This essay was originally posted on ActiveHistory.ca in June 2013
Over the past few months Canadians have spent an unusually significant amount of time discussing how our history is told. Following significant cutbacks at our key national historical institutions (Library and Archives Canada, Parks Canada, and the Museum of Civilization) and the announcement of targeted government-led history projects (such as the new Canadian Museum of History and the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage’s Study of Significant Aspects in Canadian History), the study of our history has re-emerged as a subject for heated debate. Amidst much discussion, historians and politicians have made fairly broad statements about the state of historical research in Canada. All of which leads to the question: In 2013, what does Canadian history look like?
Today, hundreds of historians are descending upon the University of Victoria for the Canadian Historical Association‘s annual meeting (the CHA). This is the pre-eminent gathering of professional historians in the country. Over the next three days, a mix of junior and senior scholars will discuss local and regional issues as well as broader international subjects and more methodological concerns. Historians will celebrate our successes and share new directions in our research.
The CHA is perhaps the best place to assess the discipline as a whole.To that end, today I want to ask a few questions: what topics do Canadian historians study? In what time periods are we most interested? How well do we balance issues of region and language? Has Canadian history changed as radically as some of its critics suggest?
To answer these questions, I put this year’s CHA program to the test. I assembled all the paper titles related to Canadian history (167 titles) and broke the program down into three categories: time period (114 titles), region (97 titles), and language (167 titles). To get at the content of the talks, I used the titles to make a word cloud. I excluded stop words (such as ‘and’, ‘but’ etc…) and words that would distort the analysis (Canada, Canadian, History and Historical).
Here are my results:
These results are unsurprising. Canadian historians are overwhelmingly interested in topics that follow the year 1830, when Canadian state apparatus really began to develop. The vast majority of papers, however, cover the period after the outbreak of the First World War (most of the 52 papers without explicit reference to their time period focus on the post-war period). Forty percent of the papers address national subjects, while sixty percent have a regional or international focus. In fact, the program is surprisingly well balanced by region, though the Prairies are slightly underrepresented. Also unsurprising in light of the conference venue on the Pacific Coast is that only six papers will be delivered in French.
The word cloud gives us some idea of the conference’s overall themes. Key words in the program are British, North, American, Community, Ontario, Politics, Colonial, Rural, War and Borderlands. For readers familiar with the Canadian history canon (old and new), these subjects are not surprising. Nor are other important foci: women, indigenous, governance, development and sovereignty. Significantly given the lack of French in the program, Montreal is the only Canadian city to make the cut.
The sample size of this word cloud, however, is relatively small. The most frequent words appear only ten times. To account for this, I also created a word cloud for the entire program, not just the Canadian history papers. This includes the titles of the poster session and papers that address non-Canadian topics. Adding these titles increased the number of words by 1,000 and gives us a broader sense of what topics historians are studying.
The results suggest a slight change in emphasis. The top ten words in this larger sample are: British, war, colonial, politics, American, community, indigenous, north, new and public. Other key words are: Ontario, rural, women, social and the state. Again, these are rather standard topics in the canon of Canadian history.
After taking a look at these results, my interest was piqued. So I grabbed copies of the last decade of CHA meetings (all of which are available online) and began turning them into word clouds. I’ve posted the results at the bottom of this post, listing where the CHA was held and the top five words in the cloud. Looking at these images side by side allows us to see some change over time and the variation in conference theme (you can see the program by clicking on the image).
Once this was done, I decided it would be fruitful to put all of the paper titles together. Again broadening out my sample size to include about 30,000 words. Here’s what the last decade of paper presentations looked like at the CHA:
Surprisingly, this word cloud doesn’t look all that different than the one from this year’s CHA. War, British, women, public, Ontario and politics dominate in both. Indeed, if you look at the year-by-year word clouds below, it appears that what has been called the Conservative vision of history (history with a focus on Canada’s military and British heritage), a centre piece of a new warrior nation, has been alive and well during most CHA meetings.
Of course, word clouds tell us nothing about the context in which these words are situated. I suspect that this matters. The word ‘war,’ which appears twice as often as any other word except British, tells us little about a paper’s broader context. A title that uses ‘war’ could just as easily focus on the tactical victories of the Canadian Expeditionary Force during the First World War as it could on wartime conditions for women factory workers during World War Two. The former is a relatively stereotypical topic in military history, the latter a stereotype of the potential wartime interests of social and cultural historians.
Nonetheless, these word clouds are revealing and shed light on what the so-called ‘history wars‘ were all about. They suggest that although the attention of historians shifted away from political, economic and military interests towards more social and cultural subjects, their broad topical interests remained the same. The Canadian historical community continues to spend considerable energy on questions related to war, empire and politics. Perhaps, it seems, the shift in historiographical emphasis has not been as significant as often made out. The baby may not have been thrown out with the bath water after all.
The decade-long data also demonstrates that this year’s conference program is not an anomaly in terms of the time periods in which historians are interested. Canadian history is heavily weighted to the twentieth century. This suggests that there is a structural problem at least within the CHA, but quite possibly more broadly. Put simply, and relatively speaking, there seems to be comparatively little professional interest in Canada’s pre-Confederation history. If our history departments and programs reflect a similar gap in our understanding of the seventeenth, eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, then the Canadian historical profession does indeed have a problem in terms of our understanding and teaching of Canada’s past.
Much of this resonates with the evidence I drew out in my last blog post about the ‘history wars.’ In that post, I looked at recent publications in Canadian history from the presses at the University of Toronto, McGill-Queen’s and the University of British Columbia as well as last year’s articles in the Canadian Historical Review to suggest that the ‘history wars’ debate actually mischaracterizes the actual work of Canadian historians.
The subject matter discussed at the annual meetings of the Canadian Historical Association suggests that this is indeed the case. Yes, there has been substantial historiographical change, but that shift may not have been as marked as often projected. On the whole, the titles of papers delivered at the CHA suggest Canadian historians continue to focus their attention on war, Canada’s relationship to Britain and the twentieth century.
Thomas Peace is a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow in Native American Studies at Dartmouth College