Where has pre-Confederation history gone? The CHA and the changing contours of a discipline.

By Robert Englebert

For years now I have talked with colleagues about the rather anaemic pre-Confederation history representation at the CHA.[1] Most of these conversations have been anecdotal in nature, the seemingly self-evident decline represented by the fact that most of us pre-Confed types could fit around a couple of tables at the beer tent. Then about two years ago Thomas Peace began looking for trends using basic word cloud compilations for previous CHA programs to show the distribution of presentations by century (see yesterday’s post for this year’s instalment). Though cursory in nature, Tom’s study confirmed what many of us had long suspected, that pre-Confederation history at the CHA was on the decline, if not on life support.

It was not long after Tom posted his preliminary findings on ActiveHistory.ca that he and I began talking about the place of pre-Confederation history at the CHA and the need to bring this discussion to the broader Canadian historical community. In order to kick off this conversation I examined this year’s preliminary program, employing the crudest of methodologies – I simply counted the presentations and panels that I deemed to fit my own notion of pre-Confederation history (note that this is somewhat different than Tom’s methodology). I discovered that approximately 4.6% of 131 panels were made up entirely of presentations focusing on early Canadian or pre-Confederation history. In some ways this should not be all that surprising since most panels are thematic in nature and cut across time periods. Looking at the presentations themselves I found that roughly 9.4% of the papers being given at the conference could loosely be described as pre-Confederation in nature.

I realize that my unsophisticated bean counting is hardly a cutting edge scientific method, but rest assured I took a relaxed approach to defining pre-Confederation Canada. I was flexible with dates and tried to make sure that Atlantic history, New France, British North America, early America and early Indigenous histories were counted, even if they stretched beyond today’s national boundaries. Of course some titles were more vague than others and my very basic statistics do not preclude higher participation of early Canadian historians as chairs and commentators for sessions, or as non-presenting conference attendees. But even if my estimates are off by 5 or 10 percent, the conclusion would be the same – pre-Confederation history is very poorly represented at the Canadian Historical Association’s conference for 2015.

As someone who works on the long eighteenth-century with a focus on French and Indigenous peoples, the notion of “pre-Confederation” history has always puzzled me. The very term itself is anachronistic, speaking to whiggish notions of the past and teleological approaches to our discipline. Attempting to reconcile pre-nation-state and pre-industrial historical realities with the modern national paradigm that permeates the CHA can be challenging. After all, the trend for historians of early North America is to avoid the anachronistic elements caused by later national borders, modern nationalism and nation-states.

Faced with being awkwardly shoehorned into the pre-Confederation or early Canadianist box, many scholars considered to be working on pre-Confederation history have simply found homes elsewhere, such as the French Colonial Historical Society, the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, the American Society for Ethnohistory, and the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA).

Of course many post-Confederation historians have similarly gravitated towards thematically focused associations, but this has not necessarily led to an abandonment of the national historical association. This leads me to believe that the CHA could become a viable home for those doing colonial and early Indigenous history.

Rather than lament the impending demise of pre-Confederation history at the CHA and obsessing over what went wrong, I am more interested in where we go from here. We need to ask what pre-Confederation historians can potentially bring to the CHA and how they might benefit in return? In doing so, we can begin to understand whether it is really worth coming together. If the traditional national narrative that has brought pre- and post-Confederation historians together in the past is indeed antiquated, then what other reasons are there for attending a national conference?

The very contours of the discipline of Canadian history are at issue here. Is it enough for “early Canadianists” to simply teach a pre-Confederation or Canada survey course as their only link to Canadian history? If “pre-Confed” scholars are not going to attend the national conference and no longer see the need for a long national narrative, then why should pre-Confed. or long Canada surveys be taught at all? Furthermore, why should a PhD student working on North American colonial history be required to take a Canadian history field course? Would that student not be better served by taking combinations of Indigenous and colonial/imperial history field courses, along with methodologically and theoretically driven fields? The question of pre-Confederation history at the CHA quickly devolves into a much broader discussion of the discipline, pedagogy, and professional training.

Of course it is entirely possible that the decline in pre-Confederation history at the CHA is simply part of an overall dearth of scholarship in the area. I do not believe that to be true, but all I have is anecdotal evidence. We still lack data regarding the number of “pre-Confederation” scholars out there and how many of them eschew the CHA. Moreover, this all may be part and parcel with the cyclical nature of interests in history – that pre-Confederation is at a low point in the cycle, set to rebound shortly. Once again, long-term data is lacking, but it certainly appears that low pre-Confederation history representation at the CHA is an ongoing trend rather than part of a cycle.

The fact is we still need more data to determine where we are at with pre-Confederation history in order to drive the debate on how to proceed. As a way of getting the ball rolling, Tom Peace and I have organized a round table session entitled “Who killed pre-Confederation Canadian history? The place of early Canada in an interdisciplinary and transnational historiographical environment” for the CHA’s annual meeting, currently taking place in Ottawa. The panel brings together some of the leading historians of early Canadian history: Béatrice Craig, Michel Ducharme, Jane Errington, Allan Greer, Elizabeth Mancke, and Adele Perry.

The hope is that the roundtable will help create dialogue between early and modern Canadian historians regarding the place of pre-Confederation history at the CHA. Only time will tell if this will be the beginning of a renewal process or the eventual death knell of pre-Confederation history at our national historical conference.

Robert Englebert is an assistant professor of history at the University of Saskatchewan.

[1] Back in 1996, Allan Greer argued that Canadian history had become overwhelmingly focused on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. That trend has seemingly continued unabated, especially as it pertains to our national historical association.

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3 thoughts on “Where has pre-Confederation history gone? The CHA and the changing contours of a discipline.

  1. David Zylberberg


    This is an important question worth more exploration. As I read through your points about the small amount of pre-1867 history at the CHA, I began to wonder if the balance would be similar looking at teaching or other research indicators. Although you do not have the data, I wonder what portion of Canadian history survey courses are dedicated to the pre-1867 rather than the Confederation and post-Confederation periods.
    Your post inspired me to look for other indicators of the balance between pre-1867 and post-1867 Canadian history. I figured that the books nominated for the John A. Macdonald prize are a good indicator of the best work in Canadian history and decided to count them since 2001. My rough methodologies indicate 29 books on post-Confederation and 15 on early periods. At the same time, amongst post-Confederation histories, the period between 1870 and 1930 is more prominent in the books than at the CHA. The most valued scholarship on Canadian history is much more temporally balanced than the totality of current research. This raises questions that I am not in a position to answer as to why the pre-1867 work that is done seems to end up more respected in the field.

    David Zylberberg

  2. Ian Milligan

    Neat points, David!

    One other thing I’d be curious about: how does this stack up against the overall percentage of faculty/researchers/etc. who study pre-confederation history. Are they more involved than expected in the CHA, or vice versa?

    And of course, with both yours and Toms, always worth underlining a few dozen times that the CHA isn’t representative of the Canadian historical profession (in both senses: those who study Canada and those who study in Canada).

  3. Robert Englebert

    Thanks David and Ian for your comments. I checked out the Macdonald prize winners as well, but didn’t really have room to go into it. I’m not sure why the ratio of award winning books is more balanced. It is a bit of an oddity. I wonder how that compares with SSHRC grant success?
    Your point is very well taken Ian. It is quite obvious just by looking at faculty complements and grad students in departments that there are far fewer pre-Confed. scholars than those working on post-Confed. But no, the CHA isn’t representative of those studying Canada. It would be interesting to compare faculty complements to CHA participation rates. And you are right, there are lots of historians in Canada who study neither pre or post-Confed. Canadian history. However, I would note that a scholar working on British, Asian, pick your place, time and theme outside of Canada, likely never saw the CHA as a home association – something I’m frequently reminded of when I talk to many of my colleagues. So, no, the CHA isn’t the Canadian historical profession, but what happens there is certainly felt in different ways within the profession across Canada. That may be changing though.

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