CHA Reads 2017


What is CHA Reads? Find out here!


UPDATE: Now includes the conversation that happened on Twitter! Scroll to the end to see.

Welcome to the seventh and final post in CHA Reads 2017! This post features the discussion that took place all week long between the other scholars and myself.  In order to make the discussion easier to follow, questions are in green and names are in bold.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this series as much as we have! We will definitely be doing this again next year. Don’t forget to check us out all day on Twitter, where we will be continuing this discussion using the hashtag #chareads2017. And I’ll see you back here tomorrow for an early roundup!


Mary-Ellen Kelm: In this year of commemorations (Vimy 100, Canada 150) what do our books teach us about the way that history has been deployed by the state: celebrated uncritically, revised, debased, elided? What specific ideas from our books can we bring forward to the discussion around Canada 150? How can we make our more nuanced view of history relevant and accessible to Canadians as they engage in Canada 150?


Stephanie Pettigrew: Rudin’s book absolutely contributes to the discussion surrounding Canada 150, more because of the actions of the people featured in the book than of any intent on the part of Rudin, I think. (Who knows? I’d like a chance to ask Ron myself, actually.) When Parks Canada decided to offer free admission to all Canadians as part of the 150 celebrations, Rudin’s history became immediately relevant to the extremely messy method by which we all became endowed with these spaces. Many of the people forcibly expropriated by Parks Canada are still alive, and some of their descendants actually work for Parks Canada now. How do they reconcile this? They basically have no other choice – a job is a job.  Perhaps if we taught these messy histories, Canadians would be better at recognizing these commonalities instead of so often devolving into “us versus them” mentalities. But so much comes down to “what’s best for the economy.”


Joanna L. Pearce:  It’s been a long time since I did my undergrad, and one thing I became aware of during this year of teaching is how much more nuanced of an understanding of Canadian history my fourth year students had over what I had at the same time in my academic life. With all love to my former undergraduate institution, I really did have an education that set Canada up as a Nice White Country full of Nice White People. There was little nuance about language and culture beyond that. (I understand this has changed drastically since the mid 90s.) My students spoke frequently of the Truth & Reconciliation Report, dealt with complicated questions of how to commemorate histories that we might be ashamed of in the present, and spoke with confidence about labour history and women’s history in ways that I was not equipped to do after my first degree. The things that I found surprising and want to highlight in Mills’ work might not be as surprising to my students, who all grew up in Toronto – a much  more racially and linguistically diverse area of the country than I grew up in.

Back in January, Premier Rachel Notley tweeted “Alberta has always been welcoming to those seeking refuge, and that will not change. #WelcomeToCanada #ableg.” This is, of course, not true. [I’m going to come back to this]


Stephanie Pettigrew: I’m wondering if technology contributes to a greater awareness, or a lack of awareness, to these types of problems. I see potential for things like twitter and other social media making information more accessible, while at the same time creating echo chambers for people who are determined to confirm their own beliefs. Growing up in Cape Breton, I was brought up to be keenly aware of our cultural heritage. I was surrounded by oral histories of the deportation and the expropriation of the village of Cap Rouge by Parks Canada, of the British occupation of Louisbourg, and I knew the story of Evangéline long before I knew it was a poem written by Longfellow. Would I have been more acquainted with this information with access to the internet, or less?


Andrea Eidinger: Since I went to high school in Quebec, and the curriculum was even worse then than it is now, I grew up with a distinctly skewed understanding Canadian history. I distinctly remember writing in my notes at one point, “British = Evil, French = Good.” There was zero mention of people of colour and the only time that Indigenous peoples were discussed was at the beginning. I would like to suggest that this was a product of my time, but I’m technically a millennial, so this wasn’t so long ago. Now, as someone who teaches primarily students come came up through the BC education system, I’ve noticed different biases. Some of my students have never heard of New France, and many regard Quebec as the enemy. While they have some understanding of residential schools, it is very shallow, and many are quite shocked to learn the truth of what is happening. I think it’s easy to forget that education, and my extension, history education, is under provincial jurisdiction, and that this has a major impact on how ordinary people learn about Canadian history.


Stephanie Pettigrew: I have actually heard high school students of the 2000s state that residential schools couldn’t have been a thing because “our government would never have done that.” I was horrified.


Samuel McLean: Adele Perry’s book has this really interesting perspective on this, where she looks at how archives are used- or rather what documents are stored in those archives- particularly about relationships and intimacy in an imperial context, race,  and indigenous populations. In a wider sense, frankly, as an early modernist, I really enjoyed how Colonial Relations mostly looked at the decades prior to Confederation- and really in a very different context to Upper and Lower Canada or the Atlantic provinces. I think that organizations like the Hudson’s Bay Company and their imperial connections bring really important context to Canada 150 discussions.



Mary-Ellen Kelm: McKay and Swift are fair but critical of much of the new Great War scholarship? What role does scholarly debate play in Canadian history? Do we avoid rigorous debate? What is lost and what is gained by the way Canadians debate historiography?


Sean Carleton: Swift and McKay’s other book, Warrior Nation, reveals much about how history is often conscripted for militarism + nation-building


Mary-Ellen Kelm: Vimy Trap connects with Warrior Nation perfectly and offers historical context


Stephanie Pettigrew: There are a few debates going on right now in the maritime provinces that are very much like the debates concerning the removal of confederate monuments in the southern United States. We have far too many monuments, places, streets, even schools, that are named after the British officials who were the main perpetrators of violence against the indigenous population and the Acadians. Cornwallis has monuments to him all over Halifax. I even spent a short time attending Cornwallis Elementary school. Yet as governor of Nova Scotia, he implemented a bounty on Mi’kmaq scalps. General Moncton was the first British general to deport Acadians out of Acadia, yet the largest urban Acadian centre is named after him. Whenever the debates about removing these names from our monuments, someone always argues, “we shouldn’t bury our history.” I agree – we shouldn’t bury our history. But there’s a difference between not burying the more awful aspects of our history and ceasing the lionization of those individuals in Canadian history who did truly awful things. Yet we have real trouble with these debates.


Joanna L. Pearce: That’s a really good observation, Steph. When I was living in NS a few years ago that debate was really raging (I think it was either right before or just as they were changing the name of Cornwallis Elementary), and it’s certainly still alive and well.


Andrea Eidinger: Did you see the thing about the torches in New Orleans? Eep, that was scary. I always keep thinking about responses/reactions from the public when historians like McKay and Swift debunk myths that are so important to many people. A while back on Facebook, I posted about being sick of Vimy, and two friends of mine who are not historians were actually upset and offended at my remarks (though everything’s good now!) And what does it mean when the kinds of history that professional historians are doing is either incompatible, and contradicts public historical narratives about Canada, as well as being completely unknown? I’m sure many of you have also taught students who come into Canadian history courses with some very outdated views about history. And I know that every time there is something in the news about horrors from Canada’s past, people complain that “they never told us that in schools,” even though few historians are surprised by these revelations.


Joanna L. Pearce: I wonder frequently who it is we’re talking to. People tell me all the time that Canadian history is boring, and yet as soon as I start talking about my own research they have questions and raise issues and tell me that they “never learned that” in school. I’m sure a lot of academic historians get the same thing if they can get to the part where they can describe their research. We have this issue, though, where it’s hard for people to access that history. It’s behind paywalls, for example, or it’s not a neat narrative so it doesn’t make into a podcast on Canadian history or into a ~Story of Canada~ that’s professionally produced. There are folks that are trying to combat that, but who is the audience? Who is listening to Canadian history podcasts? Who is reading Canadian history books? I mean, if Premier Notley wants to describe Canada in general and Alberta in particular as always being welcoming to people seeking refuge, clearly not her. (I don’t mean to pick on her in particular, it’s just that I noted her tweet back in January and my students and I had a lengthy conversation about it.)


Andrea Eidinger: Joanna, I experience the same problem! If I had a nickle for every time someone informed me that Canadian history was boring, I’d likely never have to work again. I also constantly hear refrains that “why didn’t I learn this in school?” It seems that the public’s understanding of Canadian history is about two decades behind what historians are actually doing.


Stephanie Pettigrew: The whole “History of Canada” thing was a HUGE debacle on the east coast. It annoyed me that the series just completely failed to mention the deportation of the Acadians. You can’t claim Canada as a place that has always been welcoming if you don’t talk about the times we turfed out populations that weren’t liked. (Disclaimer: I’m Acadian, and having my history and culture completely ignored by other francophone populations in the country annoys me.)


Stephanie Pettigrew: I want to come back to this idea that we’ve sort of touched on, on regionalism and the different way Canadian history is taught in different parts of Canada. For example, what you mentioned Andrea, about how history is taught in Québec (“British bad French good), and Québec being seen as the enemy in BC. In the maritimes, I would take this a step further, and say that the history you’re taught depends on whether you’re an anglo or an Acadian. If you’re an anglo, the Acadians should have been deported, the english had every reason to remove them from Nova Scotia. If you’re an Acadian, the deportation was the greatest injustice to ever happen in the history of Nova Scotia and you should never trust the government to do anything for you. How many other histories are pushed aside simply because historians have focused so much more on them in the name of regional preference?


Samuel McLean: I have to admit, I feel like an outsider on this question- I did my BA and MA in Ontario, but then I spent nearly three years in the UK- and these were years where I really engaged more with historiography. I have to admit, I don’t see the First World War being politicized and fought over in Canada like I did in the UK, where, for example, the student government of the University of London tried to ban its members from attending Remembrance Day ceremonies b/c the First World War was described as a “colonial scramble for possessions, markets and resources amongst the major nations” ( by one senior member. One the other hand, I was part of the Department of War Studies, which was central to debates. First, the UK government seemed very interested in shutting down any kind of nuanced debates- Gove attacking ‘Blackadder’ interpretations of the First World War. The Tories seemed determined to emphasize glory and victory, and whatever kind of jingoistic stuff is popular with their voting base. And frankly, there were a number of scholars- both established and ECR who were perfectly happy to do that kind of study. On the other hand- there were many others who were also asking really good modern questions and doing modern studies about the FWW.

As for academic debate, to be honest, I’ve had a bit of a culture shock coming back from the UK. I was in London, I was fortunate to be able to go to the Institute for Historical Research (which facilitates biweekly seminar series pretty much year-round) as well as many other seminars, lectures, talks and all kinds of events. They were always going on, and very often features actual debate- but since I came back to Canada, I’ve been finding it very difficult to find the same kind of venues for debate that I found were very common in the UK. Of course there are some opportunities, one is the brilliant Toronto Legal History Group, which I have always found to have good debates. But often I feel that at the presentations I go to, that asking the guest author questions about process, or challenging their arguments is frowned upon. My impression is that in Canada, that the need for PhDs and ECRs to establish themselves as ‘The Expert’ on their subject in order to secure employment means that they are often much more defensive when others ask questions, and that sometimes they avoid rigorous debate because it could undermine either their ‘expertise’ or their monopoly over a subject. I have to admit, I’ve only been in Toronto and Ottawa, so it’s  limited sample size but that’s the impression.



Sean Carleton: What is the relationship between “Canadian” historiography and the wider global context? How can historians grapple with the global and local simultaneously? What is to be gained from/lost in framing local histories from a global perspective? How are these works received in international historiography?


Joanna L. Pearce: I can’t answer a lot of those questions, but I will say that Mills’ book has led me to seek out a lot of the scholars on Haitian history that he references. I don’t have a lot of time for reading right now (#dissertating) but Mills is very clearly telling an international story, one that I want to fill in the backstory for more completely. [I’m going to come back to this]


Stephanie Pettigrew: Rudin’s book is a national history cleverly disguised as a microhistory. I’m attempting to do much the same with my own dissertation – write a history of Montréal in the late seventeenth century, while contextualizing it within the history of not only New France, but within the context of France and the Atlantic. History is not a vacuum – events happening on the ground in Montréal are very much influenced by what’s happening in Europe. The backstory to local events is extremely important to understanding the full story.


Samuel McLean: Perry’s book is fabulous for this- it’s a brilliant example of International History as Canadian history and vice-versa. I particularly enjoy the way she deals with concepts of space in terms of how individuals, institutions, politics had important connections- but also .. it’s about intimacy, and distance. I think the truth is there are very few histories that are actually simply local, or simply international, and that much can be gained when you make those connections.



Sean Carleton: How can historians navigate the tensions that emerge from recovering hidden/marginalized historical actors (e.g. homesteading white women) involved in settler colonialism without erasing Indigenous peoples/apologizing for colonization? How do we acknowledge asymmetrical social relations within colonial society? Can some colonizers be “ambiguously complicit” in colonialism (Carter is drawing on Anne McClintock’s work here)?


Andrea Eidinger: This is something that I definitely struggle with. For instance, I tend to study Jewish women in postwar Canada. Jewish people are settlers, and are complicit in settler colonialism, even if they are still a marginalized community.


Stephanie Pettigrew: Depending on what era of history we’re talking about, Acadians also experienced a good deal of marginalization. In New Brunswick there’s still a good deal of treating acadians as the “other.” The reconstitution period between the return of the acadians after the deportation and the rise of acadian nationalism is sort of a dark hole of history for us. But it’s not as bad as the treatment visited upon First Nations, and we absolutely were complicit. Although many of the first acadians in Nova Scotia intermarried with the Mi’kmaq extensively (and continued intermarrying after they came back), official records don’t exactly state mi’kmaq origin. Worse, newspaper articles from the nationalist era (late nineteenth century) often did their best to disassociate the “Acadian race” from the Mi’kmaq and assure everyone that Acadians were, indeed, “pure french.” Jump to today, and there’s a movement to declare Acadians Métis because of our mixed ancestry. To call it a struggle is putting it lightly.


Samuel McLean: I think the trick is for historians, that we can’t allow the expectations of the reading public to force us to make moral/judgement statements about those we study, and they actions that they took. Moreover, we can’t allow them to argue that *not* condemning those we study for doing bad things is apologizing for them. Our job isn’t to tell the story of good people, or bad people, but to as Mary Beard says, make things more complicated (or less simple), and to therefore contribute to a greater understanding of the past. Perry’s study of James Douglas is great at this because she describes on the one hand how he used understanding of the local First Nations to diffuses crisis by giving them some molasses, but on the other hand, repeatedly evicted them, and he was distressed when his wife arrived in British Columbia and was more tanned (less white looking) than he had boasted about, and other things. There is no sense that she’s apologizing for him, but there’s also no explicit condemnation of him because there doesn’t need to be- her writing takes it for granted that we the readers understand that Colonialism resulted in bad things.



Sean Carleton: How can we encourage historical studies that talk across fields (e.g. women’s history, Indigenous history, environmental history)? How are these studies reviewed/who reviews them? Is there a possibility that good works fall through the cracks, or are criticised for straying from the narrow-confines of one field or another?


Andrea Eidinger: This is a great question. I find that, even though Canadian history is such a small field, we tend to silo ourselves within our own particular research interests. Time constraints and the pressure to publish and teach means that most of us read very narrowly, if at all. But I think we stand to gain a great deal from engaging with and learning from other kinds of history, and I definitely feel like really great works are falling through the cracks. I do feel, however, that Twitter is helping. I certainly never knew very much about environmental history until after I started Tweeting! And I would hope that Unwritten Histories is helping to bridge these gaps, even just a little bit.


Stephanie Pettigrew: Unwritten Histories definitely helps, Andrea. And I’ve made so many contacts through twitter that have helped me out so much. I was invited to give a talk at a visiting speaker series through a twitter connection last year, for example. It’s so much easier to make multiple connections and remind yourself daily that everything has a global perspective, even seventeenth century Montréal.


Samuel McLean: Frankly, Canada needs something like the IHR- and we really need to encourage students (At undergrad and grad levels) to read outside the topics they know/enjoy. Read outside their period- and read outside their disciplines as well. And frankly, we have to tell ECRs and grad students that it’s okay to have a diverse ‘brand’ There’s nothing wrong with, for example, being a military historian who’s also into food history, fashion history, and whatever else. I think that the more diverse the academic community that we engage with, the better our work will be because we’ll have so many different influences.



Andrea Eidinger: I’m wondering why there weren’t any French books nominated this year, and what that says about bilingualism at the CHA (dismal, of course). And remembering the article from last year by Elise Chenier, Lori Chambers, and Anne Frances Toews on sex distribution among Canadian history prizes and publications, we’ve got two female scholars and four male scholars, and two books that use a feminist approach to history or do women/gendered history. It’s certainly a better distribution that in previous years, but all of the nominees are (to my knowledge) white and all of them are senior scholars. What does this tell us about the field of Canadian history professionals? 


Stephanie Pettigrew:The last time I was at CHA I was told explicitly by some students from Québec that they don’t bother with CHA; the Québec universities have their own conferences and there’s so little francophonie at CHA that it wasn’t worth it. I asked if they would propose more panels to make it more bilingual, but apparently some of them had done so and been rejected. It’s kind of preposterous. It leaves us with very little collaboration between anglophone and francophone university scholarship. We need to integrate more, but integration obviously requires cooperation from both sides.


Andrea Eidinger: It’s really a shame. But I think it also speaks the fact that very few people outside of Quebec and the Maritimes are bilingual.



Stephanie Pettigrew:  What are the links that can be drawn between Imperial Plots and Colonial Relations? Particularly in regards to feminist history within the history of Empire.


Samuel McLean: One of my favourite memories of undergrad was Jesse Palsetia’s class at Guelph- 3rd year maybe, where for my first time ever, a professor explicitly talked about women in Empire- it blew my mind. In particular, it was about the roles of women in India. Perry’s book takes this – well it’s at least five levels beyond that. What she’s done is this she looks at transitions in geography, in Empire, but also in generation- so she can look at women as daughters, wives, and as various other social, political, institutional roles, imperial roles. So I think there are definitely connections that can be drawn.



Andrea Eidinger: If you had to pick one of the other books as the winner, which one would it be and why? Alternatively, which one would you like to read after the CHA Reads competition?


Stephanie Pettigrew: A Place in the Sun. Québec historiography is sorely lacking in histories that centre on minority influences, and to have one that is well researched and written is both refreshing and exciting. Andrea, I think you can agree with me on the huge gap this sort of research only begins to fill, and having it win the MacDonald prize would surely encourage others to start following Mills’ example of searching for the Québec counter-narrative.


Samuel McLean:  I’d agree with the above.


Andrea Eidinger: Is it cheating if I say all of them? 😛


Don’t forget to check out the other posts in our CHA Reads Series!!

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