100 volumes on understanding nationality

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Guest blog by Shirley Tillotson, Professor Emeritus, Department of History, Dalhousie University, and Inglis Professor, University of King’s College

The Canadian Historical Review celebrates its 100th volume this year. It was among several new national organizations that were born in the nationalist years following the First World War. In the journal’s September issue, I looked back at the CHR's history. Being the journal of a national history has been a fine thing, but it means something different now, something more ambiguous, than it did on the CHR's previous anniversaries in 1944, 1970, and 1995.

Contributors to the CHR have usually been professional Canadianists. It’s to be expected that they would investigate the nation. This was especially so in the 1950s through the 1980s. Many Canadians then were excited about national political autonomy (and some about Quebec independence). Many were involved in struggles for economic sovereignty and for Canadian content in both popular culture and the universities. But since the 1990s, history with a national focus has come into question, even in the CHR.

Now, the CHR's contributors very often think about empire, about Canadians’ past as colonists, colonizers, and the colonized. This more transnational approach to history expresses, among other things, the last quarter century’s worries about the limits of nations as problem solvers. We grapple with the great possibilities and real problems of lives lived transnationally.

In all this, we have been part of an international scholarly and political conversation, prompted by events. Globalization, digitization, and a politically-inflected appreciation of human diversity complicate how we understand nationality.

In this context, nationally oriented historians have turned to questions about the cultural meanings and political weight of the nation. We have joined with scholars in many disciplines to study nationalism. Some have hoped that nationalism might fade away. Others saw it as expressing human values worth defending. Studies in nationalism ask whether nationalist politics have always brought hateful, even belligerent, exclusions or forced cultural conformity, or both. Or has there been in nationalism something of solidarity and autonomy, the values of welfare state nationalism and anti-imperialism, that warrants respect and reinvention in less dangerous forms? Historians have answered as we usually do: “It depends.”

In my CHR essay, I explore some examples of what historically contextualized nationality has meant. And I examine how historians have enlarged their scope beyond the nation, showing the historical importance of other kinds of spatial and political frameworks of human (and sometimes non-human) agency.

Perhaps the largest growth of non-national modes of analysis has been in the new imperial history. Instead of a taken-for-granted imperial belonging as the background to Canadian history, we have been asking questions about how that sense of belonging was created, and how effectively. This current, more than any of the other alternatives to national history, is surely a response to globalization. We revisit our place in these earlier world networks, noting the opportunities and the cruelties, the creativity and the oppressions that these other globalizations entailed.

But there remain a number of subject areas where a national frame of analysis is important. Environmental history is one. In a 2014 issue of the CHR, Alan MacEachern noted this field’s arguably unusual curiosity about a national frame of analysis. Biomes transcend borders, but national comparisons show exceptionally well how “natural” history is also human history. In this subfield, as in others, “Canadian” history will stop at the border only if doing so gives us good historical explanations.

In short, contributors to the CHR are no longer focused on the nation in the way that they more commonly were in the 1950s and 1960s. But, like the Canadianists in other disciplines that the Federation serves, historians of Canada in the CHR and elsewhere contribute both to national and world politics precisely because we think about nationality’s complex and contradictory possibilities.

In anti-imperial politics, nationality has been a sword wielded to whack away constraints imposed from afar. As a majority’s identity, nationalism has sometimes been a boot on the neck of unruly or ill-understood minorities. In creative hands, it has both oppressed and liberated, shifting its content relationally and situationally. Individuals have embraced it as a tool of self-knowledge and self-expression, or they have found themselves forced into a social or legal straitjacket.

Nationalism has sometimes been driven by fear and sometimes by aspiration. Dreams of nationhood have appeared in poetry and music, politics and law, and energize mobilizations of many kinds (religious, labour, and military, to name a few). The nationalism of welfare states (Canadian health care as a defining symbol) affirmed and affirms values of shared responsibility and care but also of citizen entitlement and non-citizen exclusion. Canada’s history is a treasure chest of stories about what nationality can be used for.

Canadian cultural institutions like the CHR give Canadians and the world a viewpoint on nationality that is, without exaggeration, unique. The CHR may be unparalleled as a resource for understanding the many meanings of nationality. The human problems to which Canada is an imperfect – some might even say failed – solution are widely shared. Celebrating the heroic rise of the nation is no longer what Canadianists do. But still, our more troubled stories of the places, politics, and peoples related to Canada speak to this nation’s present challenges and equally so to those of the world.

Access the full text of Shirley Tillotson’s article here with open access granted from October 23 to November 18, 2019:


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