Foundation for Canadian Studies UK

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What Happened

The Foundation for Canadian Studies (FCS) in the UK has been a prominent international champion of the serious study of Canada since 1975. The rare conferral of Canadian charitable status on an international organization and modest but on-going funding from Ottawa recognized its value for almost 40 years. Its significance, however, did not protect the FCS from the partisan anti-intellectualism of the Canadian Conservative government. In 2014, it lost charitable status.

In 2015, former BC premier and current Canadian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, Gordon Campbell, forced the resignation of all but one of the senior scholars on the Board of Directors (as an ironical footnote only a Professor of Pathology remains) putting firm control in the hands of representatives of business and the High Commission itself. The mandate of the FCS is now to address the political priorities of the Harper government.


Background

Canadian Studies (CS) emerged in the 1960s as part of burgeoning efforts to apply interdisciplinary insights to the study of a country, whose history and much scholarship often revealed a colonial mentality. It was critical to the Canadianization movement, notably within universities and scholarship, of the last decades of the 20th century. Although its radical potential was not always explored, CS was often linked to other interdisciplinary initiatives such as native, labour, environmental, gender and women’s studies that promised to expand knowledge of Canada beyond familiar preoccupations with conventional politics and elites. They also, sometimes, demanded public scrutiny of injustices, such as the residential schools, the use of state force against unions, environmental degradation, and violence against women.

Right from the onset, CS flourished in Ontario, the nation’s so-called heartland, but less so in the west, the Atlantic region, and Quebec where regional and sovereigntist perspectives often proved of more interest. It was regularly favoured by Liberal elites (and some Red Tories) who liked CS sympathies for bilingualism and biculturalism and its concern with a history and future different from the United States. Its heyday, signaled by Tom Symons’ To Know Ourselves: The Report of the Commission on Canadian Studies, ushered in unprecedented official support for the promotion of knowledge about Canada both at home and abroad. The creation of the FCS in the UK reflected that determination.

Establishment of the Foundation for Canadian Studies

Established in 1975 with much flourish as a British charity but with Canadian charitable status as well, the FCS had an initial endowment from Ottawa of $2.3 million. At the beginning it seemed largely uncontroversial in centering its attention on promoting scholarship, research, and teaching on Canada within British universities and cultural institutions. It proved essential to the establishment of the CS British flagship program, the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Canadian Studies, meetings of British Association for Canadian Studies (also formed in 1975), scholarly interest in CS in the UK, and academic (both faculty and student) links between Canada and the UK. While some funding came from private sources, essential support came from all Canadian governments (both Liberal and Progressive Conservative) hoping to improve global awareness of Canada. For most of its history, the FCS operated under the management of a board with a majority of British-based scholars, who maintained a friendly but intellectual arms-length from the governments of the day.

Comfortable relations began to change with the arrival of Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, whose preference for neo-liberalism included an intense dislike of the Red Toryism and Liberal leadership that had invested deeply in CS as one way of distinguishing Canada from the United States. Not coincidently, today’s Conservatives were also likely to abhor CS’s links to scholarship that questioned longstanding privilege (see Strong-Boag and Johnstone; Strong-Boag).

Budget cuts, revoked status and anti-intellectuallism

Once in government, Conservative champions of austerity and business as the remedy for the 2008 (and onward) global economic collapse slashed taxes and targeted regime enemies. A whole generation and more of critical scholarship associated with CS entered Conservative gun sights. The 2006 budget heralded bad news with cuts in funding to the Canadian Centre for Research and Information on Canada. The same spirit prompted the 2012 elimination of the Understanding Canada program with its 35 year record of support for CS around the world (Meisel and Graham) and the continuing assault on, “Parks Canada, the Archival Development Program, the Historical Thinking Project, along with most other independent and arm's-length historical programs that had public funding.” By 2015, it was abundantly clear that “all direction for publicly funded projects in Canadian history and Canadian studies comes directly from the prime minister's office, with research objectives set by political criteria” (Moore).

The FCS was a minor, although significant, victim in the expanding crusade against critical scholarship. The appointment of Gordon Campbell, who left BC’s premiership with a record that damaged women and children (see Creese and Strong-Boag), as Canadian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom (located in London) in 2011 enshrined neo-conservatism and anti-intellectualism at the heart of Ottawa officialdom in London.

Even as the High Commission offices underwent an expensive refit and tax revenues at home shrank, money had to be found for touting Conservative pro-business (and anti-social justice and anti-environment) policies abroad. Even the relatively minuscule budget of the FCS attracted attention, but access to its funds (and reputation) depended upon transforming its mandate and management.

In 2014-15, the FCS was especially vulnerable since its board disagreed over future directions with “the board’s academic members [pitted] against those drawn from the Canadian business community in the UK” (MacKinnon). In October 2014 the chairman, Robert Hain, Chairman of City Financial Investment Company, member of various corporate boards, and collector of Canadian art, resigned. The distinguished scholar of Quebec literature, Rachel Killick, professor emeritus at Leeds University, replaced him. The loss of the FCS’s status as a Canadian charity in 2014 clarified the cost of opposing political masters. Along with the whip, Gordon Campbell offered a dose of sugar, suggesting in December 2014 to board directors that, “I need to advise you of the decision taken in Ottawa not to renew the foundation’s charitable status at this time. I understand from my colleagues in Ottawa that our renewal request would be entertained if the foundation were to expand its mission” (MacKinnon). The board nevertheless continued to be recalcitrant and to insist on its original mandate as both arms-length and scholarly.

Gordon Campbell retaliated by flooding the board with employees of the High Commission and forcing the departure of Killick. She was replaced by Fiona Colegrave, a “Winnipeg-born independent business consultant.” Four board members—the Oxford and University of Toronto historian Margaret MacMillan, the Birmingham University historian Steve Hewitt, the University of Ulster sociologist and Chair of the UK Council of Area Studies, Susan Hodgett, and international development scholar Diana Carney—then resigned in protest. The FCS website was immediately amended to shift the mandate from “the advancement of the education of the public in the United Kingdom in matters relating to Canada” to “research that is directed at issues that are of strategic importance to both Canada and the UK, such as energy, transport, communications, the sustainable use of natural resources, multiculturalism and the welfare of indigenous peoples” (MacKinnon). While the identification of such issues as close to the heart of the Harper agenda seemed disingenuous to many observers, such positioning represented a clear effort not only to appease business interests but to detract from Canada’s growing reputation as a major global offender in matters ranging from the protection of the environment to Indigenous rights. As of April Fool’s Day 2015, the sole remaining scholarly member of the Board of Directors listed on the FCS website was a professor of comparative pathology, surely an ironical footnote on the fate of CS at the hands of Harper’s government.

Relevant dates

  • 1975: T.E.H. Symons, To Know Ourselves: The Report of the Commission on Canadian Studies
  • 1975: Foundation for Canadian Studies established
  • 2006: Stephen Harper Conservatives establish minority government
  • 2006: Elimination of federal funding of the Canadian Centre for Research and Information on Canada
  • 2008: Harper Conservative majority government elected with plurality of the popular vote
  • 2008: Global economic crisis begins
  • 2011: Conservative government appoints Gordon Campbell as High Commissioner to the UK
  • 2012: Cuts to Understanding Canada Program
  • 2014: loss of Canadian charitable status for FCS
  • 2015: Gordon Campbell forces the resignation of leading scholars from the Board of Directors of the FCS and establishes a business and bureaucrat majority.

Role or Position

The Foundation for Canadian Studies (FCS), established in 1975 in the UK, is a prominent international champion of the serious study of Canada. Canadian Studies (CS) emerged in the 1960s as part of burgeoning efforts to apply interdisciplinary insights to the study of a country, whose history and much scholarship often revealed a colonial mentality. It was critical to the Canadianization movement, notably within universities and scholarship, of the last decades of the 20th century.  The FCS proved essential to the establishment of the CS British flagship program, the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Canadian Studies, meetings of British Association for Canadian Studies (also formed in 1975), scholarly interest in CS in the UK, and academic (both faculty and student) links between Canada and the UK.

Implications and Consequences

In February, Colin Coates, the director of York University’s Robarts Centre for Canadian Studies, worried that, “With our current government’s denigration of Canadian Studies, the profile of Canada will be poorer and weaker on the international scene, and no further advanced nationally.”

Other critics characterized the risk still more strongly. In March 2015, the executive of Canadian Historical Association, the foremost professional society of Canadian historians, wrote to the Minister of Foreign Affairs to protest the threat to “the promotion of research about Canada in the UK, and … political interference in a charitable organization and in academic scholarship: both of these are extremely dangerous.”

A few days later, John W. Graham, the first Head of the Unit for the Promotion of Democracy at the Organization of American States and a former Canadian ambassador, used the pages of The Globe and Mail to ask:

"Why would any reasonably sane diplomatic establishment want to shoot itself in the foot – in this case, alienating the academic community upon whose commitment and goodwill depended one of the most cost-effective programs available for the promotion of Canada? Appointing additional High Commission staff to outnumber and outvote the academics on a supposedly independent board funded largely by donations violates one of the basic canons of that relationship. Sadly, this is of a piece with the government’s policies for cultural policies overseas."

In short, the attack on the FCS has been recognized as

  • Endangering Transparency: The cuts to Canadian Studies have been insidious and steady since 2006. Its injury (but not yet death) by centimetres has been camouflaged by official bafflegab. The attack on the arm’s-length mandate of the FCS and the set-up of a Board of Directors dependent on a neo-liberal former premier of BC, now High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, illustrates current official determination to obscure efforts to construct a neo-conservative propaganda tool and to sidestep critical scholarship.
  • Silencing Knowledge: The steady erosion of funding for Canadian Studies of all sorts has damaged Canadians’ ability, as Tom Symons put it some 40 years ago, To Know Ourselves. Denied critical information at home and abroad, even as they are fed a steady dose of official propaganda, Canadians are harder put to understand the consequences of official policies.

Published: 16 April 2015

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