What is the Canadian Historical Association?

Next week, the Canadian Historical Association (CHA) meeting is being held in St. Catherines, Ontario. For historians, it is an opportunity to gather and discuss Canada's history, but also to see colleagues who may normally work on the other side of the country. For young grad students, it's an opportunity to network and participate in the world of professional history and the changing landscape of academic scholarship. For non-historians, most of whom have probably never heard of it, it might sound like a boring conference. Next week we are going to offer some on-the-ground coverage of the CHA, but today let's introduce the origins of the organization and explore why it's so worthwhile to historians.

The Canadian Historical Association was established in 1922. Its origins can be traced to the Historic Landmarks Association, an organization set up in 1907 as a offshoot of the Royal Society of Canada. The Royal Society of Canada copied the more famous Royal Society of London as a cultural institution that aimed to encourage scientific development. The HLA on the other hand, simply campaigned to record and preserve Canada's historic landmarks. Historian Donald Wright, who has written about the history of the CHA, describes the HLA as an organization that was patriotic, but not overtly nationalist. Parallel to the HLA's formation and growth in the early 20th century, University of Toronto historian George Wrong started the Review of Historical Publications Relating to Canada in 1898. In 1920, it changed from a listing of historical works to the Canadian Historical Review (CHR).

By the 1920s, the government's Historic Sites and Monuments Board had been created and rendered the civilian-run HLA somewhat irrelevant. Lawrence Burpee had become President of the HLA in 1920 and decided that the organization required transformation if it was to remain useful. In 1922, he introduced a new constitution and renamed it the Canadian Historical Association, whose objectives were “to encourage research and public interest in history; to promote the preservation of historic sites and buildings, documents, relics and other significant heirlooms of the past; to publish historical studies and documents as circumstances may permit.” Its first Executive included individuals such as two famous Canadian historians of the day, George Wrong and Chester Martin, the Dominion Archivist, Arthur Doughty, and non-academics like Burpee and HLA founder W.D. Lighthall.

With its creation, the CHA begun the work of “professionalizing” historians. They were collecting their articles and research into journals, like the Canadian Historical Review, for other historians to read, absorb and reply. By publishing their work in a common space, Canadian historians could better and more easily engage with each other as well as compare and contrast their views of history. In the 1920s, some historians believed that history was more of a scientific pursuit, requiring scientific methods on investigating historical sources, absolute reliance on documentary evidence, and a scientific approach to writing history that, some feared, was dull. The CHA and the CHR allowed historians to discuss the value of this form of history and offer alternatives.

Other historians believed that history was a form of literature. They did not mean to write historical fiction or to skew and distort facts, but there was an element of style and storytelling to history that made it compelling. History should do more than simply record the past, they argued, it should also allow Canadians to learn the “lessons” of Canadian history. History could be a great read for the layman, a well researched work for the historian, and also a patriotic narrative for the Canadian citizen. No doubt the flux of Canadian nationalism after the Great War had its own influence as Canada's historians debated the presentation and value of the past. The tug-of-war between history-as-science and history-as-literature was not solved then and it is not solved now. But it was the creation of the CHA and the CHR publication that allowed historians to first engage in these crucial debates that shaped the form of Canadian history.

Of course, as Wright and others note, the Canadian Historical Association perhaps should have been called the English Canadian Historical Association in its early years. French Canadians were not excluded, but they weren't welcome either. Particularly the new brand of French Canadian nationalists, perhaps better termed as Quebec nationalists, was consciously rejected. Its defacto leader, Quebec historian Abbé Lionel Groulx, argued that Britain had not in fact been a beneficial presence in French Canada's history. Today this argument seems at least reasonable, even if you might disagree, but in the 1920s and 30s, Groulx' ideas were radical rejections of English Canada's British heritage. Today, we would notice other exceptions from the CHA like the absence of histories examining race, labour, gender, indigenous peoples, etc. Perhaps the best title would be English Canadian Historical Association for Economic, Political and Military History. At the time these exclusions were accepted as normal.

After the Second World War, the CHA continued to bring together Canada's historians and discuss the issues that the discipline faced. What was the purpose of Canadian history? Some scholars believed it had to nurture a Canadian identity. Through the 1950s and into the 1960s, many scholars turned towards nationalist histories of Canada. These histories usually praised Canada's move from “colony” to “dominion” to “nation.” The success of these nationalist histories meant that Canadian history had matured. They now offered interpretations of Canada's past and there were different opinions about which was correct. For example, historians disagreed whether Canada's road to 'nationhood' was more shaped by its British heritage or its North American character. Like any interpretation, both looked at a similar body of sources in different ways. Unlike previous disagreements over the general nature of history itself, these ones were Canadian discussions rooted in its history.

The CHA continued to struggle with its French Canadian component as well as the expanding variety of study topics for young historians. The 60s saw the diversification of the profession, as historians young and old called for new historical questions to be asked. They began to ask about the history women, and society, and culture, moving the profession away from solely studying political or economic histories. We don't have the space to even briefly cover the emergence of the “new” history “from below” (as opposed to history that studies the government, or “from above”). But, suffice to say, the existence of the CHA allowed historians to raise and debate those changes among themselves and expose each other to new works and new methods of practicing history.

So if you're still wondering, what is the CHA? Think of it as a place of community for like-minded people (historians) but also a space of disagreement. Like we saw in its early history, there were disagreement over the nature of history, the membership of the organization, the purpose of history, etc. These disagreements continue to this day and they are a good thing! No academic should be comfortable in their views – they must be challenged and forced to reconsider their position, even if don't change their minds. The meeting of the CHA next week at Brock University will be enjoyable and a social event, but it will also be an opportunity to explore history in new ways. Our profession's ability to adapt and change can be traced through the work and meetings of the CHA. As Canada has changed, so has its historians, and often the CHA is where we see the conflict between old and new, and where we see what the future might hold.

Next week we will have some posts about what is going on at the CHA and talk about the specifics of attending a CHA meeting.