“If Stephen Harper doesn’t support Canadian Studies, why should we?”

By Colin Coates

“If Stephen Harper doesn’t support Canadian Studies, why should we?”

So said the vice-provost of Duke University to Jane Moss, the director of the university’s Center for Canadian Studies, as he recommended “re-purposing” the endowment that had funded the Centre. This long-lasting centre closed as of 2014, turned into a “Council for North American Studies.” The place of Canada in this new structure has been reduced, and the funds originally intended for the study of Canada now will be used in different ways.[1]

Some Canadians may be surprised to learn the Duke University, located in North Carolina, had a Center for Canadian Studies. Even before the formal establishment of the centre in 1974, Duke was one of the most important universities in advancing the knowledge of Canada. A specialist in the history of the British Commonwealth, Richard Preston was appointed in 1965 as the William K. Boyd Professor of History. Preston directed a number of PhD dissertations on Canadian topics, including those of leading scholars like Andrée Lévesque and J.L. Granatstein. In the late 1960s, only a few universities in Canada offered the PhD in History, and given the climate of the time, it often proved difficult to justify pursuing a Canadian topic even in Canada. Many Canadians travelled abroad, to the United Kingdom, the United States or France to pursue their degrees. Anglophone scholars studied under specialists in the history of the British Commonwealth and Empire, one of the few ways that Canadian history could find its historiographical niche. Distinguished scholars like Richard Preston at Duke played key roles in developing the nascent field of Canadian Studies around the globe.

From the mid-1970s, the Canadian government supported the expansion of Canadian Studies in universities inside and outside the country, and they often encouraged private sector benefactors that this goal was useful. As a result, different foundations emerged to fund academic activity to promote the study of the country. The funds offered by the government and private funders were essential pump-priming exercises, but it is important to emphasize that local universities and governments covered the vast majority of salary and overhead costs.

The return on the Canadian investments was extraordinary. For four decades, the academic study of – and equally if not more important – university-level teaching on Canada expanded around the globe. The umbrella organization for Canadian Studies scholars, the International Council for Canadian Studies, estimates that there are over 7000 Canadianists around the globe. Many international scholars decided to study the country because of their own intellectual interests, but Canadian government and private sector funds helped to bring them to Canada to pursue research, develop their teaching capacities and establish intellectual networks.

But the context has now changed. In 2012, the Harper government completely ended its “Understanding Canada” programme, thus cutting off support for international Canadianist scholars. What was the result of this decision? At least three of the oldest associations (in the US, UK and France) had to let go of their long-serving administrators, thus reducing their organizational capacity. Some of the international journals of Canadian Studies have ceased to publish, eliminating a publication outlet for local Canadianists as well as Canada-based scholars. Fewer scholarly conferences are taking place. A few of the associations struggle to exist. The universities that supported such activities in the past ask themselves, as did the vice-provost at Duke University, “If Stephen Harper doesn’t support Canadian Studies, why should we?”

Former director Jane Moss points out that the Canadian government, as one of the original donors to the endowment of the Duke University centre, was likely approached to agree to the “repurposing” of the funds. In a previous activehistory.ca post, I detailed the actions of the Canadian High Commission in Britain in redirecting the funding controlled by the Foundation for Canadian Studies in the United Kingdom (despite the “arm’s length” status between the High Commission and the Foundation, as indicated in the annual reports to the UK’s Charity Commission[2]). The parallels between the Duke University Center’s funding and the Foundation in the UK are striking. One would not normally expect a nation’s government to be hostile to specialists interested in the country.

Against that negative backdrop, it is essential to recognize that a good deal of Canadian Studies activity continues on the international stage. Many established and younger scholars continue to be drawn to the study of the country for entirely legitimate intellectual reasons: interest in Canadian experiences of multiculturalism, First Nations, Inuit and métis peoples, national diasporas, the excellent Canadian literature in English and French, comparative histories, business and economic understandings of an OECD country, federalism and so on. People around the world have good reasons to understand Canada. In fact, the government of the United Kingdom today could well benefit from a deeper understanding of Canadian federalism and the challenges posed by successful nationalist political parties at the sub-state level. Fortunately, around the globe, many university faculty and students dedicate their time and energy to ensuring that Canadian Studies activities continue in their countries.

If the current Canadian government does not support international Canadian Studies, it is time for Canadians to show that they do. The International Council for Canadian Studies has launched a crowd-sourcing campaign to raise funds to support graduate student scholarships, internships and other activities. Its goals are modest, and I hope that we can easily surpass them. Please consider a donation to the ICCS: http://www.iccs-ciec.ca/make-donation.php. Even a modest $10 donation shows that Canadians support for work of our colleagues around the globe.

Colin Coates is the director of the Robarts Centre for Canadian Studies at York University 


[1] The only reference to funding on the Council for North American Studies website refers to the external Fulbright Scholar Program : http://jhfc.duke.edu/canadianstudies/funding/.

[2]http://apps.charitycommission.gov.uk/Showcharity/RegisterOfCharities/DocumentList.aspx?RegisteredCharityNumber=267927&SubsidiaryNumber=0&DocType=AccountList (on page 9 of the “Annual Report and Accounts for the year ended 31 July 2014”). Three of the eight voting trustees of the Foundation are currently employees of the Canadian High Commission. High Commissioner Gordon Campbell serves, as have previous High Commissioners, as an ex-officio observer. http://www.canadian-studies-uk.org/board/.

4 thoughts on ““If Stephen Harper doesn’t support Canadian Studies, why should we?”

  1. Prof. Granatstein has corrected me: Richard Preston was not his PhD supervisor. Ted Ropp was. My apologies for the mistake.

  2. As someone who is not particularly enamoured with the “Stephen Harper” branding of everything from Canada, or Canadian I understand completely the essence of the policy generally.
    This particular policy is the antithesis of Harper’s personal and professional interests. Hence unlikely his. Someday I am sure Historians will write of the last decade as the missing period of Canadian History. A time when Canada and Canadian were replaced by actions of Stephen Harper, Harper Nation and by Harperland. Personalizing the actions in contrast, will allow a much kinder gentler view of Canada and Canadians.
    Similarly the scourge of the Harper Party will allow the Conservatives to rebound this time in a much shorter period than after Mulroney. Long live marketers from Obama land.
    As a descendant of Loyalists from Vermont and Conneticut I definitely support the study of our History from outside our Borders.
    As the Godfather of the former Canadian and now American who recruited Harper, Baird and others to Ottawa I understand the need to personalize the actions “For the good of Party and Country ”
    The result IMO, neither the ministers, nor the Party will be as scorched by the fires that will engulf them when it crumbles, nor will Canada.

  3. […] Americans to be interested in Canada. Unless you’re applying for a position in one of the few, increasingly besieged Canadian Studies programs, your expertise in Canadian topics probably won’t be a major selling […]

Leave a Reply