York, U of T partner on research to examine the study of Confederation

Confederation study
(Image: Library and Archives Canada)

A collaborative initiative undertaken by York University and the University of Toronto surveyed 3,500 political scientists and historians on how Confederation is studied, and how it should be considered moving forward.

The survey, undertaken in the spring of 2016 by York Professors Lesley Jacobs, Jacqueline Krikorian and Marcel Martel, along with University of Toronto Professors David Cameron and Robert Vipond, was distributed in both French and English to every political science and history faculty member teaching at a public Canadian university. Its goal was to determine “How do we study Confederation?”

Krikorian explained that the research team “wanted to ascertain what 1867 scholarship was viewed as preeminent, which scholars were considered as ’leading’ in the field, and, as importantly, what perspectives or voices were missing in the literature.”

In part, the research team was building on a study completed almost 50 years earlier by the Royal Commission on Bilingualism & Biculturalism that looked at how history is taught in Canada.

Today, March 29, is the 150th anniversary of the British North America Act, 1867, which became a law when it received Royal Assent in the U.K. Parliament on March 29, 1867.

The initiative that began in Charlottetown took nearly three years to realize. John A. Macdonald, who went on to become Canada’s first Prime Minister, hailed the proposal, explaining that the union of British North American colonies would establish “a great nationality, commanding the respect of the world.” Across the Atlantic, in the U.K. House of Commons, Charles B. Adderley, the Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies, echoed Macdonald by proclaiming that the legislation was a “great and grave undertaking” as the British statesmen were helping to shape the “future destinies” of the British colonies.

That said, not everyone was excited about it, and, worse, many were not even consulted. Indigenous communities were left out the process altogether, and women played little-to-no role. And not all of those who had a voice in the process were necessarily in support of it. As the Saint John Globe explained, said Krikorian, many believed they were “dragged” into Confederation, even condemning the idea of a national holiday for Dominion Day on July 1, 1867 as “injudicious and ill-timed in every respect, and cannot be justified by any system of reasoning.”

According to Jacobs, participation in the survey was robust, with approximately 500 faculty members responding. The response rate, he said, was two to three times higher than expected, indicating a “surprisingly high level of interest among historians and political scientists in Confederation as well in the reliability of the findings.”

Cameron agreed, and went on to highlight the significance and originality of the project. “What we research and teach in universities and what we publish plays an important role in influencing public understanding,” said Cameron, highlighting the significance and originality of the project “Many salient issues in today’s political arena are based on an understanding of what happened at the country’s establishment in 1867.”

The survey results showed both anglophone and francophone respondents agreed that Peter Russell (University of Toronto) and the late Ramsay Cook (York) were two of the leading scholars on Confederation.

The research team also made two additional findings based on the survey results.

First, it was patently clear that anglophone scholars paid limited attention to Confederation scholarship written in French, whereas francophone scholars were engaged with 1867 research whether it was written in French or English. This finding was compatible with the determinations made by the Royal Commission on Bilingualism & Biculturalism that the education system has traditionally taught “two versions of Canadian history – an English version and a French version.”

“The implications are significant not only for scholars undertaking research on Confederation, but also for the good governance of the country,” said Martel.

A second finding of note pertains to the type of research that was valued. Vipond highlighted the fact that the scholarship viewed as most significant in the field emphasized matters of high politics.

“The survey revealed an interesting tension,” he said. “On the one hand, most respondents said they were most deeply influenced by scholars who had written in the 1960s and 1970s, when the rise of Quebec nationalism led to a passionate debate about the origins of Confederation; on the other, a striking number said in effect that it was time to reframe the history of Confederation away from the national unity narrative, especially to take into account indigenous perspectives that were largely missing from earlier accounts.”

There was wide agreement among survey respondents that, to date, Confederation research had failed to adequately address Indigenous peoples. Indigenous peoples were not part of the vision of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism & Biculturalism 50 years ago, but need to be included in the academic literature on 1867 going forward.

The survey results are being assessed in anticipation of a forthcoming publication.

To learn more about the British North America Act, 1867 on its historic anniversary, take the quiz at cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/test-your-knowledge-of-the-british-north-america-act-1.2806466.