A recent blog post has stirred up the usual cross-border sniping. Canadians taking snarky digs saying Americans are ignorant of Canada and arrogant, to which Americans respond: "That's unfair -- we're just better than you, so we don't care."
The irony is that no one puts down Canadians with quite as much glee as Canadians themselves.
This can range from Canadians who think they are being charmingly self-deprecating to conservatives who hate Canada for not being more American. Plus Canadians in one part of the country love to put down Canadians in other parts (and then use the inevitable backlash as a justification for their initial prejudice).
Quebecers insist they have a culture, but no one else does. West coasters preen about their rich history in contrast to the vacuum that is Central and Eastern Canada. Easterners believe nothing interesting exists west of the maritimes.
What I can't understand (but someday I'll have my eureka! moment in human psychology) is why any of us need to recognize our own self-worth by denying it in others.
This way of thinking can also betray a disinterest in the world around you.
Last year commemorated the War of 1812, yet I came upon a number of comments from western Canadians who said they knew little about it. But a lot of these comments weren't: "Oh, I didn't know too much about this -- cool!" so much as: "I refuse to care because it didn't happen in my region."
Because I tend to identify myself as "Canadian" more than by my province (though obviously my province influences me) I like to think I have an interest in everything from sea to sea to sea. I grew up in Ontario, but I was taught about the arrival of Jacques Cartier in the east and the rebellions in the west, the plains of Abraham and the Klondike gold rush.
All this is just a preamble to looking at an oft repeated truism: that Canadian history is boring (and, by extension, Canada is boring). A comment repeated even in the comments section of that post I referenced initially.
And whenever I hear that Canadian history is boring, I kind of find myself going: "huh?"
Or, more to the point: in contrast to what?
I'm not sure even the people saying it have thought about what they mean. Like someone dogmatically defining something as "bigger than a bread box" when, if pressed, they'd admit they've never seen a bread box.
All history is interesting and exciting -- if you want to be engaged. And all history is boring and frustrating -- if you don't.
It's a Catch-22: If you regard a place as uninteresting, then everything -- no matter how interesting -- will always seem inconsequential. And if you regard a country as exciting, everything becomes significant. A weather balloon crashes in New Mexico and an entire mythology arises around the Roswell "incident"!
British history is either a sweeping saga of noble kings and kingmakers, or an unending string of A-holes being overthrown by other A-holes.
Some people and events we now regard as historical milestones were, in fact, largely forgotten until popularized in a book or movie.
And an awful lot of exciting history is, um, made up. Or exaggerated. Or otherwise interpreted to make the best story.
Often the great battles were kind of a mess, and the defining moments actually took place over many months. And the "good" guys cheated on their wives, owned slaves, and killed Indians. But once a writer gets hold of it, protagonists become heroes, antagonists become villains, battles become victories or, if lost, tragedies. And if it still doesn't come together, they just make the darn thing up.
Zorro didn't exist. Django didn't exist. Captain America didn't exist.
As historians have often pointed out, the image of the "wild west" era has been greatly embellished by extrapolating from a few isolated incidents, and by the romantic exaggeration of hack writers and travelling shows. Yet it has been the basis of hundreds, even thousands, of movies, books, comics, etc.
Storytelling is about homing in on the interesting kernel that you can build a narrative around. Maybe a historical figure's personal life was more interesting than his public, so you make the movie an epic romance. Maybe he had 15 minutes of fame in an otherwise uneventful life, so you make that 15 minutes the core of your story. If a person accomplished something, make it a story of heroism. If he didn't, make it about martyrdom.
And if it's a complete mess? Do it as social satire!
There's a thin line between history and mythology. And it often boils down to how we choose to tell it.
Sometimes it's about breaking out of a rigid mindset and not trying to force an outside template.
Often in Canada people will claim that the Canadian west was never as wild and lawless as the American west. But my brother -- who was far more aware of history than was I -- once pointed out that was just because we were looking in the wrong place. If you wanted to do a tale of wild west shenanigans, Upper Canada was where tales analogous to the American west could be found, most notoriously epitomized by the history of the Black Donnellys.
While the very fact that the Canadian west was a little more ordered can become its own source of great adventure as Mounties trekked across hundreds of kilometres of wilderness to "always get their man."
When people dogmatically chant that Canadian history is boring, it becomes its own self fulfilling assessment.
A few years ago there was a crackling CBC political thriller called H2O starring Paul Gross. And it was interesting and unexpected because it embraced its Canadian setting -- it wasn't just a rehash of State of Play or The Manchurian Candidate. Yet some Canadian posters at the IMDB -- some without even watching it -- dismissed it as inherently ridiculous to set a thriller in Canada. (Funnily, some posters who liked it identified themselves as non-Canadians).
It's not that I think Canada, or Canadian history, is inherently exciting. I just don't regard it as necessarily less exciting than anywhere else. There are plenty of times I'll come upon some passing reference to an incident or a person, and I'll think: "That sounds like a neat idea for a movie!" It's all in what you focus on, and how you choose to spin it.
If Canadian history is perceived as boring, don't blame history -- blame the storytellers.