Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Working on recent history - some reflections

In my professional life, I usually find myself researching and writing on topics that deal with the last fifty or so years of Canadian history. This sometimes leads to people thinking that I'm not a historian, but a political scientist. It also means that I often have access to living subjects for my research, and can interview or contact people who lived through the events I'm writing about to gain their insight on issues. I can tap into rich oral histories for information, perspectives and details about the past that aren't always found in the documentary or archival record.

One of the consequences of this, however, is that I'm often made all too aware of the passage of time in the course of my research. I will often be speaking with someone connected to my research, and have them mention that a given person would have been perfect for me to talk to, except that they passed away a couple of years ago. Pierre Trudeau, whose career was so central to my research interests, passed away mere weeks before my comprehensive exams as a PhD student. Senator Ron Duhamel, who I interviewed about his involvement in Franco-Manitoban education for my PhD, passed away a few months after we spoke.

Today this was driven home to me yet again. Just two months ago, I posted a query in a couple of places, including this blog, seeking contact information about people who had been gay writer-activists for a textbook reader that I'm collaborating on. Many people replied to my queries (queeries?) on Facebook, Twitter and here, allowing me to tap into the diverse networks of current and former activists, many of whom are still in close touch with each other. I also got a lot of help from the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives. Unfortunately, in the course of these inquiries, I found out that one of the authors, Chris Bearchell, had passed away from breast cancer only a few years ago. Today, I found out that Herb Spiers, co-author of the "We Demand" manifesto from 1971 and a prominent gay activist, passed away on March 2nd. Only a few weeks ago the permissions researcher for my textbook had been in touch with him, shortly after he had been in hospital.

My apologies for what might seem like a rather melancholy post. I consider myself lucky, as a historian, that I often do get to speak with people who were involved in the events of history, and share in their memories. The conversations that I have had with these people are almost always incredibly rewarding and thought-provoking, and often much fun. Many people have been incredibly generous in sharing their stories with me. But the flip side is that the relative short duration of human lives all too often crops up in unexpected ways as I conduct my research.

Thanks, Herb, for your life's work!

Addendum: Although I never had the opportunity to speak to Herb Spiers directly as part of my own research, he did share many of his experiences with the ACT UP Oral History Project.

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At 2:14 pm, Anonymous Eamon said...

Great post! I was recently reflecting on the brevity of the municipal CAO's tenure in any single municipality after learning that a number of the CAOs I had surveyed had been fired/left their position since July. Your experience is much more profound. As someone who tried to focus on 19th century British Isles history in undergrad I never really considered the issue you've raised here.


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