What is your favourite definition of history and why?
I have always thought of history as a voyage of discovery, a kind of mapping expedition. We head off into the past with our rough guide of predilections and questions and our toolkit of theories and analytical methodologies . There we encounter the “facts,” at least those that we can actually dig up or that we consider worth bothering with. We organize them into some coherence that we can defend and that we deeply hope will help us better understand our contemporary society. The meaning of those facts, however, is far from fixed and certain and constantly open to challenge from other researchers who trek across the same terrain with different questions or new tools of analysis. And that is the excitement of discovering the contingent past.
Who is your favourite historian, living or dead, and why?
There were so many who inspired me. One who always rose to near the top of my list was Eric Hobsbawm. By his example he encouraged us to take seriously a huge variety of popular activities in the past, ranging from Luddite machine-breakers to peasant outlaws to respectable labour aristocrats to jazz musicians. And he integrated all of those into a comprehensive history of capitalism that he wrote with a confident sweep that could be breathtaking.
Although excessive pride is unattractive, of all your writings, which are you most proud of and why?
I’m going to give you two, because they were such different books and had different impacts. The first was Booze: A Distilled History (Between the Lines 2003). This one told a story that had never been brought together in one place before. It was a national study that tried to synthesize a great deal of scattered literature and add in some new research insights. It generated a lot of popular and scholarly interest. From the number of requests I got to talk about it and the number of scholarly citations it prompted, I think I can conclude that it made a lasting impression of Canadian social and cultural history. It took about five years to complete.
In contrast, my work on Lunch-Bucket Lives: Remaking the Workers’ City (Between the Lines 2015) covered some 37 years, starting with a doctoral dissertation and then proceeding through much new research and writing to the door-stopper of a final product. I integrated almost every aspect of working-class life experienced in Hamilton, Ontario between the 1890s and the 1930s, and tried to give a sense of how fundamentally the lives of working people changed over that half century. I wanted the various parts to speak to each other in ways that separate studies of poverty or strikes or women’s work or whatever had not been able to do. And I wanted to offer some new analytical insights into what I called “working-class realism.” I think I succeeded. It remains to be seen whether it will help to shape future historical work.
Thinking about your time as president of the CHA, what was its greatest challenge?
There were actually two related challenges. The first was the sad state of the CHA’s administrative structure when I took office. We were operating as though it was still 1922. The association had been expanding its programs and activities enormously over the previous decade, but it had not provided the institutional support for all those initiatives. We had one secretary in a cubbyhole in the Library and Archives building in Ottawa who performed a restricted number of tasks and one part-time assistant treasurer who kept the books. Otherwise the president and members of the Council performed the essential adminstrative tasks, with all the problems of diffusion of information across the country and turnover among those people. I undertook to convince the membership that we needed to expand our financial base to be able to hire an Executive Director and rent some proper office space. I have often felt that the high competence of Michel Duquet and the administrative revolution in the association that he set in motion were my greatest legacy to the CHA.
Secondly, it became clear that we needed better administration because we had a major battle to fight with Library and Archives Canada. During the summer of 2007, LAC announced a drastic curtailing of onsite hours of operation. After firing off a string of sharply worded public letters, I spearheaded a strong resistance campaign that brought together several organizations as concerned as the CHA and a big meeting with the head archivist/librarian. He backed down, promising a reconsideration of the hours of service and the creation of a large users’ advisory committee.
If you could give one piece of advice to a member of (someone joining?) the CHA, what would it be?
If at all possible, attend the annual meetings, even if you’re not presenting a paper. It’s a hugely important site for networking and getting a better feel for the depth and breadth of the profession. And there’s usually some great dancing at Cliopaloosa (my other legacy to the CHA).
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?
History as a discipline has slipped somewhat from favour over the past decade. Enrolments tumbled, course offerings shrank, departments lost faculty through attrition, and many more new PhDs were unable to get full-time academic positions, as precarious contract teaching spread far and wide. So, an organization whose core membership was always tenure-stream, research-oriented university professors, has to do some hard rethinking. The CHA should be leading national discussions about what graduate training in history should entail and where a PhD in history should lead. At the same time, it should continue to promote innovative, high-quality, socially aware research and networks of enriching dialogue and debate among researchers
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?
Was it worth all the time and energy required to preside over the CHA? My answer: definitely. Beyond any checklist of accomplishments, I was so impressed with the collegiality and solidarity that historians of all generations from across the country expressed towards each other. We achieved a lot together and will certainly continue to do so.