Taxing the matter: Dal prof wins top history award

- July 17, 2019

Shirley Tillotson with her award-winning book "Give and Take," captured at the FASS publications launch in the spring. (Nick Pearce photo)
Shirley Tillotson with her award-winning book "Give and Take," captured at the FASS publications launch in the spring. (Nick Pearce photo)

Shirley Tillotson, professor emeritus in the Department of History, has recently been named the 2019 recipient of the Governor General’s History Award for Scholarly Research for her book Give and Take: The Citizen-Taxpayer and the Rise of Canadian Democracy (published by UBC Press in 2017).

The award recognizes Give and Take, a cultural history of taxation, as having made the most significant contribution to an understanding of the Canadian past of any non-fiction work of Canadian history published in its eligible year. The Governor General’s History Award is presented by the Canadian Historical Association, with the winner announced at the association’s annual meeting at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences.

“I’m very grateful for the award,” says Dr. Tillotson (pictured). “It’s made by a jury of the Canadian Historical Association, so the award is a really nice recognition by my peers.  I’ve been delighted by the warm praise I’ve already had from readers.”

“We're all immensely proud of Shirley for winning the prize for best book in Canadian history,” says Krista Kesselring, chair of the Department of History. “As the judges noted, her study of Canada's tax history offers important insights into civic culture and democracy today. It's a great example of how disciplined historical study can inform present-day debates.”

The democracy of taxation

Give and Take shows how tax policy and practice helped build democracy in Canada by getting many more kinds of people actively involved in politics. Before 1917, many Canadians were excluded from effective voice in public life. Thanks in part to tax politics, by the end of the time period covered in the book (through 1970), Canada had become a more democratic nation.

“I freely admit that Canadian tax history isn’t an obviously interesting topic,” says Dr. Tillotson — but look behind the numbers and there’s a lot to consider.

The genesis for Give and Take came out of research for Dr. Tillotson’s previous book, Contributing Citizens, which explores how charities changed their fundraising strategies between 1920 and 1970. She found much debate about whether charities could raise enough to cover society’s more desperate needs, such as unemployment during the Great Depression.

“As I followed those discussions, I realized that some people were describing income tax as almost voluntary, not that different from contributing to, say, your church’s Sunday School! That seemed really odd. It put tax compliance in a whole new light.”

Figuring that the conditions that determine tax compliance change historically –  with a mix of cultural, legal and scientific factors as well — she set about writing a cultural history of taxation.

“Economists are interested in it, but it’s not simply economic history. It’s political history, including the politics of gender and race as well as class and political parties.”

Garnering broad interest

Dr. Tillotson’s readers range across a wide spectrum: from people active in politics to scholars in a wide variety of disciplines, including English, journalism, law and more.

Her book was also shortlisted (as one of five finalists) earlier this year for the Canada Prize in the Humanities and Social Sciences of the Federation of the Humanities and Social Sciences. She was also invited to speak at the annual retreat of the federal department of Finance tax policy branch.

“I feel like they know that history matters. And for non-tax nerds, the recognition means that I’ve made tax interesting. The fact that another tax history – Heaman’s Tax, Order, and Good Government – my collaborator in this project, won the same award last year means that we’ve really got Canadian historians seeing the past from a fresh angle.”


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