Behind the Book with E.A. Heaman

A Short History of the State in Canada

E.A. Heaman talks about the process behind her wonderful new book: A Short History of the State in Canada

What inspired you to write this book?

I wrote this book on the invitation of an editor, who suggested a list of possible topics. The history of the state immediately appealed for a bunch of reasons. It dovetailed with my current research project, on the history of taxation in Canada. But it also let me explore address a perplexity and dissatisfaction about the way Canadian history is generally written, as a complex question of identity-formation. An awful lot of Canadian history hinges on the question: how Canadian do people feel themselves to be at any given time? I don’t want to suggest that that’s not an important question. The story of popular nationalism is absolutely central to the emergence of the modern nation state and you cannot fight wars or build welfare infrastructure without it. The extent to which that popular nationalism embraces or vilifies people of different ethnic or religious backgrounds, or by reason of their gender or their class, is hugely important and I’m very glad that such questions are squarely addressed across the board.

But there can be too much focus on questions of subjective belonging or subjective nationalism. Canadians have constructed an exceptionalist narrative for themselves by focusing on them and historians have tended to replicate that exceptionalism. I’m speaking very vaguely, so let me give a concrete example. A French social scientist, André Siegfried, toured Canada and the United States in the early 20th century and he reported that where Americans argued about socio-economic relations amongst themselves, Canadians only argued about partyism and nationalism. That’s a ridiculous caricature but it was what audiences have generally wanted to hear. It’s what Lord Durham told them in the 1830s and it’s what passed for a paradigm in the 1990s when I was a graduate student. We were told we should focus on the sorts of questions that distinguished Canada from other countries—its peculiar forms of nation-formation and nationalism—because otherwise we would not be original. But the accretion of answers focused on such questions gradually distanced us from mainstream historiography. Other national histories have done, I think, a better job of writing socio-economic debates into mainstream political debates. When they write more general accounts of states or empires, they tend to pay more attention to the rights and resources of the people than their subjective feelings of nationalism. They don’t find the kind of Canadian books they can easily slot into those histories and so they don’t slot them in. I think that’s really unfortunate. I may be more aware of this than other Canadianists because I have also worked on French and British history. Canadian history looks particular when compared with other national histories.

So I have tried to write a book that had less of the classic material of Canadian nation-formation and more of the classic material of modern state-formation. This little book hops, skips and jumps its way through Canadian history with a focus on the conversation between state and citizen considered more generically than is usual. What rights and resources could the state or the individual citizen command at any given time? The answer varies hugely of course, according to the kind of criteria cited above—ethnicity, gender, class, religion. I’m not writing identities out of Canadian history. I’m just trying to serve them up in a format that focuses on formal relationships rather than feelings about those relationships. I think that may make Canadian history a little easier to grasp for those who don’t know much about it and want a quick primer.

What do you wish other people knew about your area of research?

What do I wish other people knew about my topic? Canada should be a useful resource for non-Canadianists; an interesting perspective from which to learn about modernity. Canada was in on the construction of the modern state from the beginning. It was an early testing ground for French absolutism and British liberalism. Enlightenment arguments for a limited state emerged at least in part from reflection on Canada and the relationship between the state and trade there. Indigenous peoples of Canada taught Europeans some of those important lessons. Such concerns as slavery, corruption, poverty, immigration, and Indigenous rights were always central to the perplexities of the Canadian state. Big books on the history of corruption and progressive reform, for example, or the warfare/welfare state, should recognize Canadian experiences as salient, and Canada as an interlocutor in the conversations around such topics.

What was the hardest part of writing your book?

The hardest thing about writing this book was writing out all the complicated nuances and details of historians’ stories about Canadian state history. The very notion of the state is a simplification: a way of describing a series of historical tendencies, rather than something concrete. There’s always a more complicated, nuanced story to be told and a historian carefully telling it. Some paragraphs are more egregious than others. Sometimes one paragraph can sum up conclusions from three different scholarly monographs. The classic staples theory of economic development that powered much scholarly analysis for some crucially formative decades gets one sentence. To compound the problem, footnotes were permitted only for direct quotation and there was some pressure to delete the bibliography entirely. There’s hardly a historian of Canada to whom I don’t owe some sort of an apology. The only justification for writing of this sort is the effort to convey Canadian history to some new audiences in some new ways.

What do you like to read for pleasure?  What are you currently reading?

What am I currently reading? I have just finished Francis Fukuyama’s Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014). It is a fascinating, readable and polemical account of relationships between power, accountability, and corruption. Some of his remarks about, for example, tensions between quasi-democratic clientelism and middle class reformism are very useful for my book on taxation. But this is also the book I had in mind when I mentioned big books on the history of corruption. Canada could usefully inform Chapter 8, which consists of an in-depth comparison of British and American experiences of corruption. I’ve also just closed the covers on Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel Purity (London: Fourth Estate, 2015). Again, the story is fascinating as an argument that the world is drifting back towards what he describes as “apparatchikism,” where the old East-German narratives and buzzwords (“a new species of humanity” “rewriting the rules of creativity”) are new again. The novel is interesting on generational politics: it starts by making young people today seem even more screwed up than past generations, but by the end of the book those same young people seem to become the hope of the world, a beacon of saner, more hopeful politics of gender and of wealth. I try to tell my story of Canada with a comparable feel-good and empowering ending, so I admire the effort, but I hope that my own ending isn’t quite so inconsistent with everything else that has happened in the rest of the book.


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