The CHA Questionnaire (With Many Apologies to Marcel Proust)

Phil BucknerWhat is your favourite definition of history and why?

See my answer to question 2.

Who is your favourite historian, living or dead, and why?

My favourite historian was Bruce Trigger. He was one of Canada's first ethnohistorians. I used his Children of Aataentsic: A History of the Huron People to 1660 for the survey of Canadian history I taught every year at UNB. And I have never forgotten his definition of the historian's purpose:

'One can argue that the aim of an Indian history should be to make Indians sympathetic figures. Sympathy, however, does not always promote understanding and, without a clear understanding of people's motives, respect is impossible. All too much that has been written about Indians is well intentioned and benevolent, yet most of this literature has failed to promote a genuine understanding of the Indians as a people who had worthy ambitions of their own and who were, and are, able to conduct their own affairs and to interact intelligently with Europeans.... Moreover, … if we are to understand the total situation, we must attempt to achieve a similar dispassionate understanding of the European groups, such as the Jesuits, who interacted with the Indians. In the long run, this may require as much effort, and even more self-discipline, than does an understanding of the Hurons.'

Obviously a perfectly 'dispassionate understanding' of the past is impossible since our interpretations inevitably reflect our own values and beliefs. Equally obvious, new approaches and new sources will force us to alter our understanding of the past. And I do believe that historians have a duty to pay special attention to those who have been marginalized or excluded in the past. But I still believe that Trigger correctly defined what should be the historian's goal.

Although excessive pride is unattractive, of all your writings, which are you most proud of and why?

Because of the sheer amount of labour that I put into it, I like to think that my book on The Transition to Responsible Government: British Policy in British North America, 1815-1850 will stand as a definitive study for a very long time. But my most important achievement was undoubtedly the creation of Acadiensis: Journal of the History of the Atlantic Region (which is now fifty years old), the Atlantic Canada Studies Conferences and Acadiensis Press.

Thinking about your time as president of the CHA, what was its greatest challenge?

When I became president, we were at the very beginning of the process of turning the CHA into a professional association and we faced some very severe economic challenges, partly because we decided to hire an executive director (who resigned after I ceased to be President and was not replaced) and partly because our membership was declining as we (modestly) raised our fees in order to provide more services to our members. I tried to resolve these issues but was only partly successful, as you can see from the comments of later presidents.

If you could give one piece of advice to (someone joining?) the CHA, what would it be?

Attend the annual meetings. You will make contacts with like-minded historians and make friends for life.

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?

The CHA has always faced the problem of trying to reconcile the differing interests of Canadian professional historians (many of whom are not historians of Canada), while retaining links with non-professional historians interested in Canadian history. Over the years it has also faced the problem of reconciling those having very different opinions on controversial topics. Unless the CHA remains an organization which brings together people with different scholarly interests and encourages debates on controversial issues without excluding minority opinions, I feel there is a very real danger that its membership will shrink and that it will become ever more dependent upon government grants (which always have strings attached).

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?

I agree with other presidents. It was a lot of work and at times very frustrating to be president of the CHA but it was also an honour and a privilege.



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