A while ago, I picked up a used copy of Jack Granatstein’s 1999 book, Who Killed Canadian History? A book that was a little money-maker for Jack and a sad tale for those of us who write Canadian history books. When the book came out, a lot of historians and commentators thought Granatstein was a bit of a crank and a throwback — he prattles on about woke stuff long before being anti-woke was a thing, which makes him a pioneering throwback. But, like Woody Harrelson’s screwball conspiracy theorist character in the disaster move 2012, he’s been right so far.
I write Canadian history. I wanted to be a historian from the time that I first learned that it was actually a job. I get to read and write without being pestered. So far, I’ve written about Great Lakes shipwrecks, wartime censorship, cannabis, Pierre Radisson and Globe and Mail founder George McCullagh. (If you haven’t read my new book on McCullagh, Big Men Fear Me, you’ve likely never heard of him, partly because his widow burned his papers after she married his best friend. Modesty aside, it’s a hell of a story.)
Your typical high school student, and some history teachers, believe history isn’t important. Canadian media believes this country’s history is dull. In fact, too many reviews of the books I’ve written start off with the line, “I thought Canadian history was boring until…”
Some book publishers have also decided Canadian history is boring, or, at least, that Canadian historians are. The bestselling recent book on a Quebec historical figure, Champlain’s Dream, was written by an American who did a lousy job of it. It’s unlikely a Canadian author could have got a deal for that book in this country. Canadian non-fiction books account for less than 4% of the entire book market in Canada. And that net catches everything from sports biographies to cookbooks to ghost-written political autobiographies to memoirs.
Meh, who cares, right? History is like any other high school subject. You watched the clock in math class, endured physics, suffered through PhysEd. At best, history class was story time, cartoon figures in ugly clothes, boring politicians, forgotten wars.
But history is what ties us to a place and adds to our sense of belonging.
And we’re losing it. Not because we don’t use it. Every day, decisions are made in all parts of this country based on perceptions of history. But, as Granatstein says, almost no one is writing it anymore for general audiences or studying it. Grad students are staying away in droves because there are no academic jobs. The typical Canadian university hires sessional lecturers – basically, freelance profs with no job security or academic future – to teach more than half their courses. Soon, there will be just a few profs who are qualified to supervise MAs and PhDs in Canadian history, and almost no one will be capable of guiding grad students who want to research Canadian political history. This is a real crisis for Canada, one that governments and academics won’t admit is happening.
There’s no money for researched Canadian history. The big publishing houses think it’s old-fashioned and boring. Granting agencies like the Canada Council and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council won’t fund it. So those of us who write it are on our own.
At least people won’t have to put up with us much longer. The typical Canadian historian, outside university faculties, is well over sixty. Inside faculties, tenured profs are almost as old, and very few of them write for an audience outside the academy. As I wrote this, someone asked me why there are no good books on the Quebec referendums of 1980 and 1995 (especially the latter, which was so important and so close). There’s a great book in that. Too bad it will never be written or, if it is, it will almost certainly not be published. And if it is published, no one will hear about it because books are not talked about in mainstream mass culture, even though book readership is amazingly strong.
I’ve talked to several authors who’ve decided to pack it it, though, like me, they might come back if they have a burning desire to tell a particular story, just because they believe it needs to be written down. Everyone I talked to seems cast off, alone, in an existential crisis. They wonder if it’s just them. It isn’t.
I don’t want this to sound like a whine. I have a fantastic day job and my books sell much better than the typical work of Canadian non-fiction. On average, a Canadian non-fiction book sells 400 copies, which is, to be blunt, disgusting. I expect my biography of the Jesuit martyr Jean de Brebeuf to do better than that but not nearly as well as it would have thirty years ago, when I still actually lived in Huronia and the book would have been much more easy to write.
We’re not a country unless we have a history. Outside Quebec, interest is so low that it’s easy to conclude people see the country as a motel, as terra nullus where nothing happened, no lessons can be learned, no one interesting ever lived. I think the cruellest thing people can do is forget those who came before us and make their lives and their struggles utterly meaningless.
So I keep at it and will try to get some articles into the Low Down that might spur some interest in Canadian non-fiction books. As for my own writing, I am like the old man Hunter Thompson met in the Andes, an Inca who though steel ploughs were dandy things, but, for me, I will keep toiling away with my wooden plough.
(A version of this column appeared in the Low Down to Hull and Back News in early June, 2023).