When I was growing up, Canadian history was generally not thought of as being as “exciting” as U.S. history. Sir John A. MacDonald and Confederation just didn’t seem as dramatic as George Washington and the American Revolution. Well, things have changed — at least in terms of how Canadian children can learn about the country’s history. I had the opportunity to talk to the creators behind The Loxleys and Confederation, which was the sequel to The Loxleys and the War of 1812. Taken together the two graphic novels put a personal stamp on Canada’s precarious position in the 19th century, as the nascent country struggled to avoid domination by the expansionist United States.
For many Canadians, learning our history is a bit of a chore. We feel, perhaps, Americans get all the exciting history — perhaps because Hollywood keeps telling us how thrilling it is — but Canada’s story is, well, boring. Right?
Maybe we just aren’t looking at it with fresh eyes.
Alexander Finbow is one of the people behind the bestselling graphic novel The Loxleys and the War of 1812, and its sequel, The Loxleys and Confederation. Originally from Great Britain, now a Canadian citizen, he says all this was new to him.
“In England, they don’t talk about Canadian history,” he says. Growing up, he learned about Napoleonic part of the War of 1812. He was shocked when, in Canada, he saw commemorations of the burning of the White House and thought it had to be made up.
He also noticed that even Canadians don’t seem to be that aware of seminal events such as the formation of our country. “I didn’t know much about Confederation. It turned out there was a lot less information in people’s heads in Canada about that than War of 1812.”
Finbow has been immersed in Canadian history for the last five years.
“It is interesting to see the way politicians manipulated events that were going on to get support for Confederation,” says Finbow.
Mark Zuehlke was a historical consultant on the earlier book, but, he says, “for Confederation I was the lead story writer—creating characters such as Lillian and integrating the Loxleys into the true story of the birth of Canada through the Confederation process. It was a very exciting and challenging undertaking.”
One of the challenges, he says, was to make the story engaging to young readers. “I spent a lot of time developing a feel for the real characters of John A., D’Arcy McGee, George Brown, [and others] so that Lillian and the other Loxleys in the story could interact with them as living and breathing individuals with all their strengths and weaknesses and various character traits rather than historical cutouts.”
The newest Loxley graphic novel picks up with descendants of the Loxley family from the earlier book, but also places Confederation in 1867 within the context of European relations with Indigenous peoples.
In this, University of Manitoba professor (Native Studies) Niigaanwewidam Sinclair contributed to the story and also wrote the afterword.
The book starts with a prologue showing an early encounter between Jacques Cartier and Donnacona of the Iroquois, including how Donnacona’s sons were taken by Cartier to France. That thread is echoed in the way Canadians treat First Nations people in the time when the various provinces are more concerned with the expansionist threat from the United States than with acknowledging Indigenous peoples’ rights. During the hubbub of political maneuvering, Lillian Loxley is struck by the fact Aboriginal children are being removed from their homes to work on farms. “Best way to teach them to be civilized,” says George Brown, one of the fathers of Confederation, confidently.
But George Loxley, speaking to delegates who will determine what form the Dominion of Canada will take, points to the greed with which Cartier saw the land of “Canada” and contrasts it to the notion of “Kanata,” the Iroquois word meaning village or community, where people work together to prosper.
In his afterword, Sinclair says, “As much as we can see Canada in these pages I encourage you to see Kanata too, in the moments it could have been, the place it always has been. Our riches lie in the way we interact, the gifts we trade, the stories we share — nothing else.”
The story of Confederation, it turns out, may hold a lot more than we thought.
Originally published in the Fall 2015 issue of Prairie Books Now.
The Loxleys and Confederation is published by Renegade Arts Entertainment.