Synthesizing or Fragmenting What? Nation, Race, and the Writing of Canadian History in English

Adele Perry, University of Manitoba[1]

The terms synthesis and fragmentation both circulate fairly widely in casual scholarly conversation, the former usually negatively and the latter positively. To invoke either synthesis or fragmentation is to presume an object, one that it is either broken apart or brought together by the historian. Few if any historians are on a search for a total history: we know we cannot study everything. It is how we imagine the object of study that is either fragmented or synthesized (and by extension the historians’ job in so doing) that I want to query here. There are a number of scales for defining the scope of historians’ purview, of which the nation has been key in Canada for most of the twentieth century and remains so. Here I discuss some of the issues surrounding assigning the nation this status, and suggest how resituating the nation recasts questions of synthesis and fragmentation.

The relationship between Quebecois historiography and Quebecois nationalism has long been acknowledged,[2] but the intimate ties between Canadian historical writing in English and various iterations of English-Canadian nationalism tend to be more hidden. The intellectual roots of the discipline of history in English Canada, as elsewhere, are irrevocably tied to the nation-state and to imperialism. Donald Wright, Carl Berger and Chad Reimer trace how history solidified its institutional presence in the early twentieth-century Anglophone Canada.[3] The discipline owed part of its newfound legitimacy and its new claims to professional status to the claim that history was a critical vessel for the nation, in this case the relatively new nation of Canada, jockeying for position amongst a number of imperial and post-colonial scales. Sentiments of nation also fueled the expansion of history departments in the postwar era, and were critical to the ‘Canadianization’ movement that shaped much of English-Canadian cultural life in the 1970s and 80s.[4] The discipline of history remains organized around the contemporary nation-state, projected backwards in time, however awkwardly. We complete PhD fields, advertise jobs in, and acknowledge expertise within national or continental terms, depending on the scale of difference engaged. Our research or teaching may not fit within these tight boxes, yet the national scale still sets the basic shape of our inquiry and evaluation.

This has remained true as a lively international scholarship urging transnational perspectives has developed over the last two decades.[5] With a few notable exceptions, historians of Canada have been largely absent from this discussion.[6] Ironically, in some ways, transnational perspectives seem to have had the greatest uptake within historiographical contexts where the nation has had a relatively consistent strong grasp on historical writing, most notably Britain and the United States. Its siren call has been less appealing to scholars working in contexts where the bounds of nation have been more successfully punctured by imperialism and ethnic or national division. When Australian feminist historian Ann Curthoys asks the plaintive question, “We’ve Just Started Making National Histories, and You Want Us to Stop Already?”[7] she speaks for many of us whose fields of study are little known, little valued, or little acknowledged in wider scholarly circles.

In the last few years, historians and humanities scholars more generally have raised renewed concerns about the tendency of departments and faculties to value foreign, and especially American credentials at the expense of homespun equivalents. In the context of both English- and French-speaking Canada such concerns resonate in an institutional contest where departments and universities have long valued the metropolitan above the local, though the metropole in question has changed over time. The University of Toronto’s history department did not hire a North American-trained historian until 1924.[8] It was not until the 1960s and 70s and the massive postwar expansion of Canadian universities that Canadian-trained PhDs would find employment in Canadian history departments in substantial numbers. As Jeffrey Cormier explains, the values of the “Canadianization” movement and the regulations they produced in the 1970s are now being questioned as constituents both inside and outside the academy argue that these conventions are at best unnecessary and at worst damaging.

This context sustains the historiographical shelf life of nation, but it surely does not account for the hold the nation continues to have on historians working in English in Canada in the face of compelling, or at least interesting, arguments to think in different terms. The enduring appeal of the nation in Canadian historical writing in English is surely a reflection of who makes up the sub-discipline. As Alan MacEachern points out,[9] Canadian historians are disproportionately drawn from the ethnic and racial groups who have historically been associated with both nationalism and imperialism in English Canada. Franca Iacovetta writes that Canadian historians are “overwhelmingly white, more specifically, mostly Anglo-Celtic in English Canada, and, in Quebec, anglo- and francophone, with no concrete discussion of implementing strategies for trying to diversify the profession.”[10] Mary Jane Logan McCallum’s trenchant analysis of the precarious place of Indigenous historians within Canadian history raises pressing questions about the discipline and who is counted within it. “Whereas Native people could be and were historians before history professionalized, currently in 2009 there is not a single tenured Aboriginal professor working in any history department in Canada,” she argues.[11] This is a problem deserving of separate and serious consideration, and one that has a number of effects, including, perhaps, to entrench the nation’s place at the heart of historical inquiry.

Syntheses can mislead. They presume an object, one that can occlude the kind of stories that history at its best unearths. Synthesis of mid nineteenth-century British North America as a time of expanding property and political rights can miss the women who were formally excluded from the realigned political order. Synthesis of late nineteenth-century Canada which stress the new mobilities and practical freedoms brought by industrialization and urbanization occlude the regulation, restriction, and at times virtual carcarealization of Indigenous people in reserves, under the Indian Act, and in residential schools. I would like to see more wide-ranging, intellectually capacious, analytically ambitious and politically engaged histories that grapple with the Canadian context. In different ways, Karen Dubinsky’s, Sean Mills’ and John Weaver’s recent books are all fine examples of what we might do when we situate the histories that occurred within the special bounds of Canada and the Indigenous and colonial states that preceded it on different scales.[12] These are not synthetic as much as they are attenuated and attentive, and are all the more so for their willingness to see how history that is lived both outside and between national borders sharpens rather than dulls this. There are many reasons why historians of Canada writing in English have put so much stock in the nation, and many reasons why we need to rethink this and the presumptions about synthesis and fragmentation that it brings.


[1] Thanks to the Canada Research Chairs Programme for their ongoing support, and to Mary Jane McCallum, Tina Mai Chen, and Ryan Eyford for their ongoing conversation.

[2] Serge Gagnon, Quebec and its Historians: 1840 to 1920, Y. Brunelle, trans.(Montreal, Boreal, 1982).

[3] Chad Reimer, Writing British Columbia History, 1784-1958 (Vancouver, UBC Press, 2009); Donald Wright, The Professionalization of History in English Canada (Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2005); Carl Berger, The Writing of Canadian History: Aspects of English-Canadian Historical Writing since 1900, Second Edition (Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1984).

[4] I expand on this argument in “Nation, Empire, and the Writing of Canadian History in English,” in Michael Dawson and Christopher Dummitt, eds., Contesting Clio’s Craft, (London, Institute for the Studies of the Americas, 2008).

[5] See, for two quite different but useful summaries of this scholarship, C.A. Bayly, Sven Beckert, Matthew Connelly, Isabel Hofmeyr, Wendy Kozol, and Patricia Seed, “AHR Conversation: On Transnational History,” American Historical Review 11:5 (December 2006) 1440-1465; Ann Curthoys and Marilyn Lake, “Introduction,” in Curthoys and Lake, eds., Connected Worlds: History in Transnational Perspective (Canberra, Australian National University Press, 2005).

[6] See Franca Iacovetta, “Gendering Trans/National Historiographies: Feminists Rewriting Canadian History,” Journal of Women’s History, 19: 1 (2007) 210-11.

[7] Ann Curthoys, “We’ve Just Started Making National Histories, and You Want Us to Stop Already,” in Antoinette Burton, ed., After the Imperial Turn: Thinking With and Through the Nation (Durham and Chapel Hill, Duke University Press, 2004).

[8] Berger, The Writing of Canadian History, 141.

[9] Alan MacEachern, “F is for Faculty,” University Affairs, October 2006, accessed at http://history.uwo.ca/faculty/maceachern/The%20Academic%20Alphabet.pdf, 18 August 2010. I thank Donald Wright for first alerting me to this.

[10] Franca Iacovetta, “Towards a More Humane Academy? Some Observations from a Canadian Feminist Historian,” Journal of Women’s History, 18.1 (2006) 145. The establishment of an Equity and Diversity Committee of the CHA in 2009 begins to address the question of institutional response. I thank Tina Mai Chen for information on this.

[11] Mary Jane Logan McCallum, “Indigenous Labour and Indigeneous History,” American Indian Quarterly, fall 2009/vol. 33, no. 4, 528. I thank McCallum for her ongoing discussions with me over the years.

[12] See Karen Dubinsky, Babies Without Borders: Adoption and Migration Across the Americas (Toronto: University of Toronto Press and New York: New York University Press, 2010); Sean Mills, The Empire Within: Postcolonial Thought and Activism in 1960s Montreal (Montreal, McGill-Queens University Press, 2010); John Weaver, The Great Land Rush and the Making of the Modern World, 1650-1900 (Montreal, McGill Queen’s University Press, 2006);

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