Canadian History After COVID-19

Denis McKim

Thomas Paine likened the American Revolution to the deluge. In much the same way that God had hit the “reset button” on history itself through the flood recounted in Genesis, the United States had initiated a new epoch by revolting against British rule and launching what Paine hoped would become an egalitarian republic.

In less extravagant terms, contemporary commentators have conjectured that the trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic – mainly evident in widespread death and illness, but also apparent in acute social dislocation and economic chaos – will trigger profound societal change. That these observers have done so is understandable, as major outbreaks of disease have been catalysts for cultural transformations throughout history.

To what extent will the present pandemic and its aftermath influence Canadian historiography? If scholarly responses to major global developments in the past are any indication, it seems probable that COVID-19’s impact in this area will be significant. For, turbulent events in previous eras have altered academic approaches to Canada’s past, albeit in diverse ways. For instance, the nation’s acquisition of greater autonomy within the British Commonwealth as a result of the Great War contributed to an emphasis in the interwar era on Canada’s constitutional evolution, as seen in the writings of Chester Martin and O.D. Skelton. Also, mid-twentieth-century anxieties regarding fascist and communist totalitarianisms, and corresponding concerns revolving around the supposed fragility of liberal institutions and democratic values, conditioned – alongside other factors, admittedly – postwar studies by Frank Underhill and A.R.M. Lower. In view of the large volume of sweeping changes associated with COVID-19, it is likely that the pandemic will change Canadian historiography. But how?

A post-pandemic surge in medical history seems almost inevitable, for obvious reasons. So does an intensified emphasis on the causes and consequences of socioeconomic inequity, given the disproportionate infection rates of lower-income people and certain communities of colour, among other adversely affected groups. Additionally, one wonders if, post-pandemic, Canadian historians might pivot away from transnationalism as an interpretive framework.

If that development occurs, it may have something to do with the waning of globalization. This immensely influential phenomenon – which entails the unconstrained flow of people, goods, and capital across borders – rose to prominence in the later twentieth century due to a combination of technological innovations and free trade agreements. Among many other things, it can be seen as a harbinger of transnational scholarship. For evidence one need look no further than the fact that globalization is predicated on the porousness of borders, a characteristic that emerged as one of transnationalism’s main themes as that framework gained methodological traction around the turn of the twenty-first century. For all its influence, globalization came in for pointed criticism from various perspectives beginning in the 1990s. On the anti-capitalist left, the public intellectual Naomi Klein condemned globalization, in part, because it contributed to the pattern of deindustrialization that has pummelled North American workers. On the xenophobic-protectionist right, United States Senator Tom Cotton and others have condemned globalization (right-wingers seemingly prefer the term “globalism”) principally because of its associations with large-scale migration. Notwithstanding their differences (of which there are many!), representatives of both groups bristle at what they see as the disempowerment of ordinary people at the hands of transnational forces: large corporations for supporters of Klein; the United Nations for devotees of Cotton; and the World Trade Organization for members of both constituencies.

Any momentum that globalization retained in the face of such criticisms has been arrested amid the COVID-19 pandemic, as nations – Canada among them – have prioritized their own populations by closing their borders to most outsiders and ramping up domestic production of certain commodities, particularly medical supplies, in hopes of insulating themselves from unreliable multinational supply chains. Might the ebbing of globalization be paralleled by a scholarly shift away from transnationalism, its historiographical analogue? And, if so, might historians’ emphasis on transnational topics and approaches give way to a renewed interest in the nation as an analytical focal point, given many nations’ expanding powers?

Should it happen, this shift would constitute a remarkable historiographical turning point. As Carl Berger showed in The Writing of Canadian History (first ed., 1976; second ed. 1986), one of the few tendencies that united Canada’s historians from the inception of Canadian history as an academic discipline in the late nineteenth century through the mid-1960s was an abiding interest in the nation. While their attitudes toward that topic were anything but homogenous, a multitude of scholars spanning several generations concerned themselves with issues such as where the nation had come from, how it had developed, and where it was headed. Though interest in the nation did not disappear altogether,[1] it was decisively eclipsed among scholars in the final decades of the twentieth century. (It bears mentioning that, while their focus has not been the nation as such, some of the most impressive, thought-provoking studies published in recent years have discussed aspects of the Canadian state.[2] It is also noteworthy that much national historical writing does not, and will not, revolve around Canada, as scholars of Indigenous communities endeavour to “[decentre] the colonial state and [re-centre] Indigenous nationhood.”[3])

Initially, social historians, whose multifaceted, methodologically innovative works enriched Canadian historiography in countless ways, shifted their attention away from Canada tout court, and toward such underappreciated analytical categories as race, class, gender, and region. Granted, social historians for the most part examined these categories within a Canadian context. However, as the American historian John Higham observed in reference to the United States, while they usually focus in the nation, social historians do not typically focus on the nation. More recently, and as globalization’s influence reached its zenith, scholars embraced transnationalism as a means of explicating myriad phenomena, including immigration and international legal disputes. Much like their counterparts in social history, historians enamoured of transnationalism – whose works are far from monolithic – have enhanced Canadian historiography in ways both numerous and profound. Evidence of the framework’s popularity can be seen in post-secondary history departments’ implementation of courses on transnational topics, a pattern that has coincided, in some cases, with the shelving of courses concentrating on Canada. Whether transnationalism’s influence declines post-pandemic or not, works indebted to this framework will undoubtedly continue to be produced, not least because certain fields – environmental history springs to mind – engage with phenomena that transcend borders.

Would a rekindling of interest in the nation be a good thing? If it resulted in an uncritical, chauvinistic account of Canada’s past that, say, exalted military exploits and refused to reckon with troubling aspects of the nation’s history – especially the centrality of Indigenous dispossession, various strains of intolerance, and environmental degradation to the Canadian project – then the answer would surely be “no.” Consistent with insightful critiques put forth by Adele Perry and Allan Greer, another problematic approach to the nation would be one that portrayed early modern northern North America, in teleological fashion, as mere prelude to the Canadian story that unfolded after Confederation.[4]

But if it yielded a searching, empirically rigorous interrogation of the nation attuned to the importance of diversity and discrimination then the answer, conceivably, could be “yes.” Jill Lepore powerfully advocates such an approach in This America: The Case for the Nation (2019). Her argument is as succinct as it is unequivocal: “Nations, to make sense of themselves, need some kind of agreed-upon past. They can get it from scholars or they can get it from demagogues, but get it they will.”[5] Serious, humane studies of the nation, from this perspective, can serve as a bulwark – or, in medical parlance, a prophylactic – against misleading, pernicious narratives peddled by the sorts of opportunistic nationalists that have risen to power in numerous countries with alarming frequency over the last decade. Although Lepore focuses on the United States, her vision of a sophisticated, sensitive national history seems fundamentally applicable to other countries, including Canada.

So, the answer to the question of whether Canadian scholars should welcome a potential resurgence of the nation as a vibrant field of inquiry hinges entirely on how historians might approach it. Among other benefits, a responsible, methodologically sound tack could shed light on fundamental differences between Canada and the United States that are evident in the age of COVID-19 – notably the jarring contrast between the instinctual libertarianism of many Americans confronted with calls to self-isolate and the greater willingness of Canadians to tolerate government-imposed constraints on their behaviour. To highlight such differences is not to portray Canada and the United States as undifferentiated opposites, à la Seymour Martin Lipset. Rather, it is to suggest that a measured, meticulous study of the nation could help to illuminate discrepancies between Canada and its southern neighbour, notwithstanding the tremendous diversity of both countries.

At the end of The Writing of Canadian History, Berger eloquently observed that, while Clio has proven to be an enduringly enticing muse, she invariably devours those who succumb to her charms. Put more prosaically, while it is difficult, if not impossible, to predict how historiographical trends will play themselves out, one can be confident that whatever seems fashionable today will almost certainly be deemed unfashionable tomorrow. In a post-COVID-19 world, will transnationalism find itself on the menu?

Denis McKim teaches in the History Department at Douglas College. He is the author of Boundless Dominion: Providence, Politics, and the Early Canadian Presbyterian Worldview (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017); and a co-editor, with Elizabeth Mancke, Jerry Bannister, and Scott See, of Violence, Order, and Unrest: A History of British North America, 1749-1876 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2019). With Keith Grant and Laura Smith, he is also a co-editor of Borealia.

Gail Edwards, Keith Grant, Colin Grittner, Bradley Miller, and Laura Smith generously commented on drafts of this essay.

[1] On the persistence of the nation as an area of study see Shirley Tillotson, “The Canadian Historical Review at One Hundred Years,” Canadian Historical Review 100, no. 2 (September 2019): 315-348.

[2] E.A. Heaman, Tax, Order, and Good Government: A New Political History of Canada, 1867-1917 (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017); Tina Loo, Moved by the State: Forced Relocation and Making a Good Life in Postwar Canada (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2019); Shirley Tillotson, Give and Take: The Citizen-Taxpayer and the Rise of Canadian Democracy (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2017).

[3] Mercedes Peters, “The Future is Mi’kmaq: Exploring the Merits of Nation-Based Histories as the Future of Indigenous History in Canada,” Acadiensis 48, no. 2 (Autumn/automne 2019): 206.

[4] Adele Perry, “Nation, Empire, and the Writing of History in Canada in English,” in Contesting Clio’s Craft: New Directions and Debates in Canadian History, eds. Christopher Dummitt and Michael Dawson (London: Institute for the History of the Americas, 2009), 123-140; Allan Greer, “National, Transnational, and Hypernational Historiographies: New France Meets Early American History,” Canadian Historical Review 91, no. 4 (December 2009): 695-724; Allan Greer, “1608 As Foundation,” Canadian Issues/Thèmes Canadiens (Fall 2008): 20-23.

[5] Jill Lepore, This America: The Case for the Nation (New York: Norton, 2019), 19-20.

Featured Image: Raphaël Dunant, Map of the COVID-19 verified number of infected per capita as of 15 April 2020. Wikimedia Commons, public domain. 

Latest Comments

  1. Jeff McNairn says:

    Time will tell, as they say, but thanks Denis for raising these important questions. Much to chew on here. I suspect, wherever historiography may head, the pandemic is more likely to accelerate existing trends and expose existing fissures more than chart entirely new courses. Lepore, of course, was writing before the virus. For the political implications of the emphasis on porous borders, mobility and multiple identities, and the weakness of central authority in the early America field, readers of your post might be interested in Johann Neem’s 2018 article: Finally, I wonder how structural rather than intellectual changes will shape the discipline going forward: cuts in funding, ability to do archival research, dissertations abandoned or not begun, jobs that don’t materialize; again exacerbating already existing issues.

  2. Jerry Bannister says:

    Thanks, Denis, for your thoughtful post. I think Jeff’s last point may be the most important one to consider. The biggest impact of the pandemic on Canadian history, or history done in Canada, may be methods rather than content. When the restrictions are finally relaxed, the next academic year is going to look very different from 2019-2020. The future may no longer feature large, in-person conferences, such as the annual CHA Meeting, flying in high-profile guest speakers, getting grants to do research in other provinces or countries, or sabbaticals far away from home.

    Academics have been as addicted to travel as any other profession, and I think that COVID-19 will require historians to rethink how they work as much as what they write. This rethink will require a major re-tooling by SSSHRC and other granting agencies, which place such a high premium on travel. We’ve always based our planning, and our professional status, on the common presumption that more is better: more papers, bigger conferences, increasing production. My guess is that we’re entering an era with much smaller horizons: less funding, smaller classes, fewer jobs, shrinking production. The concerns that we had before, and debates over trends like transnationalism, don’t feel very important right now, at least not to me. For those of us trying to write at home with children, we’re simply not going to be able to write as much.

    Social media seems to be a satisfying outlet for many Canadian historians (though it’s a small minority who do the vast majority of tweeting), and perhaps this will only increase in the future, as more teaching, research, and conferences shift online. But count me firmly among those who don’t relish a world of 24/7 twitter. As bestsellers such as Michael Harris’s _End of Absence_ point out, a world of constant online connection has been, in many ways, a less satisfying and less healthy place, one that fueled the current crisis of anxiety disorders. This was bad enough before the pandemic, so I don’t see how we can tweet our way out of our problems. Harris asked, back in 2014, “Might we suffer from an opinion glut?” Part of the answer, I think, may be typing a bit less but saying a bit more.

  3. Allan Greer says:

    You’ve given us food for thought here Denis. I wonder if “national” is really the opposite of “transnational” or rather a complementary approach, since both presuppose a world organized into nation-states (as does the global/national binary in politics).
    Here we are on a blog dedicated to early Canadian history, so another question comes to mind: how can we talk about “national” history in relation to a period in which nation-states are largely absent? (A question that might well be put to Jill Lepore). I don’t see how the 16th-18th C. can be incorporated into a national story without the assumption (shared by most of the historians Berger covers) that colonialism is the driver of history and that it leads, inevitably and naturally, to the emergence of the nation-state? To put it crudely, how do you avoid writing the history of and for white people?
    These are issues I’m grappling with at the moment as I try to write a history of Canada that is not national. I’m taking a deep-history approach and treating Canada (maybe it should be spelled “canada” without a capital C) as a space rather than as a sovereignty-claiming political institution. (It corresponds roughly with the area covered by glaciers 13-15,000 years ago). The creation in this space of a territorial state will be the subject of a late chapter in my book, but it won’t be treated as some sort of inevitable, providential dénouement of previous millennia and centuries of Indigenous history and the intrusions of empires, colonies and commercial enterprises. Wish me luck – I’ll need it!

  4. Shirley Tillotson says:

    Yes to all of the above — Thanks for a thoughtful post, Neem essay is amazing, universities are going to be under major structural pressures that will be felt by students and faculty pretty directly, and Allan’s book project sounds difficult but interesting and important. I’m happy to see you, Denis, asking us to historicize ourselves, and specifically to think about the historiographical implications of current events. Thanks, too, for saying nice things about my tax book and for reading my piece on the CHR at 100. For those who haven’t read that piece, I just want to quickly note that the piece is largely descriptive rather than normative: I report the purposes served by both transnational and national focuses, and the debates (including Allan’s intervention) on the limits of both scales of focus. I see your blog here as continuing the conversation that I was urging in that piece — being self-aware about the categories and emplotments we use, and acknowledging how our work relates to contemporary politics (of all kinds) and material circumstances of our work. One of the three purposes of national history that I mention in that piece is comparative work of the sort you refer to at the end of your blog. I hope you’re right that out of our present moment comparative work will flourish. The Neem article that Jeff recommends is a great contribution to conversation about the (proper) kinds of influence contemporary politics has on historical practice.

    The challenge I’d pose to your contribution is this: I think we need to explore further whether globalization is ebbing or will ebb. Or, more precisely, what aspects of global systems are coming under pressure and what kinds of responses that pressure will incite. This is a complex empirical question for which I don’t yet think we have an answer. Serious people who know WAY more than I do are discussing whether the hegemony of the US dollar in global capital markets will be shaken or not. The effectiveness and accountability of international institutions — European central bank, IMF, WHO — have come into the spotlight. National food security is an open question. But at this point I don’t know whether responses will be better global institutions or constraint on and withdrawal from such institutions, or some combination of the two. Everyone discussing the corona-crisis mentions environmental issues — surely global institutions will be an essential part of addressing those issues? More globalization, not less. In short, my sense is that current events pull on global systems in multiple directions. I think we agree, though, that any historian who is thinking hard about global phenomena in relation to our current crisis will find themselves, when they’re in the archives, noticing past ways of grappling with related questions. And I think we probably agree that these questions pre-dated the COVID crisis. How deep the impact of that crisis goes remains to be seen: depends on its duration and whether its short term secondary impacts turn out to be dire (war, starvation, displacement) or somewhat positive (effective deployment of national and international resources to mitigate damage). On that, I’d say the evidence isn’t yet in.

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