What do Historians of Canada Study?

3 06 2013

The annual meeting of the Canadian Historical Association starts today in Victoria, British Columbia. Sadly, I’m not going to be there, although I certainly hope to be at all future CHA conferences. Tom Peace has published an excellent blog post in which he analyses the keywords in paper titles to give us a sense of the topics that historians of Canada are working on right now.

In my view, the most interesting part of the Peace’s post was the information about the time periods covered by the papers. As you can see, the focus of Canadian historians is now on relatively recent periods of history.

Dates Mentioned in CHA Papers, 2004-2013

Business History at the CHA

24 05 2012

AS: There will be some business history related papers/meetings the forthcoming conference of the Canadian Historical Association in Waterloo.

Business History Committee Meeting Canadian Historical Association
– Monday May 28, 2012 12-1:15 MC2038

[le francais suit]


I would like to invite you all to the business meeting of the Business History Committee of the Canadian Historical Association. Please bring
your ideas and we will discuss the future directions, activities, and governance of the committee.

The time and location of the meeting is from 12:00-1:15 on Monday May 28 in the Waterloo Math and Computer Science Building Room MC2308.

Though it takes place at lunch hour there is no provision for lunch, so brown bagging will be the order of the day.

Also, please see below for two panels of particular interest to business historians.

The meeting will be chaired by  J. Andrew Ross,  Lecturer, Department of History and Department of Economics
University of Guelph, http://www.uoguelph.ca/~jaross/

Panels of Interest

8:30-10:00/ 8 h 30-10 h 00 Waterloo  MC 2038

Business and Government Control of Media – Historical Questions, Connections and Reflections / Contrôle des médias par les entreprises
et le gouvernement : questions historiques, connexions et réflexions

4.1 Kristin Hall, University of Waterloo
“I give you these particulars to let you know something of the system which we have”: The Maclean Publishing Company of Canada and the Establishment of a British Subsidiary, 1913-1918

4.2 Colin McCullough, York University
“You can’t say anything that contradicts the pictures”: The National Film Board of Canada’s representations of peacekeeping, 1957-1964

4.3 Michael Stamm, Michigan State University
“The Local Newspaper as Multinational Corporation: The Chicago Tribune across the United States-Canada Border”

Facilitator / Animatrice : Barbara Freeman, Carleton University

10:30-12:00 / 10 h 30-12 h 00 Waterloo MC 2017

45. The Visible Hand: Government Regulation and Business / La main visible : la règlementation gouvernementale et les entreprises

45.1 Braden Hutchinson, Queen’s University
Manufacturing an Industry? Marginal Children, the Craft Toy Movement and the Consuming Child, 1914-1919

45.2 John Hillhouse, McMaster University
State Protectionism and Regulation in the Canadian Life Insurance Industry, 1950-1965

45.3 Dimitry Anastakis, Trent University
Foreign Investment Scare, or Fair Share? The Rhetoric and Realities of Canadian Economic Nationalism, 1968-1984

Facilitator / Animateur : Steven Hewitt, University of Birmingham

Interesting Papers at the CHA

31 05 2011

The Canadian Historical Association begins its annual conference today. I can’t be there for multiple reasons, but have read the program. Here are the papers that I find most interesting.  

Roundtable on Alan Tayor’s The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British
Subjects, Irish Rebels, and Indian Allies. Participants: Cecilia Morgan, OISE, University of Toronto;  H. V. Nelles, McMaster University ;Julia Roberts, University of Waterloo;  Alan Taylor, University of California at
David Hackett Fischer, Brandeis University,  “Toward an Ethnohistory of Samuel de Champlain”

Eric Sager, University of Victoria, “Canada’s Census: A Short History of the Long Form”

Don Nerbas, McGill University “Engineering Canada: C. D. Howe and the Transformation of Canadian Capitalism 1935-1947”

Veronica Strong-Boag, University of British Columbia, “The Less Than Mighty Scot? The Quandary of John Gordon, Earl/later Marquess of Aberdeen (and Temair), 1847-1934”

Kristin Hall, University of Waterloo, “Men Don’t Shop, They Invest: John Bayne Maclean and the Creation of a Male Canadian Consumer Culture in The Busy Man’s Magazine, 1905-1911”

Jack Little, Simon Fraser University “From Borderland to Bordered Land: Reaction in the Eastern Townships Press to the American Civil War and the Threat of Fenian Invasion”

I don’t know whether the CHA has plans to podcast any of these presentations. If anybody knows of any links to podcasts, please pass them on so that I can share them here.

The Inside Story on the Discover Canada Citizenship Guide

2 03 2010

In December, the federal government introduced Discover Canada, a new study guide for immigrants wishing to become Canadian citizens. At the time, I used this blog to point out some of the flaw of the historical sections of the guide. These flaws included factual errors and serious omissions. The guide says very little about the political history of Canada in the twentieth century and fails to mention such important Prime Ministers as Mackenzie King, Lester Pearson, Pierre Trudeau, and Brian Mulroney! How you can pretend to talk about Canadian history without mentioning these figures is beyond me.  Moreover, the guide says almost nothing about the social history of Canada, which is even more distressing because many immigrants come from countries with radically different social histories. Last December, people noticed that there was almost no information about the history of divorce, abortion, and homosexuality in Canada. I think that it is important that an immigrant from say India, which decriminalized homosexuality in 2009, should know that Canada made the same move back in the 1960s.

Thanks to a story in today’s Globe, we know that material on these controversial topics were included in the original version of the guide and were edited out by the immigration minister, Jason Kenney.

Le Devoir has also carried this story. I’m curious to know what the reaction in Quebec to this story is, since Quebec’s classes for immigrants do indeed stress the rights of women and gays.

One hopes that John Baird, Mr. Kenney’s cabinet colleague, will speak up on this important issue. Baird arguably represents the mainstream in Canadian society far more than Mr. Kenney.

It is clear that the guide will have to be revised so that it reflects the values of Canadian society rather than a small clique of people who do not represent the values of ordinary Canadians. However, we should give some thought as the best process for writing a guide of this nature. It would be wrong for the guide to reflect the values of either the far right (monarchists or some Airborne Regiment veteran) or the extreme left (Quebec Solidaire types) or any other small group be they snow-mobile drivers, ice fishers, or pipe fitters . The guide should reflect the values of the mainstream, the majority.  Obviously we can’t put this guide to the people of Canada in a referendum for approval, but by using Wikipedia-style technology the federal government empower ordinary Canadians to have a voice in the making of this guide. The government should cap the length of the guide and then let ordinary Canadians debate what sort of values should be fitted into the available space.

Let me just say that I find it very curious that the Canadian Historical Association, which is supposed to speak for the historical profession in this country, has had absolutely nothing to say about the atrociously bad historical sections in the Discover Canada guide. The only reasonable explanation for the appalling silence of the Canadian Historical Association is that the organization’s offices are located in a building owned by the federal government and they do not wish to antagonize their landlord.

My Thoughts on the Liberal Order Framework

2 06 2009

I attended a roundtable on the Liberal Order Framework at last week’s meeting of the Canadian Historical Association.  Roundtable participants discussed the body of historical literature that has emerged in response to Ian McKay’s seminal article “The Liberal Order Framework: A Prospectus for a Reconnaissance of Canadian History,” Canadian Historical Review 81, no. 4 (2000).

In the article McKay offered a  new interpretative framework/ paradigm/metanarrative for understanding Canadian history. McKay says that in the middle third of the 19th century there was a liberal revolution in British North America—liberal, by which he appears to mean classical liberal, ideas became dominant and have been hegemonic in northern North America ever since. McKay argues that the project of building a trans-continental  Dominion in northern North America was about imposing this “classical liberal” ideology on their various peoples of the territory, some of whom clung to various pre-modern, pre-liberal ways of structuring their societies.

McKay’s framework has been taken up by a number of Canadian historians. Indeed, a book of essays written in response to McKay’s initial article was recent published by University of Toronto Press. Liberalism and Hegemony: Debating the Canadian Liberal Revolution edited by Jean-François Constant and Michel Ducharme.

I have finished reading this book, which I picked up at the Learned Societies’ book fair. I must say that I find the literature on the liberal order at once stimulating and frustrating, which is also how I felt about McKay’s original article. Here are a few quick thoughts:

1)    McKay was not actually present at the roundtable on the liberal order. For some reason, the CHA organizers had double booked him for another event. This was really unfortunate, since the discussion took place without him.

2)    I commend McKay for thinking big and for advancing a comprehensive theory of Canadian history. One of the advantage of Marxism and other once popular macro-theories of history is that they gave scholars a framework for understanding a world full of discreet facts and making decisions about which facts to select. The discrediting of Marxism and many of the other big theories left many historians without a theory with which to interpret the jumbled facts presented in the archive.

3)    Theory is essential for the writing of high quality history. History is a discipline that is both empirical and theoretical. As I see it, it is the job of the historian to take a theory and see whether it applies to the facts of a particular case. If historical research produces too many data point contradicting the theory, then the theory needs to modified or discarded. To be credible, a theory must also be falsifiable. This is true for historical theories as much as scientific ones. As far as I can tell, McKay’s theory or framework lacks falsifiability because his definition of “liberal” is in constant flux, even within a single article.

4)    Let me repeat this key point: the liberal order framework or theory lacks falsifiability because the word “liberal” is never clearly defined by McKay and his followers. Loose or slippery definitions allow a theory to escape refutation.  It is clear that McKay is using the word “liberal” to describe something that relates to individualism and which is a distant cousin of capitalism, but he doesn’t supply us with a clear and robust definition of liberal that we can then use as a yardstick for judging his claim that the formation of the Canadian state promoted liberalism. Moreover, during the roundtable session, the participants threw around several definitions of the word “liberal”. Until I spoke up, nobody bothered to point out that they were defining liberal is very different ways. The meaning of the word liberal has changed dramatically in the last 150 years. It also varies from one English-speaking country to the next. Many Americans use the word “liberal” to mean a sort of soft socialist– which is clearly very different from a 19th century classical liberal (or “libertarian”) or the modern Liberal Party of Canada, which includes both classical liberals and soft socialists.

5)    The liberal order framework purports to explain why a separate nation called Canada emerged in northern North America. So far, so good. I agree that understanding why Canada emerged as a separate nation state and did not become just another region of the USA is one of the _central tasks_ of the Canadian historical profession. I’m not certain that pointing out that liberalism was part of the political culture of Canada in the 19th century advances our understanding of why Canada exists today. The USA in this period was also, broadly speaking, a liberal country. Indeed, some classical liberals, most notably Goldwin Smith, thought that ends of classical liberalism would be advanced by continental union (i.e., Canadian joining the Union).  In fact, the whole process of building a separate nation in North America has some profoundly illiberal elements, such as high tariffs and other protectionist policies, that were totally anathema to classical liberalism. I must say that McKay’s claim that Sir John A. Macdonald’s National Policy (a protective tariff) was an expression of liberalism was a bit far-fetched.

6)    To my mind, a much simpler and therefore better explanation for the emergence of Canada as a separate nation in northern North America is anglophilia—namely the intense loyalty that many British North Americans in the 19th and early 20th century felt towards Britain and the British Crown. The project of creating Canada was, in large measure, about building up a British Dominion and resisting the north-south attractions of the United States. This explanation fits the available facts far better than any other proferred explanations, including the famous Laurentian thesis. Until the Other Quiet Revolution of the 1945-1965 period, Britishness was central to the English-speaking Canadian identity. And it was the foundation of the Canadian nation state– the regions of North American that became part of the Dominion of Canada had nothing in common with each other, save that they were British territory, painted red on the map. Britishness was the glue that held them together.

7) In March 2008, I published an article in the Canadian Historical Review that cited McKay’s 2000 article and which then proceeded to undermine its central argument by looking at the debates on Confederation in British North America in the 1860s. The article showed that many, if not most, classical liberals in British North America were opposed to Confederation for fear that it would lead to higher taxes and “Big Government”. The proponents of greater government in the interventionism in the economy were, for the most part, on the pro-Confederation side of the debate.  The research findings presented in the article are the exact opposite of what McKay’s theory would predict, since McKay connects Confederation and the building of the Canadian nation state to the rise of liberalism. I don’t know what the production schedule for the Liberalism and Hegemony book was like, but I thought that it was unfortunate that there were no references to this article in that book, which was published in May of 2009. Although it is possible to dismiss my CHR article as relating to just a single data point (i.e., Confederation), it’s an important data point and one that calls McKay’s whole framework into question.

My Impressions of the Canadian Historical Association Conference, 2009

30 05 2009

1)    First, I was pleased to see that there were some military history papers on the programme, including one by Tim Cook of the Canadian War Museum. I’m far from being a military  historian, but for many years I’ve been disturbed by the growing distance between Canadian military historians and the rest of the historical profession. The military historians have their own conferences and journals and have become ghettoized. This is good for neither the military historians nor the historical profession at large.
2)    I was also pleased to see that the Political History Group attracted a great deal of interest. Matt Hayday will be the first chair of this group, which is for CHA members who work on political history.
3)    Blake Brown gave an excellent paper on the history of gun control.
4)    I attended the roundtable on the Liberal Order framework. I spoke up to express my frustration with the lack of clear working definition of the word “liberal”. I WILL HAVE MORE COMMENTS ON THIS ROUNDTABLE SOON.
5)    Several younger scholars recorded their presentations on video. They used a Flip video camera , which records in a YouTube compatible MP4 format. This augurs well for the future, for Canadian historians really need to embrace the Web 2.0. Ideally, the CHA should record all presentations and place them online.
6)    I was pleased by the number of graduate students working on 19th century topics. In the last few decades, the focus of historians of Canada (who publish in English, at least) has shifted to the 20th century, especially the post-1945 past, and the earlier periods of Canadian history have been the subject of gross neglect. The number of emerging scholars interested in the pre-1900 and pre-Confederation periods is very, very encouraging to me.

Christopher Moore

30 05 2009

Toronto-based historian Christopher Moore has posted comments on his blog about my blog. They are quite positive.

I will publish my impressions of this year’s CHA shortly.

Canadian Historical Association 2009 Conference

26 05 2009

I’m about to begin the second day of the annual meeting of the Canadian Historical Association. A few quick observations about the conference. First, the social life of the conference would have been better had it been held at University of Ottawa instead of Carleton. University of Ottawa is located in Ottawa’s CBD, which is where most of the delegates head after 5pm. Carleton, in contrast, is a bleak and rather inaccessible suburban campus.

Second, I’m pleased to see a large number of the grad students at the conference are interested in 19th century topics. This is a big change from previous years and a hopeful sign. For too long, the Canadian historical profession was dominated by specialists of the post-war period.

Third, the political history group (see my earlier post) was formed yesterday.

Canadian Political History – Making a Comeback?

18 05 2009

Matt Hayday, a historian at the University of Guelph, has spearheaded the formation of a new organization to represent Canadian political historians. The first meeting of the Canadian Political History Group will take place at the Canadian Historical Association Annual Meeting at Carleton University on Monday May 25th from 12:00-1:00 in Mackenzie (ME) 4494. The group is intended for anyone with an interest  in the many aspects of Canadian political history. The first meeting will involve the approval of a constitution, election of officers, etc.

Dr Hayday explained the rationale of the group as follows: “First, I believe that there are more people working on political history topics than many of us realize, and I would like to try to foster more of a sense of a research community for us to exchange ideas and keep each other apprised of what we are working on.  Second, I would like there to be more of a political history presence within the Canadian Historical Association.  One of the first objectives that I had in mind for such a group would be to organize political history panels for the CHA Annual conference.  Third, I believe that there is a “new” political history emerging, one which takes into account many of the new ideas and methods that have been developed in other branches of history.  I think it would be productive to have a more active discussion about where Canadian political history is heading – and to demonstrate that it still has some vitality!”

I plan to become a member of the new group. I’m looking forward to its first meeting, which will take place a week from today.

My Presentation to the Canadian Historical Association

8 05 2009

I will be presenting on Wednesday, 27 May  between 1530 to 1700 as part of the panel “Constructing Confederation and Constructing the Nation” .  Location: Tory 206
The title of my paper is: “Which Inventions Contributed to the Most to Canadian Confederation.”  My fellow panellists are Bradley John Miller, University of Toronto, who will be presenting a paper called “From Colony to Member State: Copyright and the Canadian Constitutional Order 1867-1886” and Ruth Frost, University of British Columbia, “Canadian Authorities and Immigration Policy, 1870s 1890s” I’m looking forward to hearing two really interesting papers. I’m also hoping to get valuable feedback on my research from the audience.