Remembering CanStudies

  • Christl Verduyn and Jane Koustas (Editor)
    Canadian Studies: Past, Present, Praxis. Fernwood (purchase at
  • Nicole Neatby (Editor) and Peter Hodgins (Editor)
    Settling and Unsettling Memories: Essays in Canadian Public History. University of Toronto Press (purchase at
Reviewed by Martin Kuester

On the 1st of May 2012, the international Canadian Studies community was informed that the Canadian government had taken the decision to discontinue the Understanding Canada program of the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. From one day to the next, government funding for Canadian Studies worldwide came to a halt, and in many cases, this was funding that would have generated (and had done so for several decades) considerable further Canadian Studies expenses abroad as well as income for Canadian enterprises in the fields of publishing, tourism, and education. As then president of GKS, a tri-national Canadian Studies association representing about six-hundred Canadianists from Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, I admit to having been deeply saddened by this development and the disappearance of a program to which I, like many other Canadianists worldwide, owe financial support as well as the motivation to teach about Canada as the better North American alternative. This recent caesura in the history of international Canadian Studies provides a special background to this discussion of two very important and highly informative essay collections-amounting to just under one thousand pages-that appeared around the time when the decision to abolish Understanding Canada was announced. Canadian Studies has been under discussion, we see, not only on an international scale, but also in Canada itself. The first of these volumes deals with the state and status of Canadian Studies, whereas the other one offers useful insights and suggestions for further research on national and international levels-if funding is available.

Canadian Studies: Past, Present, Praxis, edited by Christl Verduyn and Jane Koustas, traces the development of Canadian Studies (within, but also outside of Canada) from the 1970s to the present. It brings together seminal old and new essays and is composed of three parts (Past, Present, and Praxis). The first part contains central texts stating and questioning the need for Canadian Studies as a field of academic research and starts with extracts from Thomas H. B. Symons’ report of the Commission on Canadian Studies (1975). This commission had started its work in 1972, and its report is a founding document of Canadian Studies showing the need for more attention to Canadian circumstances in the curriculum of the country’s universities. Interestingly enough, the report also insisted on the need for a greater appreciation on the part of Canadian governmental institutions of the potential value of a well-planned program of support for Canadian cultural relations with other countries. The resulting (and now discontinued) support of Canadian Studies abroad has generally been seen as a success story. About twenty years after Symons’ report, David Cameron looks once again at the condition of Canadian Studies and concludes in 1996 that teaching and learning about Canada, within the humanities and social sciences, has a significant place within the academic departments of Canadian universities, especially in an interdisciplinary context. For him, too, one of the most striking features of the past 10 to 15 years has been the flowering of Canadian studies outside the country. Jill Vickers presents the development of the Carleton Canadian Studies program as an example of interdisciplinary cooperation mirroring the different phases of the recognition of Canadian Studies in the academic community from the founding era of the 1960s and 1970s to the era of new scholarship in the 1990s. A group of essays on the state of the art of Canadian Studies is then gathered from the millennium issue of the Journal of Canadian Studies / Revue d’études canadiennes. Among these, Robert M. Campbell’s introductory essay points to the successes and perils in the field such as the fact that funding pressures at the government and university levels can make Canadian Studies activities and processes a target for cuts; he also shows the chances and difficulties arising for the field in an age of comparative studies and globalization. Thomas H. B. Symons has remained a critic and supporter of Canadian Studies, as his second contribution, The State of Canadian Studies at the Year 2000, clearly shows. Besides naming successful Canadian Studies programs all over the country, he draws attention to the institutions supporting the study of Canada such as the National Library, the National Archives, and Statistics Canada. Needless to add that from the reviewer’s 2012 perspective, all these have suffered from recent government cutbacks. As Symons writes about cutbacks that occurred in the 1990s: [c]utting Canadians off from these sources of independent research and opinion has been an appalling misjudgement that demonstrates, once more, that governments of whatever political strip frequently know the cost of some things and the value of little. In another essay from the Millennium edition of the Journal of Canadian Studies, John H. Wadland subdivides the development of Canadian Studies into two phases, the first one in post-war and cold-war Canada and a second one standing for meaningful interdisciplinary cooperation in a more and more fragmented university system. He insists on the importance of the humanities: While many of our political leaders systematically discredit the humanities and the social sciences in schools and universities, our young people are herded into labelled bins where skill sets are substituted for wisdom, technology for humans, fat wallets for culture and jobs for life.

In the second part of Verduyn and Koustas’s collection, contemporary developments and challenges are discussed. Ian Angus proposes a new rationale for Canadian Studies and calls for a rethinking [of] the relation of particularity and universality, a push to levels beneath the nation-state to uncover the communities and identities constituted through the localities and an attention to the different histories and temporalities that are lived there. Raymond Blake similarly insists on Canadian Studies’ national function in the realm of educating citizens and informing public policy, thus becoming a Public Good. Andrew Nurse points to the usefulness of historical materialism in this context, and Mihaela Vieru stresses the conundrum of interdisciplinarity. For her, Canadian Studies is and should be an activist discipline and should remain critical of both political/social realms and academic constraints while stay[ing] open to feeding that initial passion through engagement with publics at large. In Indigenous Studies in the Canadian Studies Context, Donna Patrick, Timothy Di Leo Brown, and Mallory Whiteduck point out the importance of integrating indigenous perspectives into a Canadian Studies context, as First Nations Canadians have so far been disadvantaged, and as, they insist, [O]ne cannot understand the Canadian nation-state and ‘Canada’ without considering the Indigenous realities and histories that are an inherent part of this understanding. Colin Coates and Geoffrey Ewen claim that traditionally, Canadian Studies has mostly focused on English-speaking Canada and that a refocusing on French-Canadian topics is necessary, as demonstrated in a model textbook they have developed.

The third part of this important collection (i.e., Praxis) focuses on Canadian Studies in a comparative, for example international perspective. Cornelius Remie, former president of the International Council for Canadian Studies, and Guy Leclair comment on International Canadian Studies: The Community Beyond and make important suggestions for the renewal and internationalization of the field, a project that might now be imperilled by the government cutbacks. Maeve Conrick reports on Canadian Studies in Ireland as a case study of a foreign research community. She also states why cutbacks are so dangerous for foreign Canadian Studies associations, i.e., that attracting students to do PhDs on Canadian Studies topics would be all the more challenging, if not impossible. In Crossing Borders, Mark Paul Richard presents transnational migration from the eighteenth-century Loyalists to twentieth-century draft dodgers as a theme making Canadian Studies more relevant to contemporary students. Jeffrey Ruhl and L. Pauline Rankin present the Trent-Carleton joint PhD program in Canadian Studies as a promising work in progress profiting from a sense of creative instability.

While several of the essays in Verduyn and Koustas’s collection mention the importance of Canadian Studies as a contribution to the public good, Settling and Unsettling Memories: Essays in Canadian Public History, edited by Nicole Neatby and Peter Hodgins, offers a wealth of discussions and topics for any student and teacher of Canadian Studies. This, too, is a mix of previously published and new essays, and all of the eighteen contributions offer important insights into Canada’s remembrance of its heroic past, pedagogies of nation-building, and methods of visualizing and revising the past. The book is a fascinating read because central elements and lieux de mémoire, whether they be factual or invented traditions of Canada’s collective memory, appear time and again in many of these essays. Striking examples are Benjamin West’s painting of the death of General Wolfe on the Plains of Abraham, Robert Harris’s Fathers of Confederation, the Champlain Statue in Ottawa, the last spike completing the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, and several of the vignettes in the Heritage Minutes series. This illustrates that the same person or event may become part of different invented histories or, as Hayden White would put it, emplotments. The first such person is Madeleine de Verchères, the Woman Warrior of New France, whom Colin Coates shows to be imagined in quite different ways. Cecilia Morgan presents Laura Secord as an English Canadian heroine being re-imagined according to various views of the War of 1812. French and English Canadian re-invention of a common Canadian past is approached by Jason F. Kovacs and Brian S. Osborne’s discussion of the way the city of Quebec has dealt with the heroic performance of the English Canadian soldiers Short and Wallick in a late nineteenth-century city fire. Ronald Rudin’s discussion of the role of Pierre Dugua de Monts and Samuel de Champlain in the tri- and quadricentennial celebrations of the settlement of Atlantic Canada presents another example of diverging provincial and federal, Acadian, and Québécois interests in appropriating historic figures.

In the context of the second part, Pedagogies of Nation, Ken Osborne addresses the question of teaching and raising the awareness of Canadian history in schools and shows a fundamental rethinking of the nature and purpose of history education in the schools, changing from knowledge-based and narrative-centred to approaches treat[ing] history as an initiation into the continuing debate that lies at the heart of the Canadian experience. The public display and streamlining of Canadian history in TV productions, such as the CBC’s Canada: A People’s History, is the topic of Lyle Dick’s critical analysis, which deplores the marginalization of minorities. Timothy J. Stanley addresses the racialization of Chinese Canadians in public memory by interpreting the collective memory building strategies underlying a Heritage Minute film. Sasha Mullally presents the possibilities that the WorldWideWeb offers in democratizing the past and offering new strategies for teaching history, but she also highlights the immense cost of digitization and the dangers of falsification and fraud.

The third part of the collection, Visualizing and Revising the Past, deals with images of nationhood in the fine arts. H. V. Nelles focuses on history painting around the turn of the century, such as Robert Harris’s Fathers of Confederation or the paintings of Marc-Aurèle de Foy Suzor-Coté. Eva Mackey has a look at the ways in which the colonial past is integrated into a national self-image which often seems to be exclusionary, assimilationist, and racialized in its hybridity discourse. Ruth B. Phillips reads and dis-members monuments, such as Benjamin West’s painting or the Ottawa Champlain statue, from a First Nations point of view, whereas Ian Radforth discusses the redress campaigns of the Japanese, Italian and Ukrainian Canadian communities looking for financial recompense for or at least official recognition of wartime injustices in the World Wars.

The collection’s fourth part, Cashing in on the Past, deals with financial aspects of the creation or invention of a national past reflected in the tourism industry. As James Murton shows, in the early twentieth century, Canadian steamship lines profited from and partly created a view of Old Quebec as a European-type folk culture, a process supported by anthropologists such as Marius Barbeau as well as government institutions. A similar antimodern development, building on the Acadian Evangeline myth, is detected in Nova Scotia by Ian McKay, whereas Nicole Neatby shows Quebec’s government-induced face-lift from antimodern Old Quebec to modern Belle Province. While the Molson Canadian beer advertisements focusing on central events of Canadian history may by now have become a staple ingredient of many Studies courses worldwide, Ira Wagman discusses this and other examples of Packaging History and Memory in Canadian Commercial Advertising. Besides focusing on campaigns for alcoholic beverages (some much stronger than beer), this essay also analyzes the advertising strategies of banks and industrial firms.

In the fifth part, Entertaining the Past, Peter Hodgins revisits the search for a usable disaster in his essay on the Halifax explosion, which he traces especially in a recent television production. Renée Hulan brings the volume to a close with an essay on Canadian historical fiction in English. After giving an overview of its nineteenth-century predecessors, many of whom wrote in the tradition established by Sir Walter Scott, she draws the readers’ attention to a strong tradition of historical novels in contemporary fiction. She especially highlights experimental works such as Douglas Glover’s Elle about Marguerite de Roberval (which draws upon and rewrites an earlier nineteenth-century version of the legend) and Guy Vanderhaeghe’s The Englishman’s Boy, which focuses on the difference of American and Canadian versions of the West. As she concludes, By reading historical fiction with attention to form and style, not merely to the story being told or the accuracy of historical detail used to create the fictional world, we gain a deeper understanding of the sense of the past historical fiction conveys, and the country imagined in it.

While acknowledging some less positive developments in the field, Verduyn and Koustas claim for their collection that the essays assembled here demonstrate not only the worth of Canadian Studies but indeed its long-standing relevance and vital role on the national and international academic stage. This view is probably shared by most involved in the field as teachers or students. The problem may be that-at least for Canadianists outside of Canada-the chances to teach Canadian Studies will be severely limited by the decision to abolish a government program that was-in hindsight, ironically-entitled Understanding Canada. It would be unthinkable to see Canada return to the state described in the Symons Report, of Canada not placing any kind of priority upon her cultural relations with other countries, of stand[ing] alone among the world’s industrialized nations in lacking a well-developed policy regarding her cultural relationships with foreign countries. But this was in the past, and by now-as the collections discussed here show-the study of Canada, in Canada and abroad, has become an important and lively field, and-even without government support-it should provide another example of the spirit of survival so famously described by Margaret Atwood forty years ago.

This review “Remembering CanStudies” originally appeared in Of Borders and Bioregions. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 218 (Autumn 2013): 177-81.

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