The New History Wars?: Avoiding the Fights of the Past

[audio:] Audio from Montreal History Group May Day Symposium, 26 April, 2013 [16:56]
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2013-04-17 17.39.12
Library and Archives Canada Building, Ottawa

The new history wars are not battles over the meaning of Canadian history. They are battles over public financing of historical research and historical preservation. Historians, archaeologists, anthropologists, librarians, and archivists all have a stake in these important conflicts and debates. Recent federal efforts to commemorate the War of 1812 and to create a Canadian Museum of History by rebranding the Canadian Museum of Civilization have triggered new arguments among historians that echo the history war debates of the 1990s, but these arguments distract from the broader (and more important) challenge of the steady reduction of federal public financing for historical research and preservation.

In the 1990s, Canadian historians were allegedly at “war” with one another. A segment of the first generation of post-war Canadian historians approaching retirement expressed discontent with historiographical changes that had occurred over the course of the 1970s and 1980s which shifted scholarship away from national political histories toward a wider spectrum of academic inquiry that considered the histories of women, ethnic minorities, regions, and labour. Furthermore, their discontent was directed toward new revisionist interpretations and analyses of Canadian history that tended to foreground criticism of the state and highlight crimes and sins of the past, including the internment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War, the oppression of Aboriginal peoples, and the subjugation of women. The conflict among academic historians famously spilled out onto the national stage during the controversy and subsequent Senate inquiry into the production of the CBC television documentary series, The Valour and the Horror. Some military historians and veterans’ groups expressed outrage at the work of Brian and Terence McKenna, the writers and producers of this documentary series.

The discontent of those historians who lamented the scholarly shift away from national political histories found its loudest voice in Jack Granatstein’s 1998 extended polemical essay, Who Killed Canadian History?. In one-hundred and forty-nine blistering pages, Granatstein took aim at the degradation of public knowledge of Canadian national and political history, what he believed to be “the basic nuts and bolts of Canadian historical knowledge.” [1] Who was to blame? Who killed Canadian history? In a buckshot fashion, Granatstein offered a frenetic list of homicide suspects, including elementary and high school teachers, university professors, “TV, movies, comic books, and the Internet,” the Constitution (which “gives control over education to the provinces, which guard their rights jealously”), provincial ministries of education that “bought holus-bolus every trendy theory to emerge from faculties of education,” “the millions of immigrants who have poured into and continue to flood, Canada,” and federal multicultural policy that “promotes a very weak nationalism.” [2] Needless to say, Who Killed Canadian History? was a landmark work in these so-called “history wars” of the 1990s.

The echos of Granatstein’s cant have found their way back into public discourse regarding the commemoration of Canadian history. Terry Glavin’s recently published op-ed artilce took direct aim at a “history establishment” that has allegedly turned its back on Canadian history. “For too long,” Glavin writes, “academic historians have neglected to tell our story.” He claims that Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his cabinet have chosen to celebrate the War of 1812, the start of the First World War, the bicentennial of the birth of John A. Macdonald, and the 150th anniversary of Confederation because, in Harper’s own words, “These milestones remind us of a proud national story rooted in the great deeds of our ancestors and in a centuries-old constitutional legacy of freedom.” He warns his readers, however, that “If it’s ‘a proud national story rooted in the great deeds of our ancestors’ you’re after, the very last place to go looking for it would be the history faculty of a Canadian university.” Glavin blames the failure of the academy to “tell our story” on New Left politics of the 1960s when, according to his understanding of Canadian historiography,  “history was activism, and the old order was upended in order to focus on the marginalized and oppressed.” Christopher Dummitt, associate professor of Canadian history at Trent University, endorsed Glavin’s hypothesis, alleging that “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.”

Both Glavin and Dummitt then find fault in the “activism” of academic historians. They contend that this is the root of the shift away from national and political history. The implication is that academic historians have become too sympathetic with leftist politics and that their active engagement with such politics has somehow rendered them illegitimate authorities on the history of Canada and no longer relevant to the broader Canadian public. The primary problem with this argument is that it makes normative another kind of activist historian, nationalist active historians.

A small group of nationalist active historians have, in fact, found great success in persuading the federal government to endorse and promote their particular (and arguably narrow) vision of Canadian history. Jack Granatstein has, in some ways, become the foremost nationalist active historian. As he made plain in 1998, he consistently “preached the gospel of Canadian history and national history to thousands of students.” He wrote popular commercial books on topics in Canadian military history and he has appeared so regularly on television and in newspapers that he has become a metonym of Canadian history. Christopher McCreery, a graduate from the doctoral program in Canadian history at Queen’s University, has also had tremendous influence on the policies of the federal government. He currently sits on the board of trustees for the Canadian Museum of Civilization (soon to be renamed the Canadian Museum of History). He previously served as a senior adviser to the Leader of the Government in the Senate and he played a prominent role in the renaming of the maritime command of Canadian Forces to the Royal Canadian Navy. Finally, Michael Bliss, another retired professor of Canadian history who has emphasized a desire to promote national and political history, has also been appointed to the board of trustees for the Canadian Museum of Civilization. [3]

Academic historians have lost the ear of government (if they ever had it to begin with) not because they have been less engaged with the public or the national history of Canada, but because they have been less sympathetic to the interests of the state in their analyses of the past. As such, their histories have less use for governments interested in bolstering or promoting nationalism and ignoring or eliding class conflict, racial and ethnic oppression, the legacies of colonialism, gender and sexual inequalities, and environmental degradation.

But revisiting the history wars, as Tom Peace recently suggested, overlooks numerous examples of current historical scholarship in national political history and does not adequately acknowledge significant changes in Canadian historiography in the last fifteen years. It might also miss the point of the current debate over the commemoration of Canadian history and the relationship between the federal government and academic historians. This revival of the history wars of the 1990s, including the debates over the place of national and political history in undergraduate teaching and Canadian historiography, is to some extent a red herring or distraction. The Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage has taken this kind of misdirection so far as to call for “a thorough and comprehensive review of significant aspects in Canadian history.” The new history wars, however, are not being fought over plaques, statues, reenactments, museum exhibits or documentaries. They are being fought in the federal budget and the publicly funded institutions that foster, support, and promote Canadian history research.

Like other branches of the civil service in Canada, the primary public institutions for Canadian history have felt the impact of the austerity policies of the federal Conservative government. Parks Canada, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and Library and Archives Canada  have all suffered significant reductions in base funding that have limited the capacity of each of these institutions to support independent historical research. The Canadian Association of University Teachers has compiled the full details of these budget cuts and their implications for historical research at

Last year, Parks Canada was the hardest hit by layoffs in the civil service. As a result of the 2012 budget, the federal government reduced funding for the agency’s programs by $29 million annually resulting in an estimated 638 job losses. Parks Canada is not only responsible for the management of Canada’s national parks and park reserves, but it is also responsible for 167 national historic sites. The job cuts have reduced Parks Canada to just twelve archaeologists and eight conservators. These cuts have severely circumscribed the both the historical research and historical preservation capacities of Parks Canada, one of the primary branches of the civil service responsible for such work.

The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), the primary public funding council for Canadian historical scholarly research, has not been immune to such austerity policies. Between 2008 and 2012, SSHRC experienced a 10 per cent base funding reduction of $41.1 million. In its wake, the federal government has also redirected funding away from basic research programs to special one-time grants and projects for applied research, diminishing the support for independent historical scholarship.

Finally, Library and Archives Canada also experienced a wave of job losses last summer with the termination of twenty-one archivist and archival assistant positions, a fifty per cent reduction in digitization and circulation staff, and the elimination of the interlibrary loans program. The cuts compounded past reductions in the LAC budget and the series of “modernization” policies that have reduced public access to archival materials and compromised the ability of LAC to acquire new records.

Even Professor Granatstein tried to raise alarms about the threat these cuts and policy changes pose to the preservation and knowledge of Canadian history. But, in his June 2012 article in the Globe and Mail, he seemed puzzled by these policies:

The Harper government has genuinely seemed to be more concerned with honouring history than most of its predecessors. The emphasis given to the War of 1812 is only the most recent example, and the Prime Minister’s own efforts at writing the history of hockey in Canada (during which he must have used LAC’s collections and books) indicate his personal interest in the past. But the treatment of LAC will hurt research and scholarship now and forever. It shows nothing so much as contempt for the past and, regrettably, for the future as well.

Granatstein’s concern for the fate of LAC is shared by many academic historians, but he is likely alone in his naivety regarding the Conservative government’s interest in the past. Like the crow whose vanity led him to be tricked by the flattery of the fox, Granatstein seems to have failed to see the broader picture of the relationship between the federal government and Canadian history.

As I wrote in February, the federal government has not invested more public funding into Canadian history. It has shifted funding away from arms-length government institutions that typically have supported independent historical scholarship. In its place, the federal government has focused on commemorative events and projects that fall under direct cabinet or ministerial control. In 2012, the government devoted $28 million to commemorate the War of 1812 and it retained direct control over most of that funding through Heritage Canada and Treasury Board. It also promises to invest $25 million into the rebranding of the Canadian Museum of Civilization. At the same time, it cut $29 million from Parks Canada, $41.1 million from SSHRC, and $9.6 million from Library and Archives Canada.

This is the challenge that Canadian historians, archaeologists, anthropologists, librarians, and archivists now face. What role will public financing play in historical research? What effects will the reduction of federal support for historical research have on academic scholarship about Canada’s past? What impact will the reallocation of federal public funding for selective commemorative events have on public knowledge of Canadian history? How will direct cabinet control over the representation of Canadian history through commemorative events and museums shape our understanding of the past?

[1] J.L. Granatstein, Who Killed Canadian History? (Toronto: HarperCollins, 1998), 11-12.

[2] Ibid, 11-16.

[3] Ibid, xvii-xviii.

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