Ira Basen is a Toronto-based radio documentary producer and writer.
On the afternoon of Thursday, May 18, 1922, a couple of dozen people filed into the Victoria Memorial Museum on McCleod Street in Ottawa. The occasion was a meeting of the Historic Landmarks Association, an organization founded in 1907, and dedicated to gathering and disseminating information about Canada’s built and natural heritage.
The president of the HLA was Lawrence Burpee, a career civil servant with an abiding interest in history. When Burpee rose to give his presidential address, he surprised the assembled members of the association by proposing that the organization broaden its scope beyond landmarks and monuments to include historical research and the publication of historical studies. And he suggested it change its name to the Canadian Historical Association.
The goal was to encourage “intelligent public interest in the history of our country,” but Burpee had another purpose in mind. Canada in 1922 had only recently emerged from a highly divisive battle over conscription in the First World War, and relations between French and English were at a low ebb. The new organization, Burpee insisted, would “associate itself with other patriotic agencies in bringing into more perfect harmony the two great races that constitutes the Canadian people.”
Today, the CHA has about 750 members, mostly graduate students, archivists, and mid-career professors of Canadian history at universities across the country. And since the 1990s, the organization has been dominated by social historians; people studying issues of race, class and gender, whose politics generally lean toward the progressive side of the political spectrum. Political, diplomatic and military historians, who once dominated the CHA, have all but disappeared from its ranks.
Although only a fraction of professional historians in Canada are members, the CHA boasts that it is the “only organization representing the interests of all historians in Canada” (italics theirs).
But as the CHA celebrates its centenary year, the country is facing another crisis of disharmony; not between French and English, but between Indigenous peoples and those who came later. And like it did in 1922, the Canadian Historical Association is trying to play its part in reconciliation.
Since the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report in 2015, the CHA has worked to confront the generations of Canadian historians who have written the nation’s history as a triumphant narrative from colony to nation, while largely ignoring the impact that same history had on Indigenous peoples.
But that effort has split the community of professional historians in Canada, pitting the CHA against some of the country’s most distinguished practitioners.
Offering up different interpretations of past events is what historical inquiry is all about. But this fight has been unusually nasty and personal, partly because what’s at stake is so important.
History is the stories that a people tell about themselves. This struggle is about who will tell the story of Canada in the context of reconciliation, and what that story will be.
At the CHA annual meeting in Regina in 2018, delegates overwhelmingly voted to change the name of the award given to the year’s best book in Canadian history from the John A. Macdonald prize to the CHA prize.
Jim Miller, a highly respected emeritus professor of history at the University of Saskatchewan who specializes in what he calls “Native-newcomer relations,” was outraged. A CHA member since the 1960s, and a president of the organization in the 1990s, he let his membership lapse after the decision. He hasn’t come back. “I didn’t want to belong to an organization of historians who didn’t know their history very well,” Dr. Miller said in a recent interview.
He was angry that the delegates failed to balance the good that Macdonald did with some of the more harmful consequences of his policies. “I thought, well, man, if you’re an historian, and you can’t draw a better balance than that, I think there’s a problem.”
Undeterred by that criticism, on Canada Day 2021, the CHA boldly addressed the question of whether Canada’s treatment of Indigenous peoples should properly be labelled a genocide. Just weeks after reports of unmarked graves on the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, the answer from the CHA was a definitive yes.
“We maintain that genocidal intent has been amply established in the historical scholarship and by the words of policy-makers at the time,” the statement asserted. It went on to say there was a “broad consensus” among historical experts on this point, and it criticized historians whose failure to acknowledge the genocide has “contributed in lasting and tangible ways to the Canadian refusal to come to grips with this country’s history of colonization and dispossession.”
“I was appalled,” Dr. Miller says.
While Dr. Miller believes Canada’s treatment of Indigenous peoples amounts to a “cultural genocide,” he does not believe it conforms to the United Nations’ definition of genocide, proper. The CHA says it does. That definition states that a genocide must be accompanied by the “intent to destroy.”
“I’ve studied Canadian government policy toward Indigenous people for getting close to 40 years now and I can’t point to any proof of intention to destroy,” Dr. Miller says. What “stuck in my craw most,” he adds, “was the assertion that there was a consensus, that the evidence was overwhelming … and it’s just nonsense.”
Steven High, a historian at Concordia University and the president of the CHA, says the statement was written with input from leading Indigenous scholars, all of whom agreed with the characterization of genocide. “This was not a statement that came out of nowhere,” he says. “It came out of years and years of research and conversations and conferences. It was the culmination of an academic process.”
A few days after the CHA statement was released, Jim Miller received an e-mail from Christopher Dummitt, a political and cultural historian at Trent University. Dr. Dummitt had written the first draft of an open letter that he wanted to circulate among Canadian historians condemning the CHA statement.
The letter carefully avoided the contentious issue of genocide and focused instead on the claim of a “broad consensus” among Canadian historians. “By pretending there is only one interpretation, the directors of the CHA are insulting and dismissing the scholars who have arrived at a different assessment,” Dr. Dummitt wrote. “They are presenting the Canadian public with a purported ‘consensus’ that does not exist.”
In an interview, Dr. Dummitt argued that the CHA statement was more about activism than good scholarship and believes it will have a chilling effect on historical inquiry. “If you’re a graduate student and want to study this, you would be crazy to disagree with the statement.”
Within a few weeks, 53 historians had signed the open letter. They were overwhelmingly white and male. Most were retired, many had once belonged to the CHA, but only five of the signatories were still members. With the exception of Jim Miller and a handful of others, none were specialists in Indigenous history.
The open letter was published on Christopher Dummitt’s website on Aug. 9. Three days later, it was posted on the website of The Dorchester Review under the headline “Historians Rally vs. ‘Genocide’ Myth.” The headline was both deliberately provocative and misleading – entirely consistent with how the Review covers Indigenous issues.
The Dorchester Review prides itself on featuring historical articles and commentary “that fail to conform to a stridently progressivist narrative.” Over the past few years, it has posted a series of inflammatory articles and tweets aggressively calling into question the horrific conditions at residential schools as well as the existence of mass graves, and denying Canada was guilty of genocide of any variety.
The editor of The Review is C.P. Champion, a former curriculum adviser to the Alberta government of Jason Kenney who has labelled the push for more Indigenous content in schools a “pedagogical fad.” Mr. Champion was one of the signatories to the open letter.
On Aug. 13, another open letter appeared, this time on an Indigenous history site called Shekon Neechie. Written by Indigenous and Métis historians at several Canadian universities, it described the letter signed by the 53 historians as an “erroneous and anti-intellectual polemic.” They asserted that challenging the use of the word genocide “while Indigenous communities across the country are raw and grieving” was “blind, callous and unethical.”
The war was on, and nine months later, there are few signs that either side is looking for a ceasefire.
The roots of this current conflict go back several decades.
If you were a professional historian in, say, the 1960s, you likely focused primarily on politics, diplomacy and war. You would spend endless hours in libraries and archives sifting through official documents, private papers and newspaper accounts. You might have argued about how those records should be interpreted, but there was widespread agreement on which sources and which historical actors should be taken seriously.
The practitioners in those days were overwhelmingly white and male, and so were the people they studied.
That began to change in the 1970s and 80s as more women and non-white scholars began to find their place in university history departments. They asked different questions and used different sources. They told stories about people who had long been on the margins of history, people whose papers were not neatly stored on library shelves. This kind of social history was dubbed “history from below,” and many old-guard historians took exception.
In 1998, J.L. Granatstein of York University, one of the country’s leading political and military historians, published a fiery polemic titled Who Killed Canadian History? in which he decried the trend toward “narrow social history topics such as regionalism, women’s issues, multiculturalism, and native history,” at the expense of wider, more robust, nation-building political and military histories.
Today, Dr. Granatstein is an emeritus professor at York, and one of the signatories of the letter protesting the Canada Day statement. He fears that historians are re-examining our colonial past based on their own prejudices, rather than a careful examination of the evidence.
Of course, social historians do examine evidence, but it’s not always the kind of written evidence that old-school historians such as Dr. Granatstein hold dear. In a powerful address to the CHA meeting in 1994, the organization’s then-president, Veronica Strong-Boag, a pioneering women’s historian, urged the audience to broaden their range of sources. “Our conventional preoccupation with the written word … can do brutal disservice to the truth,” she warned. “It is too easy to be paralyzed by print’s power to counterfeit human life.”
Different sources will invariably yield different results. Jim Miller has spent 40 years poring over government and church documents and has found no evidence of “genocidal intent.” Other historians, relying largely on unwritten evidence from Indigenous communities, have concluded that there was.
Allyson Stevenson, a professor of Métis studies at the University of Saskatchewan and a member of the CHA governing council, believes you can’t understand the full history of treaty relationships between First Nations and newcomers without oral history. “Indigenous elders and historians have demonstrated that oral narratives contain essential aspects of historical events,” she says.
This latest iteration of the Canadian history wars differs from the earlier version in two important ways; its preoccupation with Indigenous history, and the central role now being played by Indigenous scholars.
The number of tenured or tenure-track First Nations and Métis scholars in Canadian university history departments has gone from just one in 2001 to about a dozen today. And they are starting to make a difference, according to Mary Jane McCallum, a history professor at the University of Winnipeg, and a member of the Shekon Neechie board. “This means that we can make a dent in conversations that are being heard both inside and outside of our more local intellectual and Indigenous communities.”
The CHA’s Canada Day statement can be seen as a changing of the guard when it comes to who gets to tell Indigenous stories in Canada. Nearly half of members of the CHA governing council are Indigenous historians, including the former research director for the National Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls.
That’s why Dr. High is comfortable proclaiming a “broad consensus” among historical experts. He is quick to point out that the vast majority of his critics have no expertise in this area. “I think there’s something wrong about non-Indigenous people debating amongst themselves about how many people have died. I think that’s problematic.”
It’s not hard to understand why, after nearly 200 years of having other people tell their story, Indigenous historians want to write their own narrative.
It’s also not hard to understand why the old school is feeling defensive – and why some non-Indigenous historians feel the CHA is prematurely shutting down debate on a critical and contentious topic. But those historians do themselves no favours by associating themselves with publications that mock residential-school survivors and deny their stories.
The Indigenous historians whose open letter appeared in Shekon Neechie argue that this is not an appropriate time to be debating genocide while the pain of residential schools is still being felt so acutely. That may make sense in the context of reconciliation, but does it make sense in the context of the search for historical truths?
Christopher Dummitt doesn’t think so. He believes that by committing to reconciliation, historians risk losing the complexity of the past. “The commitment to reconciliation over truth, or instead of truth, negates what historians are supposed to do.”
But the “truth” that historians seek is rarely an absolute truth. It is far more likely to be an interpretation of the past, informed by their own biases and the preoccupations of the time.
Applying an Indigenous lens to Canadian history will change those interpretations. Asking different questions and relying on sources that historians have long ignored will invariably mean the stories we have told ourselves about our past will need to be reconsidered. And that is never easy.
We saw that in the controversy over the CHA’s removal of John A. Macdonald’s name from its book prize, and more recently in the decision by Ryerson University (now Toronto Metropolitan University) to change its name over concerns about Egerton Ryerson’s connection to the residential-school system.
Ryerson had a complex relationship with Indigenous people, and his legacy remains a subject of fierce debate among historians. Many believe that, as with Macdonald, the positives outweigh the negatives. Ryerson wasn’t alive when the residential-school system was created, so how can he be held responsible for it?
But Catherine Ellis rejects this kind of balance-sheet approach, calling it “simplistic and ahistorical.” She’s a professor of history at what is now Toronto Metropolitan University, and was the co-chair of the Standing Strong task force that recommended renaming the university.
She says the job of the task force was not to put Egerton Ryerson on trial and deliver a verdict, but to examine the totality of his historical legacy. She believes the positive narrative that has long dominated historical accounts of Egerton Ryerson was largely a product of a “Western colonial structure” of history that was based on the premise that “imperialism was politically and morally legitimate.” Remove that premise, and the narrative can quickly change.
Egerton Ryerson never stood a chance.
Steven High doesn’t expect there will be much talk about the Canada Day statement when CHA members gather virtually this week to celebrate the organization’s one-hundredth anniversary. There may be divisions within Canada’s historical community, but there appear to be none within the CHA.
Dr. High says the CHA gained roughly 100 members in the six weeks following the statement’s release, and he’d welcome the 48 non-members who signed the open letter into the organization to continue the debate from inside the tent.
Christopher Dummitt says he would like to see a statement from the CHA next Canada Day that affirms their strong commitment to viewpoint diversity and academic freedom.
Neither of those things are likely to happen. The community of professional historians is small, and this debate has become almost as much personal grievance as professional disagreement. These wounds will be slow to heal.
Placing Indigenous people at the core of our national narrative was never going to be easy. Insisting that genocide be part of that narrative makes the task even more difficult. Canadians will need to be convinced that our story needs to be rewritten to include some very harsh realities. Historians declaring that the question is already settled may not have been the best place to start.
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