An African proverb retold by Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe best captures my definition of history: “Until the lions have their own historians, historians of the hunt will glorify the hunter.” In an interview published in the Paris Review, he continued that storytelling “is something we have to do, so that the story of the hunt will also reflect the agony, the travail – the bravery, even, of the lions.”
E.P. Thompson without doubt. Not only was he a brilliant and inspiring historian of the English working class and of their 18th century predecessors but he was also an inspiring and important political figure in the birth of the first new left, the articulation of socialist humanism, the fight for a destalinized Marxism, and his major anti-nuclear activism. His Poverty of Theory can be read an insightful amplification of Achebe’s insights.
In reflecting on my contribution to Canadian historiography, I suspect my greatest impact was not via my monographs and essays in labour and working-class history, and later in the history of state repression, but rather in the success of the Canadian Committee on Labour History and, especially, its journal Labour/le Travail.
The greatest challenge that I faced in my presidency, and the crisis continues to worsen, was and is the historian’s and the public’s ability to access historical documents. This challenge in the Canadian context revolves around Library and Archives Canada (LAC) and the Access to Information (ATI) regime. Recent Canadian governments of both political stripes have taken to heart the fictional, cynical bureaucrat, Sir Humphrey Appleby’s sage political advice: “He who would keep a secret must keep it a secret that he hath a secret to keep.” Sadly, the failures of LAC and the Access legislation have created something akin to Orwell’s scenario in 1984: “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” Against this perspective only effective archival access can insure democracy. As Derrida argued, archives are key to “the question of the future itself, the question of a response, of a promise, and a responsibility for tomorrow.” Indeed, he went further: “Effective democratization can always be measured by this essential criterion: the participation in and access to the archives, its constitution, and its interpretation.” Canada is failing in this crucial test of allowing history to test past state practice in a wide range of fields but especially in areas of security and intelligence.
As an organization representing historians and others engaged with our past, the CHA shares in the current malaise in the world of the humanities and social sciences. The neoliberal undermining of all things “public” including post-secondary education and the increasingly hostile alt-right attacks on anything approximating critical thought are challenges that demand articulate, public responses. Such responses must also engage with new communications technologies via critical and creative contributions. The challenge for CHA is real as recent controversies have made only too clear.
The study of history has never been more relevant than it is today. Yet, we as historians, are facing an existential crisis due to growing precarity within our ranks, questions about the future of the History PhD in Canada, and an assault on the humanities and social sciences. What happened at Laurentian University is a warning to all of us. We are already seeing History Departments in the UK being dismantled en masse, and with these changes a growing divide opening up between “top-tier” universities and everyone else. I am a firm believer that historical training should not be the preserve of “elites.”
My specific question for a future President is how to mobilize our own and kindred organizational resources to mount a significant campaign to put LAC and ATI on the national agenda in an effort to provide them with appropriate resources and significant reform. Previous CHA campaigns around the preservation and release of manuscript census data and cuts to LAC services might provide some guidance for such lobbying efforts.