By Colin Coates
The world of Canadian Studies, which according to the International Council for Canadian Studies includes some 7,000 scholars in 70 countries, is facing difficult times. Strangely enough, one of its chief opponents seems to be our own government. Since the 1970s successive Liberal and Progressive Conservative federal governments, along with various provincial governments, have supported the principle that targeted funding can enhance the profile of Canadian issues in academic institutions abroad. Most of the time, those governments respected the values of academic freedom, believing that scholars could research and teach about the country without attempting to control what they did. But recently, the current Canadian government has decided that it will no longer support such work.
In 2012, the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT), under the leadership of former Minister John Baird, entirely cancelled the “Understanding Canada” programme that cost $5 million a year, approximately 14 cents per Canadian. This programme funded academic activities abroad, helping to provide salaries for the administrators of some of the older and larger national associations (the Association for Canadian Studies in the United States, the British Association for Canadian Studies and the Association française d’études canadiennes), subsidise scholarly conferences and publications, provide research grants, and in a few cases contribute to academic salaries of a few individuals appointed to teach about Canada.
Did such funds make a difference? To take an example I know fairly well, I can assure you that without external funding NOT A SINGLE academic in the United Kingdom would be hired to teach about Canada. Of course, many UK-based scholars may choose to teach and research about Canada – but NOT A SINGLE post throughout the entire sector would be attributed solely to the study of Canada. And it should not be hard to make a case, given immigration, cultural and economic links, for at least some British universities to hire a Canadian specialist. But the importance of Canada pales in comparison to the reasonable desire in the UK to focus on other parts of the world. It is easy to take Canada for granted.
External funding helped to encourage a few universities (Edinburgh, Birmingham, and Nottingham – and that’s it!) to hire full-time tenure-track faculty members to posts with Canada in the job description. Keep in mind that a university may easily hire someone with a specialisation in Québec literature into a French department or someone with an interest in Canadian multiculturalism into a sociology department. But it makes a difference to continuity and dedication if Canada remains the focus of the academic post.
Despite the withdrawal of funding, most of the international associations have continued their work. Sometimes local embassies and high commissions have tried to help out, but their budgets have been slashed as well. Many of the newer associations, particularly those in Latin America, are in great difficulty. Does that matter to Canada? Yes, our Argentinian colleagues tell us, when the main understanding of Canada in their country comes from the activities of mining corporations.
Second case in point: the recent turmoil in the Foundation for Canadian Studies in the United Kingdom. Some of the older associations prudently raised funds separately to reduce their reliance on the government of the day. British scholars, for instance, could rely on the Foundation for Canadian Studies in the United Kingdom. When I taught in the Centre of Canadian Studies at the University of Edinburgh, some of our funds came from the Foundation. They were more than matched by the University’s commitment. Another smaller sum came from DFAIT, which allowed us to run annual scholarly conferences – normally a foolhardy endeavour for a three-person academic unit.
Recently, the Canadian High Commission has staged a take-over of the Foundation for Canadian Studies in the UK. It wants to direct the funds to different goals. Facing opposition from the deputy chair, Rachel Killick, Professor emeritus of Québec Studies and Nineteenth-Century French Studies, the High Commission decided to depose her. Four distinguished colleagues, two of them former presidents of the British Association in Canadian Studies, resigned in protest: Susan Hodgett, Steve Hewitt, Margaret MacMillan, Diana Carney.
It is possible to see Jack Granatstein’s Who Killed Canadian History? as the blueprint for such actions. Now, I am not saying that Granatstein supports such policies – I simply do not know where he would stand on this issue. But the polemical work he published in 1998 attracted a great deal of attention at the time and still seems to have its followers today. (I was surprised last summer to find a copy of the book in the tiny Hornby Island, BC, public library!)
In his book, Granatstein heaped scorn on both social history, as if this were a peculiar failing of Canadian historians, and Canadian Studies. The multidisciplinarity of Canadian Studies was the problem: “Canadian studies was not a single discipline with a methodological basis; instead, it was whatever those who taught something, anything, about Canada wanted it to be – an amalgam of literature, art, current events, politics and public issues, and the environment. There was very little room here for a systematic study of the past, let alone the Canadian past.” (24)
This view has directly influenced key decision-makers in the Canadian government. As John Geddes, pointed out in Maclean’s in 2013, Granatstein is the single historian former Heritage Minister James Moore referred to in an interview with the magazine. Likewise, Jason Kenney has made similar pronouncements about the book’s influence on his thinking. Granatstein’s book may have provided a blueprint, but I’d venture that the government may have gone farther than Granatstein ever intended. Indeed, Granatstein has leveled his own criticisms of the government’s approach to history. (See here and here)
Canadian Studies was never intended to provide “a systematic study of the past,” though – in terms of Granatstein’s argument – all Canadian Studies programmes that I am aware of integrate Canadian history courses into their range of offerings. I would contend that students who would never find their way into a Canadian history course (or political science course) could still explore important aspects of the country’s make-up through “Canadian Studies.” Canadian Studies was never a choice of one or the other: EITHER Canadian history OR Canadian Studies. Moreover, as I’ve pointed out in an article recently for the Dorchester Review, we must distinguish between the Canadian Studies within Canada and Canadian Studies outside the country. Externally, Canadian Studies is the best – and only – way to ensure that a critical mass of scholars can develop a larger sense of intellectual commitment and community.
The promotion of Canada abroad is largely in the purview of our federal government. Our government is making it clear that it no longer provides support for Canadian Studies internationally. This support was as much moral as it was financial. In a time of financial exigency, let us remind ourselves how effective the relatively small investment was, and how local multiplier effects enhanced that investment. The oldest Centre of Canadian Studies overseas, the one at the University of Edinburgh, is now facing an uncertain future, and it may not survive. With our current government’s denigration of Canadian Studies, the profile of Canada will be poorer and weaker on the international scene, and no further advanced nationally.
Colin Coates is the director of the Robarts Centre for Canadian Studies at York University and former director of the University of Edinburgh Centre of Canadian Studies