisory Council of the Canadian Defense and Foreign Affairs Institute. Although he’s retired from teaching history, he still lives an active public and academic life in Toronto.

Who Killed Canadian History? is a well-researched, well-organized, and well-developed piece that reads like a historical manifesto in every possible literate sense. It becomes clear, rather quickly, that Granatstein dislikes academic scholars that have no interest in writing for the public, as the public has no interest in history through their lack of proper writing.[1] He calls these university professors out time and time again, going as far to say that they write for the “six other historians” who will read their book, only because they share their specialty.[2]

In a time where Canadians do not understand their own national history, so-called “Canadian historians” have turned their backs on national, political, and military history to focus on “tiny, trivial subjects of little or no general interest”[3], which in turn continues to create a chasm between the public and the field of public history. Granatstein does an excellent job at portraying his language in an easy to read format, one that is not only understandable but enjoyable, even to someone who might not agree with any of his talking points. His flow is easily recognizable, and continues to remain that way throughout the entire work.

Who Killed Canadian History? should be read as a political history, one that examines the consequences of a nation stuck in limbo between complete separation through multiculturalism and a lack of national history that leads to poor survey responses and shockingly low polling numbers.[4] It appears that Canadians know more about American history through culture and social norms, as the entertainment medium is flooded with the southern superpower’s influences – and Granatstein places the blame on a variety of problems that belong to a lack of Canadian effort in the realm of academic and public history.

J.L. Granatstein.

The work lacks a proper bibliography, has very few footnotes, and doesn’t present the presence of any external sources other than the extensive use of polling data and surveys. One could argue that the lack of citations would harm his validity. However, Who Killed Canadian History? has been quoted by members of the Canadian Parliament during heated debate and has influenced provincial legislatures.[5] Just because a political history has gained favor in politics does not mean said political history is valid, but the argument prepared and presented in Granatstein’s work holds sincere value and does a well-attempted job at expressing evidence to support his ideas.

Granatstein’s conservative-esque nature brings into question his politically-minded bias as he writes in favor of a more traditionalist history. In his piece Who Killed Canadian History?, he expresses his disdain for multiculturalism. His thesis claims that Canadian history is too fractured, too divided, and too separate as the education system focuses on a more revisionist history, one focused on gender and Aboriginal people without implementing any national or military history in any of the ten provinces in Canada. He supports the idea that educational theorists believe history in general is “boring, irrelevant, [and unfit for learning], except for small nuggets that could be pulled out of the past and made useful for current concerns about racism, gender equity, and the plight of Native peoples.”[6] In a sense, Granatstein holds the argument that Canadian history has become a practical tool for the modern day Social Justice Warrior, or SJW.

The remainder of the book focuses entirely on creating a more centrist perspective of the Canadian education issue and positioning the blame on anything that Granatstein believes has been holding history departments back for generations. He points fingers at the Canadian constitution (which gives provinces the right to set up their own educational system, leading to ten significantly distinct and separated mindsets towards teaching history), the educational theories that radically reformed school systems from being knowledge-based to child-centered, the ministries of education within each province that refuse to take action against the so-called “trendy” theories, and the evolution of the aforementioned easily-accessible American entertainment mediums.[7]

The later half of Who Killed Canadian History brings in the factor of upper-leveled education and how untrained professionals created an endless cycle of de-evolution when it comes to Canadian education in the humanities. He shows his distasteful attitude towards his fellow academics, those who “waste time” in new-aged histories that propel separatism and multiculturalism through pockets of highly obscure subjects rather than the study of history itself and thus “wage internecine wars” to the point where they disgrace the discipline.[8] He claims that these pocketed historians go too far on either side of the spectrum, with more students being able to recall the first female Canadian doctor (Emily Jennings Stowe) but being unable to recall the Canadian who discovered insulin and received the Nobel Prize in Medicine (Frederick Banting)[9].

Granatstein summarizes these horrific oversights as being micro-history, something that is fine for individual papers but can become invasive and harmful to the field if it “drives everything else out of the academy”[10]. Just about every institution that Granatstein ousts holds a connection to either the encouragement of multiculturalism or the spread of micro-history in the Canadian education system – both of with deliberately deconstruct Canadian history on a national level.

As Who Killed Canadian History? is a piece of political history, reviewers have been rather harsh critiques of Granatstein’s traditionalist representation. In a review written by Brian Gobbett and published in The History Teacher in 1999[11], claims that the piece has “little direct value in the classroom” but also makes a “forceful and valuable point” that Canadians do in fact lack a proper knowledge on their own national history. Most reviews seem to hold onto a grudge that Granatstein calls them out for being echo chambers of micro-history, topics that are so obscure and malnourished that they serve little purpose when put into the limelight of hot topic history.

I have a hard time coming to my own conclusions here. On one hand, I agree with J.L. Granatstein’s opinions on “great man history” being horrifyingly outdated and that “micro-history” can be horrifically damaging when that is all that is left to the subject. I can also sympathize with the concept of multiculturalism preaching tolerance while generally becoming more divisive than unifying.[12] However, I can also agree with reviewers in saying that his traditionalist approach to so-called “multiculturalist separatism” can be misleading at times.

I would recommend this book to anyone in North America, as Americans have very similar issues when it comes to recognizing the complete story of their own history. I, personally, couldn’t put the book down; and I managed to fully read and take notes in my copy in a span of a single afternoon. In the revised edition of the book, published ten years after its initial success, Granatstein attempts to shoot down theories that he was ‘nationalist’ or ‘racist’ in his writing[13], and that he (as a historian) pushes for the most up-to-date and revised history possible. His main concern is that national history, alongside political and military histories, are being thrown into the wind in favor of more local, separate, and unequal histories. Somewhere out there exists a balance of social and political history, and Who Killed Canadian History might be one of the best sources for finding such a unified answer.

[1] Granatstein, J. L. Who Killed Canadian History? Toronto: Harper Perennial, 2007, pp. 78

[2] Ibid, pp. 166

[3] Ibid, pp. 79

[4] Ibid, pp. 6-10, 24-25, 37, 96

[5] Ibid, pp. xiii

[6] Ibid, pp. 26

[7] Ibid, pp. 14

[8] Ibid, pp. 174

[9] Ibid, pp.  x

[10] Ibid, pp. 66

[11] The History Teacher, Vol. 32, No. 2, Special Issue: Advanced Placement (Feb., 1999), pp. 314-315

[12] Granatstein, J. L. Who Killed Canadian History? Toronto: Harper Perennial, 2007, pp. 160

[13] Ibid, pp. 149-150

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