The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.
– L.P.Hartley (1953)
Writing history does not take place in a vacuum, nor is it a straightforward process. There are issues associated with cause and effect that have not been considered here: questions regarding what actually can be known, the extent to which one may draw lessons from the past, and so on. Two things may be said for certain by way of advice to an undergraduate beginning the study of Canadian history:
- Just because a community or nation is small or young doesn’t meant that its history is unimportant. This statement isn’t made as a special plea in the face of grand national histories written by British or American scholars. Those great sweeping, heroic accounts are essentially a licence to engage in more sweeping and not-so-heroic escapades. Our story is not that of our leaders; our story is ours, and it matters. One may learn a great deal from a careful study of an 18th-century Newfoundland outport, a textile mill in Victorian Ontario, or a single tenement building in 1860s Montreal. Likewise, the experience of the Plains Cree over 200 years of commercial interaction with Europe reveals a great deal about adaptability and human agency.
- Good history requires heavy lifting. Historians commit years of their lives to research in archives and libraries trying to produce something worth reading. None, however, would absolve you of your responsibility to read closely, criticize, and analyze. Is the evidence convincing? Do the right witnesses make it to the stand? Are the right questions being asked? You have our permission and you have a responsibility to read the material as if it matters.
Canadian history isn’t one story; it is many. This chapter has reviewed some of the basics of studying history with the hope that it will open you to the possibility of different understandings of the past. What the British writer L.P. Hartley had to say about history is true and valuable. When you travel to other countries you try not to judge or to impose your frame of reference too rigidly on people who do things differently and for reasons you might not easily perceive. In that spirit, welcome to a history that you may claim as your own regardless of how exotic it may appear to be.
archives: Collections of original documents, including print-based objects like personal letters, official reports, journals, newspapers, maps, government papers, and so on. Archival collections may also include photographs, music (in a variety of forms), and textiles. Technically, your own collection of original materials is an archive but, for the purposes of history courses, archives are official repositories that may or may not be open to the public.
baby boom generation: Individuals born in the post-Depression era of the 20th century. Low nuptial and fertility rates began to recover as early as 1937 in some parts of Canada and the rates continued to rise through the Second World War, accelerating until the early 1960s.
civil rights movement: In the United States, a movement principally in support of improved legal and civil rights for African-Americans. The movement is regarded as running from 1954 to 1968. It produced other movements associated with demands for rights for other groups that had historically faced prejudice and systemic marginalization.
collectivities: Groups of people who identify as part of a social body that may or may not correspond to a political unit. For example, First Nations peoples may identify collectively as First Nations, as opposed to (or perhaps in addition to) their identity as Cree or Mi’kmaq. French Canadian identity very often exists independent of (and sometimes in contrast to) a larger bicultural Canadian identity.
demographic historians: Historians of population trends and mechanisms.
environmental history: The history of human interaction with natural and human-made settings. The environment may be a pristine one or an urban context. In some cases it is a study of how human activity impacts the environment (and vice versa); in others it studies the idea of the environment and how that concept changes over time.
environmentalism: A philosophical interpretation of human interactions with the environment. May also refer to an activist movement and critique regarding the negative impacts of those interactions.
ethnohistory: A branch of academic studies that bridges anthropological and historical approaches, ethnohistory is principally concerned with non-European societies.
feminism: An analysis of power relations that posits the existence of systemic barriers to equality between humans based on sexual identity. Feminism calls for a program of political and social action aimed at improving the conditions of females.
historiography: Historical writing and the study of historical writing.
ideologies: Ideas and values that guide our understanding of society and the economy and may also drive political and personal agendas.
imperialism: A philosophical position that encourages the extension of one nation’s/empire’s power over other, subject peoples. May take the form of colonialization, military conquest, or a campaign of propaganda and ideas.
interdisciplinary studies: Academic approaches that combine traditionally separate disciplines, such as biology and history.
Marxism: An ideology and mode of analysis associated with the 19th-century German philosopher, Karl Marx. This body of theory argues that political and social relations in the past and present are determined principally by economic structures. As an ideology it argues for changes to productive relations that will result in greater equity and the end of social class barriers.
multiculturalism: Both a phenomenon (that is, the relatively equitable co-existence within a community of people from distinct cultural traditions) and a policy (i.e., one that embraces diversity). There were, therefore, multicultural communities in pre-Confederation Canada but multiculturalism only became widely supported in the post-World War II era.
National School: Sometimes called Nationalist History or National History School. Refers to accounts of the past that emphasize the growth and evolution of the nation-state as the proper focus of historical studies, as opposed to social or economic relations.
New Left: A political movement in the 1960s and 1970s that opposed the U.S. action in the Vietnam War and supported the civil rights movement. Influential on university campuses at mid-century, the New Left had an impact on historical and other academic studies.
new social history: A school of historical studies that drew attention to race, gender, and social class as defining features of historical experience, new social history developed a view of past societies from the “bottom up.”
oral histories: Non-written accounts of events in the past. These can be accounts provided by contemporaries of the events they describe or part of an oral tradition, which suggests a multi-generational account that is preserved carefully in the retelling. Oral histories are particularly important in the study of non-literate societies.
presentist fallacy: The belief that the events of the past are directly responsible for conditions in the present. Presentism often ignores intervening events. It also tends to thank the past for positives (such as current freedoms) while it seldom holds the past accountable for liabilities (such as a lacklustre economy, continuing struggles over equality, etc.).
primary sources: Original historical resources, such as diaries, letters, and government inquiries.
quantitative historical technique: Many historical methods take advantage of statistical sources rather than (or in addition to) qualitative sources like diaries and personal letters. Tax ledgers, census manuscripts, land surveys, and many kinds of church records provide enough information for us to work toward aggregate knowledge of people in the past.
Quiet Revolution: A political and social phenomenon in post-World War II Quebec that saw the power of the clergy and conservative elements eclipsed by a liberal-nationalist movement.
revisionist: A historian who re-evaluates history and revises it based on new understandings. As a critical term, “revisionist” is sometimes used to describe historians who change histories for political purposes.
second wave feminism: Associated principally with the 1960s and 1970s, second wave feminism focused on systemic discriminations in domestic and public environments, calling for equality in pay/treatment in the workplace, an end to sexism, and legislation to protect women’s reproductive rights.
secondary sources: Documents that examine primary documents and provide an interpretation. Historical studies of past events are, by definition, secondary sources.
Short Answer Exercises
- Where do you encounter historical messages? Stretch out your antennae for one day and make a list of every time history is invoked or you are instructed on some aspect of the past.
- Whether in a classroom or otherwise, how many times during the day do you encounter this thing called “history”? How is history being used in those encounters? Is it to confirm something you already knew or believed? Is it being used to change your mind about something?
- Historical research involves a careful assessment of sources. What criteria are the historian’s standbys?
- Many factors ensure that the historical record will be revisited on a regular basis. Name a few of them.
- Gordon, Alan. “The Many Meanings of Jacques Cartier.” In The Hero and the Historians: Historiography and the Uses of Jacques Cartier. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010.
- Greer, Allan. “National, Transnational, and Hypernational Historiographies: New France Meets Early American History.” Canadian Historical Review 91, no.4 (December 2010): 695-724.
- Kealey, Greg S. “Harper and Non-History.” Labour/Le Travail (May 2014): 213-215.
- McKillop, A.B. “Who Killed Canadian History? A View from the Trenches.” Canadian Historical Review 99, no.2 (June 1999): 269-300.
This chapter contains material taken from Reading Primary Sources: An Introduction for Students created by Kathryn Walbert for LEARN NC. It is used under a CC-BY-NC-SA 3.0 unported license.