Citizens and Nation: An Essay on History, Communication, and Canada


307 pages
Contains Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-8020-4709-2
DDC 971




Reviewed by Terry A. Crowley

Terry A. Crowley is a professor of history at the University of Guelph,
and the former editor of the journal Ontario History. He is the author
of Agnes Macphail and the Politics of Equality and Canadian History to
1967, and the co-author of The College on


Canada’s history is up for grabs, or so it seemed until the popular
and critical success of the CBC’s Canada: A People’s History in the
fall of 2000. Immersed in telling new stories about a greater variety of
peoples than had previously been admitted to history, historians lost
the narrative unity that had accompanied an earlier focus on national
politics. That Canadians were grossly ignorant of their own history
caused tremendous angst, even though the history of history has
witnessed recurring traumas. New associations were formed to promote
national history, while traditionalists such as Jack Granatstein issued
provocative broadsides in his polemical Who Killed Canadian History?

University of Manitoba historian Gerald Friesen elevates the debate
over the character of national history to a higher plain in this
thought-provoking, insightful, and at times brilliant book. Friesen not
only answers why the old history no longer resonates in the minds of so
many Canadians, but also proposes means by which to restore history in
an era dominated by the screen capitalism. Friesen advocates a new
historical dynamic in which culture, broadly conceived in terms of
communication and concepts of time and space, has evolved through four
stages. In each of the parts devoted to these stages, he examines
oral-traditional societies exemplified by pre-European contact
aboriginal peoples; textual-settler societies that characterized much of
the 19th century and that continued later in areas such as Labrador;
print-capitalist societies that accompanied the rise of mass literacy,
cheap paper, and other new means of communication by the opening of the
20th century; and, lastly, the inauguration of screen capitalism that
began with the rise of the cinema and, more importantly, with television
from the 1950s. Throughout, Friesen enlivens his account by relating the
lives of several ordinary Canadian families in order to illustrate his
arguments with telling effect.

This book reinvigorates an earlier interest among historians about
Canada’s distinctiveness, even though the subject has not been fully
addressed for four decades. Friesen argues that being Canadian is
relational, cultural, historical, and contingent. The commonality of
culture—the way in which one experiences, explores, reproduces, and
communicates meaning itself—lies at the heart of Friesen’s version
of the country’s history. Even though the problems of the Canadian
state (particularly the relations between its two principal language
groups) receive only cursory treatment, this volume will enliven
graduate seminars and animate debates among historians for many years.
Citizens and Nation also deserves a much broader audience among readers
interested in the nature of Canada’s history at the opening of the
21st century.


Friesen, Gerald., “Citizens and Nation: An Essay on History, Communication, and Canada,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed May 30, 2024,