Few works of historical writing have marked major points of interpretive departure for the field of Canadian history. W.L. Morton’s critique of the Laurentian Thesis, “Clio in Canada: The Interpretation of Canadian History” (1946), was one; J.M.S. Careless’s, “Limited Identities in Canada” (1969), a second. Ian McKay’s article, “The Liberal Order Framework: A Prospectus for a Reconnaissance of Canadian History” (2000), is a third. It just might prove to be the most significant of the three. Morton set forward the framework of a regional critique of a centralized (and Central Canadian) interpretation of the Canadian past. Careless challenged the totalizing notion of a dualistic but monolithic English/French Canadian identity. But McKay challenges the foundational political structures, processes, and assumptions upon which the Canadian nation was constructed.
Ian McKay, Professor of History at Queen’s University, embarked a number of years ago on what he has called a “reconnaissance” of Canadian history and the place and future of the Left within it. This has involved a multi-volume series of historical works, a series still in progress and deeply grounded in theoretical concern. Two volumes have so far appeared: a prolegomena, Rebels, Reds, Radicals: Rethinking Canada’s Left History (2005), and Reasoning Otherwise: Leftists and the People’s Enlightenment in Canada, 1890-1920 (2009).
McKay’s sustained evocation and critique of the liberal order in Canada has excercised Canadian historians to a degree not witnessed since Careless’s “limited identities” article inspired a generation of fledgling social historians in the seventies (many of whom had trained in political history) to study and write about what sociologist Elizabeth Wagenheim once called “the third force in Canada” – that is, those people who were neither of British nor Francophone descent. McKay’s challenge to Canadian historians of the twenty-first century has begun to make its mark, even with his series in mid-stream. A substantial volume of essays on McKay and his views, Liberalism and Hegemony: Debating the Canadian Liberal Revolution, published in 2008, has been one result; a round table discussion on McKay and his ideas (occasioned in part by the publication of Liberalism and Hegemony) at the May, 2009, annual meetings of the Canadian Historical Association, was another.
It is entirely characteristic of Ian McKay that he should have chosen to forego attendance at the CHA session celebrating his own work and achievement in order to participate in a competing session that honoured the career of the historian Richard Allen and examined the recent appearance of The View from Murney Tower: Salem Bland, the Late Victorian Controversies, and the Search for a New Christianity (2008), the first volume of Allen’s biography of a radical Canadian social gospeller. The scholarly session McKay missed produced a fascinating panel discussion of his work by four major Canadian historians.
Fortunately, the four panelists – Janet Ajzenstat, Nancy Christie, Jean-Marie Fecteau, and Martin Pâquet, agreed to The Underhill Review’s request to reconstitute this important panel by publishing revised (and in some cases expanded) versions of their presentations. The presentations appear in this issue, somewhat revised and, in the case of the Fecteau and Pâquet translated into English, as a forum we hope will foster debate. The Underhill Review is the enemy of jargon, but it acknowledges the usefulness of the language of theory when carefully deployed to good purpose.
As it happens, Bryan Palmer of Trent University, who ranks with Ian McKay as a leading theorist and historian of the left (internationally as well as in Canada), had written a sustained review essay on McKay’s analysis and critique of the “liberal order” and kindly offered it to The Underhill Review. Together, Palmer’s essay and the UR forum on McKay’s work provide many insights into the liberal order in Canada and of McKay’s understanding of it.
The Underhill Review invited Professor McKay to respond to Bryan Palmer’s review essay and the comments of the CHA panel, but while he is grateful for the attention paid to his work in this issue of the UR, he has decided to do so at a later date.
Other contributions to this issue bear witness to the omnipresence of the dominant order in Canada, whether on the radicalism of youth culture in Jean-Philippe Warren’s essay on Montreal in the sixties, or Linda Morra’s on the problematic nature of identity formation in Canada. And as Canadians continue to mourn the deaths of soldiers in Afghanistan, it seems especially fitting that this issue should include Susan-Mary Grant’s thoughtful review essay on death and mourning in Civil War America.
Given contemporary political events, Canada nears a crisis of its political order in such matters as parliamentary supremacy, the right to dissent, and the rule of law. The Underhill Review would welcome thoughtful, historically informed essays on such subjects and their many ramifications, or on other aspects of history, ideas, and culture.
– A.B. McKillop