Undiplomatic History: A Symposium on Rethinking the History of Canada in the World

Phil Van Huizen & Asa McKercher

International history has become marginalized in Canada and it is time to fix the problem. In fact, repairs are already underway. The Wilson Institute at McMaster University will host a symposium from 27-29 April that seizes upon a gathering momentum in Canadian history for a return to relevance for the generally maligned sub-field. By bringing together leading and emerging international historians and putting them in conversation with scholars interested in other ways of considering Canadian interactions abroad, our event will move the conversation along the path toward to a revitalised understanding of Canada’s place in the world.

Late in 2015, in a look at the state of Canadian international history, historian David Meren lamented what he called the field’s “stagnation” in Canada, which resulted in a lack of critical engagement on the part of Canadians with the international relationships that defined their country’s past and present.[1] According to Meren, this situation not only impeded “the emergence of a narrative capable of challenging established orthodoxies,” but led both “to romanticized notions of Canada’s international action” and to “the lack of an effective countervailing voice” to rally against the use of Canadian international history for “reactionary ends,” such as support for the war in Afghanistan.[2] In comparison to the United States, where the War on Terror coincided with – or led to – a revival of diplomatic history and to historians’ engagement in vigorous public debates about the nature and direction of US foreign policy, the diminution of Canadian international history, and the marginalization of its practitioners, contributed to a paucity of historical input into debates about Canada’s contemporary global engagement. We agree that ignorance of Canada’s past role in the world is a tragedy.

Of course, Meren is hardly alone in lamenting the state of international history in Canada. Indeed, such laments have a long pedigree. Canadian international history became one of the chief casualties of the ‘history wars’ that raged in academia in the 1980s and 1990s, when historians bickered over approaches to the field, particularly relating to valuable new insights provided by social and cultural ‘turns’ in historical practice. The results were clear by 1994, when Robert Bothwell, the dean of Canadian international historians, lamented that, “The number of historians publishing regularly in the field of Canadian foreign policy is, by recent scientific estimate . . . about the same as the digits on the feet of a three-toed sloth.”[3] In the intervening decades, little has changed.

While it is not our intention to revisit – or worse, to reignite – the history wars (nor to induce post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms in that conflict’s veterans), it is worth briefly noting how the field has fared over the past few decades. Viewed – rightly, in many ways – as hidebound, elitist, and overly concerned with the state and with the white males who dominated it, international history went by the wayside in Canada. Following the history wars, traditional diplomatic and political historians found themselves largely defeated. As one history war combatant put it, “the battle has been won. With a few grumpy exceptions, the university professoriate has been won over to a more inclusive history.”[4]

Not that Canadian international historians disappeared. Rather, many practitioners continued to serve, not in history departments, but in interdisciplinary departments and research centres. Moreover, even as their numbers shrank they continued to publish, to train grad students, and to teach courses on international history, a subject matter that retained considerable popularity with undergraduates, not to mention with publishers and even the public.[5] But they became a small, relatively insular community of scholars, relegated to the sidelines of Canadian history, rarely appearing at the Canadian Historical Association annual meetings, and publishing in specialized journals rather than in the Canadian Historical Review. The passing of Canadian foreign policy history seemed to reflect a wider trend in the 1990s and early 2000s of a lack of engagement with the world on the part of Canada and of Canadians more generally. The title of one polemic from the turn of the millennium put it succinctly: While Canada Slept: How We Lost Our Place in the World.[6]1094606

Thus, while Meren and Bothwell might differ in their views on Canadian foreign policy, what unites them – and us – is the sense that the historical study of Canada’s global engagement is vital and that the relative lack of attention to this history is lamentable. Our symposium represents an effort to create a revived, forward-looking, inclusive field of Canadian international history, which we call the study of Canada in the World.

And there are many signs that the time is ripe for such a revival and, indeed, that change is already afoot, both within academia and outside of it. As Justin Trudeau announced in October 2015 in his first press conference as prime minister: “I want to say this to this country’s friends around the world: Many of you have worried that Canada has lost its compassionate and constructive voice in the world over the past 10 years. Well, I have a simple message for you on behalf of 35 million Canadians. We’re back.”[7] Regardless of the accuracy of such a self-aggrandizing view, perhaps it took the recent conservative counter-revolution in foreign policy to refocus Canadian attention on the world and their place within it. Or, perhaps the culprit was the collective impact of the war in Afghanistan, the wider ‘War on Terror’, climate change, the 2008 financial crisis, and the ongoing process of globalization, with its attendant economic, cultural and social effects. These events and developments (to say nothing of the potential impacts of Trumpism and right-wing populism abroad and at home) underscore Canada’s connectivity with the world and indicate the need to study Canada’s place within it.

Things are shifting in scholarly circles as well. Canadian historians are certainly more accepting of outward looking scholarship, for transnational, global, and imperial history have thrived over the past decade or so. Moreover, Canadian international historians have begun to adopt a more inclusive outlook. Just as a new political history has arisen to explore the confluence of politics, society, and culture in Canada, there has been a growing trend toward a new, vibrant Canadian international history.[8] From peace to war, from trade to human rights, and from identity formation to cultural transfer, the world matters to Canada and to the study of Canadian history. Beyond emphasizing the obvious importance of international, transnational, imperial, and global frameworks to our understanding of Canada’s past, another goal of our upcoming symposium is to query what separates these different approaches to the study of Canada in the world and, in fact, to point the way forward for a holistic approach.

Our central aim is to encourage a more rigorous approach to a new international history. In doing so, we aim to assess some of the theoretical implications behind the revolution that occurred in the United States, where the field of America in the World has become a vibrant force blending transnational and cultural history with more traditional international history. We believe that a similar trend is underway in Canada, and our intent is to provide a forum – and a resulting edited collection – that will point the way toward a new history of Canada in the World. In sum, the time has come to take stock of these changes and to consider what new directions in Canadian international history mean for the study of Canada more generally.

The symposium kicks off with a public roundtable and wine and cheese reception at 7PM on Thursday, April 27. Focused on bringing different perspectives on Canada in the World into conversation with each other, the roundtable features preeminent scholars Adele Perry, David Meren, Tarah Brookfield, and Timothy Andrews Sale, who will discuss how imperial, international, transnational, and global studies have reinvigorated Canadian history, and how these approaches can inform each other as the field moves forward.

Following Thursday’s event, on Friday and Saturday, 28-29 April, conference-style panels will explore Canada in the World through a variety of lenses: human rights and transnationalism; reimagined forms of diplomacy; Indigenous international relations; “Orientalisms” and the impact of culture on foreign policy; global development and modernization; international environmental and health issues; and peace and international order. As with the roundtable, all conference panels are open to the public, and will be held in the Council Chambers of McMaster University. You can find a full conference schedule here: http://wilson.humanities.mcmaster.ca/wilson-room-booking/undiplomatic-history-rethinking-canada-in-the-world/.

All are welcome to attend and join the conversation!


Phil Van Huizen is an Assistant Professor in Canadian History at the Wilson Institute for Canadian History with a PhD from the University of British Colombia. He is an environmental historian and is currently working on North American oil and gas networks. His research has been the recipient of numerous awards, including the American Historical Associations’ prize for best doctoral dissertation on the North American West. He is also the author of numerous articles and chapters, including “Water Power before Hydroelectricity,” published in Power Up Canada: the History of Power, Fuel, and Energy from 1600 and “Building a Green Dam: Environmental Moderism and the Canadian-American Libby Dam Project,” winner of the W. Turrentine Jackson Prize.

 Asa McKercher is an Assistant Professor in Canadian History at the Wilson Institute for Canadian History with a PhD from Cambridge. He is a specialist of Canadian international relations and international history with a special interest in Canada-Latin America and in particular Canada-Cuba relations. He is the author of more than a dozen articles and chapters as well as the award-nominated Camelot and Canada: Canadian-American Relations in the Kennedy Era.

[1] We define international history as the historical study of foreign policy, diplomacy, and international relations, broadly conceived. We also prefer this term to the perhaps more commonly used, although more narrowly focused, diplomatic history, while also recognizing that the two are often used interchangeably.

[2] David Meren, “The Tragedies of Canadian International History,” Canadian Historical Review 96, no. 4 (December 2015), 537-38. See the responses to Meren’s essay by Dominique Marshall, John English, and Adam Chapnick in the same issue.

[3] Robert Bothwell, “Journey to a Small Country: Only in Canada You Say? Pity”, International Journal 50, no. 1 (1994-5): 128. And see: Adam Chapnick, “Where Have All of Canada’s Where Have All of Canada’s Diplomatic Historians Gone?”, International Journal 65, no. 3 (2010): 725-37.

[4] Christopher Dummitt, “After inclusiveness: The future of Canadian history,” in Contesting Clio’s Craft: New Directions and Debates in Canadian History, eds., Christopher Dummitt and Michael Dawson (London: Institute for the Study of the Americas, 2009), 102.

[5] Carrying the torch for Canadian international history, older scholars Robert Bothwell, Norman Hillmer, and John English continued producing excellent scholarship and providing vital mentorship to younger historians, many of whom are now at the forefront of the new Canadian international history.

[6] Andrew Cohen, While Canada Slept: How We Lost Our Place in the World (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2003).

[7] Jessica Murphy, “Canada to end airstrikes in Syria and Iraq, new prime minister Trudeau says”, The Guardian (21 October 2015). It is worth noting that Stephen Harper said almost exactly the same thing, with opposite implications, shortly after he took office in 2006: Jessica Chin, “Justin Trudeau’s Not the First Prime Minister to Say ‘Canada Is Back,’” Huffington Post Canada (1 December 2015), http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2015/12/01/canada-is-back-trudeau-harper_n_8688282.html.

[8] The new political history of Canada is connected to the Canadian Historical Association’s Political History Group. For representative works, see: Marcel Martel, Not This Time: Canadians, Public Policy and the Marijuana Question, 1961-1975 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006); Penny Bryden, ‘A Justifiable Obsession’: Conservative Ontario’s Relations with Ottawa, 1943-1985 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013); Matthew Hayday, So They Want Us To Learn French: Promoting and Opposing Bilingualism in English-speaking Canada (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2015); and Bradley Miller, Borderline Crime: Fugitive Criminals and the Challenge of the Border, 1819-1915 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016).

Title Image: “President of the United States, John F. Kennedy accompanied by his spouse, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, and Hon. John G. Diefenbaker on steps of the Parliament, May 1961.” Library and Archives Canada. Reproduced with the permission of Library and Archives Canada.

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