The driving of the last spike – one of the most famous and iconic photos in Canadian history (photo by Ross Best & Co, courtesy Library and Archives Canada).

A nation is a group of people who share the same illusions about themselves. Academics call it imagining a community. Vancouver cyberpunk novelist William Gibson calls it “consensual hallucination.” Whatever you call it, April Fools seems like a good opportunity to think about some of the illusions Canadians have about ourselves.

One illusion we share is that we don’t know enough about our own history. The arrival of Canada Day invariably brings with it another poll showing how few Canadians can name three prime ministers, or know the words to the national anthem, or some other piece of national esoterica. The implication being a) this is a bad thing and b) people in other countries know more. Both these assumptions are wrong. The same polls, with the same results, appear with regularity in the United States and I imagine in other countries as well. Canadians may not know much history, but neither does anyone else.

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Sculpture by Brian Jungen

Every Indian in B.C. who could and would work was employed, yet Aboriginal people were defined as lazy and irresponsible

On March 15, 1843, the fur trader James Douglas arrived at the south end of Vancouver Island on board the steam ves­sel Beaver to estab­lish Fort Victoria for the Hudson’s Bay Company. The arrival of Douglas and his men occurred on the exact day that a bright comet with an extremely long tail appeared in the sky. Known to pos­ter­ity as the Great Comet of 1843, it was so bril­liant that it could be seen in day­light and it was vis­i­ble for more than a week. It is not known whether the Lekwungen (Songhees) peo­ple who inhab­ited south­ern Vancouver Island asso­ci­ated the arrival of strangers with the sud­den bright light in the sky. They had been hav­ing inter­mit­tent con­tact with Europeans for some time and must have known the new­com­ers were not mys­te­ri­ous gods. On the other hand, as John Lutz points out in his book Makúk: A New History of Aboriginal-White Relations (UBC Press), Lekwungen cos­mol­ogy did pro­pose that the first human had fallen from the sky in the form of a meteor. The local inhab­i­tants might well have given spe­cial mean­ing to the coin­ci­den­tal arrivals of comet and pale-skinned intruders. Read More