History Wars: Terms of debate

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By Thomas Peace

Last month, Terry Glavin wrote a syndicated op-ed piece that appeared in The Ottawa Citizen and Vancouver’s The Province, delivering a strongly worded dismissal of the historical profession in Canada. Historians and others have responded elsewhere to his indictment of the profession (see here, here and here). Today, I want to respond to the broader ideas that inform his argument.

Glavin’s essay mostly parrots a series of arguments that have been lobbed at historians since the profession began to change its focus in the 1970s and 1980s. These ideas are quite resilient. Despite their regular application (mostly in the media), his accusations are neither fair nor reflective of current historical practice and broader professional interpretations of Canada’s past. More importantly, their use is a distraction from the key issues at stake.

Drawing on Jack Granatstein‘s (now 15-year old) Who Killed Canadian History and Christopher Dummitt, a historian at Trent whose recent career has been made arguing for the return of many subjects and themes jettisoned with the emergence of social and cultural history, Glavin suggests that historians working in universities and teaching your children in school practice irrelevant ‘faddish social histories;’ their work is disconnected from any sense of national history. Because of this, professional historians can’t seem to stop themselves from navel gazing at “increasingly fragmented subcategories of race, class and gender.” The Harper government is – in Glavin’s estimation – therefore right to put financial resources towards dictating how and what Canadians learn about their past.

Glavin and his two historian informants are wrong on two counts.

First, they have mischaracterized the history of the debate between political/economic/military historians and their more social and cultural counterparts. Even Dummitt has acknowledged that the debate over Who Killed Canadian History has ended and that the move towards social and cultural history was likely beneficial for the discipline as a whole. But in his persuasive article, “After Inclusiveness” Dummitt suggests that it’s time for Canadian historians to bring these two foci back together. Political and economic history and social and cultural history can benefit from being brought into conversation with each other.

The historiographical world is not as polar as these scholars suggest. Although it’s true that Canadian historians have not fully returned to the political biography of some of Canada’s great men, it’s equally true that in 2013 the profession’s focus remains on many of the key themes emphasized by earlier generations of historians.  Take a look at 17 of the 28 new history titles being released in the spring catalogues of Canada’s three major academic presses (McGill-Queens, U of T, and UBC). I selected these titles because of their national scope, not their subject.  I encourage you to look through the other texts in these catalogues with an eye to the critiques that these scholars have outlined:

The Canadian Rangers: A Living History; The Struggle for Canadian Copyright: Imperialism to Internationalism, 1842-1971; With Friends Like These: Entangled Nationalisms and the Canada-Quebec-France Triangle, 1944-1970; Labour Goes to War: The CIO and the Construction of a New Social Order, 1939-45; A Sisterhood of Suffering and Service: Women and Girls of Canada and Newfoundland during the First World War; Epidemic Encounters: Influenza, Society, and Culture in Canada, 1918-1920; Passage to Promise Land: Voices of Chinese Immigrant Women to Canada; After Evangelism: The Sixties and the United Church of Canada; The Social History of Ideas in Quebec, 1760-1896; Small Matters: Canadian Children in Sickness and Health, 1900-1940; Irish Canadian Conflict and the Struggle for Irish Independence, 1912-1925; Pathogens for War: Biological Weapons, Canadian Life Scientists, and North American Biodefence; Canada between Vichy and Free France, 1940-1945; Mississauga Portraits: Ojibwe Voices from Nineteenth-Century Canada; The African Canadian Legal Odyssey: Historical Essays; “A Justifiable Obsession’: Conservative Ontario’s Relations with Ottawa, 1943-1985; Documenting First Wave Feminisms, vol. II.

Although it’s true that few of these books tell the entire story of the Canadian nation, none of them live up to Glavin, Dummitt and Granatstein’s critique of the profession either. Indeed, seven of these texts directly address war and diplomacy, two of Jack Granatstein’s favourite subjects.

If we turn to the pages of the Canadian Historical Review we see more of the type of history these scholars lament. But even here it’s hard to see these papers as esoteric and irrelevant.  Yes, articles in the last four issues of the CHR have addressed socialism, human rights, sexuality and draft dodgers (typical subjects targeted within this type of argument).  But these are in the minority. In these same volumes, the journal has published pieces on Canada’s constitutional history (the Royal Proclamation and the BNA Act), Canada’s gun laws, Louis Riel and the Metis resistance, and parliamentary debate and the implementation of income tax. Are these the ‘radical’ subjects, the study of which is without merit and political relevance?

I suppose one could suggest that the issue is not research and publishing, but rather the teaching of Canadian history.  Here this critique may have a point.  Perhaps history is not being taught well or students are not getting enough of it. But again, this doesn’t seem to be a problem developing from within universities.  The recent work of The History Education Network and the Historical Thinking Project have made issues around history education more rather than less accessible. Let’s be clear, the criticisms with history education often fall more at the political (and provincial) than academic level.

This draws out my second critique of these scholars’ analysis. They have mistaken the current debate over commemoration and history with the debate over Who Killed Canadian History and the relative merits of political versus social history.  As much as Granatstein, and the Stephen Harper government might wish, the debate that has emerged is not the same as that over Who Killed Canadian History.  The current debate, which has been well outlined by Jim Clifford (here and here), Sean Kheraj, Greg Kennedy and I (here and here) on this website, is not only about historians’ subjects and approach, it is equally about the allocation of fiscal resources and government priorities in an age of austerity. This is not just a debate about ideas, it has become about jobs, institutions, and freedom of information.

Professional historians have not been criticizing the commemoration of the War of 1812 or the birth of Sir John A. or the First World War because these events are completely unworthy of celebration or commemoration (though some certainly feel this way). Historians are upset because the government is paying for these commemorative projects while shutting down the research institutions that allow us to do our work and silencing some of our country’s brightest minds working within them. This is not a debate over what approach to history is better; it is a debate about whether the study and teaching of history is more important than its celebration.

Let’s take a case in point.  According to the CBC, the Stephen Harper government is spending more than $28 million on commemorations of the War of 1812. Albeit a fraction of the roughly $110 million allocated towards celebrating the 400th anniversary of the French presence in Quebec, but the War of 1812 was not as significant of an event. While pouring this money into what has been demonstrated to be a relatively ineffective campaign to commemorate the War of 1812, the Stephen Harper government has called for $20 million of ‘cost savings’ at Library and Archives Canada (LAC).  This has resulted in the firing of 215 employees and the end of LAC’s national lending program (among many other cuts).

Some readers may feel this an unfair comparison because it sets one-time funding beside annual costs.  With plans in the next five years to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the First World War, the two-hundredth anniversary of Sir John A’s birth, and the sesquicentennial of Confederation, it seems likely that this type of funding will continue. But for those still sceptical, here’s another comparison: When set aside the government’s $55 million advertising bill for its ‘economic action plan’ in 2012 (those of us in Canada know this isn’t one-time funding), the cuts at LAC (and elsewhere) simply look mean spirited.

This past week saw additional controversy at LAC when management released a new institutional code of conduct (Jian Ghomeshi situated this policy well on Friday morning’s episode of Q). Under the section entitled “Duty of Loyalty,” the policy clearly indicates that LAC employees must be loyal to the Stephen Harper government and refrain from activities “that could potentially damage LAC’s reputation and/or public confidence in the public service and the Government of Canada.” These activities, according to the policy, include use of social media and online forums, but also presenting at conferences and engaging in broader scholarly discussions.

Although the policy does not prohibit LAC employees from participating in academic conferences in an official capacity (many work above and beyond their official capacity), it requires them to seek permission each time they wish to do so. Given the Stephen Harper government’s track record with its scientists, this new policy and its focus on loyalty serves as an effective mechanism to further restrict historians’ access to LAC resources and curtail the professional development of this key institution’s employees. This government did, after all, recently vote against the idea that “public science, basic research and the free and open exchange of scientific information are essential to evidence based policy-making” and that “federal government scientists must be enabled to discuss openly their findings with their colleagues and the public.”

So let’s be clear about the parameters of this debate.  Despite government spokespeople and media talking heads like Terry Glavin and Jack Granatstein, this issue isn’t just about history and the practice of academic historians. It’s about the role of government, jobs, and access to our country’s documentary and material heritage. Debates about the merits of particular approaches to the study of history, though important, are sometimes a distraction. The changes taking place at LAC and Parks Canada are significant and they matter deeply to professional historians, archivists, archaeologists and librarians. They also matter to the general public. These are national institutions that serve both sitting governments and the general public. The public’s access to these institutions and the resources they contain is at risk. They are worth the fight.

Thomas Peace is a SSHRC postdoctoral fellow in Native American Studies at Dartmouth College

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7 thoughts on “History Wars: Terms of debate

  1. Adele Perry

    agreed with all of this, Tom. I think the real challenge is how to respond to this debate-that-isn’t-a-debate in a way that is productive and you have provided a really good example of how this might be done here.

  2. Sean Kheraj


    Excellent summation of the real issues involved in these so-called “History Wars.” The terms of the debate are considerably different than the arguments surrounding Granatstein’s, Who Killed Canadian History.

    In fact, Jack Granatstein almost seems to recognize the contradiction in federal policy toward commemoration and history. For those who missed it, here is his editorial from the Globe and Mail last year on cuts to Library and Archives Canada:


  3. Jerry Bannister

    I agree with most everything you say, but I’m not sure that we can draw too sharp a distinction between the current political debate over commemoration and history, on the one hand, and the older academic debate over _Who Killed Canadian History_, on the other hand.

    Granatstein’s polemic was really about politics rather than history, and I don’t think it’s any accident that his viewpoint is being resurrected again, by Glavin and others, in the midst of the Tories’ attack on LAC and other public institutions. Given Prime Minister Harper’s views, it was only a matter of time before the ideological debate over history became part of a political struggle over public institutions and freedom of speech.

    It would be nice if we could keep the two debates separate, but I don’t think it’s possible in today’s political climate. The argument that certain types of history should not be written is not, in the end, much different from the argument that certain types of institutions should not be funded.

    Thanks for your thoughtful post.


  4. Terry Glavin

    Well, since I’m one of the three villains mentioned here I thought it might be helpful to respond in person, to clarify some points.

    First off, I don’t write headlines (“Stephen Harper is right not to trust the history establishment” in this case) nor subheads (“For too long, academic historians have neglected to tell our story”, ditto) – so it would be wrong to deduce my opinions from them.

    Second, I did not write anything that was intended to be or resulted in a “dismissal of the historical profession in Canada,” “strongly worded” or otherwise, nor was my column in any way an “indictment of the profession” – an especially silly accusation to make. Tom Peace’s reference to my use of the term “faddish social histories” occurs only in reference to Jack Granatstein’s case of 15 years ago and my mere observation that Granatstein’s evidence for a paucity of Canadian history in high schools appears unchanged in today’s schools, or at least “matters are no better.”

    Thirdly, and most importantly, while Tom Peace is perfectly entitled to get his jollies by referring to me along wth Granatstein and Christopher Dummitt as “government spokespeople and media talking heads,” and while I confess I am persuaded of certain of the observations Granatstein ad Dummitt make, Peace is not entitled to instruct me or anyone else as to what the proper “parameters” of the discussion are, nor to attribute to me opinions which I have not expressed and which I most certainly do not hold.


  5. Tom Peace Post author

    Thank you for your responses.

    There is a lot here that I could unpack, but I think it most appropriate to respond to Terry Glavin’s comments. In doing so, it is important to go back to first principles. I will respond to some of the other comments as I lay out the ideas that motivated me to write this piece.

    One of the subjects on which I have focused as part of my writing for ActiveHistory.ca has been the government’s strategic use of history and the past. Over the past couple of years, I have become increasingly concerned with their willingness to dismiss academic historians (and academics more generally). In 2011, I wrote on this subject and outlined how Stephen Harper and some of his most senior lieutenants (these are the ‘government spokespeople’ in my essay) have used Granatstein’s arguments. My sense from their statements is that the Conservative government has a fairly jaded vision of the historical profession informed primarily through Granatstein’s book.

    My reaction to the recent changes at LAC and Parks Canada build on this sentiment. I agree with Jerry Bannister. These issues are not separate. Indeed, this is why I wrote this piece. The interconnection between the ‘history wars’ and present-day government policy has received relatively poor coverage in the media and little attention and analysis by Canadian opinion-makers (these are the ‘talking-heads’ in my essay). When these issues are covered, like in Glavin’s piece, the stance taken is usually that professional historians have brought this upon themselves by turning away from political and economic history. As I lay out in my post, when the profession is examined as a whole, I don’t think that this is entirely true.

    It was within this context that I read Terry Glavin’s column. Here, I thought, in The Ottawa Citizen, was another example of the ideas of Who Killed Canadian History? put to political work. So, just like my post in late 2012 that focused on The Globe and Mail’s editorial response to Assassins Creed III, I thought I would flush out the broader context of the issues developed in Glavin’s essay.

    The importance I attribute to this subject explains, I hope, why I chose to write my post in such a provocative tone. My intention here was not to dictate the proper parameters of discussion. It was to make an intervention, draw public attention to an issue that I think is important, and generate debate about this “debate-that-isn’t-debate.” In this sense, Glavin’s column was merely a launching pad to make a broader point.

    Words, however, are powerful. When written, they are rigid with much room for interpretation. I can see places where I read into what Glavin has written and I am sincerely sorry for any misinterpretation or mischaracterization of Terry Glavin’s column. In fairness, though, my response was not just informed by Glavin’s headline. Glavin explains recent developments within the profession as “a disconnect between the way academic historians imagine their purpose on the one hand and the notions of common sense that animate most “ordinary” people, on the other.” The following two paragraphs begin with “The dysfunction began…” and “The result is a new orthodoxy…” Lines like these sound to me like an indictment, or at least provocation, and an invocation to debate. They clearly sounded like one to his headline writer too.

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