Sunday, 24 March 2013

What is the role of public historians in the "history wars?"

The Canadian history community is currently in the midst of a 'history war,' pitting various research interests and narratives against one another. As with most other 'history wars' throughout the English-speaking world ( see Enola Gay or The Valour and the Horror, for example), one aspect of the current situation involves competing narratives embodied in the federal government's promotion of a certain memory of the War of 1812, the rebranding of the Canadian Museum of Civilization, and a re-emphasis on the role of the monarchy in Canadian society.

While this side--the battle between different interpretations of our shared past--is familiar to many working public and academic historians, there is another trend also at work in the wider Canadian community: a perceived epistemological shift away from governance based on facts and reasoned argument to governance based on belief. John Ibbitson of the Globe and Mail discusses this towards the end of his lecture regarding the collapse of the 'Laurentian Consensus' (do a find for "belief" and go to the third hit for this section).

This can be seen in a number of areas: the removal of the CAIRS database that tracked all Access to Information requests received by the federal government from the internet; the cancellation of the long form census; the challenge faced by arms length watch dogs and regulators such as the Parliamentary Budget Officer or the former head of Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, among others; the closure of the Experimental Lakes Area; the silencing of federal scientists; and, most recently and most worrisomely for public historians, the new Code of Conduct at Library and Archives Canada which limits the ability of employees of LAC to volunteer or speak on topics related to LAC (broadly defined) on their own time.

These two fronts, the interpretation of Canadian history and the shift to governance based on belief, are at the same time separate and innately related. For example, the arguably most important threshold concept of all history professions is that the narrative of past events is up for debate, that different sources tell different stories about the same event and that everyone experiences life differently. The debates regarding the use of nuclear bombs or the aerial bombardment of cities during the Second World War are perfect examples of the kind of tension produced by the existence of conflicting narratives of the past. 

By taking the role as mediators between past events and present publics, public history professionals have to navigate a minefield full of hard political and ethical questions in order to present an accurate picture of what happened within the confines of their institution's mandate and position, which may be defined based on a pre-existing belief in what happened that is not based on a critical reading of all the sources.

What, then, is the public historian's role in the history wars? In particular, what is the role of public historians as employees, contractors, and consultants at government funded institutions and also as private citizens who are deeply interested in the past? Where is the line between professional institutional behaviour and free speech? What are the risks involved in presenting critical histories to the broader public or speaking out on topics about which one is passionate? Do government funding priorities and codes of conducts create 'chilling effects' that limit critical interpretations or even professional outreach and personal volunteerism?

I am not going to propose any answers to these questions, but I do invite comments. Also, during the Nation Council on Public History's upcoming conference in Ottawa, I'll be facilitating a "Dine Around" session on precisely these questions. I'm also working on a list of links related to Canada's current history war that should be interesting for those who care about public history.

Canadian History Wars: Some Links

Please note that this is a work in progress. While it is impossible to present a comprehensive listing, I do hope that it will (eventually) be representative. Also, to try and avoid any undue bias (beyond that embodied in my browsing habits), I've put the links in chronological order as opposed to try to tease out individual themes.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Quick Thoughts on History Slam #14

I listened to the most recent Active History Slam podcast on my way to work this morning. This month's episode contained an interview with Dr Timothy Stanley of the University of Ottawa. In particular, Sean Graham and Dr Stanley discussed ideas of race and racialization in Canadian history in the context of the Chinese school strike in Victoria, British Columbia in the 1920s.

Racialization is defined by Dr Stanley as: "the social process of inventing race, of marking race...it is fundamentally a process of cultural representation." (c. 8:45) As an example of this, he points out the ways that a racialized category of "black" was defined differently in the United Kingdom (i.e. in the early 19th century, the Irish were considered 'black' and until the 1970s someone from Hong Kong was considered 'black') in comparison to the ways the same term is used in a North American context. (c. 8:20)

This definition of race resonated particularly with me in light of some research I've been doing recently on the "Menno-Cannuck Conflict" that took place in southwestern Manitoba in the late 1870s around the ownership of certain lots near and within the boundaries of the Mennonite Reserve created to promote the immigration of Mennonites from the Russian Empire.

While today we wouldn't use racialized language to categorize the groups, the Dominion Land Agents and other Department of the Interior officials sent to mediate the conflict characterized the two groups in very interesting ways. On the one hand were a number of English speaking settlers from Ontario who were variously categorized as "English-speaking," "Canadian," and "White" settlers. On the other hand were the "German-speaking," "Russian," and "Mennonite" settlers.

(See Library and Archives Canada RG15 Volume 232 File 3129)

 As Dr Stanley argued in his interview, creating categories of the 'other' requires the creation "equally racialized category called 'Canadian.'" (c. 16:05) In this case, the creation of racialized categories of different types of settlers played out on the land in a compromise, the so-called "Menno-Canuck line" that was drawn in red onto the Department of the Interior's maps and translated into lived experience through the relocation of "Canadian" settlers to one side of the line and the concentration of "Mennonite" settlers to the other.

Far from only distinguishing between the Canadians and the Mennonites through their religion or territories of origin, discussions of different ideas of settlement and "improvement" shed light on the ways that the government agents came to know the parties. For example the line drawn on the map acted to separate the more individualistic Canadian homesteads from the more communal Mennonite villages.

(Absent from the records is any discussion of First Nations peoples in this territory, though they briefly note that there wasn't a M├ętis present prior to the creation of the Mennonite Reserve. Instead, the Department's maps portray the territory as a series of quarter sections either already claimed by one group or the other, or else open for "improvement" by Canadians or Mennonites, depending on which side of the line one looks at.)