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Margaret Conrad (2005-2007)

Margaret Conrad

History consists of the stories people tell about their pasts—the pasts of themselves, their families, their communities, and their place on planet Earth. Every effort to engage the past is shaped by context and ideology. Whether oral or written, history is an ever-changing narrative designed to meet the needs of the present.

Eric Hobsbawm is my favourite historian because of his exceptional ability to see the larger trends of change over time and because of his life-affirming moral compass. For the same reasons, I admire Sarah Carter whose research and analysis of Indigenous-settler relations in western Canada bring exceptional clarity and moral integrity to significant issues relating to class, culture, gender, and place that have relevance globally as well as locally.  

I am most proud of A Concise History of Canada, published by Cambridge University Press in 2012, the culmination of a larger corpus of national history texts written with Alvin Finkel, Donald Fyson, and others since the early 1990s. These publications have wide circulation, reaching a great many students and general readers. Although not much valued or even widely reviewed by academics, these books have been influential in the debates about what counts as “national” history and are purposefully attentive to the inclusion of issues relating to class, culture, gender, ideology, and region in Canada. I am also proud that I am among a miniscule number of female historians who have tried to digest Canada as a whole, an exercise which, I assure you, is no easy task for anyone.

My greatest challenge as president (2005-07), was helping the CHA to develop a communications strategy for the digital age. With help from Don Fyson, Marielle Campeau, staff at Library and Archives Canada, and others, we installed information about the CHA online, including its many booklets. Within a few years, our website had become outdated, a typical outcome in the fast-paced world of twenty-first-century communications technologies. Happily, the CHA’s website has become more richly populated and user friendly than it was fifteen years ago.  

As formal economic, political, and religious institutions crumble under the weight of their fossilized structures, a strong civil society and the organizations it inspires are essential to a well-functioning democratic polity. Belonging to the CHA is the least we can do to support those who make the study of the past as professional and purposeful as it can be at any given time. Understanding the historical roots of current cultural practices will not ensure that we as a species address the deep challenges facing the planet today, but it can offer valuable insights into human agency that we all must draw upon as we face the future.

Since its founding a century ago, the CHA has faced the challenge of its relevance. The discipline of history has also often been discounted, for example receiving less support from granting agencies than the STEM subjects now so highly prized. At some point in the future, the CHA and the discipline of history may not be of relevance to anyone, but for the present both are arguably more important than ever before. Our task as citizens and historians is to pay close attention to the forces that undermine efforts to analyze the historical roots of any current condition.

Question: How can the CHA help to bring itself and its institutional allies (among them archives, history departments, museums, and local history societies) successfully through the great transition facing society today?

My answer to this question is that we must continually struggle to sustain structures that make our best work possible. This is an activity (much like the construction of history itself), which changes over time, often dramatically. To rephrase a comment relating to social justice attributed to Tommy Douglas and Maude Barlow, striving to make the discipline of history relevant is like taking a bath; we are obliged to do it every day or pretty soon we will start to stink. In other words, this ongoing struggle for relevance is the essence of the CHA’s mission statement.