IHAF 2015: An Overview from an Early North Americanist

Maxime Dagenais

Last week (15-17 October 2015) was the 68th Congress of the Institut d’histoire de l’Amérique française. For the uninitiated, the Institut d’histoire de l’Amérique française is the largest organization of historians and specialists of French North America. Though centered on Québec, it attracts scholars from all over Canada and abroad, including the United States and France, and scholarship on all French-speaking communities of North America, including those in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Manitoba, Louisiana, Missouri, and even Florida. Along with organizing a yearly congress, the Institut also publishes the Revue d’histoire de l’Amérique française. This year’s congress was hosted by McGill University in Montréal. Born and raised in Montréal, I was really looking forward to this: catching up with friends and colleagues and, if time permitted, watching a Canadiens hockey game—the still undefeated Habs—were on the agenda. Moreover, I was presenting new material on the 1837-38 Rebellions and the debates/battles over slavery in the Untied States for the first time in Canada and was looking forward to the discussion that it would generate.

Titled “Urbanités,” the 2015 edition was devoted to the cities and urban centers of French North America. How do cities shape (or are shaped by) our common and personal experiences? How and why do our urban experiences differ? How have the urban centers of French North America evolved through time? Dr. Joan DeJean (from my current institution, the University of Pennsylvania) started things off with an interesting keynote on the evolution and making of Paris, France, at the turn of the 18th century that perfectly pieced together the conference’s themes.

As an early North American historian, I usually find myself a “fish out of water” at these more general conferences, where the 20th century and contemporary topics are king. This was made obvious a week prior at another conference I presented at. However, this year’s edition of the IHAF was different: it had an impressive collection of pre-1867 papers (Borealia’s rough cut-off date for everything “early Canadian”). Of the 63 papers presented (not including the keynote and round tables), 22 were on “early Canadian” topics. Paper topics varied from the experiences of boarding house residents in 1855 Québec, to German perceptions of the Province of Québec during the American Revolution, to an in depth examination of bankruptcy laws in Canada East and West. In fact, I often had to “panel hop” to attend presentations I wanted to see as various pre-1867 papers were scheduled at the same time. My panel, for example, competed against five other “early Canadian” presentations!

Though most pre-1867 papers were inserted in panels that included contemporary ones, a few panels were devoted to early Canadian topics. I was on such a panel. I presented on a panel – “Les Rébellions vu des États-Unis” – with my friend and colleague Julien Mauduit from the Université du Québec à Montréal. Our panel was very well attended. Our room, the Concerto, was close to (if not) full. Though early Canadian topics do not usually attract a great number (some of the panels I attended had less than 10 people in attendance), the Rebellions are still an eye-catching topic in Québec. Julien presented a paper titled “La ‘Rébellion’ et la République américaine (1837-42): une onde de choc révolutionnaire continentale,” and I a paper that I retitled at the last minute, “La Révolution canadienne,’ Philadelphie, et l’esclavage.” Both our papers took the Canadian Rebellions out of Canada and placed them in a North American context. The Rebellions, we argued, had very important consequences in the United States. They were more than a Canadian conflict; they were a transnational one. [Editor’s note: You can look forward to reading more about Maxime’s project here at Borealia in the very near future!]

Julien and I were not alone presenting transnational histories. Some of the presentations I attended also adopted a transnational framework, or were at the very least part of a larger project that adopted one. For example, Mikael Dumont’s paper, “La réjouissance populaire chez les citadins de l’Amérique française (1770-1860): une comparaison entre Québec, Montréal, Détroit, Saint-Louis et la Nouvelle-Orléans,” offered a comparison of popular culture in five French-speaking cities across the United States and Canada. His paper provided a comparison on the ways popular culture developed in each city and how each city’s distinct characteristics, flavour, neighbouring German, Spanish, and American populations, and weather influenced it. Sébastien Didier’s “Entre ville et campagne, les subdélégués canadiens, des notables au service de l’intendance (1675-1763)” examined what he called the “forgotten people of Canadian historiography:” the intendant’s subdelegates. Didier explored the role they played in three regions (Montréal, Québec, and Trois-Rivières) and how each subdelgate adapted to a very different environment and set of circumstances. Though the paper itself mostly focused on New France, it is part of a much larger transnational comparison of subdelegates in the French Atlantic. Finally, David Camirand’s “ ‘Je m’engage volontairement:’ la vie sur un navire-corsaire” looked at life aboard a corsair ship in New France. He analysed interactions amongst shipmates, social hierarchies and rules and regulations aboard ships, and even explained why colonists became corsairs. Though Camirand’s presentation focused on New France, his more general project will include a comparison with French and English ships on the Atlantic.

Projects and topics like these reveal one of the strongest points of early Canadian histories: they transcend national boundaries. Early Canadianists study periods in which borders were much more malleable, cross-border migrations not as regulated, and cross-border economic exchanges more difficult to control by state, colonial, and imperial officials. Early Canadian histories are often American, British, French, Atlantic, and North American stories as well. They are transnational stories. The idea behind the Institut d’histoire de l’Amérique française is in itself transnational: to discuss the francophone experience on a continental level. However, since many contemporary papers opted to focus on Québec (which is understandable since Québec is the center of French North America), I was pleased to see that amongst early Canadianists, the idea of French North America was taken to heart.

Maxime Dagenais is a SSHRC postdoctoral fellow at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, and studies the American reaction to the Canadian Rebellions. He is currently coediting a collection on the subject scheduled for publication in 2017 with Early American Studies, published by the University of Pennsylvania Press.

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