Understanding Historical Thinking with Canadians and their Pasts

By Del Muise, Marg Conrad and Gerald Friesen,

cdns and pastsCanadians and their Pasts was a SSHRC-funded Community-University Research Alliance project, involving seven co-investigators from six different universities and a dozen community partners. At its core was a systematic survey of 3,419 Canadians on their engagement with and attitudes toward the past. Its key findings are discussed in a recently released book Canadians and their Pasts exploring the rise of a public historical consciousness in the years since the Centennial of Confederation in 1967 and analyzing how Canadians’ responded to the survey’s seventy questions based on age, culture, education, ethnicity, gender, and language, etc. This brief note restricts itself to a few observations on questions bearing directly on “Historical Thinking” among adult Canadians in their everyday practices of thinking about the past. Over the course of the project several conferences and symposia explored aspects of the project, many of them listed on its web site.

The telephone interviews were conducted in 2007 and 2008, when social media such as Facebook and You Tube were in their infancy and history-oriented blogging and on-line family history sites had only recently been made available to those with access to the Internet.  Even ActiveHistory.ca was still in its conceptual stages as the survey was being conducted.  Since then, social media has engulfed both community and family histories, whose use of visual, material, and oral resources has grown exponentially.  Literally thousands of Internet sites have evolved across Canada to spread the past to larger and larger numbers, something our survey captured to a limited extent by including questions about the use of and trust in Internet sources for engaging the past.

Our study was undertaken with knowledge of the findings of similar British, American, and Australian surveys.  In those three countries family pasts, broadly defined, dominated the historical consciousness of most respondents.  We anticipated this response and posed another question as well: “Is there something important or meaningful that you are keeping to pass on to your children, to other family members, or to close friends as a reminder of the past?” and a follow-up question asking respondents to describe just what they were keeping.  Knowing where family and values originated was an important memory to pass along, particularly for older respondents. Variations on “So they will know where they came from.” were the most typical responses. Visual and material reminders of the past in the form of photographs or keepsakes were seen as important to pass on to future generations.  Three quarters of respondents keep such items, tagging them as mementos of the family’s heritage.

Responses also emphasized the need to preserve societal values, including community engagement, moral teachings, and/or religious beliefs.  At times these answers bordered on nostalgia—older respondents wanted to pass on histories they assumed newer generations deemed, in the callousness of youth, to be unimportant.  These older respondents also made the most frequent references to war and memory, associating it with future generations needed to know about the national (and in a few instances international) contexts of social formation.

Chapter Three of Canadians and their Pasts, “Problems of Trust,” examines the linked questions of what/who to trust to tell us about the past, and what to do about conflicting interpretations of past events.  The trust questions were posed in two parts, first a likert-type scaled question about degrees of trust in various sources; then a forced choice question about the most trusted source from among those which respondents had selected as very trustworthy.  Respondents were then asked to explain why they considered this source “very trustworthy”; answers to these open-ended questions were recorded and transcribed.

The good news for public historians is that Canadians trust the interpretations they find in museums and historic sites. When the reasons for giving public institutions the most trusted status were parsed, respondents attributed their trust to the authenticity of the artefacts and the research that underpinned representations of the past. Professionals, they argued, have been paid to undertake the work of research and writing and are subject to levels of peer evaluation that guarantees they would get it right or face the consequences of public scorn. The fact their interpretations were supported by governments was sometimes deemed central to their trustworthiness, a disturbing thought given present concerns regarding the new Museum of History.

How disputed interpretations of the past might be resolved also produced some interesting responses. Most common was “Do more research.”  While it was not uncommon for respondents to suggest they might undertake such research on their own, more frequently some unknown or unspecified expert would bear the responsibility of further study. In addition there was a keen awareness among a minority of respondents that getting back to the original sources and triangulating various sources would prove the best approach.

More highly educated respondents reflected on what was important to Canadian survival in a globalizing world, including a sense of history. Ultimately, the most significant determinant of engagement with history was education level.  The more education and the more exposure to history on the part of respondents, the more likely they were to have consumed both public and scholarly historical products, and the more likely they were to have participated in some sort of family or community oriented research.

Public engagement with the past is surely to increase as we approach significant anniversaries of the First World War and Confederation. In this context, citizens will be bombarded with representations of particular pasts that may well generate conflict in the media and with their own understandings of how events unfolded. At this point we suggest that academic and public historians, as well as the general public, will each in their own way continue to wrestle with claims to truth about the past that are an ongoing occupational hazard of being a Canadian. Let the history debates continue!

Del Muise, Marg Conrad, and Gerald Friesen are emeriti professors of Canadian history at Carleton, the University of New Brunswick, and the University of Manitoba (respectively). They are also members of the ‘pasts collective,’ which produced the Canadians and their Pasts study. For interested scholars, the Canadians and their Pasts data set will soon be made available through the web-site of the Institute for Social Research at York University.

This week ActiveHistory.ca is running a series of 11 essays marking the end of the Historical Thinking Project. Click here to see a list of all the papers published during this theme week.

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