A Conversation about Teaching Early Canadian History in the United States, Part 2: In the Classroom

This is the second of a three-part conversation between historians Claire Campbell, Alexandre Dubé, Jeffers Lennox, and Christopher Parsons, on being “early Canadianists” in the United States. You can find the rest of the series here.

Borealia: What do your U.S. students know about early Canada? How do you think that compares with what Canadian students know about early America?

Claire Campbell: In my experience, Americans know almost nothing about us, whereas most Canadians will have studied American geography, politics/civics, and history while still in high school – not to mention absorbing the American news cycle every day – although to be fair, this is much more geared toward more recent history. American students have a handful of clichés (hockey, French/Montreal, it’s cold, the Queen), and no sense of our history.

Here are two anecdotes to illustrate:

  • In my first-year class, I asked if anyone is from a border state. Nobody raises their hand. Except – we’re in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania is a border state. Except – it wasn’t entirely on them. I was relating this to a colleague who went to Chapel Hill, who pointed out that for Americans “border state” means, well, one along the Mason-Dixon line.
  • When we talk about the American Revolution, I ask them to read about the Loyalists. One student said, “I mean, we were told about the Loyalists, but it was like they just … went away. We didn’t think about where. I never thought about how, you know, they actually went somewhere.”

And that’s the thing. It’s never been suggested to them that they should even think to be curious about Canada. National hubris and border blinders are enormously powerful here; the luxury of the superpower. But once you tell them the stories are out there, they want to know more.

With the 18th Century class, I was, to be perfectly honest, afraid that American students would want and expect a class devoted to the causes, course, and effects of the American Revolution—not one that began with the French Atlantic; featured aboriginal, canadien, Acadian, and other peoples before and alongside the Patriots; and relied extensively on dense and confusing maps [sometimes in French]. And I still am exceptionally and detrimentally self-conscious that I don’t know the timeline of the Revolution, who threw what tea in which harbor, or any more about Yorktown than what I learned from Lin-Manuel Miranda. But they’re kind of sick of the Revolution, which is really their only sense of the colonial period, and they seem to really appreciate having a not-American perspective and a broader context. They did think it pretty funny the day I came in ranting that I pay taxes in two countries and can vote in neither: “I get this whole ‘taxation without representation’ thing now!”

But from where I started—i.e. see earlier story about “We don’t call it the French & Indian War!”—the eighteenth century is really a way to understand the processes of state formation and national identity. About competition for territory and the remaking of landscape over the long term. It is a way of getting students to think of “America” in continental if not hemispheric terms. And it says a lot about the failings of the American education system, its [lack of a] relationship to colonial/early [North] American scholarship on the one hand and the power of national mythology on the other, that it has been reduced for the students to Valley Forge.

We need more of the early period, obviously—but that’s true in Canada as well. The problem is students don’t think it’s relevant. And how do we get this unbelievably interesting scholarship into the K-12 system so they come to us excited for it?

Jeffers Lennox: In my experience, students don’t know much about early Canada. They might know a little about contemporary Canada, especially the ones who follow hockey. They likely know about the Loyalists, if only that they “lost” the American Revolution and then, magically, disappeared. They know we don’t use the word “Indian,” and they know the French were/are around.

Overall, it’s largely a question of how to craft the period. There’s nothing better than starting a class by asking how many British colonies there were, and then seeing how long it takes for students to realize that I’m not accepting 13 as an answer. Then we can start a conversation about what colonies they are missing, and from there I can usually depend on several questions about “the other” colonies. Like Claire mentioned, students love learning about early Canada, primarily I think because it helps them conceptualize a period before the United States, and then complicates their idea of the United States.

I think I’m increasingly convinced that “North American” history is a distinctly Canadian creation. It’s our way of elbowing into the conversation, and I’m happy to keep elbowing. Frankly I’m quite encouraged at how animated students get when learning about Canada, though I fear there is a part of them that likes seeing Canada taken down a notch: the British expelled the Acadians, failed to honour treaties with Indigenous peoples, practiced slavery (Black and Indigenous), etc. etc. Being able to extend popular historical themes (slavery, migration, economic development, rebellion/resistance) across the border and into Canada does help expand students’ worldview.

Christopher Parsons: The connection between knowledge of Canadian geography and hockey teams is something that I’ve noticed, as Jeffers mentioned. Otherwise, many students aren’t 100% sure where the Calgary that I’m from is.

I am only Canadian because my loyalist ancestors chose the King in the American Revolution, and it’s one way that I try to appeal to my students and direct my classes. I’ve actually found it a real strength to be able to say to my classes – “I don’t know what you learned in high school – I don’t know the popular version of American history – tell it to me.” It encourages students to bring up what American history has meant to them and – inevitably – the student from California has had a very different experience than the student from New England. It’s been a useful way of getting students to question the existence of a monolithic American history. Then I get to explain that my family was probably American before theirs was (not always a guarantee, I taught somebody whose family arrived with the pilgrims!) and we can talk about why I’m Canadian and they’re American. So my difference has had a real benefit in the classroom, and I play up both their ignorance and my own to create an environment in which we can think about how to refigure American history into Atlantic history or North American history or World history or whatever might work.


Borealia: Let’s talk teaching and primary sources. What sources (texts, images, maps) have you found work well to help your U.S. students think about ‘early Canada’ or in continental or Atlantic terms?

Christopher Parsons: I think that this is easier than it’s ever been, and it hasn’t been historians who have been doing the heavy lifting here. Both the Norton and Heath anthologies of American literature, for example, have sources from New France (Champlain and the Jesuit Relations), in addition to Dutch, Spanish and indigenous sources. The interest in New France or early Canada is part of a broader reconceptualization of early American history that includes these (and other perspectives) and that has also made room (in the forms of conferences, journals and job lines) for the southwest borderlands, for Spanish Florida, for Dutch New York and a number of other less Anglo places. So I haven’t found finding sources particularly hard at all.

Jeffers Lennox: Chris is right–I simply can’t imagine being an historian even a generation ago. One tactic I like to use in classes (it works better in seminars but can also run well in lectures) is to get students to use sources that are specifically “American” in nature. So, the letters of the founding fathers, the Journals of the Continental Congress, Documents Relating to the Ratification of the Constitution, etc. etc. (all online, thankfully!) and have them keyword search for “Canada” “Nova Scotia” “Halifax” “Montreal” and other terms. This helps American students realize that Canada was very much on the minds of early Americans, and then allows us to then transition into more sources that are related to Canada specifically.

Maps are also great, as pre-national maps really demonstrate how fluid and imagined were most boundaries in the early Canadian / American era. Again, I can rely on standard American sources. Jedidiah Morse’s maps and geography textbooks (often examined as foundational to a sense of American nationality) regularly featured Canadian colonies.

Claire Campbell: In some ways it’s the reverse—I got exposed to a lot of colonial American history by tumbling down many, many rabbit holes (a.k.a. online archives). Jeffers is right: “Americans” were thinking about peoples north of them, as an opportunity and as a threat. (Which introduces a note of vulnerability into the American narrative that students generally find surprising.) Two examples that we used in class:

  • Correspondence about the Acadians between Nova Scotia and the American colonies, and the Acadian response to demands for an oath of loyalty
  • Comparing the characterization of Quebec/French Canada leading up to and after the Plains of Abraham, by Boston preacher Jonathan Mayhew and Maryland planter John Dickinson

(It’s also relatively easy to point out that Canadians have a long, and reasonably justifiable, anxiety about being invaded by Americans … because they kept doing it.)

We had a great discussion about public memory and the ethical responsibility of public history in comparing the controversies over Cornwallis (in Nova Scotia) and Amherst (in Massachusetts). I really stressed the comparative premise of origin stories: that both Canada and the U.S. (not to mention First Nations, Acadians, French Canadians, and other groups that did not become nation-states) locate their defining stories in this period. In other words, Americans, you are not alone on this continent, and never were.

Maps, too, are crucial. I think my students were just completely naturalized to seeing the lower 48 (or, at best, the Thirteen Colonies) as a kind of political entity/set of boundaries as ever and ever, amen, without much of a sense of how other powers claimed, named, and occupied adjacent or “American” space.

Obviously, it helps to feature particular places. I can visualize Louisbourg, they can’t – but it seemed to really stick with them. Maybe it was the drama of the story, but maybe too it was the writing by Parks Canada historians (A.J.B. Johnston, Anne-Marie Jonah) who have a knack for evocative story-telling. And, of course, there are reams of maps of the fortress to work with. We “visited” Nova Scotia a lot – in Acadia, Louisbourg, Halifax, and Shelburne with the Loyalists – and undoubtedly my homesickness bled through into class: but I was thrilled when they started to talk about Nova Scotia like they would Pennsylvania.

On that note, it may be – and I can’t believe I’m writing this – that the ‘exotic’ quality of French America works in our favour. The seigneurial landscape, the pays d’en haut and voyageurs, the siege of Quebec – these are stories they’ve never heard before.

And finally – and this worked well thanks to Jack Greene’s article, “1759: The Perils of Success,” in Philip Buckner and John Reid, eds. Revisiting 1759: The conquest of Canada in historical perspective (UTP, 2012) – making the connection between the Seven Years War [not the French and Indian War/American sliver thereof] and the American Revolution puts the Revolution in a different context for them. It isn’t about timeless, universal values of “liberty” or the heroic leadership of George Washington, but part of a response to conditions set up decades before.


Claire Campbella Professor of History at Bucknell University, is interested in the environmental history of North America and the North Atlantic world. She has taught at universities across Canada and in Denmark, in the areas of history, Canadian Studies, and Environment and Sustainability. Publications include Shaped by the West Wind: Nature & History in Georgian Bay (2004), A Century of Parks Canada, 1911-2011 (2011), and Land and Sea: Environmental History in Atlantic Canada (2013) with Robert Summerby-Murray. Her most recent work, Nature, Place, and Story: Rethinking Historic Sites in Canada (2017), uses environmental history to expand public history and discussions of sustainability at national historic sites. She’s currently working on a new project, “The Islands of Canada: Canada as a Coastal Nation.” You can find her on Twitter @HKHClaire.

Alexandre Dubé, an Assistant Professor of History at Washington University in St. Louis, is a historian of the French colonies in North America. He has held post-doctoral fellowships at the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture in Williamsburg and the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris. He will soon publish a book on colonial Louisiana and its role in the French Empire.

Jeffers Lennox, an Assistant Professor of History at Wesleyan University, is an historian of early North America, with a specific focus on the history of interactions between British, French, and Indigenous peoples. His first book, Homelands & Empires: Indigenous Spaces, Imperial Fictions, and Competition for Territory in Northeastern North America, 1690-1763 (University of Toronto Press, forthcoming Spring 2017) explores how the Wabanaki peoples, French settlers, and British colonists used borders, land use, and the language of geography to control territory in what is now Nova Scotia / New Brunswick / Northern Maine. In a region without a sovereign power, Indigenous peoples defended their homelands against the imperial designs of European powers by refusing to surrender their geographic identity. His current book project investigates the ways in which Canada shaped the American Revolution and the creation of the United States. In North of America: Revolution, British Provinces, and Creating the United States, 1774-1815 (under contract, Yale University Press) he argues that America is the product of those provinces that refused to be subsumed by the Revolutionary experiment.

Christopher Parsons, an Assistant Professor of History at Northeastern University, is an interdisciplinary historian of science and the environment in the French Atlantic World. He is working on Cultivating a New France: Knowledge, Empire and Environment in the French Atlantic World, 1600 – 1760. This project examines French encounters with American environments that became literal and figurative sites of imperial experimentation, places to imagine the possible contours of a French colonial empire and investigate the roots and persistence of American difference. In this and related projects, he has a longstanding interest in highlighting the contribution of indigenous peoples to the evolution of European and Euro-American environmental sciences. Parsons was previously a Barra Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies.

Featured Image: Carte des Possessions Angloises & Françoises du Continent de l’Amérique Septentrionale (1755), Thomas Kitchin. W. K. Morrison Special Collection, Nova Scotia Community College.

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