Op-Ed from the CHA President, Joan Sangster

Published on: 2 Oct 2015

Three Election Wishes: Knowledge Matters

Sleeping Beauty had three fairy godmothers; Tolstoy wrote of three philosophical questions. I have three mundane election wishes: not ‘blue sky’ or big ticket items, but they all assume knowledge matters. Faced with heartrending pictures of refugees, a precarious economy, and divergent policy choices, knowledge and research may seem inconsequential issues: boring, not very sexy, certainly not grist for late-night election commercials telling us who can and cannot lead.

But evidence-based research is essential to understanding of all those urgent issues: without knowing our immigration and refugee history, how will we do the right thing? Without political economists analyzing different environmental programs, how can we judge short and long-term consequences of our choices? Without social scientists comparing child care options across the world and within Canada, how will we know which one to choose?

Representing historians, my wishes may seem distant from the present. But they involve political choices already made, and they could matter to the future we become.

Wish one. Preserve our heritage: restore funding to archival programs. Canadian heritage is a motherhood and apple pie issue: everyone ‘tut tuts’ when school children can’t recite their history, but how will we make sure that the richness of our past is preserved? Arguing over divisive, large monuments in Ottawa may not be the best way forward. Restoring funds to archives would. A 1.7 million dollar program for local archives was cut, and with it, our knowledge of the peoples, organizations, and events that have shaped Canada. Moreover, archives no longer means a building in Ottawa: with digitization, we can make a vast array of historical documents available to people across the country, at the stroke of a computer key -- but we need to restore funds to do so.

Wish two. Multiply the voices of humanity: provide research funding for more projects (not just mega projects) that will help us ‘know ourselves’ in a changing world. It is a truism that, without historical understanding, we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past -- but a truism with resonance. We need more diverse research voices, more imagination, more interpretations of Canadian and global society and history. Universities extol the value of ‘innovation,’ usually code for entrepreneurship and lucrative business partnerships, but human innovation also involves dialogue between scientists and humanists, between Indigenous knowledge holders and historians, between Canadian and international researchers. After all, Canada is not just known for its “Canadarm” but also for the ideas of Northrup Frye, Charles Taylor, and Margaret MacMillan – and surely understanding identity, accommodation, war and peace, are critical to who we might become as a nation.

Wish three: foster future generations of knowledge producers. No matter how many studies show a humanities and social science education produces literate, critical, globally-minded thinkers, educational policy moves keeping lurching in the opposite direction. We are downgrading post-secondary education in many ways, and one is by creating of a generation of precarious educational workers who drive from one university to another, piecing together many courses, a meager income (think of the carbon footprint alone),while forestalling their own research. During a downturn in the 1980s, the federal government developed a new program of Canada Research Fellowships to keep researchers active, to develop new talent, and hone knowledge-producing skills. The solutions to precarious labour are many, but at the very least, creating a similar program, or augmenting the existing SSHRC post-doctoral program, would be a smart investment our future: an acknowledgement that knowledge production matters.  

Joan Sangster
Canadian Historical Association

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