The History of the Recent: Reflections on Social Movement History, Research Methods and the Rapid Passage of Time
In mid-March, I learned that Herb Spiers had passed away. I had never spoken directly with him, and his life’s work, although fascinating, had never been directly part of my own research. And yet, only two months earlier, I had been working a variety of online and interpersonal networks to try to track him down; successfully, I should add. Best known for his involvement in a variety of gay organizations, and a founding member of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) in New York, Spiers was a key figure in a number of Toronto’s gay liberation organizations in the 1970s, including The Body Politic collective and Toronto Gay Action. I had been trying to track Spiers down because he was one of the principal authors of “We Demand!,” arguably one of the first major political manifestos of the Canadian gay liberation movement, which was presented at the first Pride rally on Parliament Hill in 1971. A conference honouring the 40th anniversary of this event is being held this summer at Simon Fraser University. I was trying to secure permission to reprint this document in a module on gay and lesbian history that I was developing for Nelson’s Visions Canadian history reader. Spiers did grant permission to reprint the manifesto, which will (hopefully) soon be part of a number of Canadian students’ history undergraduate education.
Although my own research to date, at least thus far, has not focussed on gay and lesbian history, I had been drawn to the idea of organizing this module out of the desire to do a bit of “activist history” myself. As a gay professor, I like to include some queer history in my Canadian history courses, and wanted there to be resources that others could also draw upon. In this respect, I was blurring the lines a bit between scholarship and activism. However, the cleanly demarcated line between the unbiased historian and the socially engaged activist is often not nearly as clear as Leopold von Ranke would have hoped. In the field of social movement history, this line can be almost nonexistent, as former (or current activists) set out to write the history of their movement, or those who benefited from or support their activism seek to give it prominence in the history books (see the list of suggested readings for examples). To scold activists or engaged historians for writing and researching in an area about which they are personally passionate is not only to assume an uncritical reader, but also to overlook the fact that a sympathetic scholar can often unlock research sources that are not always open to the public eye. A good historian should be clear about trying to identify their biases and perspectives, but from that point forward, it is fair to expect our readers to judge our work based on the evidence and arguments we present.
I identify primarily as a Canadian political historian. I am keenly interested in issues related to government, public policy and the state, and the ways in which power has historically been exercised. This often entails examining the activities of social movements and lobby groups that have tried to shape the policies and attitudes of their societies from the bottom up. This approach is part of the “new” political history, which not only looks at the actions of politicians, but also the entirety of the bureaucracy and the state, and the myriad array of social actors in a society that have attempted to influence its political directions. In order to tap into these bottom-up currents of activism demanding political change, it is often necessary to venture outside of the national and provincial archives in order to try to find sources that will flesh out this understanding of the processes at work. One must find ways to tap into networks of living activists, in the hopes of finding individuals who will share their experiences, and – if you’re lucky – share their treasure troves of saved documents. In so doing, I have discovered a strong desire on the part of many individuals to be part of a more active history, and to allow their activism to take on a second life in the realm of academic history.
Anyone who has undertaken oral history within a university context is probably familiar with the process of obtaining ethics approval. Often designed with psychological or medical experiments in mind, the ethics committees and their approval forms are usually concerned with harm and risk, and protecting “human subjects” from damage. More than once, I’ve had to detail the various steps that I would take in order to consider and minimize the potential harm that I might be doing to my subjects. And yet, the typical experience that I have had as a researcher is with subjects who are thrilled to speak to me, who eagerly want to share their stories, and who have bent over backwards to help me out. These are social activists who believed firmly in their cause, or even bureaucrats who felt passionately about the policies they once worked on, who are keen to be part of the historical process. It has also helped, at times, to indicate that I tend to be supportive of their past (or current) activities.
My current research examines the various ways that English-speaking Canadians have responded to the developing policies of bilingualism since the 1960s, and how those policies were crafted to target this segment of the population. A significant part of this research has involved looking at groups who sought to promote opportunities for English-speakers to become bilingual, including the national organization Canadian Parents for French, founded in 1977, and a number of the local ad-hoc groups which preceded it. There are a few archives across the country where material related to these groups can be found, including the archives of Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick, which was home to a number of early leaders of Canadian Parents for French, including a past president. Glimpses of the activities of these groups can be found in the fonds of provincial education ministries, of the Commissioner of Official Languages, and of various premiers, prime ministers and ministers who received correspondence from these groups. But for a fuller picture of the activities of this social movement, I have found it most useful to contact the national and local chapters, to see what materials they have maintained. Some have on-site archives, with variable degrees of organization. But others do not, and in those cases, I have sought out individual leaders and members of these groups, many of whom have shared treasure troves of materials, dug up from dusty boxes kept in their basements or garages (I suspect that more than one spouse has been irritated with me for justifying their partner’s pack-rat tendencies!) Through this I have found clipping files to die for, copies of correspondence to and from a host of politicians, trustees and bureaucrats, and assorted briefs, minutes and memoranda that are otherwise unobtainable. Many of these activists have agreed to share their recollections in recorded interviews, and I’ve been fortunate enough to be allowed to make copies of much valuable material. I’ve also had some delicious lunches and teas.
While this sounds like a story of triumph, it also draws my attention to the happenstance and chaotic nature of historical research. I recently had a fascinating conversation with Gunild Spiess, who had been instrumental in establishing a French immersion kindergarten in North York, Ontario in the early 1970s. Through my conversation with her, I learned much about the tactics and strategies that were used to overcome the reluctance of a school board which placed little value on French-language learning. She shared, and in some cases gave me, copies of a host of documents that she had been saving. Along the way, I also learned of her experience with anti-Nazi resistance movements in Germany during the Second World War, before she and her husband moved to Canada (information which I promptly shared with a graduate student working on that issue in my department.) It was possible that I could have missed this opportunity entirely. I had been delaying the start of my oral interviews, hoping to read through a lot of material first in order to inform my questions. However, one of Spiess’s former colleagues called me up and insisted that I get cracking on the interview, because Gunild, now in her 80s, might not live that much longer. As it turned out, we had a fantastic conversation that day, which proved most enlightening.
This experience with Spiess alerted me to my reluctance, even as a historian, to confront and accept the realities of the passage of time. One would think that as historians we would be very much aware that time passes, and people too pass on. And yet death is not an issue that many individuals like to dwell upon. Historical research, however, can drive this home in unexpected ways, and recently it seems to me that I am confronted with it on an all-too regular basis. My first such experience was perhaps the most memorable. I returned home on 28 September 2000 from my final PhD field meeting with my doctoral supervisor. I was then going to have about a month to study for my comprehensive exams, before starting my research on the history of official languages in education in Canada. That day, Pierre Elliott Trudeau passed away. I don’t know whether I would have had the nerve or confidence in my early twenties to try to ask for an interview with the former prime minister and keen advocate of minority language education rights, or if he would have even considered meeting with me. But the fact remained that this was no longer an option.
In the years that followed, as I began conducting my oral history interviews, I started recognizing that time was against me in getting access to my sources. I was fortunate enough to speak with Senator Ronald Duhamel, who had been an influential figure in the 1970s in setting up Franco-Manitoban education programs, only a few months before he passed away. Other times I was less lucky, learning about a key figure in the Quebec Federation of Home and School Associations about a year after his funeral. In the years that have followed, I’ve heard of the deaths of a number of my other interviewees, and counted myself fortunate to have been able to include them in my work. The same pattern is repeating itself in my current research project, as I hear the refrain of “it’s such a shame that you can’t speak to so-and-so, who knew this organization inside and out.” In some cases, these individuals have died at relatively young ages, in their 40s and 50s. Unfortunately, the standard curriculum in a graduate history program doesn’t prepare you to deal with the passing away of your research subjects. It’s something that each of us must learn to deal with on our own.
Perhaps not surprisingly, social movement activists can become close friends and often keep in touch with each other, even decades after their initial involvement in an organization. A query posted to my blog, Twitter, and Facebook to track down Herb Spiers and a number of other gay and lesbian activists very rapidly resulted in a flurry of e-mail correspondence and telephone calls. While not everyone who contacted me knew exactly where to find the people on my list, they were usually only one or at most two degrees of separation away from someone who could help. Within about a week, we had tracked down everyone, or their heirs, and set up permissions to republish their work. Likewise, my queries for contacts in the French immersion movement usually resulted in a rapid branching out into a network of contacts. Although my initial contacts have often been made with a high-profile person in an organization, I often find myself being referred to the “behind-the-scenes” members of these organizations, who were perhaps less comfortable in the front lines roles, but were essential for research, strategy and other functions. Social networking, thus, has proved key to my research, but I have been pleasantly surprised at how rapidly a network of contacts could grow, especially once I found a key person who could introduce me to others.
It is gratifying to know, and it is a boon for researchers, that some of the larger social movements, or at least umbrella organizations for a network of groups, are taking their own initiative to preserve the institutional memory and documentary history of their activities. Although I never had the opportunity to speak with Herb Spiers, he did participate in the ACT UP Oral History Project, which maintains an online archive of transcribed interviews and filmed interviews. A number of organizations that have been active in French immersion and francophone minority rights activities have deposited their papers in a number of university and provincial archives, and a major repository can be found at the Centre de recherche en civilisation canadienne-française at the University of Ottawa. The Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives in Toronto has amassed an impressive collection from a variety of queer organizations. But financial resources for these groups, and particularly for more ad-hoc and shorter-lived groups that lacked government or other substantial funding, are limited. As a result, a large portion of the history of Canadian social movements is only living in the memories of key individuals, or is tucked away in a box in their basement.
It is for this reason that I’d advise anyone working on recent history, with plans to incorporate interviews, to act quickly. I used to think it was best to prepare as much as possible before starting interviews, but my experiences have shown that in many cases, time is of the essence. A more-informed follow-up interview can possibly be scheduled to fill in the gaps, but the opportunity to speak with key informants and perhaps access their personal papers can be fleeting. We do not, alas, live in a perfectly archived world that moves according to our research schedules, and so sometimes we must get to our research material before it is too late. Activists, politicians, bureaucrats, and other key people are often willing to speak to us as researchers, but we need to seize the moment.
Behiels, Michael D. Canada’s Francophone Minority Communities: Constitutional Renewal and the Winning of School Governance. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2004.
Chauncey, George. Why Marriage? The History Shaping Today’s Debate Over Gay Equality. New York: Perseus, 2004.
Ettinger, Laura E. “Inside Out: The Use and Inadvertent Misuse of Oral Histories,” in Building New Bridges: Sources, Methods and Interdisciplinarity, ed. Jeff Keshen & Sylvie Perrier, 103-112. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2005.
Frank, David. “Why Us? The Campaign Against Wage Controls in Saint John, New Brunswick, 1975-76,” in Mobilizations, Protests and Engagements: Canadian Perspectives on Social Movements, ed. Marie Hammond-Callaghan & Matthew Hayday, 211-221. Halifax: Fernwood Publishing, 2008.
Kinsman, Gary & Patrizia Gentile. The Canadian War on Queers: National Security as Sexual Regulation. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2009.
Palaeologu, M. Athena, ed. The Sixties in Canada: A Turbulent and Creative Decade. Montreal: Black Rose Books, 2009.
Warner, Tom. Never Going Back: A History of Queer Activism in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002.