Guest Post by Kelly B

Way back when, I shared my discussion paper from the PhD core seminar at Carleton University from September 2010. The cycle continues, so I’d like to offer you one Kelly B’s September 2011 paper on similar readings. Enjoy!

“What is Canadian Studies?,” a new friend asked me during last week’s orientation events. I had a response, which I will discuss later on.  Similarly, a reaction I commonly encounter when I tell people I am a student in the School of Canadian Studies is, “Oh, History! You must know a lot about the history of Canada.”  Although I do, in fact, know a thing or two about the history of Canada it only slightly related to my pursuit of Canadian Studies. Yet, why the immediate link to History? If we believe Canadian Studies to be an interdisciplinary endeavour, how is it that those not in the field assume it belongs in the discipline of history? The readings for this first discussion provide an understanding.

Technology, tradition, “not American,” identity, nation, modernity, myth, survival; these are just some of the key words and phrases that appear in nearly each of the readings.  If we are to believe Mel Watkins, Canadian Studies all started with Harold Innis and the Staples Thesis.  Indeed, Innis is pervasive amongst the earliest academics in the field of Canadian Studies.    In The Fur Trade Innis presents a compelling case for the rise of the Canadian state and nation through the economic, political and technological history of the fur trade.  When the idea for an academic program about the study of Canada first arose in the late 1950s, technology’s influence on the nation-state was a central question.  If Innis provided the understanding for how “Canada” came into existence, what then were the myths, traditions and identities that developed within a fledgling Canada and were they strong enough to stave off the eradication of Canada?

George Grant’s Lament for a Nation decried that Canada had ceased to exist due to the influence of American liberalism and the creation of a Canadian branch-plant economy.  Grant’s lament became a rallying crying for (male, Anglo, Ontarian) nationalism in Canada and sparked new academic explorations into unifying myths of the nation.

Maurice Charland demonstrates the influence of both Innis and Grant in “Technological Nationalism,” arguing that the Canadian Pacific Railway was/is the great political and economic project that used technology to give an expansive geography national pride and a national myth.   Much like Horowitz, Careless and Grant before him, Charland’s 1986 article demonstrates continuing attempts to understand Canadian identity and nation through a political and economic lens.

The scholars discussed above fall into what John Wadland has described as Phase One of the Canadian Studies project.  Wadland describes Phase Two as an interdisciplinary project and an attempt to break out of the meta-narratives propagated by the first phase.  Frye and Atwood brought Canlit into the purview of Canadian Studies, breaking the cycle of economic and political histories. The Symon’s Report, To Know Ourselves, sought new Canadian disciples in developing areas such as the environment to break down the meta-narratives of phase one and carry the second phase into the last quarter of the twentieth century.

In spite of the second phase, Jill Vickers has shown that the male, Anglo, Central Canadian perspective is still widely sourced and hugely influential.  Yet there are many who challenge much of the discourse put forward by those in both Phase One and Two.  While Innis and Grant wept for the end of Canada, Harold Cardinal challenged notions of a “Just Society” and called for Canada to lift itself up into nationhood by honouring its treaties and recognizing the rights of Aboriginal peoples.  Himani Bannerji has contributed greatly to an understanding of how the policies and discourses of diversity, tolerance, and multiculturalism, developed both politically and academically during phase two, have contributed to a racist state and society.

As Canadian Studies moves into the second decade of the twenty-first century, the answer to “What is Canadian Studies?” appears to be, “Asking what Canadian Studies is.”  As the value of interdisciplinarity is questioned and Canadian Studies expands around the globe, we must continue to question our own studies and interpretations of Canada.  If people outside the field continue to associate history with Canadian Studies then it is clear there is much work to be done.

The meta-narratives of the CPR as a moment of nationalism or Canada as a lonely “wilderness” are myths, to name just two, that are prevalent within Canadian society and all phases of Canadian Studies.  I believe a central goal of any Canadianist should be to break down these myths. My response to those who ask me “What is Canadian Studies,” is much different now then when I first started the MA program at Carleton. Two years ago, I probably would not have had an adequate response, and I’m not sure I do today, yet I now respond with something like, “It’s being critical of Canadian identity, the state and nation.” In this response I don’t just mean the political and economic interpretations of Innis or Grant, but rather the ongoing and ever changing project to define the identity of the Canadian nation and those who live within it.

Being critical of this project means developing research that works across disciplines, because identity is not fostered through any one scholarly pursuit; it means questioning the role of the state; it means sharing discoveries of “ourselves” on the international stage; and it means addressing what Rankin and Ruhl call our “creative instability.” As Bannerji and Cardinal have shown, lacking any critical interpretation of nation and identity in Canada has profound impacts, whatever your discipline or occupation.

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