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Roundtable – Historical Societies and the Study of the Past



Organized in partnership with Fédération Histoire Québec

When the Canadian Historical Association was founded in 1922, there was little distinction between community-based historical societies and historians in the country’s universities, archives and museums. In the twentieth century, interest in history spread, with the citizen practice of history attracting the interest of thousands of Canadians, while at the same time the development of the professionalization of history as an academic discipline had the effect of loosening the initial links. The panel will examine the role of historical societies in producing new historical knowledge and in educating Canadians about the past. It will also look at how we can build a stronger link between associations of professional historians, citizen historians and heritage organizations.


  • Canadian Historical Association / Société historique du Canada (1922)
  • Fédération Histoire Québec (1965)

Participating societies (in order of creation date):

  • Royal Nova Scotia Historical Society (1878)
  • Ontario Historical Society (1888)
  • Manitoba Historical Society (1879)
  • Institut d’histoire de l’Amérique française (1947)
  • Réseau Mémoire, patrimoine, histoire / Memory, Heritage, History Network (2022)

On February 16, 2023, in collaboration with the Fédération Histoire Québec, the CHA presented its fifth roundtable and twelfth digital event of the year, a virtual round table on Historical Societies and the Study of the Past. The event brought together participants from across the country. In addition to Jean-Louis Vallée of the Fédération Histoire Québec – who chaired the session – and Steven High of the CHA, we were fortunate to have the participation of Alain Roy (Laboratoire d’histoire et de patrimoine de Montréal), MariFrance Charrette (Fédération Histoire Québec), Lois Yorke (Royal Nova Scotia Historical Society), Tracy Turner (Manitoba Historical Society), Daniel Dishaw (Ontario Historical Society), Brigitte Caulier (Institut d’histoire de l’Amérique française), and Denis Perreaux (Memory, Heritage, History Network). This was the first time similar provincial and territorial historical societies and professional associations met together, so all the elements were in place for a memorable roundtable, which indeed happened.

Each participant had the opportunity to present the activities of his or her historical society, which were strikingly diverse. While the oldest ones date back to the 19th century, the “Memory, Heritage, History Network / Réseau Mémoire, histoire et patrimoine” was founded last year, in 2022. Each of them is an anchor for several local historical organizations, which form the essence of their work. While they share several common characteristics, one in particular stands out: more than an academic discipline, history is a social project, bringing communities together to be accessible to any enthusiast. This roundtable was the beginning of a larger process of building stronger links between the academic world and historical societies that will benefit everyone.

The day-to-day life of historical societies, however, is far from easy; our participants faced common challenges that they must deal with relentlessly. Funding is a limitation that severely limits their ability to act. In an environment where government grants are not sufficient to preserve built heritage, communicate history, and support their missions, historical societies must be creative and rely on the volunteerism of their dedicated members. As many participants pointed out, historical societies must do more with less – a situation that is exacerbated year after year. It is also essential that the next generation of volunteers be in place if historical societies are to continue their activities. Recruiting volunteers is a difficult task, but essential in a context of budgetary precariousness.

These issues do not prevent historical societies from being vibrant organizations whose contribution to the discipline cannot be underestimated. Many have been at the forefront of historical developments, including the professionalization of the discipline and the history of marginalized minorities, and continue to be so today. Many historical societies are now embracing a digital shift to reach a wider range of the population. Some are offering a variety of courses that meet a growing demand from individuals. Their publications, which include high quality scientific articles as well as heritage news and varied content, are a unique repository of knowledge. Prairie History, the Revue d’histoire de l’Amérique française, and the Journal of the Royal Nova Scotia Historical Society are but a few examples of quality periodicals published by historical societies. Through conferences, symposia, public advocacy, and a wide range of activism – from heritage preservation to the precariousness of graduates – historical societies are key components of the innovation and vitality of history in Canada.

The historical discipline can only be strengthened by a stronger partnership between universities and historical societies. The schism that has long existed between the two is increasingly being resolved, and they stand to benefit from knowing each other better. On the one hand, in a context where academic historians frequently engage in the public sphere and oral history is becoming a central part of the discipline, historical societies are an example of engagement with the public that needs to be repeated. On the other hand, academic conferences are a unique opportunity for members of historical societies to actively participate in the latest developments in the discipline and to enrich their actions. This roundtable is a first step towards a flourishing central collaboration between history enthusiasts from various backgrounds, which can only be beneficial to all.

A working meeting is scheduled for May 15 between the CHA, the Fédération Histoire Québec and the participating historical societies to consolidate their growing ties. As one of the presenters said, “building bridges” has two appropriate meanings: not only are they links between universities and historical societies, but they are also conscious and reasoned constructions that require planning and effort over several years. Our participants have shown us that these bridges have solid foundations.

The recording of the roundtable is available on the CHA’s YouTube channel.