One of the best things about the Canadian historical association meetings, for me, is that it gives me the chance to scout out potential stories for Canada’s History magazine.
Each year, I attend all kinds of presentations on history. They’re each interesting in their own ways, of course, but lots of these presentations — more specifically, the papers they are based upon — translate very well into feature articles for our magazine.
Some of our best articles are discovered this way. I think immediately of a feature we ran a couple years back on the first women to join the RCMP and the discrimination they faced. That feature was based on a paper presented by a PhD candidate, Bonnie Reilly-Schmidt.
This year has been no different. Indeed, I discovered a real trove of presentations relating to the looming 100th anniversary of the Great War. For instance, any of the presentations I attended on Day 1 of the conference relating to church responses to WWI and conscription would make great feature articles. On Day 2, another fantastic topic was discussed — the practice of letter writing by soldiers to loved ones at home. Hopefully, Nicholas Kenny of Simon Fraser University, will be able to work with us to turn his paper into a feature article.
I also ran into Tim Cook, the Great War historian at the Canadian War Museum and an award-winning writer-historian (and former Canada’s History board member). He gave one of the Big Thinking lectures here, on the topic of soldiers and their belief in the supernatural while serving at the front. I can guarantee that will somehow make the pages of Canada’s History, too!
Another great aspect of the CHA meetings is simply running into the many great historians who collectively make up the larger Canada’s History writing family. Tim has written for us several times, and has three chapters to his credit in our soon to be published book, Canada’s Great War Album (published by Harper Collins and available in fall 2014). But it was nice as well to also run into Tim’s mother, Sharon Cook, who recently wrote “When Smoking Was Chic,” a feature article on how cigarette companies targeted women through ads that hyped the ‘glamorous’ side of smoking.
I’m going to digress for a bit now… On a side note, I realize that some people outside the ivory tower criticize academic research, especially research that seems a bit ‘out there.’
Sometimes, they have a point. But by and large, the research being by Canadian historians is vital to understanding ourselves — as individuals, as communities, and as a nation.
On Tuesday night, I had the pleasure of attending the annual CHA awards gala, where the very best in academic history writing is honoured. There were more than 25 awards in total, and the top prize is called the Sir John A. Macdonald Prize. It’s handed out each year to the best academic Canadian history book.
This year’s winner was James Dashuk. His book, Clearing the Plains, is a searing indictment of the Macdonald government’s practice of deliberately withholding food rations — in effect starving — First Nations peoples of the plains as a way of forcing them onto reserves. James and I chatted after his big win, and he couldn’t help by note the irony of winning an award named after Sir John, given that in his book, Macdonald’s policies regarding the treatment plains Aboriginals were so terribly destructive.
This isn’t frivolous research. It’s vital. This is just one of myriad stories that need to be told about our past. To tell them properly, we need academic historians. Only they have the expertise, knowledge, drive, and curiosity necessary to delve deep into archival material and oral histories and bring forth new ways of understanding ourselves. And we need that understanding if we are to move forward into the future as informed citizens of this diverse land we call Canada.