Last fall, Harvard historian Niall Ferguson gave a short speech entitled "The Decline and Fall of History" in which he correlated the declining popularity of university-level history with the proliferation of boutique courses designed to "judge the past by the moral standards of the present." His main complaint is not that taught history is more diverse or less elitist than in the past, but that its overt politicization has made it increasingly arcane and thus irrelevant. "Undergraduates looking to increase their familiarity with publicly significant topics in modern history would be justified in feeling shortchanged," he concluded.
Here in Canada, professional historians have been bemoaning declining enrollments and waning relevance for decades. But it is in the realm of politicization that we now find ourselves on unfamiliar terrain. This week the Council of the Canadian Historical Association (CHA) proposed to decommission the Sir John A. Macdonald Prize, awarded annually to the best book in Canadian history. (CHA members will hold a ratification vote at their spring 2018 meeting.) "Historians are always mindful and alive to questions of commemoration, and how they reflect our knowledge of the past," association president Adele Perry is quoted as saying. "These were decisions that were arrived at for a variety of reasons, and I think it's a good time for us to revisit them."
It is undoubtedly a fine thing that historians are mindful and alive—although, come to think of it, Sir John A's foremost biographer, Donald Creighton, is neither. But in any era other than our own, the association representing Canada's academic historians would have understood that a proposal to jettison a prize named after our founding PM should be accompanied by an explanation. Instead, to judge from the paltry press the matter has attracted, members of the CHA executive appear content to allow primary-school teacher Felipe Pareja to speak for them. Pareja, author of the August 2017 ETFO motion to remove Macdonald's name from Ontario's public schools, claims that our first PM was "the architect of really what was genocide of Indigenous peoples on Turtle Island."
What is surprising here is not that Macdonald's legacy is contested in the present, but that his name can be breezily pronounced non grata by an association of professionals whose job it is, ostensibly, to allow the past to be the past. Niall Ferguson's pessimism, in short, is entirely warranted. "I have come to doubt that the pathologies that I have described within our history departments can be cured," he laments. "Strange though it seems, those who have driven this transformation of history are too deeply entrenched and too committed to their cause to pay heed to the declining enrollments."