Monday, December 11, 2023

Patrice Dutil on the "absence" of history UPDATED

[December 13: See Patrice Dutil's response below my post. Further replies welcome.]

I happened to hear Larry Ostola interviewing Patrice Dutil on the Witness to Yesterday podcast the other day, when they were discussing Dutil’s new edited collection, Statesmen, Strategists & Diplomats: Canada’s Prime Ministers and the Making of Foreign Policy. 

In the Literary Review of Canada a few years ago, Jack Granatstein called Dutil’s previous edited collection, The Unexpected Louis St-Laurent, “one of the few recent edited collections held together by more than the binding.” The podcast discussion of Statesmen… confirms that the coherence of that collection was no accident. Dutil describes how an editor should create a collection of essays. In the case of Statesmen, he goaded his invited contributors into focusing on issues he identified, sent them questionnaires for judging the prime ministers on predetermined criteria, and generally wielded a strong editorial hand to ensure the collection had more order and consistency than such volumes generally display. Obviously this is hard on the contributor who had planned to submit some halfbaked piece on a vaguely related topic, but it does make for essay collections that are actually worth reading. Would-be editors, take note.

This Patrice Dutil – call him Dutil One -- is a well-organized guy. He knows what the historical/cultural scene needs and is not shy about making it happen. He founded the Literary Review in which Granatstein later reviewed him. While leading the Champlain Society, he put the organization back on its financial feet, enlarged its membership, and modernized its programs. He also launched the Witness to Yesterday podcast on which he was interviewed. His own scholarship, meanwhile, ranges from nineteenth-century Quebec politics to the roots of modern public administration, and his books range widely across the Canadian political past. I admire him hugely. (He’s also a friend of mine.)

But there’s this other Patrice Dutil – Deuxtil? -- who perplexes me. Because I was also recently reading his essay, "Past Imperfect" in November’s Literary Review. That issue of the Review covered, among other things:

  • ·    the latest bestseller by historian Charlotte Gray;
  • ·      Ken Dryden’s history of suburban youth in the 1960s;
  • ·      an oral history of Montreal’s Haitian street gangs;
  • ·      RH Thomson’s meditation on First World War family history;
  • ·      Ken McGoogan’s sixth book on Arctic exploration history;
  • ·      A history of black Canadian athletes in the early 20th century. 
  • ·      Michael Crummey’s latest novel of Newfoundland history.

And then there is also the essay from the Deuxtil side to tell you none of these books really exists. Because Canadian history is dead. His topic sentence is “The absence of Canadian history is clear for those who have even a passing knowledge about it.” And the culprit is, well, “wokeness” and the spineless trend-seeking of policymakers and bureaucrats.

The claims of Deuxtil strike me as, well, implausible. Simply to juxtapose them against the contrary evidence, as above, seems to undermine them almost fatally. Still, dead?

“[By the 1990s] all the provinces had washed Canadian history out of the high school curriculum.” Really? My kids went through the Toronto public school system in the 1990s and 2000s. They got lots of history, even when it was labelled social studies or something else. Just because every grownup says, “They never taught us that in school!” does not actually mean they weren’t taught that in school.

“Only the disregard of history can explain the removal of most of the monuments to Sir John A. Macdonald.” Only the disregard of history? Didn’t learning some history -- of the operations of the Indian Act, the neglect of treaty obligations, the consequences of the residential school system – also play a part in those decisions? Deuxtil can disagree with the conclusions people draw, but that’s hardly evidence of history being “disregarded.” Monuments once noticed only by pigeons now provoke lively discussion everywhere.

University presses … are practically the only ones still willing to publish Canadian history.  But non-academic presses published pretty much all the history books reviewed in the LRC alongside Patrice’s essay. The other day the society that publishes Canada's History magazine brought out its annual Book and Gift Guide to promote literally hundreds of historical works from academic and non-academic presses all over the country. Also in November, it sponsored an event at Rideau Hall in Ottawa to honour history teachers doing inspirational work in schools across the country  -- though Deuxtil assures us there are no history teachers in schools across the country.

“To compare [the CBC’s] awareness of history with that of its counterparts in the United States and in Europe is to invite ridicule.” Well, watch “Real Time with Bill Maher” some Friday night: it is almost guaranteed he will abuse young Americans for their pitiful ignorance of their history. Americans constantly lament  their country’s ignorance of history. The Brits do the same, and in France ignorance of the past is a crise nationale in perpetuity. Every country has pundits who believe their youth to be uniquely ignorant of their nation’s glorious past.

Now, Deuxtil's concerns are not entirely ill-placed. I surely do share Patrice’s faith in the valuable things history can provide. It would indeed be good if Canadian history was more written about, and published more, and found in more bookstores, and read more, and taught more, and discussed more, and if all us practitioners were showered with more respect and more money by our grateful and admiring fellow citizens. Free lunches too, maybe.

But arguments about the parlous state of Canadian history in recent decades need to be put in some historical context. There’s history here that seems terribly absent from Deuxtil’s determination that the less-than-optimal conditions for a thriving historical conversation in Canada amounts to the death of history at the hands of wokeness.

A few decades ago, we entered into free trade agreements with the United States and the rest of the world. These offered fulsome “guarantees” of continued protection for Canadian culture. But very rapidly thereafter, all the major Canadian publishing houses became American-owned. The place of independent booksellers and the share of Canadian-authored titles in the Canadian book market both began a rapid decline soon after, from about twenty per cent to about five per cent. As the artist Charles Pachter used to say, what makes art universal is promotion and distribution. Shouldn’t control over decisions about the promotion and distribution of Canadian writing of all kinds be relevant to discussions of the decline, or “death,” of historical writing?  

Also: many Canadian provincial governments have for decades joined the political trend that promotes privatization, tax-cutting, and reduced public spending as the path to prosperity. Education budgets have been tightened -- so were health budgets and housing budgets, but let’s stick with education -- and priorities shifted toward job preparedness. Those policies have been tough on music programs and remedial math classes and the English curriculum, but yes, also on history teaching. The matter needing attention here is not some special plea for history. It’s the policy framework of educational spending by provincial governments. 

Sure, the CBC’s not what it might be  -- but should we put the blame solely on statue-removers and curriculum planners? The CBC’s current weaknesses need to be related to policy choices that have undermined Canadian telecommunications content in favour of private networks and unrestricted foreign streaming services. “It’s the state or the United States,” said a smart guy nearly a century ago who was worried about Canadians knowing enough about themselves.

To the extent the losses that Deuxtil mourns actually exist, these causes seem more consequential than cynical media or changes in some place names.    

But still: A country that has fallen asleep and forgotten its past? If it had, I would have had to find a new line of work decades ago. I’m still not dead yet. You aren’t either, Patrice. Let’s do lunch.

UPDATE, December 13:  Patrice has thoughts:

Old friend, I look forward to this discussion. You will see, after a long COVID separation, that I am still one. Thanks for your blog on my article in the November 2023 issue of the Literary Review of Canada. It was my attempt to salute the 25th anniversary of J.L. Granatstein’s Who Killed Canadian History? and it's continued relevance.

Now, you’re not happy with me and I welcome your challenge, but I think we’re on the same side of the tracks here. You don’t agree with me that history has been neglected in Canada or that the general ignorance of our past by our governing politicians has had a deplorable effect on our civic culture. I think you're wrong. We passed significant anniversaries in this country--the Great War, that claimed over 66,000 young lives a hundred years ago and, of course, the 150th anniversary of Confederation, without notice. Did I miss the documentary featuring Christopher Moore talking about what happened 150 years to create a country that, against all odds, has survived? Or, for that matter, your cross-country lecture series on the topic? As a society, we practically did nothing--nothing of genuine, lasting importance, for sure.

You point out that very issue in which my essay was published featured no less than seven articles on various aspects of Canadian history. The LRC no doubt delivered another excellent issue but you are pointing to the ONLY oasis in the desert of Canadian print culture. The LRC was pointedly created in 1991 for that very purpose. Now, is there a second such publication that does this? Many friends point out that Canada’s History seems to be doing just fine, so what’s the problem? Again, I delight in the continued existence of the old Beaver magazine, but I don’t know about its state of health. I hope it continues to thrive. Is there a third? I would also point out the Dorchester Review, another small journal that caters to more conservative tastes but that focuses on Canadian history tirelessly and that boldly challenges conventional thinking. Ok, we’re up to three. For me, that’s just not enough. 

Our newspapers don’t carry enough articles that are historically minded—by that I mean that they will carry commentary that stretches back to uncover precedents to what is currently happening. There's stuff on the internet, of course. But it's not reliable and its riches can only be sought after if there's an appetite for it. The appetite for a shared experience of history--a rich one that includes innovative museum exhibits, lively debates, and an ongoing conversation is just not available in the country. 

Let’s look at the  school curriculum. Sure, your children attended Ontario high schools, where a credit in Canadian History is a requirement to graduate. The same thing exists in Manitoba, and in Quebec (for grades 7-11). Elsewhere in Canada, our high school history is wrapped into “social” or “civic” studies. It’s just not enough, Chris. Students are not taught how to "think historically"--you know well that it is a habit of mind. Instead, they learn trivia--stuff they forget instantly. 

You seem to condone the vandalism and removal of the statues to Sir John A. Macdonald. I found this to be deeply sad. The monuments, school names, street names, building names, were renamed without any serious, informed debate and simply because a very small segment of the population militated for it (nobody else cared). I don’t understand why you don’t share my sadness. Did these people not read your 1867: How the Fathers made a Deal or your Three Weeks in Quebec? I know you have your doubts about Macdonald—I do too. But your books showed eloquently how Macdonald was at the centre of things. Your books were ignored. Canadian cities and towns are putting up as “public art” utter monstrosities instead. Canada is diminished by this thoughtless erasing of a man who was considered a hero in his day. How very unfair to that generation.

Onto books, now. It is now very difficult to publish history books outside university presses. Of course, many are, but we are far from the days when the much regretted Macmillan of Canada or McClelland and Stewart routinely published great books of history. There is just no market for Canadian history books. Have you seen the "Canadian History" section at Indigo? The world doesn't seem to need much of Canada, after all. Charlotte Gray has lamented the lack of support for freelance history writers. I agree. We need more research on this topic, though. 

Last, I just don’t see your point on the CBC’s appalling record in covering Canada’s history. I think it’s a deep shame. The CBC, because it has the money and the mandate—and I’m talking about its television networks, here, not radio, because I’ve heard you there a few times   lost its way on this a long time ago. Show me a documentary—even an interview of Christopher Moore explaining his books on CBC-tv (or any other network outside TVOntario's niche The Agenda, and I’ll reconsider my views). Had it done its job right, I’d be assigning documentaries profiling you to my students. Heck, had the CBC done its job right, you with your Hollywood-handsome looks, would be hosting a weekly program. You should be the Canadian male equivalent of Lucy Worlsey on the BCC! I’ll note that the historians who actually make it to CBC radio are very few and far between. I’ve published ten books and never once have been invited to appear. Yes, I’m jealous, but I can live with it (God forgive me). Compare that to other public televisions in the US, France, Britain, Germany? You're pulling my leg.

You and I both agree that public policy has failed here. Just look at what is happening in Toronto regarding its Dundas Street. No other jurisdiction is looking to change the name Dundas because there is simply no evidence that he ever acted to delay the abolition of slavery. It was the complete opposite! This is the same city council that is now looking at the possibility of naming a neighbourhood stadium in honour of Rob Ford, the late mayor who embarrassed the city around the world with his shameless duplicity and incompetent management.

I’m convinced that Canadians of all regions and all stripes are eager to learn more about their history. The problem is indeed the curriculum makers and their politician enablers. Can the tide be turned? I see hope in the new Canadian Institute of Historical Education (CIHE.CA). These brave people—who are putting their dollars on the line, with no tax credits whatsoever—deserve support.

I want to point out that history--Canadian history in particular--is dying at the university level. People who focused on political history are retiring and they are not being replaced. That's your market, Christopher? For me, that's the core question: How do we rebuild the market and the appetite for Canadian history? It’s a conversation you and I need to have when we discuss our newest discoveries. Now pass the salt, my soup's getting cold.

Update, December 18:  Elsbeth Heaman comments:

Dear Patrice, I very much enjoyed your response to Christopher Moore and agree with several of your arguments (though not all, of course, thinking mine own little scholarly contribution was a real addition in 2017. Jack G. thought so too, you know, told me so!).

But I cannot resist observing that the call is coming from inside the house. I attach a screenshot of something I sent to my (11!) followers on Mastodon the other day. If the partisan-conservative political scientists are the vanguard of the attack on and erasure of history, as here suggested by their ignorance of your work on Macdonald, including the collection of essays that surely deserves some mention, then why blame left historians? Why not begin with your own Augean stable?!  

Happy holidays, hope you are well, I hope the covid distance you mention wasn’t a personal incapacitation.  


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