Activating Foucault for Canadian History

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by Steven Maynard

Foucault“What does a queer, sadomasochistic philosopher have to do with the study of Canada’s past?” This is the question I ask students at the beginning of my first-year survey course on Canadian history. Over the years, colleagues have suggested that first-year undergrads aren’t ready for Foucault. But experience tells me that not only are many of Foucault’s ideas readily translatable in the classroom, but that many first-year students, not always convinced that the study of Canadian history might have some connection to their present, eagerly grasp onto them. This past week was a case in point.

My lecture was on the First World War, and we used Foucault’s ideas about memory and counter-memory. We began by looking at dominant or officials meanings – the familiar story of the war as the moment of Canada’s maturation into nationhood, a narrative constructed by military officers and not a few Canadian historians. We then looked at different groups – ordinary soldiers, women, First Nations, disaffected veterans, black Canadians, leftists – whose memories of the War most often ran counter to official meanings. We then moved on to trace the historical process – through poetry, school textbooks, the Vimy Ridge memorial, local monuments – by which the First World War took on its nationalist meanings. We were also able to use Foucault, always attuned to questions of power, to look at how dominant and counter-memories exist in unequal relation.

I concluded the lecture with the recent death of Jack Babcock, Canada’s last First World War veteran, and the struggle over his wartime memory. The federal government wanted to give Babcock a state funeral, something he refused. For Babcock, the lesson of the war that failed to end all wars, one he explained in an interview with Veterans Affairs Canada, is not easily assimilated with the heroic myth of Canada as a nation born of fire: “I hope countries think long and hard before engaging in war, as many people get killed … What a waste.”

I also use Foucault’s notion of “the historical present” in the course, and the lecture on the First World War provided an unexpected opportunity to put it into action. Several weeks before the lecture, the Globe and Mail reported that Library and Archives Canada (LAC) plans to cut its popular program, “Lest We Forget,” a series of on-site workshops in which students do primary historical research on the First World War. Several students in the course had participated in the “Lest We Forget” program, and many others were quick to detect the hypocrisy of a federal government wishing to bask in the reflected glory of a state funeral at the same time that its archives is cutting an award-winning program designed precisely to foster the vital link between young people and Canadian history. Students agreed, something should be done. But what?

Foucault’s first impulse would likely have been to organize a street-level demonstration. With LAC in Ottawa and our class in Kingston, Ontario, a physical protest wasn’t a possibility. Foucault’s next move would likely have been to draft a petition. (Petitions have more cultural significance and political import in France than we are perhaps accustomed to here; in Paris one can take an entire university course on Foucault and the art of the petition.) And so last week we started our own save the “Lest We Forget” program petition. Students are also writing letters to MPs, their hometown newspapers, starting up a Facebook page, and much else.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find it odd to be participating in a campaign about the First World War. I also teach a course on the history of sexuality in Canada, and it feels mighty strange not to be responding to Jason Kenney’s attempts to impose his personal morality on the rest of us by excising references to queer history in the Canadian citizenship study guide. But, for now, I’ll go where students take me. In my lecture on the First World War, I offered my interpretation, one that deconstructs nationalist myth-making and accentuates counter-memories. Do all the students in the course accept or agree with my take on it? No, and neither should they. But where we find common ground is knowing that in order to have differences of interpretation, we must first have access to the historical documents.

The text of the petition avoids appeals to nationalism or patriotism, focussing instead on preserving public access to archival programs and on the uniqueness of hands-on primary historical research. That many of the comments left by people signing the petition emphasize patriotism and national sacrifice is neither surprising nor something I can control. I can hear my students now: “Sir, that’s why they call it democracy.” Perhaps so, but it also furnishes me with another “teachable moment” about how some historical memories and meanings have more cultural sway than others.

In the end, I invoke Foucault and the historical present to offer students an approach to history that is ultimately about more than whatever specific moment in the past we happen to be considering. It’s a vision of history not as dead and done, but as an active process of conflicting interpretation and political contestation in which students can intervene. As I watch students get excited over having their very first letter to the editor published or being interviewed by the local newspaper, I, too, see new possibilities in harnessing the power of the historical present.

Steven Maynard is a social historian who teaches in the Department of History at Queen’s University.

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2 thoughts on “Activating Foucault for Canadian History

  1. Ludwik Kowalski

    Those who teach Canadian history probably teach other parts of history. Some of you might be interested in two free resources for students. Here is how I promote them among colleagues and friends.
    = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

    My two books are now ON-LINE and FREE. Anyone can read them by using a browser–any browser. The titles and the links are shown below.

    1) ‘Hell on Earth: Brutality and Violence Under the Stalinist regime.’

    ?2) ‘Diary of a Former Communist: Thoughts, Feelings, Reality.’

    ?Some have said that my books are ‘imperialist propaganda’ and ‘cold war relics.’ How can it be? I was not commissioned to write them. The books are dedicated to my parents, and to all other victims of Stalinism. Writing was a moral obligation for me.

    The first book was written for Americans who know very little about Soviet history. In addition to easy-to-read descriptions of Soviet proletarian dictatorship, the book discusses communist morality (Section 3.7), and the results of a survey of American students’ knowledge about Stalin (Section 4.5). Chapter 7 illustrates how Stalinism has been discussed by professors at one American university.

    The second book is an autobiography illustrating my evolution from one extreme to another–from a devoted Stalinist to an active anti-communist. This testimony is based on a diary I kept between 1946 and 2004 (in the USSR, Poland, France and the USA).
    Please share the links above with a potential reviewer, and with others who might also be interested, especially young people, and their teachers. Comments and suggestions will be appreciated.

    Thank you in advance,

    Ludwik Kowalski?
    Professor Emeritus?
    Montclair State University (USA)

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