What does Canadian History Look Like? Impressions from the Periodical Room

By Tom Peace

This morning, as you read this post, historians from across the country have gathered at Brock University in St. Catherines, Ontario for the Canadian Historical Association’s annual meeting (click here to read the program). The CHA’s annual meeting is one of the most important forums to hear about new and emerging research on Canada’s past or by historians working in Canada on non-Canadian subjects. This year, panels address computer modeling of battles and pandemics (today at 9 a.m.), the 1200th anniversary of Charlemagne’s death (also at 9 a.m.), surveillance in 20th century Canada (tomorrow at 8:30 a.m.) and Canadian historians and the media (a panel we’re sponsoring at noon on Wednesday). There’s always a little bit for everyone and it’s a good place to familiarize yourself with the breadth of historical work being conducted in Canada.

As such, the CHA’s annual meeting provides a convenient opportunity to reflect on the current state of Canadian history. Last year, at the start of the CHA, I wrote a post analyzing paper titles over the past decade, using them as an index to better understand the subjects on which historians are working (click here to read that post). The theory underpinning that exercise was, when taken collectively, paper titles reveal broader patterns about the state of the field. This year, I’ve embarked on a similar task, looking at the Canadian history papers that will be delivered over the next three days and setting them in a broader context. Instead of rehashing last year’s post, though, I’ve decided to take my study a little further. Rather than looking at past CHA programs, this year I decided to take a look at what some of Canada’s premier history journals suggest about the field as a whole. To do so, like last year, I’ve run article titles from the past decade of Acadiensis, B.C. Studies, Revue d’histoire de l’Amérique française and the Canadian Historical Review through wordle.net (for the visualizations) and Voyant Tools (for the word ranking) to get a better sense of the topics in which Canadian historians are interested.[1]

The patterns that emerge are revealing and demonstrate some longstanding trends within the Canadian historical profession. The most surprising conclusion, I think, is the frequency of the term ‘war’ in nationally focused research (based on the CHA and CHR), and the somewhat greater emphasis on social and cultural oriented themes in the regional journals. This suggests that although there have been significant changes in Canadian historiography in past decades, for historians whose research seeks a national forum, wartime subjects (though perhaps not military history) remain dominant. Another important conclusion in this analysis is that Canadian history remains primarily a twentieth century affair. Across the board, in every publication I’ve looked at, the most intense scholarly interest is focused on the years between 1900 and 1990. Taken together these two conclusions help us better understand the work currently being carried out by historians of Canada and suggest a need for a more nuanced picture of the state of the field.

Before elaborating further on these broad conclusions, I want to examine these publications individually. To begin, let’s take this year’s CHA program and see what’s in store for CHA attendees over the next couple of days. Below, in figure one, you’ll see a word cloud representing common words found in the papers related to Canadian history. Much like the CHA programs

Figure One

Figure One: Paper Titles CHA 2014

I examined last year, war continues to be an important topic. Other prominent words include world, Ontario, politics, century and social.  Women, public, and British, which scored in the top five of the decade-long word cloud last year, all appear slightly lower in the list this year.

Interestingly, the term ‘1970s’ is fairly prominent in this word cloud. Perusal of the program demonstrates that the 1970s are in fact a significant decade at this year’s conference. There are seven presentations and two sessions at the conference that explicitly invoke this decade in their title; only three of the seven papers appear on the same panel (session 120 “The Boundaries of Political Activism and Radical Identity in the 1970s” at 3:30 on Wednesday).

This is confirmed when we expand the analysis to look at the chronology of all papers delivered at the conference (figure two). Like last year, we see that post-Confederation papers dominate the CHA.[2] Of the 141 papers for which I could establish a clear time period, only twenty (14%) cover Canada’s pre-Confederation history. In fact, there are only a handful of papers that address a topic before 1820. The periods of most chronological interest are the years of the First and Second World Wars as well as the end of the 1960s and early 1970s. There are more papers being delivered at the CHA on topics covering these short periods than there are for the entire pre-Confederation era. If representative of the general health of the field, then it seems apparent that early Canadian history remains relatively poorly understood in comparison to its post-Confederation counterparts.

Figure Two: Periodization 2014

Figure Two: Periodization CHA 2014 (1728-2013)

The similarities between this year and previous years’ CHA programs got me wondering whether we would see similar trends if we looked at academic journals. Perhaps not surprisingly, given their national focus, when we look at the Canadian Historical Review over the past decade (2004-2013) we get a result that is similar to this year’s CHA program. Though in figure three you can see that the CHR is better balanced in terms of its chronological scope (the post-Confederation period still dominates), the key words that are revealed in figure four are similar to what we find in the CHA program. Excluding Canada, Canadian and History (the three most dominant words), the next most important are war, Ontario, Toronto, great and politics.

Figure Three: CHR Periodization (1600-2010)

Figure Three: CHR Periodization (1600-2010)

Figure Four: CHR Article Titles

Figure Four: CHR Article Titles

In order to double-check this I also made word clouds from these articles’ abstracts (figure five). Here the result is more-or-less similar, though Toronto and Ontario decline in significance (but Quebec still remains prominent) and the words ‘social’ and ‘national’ take on greater importance. Aside from Canada, Canadian, article and history, the next most popular words in the past decade of CHR abstracts are war, social, political, national, public, and British. Again, what is perhaps most striking about this word cloud is the dominance of the word ‘war’, suggesting that although there may have been a historiographical shift away from military history, wartime as a subject of research and interest still attracts considerable historiographical attention.

Figure Five: CHR Abstracts

Figure Five: CHR Abstracts

The emphasis on war changes when we look at regional publications. For the sake of geographic diversity, I chose to look at Acadiensis (Atlantic Canada) and B.C. Studies. Beginning with Acadiensis it is immediately evident that the colony/province of study matters. As you can see in figure six, of the top 15 words, only one – women – is not a variant of Atlantic Canadian geography or a common and relatively meaningless word like ‘la.’ The word ‘women’ is important. Of all the word clouds I’ve created (this year and last), women only appeared at the top of the list for the CHA in 2004. After women, the key content words for Acadiensis are politics, state and development. The word ‘war’, though not insignificant, remains fairly far down the list.

Figure Six: Acadiensis Article Titles

Figure Six: Acadiensis Article Titles

Figure Seven: Acadiensis Periodization (1500-2012)

Figure Seven: Acadiensis Periodization (1500-2012)

Examining the past decade of B.C. Studies demonstrates a similar trend (figure eight). ‘War’ appears far down the list, it occurs only three times in an article title. In this journal we see a much greater focus on geography and ethnicity. The key words after the obvious terms (British Columbia, Vancouver etc…) are coast, commentary, essay, social, and indian (followed by Chinese, court and environmental). Chronologically, both journals focus primarily on the twentieth century, though B.C. Studies seems to have a more concentrated focus on the first thirty years of the century. (see figures seven and nine)

Figure Seven: BC Studies Article Titles

Figure Eight: BC Studies Article Titles

Figure Nine: BC Studies Periodization (1800-2011)

Figure Nine: BC Studies Periodization (1800-2011)

Finally, to balance this comparison, I also looked at French Canada. Examining the titles of articles in the Revue d’histoire de l’Amérique française we see a unique, though hardly surprising, set of keywords (figure ten). Québec and Montreal dominate followed by siècle (century), catholique, nouvelle-france, française, and genre. The next level of words reflect social interests. Each of these words appears six times in the entire corpus: consommation (consumption), famille, femmes, guerre, politique, projet and sociales. Chronologically, francophone historians (though slightly better at treating the pre-Confederation period) also put most of their emphasis on the period between 1900 and 1960 (figure eleven).

Figure Ten: RHAF Article Titles

Figure Ten: RHAF Article Titles

Figure Eleven: RHAF Periodization (1500-2010)

Figure Eleven: RHAF Periodization (1500-2010)

Assuming that these word clouds and timelines present an accurate representation of the field, there are two broad conclusions we can draw from this window onto Canadian history. First, most Canadian historians work on subjects that post-date the creation of Canada. Work on subjects that pre-date the nation-state are poorly represented in the field as a whole. Second, if there is one word that dominates Canadian history, it appears to be ‘war.’ Compare the word clouds in this year’s and last year’s posts and you will notice that there are only a handful of images where this word is not prominent. It is only in the regional journals and during the CHA in 2006, at York University, where the word ‘war’ isn’t prominently featured in paper titles.

Though this study is far from scientific, I think these conclusions are important. They suggest that the pre-Confederation roots of contemporary Canada are understudied in comparison to the country’s more recent past. In comparison to the energy Canadian historians are putting into twentieth-century topics, subject matter like Aboriginal rights and the development of the Canadian nation-state remain poorly understood (at least in the field’s main journals). Likewise, these word clouds suggests that Canadian historians have not distanced themselves from wartime and politics, as some historians and politicians suggest. Indeed, these images, and the timelines that accompany them, indicate that rather than being unprepared to commemorate the First World War (as Jack Granatstein recently suggested), Canada, and particularly Canadian historians, are likely quite well prepared to discuss this important event in Canadian history. If we need further evidence of this, the history department at York University (which is often a target of these critiques) recently put together an excellent series of videos that help us better situate the war within its broader historical context. All of this suggests accusation that Canadian historians have removed ourselves from studying wartime, politics and issues related to the state are misplaced.

What these quickly put together word clouds and timelines point towards is a need to delve more deeply into the state of Canadian history. Though most historians would agree that there have been substantial historiographical shifts in recent decades towards social and cultural history, we need to ask ourselves whether, as some would suggest, this actually meant a wholesale withdrawal from more traditional historiographical subject matter. Although this may have been the case over the short term, during the late-1980s and 1990s, these word clouds suggest this accusation is inaccurate and that it may be time for a more rigorous approach to determining the state and impact of Canadian history.

Tom Peace is a Harrison McCain Visiting Professor in the Department of History and Classics at Acadia University. Jared Smith, who recently graduated from Acadia with a BA(hon), compiled much of the date from the CHR, Acadiensis, and B.C. Studies.

Further Reading to further contextualize these trends:

Marlene Shore, “‘Remember the Future’: The Canadian Historical Review and the Discipline of History, 1920-95,” The Canadian Historical Review, vol. 76 no. 3 (Sept 1995): 410-463.

Allan Greer, “Canadian History: Ancient and Modern,” The Canadian Historical Review, vol. 77 no. 4 (Dec 1996): 575-590.

Notes

[1] The conclusions drawn in this essay are impressionistic. I have written this post as a window onto the field. It is not the product of an exhaustive study. The technology exists to now quickly and easily visualize large amounts of data, making this exercise useful. This type of post, I hope, helps us to ask new questions (and revisit old ones) about the state of Canadian history. Some of the vulnerabilities and weaknesses of this approach were addressed in the comments section of last year’s post.

[2] Methodological note: Any analysis related to dates in this post is only based on a subset of titles where the time period is easily determined. I have not tried to categorize every title. For the most part I have limited this study to those papers where specific dates could be easily determined. For example, I have not included dates for any title using the term ‘postwar,’ which could refer to a range of periodizations.

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