Cherish, don’t cancel. That’s the central message of The 1867 Project, a new book just published by the Aristotle Foundation. Twenty tightly edited essays counter the great tide of rancour inundating Canada – a land gripped by aggressive amnesia and calculated self-loathing.
Cancellation – the sickeningly familiar practise of attacking, discrediting and banishing from public life and cultural memory contemporary and historical figures alike – is a strong thread running through the volume.
Law professor Bruce Pardy traces its origins to a blend of critical theory, post-modernism, “social justice” and critical race theory which, in turn, have captivated – and captured – Canada’s elites. Cancellation exploits hard-left German academic Herbert Marcuse’s concept of “repressive tolerance” which, stripped bare, means “anything I like will be allowed, anything I dislike will be suppressed, persecuted and silenced.” Consequently, cancellation’s criteria are fluid, innumerable “unwritten laws” made up by activists, social media monitors or public officials.
Whether targeting someone alive today or some giant of history, cancellation follows a predictable script: an incident – real, exaggerated or imagined – is fried under the spotlight of woke hypersensitivity, followed by the howl for blood. Erasure is demanded regardless of what else the person achieved, or any good that outweighs the accusations. Cancellation rests on the affliction of “presentism,” the belief that today we’re morally superior to our forebears, who must be judged by wokism’s fanatical standards.
Most of the cancellations examined in The 1867 Project relate to controversies surrounding Indigenous Canadians. Bruce Gilley recounts the firing of Mount Royal University professor Frances Widdowson for questioning some Indigenous scholarship, specifically Indigenous scientific concepts. Widdowson, who is fighting her dismissal , naïvely believed contemporary Canadian universities remain places for open inquiry and debate. The historical list, meanwhile, comprises Edward Cornwallis (founder of Halifax), educator Egerton Ryerson, judge Matthew Begbie and our first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald.
Malign interpretations of incidents are spun into narratives of intolerance and racism to discredit and erase these men from the public square, often literally by physically removing their names or toppling their statues. Four of the book’s essays set the record straight.
Lyn McDonald shows that accusations Ryerson “inspired” the Indian Residential School system (decades before its creation) are a frame-up. The real Ryerson lived and collaborated with natives, supporting their economic and social development.
Greg Piasetzki’s case for the Conservative Sir John A. reveals the prime minister as comparatively tolerant and caring of First Nations in the face of a Liberal opposition slamming him for his generosity towards them. Piasetzki’s essay demonstrates that specific accusations against MacDonald are exaggerated at best, fabricated at worst.
Two essays then highlight both challenges and hope for Indigenous Canadians. Peter Best uses the case of Cindy Dickson, member of the Yukon’s Vuntut Gwichin First Nation, to illustrate how rights protecting all Canadians are being eroded in Indigenous communities. Dickson’s run for elected office in her hometown was denied by local officials because she no longer lives there which, bizarrely, was affirmed by Yukon courts. Her appeal is now before the Supreme Court of Canada.
By contrast, Joseph Quesnel makes the case that if Indigenous Canadians could be freed from the inflexible federal yoke, and First Nations’ governance was more transparent, an “economic spring” might arise in these communities.
The broader theme of perceived “systemic” racism is discussed in several other essays, touching on censorship in Canada’s media and how critical race theory is bulldozing logic, fairness and democracy in Ontario education. Jamil Jivani relates his personal experience – as a writer, commentator, and radio host – of what he calls “remix-racism”, showing how the media establishment picks who may speak for minority communities and who may not. Black conservatives like Jivani are silenced, even fired. Purged from the airwaves, he’s rebounded to run for a federal Conservative nomination in Ontario.
Knowledge of other countries, as provided by Lebanese-Canadian Rima Azar, a New Brunswick health psychologist, and Indian entrepreneur Gourav Jaswal, supports their dismantling of the prevailing narrative of Canadian self-loathing. Azar is dismayed by the spread of identity politics in her adopted country, maintaining that “Canada matters more than our tribes” while Jaswal skewers claims of systemic Canadian racism as “absurd,” particularly when compared to how things are done in his native India.
Essays on Canadian history and our constitutional heritage – “what every schoolchild and politician knew”, as historian John Robson puts it – round out the volume, culminating in a tight summary piece by the book’s editor, Mark Milke.
The 1867 Project couldn’t be more topical – because these issues are tearing the nation apart as we near another Canada Day. The Trudeau Liberals are considering making debate of their residential school narrative illegal. And, while a statue of Queen Elizabeth II near the Manitoba legislature, toppled on Canada Day 2021, has been returned to its place, another vandalized statue – of Queen Victoria – has not. Read this book while you can.
A longer version of this article was recently published in C2C Journal.
John Weissenberger is a Calgary geologist with a strong interest in history.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of this publication.