About the Project

Launched in the spring of 2006, Canadians and Their Pasts is an alliance of seven academic researchers, nineteen collaborators, six universities, and fifteen community partners for the purpose of exploring the role that history plays in the lives of Canadian citizens. The alliance takes guidance from an advisory committee of researchers from both Canada and abroad.


Support for "public" history in Canada is one of the most remarkable features of the past two decades. It is manifested in such capital-intensive projects as CBC's Canada: A People's History, The History Channel, and Historia; the founding of Canada's National History Society, the Dominion Institute, and Historica; and federal support for a new Canadian War Museum. Polling data suggests that ordinary Canadians embrace these initiatives, visit museums, historic sites, and commemorative celebrations in growing numbers, and are themselves engaged in family and community history projects. While Canadians are polled on a regular basis about their knowledge and consumption of history, they are less likely to be asked to reflect on the presence of their past in their lives.


The starting point for this project was a bilingual survey, designed to probe the historical consciousness of Canadians. Conducted in 2007 and 2008 by York University's Institute for Social Research, the telephone survey of 3,419 Canadians yielded a massive database of information on respondents' general interest in and understanding of the past; activities related to the past; and trustworthiness of sources of information about the past. As the most wide-ranging survey of its kind ever undertaken in Canada, the survey also included special samples of First Nations in Saskatchewan, Acadians in New Brunswick, and recent immigrants in Ontario. The findings from the survey facilitate comparisons with similar projects undertaken in Europe, the United States, and Australia.


During the five years of the project funding (2006-2011), community partners in the research alliance have conducted wide-ranging research designed to examine more specifically the questions raised in the survey. Interviews with memory-keepers in rural Newfoundland and Labrador; focus groups with museum curators in six Canadian cities; an exploration of the impact of a website focusing on Aboriginal history; an investigation of how students, their parents and teachers respond to Historica Fairs - these are just a few of the exciting initiatives that broadened the scope of the research and facilitated a lively discussion about the role of the past in the present.