Of course the title of Terry Glavin’s recent editorial begs the question: what history establishment? Who could he possibly be talking about? Oddly enough he is not describing himself or the much-championed, prolific and ‘decorated’ Jack Granatstein. No the problem is those pesky universities who fail to understand that history has a proper, obvious and ‘common-sense’ canon. While Glavin notes that there are some useful aspects to ‘cultural’ and ‘social’ history, he is hard pressed to name any. The trouble, apparently, is that contemporary historians see themselves as activists.
One need merely have a cursory look at depictions of Canadian history books to know this is nothing new – and didn’t start in the demonic New Left 1960s. As with most histories you can read a lot by noting absences. It is pretty amusing the much-praised, and theoretically neutral, Granatstein is so praised by Glavin. Why even mention that the unbiased common-sense historian works under the umbrella of the Canadian Defence & Foreign Affairs Institute – a not so subtle ideologically-driven think tank with both a ‘mission’ and set of ‘corporate goals’. Among a long list of what the organization wants to achieve is “To develop relationships with the media such that they will routinely contact CDFAI.” Mission accomplished!
It is interesting that Glavin seems to want Canadian history to be both non-activist and positive in outlook. The notion seems to be that being positive is both common-sense and ideologically neutral. Reflecting back on the 1990s, Glavin notes, “Most Canadians weren’t aware that Canada is one of the only countries in the world that doesn’t teach even a vaguely positive history of itself to its children.” No ideology in that statement. While the argument is that students were learning ‘faddish’ rather than real history, my experience with university students in the 2000s suggests otherwise. I was most often disappointed by what I took to be tidy and linear conceptions of the past. As I note that some undergrads were reading Granatstein, perhaps he shares some of the blame.
The editorial favourably cites recent comments by the prime minister regarding what are taken to be key anniversaries. Harper is quoted as saying, “These milestones remind us of a proud national story rooted in the great deeds of our ancestors and in a centuries-old constitutional legacy of freedom.” By employing words such as ‘story’ and ‘great deeds’, it’s no wonder some folks fear the worst with respect to upcoming changes at the Canadian Museum of Civilization. Harper’s words also demonstrate a particular obtuseness given the Aboriginal issues that were coming to the surface at the time he made these comments. Of course, given Harper’s long-standing relationship with Tom Flanagan, any astute student of Canadian history already had a sense of the prime minister’s take on such issues.
Speaking of history - one can’t help but note there is nothing new in this editorial. It is the same dull story on offer: My conception of history is neutral and correct and all else is activism, or worse, some fancy academic trickery. What I have is good sense and what you have is ideology. All of the standard and predictable conservative lines. Thus folks such as Glavin and Granatstein must paint those who challenge their positively conventional conceptions of the past as an “establishment” or “orthodoxy.” Imagine some of those crazy university nuts are more committed to nuance than Canada. If only those duped and brainwashed students had access to the Ottawa Citizen and Granatstein’s books all would be well. If only such non-establishment publications were widely available.