During the Q&A, two of the questions struck me as particularly important. The first was a comment from the moderator about MacMillan’s work on leadership resonating during Canada’s longest-ever election campaign. The other was a complaint from an audience member near me about historians neglecting to share their work with the public, or failing to engage with issues important to contemporary Canadians.
I always find it a little bewildering when historians are accused of living in ivory towers, in part because my supervisors during my three degrees (Rusty Bittermann at St. Thomas University, Rick Rajala at the University of Victoria, and Catherine Mills at the University of Stirling) epitomized the opposite. All are deeply committed to engaging with communities and sharing their research.
So as this very long election campaign finally comes to a close, I thought I would highlight some of the ways historians and other scholars have engaged with Canadian electoral issues. A caveat: this list is by no means comprehensive, and I invite folks to add to the list in the comments section below.
- Canadian Historical Association President Joan Sangster got the ball rolling by outlining her three wishes for the federal election, including evidence-based research: “[E]vidence-based research is essential to understanding of all [Canada’s] urgent issues: without knowing our immigration and refugee history, how will we do the right thing? Without political economists analyzing different environmental programs, how can we judge short and long-term consequences of our choices? Without social scientists comparing child care options across the world and within Canada, how will we know which one to choose? Representing historians, my wishes may seem distant from the present. But they involve political choices already made, and they could matter to the future we become.”
- Taiaiake Alfred challenged the legitimacy of the election while reiterating the need for a nation-to-nation relationship between First Nations and settler Canadians.
- Matthew Barrett looked back to Canadian elections after World War I, when veterans also played a prominent role.
- Many Canadian historians have argued that Canada’s contemporary refugee rhetoric echoes the racism of past immigration policies. David Meren and Melanie Adrian explained why the current discourse is so troubling, while Karen Dubinsky and Franca Iacovetta explored stereotypes of Canadian immigrant women in the niqab and burqa debate, and Lynn Marks and Jordan Stanger-Ross write that “As feminists, we may find the sight of women wearing niqabs personally uncomfortable. But as historians, we know that earlier feminist efforts to impose their own values on those of different faiths did not lead to anything positive.”
- Dan MacFarlane reminded us that Canada’s historic dependence on natural resource exploitation will likely continue.
- Sarah Carter complicated notions of “old stock Canadians” by writing of the long history of Arab migration to Saskatchewan.
- “What kind of country pursues an aggressive agenda of resource extraction, undermining the constitutionally protected Aboriginal and treaty rights of First Nations, while failing to do anything to address the fact that Indigenous people live seven to 20 years less than Canadians?” Pam Palmeter asks. Timothy Stanley likewise notes that “It seems that Aboriginal people still do not count in Canadian politics, a fact that all Canadians will rue as they live the consequences of excluding the very people who live on top of the resources that all of us need for prosperity.”
- Leah Gazan showed how affordable housing relates to the ongoing crisis of murdered and missing Aboriginal women and also stressed that Bill C-51 should be a major election issue because of its impact on Indigenous sovereignty.
- David Lyons spoke out about surveillance and privacy issues.
- Patrick Taillon set out potential minority scenarios following the election.
- On Twitter, the indefatigable Pete Anderson reminded us of the National Capital Commission’s troubling decisions for public land, including the Experimental Farm.
- Closer to home, Political Scientist Amanda Bittner gave a fantastic talk at an Equal Voice event in St. John’s. Bittner and her graduate students have found that the one guaranteed way to get more women in federal politics is for large parties to choose women to represent them.
- Finally, the ambitious Write to Know letter-writing campaign aims to mobilize public awareness and inquiry into federal research programs and policies. Scholars and communities across the country are asking federal scientists about their work and forwarding our letters to federal election candidates to show the alarming chasm between scientific evidence and government policy. Here at MUN, we just collaborated with Alternatives North, a social justice coalition in the Northwest Territories, to develop a question around abandoned and orphaned mines.
A lot of this work flies under the radar, but historians make their research available through sites like Active History and the Network in Canadian History and the Environment’s The Otter blog. On any given day and you can read about winter weather and climate change; the Battle of Britain and Canadian Rivers; pesticides and toxicology; explaining East Coast History to Central Canadians, and many other subjects.
Jane Hilderman, Executive Director of Samara Canada, eloquently argues elections give Canadians the opportunity “to learn about one another—when too often we are content to assume we know everything.” I believe that they are also a chance to learn more about how this country’s past continues to influence the present, and the ways in which researchers and communities are trying to understand both.
 All five of Margaret MacMillan’s excellent cross-Canada Massey Lectures will be released on the CBC Radio program Ideas the week of November 2nd. MacMillan’s BBC Radio 4 1914: Day by Day series, which recounts the summer leading up to World War I, is also well worth a listen.