It was in June 1994 when I first met Laird Rankin, then general manager of the newly established Canada’s National History Society, created by Rolph Hubband and the Hudson’s Bay Company. There wasn’t a lot of activity in the field of popular history back then. Indeed, the society was the first of its kind ... well, with the exception of the CRB Foundation where I worked, creators of the now iconic Heritage Minutes and the Heritage Fairs program.
In addition to the society taking over publication of The Beaver, the Hudson Bay Company’s history magazine, Rankin explained that it was exploring options for a new national history-teaching award. I handed him a research file we’d recently completed on the very same thing and encouraged him to pursue it. I had no way of knowing that, eight years later, I would move to Winnipeg and become the person responsible for leading the history society for more than half of its twenty years in operation.
Today, as I reflect on Canada’s History Society, I’m struck by how different the history landscape has become, but also by how some challenges simply endure. From the outset, early board minutes reveal animated discussions about the challenges of building on subscription sales and diversifying revenues; of finding the right balance between growing the magazine and finding new ways to bring history to Canadians; and of leading and operating a national cultural organization outside of the “golden triangle” of Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal. (And yes, the magazine’s name, The Beaver, was also debated then . . . as it had been routinely since the Hudson’s Bay Company first transformed it from a company newsletter to a publicly sold magazine in 1930.)
Canada’s History magazine will always be the society’s flagship activity, not just because it provides us with one of the most fun, creative, and dynamic ways of telling Canada’s stories but because it is also a reflection of the evolution of Canadian history itself. Magazine circulation has held steady, somewhere around the forty thousand mark, throughout the society’s existence, except for a brief surge past fifty thousand in early 2002. Finding ways to break through that threshold has bedevilled every publisher, including me, but it should never be the full measure of Canada’s History’s success.
In 1994, popular media was limited to newspapers and magazines, radio, and a handful of English and French Canadian television channels. The Internet was still new to most people. And the typical cellphone was a brick — weighing nearly two pounds!
What’s more, the future audience for history was shrinking. Only two of the provinces and territories required high school students to complete a Canadian history course in order to graduate — an observation that historian Jack Granatstein hammered home in 1997 with his battle cry of a book Who Killed Canadian History?
That book fuelled the establishment in 1997 of the Dominion Institute, which is remembered for launching a project to record the oral histories of war veterans, as well as the creation in 1999 of Historica, which gave a permanent home for the CRB Foundation’s “Heritage Project” and the Canadian Encyclopedia.
Throughout this bustle of activity, Canada’s History Society continued to expand its programming, in large measure thanks to the strength and support of its own longstanding blue-chip members, who understood the value and untapped potential of the modest Winnipeg-based organization. Under the leadership of volunteer president Joe Martin, the society quietly set to work improving its editorial program, building its internal fundraising capacity, and strengthening its connections to classrooms and community organizations.
Back then, the federal government did not see Canadian history as a priority to the extent that it is seen today. In 2003, The Beaver magazine was declared ineligible for the Canadian Periodical Fund because it didn’t have enough advertising to merit consumer magazine support and wasn’t considered “cultural” enough to qualify as an arts and literary title. However, in typical Canadian fashion, any major expansion of programs was unsellable in the private sector, unless we could demonstrate that the federal government was already invested. And so we began pressing hard for project support, both publicly and privately.
Getting Ottawa’s attention was an even greater challenge for the history society, simply because it was based in Winnipeg. In Ottawa, some officials had difficulty seeing the history society as being truly “national” because of its western location. But we persevered, spending plenty of time in Ottawa and Toronto to make its presence felt and being very focused on our plan to build from core strengths: our capacity to tell Canada’s stories and our connections to the broader history community through our awards and recognition programs.
Over the course of the next few years, Canada’s History developed a number of new initiatives, including the launch of Kayak: Canada’s History Magazine for Kids in 2004; the creation of Fur Trade Stories — an online resource with material from The Beaver, the HBC Archives, and other sources; and the expansion into book publishing, producing For The Love of History to honour the tenth anniversary of the Pierre Berton Award and Those Earlier Hills, reprinting The Beaver’s R.M. Patterson articles chronicling his adventures exploring the Nahanni River.
By 2008, the society had secured multiyear funding from the federal government to expand both its online programming and the Governor General’s History Awards. It confirmed new partnerships with TD Bank Financial Group and Great-West Life, as well as the University of Winnipeg, on whose campus the society is now located. The Beaver magazine was doing well, with a new design, an expanded distribution onto more newsstands, and a growing reputation within the media industry. Annual revenues had doubled with new investments equally from federal and corporate support. And then, in fall 2008, as the stock market crashed, the print publishing industry experienced a sudden paradigm shift to online media. On average, magazine paid subscriptions in Canada have declined since then by almost thirty percent, although industry readership surveys report that the total number of readers held steady.
Dealing with such an abrupt change in popular media consumption meant rethinking audiences, as well as platforms. Finding ways to reinforce marketing for our magazines, educational resources, awards programs, travel tours, and advocacy efforts ultimately led to the decision in 2010 to consolidate under a single new name — Canada’s History — that unequivocally spoke to our mission.
Through it all, our founder and partner, Hudson’s Bay Company, has stood firmly behind us. There is no company that has done more to create, preserve, and honour our history, and we hope that we have lived up to the vision it had for the organization when it stood up to announce the society’s creation all those years ago.
Our reach into Canadian families and households is much broader today than in 1994, with a growing circulation of nearly ten thousand English subscribers for Kayak and more than thirty-three thousand for its French edition. CanadasHistory.ca attracts more than one million page views each year, and an overwhelming majority of the site’s visitors have never been print subscribers. We support hundreds of thousands of students each year across Canada through the Heritage Fairs program and the different writing and video challenges we offer them annually. The Governor General’s HistoryAwards program has expanded to recognize excellence in eleven different award categories, and has brought together Canada’s five major history and heritage organizations in an annual event to celebrate history and to explore ways to improve upon the work we are collectively doing through the National History Forum.
This year, Canada’s History will continue to expand its programming, travel tours, and educational programs. It will launch a new book, Canada’s Great War Album, this fall, which will feature never-before-seen images and untold stories of the men and women of the Great War generation. And, as this column is being written, development work is beginning on a series of one-minute television commercials that will expand the reach of those stories to broadcast and online as well.
Which brings me full circle to the first history project I ever worked on, signalling that a generational cycle is now completed. It is time for new history to be made, with a new leader to guide the way forward for Canada’s History Society, and so this will be my last contribution to Canada’s History Society as President and CEO.
This has been more than a job to me — it has been a privilege. I take pride in noting that some things have changed for the better over the past twenty years. All but two of the provinces and territories have added more history courses to their curricula; there are more opportunities for teacher training in Canadian history, and more resources are being created and maintained thanks to the now permanent Canada History Fund.
But there are still other challenges ahead. Canada’s History will continue to be an influential voice in driving change, and addressing challenges, in part because of the networks it has built within the history community. But, ultimately, their greatest strength still comes from you, our readers and members, who never hesitate to set us straight on the real issues and priorities and will always continue to inspire us with your knowledge, passion, and commitment to the past. Thank you for permitting us (and me) to continue to make history.