- Phillip Buckner (Editor)
Canada and the End of Empire. University of British Columbia Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Christl Verduyn
In his introduction to this collection of essays, editor Phillip Bucker contends that most Canadian historians have espoused a nationalist view of Canada’s relationship with Britain as an “outmoded, unnecessary, and distracting colonial relationship” of “mutual antagonism.” A former President of the Canadian Historical Association, Buckner challenges this view. Canadian historians and academics in general, he suggests, should take a lead from Australia where “a major re-assessment” of the Anglo-Australian relationship is well underway. “In Canada,” Buckner asserts, “we have yet to see even the beginning of a similar debate. The empire has come to be viewed as a complete irrelevance, and its significance to Canadians in the past is almost completely ignored.” While this claim lacks resonance in the field of Canadian literary criticism and undoubtedly among some Canadian historians as well, Buckner is passionate about the need for greater recognition by Canadians of the end of the British Empire. “One does not have to believe that the empire was a ‘good thing’ to believe in its importance to generations of Canadians,” he grants. His own memories of growing up in the 1950s, “born in Canada but with English parents,” are positive. But not “everyone,” then or now, was reading British novelists “unthinkingly absorbed [in] their idealistic view of empire,” or became a Boy Scout and sat around camp fires “singing imperial songs.” Not “everyone” viewed the Queen’s coronation in 1953 “with great enthusiasm,” and not all readers will be satisfied that Buckner “suspect[s] that [he] was not atypical of a majority of young English-speaking Canadians growing up in the 1950s.” For those who are not, as much as for those who are, however, Canada and the End of Empire offers interest as a collection of essays that express and explain its editor’s passion and argument for the centrality of Canada’s relationship with Britain to understanding Canada and its (hi)story today.
The collection comprises eighteen essays, all but Buckner’s presented at a colloquium held in London, England, in 2001. The contributors cover such key topics as the 1956 Suez Crisis (essays by John Hilliker/Greg Donaghy and by José E. Igartua), the 1964 Canadian flag debate (Gregory A. Johnson and Lorraine Coops), Anglo-Canadian trade relations (Tim Rooth, Bruce Muirhead, Steve Koerner, Andrea Benvenuti and Stuart Ward), and socio-cultural perspectives. George Richardson dissects the “fantasy structure of national identity” in the Ontario and Alberta educational systems after 1945. The provinces’ history and social studies curricula in particular masked identity conflicts in favour of a fantasy of identity tied to Britain and empire. Paul Rutherford and Allan Smith trace the eclipse of British preeminence by post-war American ascendency in the domain of culture. Concern about American influence led to support for British “reinforcements” in a number of cultural areas, such as theatre, for example, which saw the creation in 1953 of the Shakespearean Festival of Stratford, Ontario. Fears of Americanization extended to the fields of politics and economics, as a number of essays show, and to the rapidly changing world of technology. Douglas Francis skillfully presents the insights of Harold Innis and George Grant on the role of technology in the shift of empire from British to American soil and the implications for Canadian autonomy. The end of British Empire held a different meaning for Canada’s Aboriginal peoples, as Jim Miller emphasizes in his essay. A longstanding First Nations practice of taking causes directly to London (often without result) ended as well, requiring the search for new avenues of representation. Regrettably missing from the collection, notwithstanding the editor’s efforts, is a view from Quebec on the end of empire as well as an essay on attitudes toward empire amongst the immigrant population that was changing Canadian society during the 1950s. These absences are particularly puzzling given the extent of scholarship on Canadian multiculturalism and immigration in recent decades and despite Buckner’s explanation that “francophone historians are [only] beginning to realize that the empire did affect the evolution of Quebec in a variety of ways” —as a good deal of Québécois literary production has indeed shown.
Good scholarship challenges received wisdom, probes paradigms, revisits issues, and produces new perspectives. There is value in returning to the topic of the end of British Empire and its significance to Canada and, some generalizations and gaps in its presentation aside, Canada and the End of Empire makes a useful contribution to scholarly appreciation of the importance that the end of empire has signified to many, if not all, Canadians.
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- Shapes of Historiography by Andrea Cabajsky
Books reviewed: Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race by Matthew Frye Jacobson and The Gender of History: Men, Women, and Historical Practice by Bonnie G. Smith
- New Postcolonialisms by Diana Brydon
Books reviewed: Postcolonizing the Commonwealth: Studies in Literature and Culture by Rowland Smith, States of Exception: Everyday Life and Postcolonial Identity by Keya Ganguly, and Tropicopolitans: Colonialism and Agency, 1688-1804 by Srinivas Aravamudan
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MLA: Verduyn, Christl. Rue Britannia. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 19 June 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #190 (Autumn 2006), South Asian Diaspora. (pg. 93 - 94)
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