By Allan Hux

Editor’s Note: the following is the full version of an article published in the paper edition of Rapport magazine in November, 2017.

I was invited to be a member of a panel on Confederation, Nationalism and Myth-Making at the University of Toronto History Department’s Conference for TDSB secondary school History students.  I spoke personally as an experienced secondary school teacher, author and curriculum developer.

Two of the academic historians on the panel thought that the teaching of history, and Confederation in particular, is being misused through myth-making and memorialization to promote nationalism and to exclude people form the historical narrative.

As a teacher of “historical thinking,” I reframed the questions in the following ways and I will comment on each.  We teach students to ask questions and probe historical issues using the “historical thinking” concepts developed by Professor Peter Seixas that are now reflected in the revised Ontario Grades 9 – 12 Canadian and World Studies Curriculum.  The six “historical thinking concepts” are historical significance, cause & consequence, continuity & change, historical perspective-taking, the ethical dimension, and evidence: primary & secondary.  Each concept has a number of key criteria that help us investigate and interpret the events, people and groups in the past and construct an historical narrative.

  1. Was Confederation an historically significant event in the story of Canada, Canadian institutions, the building of a civil society, and the definition of a power structure that advantaged some Canadians and disadvantaged others?

Based on the criteria to assess historical significance we would invite students to ask the following questions:

  • Was Confederation a prominent event at the time? And later?
  • Were the consequences of this event deep? Wide-spread? Lasting?
  • What has been its profile? Is it remembered? Revealing?

It is obvious to me that Confederation is an historically significant event which students should be asked to investigate.  The fact that some people interpret the event in a nationalistic light is all the more reason that we should encourage students to investigate Confederation so that they can ask questions about other people’s interpretations.  We are no longer in the business of rote learning and memorization, but in the role of teaching discipline thinking and inquiry.

  1. a) What were some of the underlying, multiple causes of this realignment of political structures, and have these forces continued to influence the evolution of Canadian society and institutions? Which individuals and groups had human agency at the time and who chose to act and not to act? Which groups were omitted or excluded from the decisions?

Confederation is one of the most complex events in Canadian history and it offers students an opportunity through individual and group investigations to explore the competing and conflicting forces in society in the 1860s. 

  1. b) What were the consequences, direct, indirect, intended and unintended, of the decisions made in the conferences of 1864 – 1867 and the passage of the Canada Act 1867? How significant was the impact on the people, provinces, regions, institutions at the time and over the next 150 years? What was the impact of Confederation?
  2. Was Confederation part of a significant pattern of continuity and change in the evolution of political and civil society in British North America and Canada in the 19th and 20th centuries? Was Confederation a significant turning point in this story / narrative?

The number of times that the terms of Confederation were questioned, challenged, re-visited and amended clearly demonstrates the significance of this event and supports an interpretation that Confederation was a significant turning point in Canada’s history.

  1. What are the historical perspectives that historians should consider when analyzing the Confederation period? What was the social, cultural, political, economic, intellectual context of the 1860s? The investigation of historical perspectives meshes well with the investigation of historical significance and causes.  The points of view and concerns of different individuals and groups need to be investigated while honouring their world views and diverse values. 
  2. When identifying and investigating the ethical dimensions of events, historians and history students must consider the historical context. What were the values of the day? Which historical actors had responsibility, obligations and power to act individually and collectively?  We must not ignore the events of the past, but we must not judge historical actors by today’s standards.  However, “history can inform us of our responsibilities to remember and respond to the contributions, sacrifices and injustices of the past.” [The Big Six, Guidepost 4, p. 11]
  3. I have left primary and secondary source evidence to the last because I think that it is the most important and central historical thinking concept. It is also the segue to my discussion of John A. Macdonald.

We want students to ask if the primary source evidence is authentic and credible?  Can it be corroborated?  Whose voices are included and whose voices are missing?

In the discussion of Confederation we should ask: What is the nature of the primary evidence that historians have about Confederation?  Whose voices are included and whose voices are largely absent or ignored?   What is the significance of the gaps in the evidence?

  1. The Case of John A. Macdonald, 1815 – 1891

In many ways the Confederation era has some of the richest primary source evidence for any historical event in 19th century Canadian history.  This was because it was such a controversial and contested development that took many years to bring to fruition and continued to be contested and revised for decades after 1867.

Some of the academics questioned the emphasis on Confederation and the role of the mainly middle class men who participated in the negotiations, debates, elections and legislation that surrounded the event.  I countered by citing Margaret Macmillan’s recent book, History’s People, which makes a powerful case for the role of individual men and women in shaping the course of history in intended and unintended ways. I went on to point out that there are important collateral opportunities for historians when they study the life and careers of people like John A. Macdonald. 

Why has so much primary evidence on John A. Macdonald survived?  Yes, he was an important political figure who was active in politics for 48 years.  He was literate and since he was a lawyer, a successful party leader and Minister of the Crown for many years, many of his public documents survived.  He also lived in an era when personal letters were the primary method of communication when you were absent from family, friends, business partners, clients, party members, constituents and fellow subjects. 

What do the papers of John A. Macdonald reveal about his life and his times?

John A. was:

– a child immigrant from Scotland – son, brother

– husband twice and widower for 10 yrs.

     – 1843 married Isabel Clark [1809-1857] and they had 2 sons, one who died in infancy

     – Isabel was ill for the last 12 years of her life and became addicted to opium medicines

     – 1867 married Agnes Bernard [1836-1920] and they had 1 child – Mary who could not speak clearly and got around in a wheel chair and communicated using a typewriter

– father: John 1847-8  – Hugh 1850-1929  – Mary “Baboo” 1869 – 1933

– grandfather to Hugh’s children, Daisy and John

– trained as a lawyer – in militia against 1837 rebellion and defence lawyer for rebels

– politician

– workaholic

– alcoholic

– traveller: buggy, sleigh, stage coach, transatlantic ship and transcontinental railway

What questions can historians and students ask about life in the 19th century based on this profile?  What are the sources that they can readily access?

The two published sources of primary evidence, one private and one public are:

  1. K. Johnson (ed.) Affectionately Yours: The Letters of Sir John A. Macdonald and His Family. Toronto 1969 and S.K. Gibson and Arthur Milnes (eds.) Canada Transformed: The Speeches of sir John A. Macdonald. Toronto 2014. 

There is a wealth of secondary source evidence by professional historians including the recent monograph by Patricia Phenix, Private Demons: The Tragic Personal Life of John A. Macdonald  Toronto, 2006). Phenix mines the wealth of primary evidence to explore the personal and family life of John A. which provides history teachers and students with a window into the rich social history of the 19th century that will allow us to apply the historical thinking concepts in news ways.  There are also two two-volume biographies of John A. by Richard Gwyn [ 2007 and 2014] and Donald Creighton [1952 and 1955] ,  A range of secondary source evidence allows us to compare the questions asked, the evidence used, and the interpretations drawn.  It invites readers to test the merits of competing interpretations and to criticize the abuse of history for nationalist, polemical or partisan purposes.  Our goal is to investigate and understand the past in our own time.  Each generation is invited to review, revise and create their own historical narrative using all the evidence available in a professional, open and transparent manner.  To do this we must teach historical thinking and inquiry skills using the content from Canada’s past.

Allan Hux is President of OHHSSCA and an executive member of OHASSTA.

Contributing Writer