A history forgotten long ago

By Еvan Osentоn

J.L. Granatstein argues in his seminal book Who Killed Canadian History? that we are a nation woefully ignorant of our past. His contention seems to ring true in every Nov. 11 Globe and Mail, traditionally bursting with statistics suggesting Canadian youth can not differentiate John A. McDonald from Ronald McDonald. Unfortunately, Granatstein’s analysis, which begins so critically, trails off into a tiresome polemic about "liberal" educators teaching revisionist history, wasting their time "fighting racism, teaching sex education or instructing English as a second language for recent immigrants."

Luckily, there exist Canadians determined not only to reverse our collective amnesia, but who are resistant of Granatstein et al.’s urge to vilify progressive educators in the process. Enter writer and University of Calgary professor Aritha van Herk, who, for her latest undertaking, trades her novelist’s beret for the historian’s deerstalker hat.

The widely anticipated Mavericks: An Incorrigible History of Alberta tells the story of our own maligned and misunderstood province, the renegade in a complacent, well-mannered Canada. Alberta is rich with a history that even many of her own residents dismiss as a load of clichéd nonsense, a grotesque parody of cowboy and Indian culture crammed down our throats every Stampede season.

Mavericks blows the lid off any notion that Alberta’s history is so limited–this is a book brimming with tales of unparalleled natural beauty and unremitting cruelty at the hands of nature; of the virtual genocide of Alberta’s First Nations people; of the miraculous survival of her first settlers; of drought and disaster on Biblical scales; of personalities irresistible and perverse; of a coronational brand of politics unparalleled in Western democracies; of glorious economic triumph and miserable, abject failure, of virtually irreconcilable contrasts; of wide-ranging multiculturalism, but racism and intolerance of every sort imaginable; and of a people so infinitely compassionate and brazenly unique that they defy comparison and barely allow description.

Mavericks is exhaustively researched and shamelessly ambitious, telling the entire history of Alberta, from the primordial era through the age of Dinosaurs, to the rise and near-eradication of First Nations culture; to the encroachment of white fur traders, through the age of explorers, settlers and the Northwest Mounted Police, to the drive for provincehood; the political changes under first the Liberals, then United Farmers, Social Credits, Conservatives and Reform, to the rise of urban culture, and to several unflinching chapters on our not-entirely-undeserved reputation as a province where bigotry, racism and ill-treatment of women and other minorities prevails even today.

This is a book overflowing with narrative and bursting with enthusiasm, yet gripping in its minutiae and uncompromising in its analysis.

Overall, the Alberta-born-and-raised van Herk betrays a passion for her native province that is undeniable and unfailingly contagious. And while one might hesitate to read a history book crafted by a fiction-writer, van Herk’s formula–exhaustive research combined with a fluid and evocative narrative style–makes this as appealing as any historical text one will ever read, and as gripping as any fictitious story was ever penned.

Mavericks should be required reading for every student in Canada; the perfect antidote to the collective ignorance that the rest of this country–and indeed, too many of ourselves–have of the enigma, the contradiction, the compelling and irresistible accomplishment that is Alberta.