Historians and Historiography

Historiography refers to the analysis of historical writing and is mainly concerned with changes in subject matter, interpretation, methodology, terminology, and thematic constructs created over time by historical debate. In a brief overview of the writing of Saskatchewan history what is especially striking is the extent to which major Canadian historical themes - among them the fur trade, treaties and Native relations, rebellion, prairie politics, immigration and pioneering, ethnicity, gender relations, the Depression, medicare, and the concept of western alienation - have been shaped and defined by events in the province of Saskatchewan. It is also clear that the way in which historical investigation is conducted has changed dramatically, as have the purposes and uses to which that investigation have been put.

One of the first recognizable local histories was N.F. Black's A History of Saskatchewan and the Old North West, published in Regina in 1913. Now a collector's item, this volume reflects a Eurocentric bias and an interest in the history of “great men” typical of most historical writing of the time. Black's work lacks rigorous argument or debate, and the story weaves previously unpublished documents and excerpts from private diaries, letters, and government records with a general narrative. The result is more a chronicle than an interpretive history. Black argues that “true history is the most reliable kind of prophecy,” suggesting that in this case a historian's role is to map out the province's past, providing direction for the future. Another collector's item, The Story of Saskatchewan and Its People, was published in 1924 by John Hawkes, Saskatchewan's legislative librarian. Like Black's work a decade earlier, it is a presentation of documents, interviews and excerpts, with a biographical appendix of “great men”; it suffers from a similar lack of investigative rigour. However, Hawkes has a different view of the role of history in society: whereas Black believed that a historian's primary function was that of a chronicler, Hawkes viewed historians, and by extension their work, as agents of citizenship and civilization. He sought to cultivate a “Saskatchewan tradition” of depth and heroism, romance and achievement as part of the British Empire. What is interesting is that Hawkes' idea of citizenship placed provincial identity before national identity - a rather forthright assertion for the time.

Saskatchewan's Golden Jubilee in 1955 prompted the first of what has become a tradition: an official provincial history sponsored by the government as part of the celebration. Jim Wright wrote Saskatchewan: The History of a Province, a mass-produced book intended for a general audience. Less detailed but with a more cohesive narrative than earlier histories, Wright's work gives precedence to models of economic, social and co-operative prosperity and progress, painting a rosy picture of Saskatchewan's future. The book is infused by the concept of pioneers, a Saskatchewan rendering of F.J Turner's frontier thesis. This essentially agricultural theory depicts Anglo-European men and women wresting homes and livelihood, communities and a province from a wild and empty land under extreme conditions. As such, the model emphasizes life in southern Saskatchewan, creating a serious imbalance in our province's history. To create the pioneer narrative, Wright relegates First Nations history to the historical past: First Nations history ends when the pioneers arrive, which divides the book between the historical past, which has little effect on modern Saskatchewan, and the pioneer past, a history in which everyone except the First Nations community can share. Wright believes that history is about memory and acts as a living connection to the past, hence the focus on the semi-universal pioneer story.

John Archer's Saskatchewan: A History was written for the Celebrate Saskatchewan festivities of 1980. It accesses the ground-breaking work of social historians from the 1960s and 1970s, particularly the “Limited Identities” schools that developed thematic categories of history corresponding to concepts of race, gender, class, regionalism and regional discontent. This allowed Archer to include some new and previously silenced voices from the provincial past. Fully referenced, with chapter endnotes and an important bibliographic essay, Archer's work marked a new regard for the rigorous methodology of professional historiography. However, it also rested on the pivotal axis of the strong Saskatchewan pioneer myth and again depicted Saskatchewan as rural, agricultural, and in debt to its pioneers. In the end, Archer simply presents a more detailed version of Wright's work, complete with similar chapter divisions and titles; there are few innovative or original arguments, and no commentary on the purpose of history.

As we head toward the province's 100th anniversary celebrations, historian Bill Waiser has written Saskatchewan: A New History. The rural, agricultural, and pioneer concepts that permeated the previous two provincial histories give way to a more inclusive and integrative perspective, particularly in describing the tension and interplay between south and north, rural and urban, and Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples in shaping the province of Saskatchewan. Whereas both Wright and Archer argue that Saskatchewan is still “next year country,” on the verge of greatness, Waiser argues that the future is here, and Saskatchewan is not ready. He paints a clear picture of the changes in Saskatchewan society and provides penetrating commentary, particularly on the last fifty years. Moving back to the idea of the historian as an agent of change or cultural influence, Waiser's work will force a new discussion regarding an evolving Saskatchewan identity.

Through these five classic studies of Saskatchewan history, major changes in the evolution of historical writing are apparent. Mirroring national trends, Saskatchewan historians moved from a “top-down” history of great men and major political events such as those presented by Black and Hawkes, to a gradually more inclusive history. Wright integrated local communities and everyday people; Archer delved into social history to introduce concepts of race, class, gender and ethnicity more fully into the Saskatchewan story; Waiser brings the solitudes of Saskatchewan (rural and urban, north and south, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal) into perspective. In conjunction with these provincial histories, Saskatchewan has witnessed an explosion of local, community, church, business and family histories since the early 1950s (see local history). These popular histories, generated by and for individual communities, have captured names, voices, and experiences of ordinary individuals who have shaped this province. Most are from rural Saskatchewan, and until recently they reflected the preeminence of the pioneer narrative. These books display history in its simplest forms: as expressions of memory, pride and identity.

A major step in the preservation of Saskatchewan's past was the creation of a provincial archive in 1945, followed by the establishment of its journal, Saskatchewan History, in 1948. Parts of the extensive archival photo collection have been published in coffee-table style histories such as Ted Regehr's Remembering Saskatchewan and D.H Bocking's Saskatchewan: A Pictorial History. The Saskatchewan History and Folklore Society, particularly through its journal, Folklore, has been an important and popular forum for ordinary Saskatchewan people to relate their stories. Regional historians and writers have successfully crossed arbitrary provincial boundaries in pursuit of a homogenized western experience, and their work includes important information for Saskatchewan scholars. Good introductory bibliographic essays which list important source documents, key books, and articles can be found in Archer's Saskatchewan: A History or Gerald Friesen's The Canadian Prairies: A History.

History is not always written. All cultures, even written ones, use oral history, storytelling and legends, art, music, and dance to define and transmit aspects of their past. New recognition and understanding of the importance of oral and cultural history reveals a different and valuable perspective on the provincial past. In Saskatchewan, history has been preserved through rock art and hieroglyphics, community storytellers, and Aboriginal legends and sacred stories. School aids and junior histories, classroom activity books and atlases, business and family histories, political speeches and pamphlets, advertising campaigns, tourism brochures and promotions have served the same purpose. Oral history projects, legal documents and decisions, historic markers and sites, public memorials, university graduate theses, art, music, theatre and dance, and historical fiction all provide ways of accessing the past.

Scholars are exploring and deconstructing the purpose and cultural function of history. It is now understood that there is a difference between history as it happens, as it is interpreted and studied by academic historians, and how it is disseminated, used, and changed for public consumption. The range and diversity of Saskatchewan's historical inscription highlights two fundamental truisms: for every historical event, there are multiple narratives, perspectives, and layers that must be acknowledged and studied; and each narrative or story must be placed in the context of author, audience, and purpose of the history.

Merle Massie

Further Reading

Archer, J.H. 1980. Saskatchewan: A History. Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books; Black, N.F. 1913. A History of Saskatchewan and the Old North West. Regina: Saskatchewan Publishing Company; Hawkes, J. 1924. The Story of Saskatchewan and Its People. Chicago-Regina: S.J. Clarke Publishing Company; Kaye, F. 2003. Hiding the Audience: Viewing Arts and Arts Institutions on the Prairies. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press; Waiser, B. 2005. Saskatchewan: A New History. Calgary: Fifth House Publishers; Wright, J. 1955. Saskatchewan: The History of a Province. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart.