It is Time to End the History Wars

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By Ian Milligan and Thomas Peace

We’ve been fighting about the same things for a quarter century. It’s time to call it quits.

Earlier this week, The Dorchester Review published an open letter under an inflammatory (and arguably misleading, as it did not appear on the version signatories signed) headline of “Historians Rally v. ‘Genocide Myth;” it also apparently appeared as a print advertisement in the Literary Review of Canada, absent the polarizing title.

The letter was signed by 51 historians from across Canada and lamented the “Canada Day Statement” issued by the Canadian Historical Association (and published here on The concern brought forth in the letter is about how the CHA framed historians’ work on the question of genocide and the role that professional organizations should play within the public sphere.

This is the second letter of this nature this year. In January, the Macdonald-Laurier Institute issued a similar letter, this time focused on the “Defence of Sir John A. Macdonald’s Legacy.”

Both letters share a common critique (and substantial overlap in signatories). In Monday’s letter, the signatories argue that in issuing their statement, the CHA’s leadership was “insulting the basic standards of good scholarly conduct and violating the expectations that Canadians have of academia to engage in substantive, evidence-based debate.” For the signatories of the January letter, the concern – according to the Macdonald-Laurier Institute’s press release – was that “those who see Canada’s history as little more than a shameful series of mistakes and failures have grown increasingly vocal in calling for the shunning of figures like our first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald.”

The phrasing of these critiques are familiar to anyone following the politics of history. They are reminiscent of provocative arguments that now have a pedigree of a quarter century.

Their roots are found in Jack Granatstein’s 1998 polemic Who Killed Canadian History. Explaining his motivations for writing his book, Granatstein points to the school lessons of a young boy named Brad. About this boy’s history work, Granatstein laments that the curriculum’s aim was more “to teach a lesson about racism and sexism, not history. The history taught is that of the grievers among us, the present-day crusaders against public policy or discrimination. The history omitted is that of the Canadian nation and people.”

The message from Granatstein nearly twenty-five years ago, and from the scholars who signed these letters, is that the discipline of history in Canada is in a state of disarray and is perhaps even, by virtue of its ostensible activist leanings, somehow illegitimate.

They are wrong.

Our reasoning is simple. This debate has little to do with Canada’s past. It is a distraction from the good and ongoing work being done across the country by historians working in museums, government, high schools, and universities. It also misrepresents and trivializes the nature of professional historical scholarship and how we go about doing it.

We need to take a step back. Allowing the letter to first appear online publicly via the Dorchester Review, given its track record of inflammatory rhetoric and explicit denial of residential school trauma, was a polarizing decision. Even if this decision was one of a signatory acting on their own (as we understand it to be) the framing and context surrounding the release of a letter matters.

At the same time, given these heated discussions, we also suspect that the signatories feel embattled when their concerns around professional organizations, such as the CHA, are reduced by their critics to a narrow political perspective, which some of them do not hold. The back-of-the-hand denunciation of the letter’s signatories as perpetuating an act of white supremacy, for example, is just as poor form as the Dorchester Review’s problematic framing. Twitter is rarely a place where anybody looks their best. The platform incentivizes name calling and playing to the crowd as much as thoughtful, professional debate.

Right now, many people are talking past each other, assuming their perceived adversary’s position rather than engaging with the core shifts underlying these debates.

Ultimately, debates around Macdonald’s legacy and genocide have been driven primarily (but not entirely) by forces outside of the academy, primarily – in this case – by conservative critics as well as Indigenous activists, scholars, communities, nations, and their allies. Certainly, Patrice Dutil, a key player in pillorying Canadian historians, has targeted James Daschuk’s Clearing the Plains and the TRC as key books influencing these debates, but really on both fronts the points of conflict are older and tethered to broader political changes in Canada that have made space for non-White, non-male voices and perspectives. (Incidentally, it is also worth noting that Raphael Lemkin, who coined the word genocide, himself saw genocide as a function of colonialism and at the time of his death was exploring how it was manifested in the Americas.)

Recognizing these changes in our political context is important. But, in our opinion, much of what underpins these open letters are the resulting changes in historians’ focus that have occurred alongside these social and political transitions. From the 1960s onwards, historians around the world have begun to ask questions that increasingly reflect the diversity of the human experience, from questions revolving around identity, class formation, and everyday experiences.

This shift in focus does not mean, though, that we stopped caring about the impact and life of somebody like John A. Macdonald, but rather that we began thinking about the impact of his policies and decisions from a broader and more diverse range of perspectives. And, also, we widened our perspectives to encompass different peoples, historical questions, and yes, the result of which may even involve “revising” some of our assessments.

Given this broader approach, the way that some professional historians carry out their research has changed. Historians recognize that insight into the past exists in many places – not just in libraries and archives – and is often anchored with communities. Historical work is dedicated to understanding and interpreting the past, but it is often done in collaboration with community members, archivists, and librarians. Concordia historian and CHA president Steven High calls this “sharing authority.” Perhaps we are wrong, but it is often the historians who take this approach that seem to be the targets in missives like the ones we have recently seen.

When we say it is time to end the History Wars, neither “side” should “win.” Historians take a diversity of approaches, all complementary.

Recognizing the trauma and harm caused by policies of John A. Macdonald does not negate the value of scholarship that explores his impact in a variety of spheres, although it does mean that we should not lionize the man given the values our Canadian society represents today. Similarly, the CHA – as a voluntary, member-driven organization – can recognize that it has a broader net of stakeholders, from historians to community members impacted by, and living out, the implications of historical processes. It is important for an organization like the CHA to make public statements like the one it did on Canada Day.

We admire the work of our colleagues, from those who signed these letters (some of whom are our friends) to those who felt tremendous hurt from the letters. We do not want to further polarize this debate. Perhaps there is political capital to be gained by prolonging these arguments. From our perspective, the time has come to bring them to an end and there is little to be gained professionally from prolonging them.

Ian Milligan is an associate professor of history at the University of Waterloo. Thomas Peace is an associate professor of history at Huron University College.

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6 thoughts on “It is Time to End the History Wars

  1. Donica Belisle

    Thank you for this engaging piece, which has created a lot of food for thought. One thing that I would add is that the conservative position has changed somewhat over the past 25 years. Whereas in the 1990s, studies of gender, class, and region were much criticized, today anti-colonialist and race studies are. Being against studies of gender, class, and region is somewhat different than being against studies of colonialism and race. I think this shift bears attention.

  2. alvinfinkel

    This is indeed an excellent article and probably too kind to the group who agreed to put their objections to the CHA Council position in the execrable Dorchester Review. Those, historians and otherwise, who want to downgrade the colonialist treatment of Indigenous people, and particularly the whole history of residential schools, from genocide to “assimilation” take issue, without saying so, with the longstanding United Nations definition of genocide that the rest of us have every right to accept as the proper definition. Using that definition the historical record is abundantly clear that “genocidal intent” was present as defined under Article II of the UN convention, clauses c and e. A and B also occurred though there is some historical disagreement (though no longer much) that they were intended to happen as opposed to the unintended results of a policy meant to extinguish the millennial cultures of the Americas. The Dorchester group are taking issue with the entire world rather than just the historical profession when they seek to deny that genocide occurred in the history of colonialism in Canada.

  3. David Calverley

    I really enjoyed your article. I think it was very balanced and was a solid effort at trying to move away from the either/or nature of this debate. I also like your criticism of Twitter.

    A suggestion to the CHA Executive, the signatories of the letter, and the upcoming organizers of next year’s conference: it would be very helpful and, I think interesting, to have a joint panel discussion with those who signed the letter (perhaps two or three representatives) and those who researched and wrote the CHA’s recent statement regarding the application of the word genocide to the colonial/Canadian treatment of Indigenous peoples. I’ve followed this recent issue fairly closely, and I’m disappointed in both sides for their failure to deal with the issues and their ad hominem attacks. Perhaps we could have an actual discussion of the issues as scholars and historians. Two of the people who signed the letter are well established and respected historians of Indigenous peoples….I’d be interested in hearing their thoughts and the thoughts of those who disagree with them.

    Given the ubiquitous nature of Zoom, this panel discussion could be easily live streamed to members who can’t attend the upcoming CHA (assuming the pandemic permits a real gathering).

  4. David Calverley

    Hello Kristin

    I did read the article you linked. I thought it gave a very reasoned criticism of the position taken by the people who signed the letter critical of the CHA’s statement.

    I would note that at the end of the article posted on Shekon Neechie it states:

    “Shekon Neechie is interested in how other Indigenous scholars are understanding this debate reignited by the recent Open Letter in the Dorchester Review which we feel is an either/or position between activism or professionalism or what constitutes “authentic scholarly history.””

    I hope I’m not misconstruing what the authors of the article are stating, but it seems that they are interested in hearing people’s opinions. Perhaps some of the people who signed the letter will take Shekon Neechie up on the offer.

    Of the people who signed the letter in the Dorchester Review, three are well known scholars of Indigenous history: Don Smith, Jim Miller, and Toby Morantz. I don’t think anyone can claim Miller to be ignorant of the history of residential schools. Toby Morantz wrote a very good book about the impact of the Quebec state on the Cree of northern Quebec. Don Smith has written about the early treaties of Upper Canada and the treatment of Indigenous peoples in that process.

    My opinion is simple: discussion works when both sides speak and both sides listen. I don’t think those three people can be accused of glossing over the impact of colonialism in their scholarship. For that reason, I’d like to know in more detail why they signed the letter, their arguments, their evidence, etc.

    Also, I haven’t been in contact with any of the three people. I have no idea why they signed the letter (apart from Miller who has been quoted in newspaper articles, and my guess is his reasons are more complicated than what can be contained in a short newspaper article). I’m neither speaking for them nor volunteering them to take part in any panel if one is put together. Their names just jumped out from the list as I’ve read and admired their work since I first became interested in Indigenous history.

  5. Ian Milligan

    Donica, totally agree and thanks for highlighting this shift. Alvin, agreed as well. And thanks for the kind words, David, I agree that there’s been a lot of talking past each other.

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