Last week a story in Le Devoir caught my attention. The headline read: ‘Quebec’s history has been left behind by the universities.’ The article reports on a study lamenting the quality and quantity of history-specific training in Quebec universities. More importantly – and this is what caught my attention – the spokesperson for one of the study’s sponsors, the Coalition for the History of Quebec, argued that the teaching of political and economic history had been subsumed by an over emphasis on social and culture history. After reading this critique of Quebec’s university history departments, I realized that the so-called ‘History Wars’ are still alive and well in the Canadian public sphere.
For most professional historians the debate between ‘non-national’ social and cultural history and ‘national’ political and economic history has subsided. In Canada, it reached its peak with the publishing of York University history professor J.L. Granatstein’s Who Killed Canadian History, but by the mid-2000s the debate had begun to abate as the principal figures concerned with the rising importance of social and cultural history began to retire. “The battle has been won!” declared Christopher Dummitt in his provocative essay “After Inclusiveness.” Citing a 2007 study in the American Historical Association’s magazine Perspectives, Dummitt observes that the three largest historiographical fields are now social, women’s, gender and cultural history. For Dummitt and many other historians working in universities “the battle between social and political history has lost any of the intensity it once possessed.”
Last week’s article in Le Devoir suggests that this is a premature conclusion. In Dummitt’s words: “the public is not with the professors.” It is this disconnect on which the History Wars are being reignited. The piece in Le Devoir is the most recent volley in a public political campaign to return to a narrowly focused vision of Canada’s (political and economic) past. As Dummitt so clearly outlines, as the historical profession re-oriented and re-tooled, the public was left behind. The chasm between the profession and the public has helped make the past a contested public space.
Canada’s Conservative government is leading the charge. The first clear inklings of the government’s desire to shape Canadians’ understanding of their past was well laid out in the discussions following the release of the Discover Canada guide. But the Conservative vision of Canada’s past has been building over the course of the decade. In 2000, Jason Kenney, the minister under whom the Discover Canada guide was released, laid out the vision of his future government: “A country which does not know from whence it came,” Kenney stated, “is a country that has no direction for the future.” The speech from which this line came makes direct reference to the History Wars’ terms of engagement as laid out in Who Killed Canadian History. A decade later at a National Forum on Canadian History, Kenney was more explicit. There he lamented that many Canadian historians place too much emphasis on social history, oppression and injustice in their work. Stephen Harper was less direct but equally focused in a speech celebrating his five years as Prime Minister: “You cannot build a united country by burying and rewriting its history” – a subtle attack at the historians responsible for the historiographical shifts during the 1990s. This was reiterated during the most recent election campaign when the Conservatives called for a restoration and renewal of Canada’s historical memory. The clear implication in these statements is that the government is not satisfied with the current historical narrative. In their view, it is critical for Canadians to return to a historiographical golden age.
Over the past five years, the arguments that fuelled the History Wars have continued in some of Canada’s most important corridors of power. Despite a handful of laudable apologies (Residential Schools and the Chinese Head Tax), and recognizing Quebec as a nation, the Conservative government usually draws on (a narrow vision of) the past in order to edify The Nation or their party. In 2009 the Prime Minister famously quipped that unlike so many other members of the G20, Canada has no history of colonialism. Ignoring much of Canada’s past interaction with First Nations, he claimed that Canada “has all of the things that many people admire about the great powers but none of the things that threaten or bother them.” More recently, the Prime Minister took aim at his predecessors, claiming to be the best travelled PM in our country’s history – a remark that was quickly corrected by the Liberal Party. Most recently the addition of ‘royal’ to some components of the Canadian Forces – a move that has been condemned by historians on both sides of the History Wars – has been seen as an attempt to re-inscribe the monarchy into Canada’s past.
Rather than focusing on the factual merits of these statements, it is more important to emphasize the place this perspective seeks to occupy in the popular understanding of the past. There is no room for an alternative narrative in this vision of the past. From this perspective, Canada has only one uncomplicated past. Framing Canadian history in this way means that the past cannot be questioned. Whether intentional or not, this serves as an assault on critical engagement and it is an oversimplification of the work of professional historians.
Few (good) social and cultural historians ignore the political, economic, or national context in which their research is situated. Many of the celebrated works in these fields demonstrate how these approaches are interconnected. In adding these fields to historical practice, new stories – particularly related to women, First Nations, and immigrants – have emerged and become part of Canada’s popularly recognized past. As Christopher Dummitt has emphasized, the resolution of the History Wars among professional historians has in fact helped lay the ground work – though not completely – for a re-invigorated revisiting of Canada’s political and economic history.
Despite a familiarity with the History Wars, though, few historians have engaged with its new political incarnation. A handful have openly criticized the government’s depiction of the past in the Discover Canada guide (for a summary see our post on the guide or hear Ian McKay’s podcast), but for the most part the profession has been silent. Last week’s article in Le Devoir demonstrates that the debate continues. It is being fought in a different venue and requires a different set of tools than those used a decade ago. But, in a profession with an increasing focus on public and community engagement, it is important for historians – on either side of the first History Wars debate – to enter into the fray. The Conservative desire to restructure Canada’s past suggests the stakes have never been higher.