I took the liberty of crafting my own definition, with thanks to Mikhail Bakhtin: History is an intellectual journey into the past carried out by a spectrum of practitioners – scholarly, vernacular and popular who, interacting with evidence and informed by a unique consciousness shaped through dialogue and interactions with other voices and texts, articulate particular interpretations of the past at given moments. But history is never complete, always subject to reconsideration and, like humanity itself, unfinalizable.
It’s hard to choose but I would name three standouts: Fernand Braudel, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and Henry Glassie, for different reasons. Braudel’s work continues to resonate for his innovations in the conceptualization of historical time and his expansive demonstration of his insights in his classic The Mediterranean. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick was a great literary historian and humanist and her theoretical work influenced my own approaches to LGBTQ2+ history. She continues to inspire through her virtuosic peeling away of layers of language that shrouded our history over the last two centuries. Henry Glassie’s Passing the Time in Ballymenone is a quintessential example of both local history and dialogical historical writing. Rather than offer a linear, monological narrative, he presents history as a polyphonic concatenation of voices, of both the author and his collaborators, the community’s elders. It is a model of democratic historical writing.
I agree with the premise about excessive pride. Works of history have value only to the extent that they are useful to others. But historical practice extends well beyond scholarly writings to public historical practice including museum exhibitions, the interpretation of historic sites, and engagement with diverse audiences in the public sphere.
As to writings, my intention in applying critical theory to such historiographical topics as the Seven Oaks Incident, the Canadian Centenary Series, the CBC’s Canada: A People’s History, Sergeant Mitsui, Regina’s “Oscar Wilde,” and vernacular history was that it might help expand our conceptualization of history and challenge practitioners to think more deeply about issues of form and content. In the book Muskox Land, I also experimented with different models of writing to offer alternative methods of structuring history. Just recently I read some of the work of Jakub Muchowski, a Polish scholar who extensively applied my concepts of vernacular history to his studies of vernacular historical practices on Holocaust sites in Europe. It was gratifying to have contributed concepts considered useful to Holocaust studies.
Regarding public historical practice, an overriding goal has been to advance diversity and inclusion of socio-cultural groups and peoples whose histories have previously been ignored. In my own writing these included Métis, Inuit, Japanese Canadian and LGBTQ2+ people, as well as vernacular historians and elders of these and other communities. At Parks Canada it was our hope that collaborations with various underrepresented groups would advance the commemoration and integration of their histories into the national historic sites system. Over a 20-year period these initiatives contributed to the designation of more than 200 subjects of the history of women, Indigenous peoples and ethnocultural communities.
There remains more work to do on these aspects and especially on the history of LGBTQ2+ people which has received little consideration to date. I was fortunate to participate on the general advisory committee for the Canadian Museum of History’s Canadian History Hall exhibition, which made a good start in the treatment of LGBTQ2+ history. I am now part of other efforts to advance this history at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights so the work continues.
The greatest challenge was the 2012 cuts to culture and heritage implemented by the former government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper. These cuts prompted radical changes at Library and Archives Canada and we needed to push back by pressing LAC to maintain its services to scholars in the context of the cuts. The entire CHA Council and Executive stepped up and helped lead a wide-ranging effort to at least mitigate the impacts of these reductions.
Join a working group, develop a network and engage in dialogue about issues of importance to you and others. At the same time, don’t restrict your contacts to people you perceive to be like-minded. Engage others with different ideological affinities in discussion and debate and be open to new perspectives emerging from such dialogue.
What I would say is that the CHA will be in a good place when it provides forums for its members to discuss and debate a wide range of historical topics, including difficult or contentious issues. If the CHA can help foster open and respectful discussions between and among practitioners it will be fulfilling one of its key roles as a forum of intellectual inquiry, knowledge dissemination, and exchange.
It would be two questions: first, what has your experience as a practitioner taught you about people, who we are, what motivates us, what has changed in the past or more or less stayed the same? Second, in light of that knowledge, what can we as historians do to apply it in making things better for members of the human community?
My answer to the first question is that I am still trying to learn answers to these historical conundrums. As to the second question, our responsibility to humanity is reason enough to be mindful of the right of all peoples to share in our collective past and future as we collaborate to better understand ourselves and the people we are studying. We are all answerable.
Lyle Dick Senior Advisor