Canada’s History Wars

Stephen Harper

In the United States we can’t get our president to say a word about the importance of history.  In Canada, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a conservative, has declared that historical remembrances and commemorations will be a major part of his agenda in the coming years.  That’s right–Harper is throwing a lot of government money at historical institutions.

I don’t know much about the role that history plays in Canadian life, but if this article in the Ottawa Citizen is correct, New Left historians of the professional “establishment” have had a monopoly on the way Canadians learn about the nation’s past. Terry Glavin’s piece in the Citizen notes, paraphrasing Jack Granatstein’s Who Killed Canadian History?,  that “Most Canadians weren’t aware that Canada is one of the only countries in the world that doesn’t teach even a vaguely positive history of itself to its children.”  Instead, social history rules the day.  (This sounds like a case for the National Association of Scholars!). 

Academic historians are not taking the Prime Minister’s new initiatives lightly.  Harper, on the other hand, does not seem to care what these academics think.  It does not look like he will be consulting them as he moves forward with his promotion of the Canadian past.  The academics fear that Harper’s new national history will be defined by jingoism.

Here is a further taste of Glavin’s article:

“They’re right not to trust us,” Trent University historian Christopher Dummitt told me the other day. “They’re right. The historical profession has become kind of an activist organization. The result is we have lost authority, as a discipline, and we can’t talk about history writ large.”

There’s another reason.

“The profession is just not friendly to Conservatives,” Dummitt told me. “Conservatives don’t want to fund archives and libraries and they don’t want folks who don’t agree with them writing history.”

Dummitt is mainly a cultural historian, but he has broad interests and tastes. His first book, The Manly Modern: Masculinity in Postwar Canada, was published in 2007, and he’s currently working on a book about prime minister Mackenzie King. But Dummitt has also maintained an enduring interest in the way history is taught in Canada.

While you could say the 39-year-old Dummitt represents precisely the kind of historians Granatstein was hoping to hold back at the university gates during the History Wars of the 1970s-1990s, Dummitt insists that grand-narrative historians like Granatstein had a point back then, and it’s an especially important point now.

For all the necessary and useful contributions made by social and cultural historians over the years, something is missing at the core of Canada’s university faculties. “The biggest thing we’re missing is just the basic political history of Canada,” Dummitt said, “the basic history of our politics, and how things changed over time.”
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.

The dysfunction began with the New Left historians of the 1960s. It was all very liberating at the time — history was activism, and the old order was upended in order to focus on the marginalized and oppressed. But those New Left sensibilities have now run the gamut from class, race and gender to constantly multiplying identity studies, through Marxism, feminism, literary theory and post-colonialism, and the absurdities of postmodernism.

I am going to keep an eye on how all of this develops.  I think both sides in this debate could learn some lessons about history’s role in public life.  I hope the academic historians view this as an opportunity to bring good history to a larger Canadian public, even if it means tempering some of their activism.  I hope Prime Minister Harper and his administration learns that national history, even when it is used for civic and patriotic purposes, must not ignore the darker sides of the human experience.

In the end, Canadian historians should be thrilled that the Prime Minister wants to spend money on history and history education.  The result will be a national conversation on history and its relationship to civic identity. This is a good thing.

Thanks to Ian Clary for calling my attention to this article.

3 thoughts on “Canada’s History Wars

  1. I certainly am not an expert on Canadian historiography but this seems odd to me. Having grown up on the Canadian frontier, my sense was that there was a strong nationalist bent in Canadian history, particularly after the first PQ referendum for independence in 1980. Nationalist historical narratives require villains – for Americans, an important part of that narrative is the rejection of Europe and European “ways” – and so I have seen a strong string of anti-American histories pour down from Canada.


  2. Wow. That's the last thing I'd want to happen to American history. I can't imagine that you want American history to become (even more of) a political hockey puck than it already is!

    From time to time you've called for larger state subsidies for history education, but this strikes me as the clearest example of the dangers of state-subsidized/politicized history that I've seen yet.


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