The ‘Imperial Turn’ in Canadian History

Graeme Thompson, Bill Graham Centre for Contemporary International History |

Nearly twenty years ago, historian A.G. Hopkins made the case for the revival of British imperial history. At the end of the twentieth century – a century shaped by decolonization and the emergence of postcolonial nation-states across the globe – this was perhaps a surprising call to arms. Surely, after the curtain fell on Britain’s global empire with the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997, the British Empire was emphatically old news.

That was certainly the case in Canadian history. As he surveyed our increasingly globalized world, Hopkins saved an especially biting comment for Canadian historians who, in his judgment, had “ceased, typically, to look beyond North America.” “The indigenization of Canadian and Australian history,” he added, “has reached the point where it is scarcely studied elsewhere. When measured by the indices of trade, investment, and migration, the British connection with Canada, Australia, and New Zealand was so strong that it is hard to see how its demotion can be justified.”[1]

In recent years, however, the situation has reversed to the point that we might now identify an “Imperial turn” in Canadian historiography. Dynamic young scholars are churning out studies of Canada’s imperial and transnational history, re-examining how British colonialism forged modern Canada and the networks of people, goods, and ideas that linked Canadians with the furthest corners of the British Empire.

Moreover, as Susie Colbourn reminded us in an earlier post, “not all historians of Canada are themselves Canadian or based in Canada.” This is perhaps especially true of imperial historians who in the past two decades rediscovered the central importance of the settler Dominions to, and their identification with, Britain’s imperial world-system.  “Here, in some ways” as New Zealand historian James Belich writes, “was a provincial collective identity … [that] made the Dominions provinces of a superpower … co-owners – not mere subjects – of the world’s largest empire.”[2]

It’s also important to note that many of the recent advances in Canada’s imperial historiography were driven by cultural, intellectual, and social historians who sought to better understand the power dynamics of colonialism and the development of sub-national Canadian identities in global context. For diplomatic, international, and political historians this may be a tough pill to swallow. Indeed, traditional historians have been latecomers to the revived imperial history, leaving the field in the hands of scholars largely (though by no means entirely) indifferent to the study of government and international relations. The result is a comparatively anachronistic view of how Canadian politics and foreign policy developed within the British Empire. Canada’s international history did not begin with the end of empire in 1945, 1956, 1973, or even 1982 (depending on your date of choice). If we look closely, we might even find Canadian ideas of collective defence, multilateralism, and a ‘Pacific pivot’ in the British imperial world of the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.

Here, then, is the challenge as I see it for Canadian international historians: to re-engage with Canada’s history of empire and take up the central idea of the revived imperial history outlined by Hopkins nearly two decades ago – namely, to interrogate the connections and disjunctions between the local and the global, or, in other words, the domestic and the international. Recent work towards a history of Canada and/in the world is a positive move in this direction. But this cannot simply become a new name for the history of Canadian-American relations or Canadian foreign policy in the second-half of the twentieth century. Instead, Canada in the world must mean Canada in the world over the long term, including the Dominion era and pre-Confederation British North America. The Canada of today may on first inspection bear little resemblance to the long-gone British colony of the nineteenth century, but as George Orwell put it: “what have you in common with the child of five whose photograph your mother keeps on the mantelpiece? Nothing, except that you happen to be the same person.”[3]


[1] A.G. Hopkins, “Back to the Future: From National History to Imperial History,” Past & Present 164 (1999): 216.

[2] James Belich, Replenishing the Earth: The Settler Revolution and the Rise of the Anglo-World, 1783-1939 (Oxford, 2009), 462.

[3] George Orwell, “The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius, Part 1: England Your England,” in Essays (London, 2002 [19 February 1941]), 292.

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