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Paul Mitchinson is a part-time writer and a full-time father of two. He writes when he can. » more about me

Past imperfect: Is there more to Canadian history than the Canadian Historical Review?

National Post, 17 October 2002

Murder, cover-up, and complicity at the highest levels of government. Jack Granatstein seemed to have exposed the crime of the century in his 1998 best-seller, Who Killed Canadian History?

But a recent book published by the University of Toronto Press suggests the controversy unleashed by Granatstein’s polemic was just a minor battle in a century-long academic turf war. Edited by Marlene Shore, who chairs York University’s history department, The Contested Past is at first glance an unlikely rejoinder to Granatstein’s popular book. Where Granatstein cheerfully insulted teachers, professors and politicians, Shore quietly tells the story of the Canadian Historical Review, the unofficial organ for Canada’s academic historians. But between the lines of her introduction — and the 70 or so selections from the journal’s 82-year history — she launches a passionate defence of her discipline against attacks levelled by some of Canada’s most eminent historians, including Granatstein, Michael Bliss, Robert Bothwell and David Bercuson. “Controversy has afflicted professional historians in Canada since day one,” says Shore. And much of it, she explains, had to do with some rather familiar-sounding issues: “What is Canada, what is its national identity, and what should the role of the historian be?” The historian should be the “guardian of the truth,” wrote George Wrong in the CHR in 1933. “We may be sure that to falsify the past will give a shaky foundation to the convictions and methods of the present.”

So when the very foundations of Canada trembled on the evening of Oct. 30, 1995, as the referendum on Quebec sovereignty went down to a narrow defeat, it wasn’t surprising to find Canadian historians shouldering part of the blame. Finger-pointing had already begun in 1991, when University of Toronto historian Michael Bliss famously connected the “disintegration of Canadian history as a unified discipline” with “the declining sense of Canada as a national entity.” And he zeroed in on new historians of gender, race and class, much of whose scholarship was “jargon-laden, lint-picking irrelevance.” In other words, Canadian historians were guilty not only of producing unreadable history, but nearly destroying the country.

Today, that might seem like a bad dream. Governments, corporate giants and wealthy private donors have lavishly funded historical foundations such as the Dominion Institute and Historica. The CBC alone spent $25-million in 2000 to create its 30-hour extravaganza Canada: A People’s History. And tens of thousands of Canadians subscribe to The Beaver, a popular bimonthly journal devoted to Canadian history. Four years after Canadian history was pronounced dead, it’s hard to see what all the fuss was about.

But for Jonathan Vance, professor of history at the University of Western Ontario, the issues raised by Granatstein and Bliss shed important light on the problems facing Canadian academic historians. Articles in the CHR were “telling us more and more about less and less. It got too microscopic in its vision, and apart from a half-dozen specialists, no one needs to know that amount of detail on some of these topics.”

Granatstein echoes many of these criticisms. “It was all trees and no forest,” he says, “and it proceeded from such an ideological basis that it had a crusading ring to it. Many seemed to argue that if only we could understand how maids in Moosonee were treated we would understand the place of women today. That didn’t seem to make a great deal of sense to me.”

In the United States, similar complaints have been voiced about the state of the American historical profession. Around the same time Granatstein was lobbing missiles at his Canadian colleagues, the eminent American historian Eugene Genovese was spearheading his own attack on academic history. “Peoples and their victimization have displaced nations and their traditions,” he complained in the Los Angeles Times. “Ideological conformity [is] the primary criterion for holding office” among academic historians, who have helped create an “atmosphere that uncomfortably resembles the McCarthyism of the 1950s.”

But Shore questions the ideological motivation of these critics. “What do they mean by nation? Are they trying to get everyone to be nationalists and patriots, or are they interested in cultivating citizenship and civic duty?” In her book, she writes that “the traditional mission of Canadian historians to be custodians of the past and moral leaders of society has persisted: Where once they wrote out of concern for the nation, they were now interested in a multiplicity of futures — that of regions, communities, classes and genders.”

Granatstein scoffs at the description. “I think it’s quite revealing that these ‘moral leaders’ are protecting this multiplicity of futures. Who chose them?”

Wendy Mitchinson, who co-edits the CHR, feels the dispute has had little effect on the journal. (According to the journal’s publisher, the CHR now has approximately 2,300 subscribers — several hundred fewer than a decade ago. Over half its subscribers are universities rather than individuals.)

“We don’t get a lot of military or political history submitted, but this is a reflection of what’s happening among young scholars,” says Mitchinson, who teaches history at the University of Waterloo. She adds that the debate is now largely confined to graduate student seminars. “And at this stage a lot of the students don’t make anything of it, because it’s not their fight. Many seem bemused, and wonder why we were concerned about this at the time.”

But Vance, who edited a short-lived rival scholarly journal in the 1990s called National History, believes there has been some progress at the CHR. “It has changed,” he insists. “I find a lot more things interesting in there than I did five years ago. I think it’s gotten away from a reliance on hard-core social history.” On the other hand, Vance says much more needs to be done to reach out to ordinary Canadians. “For me,” he adds, “I would sooner be read by the over 50,000 who read The Beaver than the several hundred who read the CHR. It’s as simple as that.”