Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Historiography of Canada



[This text was written in 1948. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]

The writing of Canadian history has been a progressive process. The first history of Canada was the Historia canadensis of Father Du Creux, written in Latin, and published in Paris in 1664. It was merely a compendium of the Jesuit Relations , containing very little not found in the Relations themselves; and it is to-day of slight importance to the historian, since the Jesuit Relations have been translated and edited by R. G. Thwaites in a magnificent edition (72 vols., Cleveland , 1898-9). Apart from some minor attempts at telling the history of New France, Du Creux's was the only history of Canada published for a century and a half. Toward the end of the first quarter of the nineteenth century, William Smith , son of the first chief justice of Quebec after the American Revolution , published a one-volume History of Canada . The book bore on its title-page the date 1815, but it was not actually published until 1823. It contains a few items of information not found elsewhere, but is essentially a compilation, and has little value to-day.


Then came the Histoire du Canada of François-Xavier Garneau , published in three volumes between 1845 and 1848.. Garneau was a young French Canadian who, stung by Lord Durham's remark that the French Canadians were "a people with no history and no literature", resolved to prove that they had a history, and that they were capable of producing a literature. Both from the standpoint of history and of literature, Garneau's work was a remarkable performance; but it should be consulted in the seventh edition, published in 1928 by Hector Garneau, the grandson of the author, with annotations which bring it up to date. The English translation by Andrew Bell (3 vols., Montreal , 1878) cannot be recommended.


During the same period mention should be made of John McMullen, The History of Canada (Brockville, 1855; 2nd ed., 1867; 3rd ed:, 1892) and of Robert Christie , History of the late province of Lower Canada (6 vols., Quebec and Montreal, 1848-55); but these works were pedestrian and uninspired.


It remained for the American Francis Parkman to lift the writing of Canadian history to a higher level. In his early youth Parkman conceived the idea of writing the history of New France ; and he devoted his life, with a rare tenacity of purpose, in the face of ill health and failing eyesight, to carrying out this idea. Between 1851 and 1892, he wrote a series of volumes which, while separate essays, cover virtually the whole field of Canadian history up to the British conquest. It is sometimes said that he merely scratched the surface of the soil; and undoubtedly much has come to light since he wrote. But no one can say that he has been superseded [This judgment, already questionable in 1948, is clearly invalid today in light of all the scholarly outpouring of Canadian historians since then.]. Historians are, as a rule, either accurate and dull or inaccurate and interesting. Parkman was neither dull nor inaccurate. So thorough was his study of his materials that few of his conclusions have been vitiated by subsequent research; and he had a command of the art of storytelling which places him among the masters of historiography.


Unfortunately, not all Canadian historians have followed Parkman's example. While Parkman was still living, William Kingsford , a Canadian engineer who had retired from the building of canals and bridges, decided, when nearly seventy years of age, to devote his remaining years to writing a history of Canada from the beginning to 1841. The first volume appeared in 1887, and thereafter there was published a volume a year, until the author brought the work to a conclusion just a few months before his death in 1898. For a septuagenarian, the work was a marvelous tour de force; but when one has said that, one has said all. Kingsford belonged neither to that class of writers who are accurate but dull, nor to that of those who are interesting but inaccurate. He was both dull and inaccurate. In this respect he is in contrast with his contemporary, J. C. Dent , whose Last forty years (2 vols., Toronto , 1881) covers the period from 1841 to .1867, following the point where Kingsford stopped. Dent, though rather Macaulayesque in his style, is both reliable and well informed.


With Kingsford the period of individual attempts to write full-length histories of Canada came to an end (if we except the work of numerous authors of one-volume text-books for use in schools and universities), and the period of co-operative attempts followed. Since the beginning of the twentieth century there have been four such attempts. The first was the Makers of Canada (21 vols., Toronto , 1904-11; 2nd ed., revised and enlarged, ed. by W. L. Grant, Oxford , 1926). This was an attempt to cover the whole of Canadian history by means of a series of biographies - an excellent idea, since biography is one of the best avenues by which to approach the study of history. But the volumes were uneven in quality; and even the new and enlarged edition published in 1926 cannot be recommended as a whole without reservations.


The next attempt was a series of volumes entitled Canada and its provinces , edited by Adam Shortt and A. G. Doughty (23 vols., Toronto, 1914). These were published by a man who deserves mention in any sketch of Canadian historiography. Robert Glasgow, the head of the firm that published them, conceived the idea of a co-operative history of Canada in which all the leading historical specialists in Canada - he called them the "One Hundred Associates" - should deal with their particular fields. The result was a monumental work which, though uneven in some respects, reached a high level of excellence, and is still the chief work of reference for Canadian history [this collection has been superseded by the Canadian Centenary Series , a 19 volume history of Canada published between 1963 and 1986 as an extended Centennial project.]. This work Robert Glasgow followed up with a more popular treatment of Canadian history, in a series known as Chronicles of Canada (32 vols., Toronto , 1914-6), under the editorship of George M. Wrong and H. H. Langton . These little books were designed to cover Canadian history in a scholarly and readable fashion; and they did more to recover the Parkman tradition in the writing of Canadian history than any other book or series of books.


The fourth attempt to compile a cooperative history of Canada is the volume on Canada and Newfoundland in the Cambridge history of the British Empire , published in 1930. This is no doubt the most comprehensive history of Canada found in one volume; and it contains the results of the most recent [1948] research. It suffers, however, from the defects incidental to an attempt to compress too much within the boards of a single volume, and from the difficulties inherent in the collaboration of a 1arge number of writers.


The number of one-volume histories of Canada for use in schools and universities has been, of course, legion. Since Mrs. Jennet Roy, a schoolmistress, published in Montreal in 1847 the first history of Canada "for use in schools and families", there has poured from the presses an ever-increasing stream of text-books. Among these may be mentioned those by Sir John Boyd, Sir Charles G. D. Roberts, Sir John Bourinot , Sir Edward Peacock, Professor George M. Wrong, D. A. McArthur, Principal W. L. Grant, and W. S. Wallace. Special mention ought perhaps to be made of the history of Canada by Professor C. Wittke, designed for use in American universities where Canadian history is taught.


Of books dealing with special periods or phases of Canadian history, it is not possible to treat here. A select bibliography of Canadian history will be found in R. G. Trotter, Canadian history: A syllabus and guide to reading (Toronto, 1926; new ed., 1934), and a fuller bibliography will be found in the section on "Bibliography" contributed by R. G. Trotter to volume vi of the Cambridge History of the British Empire (Cambridge, 1930). Subject indexes of the publications relating to Canadian history between 1897 and 1930 will be found in the index volumes of the Review of Publications relating to the History of Canada and the Canadian Historical Review . [In 1947, began the Revue d'histoire de l'Amérique française that focuses on New France , Quebec and the rest of the francophone world in North America .]


Source: W. Stewart WALLACE, " Historiography ", in The Encyclopedia of Canada , Vol. 3, Toronto, University Associates of Canada, 1948, 396p., pp. 144-147. See the articles on historiography in English and in French at the Canadian Encyclopedia.



© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College