The Wilson Institute for Canadian History: Introduction and Vision of Canadian History

Maxime Dagenais

Since I last posted with Borealia – a post titled “The ‘Canadian Revolution,’ the Early American Republic, and … Slavery?” – my SSHRC postdoctoral fellowship at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies ended and I took up a new position as the research coordinator for the Wilson Institute for Canadian History at McMaster University, an institute I know quite well from a postdoctoral fellowship I held there from 2012 to 2014. In this post – the first installment in an ongoing series on the institute – I will introduce the Wilson Institute, offer a brief reflection on our vision for Canadian history, and discuss some of the projects we are currently cooking up.


Dr. Maxime Dagenais, Research Coordinator for the the Wilson Institute for Canadian History, McMaster University

Founded in 2008, the Wilson Institute for Canadian History (then called the Wilson Centre) was created with a simple vision: rethink Canadian history, pre- and post-Confederation, within a transnational framework. We seek to understand Canada’s place in a global perspective and how Canada has influenced – or been influenced by – transnational phenomena. There is no doubt that transnationalism and transnational approaches are sweeping the profession. During my time in the United States, for instance, I noticed how many departments and research centers were increasingly turning to transnational approaches to rejuvenate subjects that seemed stagnant. As historian François Furstenberg also noted during his keynote address at last year’s McNeil Center Graduate Student Conference, our inboxes are currently being flooded with conference and workshop opportunities on subjects relating to transnational, global, Atlantic history. When done well, transnational scholars challenge nationalist historiography, offering new comparative bases, new perspectives, and demonstrating that national events are connected to international phenomena. A quick search through the most recent issues of Early American Studies (published by the McNeil Center for Early American Studies) and the William and Mary Quarterly (published by the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture) demonstrates just how transnational American history has become – to the dismay of some.

It is equally important for Canadian historians to embrace this approach. Canada, especially early Canada, is not a well-defined geopolitical entity. Early Canada is Indigenous, American, British, French, Atlantic, and North American. Our early history is transnational. Until the 20th century, cross-border migrations were lightly regulated, and cross-border economic exchanges were not easily controlled by state, colonial, and imperial officials. It is equally important for historians of the 20th century to adopt this framework. As our world is evermore connected, world phenomena influence us and our history, and events in Canada, similarly, have an impact outside of Canada. Though we are on the right track, as more and more historians, including many of our friends at Borealia, and research centers – such as the French Atlantic History Group – are considering Canada in a transnational context, there is more work to be done, including here at the Wilson Institute. As I stated in an overview of last year’s Congress of the Institut d’histoire de l’Amérique française in Montreal, I was surprised to see so few presentations placing Canada in a transnational framework, especially from 20th century historians. Many of the panels I attended, though extremely interesting, adopted a very Canada-centric perspective, paying little attention to transnational phenomena.

Over the years, the Wilson Institute has encouraged and funded transnational history in Canada. The institute has offered (and still offers) teaching and research fellowships to recent PhDs, has hosted numerous workshops, talks, and conferences, and provided grants and awards to graduate students at McMaster University. However, we can do more. With the appointment of Dr. Ian McKay as the new director of the institute, we want to increase our presence and funding opportunities, not only nationally, but internationally. Though we have invited numerous Canadian scholars to share their work with the Institute, we are now expanding our horizons and inviting international scholars to share their work on Canada. When I first arrived in Philadelphia, I was surprised (shocked, actually) to see how many American scholars were working on topics that could be considered “Canadian.” These scholars offer new perspectives on Canada’s place in North American and the Atlantic World and further demonstrate the influence of transnational phenomena on our history. Many will (and have) received invitations to share their work at the Wilson Institute. We have also established our own series devoted to Canada is a global perspective with McGill-Queen’s University Press, are planning several ventures with other research centers and scholars around the world, and are working on introducing a new award for the best graduate paper that best meets our vision of Canadian history.


Dr. Ian McKay, Director of the Wilson Institute

In the near future, however, we are working on a series of lectures devoted entirely to Confederation as part of McMaster’s involvement in Canada’s 150th anniversary. However, rather than simply celebrating Canada and Confederation, we want to examine the subject within a more critical framework. We want Canadians to question Confederation, assess its impact (good and bad) on every Canadian, and consider its place on a more global perspective. We have therefore lined-up a series of speakers tackling important issues such as the impact of Confederation on Indigenous populations, Confederation in the context of 19th century North American nation-building, the environmental consequences of Confederation, and Confederation as a mere tax revolt. All are invited to attend! My next series of posts will be devoted to this series and the discussions/debates it generated.

Dr. Maxime Dagenais is the Research Coordinator for the the Wilson Institute for Canadian History at McMaster University.

Featured Image: McMaster University, University Hall, 2007, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.


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