What is your favourite definition of history and why?
I think of history as a number of things: a kind of scholarly practice that situates archives (of all sorts) at the core of its practice, a conversation between the living present and the past, a way of thinking of human and more-than-human experience and life over and across time. However we define history, I like to do it broadly, and in ways that recognize and include the range of places and people that produce history. Antoinette Burton writes historians can use the “big history stick” to do a kind of intellectual border control, defining what gets recognized as legitimate historical scholarship, and what doesn’t. Some of the most germinal and lasting insights into the histories that concern me most – histories of colonialism, of race and racism, and of gender – have come and continue to come from people who would not usually be considered historians, but whose work has huge implications on how we think of and write history.
Who is your favourite historian, living or dead, and why?
I’m going to pick Saidiya Hartman, who isn’t a disciplinary historian (see caveat above) but who shows us how to write powerfully and beautifully about the lives of people excluded, misrepresented or injured by the conventional historical record. In Hartman’s case, that is Black women living amid slavery and its afterlives, but I think her work provides us with really compelling examples of ways we can use the most fragmentary of archives to seriously engage with the lives of those who’ve come before us.
I’m also going to pick shekonneechie.ca, which isn’t a historian, but it is a website run by a collective of Indigenous historians. It publishes posts that feature research and statements, biographies of Indigenous historians, an ongoing bibliography of works by Indigenous historians. Shekonneechie is a window into the world-changing and engaged scholarship being produced by Indigenous historians based in Canada, including Mary Jane Logan McCallum, Mary Jane Logan McCallum, Robert Alexander Innes, Brenda Macdougall, Sarah Nickel, Winona Wheeler, and more.
Although excessive pride is unattractive, of all your writings, which are you most proud of and why?
Colonial Relations: the Douglas-Connolly and the Nineteenth-Century Imperial World (Cambridge University Press, 2015) took forever to research and write for a number of reasons: the archives were spread across Canada, and in the Caribbean and the UK, I was researching and writing while my two kids were fairly young, the list goes on. There are some parts of the book that I hope to return to. One of them is the possibility of a different kind of political history, one rooted in a feminist reckoning with women’s lives, family, and the so-called “private” and a critical assessment of the violence of colonial governance, past and present. The other is the effort to connect the history of the fur-trade to wider global histories of colonialism.
Thinking about your time as president of the CHA, what was its greatest challenge?
In terms of sheer hours logged the biggest challenge was probably finding a local programme chair for one particular set of CHA meetings. But the bigger challenges were ones clustered about how we understood and framed the organization. One part of this was changing the name of a book prize, from the Sir John A. Macodnald Prize to the CHA Best Scholarly Book Prize. This could have been an administrative process undertaken by the CHA Council, but instead we discussed it in the Bulletin, in solicited feedback, and at a memorable AGM in Regina. In the years since then, we’ve seen more difficult conversations about how Canada can and should recognize its history with Indigenous people. The CHA Council’s statement on Canada and genocide, issued on 1 July 2021, continues this, and also continues the CHA’s longstanding history of engaging with matters of public importance which history, and historical interpretation, matter to.
What was never a challenge was working with the remarkable CHA staff, Michel Duquet and Marielle Campeau. Michel is a model of clear communication, organization, and commitment, and I learned a great deal working with him.
If you could give one piece of advice to (someone joining?) the CHA, what would it be?
So much of what we do as historians, we do on our own, or mainly on our own. But the work of history is ultimately social and collective, and organizations like the CHA give us a chance to do our work with others. The CHA councils of the last two years have dealt with the challenges of a world where it is unsafe to gather with creativity and commitment, and I’ve enjoyed logging in for webinars and meetings. But I’ll be glad to get back to whatever kind of in person meetings we return to,and do this one kind of collective work together.
2022 marks the 100th year anniversary of the CHA. This milestone gives us pause to reflect on its durability and also on what its future might be. Hence, what do you think the future has in store for the CHA and for historical research in Canada as the association commences its 2nd centenary?
As the CHA enters its second century, we will need to adapt to whatever the post-pandemic world looks like. I don’t think many of us imagined that we would spent more than two years working mainly remotely, but as historians know well, it is impossible to predict the future. Beyond that the CHA will continue to address the enduing issues that have marked the last decade or so, and are not easily solved. These include a post-secondary landscape that has had, at least until a few years ago, declining enrollments in conventional history programmes. They also include a discipline that has not attracted, retained, or adequately celebrated Indigenous and racialized practitioners, and where our ranks increasingly do not resemble the Canadian population, or our students. These challenges are also how we respond and contribute to a country reckoning with its colonial past and present. We will also need to find ways to address issues around precarity, and what this has meant for historians who have not been served by the winner-takes-all, zero-sum game structure of academic employment.
If there was one more question you would like to ask to other presidents what would it be? Could you please also answer it for yourself?
My one question would be: what surprised you most? What was the part about being CHA president that you least predicted? For me I am most surprised by the fact that I miss it. I enjoyed my time as CHA president but found it nerve-wracking: the position is an honour, and I wanted to do a good job. But now that it is over, I miss the regular work with colleagues across the country, and I’m happy to be contributing to the work of the CHA on committees, or wherever I might be useful.