Active History and learning from the early-Canadian past

Two weeks ago the  Telegraph in the United Kingdom ran a story announcing that due to government cutbacks the department of history at the University of Sussex has decided to end research and in-depth teaching on topics related to pre-1700 English social history and pre-1900 European history.  Under the new paradigm, topics such as the English Civil War, French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars would no longer be a focus of study.

Appropriately these changes were met with outcry from the academic community.  The Telegraph received a letter signed by 17 historians who called the program’s restricted emphasis short-sighted and risked skewing the public’s understanding of the past.

All of this got me thinking about the state of early-Canadian history and its relationship to Active History.  As the only member of our editorial board who does not study twentieth-century history, I must admit that I reflect on this often.  How important is early-Canadian history to current issues facing Canadian society?  And how does research on early-Canadian history compare with the study of later periods?

The answer to the first question is easy.  The legacy of Canada’s sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries continues to shape many of the critical issues facing Canadians.  There are lessons from Canada’s distant past that contribute to understanding issues as broad as First Nations’ land claims, inter-provincial relationships, and even urban development.

Ronald Rudin’s website, Remembering Acadie, serves as a great illustration of the importance of Canada’s early history in shaping present-day issues.  Built around the commemoration of the 400th anniversary of French settlement in North America and the 250th anniversary of the Acadian deportation in 2004/05, Rudin introduces visitors to how participants in his project understand the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and how these understandings have shaped their identities.  The videos from Passamaquoddy and Mi’kmaq leaders are particularly powerful in this regard.

The Canadian and French states have also put considerable resources into promoting the public memory of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Canada.  The New France-New Horizons project integrates interpretation of the French Regime of Canada’s history with access to over 40,000 primary documents.  The interpretive part of the site is quite extensive and encourages visitors to engage with the primary source material used in its development.  The digitized archive available on this site has made research in this field significantly easier to conduct.

Recent trends toward collaborative research and a greater sensitivity to culture have also brought important changes to early-Canadian research and how it is conducted.  The Great Lakes Research Alliance for the Study of Aboriginal Arts and Culture draws together Aboriginal community researchers, museum curators, archivists, and university researchers in an effort “to digitally reunite Great Lakes heritage that is currently scattered across museums and archives in North America and Europe with Aboriginal community knowledge, memory and perspectives.”  Although GRASAC’s work is not publically accessible, the project serves as an important demonstration of the new ways that early-Canadian research is being conducted and how it can contribute to current and future understandings of Canada.

Despite its relevancy and accessibility, university-based research on early-Canadian history seems to be less healthy.  A brief survey of titles winning SSHRC Standard Research Grants and paper topics at the annual meeting of the Canadian Historical Association provide a window onto research being conducted in Canadian history.  Last year 21 standard research grants were awarded to studies of the twentieth century, 14 to the nineteenth century, and 6 to earlier periods.  A survey of presentations at the CHA paints an even starker picture.  Only 13 presentations covered a topic before the 19th century; 32 were on the 19th century; while 125 presentations were given on 20th century topics.  Although far from a reliable study, these numbers suggest a significant gap between research on recent subjects and that on the more distant past.

The research potential for studying early-Canadian history has never been healthier or easier.  Digital archiving projects and community-based research has made the past more accessible and more broadly reflective of the variety of ways historical actors experienced the past.  It is highly unlikely that a Canadian-based university would make a decision similar to the one made a few weeks ago by the University of Sussex.  Nonetheless, the field seems to be under-studied relative to more recent events despite the important place that Canada’s early history has in shaping many of the critical issues facing Canadian society.

2 thoughts on “Active History and learning from the early-Canadian past

  1. Sean Kheraj

    Great post, Tom. In general, I think you’re correct. Early Canadian (or pre-Confederation Canadian) history is most definitely relevant to contemporary politics, society, and culture. It is also underrepresented in university research and teaching. This is also true, as you know, in graduate studies. There seem to be fewer graduate students studying pre-Confederation Canadian history (this was certainly the case at York when I studied there).

    For environmental historians, Canada’s very early history is obviously important to our research as we explore timescales that go back millions of years in the past. Studies of ecological imperialism and the Columbian exchange in the Canadian context obviously must consider Canada’s history as early as the 16th century.

    I’ll leave my defence of pre-Confederation Canadian history there for now, but I do hope other historians will add to this discussion. Greg Kennedy? Let’s hear your take on the state of pre-Confederation Canadian history.

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