French Colonial Historical Society, Ottawa 2016: Conference Recap

Stephanie Pettigrew

The 42nd annual French Colonial Historical Society conference was held in Ottawa from May 19 to 21, 2016. I was first introduced to this society the summer just before starting my PhD studies, when the conference was at the Fortress of Louisbourg. There I learned that the FCHS is, first and foremost, a very friendly, collegial community of scholars. The conference presents early Canadianists with the all-too-rare opportunity to confer with historians who study the French empire in other parts of the world. What follows is a selective sampling of the many stimulating papers delivered at this year’s conference.

French Colonial SocThe first day began with concurrent panels on topics ranging from the impacts of colonialism on French Polynesia to slave labour in Indochina. The early Canadian panel of the day was on Métis research. Muriel Clair and Claire Garnier of Université Saint Boniface both presented excellent papers on how to tease information from government and colonial documents that are not primarily concerned with conveying cultural information about the Métis. The information may be as spare as simply indicating that Métis were hired as guides, or perhaps what languages they spoke. Some of the sources discussed by Clair and Garnier included the accounts of Voyageurs who encountered Métis communities, which were generally much more descriptive than the alternative, government records and census documents. Garnier’s paper focused in particular on the writings of Samuel Hearnes and Alexander Henry, and what they could tell us about the role of women and marriage in Métis communities. Claudie Larcher of l’Université Laval rounded off the panel with a paper on the impact of the 2003 Powley decision. How do we distinguish what is a Métis community and what is not? Who makes that decision? One cannot identify as Métis without a community to identify with, according to Powley; and in order to identify the Métis community, historical precedent is required. Many of the questions for the panel centred on the recent 2016 Supreme Court decision regarding Métis rights, and how their research will impact those communities.

Statue en l’honneur de Solitude à Bagneux, Le Comité national pour la mémoire et l’histoire de l’esclavage

Statue en l’honneur de Solitude à Bagneux, Le Comité national pour la mémoire et l’histoire de l’esclavage

The ongoing legacy of French colonialism is embodied in monuments and commemorations, and as the next panel of the day demonstrated, these are contested sites. The first presenter, Sophia Khadraoui of Kenyon College, discussed a rather striking sculpture in France that commemorates the end of slavery. It is a three-piece sculpture that seems rather unremarkable up close, but when seen from the correct angle at a distance, reveals the figure of a black woman within its negative space. The memorial was somewhat controversial, as it did not acknowledge other histories of the community adjoining the site. For instance, a Jewish man had been tortured in the adjoining square, but there was nothing acknowledging the Jewish community. As the discourse about memorials has evolved in France, commemorations increasingly include all historical actors rather than “a competition of who is the best victim.” The example given by Khadraoui of this more inclusive form of monument was the memorial to commemorate the end of slavery erected in Nantes in 2012, which includes a series of information plaques rather than a single carved figure or image.

Guide to Fort Anne, Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia (1922), Parks Canada

Guide to Fort Anne, Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia
(1922), Parks Canada

Next was Anne Marie Lane Jonah of Parks Canada, who presented research on the Fort Anne site (which many of you may know as Annapolis Royal, or even Port Royal), its establishment as Canada’s first national historic site, and the work that is being done for the 2017 celebrations to re-constitute some of the original artefacts and displays. She explained that Loftus Fortier, a Québecois who had a fascination with history and genealogy, worked with the local community and largely financed early preservation work at the Fort Anne site around the turn of the twentieth century. Fortier’s open-door approach to artefact donations made for some unconventional exhibits which would not otherwise have been preserved by Parks Canada. For example, descendants of Black Loyalists who were living in the barracks donated images showing colourful dresses and fruit, and an Acadian family donated a wooden shoe that had supposedly been worn by an ancestor who had walked back to Acadia after the deportation. Jonah’s presentation was certainly enough to convince me, and a few others, to make a trip in 2017 to see some of these unexpected exhibits for ourselves. And finally, Marie Claude Dionne, a masters student from l’Université Laval, presented on her masters research, on the Québec foundation myth of Jacques Cartier & Jean-François Roberval. She argued that the historiography has generally overlooked Roberval’s role in the establishment of Québec’s first settlement. She also suggested that current attempts at historical commemoration do not tell the complete story of the site of that settlement, looking only for the sixteenth century beginnings, rather than the layers of history that lie between us and the original Cartier site. If the Québec foundation myth is to be re-written, Dionne said, it should be inclusive.

Friday was no less fascinating. In fact, I had to enlist my friend and colleague from l’Université Laval, Joseph Gagné, to help take notes in some of the concurrent afternoon panels so as to not miss anything. [Ed.: Merci, Joseph!]  I had the good fortune to be paired on a panel with Emma Anderson, who shared some of her fascinating research with the Jesuit Relations and the “Enlightenment before the Enlightenment.” Instead of looking at how Europeans spread their knowledge to the indigenous people of North America, she is examining how the philosophes of early modern Europe reacted to indigenous knowledge. I am very much looking forward to the book that will come out of this project (and I’m really of hoping she’ll contribute something to Borealia so that we can get more of a sneak peek!). My own paper (co-written with Elizabeth Mancke and Keith Grant) was on the use of legislation by the colonial government of Nova Scotia to guarantee the dispossession of the Acadians after their deportation. That project started with a surprisingly-overlooked 1759 act that denied Acadians normal legal recourse in order to strip them of their right to any procedural attempt at reclaiming their lands.

Afternoon discussions included French identity in Louisiana, family planning in the French empire, and the French imperial Mediterranean. Though it was nearly an impossible choice, in the end I attended the panel on French identity in Louisiana. I’m especially glad to have learned about the work of Garrett Andrew Fontenot, a PhD Candidate from Notre Dame. In his paper, entitled “Re-becoming French: Reintegrating Louisiana into the French Empire,” Fontenot examined how post-Revolutionary French people saw the colony of Louisiana, and how the French inhabitants of Louisiana saw themselves. There are some fascinating parallels to be drawn with post-1763 Québec, a theme that Fontenot will be taking up in his dissertation. Natalie Dessens, from Université de Toulouse Jean-Jaurès, concentrated on the French language as a vehicle of identity and cultural transfer in New Orleans after the Louisiana Purchase, particularly among the creole population. American English speakers did not become a majority in Louisiana until the 1860s, and for many black children the best schooling options were in French. Julien Vernet of University of British Columbia Okanagan, concentrated on the securing of western territory by the governments of the United States and British North America, and the reaction of various francophone communities to these acquisitions.

Journal du siège et de la reddition de Louisbourg (detail), 1758-59, Library and Archives Canada, R15514-0-4-E

Journal du siège et de la reddition de Louisbourg (detail), 1758-59, Library and Archives Canada, R15514-0-4-E

We concluded the day by reflecting on “Learning and Mapping the Landscape of a World Becoming French.” Presenters included Isabelle Charon, of Library and Archives Canada (LAC), who spoke about the utility of maps in historical research, and how they have been largely left out of the historiography of New France. Karine Bellerose Caldwell, also from LAC, presented a fascinating summary of a journal written by an unknown officer written from 1758-59. It includes tales of gift exchanges with Amherst, speaks of the treatment of prisoners, and describes how the officer took English classes while he was a prisoner of the English. Caldwell identified two important themes in this journal for researchers: the environment and public health. For those of you who are interested in consulting the document, it is readily available at the LAC online archives, here. The final panellist was Guillaume Teasdale of the University of Windsor, who presented on the legitimacy of Cadillac’s seigneurial claim to Detroit. He discusses whether Cadillac took advantage of ambiguities within the legal documents that permitted him to found Detroit, leading to the question of whether Detroit belonged to Cadillac or to the King? Teasdale’s overall conclusion is that Cadillac exploited the poor communication with the crown of France concerning the establishment of Detroit to augment his own position.

Of the fascinating global themes covered during Saturday’s sessions, I’ll highlight the panel that explored the influence of eighteenth-century North American affairs upon French colonialism. Greg Rogers from the University of Maine and Robert Englebert of the University of Saskatchewan discussed French-indigenous alliances. Rogers concentrated on alliances during the Seven Years War and how strategic networks were used for information gathering. Englebert focused on the period after the War, and how French alliances influenced eastern native tribes then crossing the Mississippi and entering a space where the establishment of a “middle ground” had been largely ineffective.

Next year’s conference will be in Aix-en-Provence. If you can manage it, I highly recommend attending any FCHS meeting, where your own scholarship on any aspect of the French Atlantic is sure to be stimulated in this collegial community.


Stephanie Pettigrew (@steph_pettigrew) is a PhD Candidate at the University of New Brunswick, where she studies the history of witchcraft and the expression of colonial anxiety in New France. She is also the project coordinator of the British North American Legislative Database Project ( and is currently focusing her research on the digital archives of New France.

Featured image: “Amérique septentrionale,” by Nicolas Sanson, A. Peyrounin, Pierre-Jean Mariette (Paris : Chez l’Auteur et chez Pierre Mariette, 1650). Library of Congress.

Latest Comments

  1. Timothy F. Garrity says:

    Thanks for the excellent review. I’d like to read some of the papers (especially Greg Rogers’ and Guillaume Teasdale’s) Is there a place where links to them can be found?

  2. Jennifer Sessions says:

    Thanks for the kind words about the FCHS! It is indeed a friendly and supportive group.

    A quick clarification: the 2017 conference will be held in Aix-en-PROVENCE, not Aix-la-Chapelle! Far more interesting for scholars of French colonialism, as it is home to the French Overseas Archives. Details should be posted on the FCHS website shortly,

  3. Jennifer Sessions says:

    So glad you enjoyed the conference! It is a friendly and collegial group. A quick clarification: the 2017 conference will be in Aix-en-Provence, not Aix-la-Chapelle. Far more interesting for scholars of French empire, as home to the French Overseas Archives. Further info should be up on soon.

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