In the province of history: the making of the public past in twentieth-century
Nova Scotia, by Ian McKay and Robin Bates, Montreal and Kingston, McGillQueen’s University Press, 2010, xii + 482 pp., CDN$95.00/US$95.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7735-3703-3, CDN$34.95/US$34.95 (paperback), ISBN 978-0-7735-3704-0
Canadian historiography can sometimes strike one as being derivative – nested within American, British and French scholarship in particular. Perhaps this is because this curious national project’s cultural, political and economic fabric is often seen as indelibly marked by these countries. It is therefore especially welcome when a book such as In the Province of History proposes an approach that, while heavily informed by Gramscian theory, has the potential to contribute in an original and innovative way to current work in a variety of milieus – in this case, to explorations of the power relations that inhere in popular tourist representations of place.
Indeed, if this work appears derivative, it is in debt to Ian McKay’s earlier, highlyregarded study, The Quest of the Folk: Antimodernism and Cultural Selection in
Twentieth-century Nova Scotia (1994), though he and his co-author, Robin Bates, characterise this work as a ‘sequel’ to it (p. ix).
Like McKay’s earlier work, this study takes Nova Scotia as its focus, and examines relationships between the state and specific individuals; they collaborated from the inter-war period to construct representations of place that were freighted with gender, class and ethnic tensions and expressed profoundly unequal relations of power. In place of Helen Creighton (a key figure in The Quest of the Folk), this study explores several actors whom the authors regard as critical ‘organic intellectuals’ responsible for the ‘articulation and elaboration’ of a specific place-image grounded in ‘Innocence’ – another term familiar to readers of McKay’s earlier work. Innocence is a ‘mythic framework’ (p. 8): a foil for modernity in which the province is not held to have been implicated. Instead, Nova Scotia in the inter-war years was invested with a kind of nostalgia (a term that, interestingly, does not figure prominently in this study), signalled by the construction of new symbolic landscapes of rocky shorelines and related tall-ship imagery. They were part of a ‘maritimicity’, which came to inflect representations of the province. Leading organic intellectuals enshrined a narrative of Nova Scotia’s past that evoked the romances of Victorian history. The mnemonic apparatus whose scaffolding they erected was divorced from the conventions of professional history – as David
Lowenthal has argued in his exploration of ‘heritage’, The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History (1996). Indeed, the authors argue that the most insidious aspect of this so-called ‘public history’ was – and is – its exclusive and private character.
Why was Nova Scotia so precocious in the commodification of its past, they ask, and how did a particular narrative of that past emerge, amongst other
International Journal of Heritage Studies
Vol. 17, No. 4, July 2011, 390–392
ISSN 1352-7258 print/ISSN 1470-3610 online
DOI: 10.1080/13527258.2011.577970 http://www.informaworld.com possibilities? The answer to the first question lies in the complex contours of its history: the competing claims of natives, Acadians, New Englanders, French and
British colonial authorities over its territory. Another central influence was Nova
Scotia’s profoundly ambiguous position in relation to the liberal order, especially in the post-Confederation (1867) era, which constructions of meta-narratives such as those that extolled the ‘white race’ helped to resolve (how, in the 1930s, as its economic peripherality became more apparent, could economic liberalism supply a persuasive meta-narrative for the province’s past?). The resulting ideology, with related imagery and tourist commodifications, upended many nineteenth-century narratives of Nova Scotia. It was elaborated by key public intellectuals, endorsed by the state, and derived inspiration from ideas of race and the liberal order. The narrative effaced as many historical actors as it elevated – none more so than natives.
The study, in delineating the historical articulation of this process, examines the romance of Longfellow’s Evangeline, which helped to construct Acadia as a pastoral symbolic landscape. It spurred tourism fuelled by an interest in the land of this fictional heroine. It was also a template for the kind of fact-effacing, totalising and romanticising narrative amenable to commodification which was subsequently elaborated on on a much greater scale. Later, William (Bill) R. Bird, a novelist whose oeuvre McKay and Bates read meticulously, gained prominence during the interwar boom in romantic historical fiction. In his writings on war, Bird expounded masculine narratives, interlacing ideas of race, gender and sexuality, which influenced later writings as he became a key architect of the Province of History, his ‘song of innocence’ characterised by structureless history and themes of rural simplicity. ‘Birdland’ (as McKay and Bates playfully dub the world his writing evokes) was a place infused with the pastoral. Bird’s work was paralleled by that of Thomas
H. Raddall, whose writings endorsed a biological teleology that McKay and Bates characterise as ‘the underlying evolutionary tendencies that relate essences to their circumstances and to historical time’ (p. 201). They acclaimed the British imperial dimensions of Nova Scotia’s past, where rocky coastlines and a bracing climate produced ‘real liberal individuals’ (p. 212). The interlacing of their two narratives of the past provided materials for premier Angus L. Macdonald to throw the weight of the state behind the full-fledged elaboration of the Province of History.
In Chapter 5, McKay and Bates return to territory familiar to readers of Quest of the Folk, exploring how the state, through such events as the 1923 commemoration of the arrival of the ship the Hector from Scotland to Nova Scotia (an anniversary that coincided with the establishment of the province’s Tourist Association), helped to shore up a dominant reading of the past. It extolled the virtues of Scots pioneers in a Tartan pastiche that still holds sway over popular imaginings of place.