No One Killed Canadian History. It is time to move on

By Thomas Peace

As we welcome 2024, it is time for Canadian historians to turn over a new leaf.

The end of 2023 brought echoes of 2003. As the year wound to a close, some of our colleagues – mostly working outside of the university – began to pile on as they celebrated 25 years since Jack Granatstein published Who Killed Canadian History, a divisive book that shaped the so-called History Wars of the late-1990s and 2000s.

It was no coincidence that this series was put together by The Hub, an online news site that promises an optimistic approach to news and analysis that will strengthen the Canadian nation. Core to The Hub are several of the same people behind the Dominion Institute, another key player that fueled historiographical tensions at the dawn of the new millennium.

Similar stakes from the late-1990s seem to be drawn out today.

The words of Hub editor-at-large Sean Speer summarized a subtext of the series. For Speer, over the course of the past two decades “radical” university professors (specifically at Carleton University) won the History Wars having “vanquished unfashionable scholars like Granatstein… in an exercise of ideological conformity imposed by a combination of peer pressure, hiring preferences, and growing university bureaucracy.”

In this same series, J.D.M. Stewart claims that “universities have eschewed political history and continue to dig down ever deeper into niche topics with limited value to helping Canadians understand each other.”

Neither then, nor now, does this framing of university history departments resonate with my experiences over the past 25 years. Unfortunately, though, these ideas about those of us working in universities are not unique.

Beyond this series, a related sentiment has developed around the issue of renaming and residential schools. Scholars such as Patrice Dutil and Tom Flanagan have created organizations that cast doubt on professional historical scholarship they see as distasteful and misleading.

Dutil’s Canadian Institute for Historical Education, for example, seeks to promote good historical thinking skills about the lives and times of Henry Dundas, Egerton Ryerson, and John A Macdonald, but casts analyses used to support renaming as “activist” (full disclosure, I’ve written on all three here, here, and here). Though I suspect Dutil and I share a fair amount of common ground, this organization frames the debate as historiographically one sided:

“Activists would have these figures, and no doubt others yet to come, purged from our collective memory without a proper evaluation of the historical evidence, of the context of the values of their time, or of their circumstances and core achievements.  These campaigns, in short, have far more to do with ideology than evidence.”

Political scientist Tom Flanagan feels similarly about the history of residential schools. His Indian Residential Schools Research Group (IRSRG) claims to be “a response to poor standards of research and reporting on the residential school system.” A summary of this group’s views has recently been published in the book Grave Error: How the Media Misled Us (and the Truth about Residential Schools). According to journalist and IRSRG board member, Barbara Kay, this book “will stand as a testament to our era’s shameless abandonment of intellectual integrity in the service of divisive, anti-science, hate-laundering principle of ‘decolonization.’” Again, you can see the trite dismissal of scholars whose work does not align politically with the IRSRG project.

The problem I have with these claims is that they often ignore the good work of historians who have taken a different perspective.

On residential schools, we might critique the TRC’s research methods, but scholars have not been silent. The IRSRG focuses on the issue of unmarked graves and genocide, but the growing literature is much broader and often explains the ties to genocide studies in direct and nuanced ways (Andrew Woolford and David MacDonald’s work jumps to mind, as well as Sean Carleton’s work about Residential School denialism).

Likewise, with John A’s legacy, the work commonly drawn upon is often Richard Gwyn’s two volume biography, while the work of historians Tim Stanley and James Daschuk are seldom mentioned.

When it comes to Dundas, seldom do we hear about the work of Eric Williams, Melanie Newton, or Stephen Mullen (all well established and respected historians). Historiographical critics often breakdown the disagreement as one of political history versus social/cultural history, but all of these scholars fit squarely in the former camp.

The case of Ryerson is a bit more complex. Fewer historians have recently written on his life and times with a fresh eye (though, I have written a (little) bit about him myself, and think there is a lot of room for more to be done).

And this is the point: there is no shortage of work to be done, or that has been done already. Canadian history does not look the way these people have presented it, nor did it in 1998 when Jack Granatstein published his book.

Don’t believe me? Let’s look at some of the criticisms:

Are there really no popular historians, as these critiques often suggest?

What about Stephen Brown, Mark Bourrie, Charlotte Gray, Lawrence Hill, Thomas King, or Christopher Moore? All seem comparable to the oft-lamented historian journalists: Pierre Berton and Peter C. Newman. On the academic side, to name just two influential scholars, Adele Perry and Mary Jane Logan McCallum have also published wonderfully accessible books that demonstrate the importance of historical understanding for municipal planning, health care, and education. I could name dozens more scholars whose work is similarly influential.

Has military and political history really been forgotten?

Let’s look at Speer’s so-called “radical” history department. Here is a list of Canada-focused expertise in Carleton’s history department:

  • Government-business relations; entrepreneurship and innovation.
  • Environmental and animal history, women and gender
  • International affairs; foreign and defense policy
  • Indigenous and Metis history; Canadian and American borderlands
  • Migration, humanitarianism, and settler colonialism
  • Quebec, state formation, history of children and families
  • Cultural history; history of the body and gender; history of archives
  • Social history; space and place

Yes, we can see a leaning towards social and gender history, but it hardly seems like Canadian politics, or the idea of the nation, has been vanquished. Carleton (by the way) is also home to one of Canada’s leading public history programs and a dedicated crew of scholars who focus on making their work accessible.

Likewise, several universities have active research centres that cater to the type of histories these scholars claim to have disappeared. UNB’s Gregg Centre for the Study of War and Society explicitly meets these goals.  Laurier University’s Centre for the Study of Canada maintains ties to its roots as the Centre for Military and Strategic and Disarmament Studies, even hosting an annual military history colloquium. University of Calgary has a Centre for Military, Security, and Strategic Studies. Say nothing of the fact that many politics departments emerged from history departments – and are the home to scholars like Dutil and Flanagan – or that the Royal Military College of Canada also teaches history (presumably with a direct emphasis on nation building). The nature of history has changed to include a broader subject matter, but this has not rendered earlier historical approaches or topics untouchable in the way that our critics suggest.

The fact of the matter is this: No one killed Canadian history. The crime never happened.

There were hundreds of excellent Canadian historians in the late-1990s, as there continues to be today. The field is broad, rich, and diverse. There is no “one true faith” as Sean Speer suggests in his essay.

The reality is that not all work of history need be a celebration of the nation or its political classes, as The Hub series seems to suggest (though those histories remain and are often celebrated).

Some histories (even political histories) use complex methods and theories, or they are based on very detailed research; these works are written for a professional audience rather than the public. And that is okay, and a good thing.

Some topics, such as Indigenous histories, have also been ignored for too long, meaning that there are a lot of scholars working on these questions relative to the community as a whole. A result of this is that in recent years many book and article prizes have been awarded to work on subjects related to Indigeneity and colonialism. Because these subjects have been ignored for so long, these works have literally reshaped how we think about Canada and – yes – currently, because of this, they are often celebrated more than other topics.

It is too easy to just call this emerging professional work “activist” or ignore it all together in public debate because it is hard to read, uses complex methodologies and theories, or because new ideas challenge our perspective on the nation or role of the state. Disagreement is welcome in every university in which I have worked, but it must be made directly and with evidence.

All of this said, since about 2008, History as a discipline is in trouble. The challenges the discipline of History faces are global, though, not national. They have more to do with access to information, freedom of speech, and the dominance of job-ready training (as opposed to more formative types of education), than anything found is Granatstein’s book.

It is for this reason that we all need to move beyond the debates of the 1990s.

In an age of misinformation and polemics, there is a lot of common ground where historians can unite. Where The Hub’s historians have focused on the national, I would argue that we need to breathe new life into history more generally. We need to reinvigorate local, regional, provincial, (and, yes) national, and international historical and historiographical cultures. The place to start is to end the smearing of how other people think about the past by simplistic labelling (as “activist” or “radical”) or willful ignorance of historical scholarship because it is distasteful to our politics.

From that foundation, there is common ground.

In Canada, Jack Granatstein was right about a need for more and better history in our elementary and high school curricula. Likewise, the absence of historians, history, and historiography from English language media is another area where there needs to be improvement (French language media is much better, btw). I would be surprised to hear any historian critique these goals.

The 1990s are over. It is time to move on.

Thomas Peace is an Associate Professor of History at Huron University College and co-Director of the Huron Community History Centre.

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3 thoughts on “No One Killed Canadian History. It is time to move on

  1. Cynthia Comacchio

    Thank you for this thoughtful, articulate corrective to an adversarial stand that, as a historian ‘made’ in the 1990s, was as baseless then as it is more than a decade later. Even to ask ‘who killed’ presumes a violent death, an identifiable victim, and a particular culprit. Canadian history will only be dead when the debates, revisions and reinterpretations stop. Those are symptoms of health and vigour, not death pangs.

  2. Todd Webb

    Just a (possibly self-promoting) FYI: there is quite a bit of revisionist work being done on Egerton Ryerson, though it is mostly appearing in the often overlooked fields of religious and church history. I would point, in particular, to the work of Scott McLaren and myself, both of whom take a much more critical approach to Ryerson’s impact on Methodism than most previous historians.

  3. John Sandlos

    I might be a little late to this discussion, but I would point out that my field, environmental history, has some activists leaning but it is not synonymous with environmentalism, and has indeed been critical of environmentalists (and conservationists) in various times and places. There is a nice mix of national, regional and local scale studies too.

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