Ring Around the Maple cover art.
In this article, Cynthia Comacchio examines the historical shifts in children’s experiences of childhood in Canada from Confederation to the 1970s. Comacchio further explores the sociocultural history of children and their childhoods in Canada in her forthcoming book, Ring Around the Maple, published with the late childhood historian Neil Sutherland, available from WLU Press in 2024.
ABOUT fifteen years ago I joined a project that had been initiated by Neil Sutherland, easily the foremost historian of childhood in Canada, who at the time had just retired from the University of British Columbia. He wanted my input on a synthesis of all things published and unpublished, scholarly and “popular,” disciplinary, interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary, national and transnational, on children and childhood in Canada since about Confederation to about the 1970s. I had just finished my book on adolescence and was in that dangerous “between projects” phase, so I readily agreed. To that already gobsmacking job, we soon decided we should add our own accumulated primary research from various sources, remnants from earlier projects or tidbits set aside for future projects. The book quickly became primarily, but no longer exclusively, a synthesis.
We also realized that we needed to consider all the materials “out there” on the internet, where much relevant new scholarship and media content and even archival materials were being circulated. More by the minute, it appeared. And countless more since our point of departure. Though we had little idea of this when we started, we discovered that the internet is a non-stop source of personal life writings that would otherwise never be read, some quite deservedly. As we got the “stuff” together and began to see where things needed more context and connection, we felt obliged to extend the range backward to at least the turn of the nineteenth century, and forward to the turn of the twenty-first. What did not waver was our determination to highlight personal life-writings, the precious ones written by children-at-the-time, and the important but undoubtedly problematic ones written by the once-child-looking-back.
Despite the increasing methodological sophistication, historians remain bedevilled by the question of how to approach the history of social groups that leave little self-generated direct evidence, in this case primarily because of age. How do we find children’s actual experiences, their circular, to-and from, whirling motion around the figurative maple tree that represents the rooted, institutionalized, continuous elements of their lives? To borrow anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson’s evocative term, children are “enigmatic strangers.” They manifest most clearly in the observations, theories, judgments, and projections of adult observers.
Until recently, historians have been very skeptical of life-writings and oral histories in general. Good enough for anthropologists and ethnologists, we supposed, but historians prefer hard data, documentary, and archival sources. Most children do not leave their own archival footprint, and the other hard data either slights them, excludes them, or is so slanted by what we can call “adultism” that it reveals little about actual children and what they were actually doing. This privileging of standard historical sources has been, rightly, challenged by Indigenous scholars for whom the oral tradition is the core of their cultures. Life-writings and oral histories contain certain fictive elements presupposed by the fact that human memory, fallible and given to a measure of creative “filling in,” is their basis. Nonetheless, common to literary memoirs and oral histories alike, settler and Indigenous, there are certain “scripts” that repeat, mimic, resound, reiterate across many or most stories. Especially for those who have left few “real” records, these are historical evidence.
There is a story, or two or three, behind our title and cover image too. When I was working on various historical things about children and Canadian society before this project, I developed a mental picture, a visual metaphor, of how the swirling, twirling, dancing, keeping in step, falling out of step, improvising, adapting of children’s lives is like the classic children’s rhyme, “ring around the rosies,” or “posies,” in some versions. Even the “all fall down” part. As we were trying out various titles, I mentioned this to Neil. And then he told me a story, something he was very good at, and I have always loved a good story.
The story originated with Neil’s youngest daughter, Emily, then teaching at an inner-city Vancouver elementary school. Many of her pupils were recent refugees from Afghanistan and Iraq. One of their favourite learning activities was a walk around the community, where she and the children in turn would point out the things they saw and repeat, or learn, their English names. They came to a solitary red maple in all its fall glory on a private lawn. Maples are not native to British Columbia, and these children had never seen one. She told them about maples and their history as national emblems. One girl asked if she might have a leaf to take home. The children were invited to take as many of the fallen leaves as they liked. And so, the story has its happy ending. They were happy to have armfuls of beautiful leaves just for the asking, happy to be in a place called Canada where this was permitted, and happy, as recently arrived racialized children accustomed to not being heard, and to being seen only with suspicion, that they should be so blessed. They told her this in their usual post-lesson discussion.
Through all these discussions, deliberations, and drafts, the world kept turning. We got older, our children got older, we got grandchildren. Neil got sick, and, for the past five years or so, could do no more. The world got Covid. Loved ones passed on. Neil passed on, leaving me with little desire to go forward. But I did, because we worked hard and faced many setbacks, especially his declining health, and he never lost faith in our project. I owed him to see it through even if he could not be here to see his name on it. It is my turn to have faith. The book, to be published by WLU Press in 2024, was christened Ring Around the Maple: A Sociocultural History of Canadian Children and Childhoods. The subtitle has changed with the scholarly fashions, which, like all fashions, change frequently. But the image of children dancing around the red maple that the main title captures has been a constant all these years. Reinforced by Emily’s hopeful story, its message fits with what Neil and I both wanted to believe, despite the natural cynicism of historians: that children in Canada could aspire to and eventually have, even while dodging and weaving and suffering the blows of real lives unfolding in real history, healthy lives free of the prejudices that restrain them.
Neil’s daughter Emily gifted us this story as we were starting this book. My granddaughter Mia Ly, barely an infant at the time and now a beautiful and talented sixteen-year-old, has gifted us the cover image. We started with the maple and the children dancing around it. I wanted it to evoke a children’s storybook, circa mid twentieth century. But historians are not nostalgic and those “Little Golden Books” reflected a version of childhood that many children did not then, nor now, actually get to live: an idealized, white, middle-class, male-breadwinner-family-with-dog story. The cover, then, is the revised ideal, as yet also imaginary. There has never been a time in Canadian history when a group of children of different colours and cultures could blissfully hold hands and play a carefree traditional rhyming game. This image, for me, calls to the past–the old game; the present–a nation more multicultural than ever before; and the future–a time when all the historic barriers of class, race, religion, colour, culture, and age–cannot keep children from coming together hand in hand.
This is also a story that takes faith, hope, and not a little imagination. These are all things children have in abundance, before adults make them “put away childish things.” Our tremendous ambitions notwithstanding, we never believed it was possible to tell “the” story of Canadian children and childhood, any more than historians can tell “the story” of Canada and its peoples. But we have captured a few stories, and that will open the door to many others. Because all histories, in the end, are basically life stories.
Comacchio, Cynthia R., and Neil Sutherland. Ring Around the Maple: A Sociocultural History of Canadian Children and Childhoods. (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2024).
Cynthia Comacchio is professor emerita at Wilfrid Laurier University, where she taught in the history department between 1990 and 2023. She received her PhD from the University of Guelph in 1987. Comacchio has published widely on topics about children, childhoods, and family history in Canada, mapping changes and continuities in the everyday lives and fluid culture of children.