By Ian Milligan and Thomas Peace
We’ve been fighting about the same things for a quarter century. It’s time to call it quits.
Earlier this week, The Dorchester Review published an open letter under an inflammatory (and arguably misleading, as it did not appear on the version signatories signed) headline of “Historians Rally v. ‘Genocide Myth;” it also apparently appeared as a print advertisement in the Literary Review of Canada, absent the polarizing title.
The letter was signed by 51 historians from across Canada and lamented the “Canada Day Statement” issued by the Canadian Historical Association (and published here on ActiveHistory.ca). The concern brought forth in the letter is about how the CHA framed historians’ work on the question of genocide and the role that professional organizations should play within the public sphere.
This is the second letter of this nature this year. In January, the Macdonald-Laurier Institute issued a similar letter, this time focused on the “Defence of Sir John A. Macdonald’s Legacy.”
Both letters share a common critique (and substantial overlap in signatories). In Monday’s letter, the signatories argue that in issuing their statement, the CHA’s leadership was “insulting the basic standards of good scholarly conduct and violating the expectations that Canadians have of academia to engage in substantive, evidence-based debate.” For the signatories of the January letter, the concern – according to the Macdonald-Laurier Institute’s press release – was that “those who see Canada’s history as little more than a shameful series of mistakes and failures have grown increasingly vocal in calling for the shunning of figures like our first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald.”
The phrasing of these critiques are familiar to anyone following the politics of history. They are reminiscent of provocative arguments that now have a pedigree of a quarter century.
Their roots are found in Jack Granatstein’s 1998 polemic Who Killed Canadian History. Explaining his motivations for writing his book, Granatstein points to the school lessons of a young boy named Brad. About this boy’s history work, Granatstein laments that the curriculum’s aim was more “to teach a lesson about racism and sexism, not history. The history taught is that of the grievers among us, the present-day crusaders against public policy or discrimination. The history omitted is that of the Canadian nation and people.”
The message from Granatstein nearly twenty-five years ago, and from the scholars who signed these letters, is that the discipline of history in Canada is in a state of disarray and is perhaps even, by virtue of its ostensible activist leanings, somehow illegitimate.
They are wrong. Continue reading