Who Killed Canadian Studies?

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By Colin Coates

The world of Canadian Studies, which according to the International Council for Canadian Studies includes some 7,000 scholars in 70 countries, is facing difficult times. Strangely enough, one of its chief opponents seems to be our own government. Since the 1970s successive Liberal and Progressive Conservative federal governments, along with various provincial governments, have supported the principle that targeted funding can enhance the profile of Canadian issues in academic institutions abroad. Most of the time, those governments respected the values of academic freedom, believing that scholars could research and teach about the country without attempting to control what they did. But recently, the current Canadian government has decided that it will no longer support such work.

In 2012, the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT), under the leadership of former Minister John Baird, entirely cancelled the “Understanding Canada” programme that cost $5 million a year, approximately 14 cents per Canadian. This programme funded academic activities abroad, helping to provide salaries for the administrators of some of the older and larger national associations (the Association for Canadian Studies in the United States, the British Association for Canadian Studies and the Association française d’études canadiennes), subsidise scholarly conferences and publications, provide research grants, and in a few cases contribute to academic salaries of a few individuals appointed to teach about Canada.

Did such funds make a difference? To take an example I know fairly well, I can assure you that without external funding NOT A SINGLE academic in the United Kingdom would be hired to teach about Canada. Of course, many UK-based scholars may choose to teach and research about Canada – but NOT A SINGLE post throughout the entire sector would be attributed solely to the study of Canada. And it should not be hard to make a case, given immigration, cultural and economic links, for at least some British universities to hire a Canadian specialist. But the importance of Canada pales in comparison to the reasonable desire in the UK to focus on other parts of the world. It is easy to take Canada for granted.

External funding helped to encourage a few universities (Edinburgh, Birmingham, and Nottingham – and that’s it!) to hire full-time tenure-track faculty members to posts with Canada in the job description. Keep in mind that a university may easily hire someone with a specialisation in Québec literature into a French department or someone with an interest in Canadian multiculturalism into a sociology department. But it makes a difference to continuity and dedication if Canada remains the focus of the academic post.

Despite the withdrawal of funding, most of the international associations have continued their work. Sometimes local embassies and high commissions have tried to help out, but their budgets have been slashed as well. Many of the newer associations, particularly those in Latin America, are in great difficulty. Does that matter to Canada? Yes, our Argentinian colleagues tell us, when the main understanding of Canada in their country comes from the activities of mining corporations.

Second case in point: the recent turmoil in the Foundation for Canadian Studies in the United Kingdom. Some of the older associations prudently raised funds separately to reduce their reliance on the government of the day. British scholars, for instance, could rely on the Foundation for Canadian Studies in the United Kingdom. When I taught in the Centre of Canadian Studies at the University of Edinburgh, some of our funds came from the Foundation. They were more than matched by the University’s commitment. Another smaller sum came from DFAIT, which allowed us to run annual scholarly conferences – normally a foolhardy endeavour for a three-person academic unit.

Recently, the Canadian High Commission has staged a take-over of the Foundation for Canadian Studies in the UK. It wants to direct the funds to different goals. Facing opposition from the deputy chair, Rachel Killick, Professor emeritus of Québec Studies and Nineteenth-Century French Studies, the High Commission decided to depose her. Four distinguished colleagues, two of them former presidents of the British Association in Canadian Studies, resigned in protest: Susan Hodgett, Steve Hewitt, Margaret MacMillan, Diana Carney.

It is possible to see Jack Granatstein’s Who Killed Canadian History? as the blueprint for such actions. Now, I am not saying that Granatstein supports such policies – I simply do not know where he would stand on this issue. But the polemical work he published in 1998 attracted a great deal of attention at the time and still seems to have its followers today. (I was surprised last summer to find a copy of the book in the tiny Hornby Island, BC, public library!)

In his book, Granatstein heaped scorn on both social history, as if this were a peculiar failing of Canadian historians, and Canadian Studies. The multidisciplinarity of Canadian Studies was the problem: “Canadian studies was not a single discipline with a methodological basis; instead, it was whatever those who taught something, anything, about Canada wanted it to be – an amalgam of literature, art, current events, politics and public issues, and the environment. There was very little room here for a systematic study of the past, let alone the Canadian past.” (24)

This view has directly influenced key decision-makers in the Canadian government. As John Geddes, pointed out in Maclean’s in 2013, Granatstein is the single historian former Heritage Minister James Moore referred to in an interview with the magazine. Likewise, Jason Kenney has made similar pronouncements about the book’s influence on his thinking. Granatstein’s book may have provided a blueprint, but I’d venture that the government may have gone farther than Granatstein ever intended. Indeed, Granatstein has leveled his own criticisms of the government’s approach to history. (See here and here)

Canadian Studies was never intended to provide “a systematic study of the past,” though – in terms of Granatstein’s argument – all Canadian Studies programmes that I am aware of integrate Canadian history courses into their range of offerings.   I would contend that students who would never find their way into a Canadian history course (or political science course) could still explore important aspects of the country’s make-up through “Canadian Studies.” Canadian Studies was never a choice of one or the other: EITHER Canadian history OR Canadian Studies. Moreover, as I’ve pointed out in an article recently for the Dorchester Review, we must distinguish between the Canadian Studies within Canada and Canadian Studies outside the country. Externally, Canadian Studies is the best – and only – way to ensure that a critical mass of scholars can develop a larger sense of intellectual commitment and community.

The promotion of Canada abroad is largely in the purview of our federal government. Our government is making it clear that it no longer provides support for Canadian Studies internationally. This support was as much moral as it was financial. In a time of financial exigency, let us remind ourselves how effective the relatively small investment was, and how local multiplier effects enhanced that investment. The oldest Centre of Canadian Studies overseas, the one at the University of Edinburgh, is now facing an uncertain future, and it may not survive. With our current government’s denigration of Canadian Studies, the profile of Canada will be poorer and weaker on the international scene, and no further advanced nationally.

Colin Coates is the director of the Robarts Centre for Canadian Studies at York University and former director of the University of Edinburgh Centre of Canadian Studies

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7 thoughts on “Who Killed Canadian Studies?

  1. Sean Kheraj

    Readers might also be interested in looking back at the report of the Symons Commission and the original rationale for Canadian Studies. In particular, Volume 2 outlines the need for Canadian Studies abroad. There is a PDF copy of Volumes 1 and 2 available here:


  2. Joseph Savon

    Surely, as academic endeavours, Canadian Studies & “CanadianHistory”are exactly congruent. “History” is the timeline of the activities of all bipedal apes with opposable thumbs. For “Canadian History” to be a worthwhile subset, we must first establish that “Canada” is more than just an arbitrary closed curve on a map, that people within that boundary showed, and continue to show, ordered patterns of action, (and, to some extent, co-operation) significantly (and interestingly) different from a random sample of the same size. Canadian Studies searches the time line for such patterns and thus codifies “CanadianHistory”. It may also speculate as to cause & effect, & hence offer evidence-based guidance as to how the future course of “Canadian History” might be managed. Recent events suggest Government may be trying to subvert this process, and exploit the reputation of learned societies to whiten the sepulcher of Ideology and gild the temple of Mammon.

  3. Lucille Munro


    I knew this a while ago when I registered in the Major for Canadian Studies and shortly thereafter the supposedly new Dean Yves Frenette leaves because of family issues or something like that.

    When we had a lunch sponsored by the Canadian Studies Institute it was me and him. No one else had bothered to reply/and or show up.

    Being that I am a student at the highly promoted Bilingual University of Canada, I was very surprised about this. Then the following year the Canadian Studies major is no longer accepting applicants?????? Canadian Studies is now a minor.

    The Institute links up with the Aboriginal Studies dept. here and the Canadian Institute is renamed to honour Algonquin Chief Commanda. Ombakigan. It is not stated on the website that it is located on unceeded Algonquin territory but rather that it is on ancestral Algonquin lands. This had been requested by the Indigenous Studies Student Association.

    When I asked the reception person at the Aboriginal and Canadian Institute why I had not received a notice or invitation since I am an Honours Student in the Faculte of Arts with a double major in Canadian and Aboriginal Studies, she said that the invites had come from the Dean of Arts office. That all should very fishy to me.

    Also when the two institutes join together and received the funding from both Departments (Canadian Studies, and Aboriginal Studies), the staff at the Canadian Institute was CUT, not increased???????

    I have known for some time now that the new federal government wants to re-write Canadian History, and has cut, arm-stringed and rudely treated the Aboriginal and settler communities from telling the whole of the story of the Columbus exchange.

    The name change of the Museum of Civilization, to the Canadian Museum of History, and the newly refurbished and grand opening of the High Commission office of Canada in London, this past week. Two main committee members who are of high profile.
    Historian Margaret MacMillan and think-tank adviser Diana Carney, and 2 other people that have quit the board of the charitable foundation because of the Conservative Government’s meddling. Ummm??????
    Why would the former foreign affairs minister, John Baird be the one to attend the opening? immmm?????

    Why did the Conservative Government take over the funding of the Winnipeg Museum?

    All to control what is put out about the Canadian state’s image.

    I’ll probably get in trouble for this, but such is our new (1984) life.

    Lucille Munro


    Lucille Munro, if you get in trouble for speaking your mind, please feel free to come and visit me in Tenerife, where in our Universidad de La Laguna, the first Centre for Canadian Studies in Spain was opened in 1992 thanks to the Canadian Government and our Professor Bernd Dietz, a canadianist whose enthusiam made many students -like me- and colleagues of all fields interest in Canada. His success was such that many other Centres opened in Spain afterwards.
    I am an English Lecturer at La Laguna now and we do work hard in order to keep on researching Canada and assure we will carry on with or without governments, only that our production will not be so ambitious depending on will and volunteering. FYI, our University does not fund the Centre either, not surprising, is it?
    Best regards,
    Maribel Garcia-Exposito (Ms).

  5. Donald Cochrane

    It’s ironic that at about this time the Harper Government as all references must call it engaged an image management firm in Washington. This Firm last week produced a report that said Canada was the most admired Country in the world. Later it was admitted that the survey was of only g8 countries. The firm which is basically an image manager sent this report to various media and despite being spurious was picked up and reported as fact on CTV news media where there is a mega debate as to the accuracy of this info.
    My question is if Harpers Conservative Government was that concerned about their image why would they be refusing funding for Canadian Studies Abroad?

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