Robert W. Passfield
Robert W. Passfield
Public Historian  






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Robert W. Passfield
Public Historian

Robert W. Passfield was born at St. Thomas, Ontario, in April 1942. In June 1974, he joined the Parks Canada Program of the Canadian Government in Ottawa as an Historical Researcher. He retired in August 2004, as Senior Historian, Historical Services Branch, Parks Canada Agency, after a 30-year career in the Public Service. During his Public Service career, he prepared numerous reports recording, documenting, and evaluating historic engineering sites and structures -- canals, bridges, and auxiliary structures -- for Parks Canada, as well as reports in support of the Parks Canada program heritage mandate; and Agenda Papers and Submission Reports evaluating the historic significance of various persons, places, and events in Canadian history for the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada. He also served in an acting capacity in management positions, and as a representative of the National Historic Sites Directorate in support of human resources initiatives. As a public historian, Passfield published numerous articles in professional journals, chapters in several books on public works subjects, and two books pertaining to Canadian heritage canals. He also received an award for his noteworthy contributions to Canadian engineering history; an award for an outstanding article in the field of industrial archaeology; a Parks Canada Merit Award and a Prix d’Excellence Award; three merit promotions from the Interdepartmental Historical Research Committee of Peers; and letters of commendation from Parks Canada, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, and Transport Canada.

During his first decade of retirement, Passfield continued to work in the history of public works, heritage conservation, and industrial archaeology fields, in publishing his earlier research and presenting papers at conferences. In 2010, he was granted the status of Senior Historian Emeritus, Parks Canada Agency, for his distinguished past service, and his continued support of the Parks Canada program in acting in a corporate memory capacity with respect to past initiatives and on-going issues, and in the implementation of the Parks Canada cultural resource management mandate. In May 2012, Passfield was awarded the Robert M. Vogel Prize by the Society of Industrial Archeology (SIA) “for an outstanding scholarship in the field of industrial archeology”. (In November 2012, the Emeritus program was cancelled by Parks Canada.)

In drawing on his earlier historical research in support of a Parks Canada marine archaeological excavation of a 17th Century shipwreck – a lost ship from a New England fleet that had attacked Quebec -- Passfield published a book that interpreted the military campaign within the broader context of the theology and worldview of the New England Puritans and their belief in Providence: viz. Phips’ Amphibious Assault on Canada – 1690 (2011). A chapter of that study explored the historical controversy as to ‘where sovereignty lay’ in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in an era when a new concept of sovereignty as absolute and indivisible co-existed with the older medieval concept of a divisible sovereignty that could be delegated in return for allegiance and fidelity to the dominion sovereign.

That publication was followed by a book in which the author drew on his earlier thesis research to interpret and attribute the military paternalism of the British Corps of Royal Engineers in Canada to their Anglican Tory values and beliefs: viz. Military Paternalism, Labour and the Rideau Canal Project (2013). In an Appendix, he presented a critique of the Marxist interpretation of canal labour during the contractor paternalism era of Canadian canal construction, which spanned the 1790s through to the early 1830s.

These two studies awakened anew an interest in intellectual history which Passfield had pursued forty-years earlier as a graduate student in the History Graduate School at McMaster University.

In February 2014, Passfield decided to revive and complete, in a book format, his Ph.D. dissertation in intellectual history that he had abandoned soon after commencing work as a public historian with Parks Canada. The dissertation had sought to reconstruct the ideas of the Anglican Tories of the early 19th Century -- in the Loyalist Province of Upper Canada (Ontario) -- on religion, the British constitution, and education within the context of their worldview. It was argued that such a study would yield a better understanding of the Canadian political culture; and that it would resolve an historiographic debate as to whether the Tories, who governed Upper Canada, were true Tories or Old Whigs. That study was completed and has been published as: The Upper Canadian Anglican Tory Mind: A Cultural Fragment (2018).

Thereafter, Passfield began working on the theme that 'ideas influence actions' in a study of how the Upper Canadian Tories responded to the public issues of their day, and to the military and ideological threats posed by the new American Republic to the very survival of the Loyalist Province. That study has been published: Anglican Toryism in Upper Canada, The Critical Years, 1812-1840 (2019).

In early March 2020, Passfield became intrigued by a novel coronavirus - COVID-19 - that was ravaging the City of Wuhan, China, that had spread to Italy and Iran, and that was beginning to appear in North America. Convinced that he was about to witness 'history in the making', and yet another epic struggle of man against the vicissitudes of nature, he decided to record a 'present history' of the spread of the novel coronavirus and its impact on Canada. The plan was to do so in the form of daily diary entries recording the significant events as reported in the media, with a commentary and analysis to provide a meaningful context and interpretation of the nature of the coronavirus pandemic.

The result is two books: Coronavirus Canada: The Politics, Science and Economics of a Pandemic, Volume One: The Pandemic (November 2020) and Volume Two: The Continuum (March 2021). Volume one covers the first coronavirus wave of the spring of 2020, and volume two covers the initial recovery period of the late spring and early summer of 2020. As of August 2020, the author assumed that the coronavirus pandemic had run its course, and that his 'present history' had reached its conclusion. It was a gross miscalculation.

Passfield lives in Ottawa where he resides with Susan James, a former Legal Assistant/Ontario Law Clerk with a prominent Ottawa law firm.

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