By Thomas Peace
Last month, Terry Glavin wrote a syndicated op-ed piece that appeared in The Ottawa Citizen and Vancouver’s The Province, delivering a strongly worded dismissal of the historical profession in Canada. Historians and others have responded elsewhere to his indictment of the profession (see here, here and here). Today, I want to respond to the broader ideas that inform his argument.
Glavin’s essay mostly parrots a series of arguments that have been lobbed at historians since the profession began to change its focus in the 1970s and 1980s. These ideas are quite resilient. Despite their regular application (mostly in the media), his accusations are neither fair nor reflective of current historical practice and broader professional interpretations of Canada’s past. More importantly, their use is a distraction from the key issues at stake.
Drawing on Jack Granatstein‘s (now 15-year old) Who Killed Canadian History and Christopher Dummitt, a historian at Trent whose recent career has been made arguing for the return of many subjects and themes jettisoned with the emergence of social and cultural history, Glavin suggests that historians working in universities and teaching your children in school practice irrelevant ‘faddish social histories;’ their work is disconnected from any sense of national history. Because of this, professional historians can’t seem to stop themselves from navel gazing at “increasingly fragmented subcategories of race, class and gender.” The Harper government is – in Glavin’s estimation – therefore right to put financial resources towards dictating how and what Canadians learn about their past.
Glavin and his two historian informants are wrong on two counts.
First, they have mischaracterized the history of the debate between political/economic/military historians and their more social and cultural counterparts. Even Dummitt has acknowledged that the debate over Who Killed Canadian History has ended and that the move towards social and cultural history was likely beneficial for the discipline as a whole. But in his persuasive article, “After Inclusiveness” Dummitt suggests that it’s time for Canadian historians to bring these two foci back together. Political and economic history and social and cultural history can benefit from being brought into conversation with each other.
The historiographical world is not as polar as these scholars suggest. Although it’s true that Canadian historians have not fully returned to the political biography of some of Canada’s great men, it’s equally true that in 2013 the profession’s focus remains on many of the key themes emphasized by earlier generations of historians. Take a look at 17 of the 28 new history titles being released in the spring catalogues of Canada’s three major academic presses (McGill-Queens, U of T, and UBC). I selected these titles because of their national scope, not their subject. I encourage you to look through the other texts in these catalogues with an eye to the critiques that these scholars have outlined:
The Canadian Rangers: A Living History; The Struggle for Canadian Copyright: Imperialism to Internationalism, 1842-1971; With Friends Like These: Entangled Nationalisms and the Canada-Quebec-France Triangle, 1944-1970; Labour Goes to War: The CIO and the Construction of a New Social Order, 1939-45; A Sisterhood of Suffering and Service: Women and Girls of Canada and Newfoundland during the First World War; Epidemic Encounters: Influenza, Society, and Culture in Canada, 1918-1920; Passage to Promise Land: Voices of Chinese Immigrant Women to Canada; After Evangelism: The Sixties and the United Church of Canada; The Social History of Ideas in Quebec, 1760-1896; Small Matters: Canadian Children in Sickness and Health, 1900-1940; Irish Canadian Conflict and the Struggle for Irish Independence, 1912-1925; Pathogens for War: Biological Weapons, Canadian Life Scientists, and North American Biodefence; Canada between Vichy and Free France, 1940-1945; Mississauga Portraits: Ojibwe Voices from Nineteenth-Century Canada; The African Canadian Legal Odyssey: Historical Essays; “A Justifiable Obsession’: Conservative Ontario’s Relations with Ottawa, 1943-1985; Documenting First Wave Feminisms, vol. II.
Although it’s true that few of these books tell the entire story of the Canadian nation, none of them live up to Glavin, Dummitt and Granatstein’s critique of the profession either. Indeed, seven of these texts directly address war and diplomacy, two of Jack Granatstein’s favourite subjects.
If we turn to the pages of the Canadian Historical Review we see more of the type of history these scholars lament. But even here it’s hard to see these papers as esoteric and irrelevant. Yes, articles in the last four issues of the CHR have addressed socialism, human rights, sexuality and draft dodgers (typical subjects targeted within this type of argument). But these are in the minority. In these same volumes, the journal has published pieces on Canada’s constitutional history (the Royal Proclamation and the BNA Act), Canada’s gun laws, Louis Riel and the Metis resistance, and parliamentary debate and the implementation of income tax. Are these the ‘radical’ subjects, the study of which is without merit and political relevance?
I suppose one could suggest that the issue is not research and publishing, but rather the teaching of Canadian history. Here this critique may have a point. Perhaps history is not being taught well or students are not getting enough of it. But again, this doesn’t seem to be a problem developing from within universities. The recent work of The History Education Network and the Historical Thinking Project have made issues around history education more rather than less accessible. Let’s be clear, the criticisms with history education often fall more at the political (and provincial) than academic level.
This draws out my second critique of these scholars’ analysis. They have mistaken the current debate over commemoration and history with the debate over Who Killed Canadian History and the relative merits of political versus social history. As much as Granatstein, and the Stephen Harper government might wish, the debate that has emerged is not the same as that over Who Killed Canadian History. The current debate, which has been well outlined by Jim Clifford (here and here), Sean Kheraj, Greg Kennedy and I (here and here) on this website, is not only about historians’ subjects and approach, it is equally about the allocation of fiscal resources and government priorities in an age of austerity. This is not just a debate about ideas, it has become about jobs, institutions, and freedom of information.
Professional historians have not been criticizing the commemoration of the War of 1812 or the birth of Sir John A. or the First World War because these events are completely unworthy of celebration or commemoration (though some certainly feel this way). Historians are upset because the government is paying for these commemorative projects while shutting down the research institutions that allow us to do our work and silencing some of our country’s brightest minds working within them. This is not a debate over what approach to history is better; it is a debate about whether the study and teaching of history is more important than its celebration.
Let’s take a case in point. According to the CBC, the Stephen Harper government is spending more than $28 million on commemorations of the War of 1812. Albeit a fraction of the roughly $110 million allocated towards celebrating the 400th anniversary of the French presence in Quebec, but the War of 1812 was not as significant of an event. While pouring this money into what has been demonstrated to be a relatively ineffective campaign to commemorate the War of 1812, the Stephen Harper government has called for $20 million of ‘cost savings’ at Library and Archives Canada (LAC). This has resulted in the firing of 215 employees and the end of LAC’s national lending program (among many other cuts).
Some readers may feel this an unfair comparison because it sets one-time funding beside annual costs. With plans in the next five years to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the First World War, the two-hundredth anniversary of Sir John A’s birth, and the sesquicentennial of Confederation, it seems likely that this type of funding will continue. But for those still sceptical, here’s another comparison: When set aside the government’s $55 million advertising bill for its ‘economic action plan’ in 2012 (those of us in Canada know this isn’t one-time funding), the cuts at LAC (and elsewhere) simply look mean spirited.
This past week saw additional controversy at LAC when management released a new institutional code of conduct (Jian Ghomeshi situated this policy well on Friday morning’s episode of Q). Under the section entitled “Duty of Loyalty,” the policy clearly indicates that LAC employees must be loyal to the Stephen Harper government and refrain from activities “that could potentially damage LAC’s reputation and/or public confidence in the public service and the Government of Canada.” These activities, according to the policy, include use of social media and online forums, but also presenting at conferences and engaging in broader scholarly discussions.
Although the policy does not prohibit LAC employees from participating in academic conferences in an official capacity (many work above and beyond their official capacity), it requires them to seek permission each time they wish to do so. Given the Stephen Harper government’s track record with its scientists, this new policy and its focus on loyalty serves as an effective mechanism to further restrict historians’ access to LAC resources and curtail the professional development of this key institution’s employees. This government did, after all, recently vote against the idea that “public science, basic research and the free and open exchange of scientific information are essential to evidence based policy-making” and that “federal government scientists must be enabled to discuss openly their findings with their colleagues and the public.”
So let’s be clear about the parameters of this debate. Despite government spokespeople and media talking heads like Terry Glavin and Jack Granatstein, this issue isn’t just about history and the practice of academic historians. It’s about the role of government, jobs, and access to our country’s documentary and material heritage. Debates about the merits of particular approaches to the study of history, though important, are sometimes a distraction. The changes taking place at LAC and Parks Canada are significant and they matter deeply to professional historians, archivists, archaeologists and librarians. They also matter to the general public. These are national institutions that serve both sitting governments and the general public. The public’s access to these institutions and the resources they contain is at risk. They are worth the fight.
Thomas Peace is a SSHRC postdoctoral fellow in Native American Studies at Dartmouth College