In the interest of full disclosure, I was once attracted to the study of Canadian history. In fact, about half a century ago, I had planned to become a journalist. Wide-eyed and full of hope, I imagined myself as a new Pierre Berton writing a daily column in a major newspaper or a monthly article in Maclean’s magazine which would explain to my compatriots what was wrong with them and successfully persuade them to fix it. Witnessing evil around me, I would confront it; finding good, I would encourage it. My mission awaited.
The first step would be to enroll in a university, major in English and minor in History. Then, armed with the credential of a baccalaureate, I would thrust myself into the public eye, vigorously defend the weak, celebrate the heroic and set the world aright in preparation for the new millennium. Even now, I look back upon that time of youthful arrogance and ignorance with a measure of self-indulgence. I tell myself that I meant well.
I did enroll in a university, and I did study English and History. But that ended after one year. I left (or was encouraged to leave) English because of evident incompetence, and I abandoned History because I found it boring. I headed in a different direction from the goal I had hoped to achieve.
Canadian (or any other) history, of course, was not boring, then or now. But the academic discipline left, in my view then and now, something to be desired.
Had I started on my tortuous path only a decade or so later, my personal story would have been different. It would surely have been influenced by Edward Thompson’s iconic contribution to social history, The Making of the English Working Class. Critical social history had, of course, been written (even in Canada) before E. P. Thompson burst upon the scene, but its impact was marginal, and it won mainly the contempt of the academic profession.
With Thompson’s singular volume, seen most prominently in its thick Penguin paperback edition, the focus of historical debate shifted fundamentally and seemingly permanently, as did the ideology of many of its practitioners. Clio’s craft became decentered and tilted to the left. The art and, some believed, the science of reconstructing, interpreting, explaining and somehow learning, not only about our past but also from it, strayed from the analysis of great men and great events. It departed from the stories of national history, political dynasties and transformative national conflicts. Instead, it looked downward as though to rescue the victims, give voice to the silenced and reconfigure the past, not as a set of heroic tales culminating in modern triumphalism, but as a struggle in which the principal protagonists were not the famous and the infamous, but the anonymous. The goal was to retrieve ordinary people and local activists from what Thompson called the “enormous condescension of posterity.”
The project, of course, was not merely an exercise in egalitarian etiquette. The purpose was not to acknowledge the contributions of the marginalized to the grand historical pageant, and add the abstractions of class, race and gender to the symbolic array of social forces that have shunted us from then to now. It was, rather, to see those people both objectively and subjectively as the real heroes, movers and sometimes shakers of society.
Instead of an elitist litany of high achievement, a catalogue of kings and armies, a whiggish narrative of Panglossian progress culminating in the exultation of the “free world” over fascism, the struggle against communism and the ineluctable logocentric narrative which spoke of local history only to the degree that it reflected or, occasionally, contributed the modern project of making the world safe for democracy and technology, Thompson and his assembling mass of youthful disciples managed to housebreak Marx, step away from reductionism of left and right and enliven the downtrodden, not as victims, but as authentic agents of historical change.
In Thompson’s wake came vibrant stories of heroic Luddites, nascent trade unionists and, in time, feminist, post-colonial and other radical exponents not of the official national and global march of liberalism and later of neoliberalism, but of the tough, gritty people’s history that confronted capitalism, colonialism, patriarchy and all manner of domination.
At its best, it gave the lie to a great deal of what had passed for history and served only as ideological support for power. At its worst, in its “revolutionary” Canadian variant, it flipped toward awkward and overheated moralism in the absence of competent scholarship or, in its “reformist” deviation, flopped into exercises in inclusiveness which “appreciated” the “contributions” of previously overlooked elements of society (aboriginal people, women, exploited workers and immigrants) and was content to add their stories of suppression and reconciliation to the established order. If we and our pupils could empathize with Gabriel Dumont, Nelly McClung, depression-era hoboes and David Suzuki’s childhood, then we had fulfilled the need to apologize and could carry on—business as usual.
In this volume, Dummitt and Dawson offer a set of perspectives on historical research and scholarship in Canada which takes all that I have said into account, and seeks to summarize and learn from the debate about social versus national history in Canada as it played out in the final decades of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. The result has been praised for reminding us how “sophisticated, complicated and rich” Canada’s history truly is. It also chastises the previous generation of now-old “Young Turks” for their own peculiarly “exclusionary, intolerant, and not a little self-righteous” approach to historical writing. As Donald Wright wrote in Labour/le Travail earlier this year, “too many of us are still fighting against Jack Granatstein and Michael Bliss,” while we “close our minds to the scholarship of Gerhard Ens and Thomas Flanagan.” He then goes on to attempt the reinvigoration of military and political history and “the art of story telling.” While giving space to Adele Perry, the lone contributor to this volume who stands up for social history and the theoretical project of rethinking the past from the bottom up, so to speak, the challenge that Dummitt and Dawson offer seems numbingly condescending.
We are, it seems, invited to believe that it is enough to acknowledge the value of oral histories for the purpose of filling in the cracks left by those who pour over archived documents. We are encouraged to think that it is adequate to admit that aboriginal Canadians may have been in some sense sacrificed, while still insisting that the achievements of the British Empire can be rehabilitated and ultimately celebrated. By all but shrugging off slavery and genocide, the editors strive to outdistance the allegedly abstract (read neo-Marxist) language and the inaccessible prose of purportedly populist writers. They ask us invigorate national history—now enriched with nods to women, ethnic minorities and the poor—by ceasing the “them-and-us” mentality, letting poor old Bliss and Granatstein be, and taking up the nobler task of historians such as Donald Creighton, Hilda Neatby and Lionel Groulx for a novel twenty-first push toward the restoration of a more complicated, but still elitist reconstruction of the national drama. Our model historians, we are told, ought to be national sages, not divisive partisans.
A patriotic sentimentality can be sensed, with lessons in good citizenship following closely. Only when a people has become historically aware and culturally literate can the grand procession proceed. That basic historical understanding, the recollection of the facts and their assembly in something like a chronological and purposeful narrative has admittedly been let down of late. Canadian young people can escape from their fundamental educational experiences without having heard of La Vérendrye or Laurier or being able to find Lac La Ronge on a map. The active encouragement of social amnesia, however, is a different matter than the ideological intensions of historical teaching and learning. While it is possible to applaud efforts to convey some information about Canada to young Canadians, the fundamental question of how this information is to be arranged and disseminated, and what political purposes it is to serve will remain hotly contested well after this book has become—shall we say—“historical.”
This is not to say that the upholders of largely Tory virtues against the onslaught of modernization, secularization, science and technology are unworthy of consideration. The critiques once generated by Innis, Morton, Grant and Frye are essential to the understanding of Canada. They may be ignored at present as teachers and students alike plunge headlong into cyberspace but without their bearings, ignorant of context and indifferent to anything but the few superficial and often empirically false factoids that can be retrieved from Wikipedia and worse, but they remain trenchant and relevant.
Indeed, the principal contributions to Clio’s Craft are not wholly wrong. Though I believe that they are unduly distressed by the concern with social justice that arises from the left, their constructs are at least debatable. We should, therefore, not recoil from their ideas of the world as it is and will more intensively become; after all, unlike the vacuous corporate curriculum, they at least believe something.
We should also recall, however, that George Grant felt very “uncomfortable” being labelled a “red Tory,” and was discomfited by the enthusiasm with which Danny Drache and the members of the “new left” took up his lamentations in the late 1960s. For their part, Dummitt and Duncan may remain somewhat uncomfortable with the fact that the “history wars” are not over yet.
Howard A. Doughty teaches cultural anthropology and political economy in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College, Toronto, Ontario. He can be reached at email@example.com.