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.

The Historical Thinking Project

I just ran across an amazing website devoted to historical thinking.  It is called “The Historical Thinking Project” and it is run by Peter Seixas at the University of British Columbia. The project is funded by the Department of Canadian Heritage and The History Education Network. It works with teachers and other educators to help promote historical thinking in Canada.

For those of you who are familiar with the scholarship of history teaching and learning, Seixas is the co-editor (with Peter Stearns and Sam Wineburg) of Knowing, Teaching, and Learning History: National and International Perspectives. It is a must read for all history teachers.

Seixas and his crew have identified six “historical thinking concepts.”  They are:

  1. Establish historical significance
  2. Use primary source evidence
  3. Identify continuity and change
  4. Analyze cause and consequence
  5. Take historical perspectives, and
  6. Understand the ethical dimension of historical interpretations.

The website is filled with research, reports, a blog, lessons, and resources.  It is clear that Canada’s work in promoting historical thinking skills far outpaces the work being done in this field in the United States (save Sam Wineburg and his colleagues).

I will be devoting significant time to investigating the Historical Thinking Project and will definitely be using it in my “Teaching History” class next Fall. This is just another reason to add to the list of good reasons to keep searching for homes for sale in Mission BC.

Dispatches from the AHA in New Orleans (4)

Erin Bartram weighs in on Thursday afternoon panel on Canadian Catholic Influences in America –JF

This afternoon, I attended a panel on Canadian Catholic influences in America which provoked a lively discussion on borderlands, cultural transformation, and identity politics. Molly Burns Gallaher, of the University of New Hampshire, discussed the Madawaska region, on the Maine/New Brunswick border, and the way that its residents, settled Francophone Catholics used to managing their own religious affairs, resisted the imposition of control from the Diocese of Portland. Jack Downey, of La Salle University, told us about one of Dorothy Day’s spiritual influences, French-Canadian Jesuit Onesimus Lacouture, whose retreats were “translated” for an American audience by Father John Hugo. Marion MacLeod, from the University of New Brunswick, examined the structures and lyrics in Acadian and Cajun music, focusing on themes of pilgrimage, traveling, and longing for home. After an excellent comment by Elizabeth McGahan, complete with maps to help the Americanists in the audience unfamiliar with the Canadian borderlands, we all had a good conversation about lay-clerical relationships in the 19th and 20th century, and the ways that space and ethnicity inflect those relationships. 

After a break for lunch, I took some time to wander around the book exhibits, and resisted the urge to buy, though I will say I was rather tempted by a few at the University of Massachusetts Press booth. They had lots of great books on gender, religion, and disability in U.S. history, so I might need to stop by again and indulge.

The Fuzziness of Canadian Nationalism

Do Americans know  their history better than Canadians do theirs?  David Koyzis, a politics professor at Ontario’s Redeemer University College, thinks so.  Part of the reason, Koyzis argues, is the myth of American exceptionalism and the cult of the American founding generation.  Here is a taste of his piece at Comment:

All of which is to say that, if we are not exactly a people without a history, the history we do have does not generally excite or inspire us. Americans endlessly re-enact Civil War battles, turning that country’s most trying hour into something approaching a national hobby—complete with costumes and toy muskets—engendering more camaraderie than division. This year marks the 200th anniversary of the War of . . . well, you do the math. Although the Battle of Stoney Creek is regularly restaged not far from where I live, one gets the distinct impression that the sponsors are attempting to repackage a complex two-and-a-half-year conflict that no one really won into an occasion for celebrating a nationhood of which both sides were dimly, if at all, aware at the time.

Yet this is what it means to be Canadian: We are compelled to settle for the residue of more than one national identity patiently filtered through a dense thicket of parliamentary statutes, orders-in-council, legal precedents, and committee minutes—all under the benevolent eye of something called the Crown to which we owe (some) loyalty. Will this be sufficient to carry us through the second half of our second century, which we will enter in five years? Only, I suggest, if we have the presence of mind to recognize the singular gift we possess in our exceptionally durable political institutions. In a world where paper constitutions function more as periodical literature, in the words of one observer, than as fundamental law, we in Canada have every reason to be thankful for a system that has worked so well for so long. It may not be an especially flashy or stirring basis for nationhood, but we could do considerably worse.

How Should Canada Commemorate the War of 1812?

Here is an interesting article on the dilemma that Canada faces in celebrating the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812.  (HT: Joe Carter).  A taste:


This may not be the best time to plan a war commemorative. The United States is marking the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, which will consume five years and already has attracted considerable attention. Seven years ago the attempt to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the French and Indian War was a dud. There’s not a huge appetite for yet another set of commemorative books, historical novels, re-enactments and school dioramas.

But this landmark will not go away, even if most people’s memories of the War of 1812 disappeared the last time they picked up a Kenneth Roberts novel. And embedded in this anniversary are several sticky questions, such as:

How does Canada celebrate its victories over American invaders without alienating its biggest trading partner? How does the United States approach a war in which its principal adversary, Great Britain, is now one of its closest friends? And do the British pause to mark this event at all, given that for them it was but a brief, minor sideshow in the far more important Napoleonic Wars?

Along with the Korean War, the War of 1812, which most Americans remember dimly as being about impressment on the high seas and freedom of movement on the Great Lakes, is often called the Forgotten War.

It does seem that this article is correct in suggesting that the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 has been lost amid the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. Having said that, I have no idea what is being planned next year for the bicentennial. 

Thoughts?