Saturday, May 14, 2011

Contesting Clio's Craft, 2009

Contesting Clio’s Craft: New Directions and Debates in Canadian History, Eds. Christopher Dummitt and Michael Dawson, London: Institute for the Study of the Americas, 2009.

The 2009 collection of papers, Contesting Cleo's Craft,  was the result of a conference of the Institute for the study of the Americas held at the University of London, and focuses upon offering new debate and discussion about the state of Canadian historical writing and teaching. The editors, Christopher Dummitt and Michael Dawson, argue that discussion of these subjects during the first decade of the 21st century has concentrated upon debates of the last two decades of the 20th century. In particular, they assert that the three questions of why Canadians are so ignorant about their past, whether historians should focus upon grand national histories, and whether it is possible to obtain and agree upon historical truths, while possibly important for their time, have been sufficiently discussed and should no longer be the main preoccupations of Canadian historical debate. Furthermore, these three topics have often led to polemics by politicians and nationalists, which only served to shut down real discussion or debate. For example, the first debate, concerning Canadians ignorance of their history, is regularly discussed by the media and politicians as a result of the Dominion Institute's annual Canada Day Quiz, which tests Canadians knowledge about their past and routinely shows that they are unable to identify individuals were events which the Institute has decided our key elements to a basic knowledge of Canadian history. Examples of the second debate were the 1991 and 1998 claims made respectably by Michael Bliss and J.L. Granatstein that the field of Canadian history was being harmed by a preoccupation with the study of social history (that of particular groups within society) and a failure of Canadian historians and educators to present students with strong national histories that would bind Canadians together with the knowledge that they were all players within a larger national narrative. While most historians reacted to Bless and Granatstein by arguing that grand national narratives result in the public only being given one monolithic interpretation of the past and silence the voices of other individuals, groups, and perspectives, many Canadian politicians and media accepted the two historians’ claims as convenient reasons for problems of national unity and national pride. The third debate, about the possibility of ever obtaining truths about the past, was much less public.  With the spread of postmodern theory throughout the humanities during the 1980s and 1990s, Canadian historians, like other academics, debated one's ability to ever obtain pure and absolute knowledge about any phenomenon. Although such debates were healthy, in that they caused historians to rethink what it was to study and write about the past, and caused most to accept that history is an ongoing attempt to gain a more accurate understanding about the past, discussions about whether one can read, research, or write about the past in a manner which would allow one to approach true knowledge about the past tended to be fruitless given the postmodern conception of truth upon which such debates were based.

The first paper in the collection, by Magda Fahrni, questions why many English-Canadian historians are reluctant to study Quebec, or to examine how Quebec has affected topics which are largely external to the province. Examining the field of Canadian history as a whole, she questions whether there is something which allows for English-Canada to be studied in isolation, as a separate field, apart from the fact that it is not Quebec. After reviewing the differences and connections between English-Canadian and Quebec historiography, she argues that historians writing about phenomena which affected much of the country, must discuss how Quebecers, and especially French Quebecers, were part of the overall Canadian history on such subjects. To ignore the reaction and influence of a large section of Canadian society, and in particular a section which often has perspectives and takes positions which are different from those of English-Canada, is to offer blatantly incomplete interpretations of Canada's past.

In the second of the collection's eight papers Steven High questions whether and why historians claim authority concerning their subjects of study, and whether those whom are studied can or should be accepted by historians as having authority. An expert in oral history, High recognizes that while a critical approach to the past must be maintained, memory and the public's role in the historical process should not always be viewed with suspicion, While changeable over time, and thus, potentially inaccurate, the memory of witnesses can also offer unique perspectives and interpretations of the past which could never be uncovered in, or easily seen through, "objective" documentation.

A similar theme of interpretation is discussed by Michael Dawson and Catherine Gidney in the third paper in which they question the usefulness and potential handicaps of periodization. Through understanding a particular phenomenon as being of a particular decade, era, or century, while neatly packaging the subject within a specific time period and offering the author and the reader a beginning and end to their narrative arc, periodization can also affect how one interprets that subject. Other elements of that period which may have had little to do with the subject in question may affect how one understands it. Similarly, phenomena beyond the defined period, or which are long-term trends that include that period, may be overlooked. This subject is of particular relevance in writing about the 1960s. As can be seen through an overview of the existing literature on the history of Canada during that decade, many of the significant events and movements of the 1960s had their roots in earlier decades and continued to affect Canadians for years after 1969. To allow the 1960s to be anything other than a guide as to general subjects of significance and how they interacted within a loosely defined period, and not a strict ten-year window, would be to ignore how such subjects occurred within a continuum of phenomena which, in reality, has no beginning or end. The same could be said of Canadian history in general, which cannot be simply defined as events which occur in isolation from the world beyond Canada's borders. This is the point made by Adele Perry in her contribution to the collection in which she calls upon Canadian historians not to allow the fiction of the nation to define their research of subjects, and to draw upon and help contribute to international historiography in their studies of "Canadian" subjects. A similar call for more transnational Canadian history is made by Katie Pickles, who points out in her paper that one of the significant barriers to such an approach is an inferiority complex on the part of Canadian historians which causes them to play-down the international significance of imperial, colonial, and international links between Canada and other countries. Michel Duchanne also addresses the problem of the insular nature of Canadian history in his paper on "Rethinking Canadian Intellectual History in an Atlantic Perspective." Duchanne advocates couching Canadian history, and in particular Canadian intellectual history, within the international world in which one finds many of its roots. This approach would avoid the problem of concentrating upon English influences and would offer a more authentic understanding of how Canada was shaped.

The collection's fourth essay questions the commonly expressed idea that Canada's historical connections to the British Empire, and the country's past British orientation, had decisively negative consequences for the country. Largely resulting from post-Second World War accusations of British bias and a demand for recognition of the contributions of non-British Canadians to, and their influence upon, Canadian society, the argument that Canada's cultural and political leaders had traditionally believed the country to be British in character was accompanied by the claim that non-British Canadians had suffered from this situation, and that as a country of immigrants, Canada itself had not benefitted from its British orientation.  Andrew Smith questions this position, pointing out that Canada is typically viewed internationally as a successful nation and that it is a country which has flourished in the past and today at least partially because of its imperial connection, not in spite of it. Similarly, Christopher Dumutt's paper questions whether the inclusive character of current Canadian history writing, while attempting to always be sensitive to the history of particular groups and perspectives which were either ignored or never considered by Canadian historians before the late twentieth century, has resulted in there being significant gaps in the available stories of Canada's past. In focusing upon the particular or the stories of smaller groups of Canadians, has too little attention been paid to people or events which affected the country as a whole, or which are commonly understood to have been well represented in the past, but which were never actually the subject of detailed historical study?

Although all of the contributions included in Contesting Clio's Craft are valuable commentaries on failings or deficiencies of Canadian historiography and how they might be overcome, the problem with the collection is that, like any collection of critiques of the subject, it is incomplete. In fact, one might view the collection as simply a continuation of debates about the nature of historical truth from the 1980s and 1990s which the editors claimed to be moving beyond. Each of the contributions, while valuable commentaries about Canadian history writing, only offer comments about how common approaches within the discipline are imperfect and how one might change the in order to gain attain a more holistic study of Canada's past. However, no study of the past will ever be perfect. And while it might be useful to focus upon improving particular shortcomings, such criticisms should be consumed as part of an ongoing attempt to attain an unattainable objective understanding of the past. Thus, rather than claim postmodern critiques of Canadian history to be passé, they should have described their collection as simply being one of new ideas about how to tweak the study of Canada's past.

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