Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Do You Really Want to Know About Canadian History?

It has been great to see that TerryGlavin’s column in the Ottawa Citizen last week  has inspired such an interesting debate. Most have been critical, if judiciously so,  of Glavin and Granatstein and me. Those I’ve seen include the comments by Jerry Bannister and Steve Hewitt on my own blog, a post by Jim Clifford over at Active History, and another by Roderick Benns on his blog. There was fair bit of amusing chatter on twitter as well.

I ought to clarify one point up front. It was Granatstein – and not me – who fretted about the absence of a ‘proud national story'. Personally I absolutely agree with Jerry Bannister who says ‘My job is to teach Canadian history, not to instill nationalist pride in what our ancestors did.’ In fact, this was exactly what I said to Glavin. He asked me how I differed from Granatstein and this is the point I made: that I had no desire to see history celebrate anything. Our duty is to understand. In fact, I made just this point in a post last year – the prime duty of historians isn’t to respect anything. Our only duty is to be curious.

‘So why go along with Granatstein?’ you might ask. Why talk about the historical community as being hijacked by activists?

I’m very conscious that Steve Hewitt might be right when he says that to make these comments is to invite reprisals against the profession and to only make the case for the funding of things like archives even more tenuous. But my case would be as follows:

We are doing it to ourselves.

While you’ll often hear historians arguing against Granatstein and others who claim that history ought to serve nationalist purposes, what you don’t often hear are the voices of historians criticizing the way activists try to make political uses of our history in the exact same way. We seem, en masse, ready to throw Granatstein under the bus, but we mostly look the other way when others (our own colleagues) use history in the same deliberately partisan ways.

Here are a couple of examples, though there could be many, many more.

Example 1

So, for example, the most important concept animating historical discussion in the country for more than a decade has been Ian Mckay’s Marxist reading of Canadian history as a project of ‘liberal order’. You can’t stumble through the beer tent at the  CHA without hearing about yet another new project talking about the ‘liberal’ (read oppressive) nature of some topic in Canadian history.

There have been some very thoughtful critiques of McKay’s work, but I can’t think of anyone that has come out and written about this as the kind of politically partisan rewriting of history that it is. The political nature of the project is on the surface. McKay even writes about this in his long introduction to the whole project, Rebels, Reds, Radicals. This isn’t the place to go into the ‘ins’ and ‘outs’ of McKay’s ideals. But let’s be clear. The whole liberal order project as a way of rethinking Canadian history is deliberately partisan in its intent and operation. In my view, historians should take out from it the good ideas, but be very wary of when ideology blinds one to what the evidence actually shows.

Example 2

A second example might be the way historians have acted as spokespeople for aboriginal groups, including the recent Idle No More movement. Here, many historians have taken it upon themselves to explain the historical origins of many of the claims in the movement, notably the history of treaty rights. Partly, this has been great historical research, and in fact I gave a lecture to my own students on exactly this point. (In fact, I imagine that my students would be surprised by what I say below.)

But the history of relations between aboriginal peoples in Canada is a case of how history has been reshaped by activism in a different way: by questions we no longer ask, issues we no longer talk about.

What do I mean? Here I’m thinking of agency and power. Just about any recent (and here I mean over several decades) work on aboriginal history emphasizes the agency of aboriginal peoples. Historians have taken it upon themselves to make sense of aboriginal actions,  and have come up with some fascinating research that shows the complexity of aboriginal peoples’ responses to colonialism. This was a response to a previous historiography that was largely concerned with the logic of building the Canadian nation state, and largely didn’t examine aboriginal peoples’ actions on their own terms.  But as this issue has taken over the profession, the other side of the equation, the views of settlers, the government, Euro-North American culture in general – have been ignored and ridiculously simplified.

It’s now standard to talk about how, in the period of early contact, aboriginal people had much more power than we previously thought, and that early Canada was still really aboriginal space. The implications for contemporary politics are direct: these really were ‘nations’ and relations between the early BNA or Cdn state and aboriginal peoples really were on a nation-to-nation footing.

But so much of this conclusion is based on silence – on not admitting that this position of relative ‘equality’ was between, on the one side, entire aboriginal societies and, on the other, a small handful of explorers and settlers at the initial point of contact. When larger settlement occurred, and when European societies took a much larger interest in aboriginal spaces, any notion of equality and ‘nation-to-nation’ dialogue quickly went out the window. In fact, this is what lies behind the westward expansion of Canada and the United States, and the very different experience in Canada. Much of the land in Canada, for a much longer time, was considered marginal and not fit for settlement.

You don’t need to follow Tom Flanagan’s morally bankrupt (in my view) justification for this process to still see that too many historians of aboriginal peoples in Canada have trumpeted the agency of aboriginal peoples because it meets the needs and sympathies of contemporary politics. A fuller account of the past would be less uniform in its assessment than what we have been reading for several decades.

I can’t resist adding a couple of more examples:

Why is there no great article/book on the sexual revolution in Canada? Answer – historians are too busy telling us how it wasn’t revolutionary, how it was hetero-normative, etc.

Why aren’t Canadian historians talking about the incredible rise in the standard of living of Canadians over the course of the 20th century? Why do we just continue to write ‘Yes, but…’ histories? Perhaps it would cause troubles to so many whose basic line of thinking is essentially Marxist. (though see John Lanchester writing inthe LRB for someone on the left, who says we need to deal with this fault in Marx.)

No doubt many will argue with much of what I’ve said above. But it’s worth thinking about this when asking why the media doesn’t stop talking to Granatstein. Who else are they going to talk to? Nationalist history is one thing. But Canadian historians specialize in anti-nationalist history. Canadian historians seem bent on telling us that so many things that you might think of as reasonably positive developments – universal education, parliamentary democracy, the rule of law, etc – were actually inherently oppressive. A more open approach to the past might lead us to, if not agree with Granatstein all the time, at least not always disagree.

My own sense is that we need an update to his book Who Killed Canadian History?
If I were to write it, it would be called Do You Really Want to Know About Canadian History? The gist would go something like this:

A full understanding of Canadian history isn’t kind to any political agenda. Those on the left and right both want to use the past for their own purposes. At the moment, those on the right have more influence in government and in the mainstream media. Those on the left have more room – though they aren’t alone – inside the academy. But what we really need are historians who don’t find their arguments ready-made for them by either partisan politics or academic theory (ie politics in pseudo-scientific disguise).

It’s too easy to sit back and say that all of the politics is in the House of Commons, and that academics are more professional in their assessments. Equally, it’s too easy to say that everything is political so therefore, everything goes. Surely, all of this means we just need to sit down and do what good historians always do: look at the evidence; see things from as many different view-points as possible; tell the story as best we can; continue the conversation.


  1. Hi Chris,

    Why do so many of us *always* seem to disagree with Granatstein?

    One reason, as I mentioned to you via email, is the bait-and-switch that he, and more recently Glavin, deploy.

    It goes something like this. A pundit calls for something that many (likely most) of us would strongly agree with (i.e., a strong national history of Canada) but then, in their description of what that history should actually look like, they call for something that many (likely most) of us would strongly disagree with (i.e., a conservative history, focused on glorifying high politics and war, that seeks to foster nationalism).

    By conflating the latter with the former, these pundits seek to legitimize their agenda by painting national history with their own nationalist brush. The question is not "Who Killed Canadian History?," but rather "Who Killed Granatstein's Version of Canadian History?"

    The problem with Granatstein's version of Canadian History is not its politics per se but rather its narrowness. If historians on the left need to be more open about how their agendas shape their research and writing (a big if, since most of them are quite clear about their politics), then those on the right need to be more honest about the fact that what they call Canadian history is a narrow slice of the past.

    The irony is that the many of the social and cultural historians who conservatives love to target have a broader and more comprehensive perspective of our history than the nationalist history touted by Granatstein and Glavin.

  2. Hi Chris,

    Great conversation. Isn't one of the main points that Granatstein makes in his book the fact that there is no FLOW to the teaching of Canada's history? Isn't it his point that teachers, handicapped by a lack of rigour in the elementary and high school curricula and their own lack of confidence, tend to zero in on one aspect of our history and teach without context?

    I don't believe in airbrushing our history so that all that is left at the end of the day is flag waving. I didn't think Granatstein did either. What I do believe in is a teacher (or a book for that matter) that constantly reminds the pupil or reader what else is happening and perhaps the reasons why at the same time.

    It is not the historian's job to instil pride in one's country. Pride, satisfaction or gratitude for living in a country like Canada, I would think, would occur naturally from a clear understanding of our story. All of this would be tempered, of course, with truths about how we treated our Aboriginal people, Chinese Canadians during the building of the CPR, and so on. However, it is also not the historian's job to teach shame.

    I know that we have many stories as Canadians, but we also have a duty to teach our 'story', singular. In the end if we don't see a common thread then we don't have much of a nation after all.

    1. Roderick,

      I think you make a very fair point here. I wonder (perhaps too pessimistically) if many Canadian historians working in the universities would agree. The point about shame is important. Again, my sense is that, in practice, too many of us focus too much of our attention on this - at the very least, a disproportionate share.

  3. Hi Chris,

    Nice to see the discussion growing, but I worry that there is a risk of inventing a false CNN Crossfire-style framework, in which historical opinion is divided neatly into the Left and Right. This might work for Kevin O'Leary's schtick, I suppose, but I think people tolerate him on CBC more because of Amanda Lang. (I know I do).

    If you're looking for a way to move this debate along, what about discussing the Globe's story on the polling results of the $30-million War of 1812 hoopla, see today's "War of 1812 extravaganza failed to excite Canadians, poll shows."

    The story undermines one of the canard's in Glavin's column. According to Glavin, "It’s all because of a disconnect between the way academic historians imagine their purpose on the one hand and the notions of common sense that animate most 'ordinary' people, on the other." Glavin's remarks echo a popular image often bandied about in Canadian politics: the idea that what Joe Six-Pack and Jane Double-Double really want is good-old military history. The common-sense, ordinary people, it's often assumed, like their beer domestic, their coffee creamy, and their history red-meat conservative. By serving them up the War of 1812 celebration, so the Tory theory goes, the federal government was just giving good old Joe and Jane what they really want. And the only thing getting in the way of giving them what they really want are those Heineken-drinking, latte-sipping vegan elitists who are foisting leftist ideology on the vulnerable minds of Ontario students.

    But...maybe, just maybe, those ordinary people are neither as simple nor as conservative as the theory goes. Maybe, as Michael Adams' polling has suggested, they really do believe in things like the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, multiculturalism, tolerance, and diversity. Maybe Joe and Jane have reservations about the ongoing fiasco in Afghanistan. Maybe they are not yearning for a huge taxpayer-funded celebration of the 200th anniversary of Sir John A. Macdonald's birthday. "It doesn’t look like Canadians are ready to celebrate a politician," Nanos is quoted as saying in the Globe's story. What they seem to want is something to mark the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage.

    Whatever the case, the reality is that "ordinary" people in Canada and their common sense are a lot more diverse and complex in their views towards history than Glavin assumes. If 47% of poll respondents say that they would like to mark the founding of the Charter, then whose version of history is the elitist one?


    p.s. And, before you ask, I drink Keith's.

    1. Is Heineken supposed to be sophisticated? Perhaps to drinkers of Keith's (you could at least go for Clancy's if you had to stick down east).

      But seriously, these are important points you make up. In talking about who this 'Canadian public' is that historians ought to be speaking to, obviously we ought not to make vast generalizations. Or, if we do, we ought to think more about what pollsters like Adams tell us. As I keep telling my students in talking about the history of parliamentary democracy (beginning and then going back from the last couple of elections) you don't need a majority to get a majority.

      But here too I think modern Canadian historians haven't done a good job at explaining how the world that Adams describes came about. We have been so busy writing 'Yes, but...' histories that so many things get lost along the way ( like the emergence of a liberal (not in a Marxist sense), progressive, human rights centred, inclusive nation that, despite all the many continued problems, is profoundly (unbelievably) different from the Canada of the 1950s. It's exactly the kind of thing that makes Harper stay mum on gay marriage and abortion. If they could act, presumably they would. And if they wouldn't, this means that even the Conservative party has drastically changed which itself says something.

    2. Hi Chris,

      I'm a first-generation Canadian from the far east, so I realize that my notion of beverage sophisticated is bush-league.

      I'm also croaking with the flu this morning -- our youngest son was up half the night with it, too -- but despite (or perhaps because of) my crankiness I thought I'd respond to some points.

      1) I'm with Roderick's point that it's not our job to teach shame, no more than it's our job to instill nationalism. Though I think it's too often overstated, there is an element of shame-spiralism that creeps into certain type of history.

      2) But I'm very wary of your "Yes, but" point. I agree that the past three generations have witnessed many remarkable improvements in public life, living standards, civil rights, and in a range of other areas. When I consider the difference across one generation -- me, as a Gen-Xer, and my parents, born in outport Newfoundland during the Depression -- the stark contrast is undeniable. But very few of those steps forward have come easily, without resistance, or without trade-offs. If we're going to teach the full history of progress in postwar Canada, then we have an obligation to teach it warts and all. And, when one looks at the massive problems facing the country in 2013 -- e.g., over-reliance on oil revenues, a ticking demographic time-bomb, social programs under stress, poverty rates -- it's impossible to discount the "buts" in Canadian history.

      3) Speaking of demography, one of the things lurking behind the question of what the "history wars" were (or still are), I think we need to consider demographic changes within our profession. Most of the bitter debates (many of which took placed *within* the Left, by the way) were struggles between Boomers. For Gen-Xers like myself (I realize that you may be too young to be an Xer), the "history wars" of the 1980s-1990s are from another era, and many (perhaps most) of us have moved on to other things. As I said in another comment, in my view, Canadian history in 2013 really is marked by diversity. And part of this is due to the fact that the historians doing the most interesting research and writing these days were, with few exceptions, not direct participants in the Boomers' battles.

      4) Finally, in response to Braden's thoughtful comment, it would be interesting to figure out how many of the stars ("decorated" was the word Glavin used, I think) of both the Left and Right have actually taught undergraduate students since the turn of the 21st century. There is a divide, I think, between the pundits who pontificate about how history should be taught, on the one hand, and the ordinary professors who do the actual teaching across the country, on the other.

      Speaking of which, I had better go and get ready for my 10:30 History of Seafaring class.


    3. Hi Jerry

      On the "Yes, but...' histories, I recognize that I"m being polemical. Of course (!) you have to deal with the complexities of history. I"ve just been frustrated with the trend in modern Canadian history to write 'yes, BUT... ' histories. So the first book we get on drugs in the 1960s takes as its starting point the fact that marijuana wasn't legalized, and asks why. As if that's the story to tell. Same goes for many other topics. Best exception to this is great work on the rights revolution which, even if it needs someone to come along and write a more popular version, has all of the ingredients for explaining just how much Canada changed in postwar years...

      Too early in the day for a beer, but I'm already looking forward to the Creemore tonight....

  4. Much of the discussion here and above is interesting. However, I want to add something of an aside or a set of other considerations to this now familiar exchange about Canadian history. Whenever we as a profession or the media begin debating Canadian history my first instinct is to roll my eyes. The reasons are threefold. Firstly, we've been down this rabbit hole so many times over the last fifty years and as both an academic historian and active high school teacher, I can tell you that the discussion has done precious little to impact how history is actually taught. Granatstein and many others focus on government reports and publications or curriculum documents ripped from their context to damn the state of history teaching. On the one hand reports and publications are not always implemented, frequently changed and do not reflect the totality of historical knowledge presented as Jerry points out above in reference to the wide variety of "common sense" understandings of history. Generally most are aware of these limitations. However, curriculum is another issue. These are general guidelines and not all matters mentioned in history curriculum are covered in exactly the way or to the degree some would imagine. Using these to evaluate history education is akin to using a grocery list as your only source for understanding the history of Canadian foodways. It gets you in the front door, but nowhere near the kitchen or dinner table - or the classroom in the case of history education. In actual fact, the history future teachers are given as part of their undergraduate education and the degree to which that history is presented in a way that embraces or rejects their particular interests is far more influential.

    Secondly, I am concerned by the fact that few of those who comment on, write about or otherwise engage in this public debate about historical knowledge and history education have set foot in a high school or elementary classroom since their nineteenth birthday. In short, they have little idea what goes one there. This is further evident by infrequent reference to those academics who are often engaged in issues around historical knowledge and pedagogy like Sharon Cook or Peter Seixas to name two. Indeed, Seixas's recent work on the historical thinking project is quickly having a major impact on approaches to history in schools. This is also part of the reason that both Granatstein and McKay's leftist vision have had so little traction beyond the academy - they bare little upon the realities of the classroom or the efforts of teaching history. It is, inside baseball more often than not. I have watched many a teacher candidates, convinced by Granatstein in teachers college or their undergraduate education, swear off the book after their first long-term placement in a classroom.

    Finally, it troubles me that children are always the implicit targets for this historical knowledge correction, regardless of ideology, yet almost none of those who engage in the public debate around historical knowledge acknowledge this fact let alone try to think about the power inequalities and dynamics that structure efforts to improve historical knowledge. As one academic historian presumptuously told me once at a history education conference the focus on children was because unlike adults "they are a captive audience." I can think of no clearer demonstration of the need for nuance in any discussion about historical knowledge through an appreciation for the pedagogy, learning and power dynamics of schooling and public institutions that go into its communication and acquisition.

    Braden Hutchinson

    1. Thanks for your comments Braden. I confess that I hadn't been thinking - or writing - about high school or elementary education. And you're right that I haven't been in a high school classroom since I was 19 (well, I lie. I was asked to go back to my high school several years ago to talk to history teachers about what we are looking for in university. Made for interesting conversation about just how much had changed in Ontario since the late 80s, early 90s.)

      My own interest is in how historians can speak to audiences that aren't captive. What will make folks read Canadian history or take an interest when they don't get credit? What will make someone pick up a book off a shelf at a bookstore or buy something online? It is perhaps an increasingly minority interest, but it is what gets me going.

      As for Seixas, I think his ideas (and others at the History Education Network) are fantastic. In fact, I now use his notions of historical skills in my university classes. I'm not quite as comprehensive as he is in constantly coming back to it. But I set out the course (usually in lecture two) by talking about the way historians think. And then I come back to this later in the term.

      I just don't think that paying attention to these history 'skills' means that we shouldn't also focus on some core content - and part of that is the story of how Canada came to be.

  5. Hi Chris,

    Belatedly, I wanted to weigh in on Terry Glavin's article, and on the lively discussion it has engendered.

    There were aspects of the piece that I appreciated (mainly, his critique of the lack of substantive ideological diversity within the academy, which strikes me as a truism, and is a point you've thoughtfully elaborated on in 'After Inclusiveness').

    However, I baulk at his suggestion that Canadian historians have neglected to tell 'our story' as a result of a 'New Left' political sensibility. I suppose one could plausibly argue that social historians of the 1970s and '80s reacted against the 'colony-to-nation' paradigm, in part, for political reasons--that is, they saw nationalism as false consciousness militating against a sense of class solidarity capable of uniting workers across multiple jurisdictions.

    I'm sceptical, though, of the idea that political ideology is responsible for contemporary scholars' reluctance to focus on the development of the Canadian nation-state. It seems much more likely that twenty-first-century Canadianists (and, especially, early Canadianists) are eschewing nationalism in favour of alternative interpretive frameworks--atlantic world, borderlands, new imperial--not because of 'New Left' dogma, but rather because these approaches offer a richer and more revealing account of how early Canadian history actually occurred.

    To portray seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century developments as little more than precursors to modern-day Canada is to engage in teleological scholarship of the most dubious sort. By all means let's tell Canada's story; but, in doing so, let's avoid the temptation to portray the past as mere prelude to the present.

    All the best,

    Denis McKim

    1. These are some great points Denis. I do think that the period we study shapes our views on these things. And I do agree that there is much more going on besides left political sensibilities guiding the turn to a non-Canadian specific paradigm for northern north america before the19th century. But, to continue to push on this, I might suggest that there are other political sensibilities at work - or at least other feelings of disconnection with the idea of the nation state. That is, the non-Canadian, international focus does fit the period. but it also fits our period too.

      thanks for the comments.

  6. Thanks for your reply Chris. I think you are totally right and from what you and other describe there truly is some exceptional teaching going on in high school and university classrooms. I guess my main frustration, which perhaps I wasn't as clear about as I could have been, is that our own pedagogy as instructors, professors or teachers often doesn't enter into our consideration of debates about content. They are treated almost as separate issues. In some ways I think the way that some major participants in the public discussion leave out the pedagogical aspect means that debates about content become disconnected from the ultimate objective of expanding historical knowledge - or at least exposure to history. For instance, I 100% agree that getting people to read more history written by historians should be a major goal and efforts like blogging, for instance, can be an important part of achieving that goal. However, getting people to read more 'good' history, also requires us to think about why people read history or why they might consider reading it and what they hope to take away from those engagements. More critically, we need to ask what kind of analytical tools they have in their historical tool box or we risk missing the mark. It's in this way that I think we as educators need to allow our classroom pedagogy to affect our thinking about how to promote historical engagement and debates about content, otherwise it turns into a conversation 'about Canadians' and not 'with Canadians.'



    P.S. Love your blog.

  7. Perhaps this is a tangent, but perhaps not. Wouldn't it be great if every month there were two or three really interesting trade paperbacks on Canadian historical topics on the Globe's bestseller list? And how about on those year-end lists? This year, the G&M's list of 43 (?) non-fiction works worth reading included 6 memoirs/autobiographies by Canadians (7 if you count Stursberg's book about the CBC), 2 biographical works with Canadian subjects (one of an individual, another of a miscellaneous bunch), and a collection of historical documents related to a Canadian figure (an edition of LM Montgomery's letters). Where's the 19th century? And earlier?!!

    There were works of history on that list that reached farther back into the 20th century than memoir can, and even into the early modern world. But none of these were about Canada or the colonies or aboriginal worlds that were here before 1867.

    An exceptionally bad year? Maybe. Or, maybe, as the authors of a journal intro essay on Canada in the Americas wrote: "Canada is the largest invisible country in the world." (And Quebec is even more invisible....)

    Maybe the love of Canadian history -- the love that needs no fanning or fostering -- is usually local. Here in the Maritimes, anyway, the bookstore shelves that carry Halifax and Nova Scotia history are well-stocked.

    Understandable, I suppose. It takes a lot of canoeing to see the whole country (and the Cabot Strait's a bugger to cross in a canoe!)

    Shirley Tillotson
    (too lazy to sign on as anything other than anonymous)

    1. You really should have your own blog Shirley. I love it - Cabot Strait really would be a bugger by canoe.

      Incidentally, in case you didn't see it, I used your opening question in a post to talk about the a recent history book (not about Canada alas) that does get the popular/academic balance right.