Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
November 2006

Méthodologie de l’histoire du Québec / Quebec History Methodology


What is the meaning of “historical context”?


What does your Instructor mean when in an exam, a paper, or in a document analysis, you are asked to put an event/issue/document in its historical context?

Many students confuse the context with the causes of an event. A cause is something that brings an effect. The effect may be immediate and obvious, or it may be deeper and not so evident. In all cases, however, it generates a consequence that one can clearly relate to the factor that precipitated the action.

By contrast, the context is understood as the events, or the climate of opinion, that surround the issue at hand. They help to understand its urgency, its importance, its shape, or even its timing. What was happening at the time of the event or the decision that sheds some light on it? In what type of society did the event occur? An urban one? A rich one? An educated one? An unstable one?

Context can best be explained by examining a few examples.

Let us consider the fact that the Canadian government cut significantly the defence budget in the 1990’s. What caused this was probably two fold: the government was running significant budgetary deficits, the magnitude of which could not continue much longer; as well, Canadians did not think that Canada had much of an important military role to play in the world (and military expenditures were increasingly expensive). Hence: the cuts. However, these cuts were also made in the context of the end of the Cold War and during difficult economic conditions. Military expenditures did not seem as necessary as they had been previously; and Canada did not seem to be able to afford them anymore. The context explains that the cuts went deeper in the military budget that they did, for example, in the health budget. The country had to make choices, and it is the context that explains the choices that were made.

Another, broader, example is to consider the Canadian confederation of 1867. Its causes are well known (political deadlock, economic and financial difficulties, fear of Americans, etc.). They explain why the various colonies wished to come together to generate greater prosperity, support one another militarily, and create a framework for territorial expansion. However, an important aspect of Confederation is that much of it took place in the context of the American Civil War. This is what explains what appears today as the irrational fear of Americans that gripped Canada in the 1860’s. It also helps us understand why federalism was not very popular in Canada (except in Quebec) when it seemed to so clearly be failing in the United States. After all, the issues of slavery and States’ rights were at the heart of the Civil War.

Why did the Riel issue so divide Canadians in 1885? No proper understanding of it can be achieved without examining the state of French-English relations at the time, the prevailing intolerance towards Natives and Francophones in Canada in the 1880’s, the state of knowledge about insanity, and the assumptions that most people would make about authority at the time. So again context is essential in understanding much of that question.

So, an event, an issue, or a document, should never be looked at without placing it in its context. Failing to do so would make us wander why John A. Macdonald did not create Medicare or why Bill 101 (in Quebec) was more controversial in 1977 than it is today.


© 2006 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College