The Return of the History Wars

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Last week a story in Le Devoir caught my attention.  The headline read: ‘Quebec’s history has been left behind by the universities.’  The article reports on a study lamenting the quality and quantity of history-specific training in Quebec universities.  More importantly – and this is what caught my attention – the spokesperson for one of the study’s sponsors, the Coalition for the History of Quebec, argued that the teaching of political and economic history had been subsumed by an over emphasis on social and culture history.  After reading this critique of Quebec’s university history departments, I realized that the so-called ‘History Wars’ are still alive and well in the Canadian public sphere.

For most professional historians the debate between ‘non-national’ social and cultural history and ‘national’ political and economic history has subsided.  In Canada, it reached its peak with the publishing of York University history professor J.L. Granatstein’s Who Killed Canadian History, but by the mid-2000s the debate had begun to abate as the principal figures concerned with the rising importance of social and cultural history began to retire.  “The battle has been won!” declared Christopher Dummitt in his provocative essay “After Inclusiveness.”  Citing a 2007 study in the American Historical Association’s magazine Perspectives, Dummitt observes that the three largest historiographical fields are now social, women’s, gender and cultural history.  For Dummitt and many other historians working in universities “the battle between social and political history has lost any of the intensity it once possessed.”

Last week’s article in Le Devoir suggests that this is a premature conclusion.  In Dummitt’s words: “the public is not with the professors.”  It is this disconnect on which the History Wars are being reignited.  The piece in Le Devoir is the most recent volley in a public political campaign to return to a narrowly focused vision of Canada’s (political and economic) past.  As Dummitt so clearly outlines, as the historical profession re-oriented and re-tooled, the public was left behind.  The chasm between the profession and the public has helped make the past a contested public space.

Canada’s Conservative government is leading the charge.  The first clear inklings of the government’s desire to shape Canadians’ understanding of their past was well laid out in the discussions following the release of the Discover Canada guide.  But the Conservative vision of Canada’s past has been building over the course of the decade.  In 2000, Jason Kenney, the minister under whom the Discover Canada guide was released, laid out the vision of his future government: “A country which does not know from whence it came,” Kenney stated, “is a country that has no direction for the future.”  The speech from which this line came makes direct reference to the History Wars’ terms of engagement as laid out in Who Killed Canadian History.  A decade later at a National Forum on Canadian History, Kenney was more explicit.  There he lamented that many Canadian historians place too much emphasis on social history, oppression and injustice in their work.  Stephen Harper was less direct but equally focused in a speech celebrating his five years as Prime Minister: “You cannot build a united country by burying and rewriting its history” – a subtle attack at the historians responsible for the historiographical shifts during the 1990s.  This was reiterated during the most recent election campaign when the Conservatives called for a restoration and renewal of Canada’s historical memory.  The clear implication in these statements is that the government is not satisfied with the current historical narrative.  In their view, it is critical for Canadians to return to a historiographical golden age.

Over the past five years, the arguments that fuelled the History Wars have continued in some of Canada’s most important corridors of power.  Despite a handful of laudable apologies (Residential Schools and the Chinese Head Tax), and recognizing Quebec as a nation, the Conservative government usually draws on (a narrow vision of) the past in order to edify The Nation or their party.  In 2009 the Prime Minister famously quipped that unlike so many other members of the G20, Canada has no history of colonialism.  Ignoring much of Canada’s past interaction with First Nations, he claimed that Canada “has all of the things that many people admire about the great powers but none of the things that threaten or bother them.”  More recently, the Prime Minister took aim at his predecessors, claiming to be the best travelled PM in our country’s history – a remark that was quickly corrected by the Liberal Party.  Most recently the addition of ‘royal’ to some components of the Canadian Forces – a move that has been condemned by historians on both sides of the History Wars – has been seen as an attempt to re-inscribe the monarchy into Canada’s past.

Rather than focusing on the factual merits of these statements, it is more important to emphasize the place this perspective seeks to occupy in the popular understanding of the past.   There is no room for an alternative narrative in this vision of the past.  From this perspective, Canada has only one uncomplicated past.  Framing Canadian history in this way means that the past cannot be questioned.  Whether intentional or not, this serves as an assault on critical engagement and it is an oversimplification of the work of professional historians.

Few (good) social and cultural historians ignore the political, economic, or national context in which their research is situated.  Many of the celebrated works in these fields demonstrate how these approaches are interconnected.  In adding these fields to historical practice, new stories – particularly related to women, First Nations, and immigrants – have emerged and become part of Canada’s popularly recognized past.  As Christopher Dummitt has emphasized, the resolution of the History Wars among professional historians has in fact helped lay the ground work – though not completely – for a re-invigorated revisiting of Canada’s political and economic history.

Despite a familiarity with the History Wars, though, few historians have engaged with its new political incarnation.  A handful have openly criticized the government’s depiction of the past in the Discover Canada guide (for a summary see our post on the guide or hear Ian McKay’s podcast), but for the most part the profession has been silent.  Last week’s article in Le Devoir demonstrates that the debate continues.  It is being fought in a different venue and requires a different set of tools than those used a decade ago.  But, in a profession with an increasing focus on public and community engagement, it is important for historians – on either side of the first History Wars debate – to enter into the fray.  The Conservative desire to restructure Canada’s past suggests the stakes have never been higher.

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9 thoughts on “The Return of the History Wars

  1. Sean Kheraj

    Terrific article, Tom! This really helps to bring this trend into focus. I think this is something that has been transpiring for a number of years now. I wonder if this is a matter that the CHA or the Political History Group should take up for discussion.

    Interested readers should know that there is a very active scholarly Canadian Political History Group. These matters are not, of course, ignored by academic historians:

  2. Jim Clifford

    Two weeks ago Richard Gywn proclaimed on CBC Radio’s Sunday Edition that most Canadian historians don’t know anything about Canadian history (i.e. we don’t write enough biographies of John A. MacDonald). I found it pretty offensive, but also wrote it off as the rants of an older reporter. Tom’s post suggests the History Wars are heating up again and that few professional historians are effectively responding to these attacks. We can write letters (I wrote a letter to the Sunday Edition, but I don’t think they read it on the air). We can write blog posts (however, the readership of this website does not match Le Devoir or the CBC). What else should we do to counter these attacks? How can we get our defense of the profession into the media? How do we demonstrate the value of social, gender, environmental and cultural histories in complicating and improving our understanding of political and economic histories? How do we show it is not a zero-sum-game? What can we do to remind the media and politicians that lots of Canadian historians continue to write political and military histories?

  3. Daniel Ross

    Excellent post, Tom! You connect the two trends (calls for more political and economic history, and nation-building by the Conservative government) really well.

    This new (or revived?) narrative of Canadian history is a challenge to the historical profession.

    It also can’t be separated from Conservative policy. The Conservatives are interested in renovating our national symbols and our understanding of the past because they want to create a larger constituency for their policies. Emphasizing our military history (as the citizenship guide does, and as the upcoming War of 1812 commemorations no doubt will) helps to justify defence spending and sending troops overseas.

  4. David Zylberberg

    Tom, you generally made some very good points.
    I am still somewhat surprised at the association of economic and political history. Usually the association is between economic and social history or between political and military history. The other thing about economic history is (and correct me if I am wrong) that discussions of it in Canadian History would of necessity be heavily regional and probably take away from attempts at a national narrative. Current scholarship would probably benefit by better integrating economic, social, environmental and political developments to better understand how the lives of Canadian men and women changed. But, including the economic would not be a simple return to pre-1960 narratives.
    An effective political history narrative of Canada would also have to pay attention to provincial governments and regional movements so might also make a national narrative difficult. As such, I find the emphasis from the Devoir fairly different from the Harper political/military one and probably more useful to understand how our country came to be the way it did.

  5. Sean

    An insightful article–and one that begs more questions in return. Here are two:

    Does it do us any long-term good to be wearing multiple “hats” when engaged in this kind of debate at this time? Sometimes it seems as though we are all neck-deep involved in a political discussion regardless of what side (or combinations thereof) we find ourselves most comfortable arguing. If there really is a re-engagement with The History Wars it is one that has been dictated to some degree by partisan politics and rigid ideology. A necessary antidote to the looming madness, no doubt, but still a discussion currently dictated to a large degree by a national imperative to do so. Is it a “zero-sum game?” Perhaps not but historians MUST currently be engaged in political history or else. Perhaps the professors of not so long ago had the luxury of using the HW as a useful intellectual exercise. We do not have that bag of options right now; discussing the political when it is the political future of the country that is on the table is not a capitulation.

    Second, just who, or what exactly, is this “public” that we must curry favour? Is this the “public” that is the already-decided Sun newspaper browser, a activist, worried Toronto Star reader or the peer-edited Social History journal reader? Indeed there are many “publics” and preaching to the converted is now the norm. Nevertheless, there is still (?) one audience that may yet be listening (and reading) to what we have to say at least two or three times a week. My “public” are my students and while some may be busy on the ‘ol iPad or thinking of the next flight to the Oil/Tar Sands most are still listening. As a pedagogical exercise, the HW is something tangible, a unique way for students to get involved and think of the past and future.

    Thanks for the inttriguing post!

  6. Daniel

    Hey Tom,

    Although this is the first time that social history has been taken to task in Le Devoir in recent years, the broader discourse regarding the ‘death’ of the Quebec narrative really needs to be seen in the context of Quebec nationalism.

    In today’s ‘Libre Opinion,’ Eric Bedard from TELUQ lays it out in a national context. He sees it as a problem that the experts on the 1837 rebellions are at McGill and Bishops, and not a francophone university.

    This is an extension, to the university realm, of a debate that has been raging in the page of the Devoir for several years on secondary and CEGEP history teaching. There have been debates around the amount of history taught, and what kind of history.

    I think it is possible to see parallels between the usage of history in this sense in nation-building discourses in both the English-Canadian and Quebec contexts, but I think that it is wrong to see both of them as part of the same debate. Perhaps they can both be seen as similar strategies in a war of position for a national consciousness, but I don’t think that this is the same ‘History Wars’ debate.


  7. Tom Peace Post author

    Thank-you for all of the wonderful and really thoughtful comments. My post corresponded nicely with this article by Stephen Chase ( on Heritage Canada’s increased focus on history. Chase’s piece draws out another element of this issue that many of you identify in your comments. But I think that it can be taken a bit further.

    As many of you note, the politicization of the past and the ways that it is interpreted is increasingly becoming a critical part of Conservative policy. It is an attempt to shape Canada into a more Conservative country. I think, though, that this also provides a real opportunity for historians. By giving history a more prominent position, the Conservatives are providing an opportunity for historians to reach out to a broader public(s). Rather than preaching to the converted, there is an opportunity for good scholarship and rigorous historical practices to reach beyond professional corridors. This is not just an extension of the history wars, but also a great opportunity to demonstrate that the past and especially its interpretation matters.

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