What do people believe about the past? And why do they believe it? Those questions fascinate and propel Daniel Francis. In pursuit of answers over the past half-century as a researcher and writer, he’s produced popular history books about Canada, British Columbia and Vancouver. And he has interrogated persistent myths and stereotypes in The Imaginary Indian, National Dreams and Selling Canada.
“History really is an argument about the past. It’s about contention,” he told The Tyee in an interview.
What would he say to people made nervous when historians come along and revise what was assumed to be a shared story by paying closer attention to injustices such as systematic racism, colonialism or genocide? What is the message when historic figures literally are toppled as monuments? Is that the same as cancelling history?
No, because there is no “single” history, asserts Francis. There are actual facts and various interpretations but no one, established narrative. And so: “There’s nothing unhealthy about historical dispute and historical debate.”
Which brings us to his latest book, Becoming Vancouver. This one turns Francis’s critically perceptive eye back on his hometown. “The first chronological survey of the city’s history in 50 years,” according to Mark Forsythe at BC Bookworld, it’s a story about a young Vancouver constantly at odds with itself about what it is and what it wants to be, from issues of real estate and development to race and racism.
So did he nail down the essence of Vancouver once and for all? Could this be the definitive account? Francis reminds that when writing a history in history-making times, about a city that’s always in flux, such a goal is impossible. “How do I feel about the fact that my book will be out of date in 20 years? I feel just fine. That’s how the process works.”
From his office in his North Vancouver condo apartment, Francis talked to The Tyee about Becoming Vancouver, a life spent delving into the past, and what the study of history is good for, anyway. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Tyee: What interests you most about the study of history?
Daniel Francis: When I started getting involved in writing about Canadian history, I think what interested me most was not necessarily what happened in the past, but what people thought had happened in the past. The first job I got in 1975 was working on the history of the fur trade in northern Quebec. But what was very interesting about the project was that ideas about Indigenous people and the role they played in the fur trade were changing. It was a project that was involved in changing people’s perceptions of what they thought the past had been like.
I went on from there to other things, but I kept that guiding sight of interest. Probably my most popular book was The Imaginary Indian in 1992, which is a book about what white Canadians thought “Indians” were, historically. It’s a book about stereotypes and misconceptions, and it’s not really a book about Indigenous people at all. And then I followed that up with National Dreams, trying to apply the same idea to Canadian history generally.
How did you bring that approach to Becoming Vancouver?
My first book about Vancouver was in 2004, a biography of Louis Taylor called LD. Louis Taylor was Vancouver’s longest serving mayor. I started it because I wanted to write a biography of somebody, but it really turned out to be the story or the history of a reputation. LD was very little known in the city at the time, yet in a previous generation he’d been the most popular politician in the city’s history. What attracted me to the story was why he had disappeared from the historical record. I still was keeping that idea of dealing with questions about the past, rather than just reading a story of the past.
There’s always a variety of reasons why you choose a particular subject. In the case of the latest Vancouver book, it’s because there seemed to be a need. The publisher and I agreed that it had been several decades since a real, one-volume narrative synthesis of Vancouver’s past had been produced, and we both felt the time was right to do it. So that’s the genesis of that book.
In the book you mention how being a city in constant flux has affected what people want Vancouver to be. Can you talk a bit about that?
I noticed as I got into the project that there was this dichotomy in the city, and there always had been, between two views of what Vancouver could become. Without being too simplistic about it, there seemed to be one group of people who were always wanting to leverage Vancouver’s location into something greater, a world-class city, and to make it “grow,” and so on. And this group was always opposed by another group who preferred the, let’s say, “liveable city” approach, if we’re thinking up slogans. More low-key, not caring so much about putting Vancouver on the map.
It reflects itself in so many issues. You can think of it as about bicycles versus cars, you can think about it in the real estate situation. Now, growth versus not growth. It’s manifested in many ways, and several of these are mentioned in the book. So that became something of an overarching theme to watch how that worked historically in the city.
What can we learn from that?
I don’t know about lessons. But it can certainly show that when these debates are happening in the present, they’re not new. They’ve been happening since the city began. And sometimes they’ve had these consequences and other times they’ve had those consequences. This is pretty much what history teaches that things have happened before, and we examine the way people responded to them.
How do you decide which stories need more contemporary emphasis or analysis?
The stories that I think are important, like women’s suffrage for instance, or the treatment of Indigenous people, they’re obviously affected by the particular period you live in. We ask different questions of the past because of what’s going around us in the present.
One of the reasons why I thought the book was necessary was because in previous histories, certain parts of the community have been, if not ignored, certainly not dealt with comprehensively. In earlier histories, Indigenous groups, perhaps the labour movement, and so on, were left out of the story in favour of privileging other groups. In this case, I was trying to put some of those groups back into the story from which they’ve been missing.
But that’s what every new generation of historians does. It’s based on what’s going on around us in the present day, and what our present concerns are. This is why history is always changing. Sometimes, people get the sense that there is “a” history, and it exists, and it’s your job to find it. But of course there isn’t. It’s changing all the time. Our interpretation of the past is changing all the time, due to the questions we ask of it.
You wrote for The Tyee in 2012 about meeting then-immigration minister Jason Kenney in Ottawa and his view of what history should be and how it should be told: “In the view of people like Minister Kenney, history is a unifying force that, if conveyed properly, can reinforce Canadians’ faith in our own institutions and belief in our own virtue. Conflict is out; patriotism and national pride is in.” Could you talk to me a little about that?
I’m at odds with the idea that history, a national history or even a local one, is supposed to celebrate the community or the country that it’s talking about, and people like Kenney often suggest this is the case.
History really is an argument about the past. It’s about contention. There’s nothing unhealthy about historical dispute and historical debate. [History’s] role is not to console us and remind us of great achievements. That’s part of it. But it’s [also] to welcome opposing points of view and to debate them. So I think that’s what I was responding to there — this idea of one unified view of the past.
It’s a particularly contentious time now with people suggesting statues to be torn down and interrogating different aspects of the history. It’s a particularly contentious period. But this is always the case with history, as well.
What does it mean when some of the most powerful people in the country are engaging in these appeals to history?
I guess, at certain points of time, it seems that if you’re reinterpreting history, you’re somehow attacking the country, attacking its notions of itself. This is a position that I don’t agree with, but apparently this is a position that many people hold — that we can’t have a complicated history. That there’s a single history, the single story to be told, and the purpose of studying history is to sort of celebrate the country, rather than to explain it. It’s usually people in power who want to use history to buttress the prevailing view of the country.
The history that we do know right now is very much dependent on who was able to archive things and so much of history is already lost or hard to access.
Sure, but our understanding of the history of the city has changed enormously in the past generation. The understanding of relations between ethnic groups in the city — I mean, it was such a racist place when I was a kid.
And while I think there’s still some issues, I don’t think there’s any arguing that the culture of the city has evolved enormously, since, say, the internment of the Japanese or the forcing of the Chinese into Chinatown. There’s been an enormous change since that time for the better, I think.
And I think, in the same way, I’ve already talked about the history of Indigenous people. They were basically erased from the history of the city. And now they’re prominent members of the community. So there’s been evolution in many of these ideas over time, and that’s certainly part of the story of my book.