By Jim Clifford
Is Stephen Harper, as Terry Glavin argues, right to “not trust the history establishment“? Posts on this website and elsewhere do suggest that a broad spectrum of Canadian historians disagree with Harper’s use of history. Does this vocal minority represent the establishment? If not, who makes up the establishment? The Canadian Historical Association’s executive members? Leading historians at the large graduate programs?
Glavin’s column pivots from mentioning the concerns of Tom Mulcair and Scott Simms with the Conservative’s efforts to re-brand Canadian history to rehashing Jack Granatstein’s critique against “faddish social histories” from the 1990s (a fad that appears to have outlasted three to four generations of popular culture fads). Glavin, an author who has written a number of books about indigenous history, laments:
If it’s “a proud national story rooted in the great deeds of our ancestors” you’re after, the very last place to go looking for it would be the history faculty of a Canadian university.
To bolster his argument, Glavin interviewed Christopher Dummitt (the author of a great history blog, Everyday History), who began his career as a historian of masculinity, to confirm the Conservatives are
“right not to trust us… The historical profession has become kind of an activist organization. The result is we have lost authority, as a discipline, and we can’t talk about history writ large.”
Dummitt posted a follow up article on his blog and, while acknowledging a number of recent exceptions to the rule, he stands by his general point that cultural and social history have replaced the study of political and economic history in Canada. Glavin traces the problem back to the New Left, who emerged out of 1960s radicalism. Dummitt suggests this generation of historians have become the new establishment shaping the study of history in Canada. Looking at the big personalities in Canadian history, there is clearly some truth to this point. That said, at least some of these 1960s activist are now critiques of the politics of their youth. Broad brush strokes are dangerous, as there are lots of exceptions to all of these rules.
I am a Canadian and a historian, but not a Canadian Historian. As a result I read these new contributions to the history wars without the deep knowledge in the field to judge the arguments, particularly as newspaper columns and blog posts necessarily provide limited evidence. So I would like to simply highlight some questions that come to mind and ask the readership for some answers.
- Are political and economic history really dead in Canada? Was the recent conference focused on political history and the well-attended session on political economy (featuring Dummitt) at last year’s Canadian Historical Association conference evidence of a growing interest in these fields?
- Considering our limited pool of professional historians, what are the pros and cons of more of us writing political biographies? This kind of history is very popular in the United States, with contributions from both the right and the left of the political spectrum.
- What about military history? When I read about the lack of conservative friendly history the comparison tends to be political vs. social/cultural history. I did an MA at Wilfrid Laurier University and there were plenty of military historians doing great work. Their politics ranged across the Canadian political spectrum, but I don’t think many self identified with the New Left.
- At what point does history become activism? Are indigenous or gender historians activist based on their choice of topic alone? In my field, environmental history, many of our leading scholars ask questions that challenge core beliefs held by many environmental activists (see W. Cronon, The Trouble with Wilderness). Is this true in other sub-fields?
- Are efforts to understand the social transformations related to gender and sexuality not an important contribution to “the basic history of our politics, and how things changed over time”? The recent Ontario Liberal leadership race suggests these topics are increasingly interconnected.
- Should the “history establishment” do more to open up debate in Canadian history? Would the field be strengthened by more contributions from conservatives and contrarians? Is there something in particular the Canadian history community should do to draw more conservative historians away from other fields to study Canadian political history?