This post is being co-published with the fine folks at Borealia.
by Jerry Bannister
In March I had the pleasure of attending the Pierre Savard conference at the University of Ottawa. I was asked to give a talk on the future of Canadian history, particularly the ongoing debate over transnational versus national perspectives. I never did get around to asking why they invited me to speak. Perhaps it was the exchange I had with my friend Chris Dummitt a few years back, when we were fretting over the new “history wars.” Or it might have been the argument I made in the article I published here in Acadiensis in 2014, “Atlantic Canada in an Atlantic World.” During my talk, I returned to a theme that I’ve been discussing with Chris for several years now: the need to make and maintain a distinction between national and nationalist history. As I said in Ottawa, there is still an unfortunate tendency among Anglophone historians of Canada to presume that we are what we study. In other words, if someone studies the Loyalists, then she/he must somehow be biased in favour of them. And if someone says that national frameworks are important, then she/he must somehow necessarily be a nationalist. I think that this tendency has abated with the decline of the history wars, but I still hear echoes of it when I’m at conferences.
At the outset of my talk, I tried to make it clear that I was not going to stake out a “CNN Crossfire” type position, stridently for or against national or transnational history. Not only am I having a difficult time making up my mind on many of these questions, but I am also coming to value my own uncertainty. All too often, particularly on social media, we succumb to the pressure to appear more confident and more certain than we actually are. I can see value in both types of history – and in other types of history, of course – and I think that we should try to remain open to borrowing from different approaches, in order to broaden and deepen out perspectives. Like most historians, I see theory as a means rather than an end, a toolbox from which we can draw to solve historical problems thrown up by the evidence we discover. So I ended up laying out what I see as the pros and cons of national and transnational perspectives.
On the one hand, transnational approaches can be extremely useful. They provide far richer arrays of international contexts and comparisons; they free us from the parochialism of place and regionalism; and they help to combat the anachronisms and ideologies of nationalism. They also help to decentre historical perspectives, to reflect the complex lived realities of historical experiences, to counter enduring legacies of colonialism and racism, and to allow us to create new questions. On the other hand, broad transnational perspectives, particularly Atlantic world and global frameworks, bring risks for Canadian historians, because demographically smaller spaces can get easily overshadowed. Transnational and international comparisons invariably require the historian to generalize about patterns and trends in Canada or, as some would put it, Northern North America. This raises the risk of over-simplifying the vast regional, ethnic, and linguistic diversity across Canadian and Indigenous historical experiences. It’s hard enough to get it right when we’re drawing on a national canvass.
Another problem is that transnational frameworks, particularly in their new imperial and Atlantic world guises, can end up pouring old American and British wine into new theoretical bottles. For all their talk about the complexities in the Atlantic world, many American historians tend to presume that the American national experience of revolutionary liberalism is essentially normative. And for all the talk about decentering historical frameworks, I fail to see how we can move forward when so many of us still write so reflexively about peripheries and metropoles. A global framework that sees London as the historical centre is little better than a national one that sees Ottawa as the centre.
Despite this uncertainty, after I gave my talk in Ottawa, I came away more convinced than ever of two things. First, despite all of the anxious and angry tweets, blog posts, and spilled ink by many of us, myself included, the actual cultural impact of the Harper government appears to be remarkably limited. This is not for a second to diminish the serious damage wrought by Tory policies, but, now that we have come out the other side, the worry that many of us had about a rightward cultural shift seems misplaced. Public debate is, during the new Trudeau era, no more conservative than it was before Stephen Harper’s tenure. Arguably the greatest damage lay with what Harper cut or withheld, particularly funding for social programs and support for a national inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women.
In terms of changing people’s minds, of persuading the public, I think that Harper lost. There are, of course, plenty of cultural conservatives out there, across the country, but they were there long before Harper came to power. He never did, in retrospect, expand much beyond his base. Nor did he do much to change the minds of moderates or politically independent Canadians. He left us much as he came, with a narrow national vision and a royalist nostalgia for an imperial past that already feels decidedly weird. The biggest worry now, for Canadian historians, is not battling against an ascendant conservative movement but, rather, battling to attract students. We are, as Tina Loo has said, a species at risk. As tempting as it may be to blame Stephen Harper for this, the drop in enrolments in history courses across the country is due to larger demographic, economic, and cultural factors. As we recover from the history wars of the Harper years, we now confront a struggle to maintain the basic viability of our discipline in a morphing university landscape. The risk is especially high for Canada because, unlike many countries, if we don’t study and teach our own history, no one else will. While the proportion of Canadianists in history departments across Canada continues to drop, universities in the United States remain largely committed to national history.
Which leads me to my second point. As certain as I am that the cultural shadow of Harper is rather short, I am equally certain that the impact of the Indigenous movements across the country will have a large and long-lasting impact on universities and other public institutions. While this process builds on the Idle No More movement, it is larger in scope and more complex in nature. I cannot recall the precise time, but somewhere in the past year and a half, I noticed a distinct trend that spanned everything from articles, discussions in seminars, comments from students, and even the emails that filled my inbox each morning. In a remarkably short period of time, we not only adopted new terms and conventions, but new ways of talking about teaching, research, and learning. The discussion shifted from the need for new research on Indigenous history to the need for new orientations. It shifted from the need to be inclusive to the need to indigenize the university. References to decolonization and settler colonialism not only grew in quantity but also quality, as colleagues and students applied these concepts in all sorts of contexts. In the wake of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, I have noticed a change in the language and the attitudes of colleagues and students. This is, of course, as much a reflection of my own personal individual perspective; but I sense that we’re living through a larger cultural shift. What was once on the margins in universities is now flowing into the mainstream. As Harper faded into the political sunset, Indigenous issues became, from my vantage point at least, the single most important development within Canadian universities.
In making these observations, I don’t think I’m saying anything particularly new. Anyone following national politics knows about the ongoing impact of the TRC, and anyone following Canadian history knows how recent studies of Indigenous peoples have changed how we see the country’s past. My point is simply that these changes have reached the point of a larger cultural shift, a tipping point, if you will. I hear it in the questions that students ask both inside and outside class, and I see it in the ways that they respond to readings and to the comments of their peers. I hear it in the common reference points, particularly to decolonization, which colleagues invoke in seminars. I have no idea where this process will end up, but my sense is that we’re entering a new area, at least in Canadian universities and in the study of Canadian history. As this process unfolds, it’s important to consider what we mean by terms such as settler colonialism and to compare experiences in Canada with those in other countries. As Lorenzo Varicini explains, there exists a remarkably complex and well-developed scholarship on settler colonialism that does include Canada. Graduate students often ask about current trends in Canadian history, and I am usually at a loss to pin down where, exactly, things seem to be going. But, as the 2015-2016 academic year comes to a close, I am sure of one thing. Settler colonialism is where the academic winds are blowing.
Jerry Bannister is an associate professor of history at Dalhousie University.