Peter Waite: An Appreciation

By Andrew Nurse and Ed Stoddard

Peter Waite died on August 24th.  For three and a half decades he taught history at Dalhousie University. Waite is well and fondly remembered and should be. Christopher Moore, in his brief note on Waite’s passing called him a “historian, professor, war veteran, and bon vivant.” Allison Lawlor, in her obituary referred to him as “a compelling storyteller and writer.” A former colleague remembered him like this: Waite “was a joyful presence, quick to laugh, a spectacular raconteur addicted to punning and bon mots, especially in French or Latin […].” Peter Waite left his mark, both on Canadian historical scholarship and the students who moved through his classroom. We encountered him in the mid 1980s as undergraduate students at Dalhousie and, like others, we have fond memories.

Peter Waite. Image Credit: Rino Gropuzzo

Waite was born in Toronto in 1922, served in the Canadian Navy during World War II, and completed an undergraduate and MA at UBC before finishing a Ph. D. at the University of Toronto. He began teaching at Dalhousie in 1951 and became an enthusiastic and determined proponent of Nova Scotia wilderness and heritage conservation. He was made a Companion of the Order of Canada and a “Dalhousie Original” for her service to historical scholarship and the University community. Waite also served on the Historic Sites and Monuments Board and, in the course of his life, was the author of a number of “big books” that addressed new subjects or re-interpreted already studied subjects. Moore has called him a “master historian.” Waite would be both honoured and amused by that characterization.

He wore robes when lecturing to his intro classes; a suit and tie for upper-level students. It seemed old-fashioned, even then, but Waite’s dress also managed to convey the seriousness with which he treated both history and his students. It was glaringly evident that he was happy to be in class and happy to talk about history. One thing that was likely discovered almost too late by many undergraduates was that he was really happy when students disagreed with him. One day, after his seminar, Waite congratulated and encouraged a small group of students who had started to politely raise questions about the focus of the class and the biographical approach to history he seemed to be taking. What he really wanted to do was encourage students to use his class as a starting point. What was clear was that he hoped his discussion was not the end of the story, but its beginning and he worked to meet that goal by finding ways to interest his students in the past and in changing interpretations of it.

Waite was also delighted to learn from his students. In our second year, we both answered an exam question about a religious figure in Quebec whom we have since forgotten. He was for political reasons put out to pasture, as it were, to a version of what one of us referred to as a kind of “Catholic Senate.” This was information we had gleaned from the Dictionary of Canadian Biography and Waite made the trip to the library and checked our facts, pleased to have learned something new about the historical figure in question. That underscored the effort he put into marking. He also encouraged undergraduate students to make use of primary sources such as the parliamentary debate records which were readily available at the Dalhousie library. On the subject of exams, he also came across as old-fashioned to some of his colleagues by including questions of geography. But for Waite, geography was inseparable from the study of history. Subsequent scholars of the newer waves social history have embraced this in one way or the other. 

Waite also enjoyed “walking history” and often peppered his lectures with accounts of his travels to Europe. His interests were far ranging. One of us, who is a South African-based journalist, recalls chatting with him over drinks in 1998 at the History Department’s annual Christmas Party, and he was clearly fascinated by the country and had a grasp of its history that went beyond the Boer War. And when it came to walking, Waite walked the talk of environmental activism long before it became fashionable. His efforts in the 1950s saved Chrystal Crescent Beach south of Halifax from being developed for sand and gravel mining. This was activism that produced results for the benefit of the broader Nova Scotian public as well as a coastal ecosystem. 

In his published works, Waite’s approach to history was not to everyone’s liking and, at times, it seemed out of step. As Christopher Moore once explained: “he has been a historian of Canadian politics during an era when political history has been rather out of fashion.”  He thought history differently than did the new social historians whose work so fundamentally broadened the scope of historical research, writing, and teaching. His best-known works – The Life and Times of Confederation, Canada 1874-1896: Arduous Destiny, The Man from Halifax: Sir John Thompson, Prime Minister and In Search of R.B. Bennett — were about politics and political leaders. Even in works that sketched out a larger subject, biography was an intimate part of his view of the past and his conception of what made history. And, Waite’s biographies focused squarely on white male leaders.

It easy to see in his focus something of a bygone era filled with miscues that fundamentally obscured Canada’s past. That judgement would be harsh and inaccurate. As with his teaching, Waite was not interested in forestalling alternative considerations of the past. Canada 1874-1896: Arduous Destiny, began by freely conceding that past politics was not all of history and that his writing left so much more undone. From a Maritime perspective, Waite’s book on Confederation represented one of the first real efforts by a “national” historian to take Maritime public life seriously.  In this case, he was interested in what led different Maritime colonies to look on confederation in different ways. His later works on Thompson and Bennett continued this focus.

What is most interesting about the way Waite wrote history, from our perspective, however, was not his openness to other perspective or the fluidity of his prose. What was most interesting was that he was not afraid of judgements. If he thought a particular action was right or wrong, he did not back away from making that statement. In this way, his work serves as an odd counterpoint against those who contend – often as part of a rejection of newer trends in history or as part of on-going debates about statues and public memory — that one cannot make judgements about the past. For Waite, at least in his writing, evaluations of the past did not involve a slide to subjectivity, still less should they be conducted without extensive research. By contrast, he seemed to feel that it was the very depth of research that an historian brought to the subject that allowed for balanced assessment, regardless of what that final assessment actually was.

What really interested Waite was how Canada was governed. Said differently, his interest lay in the broad range of forces that allowed for the emergence, operation, and development of the Canadian nation-state in the face of the series centrifugal forces pulling it in different directions. We write this history differently today, with different foci, a different language, and to make different points. To be clear, Waite’s heroes are not our heroes; nor should they be. To uncritically embrace the political leaders about whom Waite wrote would be to deny the first lessons he sought to teach: do your homework. Peter Waite will be missed.


Andrew Nurse is Purdy Crawford Professor of Teaching and Learning at Mount Allison University and Director of the Centre for Canadian Studies. Ed Stoddard is a South Africa-based journalist. He has an MA in history from Dalhousie University and was a student of Peter Waite’s as an undergraduate.

About The Acadiensis Blog

The Acadiensis Blog is a place for Atlantic Canadian historians to share their research with both a scholarly and general audience. We welcome submissions on all topics Atlantic Canadian. If you are interested in contributing to the blog, please contact Acadiensis Digital Communications Editor Corey Slumkoski at corey.slumkoski@msvu.ca.
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