I am a bit allergic to such definitions as it suggests an unchanging approach and fixed disciplinary boundaries that can be marked and policed. But if I must paint a portrait, rather than a walled city, I see the historical discipline as a home place that is vibrant, diverse and living. But there is much that unites us in terms of methodology and our shared commitment to empirical research and transparency in sources. Our training and sensibility is thus, to varying degrees, different from other disciplinary home-places, but we benefit from being in conversation with this wider scholarly world as well as with the communities which we study.
A number of historians have inspired me over the years. Raphael Samuel’s commitment to opening up the historical research process to often-marginalized communities continues to inspire me. He also raised critical questions of us, as historians, about our craft and the politics of what we do. This, too, is needed as disciplinary structures are often normalized to such an extent that they become invisible to us. I have come to see “history” as a social project and not simply as a disciplinary one.
I am probably most proud of my 2009 book Base Colonies in the Western Hemisphere, even though nobody has heard of it in Canada. The book examines race and empire in Newfoundland, Bermuda and the Caribbean during the 1940s and 1950s. I call this my ‘lost book’ as it was never sent out to review (don’t get me started!). Nor is it the field of research that I am most known for. The one place where the book has had impact – and this is why I am proud of it – is in Bermuda. Over the past couple years the book has repeatedly been used by the families of those dispossessed by the US military in World War II to support their claims for compensation during the Public Inquiry into Historic Losses of Land. Some families even read (with considerable emotion) page after page of the book on the record. It was very affecting for me to watch the hearings. The book was also used to justify a special parliamentary committee to investigate establishing a minimum living wage in Bermuda, quoting extensively from my book at the outset of the motion [Bermuda House of Assembly, Hansard, 10 August 2018]. What more impact could a historian wish for?
I am being asked to respond to this questionnaire while only six months into my two year term. I will therefore defer to my future self. What I will say now, however, is that I found that the CHA system of having the future president first serve as vice-president to be essential. It offers time to learn the ropes and for priorities to perculate upward organically.
I am very proud of the direction that our association is taking and the changes that are underway. There is much work to be done and this needs to be done collectively. It is important that our association continue to engage with the politics of our times, as history is often weaponized by those with little historical knowledge or expertise.
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.”
I suppose it would be the classic “uchronic dream” what-if question – if you could have done something different during your term as CHA President, what would it be? It is too early for me to answer this question, though I now know that being CHA President is a lot more work than I expected!