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Contesting Clio’s Craft: New Directions and Debates in Canadian History

By Michael Dawson

Review By Allan Smith

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 166 Summer 2010  | p. 105-7

Viewing the historical study of Canada over the past few decades as having put class, gender, ethnic, regional, and cultural conceptions at the heart of Canadian inquiry, contributors to this volume turn to what remains to be done. Six broad areas are presented as requiring attention: two concern the interior lines of Canadian development, three the transnational lines, and one the complicated ground in between. 

Defining the in-between area in terms of the Quebec-Canada relationship, Magda Fahrni sees it as constituting “a ready-made case study” for investigators “currently interested in transnationalism” (2). She also views it as seriously under-examined in both Canada and Quebec. Wanting that deficiency remedied, Fahrni presents action to that end (especially if that action is associated with comparative analysis and the techniques of histoire croisée) as a step that will improve understanding of the Quebec-Canada whole, deepen appreciation of each of its parts, provide a tighter grasp of qualities shared, and get more fully to grips with rupture and dissonance – as, in short, a step that will be as compellingly particularist as it is strongly attuned to connection, cross-border flow, and entanglement.

Attention to source-use and periodization takes the book to the more straightforwardly domestic domains with which it is concerned. Steven High considers the first of these, concentrating with particular force on the importance of, and what ought to be the nature of, historians’ relationship to oral evidence. Intensified appreciation of that relationship’s mutuality is seen as especially important: only if historians view oral sources not only as active but also as manipulated agents in the narratives they create can they develop stronger empathy for the situations being examined, produce more sensitive reportage, and generally be more involved and engaged. 

Michael Dawson and Catherine Gidney conduct their careful consideration of the periodization issue through examination of the time-based dimension of factoral interactivity, particularly in relation to class, gender, ethnic, and demographic patterns. Identifying that dimension as giving each of these patterns its own rhythm and pace, they stress the impossibility of working to a single temporal frame. Emphasizing, above all, the patterns’ lack of congruence with the political chronologies to which they have almost always been assimilated, Dawson and Gidney urge a move away from those often distorting devices. “Breaking free from comfortable and convenient reference points” is essential; only by so doing can we “ask new and challenging questions about Canadian history” (74). 

Consideration of the increasingly active transnational area gets the bulk of the book’s attention. Concerned with Canada and Quebec in Atlantic contexts, Michel Ducharme’s wide-ranging essay sees work in that field as little short of transformative. Having already deepened an understanding of ideological development in the critically important age of revolutions from the late eighteenth to the early nineteenth centuries, that work is poised to move discussion even more fully beyond its familiar forms. Involved in redefining the oppositional relationship between revolutionary and counter-revolutionary ideas, in focusing attention on an Atlantic-area consciousness that includes Canada and Quebec, and in explicating complexes of tensely interactive commonalty, difference, and sharing, it stands to do nothing less than “integrat[e] the Canadian and Quebec experience within Atlantic history … revisit colonial ideological oppositions in a broader context, and give new meaning to local political struggles” (186). 

Recommending continuing investigation in the area of postcolonial and new imperial history, Andrew Smith, Adele Perry, and Katie Pickles emphasize that activity’s ongoing potential to generate complex perspectives in a number of areas. Extending awareness of system complexity, pointing to backward and forward linkages, emphasizing the periphery’s impact on the centre, and stressing resistance’s very complicated relationship to hegemony, such activity will – they insist – also produce fresh assessments of the cost-benefit nexus; underscore the bi-directionality of economic, social, and institutional currents; and bring additional attention to both the positive and negative dimensions of feedback: old simplicities will go, complexity will come forward, and a structuring impulse will emerge with an altogether new clarity. 

Concern with broadly transnational themes is present throughout the volume. Attention to local-global interaction, the permeability of frontiers and borders, cultural transfer, transcommunity interaction, and overall mutuality becomes, indeed, its leitmotif: seen as essential to an understanding of Canada itself, scrutiny of these matters is also projected as involving Canadian study in a larger game. Placing that study in a position to “draw more fully on, and contribute to, international historiography” (xviii), such scrutiny will, in fact, situate it in contexts of the most vigorously ample, productive, and enriching kind. 

Strong in its argument concerning these critical areas, Contesting Clio’s Craft perhaps misses an opportunity in failing to theorize nation explicitly and as such. Alert to nationality’s “fictions,” and very aware of the pitfalls – totalizing syntheses, retrospectively imposed unities, assumed teleological drives – to be avoided in its study, contributors never quite come to grips with the conflicted, fluctuating, yet comprehensively aggregative dynamic whose gathering up of various spatial, temporal, cultural, economic, and institutional simultaneities licenses that study (and the production of this book) in the first place. And not only is this vital matter left in abeyance but so are a number of related issues. In overlooking the border’s character as consolidative as well as transgressive, paying no attention to the protocols governing the treatment of communities that are not initially but that will become parts of larger complexes, and setting aside the measure in which postnational perspectives link to and incorporate as well as transcend national ones, the book, indeed, disregards a good deal. These absences are not minor. They make it hard to see – unless one is looking through a purely topical lens – what historical work confected in response to Christopher Dummitt’s call for a return to encompassing narrative and a “telling [of] big stories that can explain key questions about Canada’s past” (122) will be about. They also leave one wishing that remarks that do suggest a conceptualizing approach to questions of nation (Perry, 139) had been more fully developed. Their existence noted, though, one should not stay too long with them; even in concentrating on reconfiguration and repair rather than on the phenomenon undergoing these procedures, the book does much. Specifying difficulties, indicating ways of dealing with them, and proposing a number of paths towards a more effectively engineered set of representations, it makes time spent in its presence equally a stimulus and a pleasure. Readers will find their contact with Contesting Clio’s Craft amply rewarded.


PDF – Book Reviews, BC Studies 166, Summer 2010