Ian McKay on “The Empire Strikes Back” and Canadian Historiography

31 03 2011

Ian McKay, professor of history at Queen’s University, recently delivered an engaging and provocative talk titled “The Empire Strikes Back: Militarism, Imperial Nostalgia, and the Right-Wing Reconceptualization of Canada”.  McKay’s talk was the keynote address of the 15th annual New Frontiers Graduate History Conference at York University.

The talk is available here for audio download.

McKay argues that there has been in an attempt in the last few years by right-wing historians in English-speaking Canada develop a new narrative of Canadian history to counter the previously hegemonic left-liberal interpretation of Canadian history. The left-liberal narrative celebrates such things as the growth of Canadian independence from Britain, the development of multiculturalism in Canada, the advent of socialized medicine,  Canada’s efforts to remain separate from the United States, accommodation between French- and English-speakers, and Pearsonian peacekeeping.

The new conservative narrative discussed by McKay pines for the old days of the British Empire, is tinctured by monarchism, and has a celebratory attitude towards Canadian participation in imperial conflicts such as the First World War.  Some of its proponents are hostile to multiculturalism, although others argue (in my view correctly) that multiculturalism is part of Canada’s legacy from the British Empire.

I share McKay’s dislike of the neo-conservative narrative of Canadian history. However, I’m not certain that it has a lot of traction with ordinary Canadians, certainly not with the younger generation. I find that many Canadian undergraduates find the most visible institutions left over from the old British Empire, (e.g., the Governor-General) to be funny rather than either  awe-inspiring or offensive.  Many immigrants think it is hilarious that Canada requires them to swear allegiance to the head of state of another country as a condition of citizenship. This aspect of the citizenship ceremony makes it hard for immigrants to take Canada seriously as “real country”.

I suspect that the neo-conservative interpretation discussed by McKay will remain an unpopular paradigm for the simple reason that it is fixated on symbols that many Canadians regard as risible. I really don’t think that there is much of an appetite for people to re-fight the 1964 flag debate.

Current PhD Theses/Dissertations on Topics in Canadian History, 1815-1891

19 04 2010

Last Friday, I sent out the following message on H-Canada.

To whom it may concern:

I am putting together a database of PhD and other graduate students who
are working on topics that deal with British North America/Canada 1815
to 1891. If you are interested in being included in this database,
please send me your name, thesis title, university, and the name of your

Je suis en train de créer une base de données des étudiants au
doctorat qui travaillent sur l’Amérique du Nord Britannique/Canada
durant la période 1815 À 1891. Si vous souhaitez être inclus dans ma
base de données, veuillez m’envoyer votre nom, le titre de votre thèse, votre
affiliation institutionnelle, et le nom de votre directeur.


Andrew Smith

These are my responses to date:

Paul John Reale
“Creating a ‘British Country’: Empire and Education in Upper Canada, 1791-1871”
The University of Chicago
Dissertation Chair: John E. Craig

Patrick J. Connor
Department of History, York University, Toronto
“‘The Purest of Gifts’: Royal Clemency, Patronage, and the Politics of Pardon in
Upper Canada, 1791-1841”
Supervisor: Doug Hay.

Jacob Ginger, Queen’s University
‘The Political Economy of Faith:  Shaping God, Mammon and the State in Nineteenth-Century Upper Canada’  (working title)
Supervisor:  Dr. Jeffrey L. McNairn

Daniel Rueck
“Mohawk Land Practices and the Liberal Order: An environmental history of Kahnawake”
McGill University
Supervisor: Elsbeth Heaman

Janine Rizzetti
Thesis title: “A Lamentable Succession of Follies and Consequent Disasters: The Colonial Career of Mr Justice John Walpole Willis”
University: La Trobe University, Bundoora Australia
Supervisors: Prof. Richard Broome; Dr Jennifer Ridden

Christopher Herbert
“White Gold:  Power, Empire, and Identity in the California and British Columbia Gold Rushes”
University of Washington
Supervisor:  John Findlay

name: Katrin Urschel
thesis title: “Surfacing Again: Ethnic Identity in Irish-Canadian Literature”
university: National University of Ireland, Galway
supervisor: Dr. Riana O’Dwyer

Allison O’Mahen Malcom
The University of Illinois at Chicago
Advisor: Prof. Richard R. John (who is now at Columbia)
“Anti-Catholicism and the Rise of Protestant Nationhood in North America,

Wendi Lindquist
“Death and Dying on the Northwest Coast of North America, 1774-1858”
University of Washington
Supervisor Professor John Findlay.

Bradley Miller
“Emptying the Den of Thieves: International Fugitives in British North
America, 1800-1910”
University of Toronto
Supervisor: Jim Phillips

Historians Discuss the Development of the American Healthcare System

27 10 2009

I thought I would share these two links related to the history of healthcare in the United States.

This podcast explores “the origins of the health care debate, and try to explain how we wound up with a system so different from the European model.”

James Mohr, history professor at the University of Oregon, places the current healthcare debate in a historical context. He explains, “We have to find ways to combine what is positive and unique about our system while eliminating the historical anomalies that make it unsustainable.”


Toronto General Hospital

I will add that the history of Medicare in Canada is one of the great under-researched topics in 20th century Canadian history. Medicare is clearly an important institution for the Canadian identity. Tommy Douglas was voted the greatest Canadian because of his role in creating our current system. More importantly, Medicare has a big impact on the level of health in Canada. Health spending represents a big share of GDP. Health care is consistently one of the most important issues for Canadians, according to pollsters. But while the general public is very interested in Medicare, academic historians, it appears, are not. There are few books on the history of Medicare. Steps on the Road to Medicare: Why Saskatchewan Led the Way by Sylvia O. Fedoruk and Stuart Houston is one of the few good books on this topic. Moreover, it deals with only one province and was written by two people who are not professional historians. Stuart Houston is a medical doctor. I base my annual lecture on the evolution of Medicare on research by non-historians: Eugene Vayda, Raisa B. Deber, “The Canadian Health-Care System: A Developmental Overview” in Canadian health care and the state : a century of evolution,  edited by C. David Naylor (Montreal : McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1992).

There is an active community of historians of medicine in Canada. For instance, Michael Bliss has published a biography of Sir Frederic Banting, the inventor of insulin, and Jaclyn Duffin at Queen’s has published an interesting history of medicine in the Western world. Shelley McKellar at UWO has published a biography of Canadian surgeon Gordon Murray. However, there are few works on the history of the Canadian healthcare system.

Many of the students in my post-1867 Canadian history course want to write their essays on Medicare. Along with Vimy Ridge, it is the most popular topic. Unfortunately, there are few secondary sources to which I can direct them. (I have done a diligent search). What is a needed is a good book that gives the history of our health care system from say 1900 to the present. The book would talk about the Marsh Report, the developments of the 1950s, the Saskatchewan Doctors’ Strike, Diefenbaker, the Royal Commission on Health Care, Medicare, the Canada Health Act of 1984, the impact of the Charter of Rights, etc. Unfortunately, this book doesn’t exist.

This situation is absurd and represents a big systemic failure on the part of the Canadian historical profession. For some reason, research on the history of health care is not valued.