Thursday 14 February 2013

The History Commemoration Wars keep going

I'm not going to be popular in some Canadian history circles today.

Last week I had a great long conversation with Terry Glavin about a column he was writing for the Ottawa Citizen. He wanted to talk about the ongoing battle over commemorating Canadian history. Aside from being a journalist Glavin is a historian in his own right, and I was struck by how familiar he was with many of the debates and personalities in Canadian history.

The column is out today (see here). But what he says, and what he quotes me as saying, are bound to make a few Canadian historians splutter.

First, he talked to Jack Granatstein and conveyed his sense of how Canadian historians have given up any effort to celebrate the nation's past. Then he drew on many of the arguments I made in my own article on the state of Canadian history  - published a few years ago in an article called 'After Inclusiveness' in the book I coedited with Mike Dawson (Contesting Clio's Craft). This is the story of how inclusive historians have increasingly given up telling national stories, and telling them in ways that are interesting and engaging for a wide audience.

A few years on I would modify some of what I said in that article - point to a few more exceptions of great work being done. But by and large I stick by it. And, after teaching in a grad class this week about the rise of 'history from the bottom up', I would have made what seems to me to be an even more important point. What's missing from this kind of history is a curiosity about Canada's nation makers.

There's plenty of curiosity and fascinating analysis of aboriginal peoples and the marginalized (and the many ways they have creatively exercised agency). But there is, overall, a decided lack of curiosity about other people who don't fit into these categories. And perhaps even more important, what is absent is  a curiosity about (and an openness to) fairly important features of Canadian life that make this country, by and large, not too bad to live in (the rule of law, parliamentary democracy [for all its flaws], and the making of the nation itself).

My only caveat to the Terry Glavin column is that I am ever so slightly misquoted. When he quotes me as saying that Harper is right not to trust Canadian historians, I'm sure I prefaced it by saying 'In a sense...' Harper is right not to trust Canadian historians.

Because, in another sense, he's not. There are a number of great historians doing fascinating work across the country. And this intellectually faddish phase will pass, just as others did before. Hopefully we'll take the good and leave the bad. But that might be too optimistic.

*** Update ***
Terry Glavin assures me - from his notes - that I, in fact, did not give the qualifier at the time. And so it goes....


  1. Hi Chris,

    You've heard me say this before, but I think we need to make a distinction between national and nationalist history. All too often, in what passes for debate these days, the two get conflated.

    In this skewed perspective, knowledge of our national history seems to equate with nationalist pride -- as Glavin puts it, "a proud national story rooted in the great deeds of our ancestors." What bothers me about this perspective is that it hijacks historical knowledge for rather narrow nationalist goals. History cannot and should not lead necessarily to pride in great deeds; it should be allowed to follow the evidence in an effort to piece together what happened in the past.

    If one wants proud national stories, one can find lots of them in heritage, but please leave history alone. While I agree with the need to research and teach Canadian history on a broad national (and international) canvas, I disagree with the presumption that this goal has been thwarted by a new academic orthodoxy.

    Like most conspiracy theories, this one is rooted in faith rather than evidence. Having served on a number of national bodies and editorial boards, including the CHA Council, I see a historical professional marked by diversity. There are lots of different kinds of histories being written today by different kinds of scholars. The conspiratorial notion that they constitute an ideological cabal would be funny, execept that so many conservatives (of both the small-c and big-C varieties) seem actually to believe it. Conservatives also seem to believe that the country has some sort of patriotism deficit, but I have not seen any evidence to demonstrate that Canadians have less pride in their country than citizens elsewhere.

    "Here it is 15 years later, and matters are no better," Glavin says. And here I would heartily agree with him. It's indeed sad that, in 2013, Jack Granatstein is being portrayed in serious newspapers as the guardian of national history. In the meantime, there are hundreds of professors across the country who are passionately committed to writing and teaching Canadian history. Most of them, myself included, have no problem connecting with "notions of common sense that animate most 'ordinary' people." My new second-year survey course, "Canada's origins to 1763," is unabashedly national in scope, though it's not nationalist in agenda.

    My job is to teach Canadian history, not to instill nationalist pride in what our ancestors did. One would think, after the experiences of the twentieth century, that the notion that we should use education to instill nationalism would have been discredited. But, here we are, in 2013, and matters are no better.

    Best wishes,


  2. Well put, Jerry. I completely agree with your sentiments. It is not the job of historians to be onside or "trusted" by any government or to generate what we used to call, back when I was a grad student in the last century, "happy history."

    And, Chris, I found this comments of yours in the Citizen piece, "The historical profession has become kind of an activist organization," to be a sweeping generalization and a potentially destructive one. It sends the message, particularly to the current government, that historians are basically left-wing activists so what's the problem with additional cuts to the Archives etc because those hurt aren't doing real history anyway.


  3. I won't add too much here to the comments section, but I will likely write up a response for in the next month or so.

    What I would like to quickly bring up here is the odd rejuvenation of 1990s-era "History Wars" arguments about the fragmentation of Canadian history and the demise of national (not nationalist) history. Those arguments were flawed twenty years ago and they seem almost nonsensical today. As both Steve and Jerry have pointed out above, there are many historians today who have engaged with writing big national histories. Scholars in my field alone (environmental history) have published five national histories of Canada in the past five years.

    I also think that the reports of the death of political history are exaggerated. Last year, my department hosted a substantial Canadian political history conference. Chris and I were also on an incredibly well-attended round table at the Canadian Historical Association annual meeting on macro-theories of Canadian political economy. And the Political History Group is one of the fastest growing affiliated committees of the CHA. For those interested in their work, readers should visit:

    Finally, in addition to avoiding the conflation of national histories with nationalist histories, we must also avoid conflating political history with national history, remembering, of course, that all of those histories of "New Left sensibilities," (in Glavin's words), including gender, race, and class, are explicitly political.

    That's all for now. More to come at

    1. Hi Sean,

      Just a quick reply. It's too easy to pretend that the history wars are all very '1990s' and in the past. It's actually quite funny to say that the ideas were flawed then and nonsensical now. It actually almost mirrors a line that Granatstein has in his book about the criticisms made of Peter Newman by feminist historians. He tells of how Newman absolutely destroyed these arguments ((or some such thing). My own take, and I imagine I'm not alone, was that Newman in fact didn't so neatly win the debate. Who wins these debates is in the eye of the beholder. [Although I went back and read some of these debates and I thought Newman did get in one great line. When Jennifer Brown accused him of deliberately choosing the 'interesting' quotes, he replied 'Well, I certainly didn't choose the uninteresting ones!']

      But to be serious. Granatstein's books sold incredibly well. I bet it sold better than any other academic book since. So if that's the reward for nonsensical ideas, I'm all in.

      I too am hopeful about the renewed interest in political history by younger scholars. It should be said that the forum at the CHA this past year was on political economy - on the staples thesis, Laurentian thesis, etc. At the time, of course, those folks like Innis and Creighton (at one point) deliberately saw this as 'not' being political history. That is, they were getting to the more serious economic underpinnings of Canada. So, to them, it wasn't political history. But I agree that we would still see it as such now. And these ideas were still about understanding the nation in a way that other ideas since have not been.

      Did I say this was going to be quick?

      One last thing. It's too easy to say that everything is now political - that we recognize that the politics of gender, race and class are political. Sure they are. And we ought to study them. But Canadian historians, as Canadian historians, ought to make sense of the nation in which we live and this means giving a more than token place to national politics and traditional politics. The politics of the everyday are just that = everyday. Sometimes they relate to the nation, sometimes they don't. But we do live in this country called Canada (funny how the globalization, end of the nation-state talk has died down since the economic collapse?!) and we do need to explain what this nation means, how it has existed, what its fault lines have been. In my view, this means that traditional politics can't just be one more, amongst a zillion, sub-disciplines.

      I do, of course, recognize that I'm likely in the minority on this last point.