Every historian ought to be invited to appear before his peers, as formal retirement looms, to present his reflections on his discipline. Looking backwards is, of course, an historian's profession; to do so in individual terms is, however, a deep personal pleasure. This is especially true when so much has taken place during one lifetime, both to the profession of which one is a part, and the society within which one grew.
The younger generation of historians should remember how different things were. It was common to come, as the author did, to the profession with a training in a different academic discipline; unlike today's teachers, one could and did become a Canadian historian without the intense formal study which marks the contemporary graduate school. Choosing a profession research in Canadian history was the result of happenstance; selecting a sub-field — in the author's case, the history of the French régime — was a personal one, resulting from a need to know much more about the origins of the society which developed along the St. Lawrence.
This lack of a formal historical profession in French Canada did not reflect a disinterest in the past; to the contrary, the society's culture was firmly rooted in its past. But it was a history of a special type, and its advocates were vigorously opposed to any reassessment which challenged their cherished notions. Today's younger historians must not forget the handicaps which their predecessors had to overcome. There was a day, not so very long ago, when, to write the history of French Canada, one had to be both French Canadian and an active Catholic. Behind each completed monograph stands a litany of obstacles: the precarious nature of an academic career, the chronic inadequacy of its wages, the unsatisfactory quality of archival institutions (and sometimes of their staffs), the diplomacy required to obtain the evidence one needed, and the difficulties in finding a publisher and seeing the manuscript to printing. The joy in the process rested with the personal achievement, and its acceptance by the few whose judgement you respected. Only the obstinate and truly devoted scholar survived such circumstances.
What has been achieved? History in French Canada has made enormous strides since the Second World War, in part because of the influence of a "scientific" view of historical study, in part through the cross-fertilisation of associated disciplines, in part because of the scholarly standards of contemporary historians. Ideological dogmatism, which has itself been a danger to the integrity of the history that has been written, has largely been overcome. The task of the historian remains the objective assessment of evidence, so that the integrity of history does not itself become the historian's first victim.
To assist in this difficult task historians must continue to call on the resources of sister disciplines, such as geography, sociology, economics and law. These serve to broaden one's perspective, even though some of these techniques frankly mystify us with their complexity. Sometimes it appears that the use of social science methods obscures actual results, that effective communications has been weakened by jargon, and that overspecialisation threatens the meaningful generalisation. Yet in the end one trusts that an intelligible history results. So long as the historian refuses to serve a political or ideological master, we all have a future. If the historian, on the other hand, seeks the role of prophet, he departs from his proper place.
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