A Conversation about Teaching Early Canadian History in the United States, Part 3: Research

This is the third 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: We have talked about what you bring to your U.S. setting from a Canadian background, but what about the reverse? What aspects of ‘Early American’ historiography—themes, approaches, or specific questions—would you like to see adopted by early Canadianists?

Claire Campbell: This is more of a popular than academic quality, but: I have a deeply ambivalent, head-shaking, yet reluctant admiration for the fascination (/adulation) that Americans have toward the Revolutionary period. (Not the colonial period, not even the 18th century, but specifically, before-during-after the Revolution.) It’s blinkered by national teleology and truncated by hero-worship (of eight group presentations in my class this year, seven featured sites connected to George Washington). But nobody thinks it’s remote or uninteresting.

The other thing is the question of race. I can’t really put into words the difference in the discussion, but it is much, much more prominent here, as a category for scholarly analysis, and a point of self-reflection for universities and history departments. (I don’t recall anything approaching what I see at Bucknell during my entire time at Dalhousie.) That’s affected my teaching. We watch Book of Negroes and read an excerpt of Hill’s book, look at the original text, and read Amani Whitfield’s work on black migration/transport to the Maritimes. And what becomes clear is the origin and power of the Canadian myth – that we don’t and didn’t have a race problem but rather were and remain a haven and respite for people of colour.

And “race” here means primarily issues of African-American history. As a Canadian, whose ear is tuned to hearing “race” in terms of indigenous/settler relationships, I remain constantly surprised by how little students think to consider First Nations, even in the colonial period.

Jeffers Lennox: Claire nailed it. Race is an overwhelming concept to incorporate into lectures and scholarship more generally. It has made me think about some elements of Canadian history differently, and not just in the early period. For example, the French were considered a different “race,” and this is a theme that extended into the twentieth century. Pierre Vallières and the FLQ demonstrate that.

A second theme that struck me is religion, and it is again both an historical and current element of the American experience. Religion simply matters here in ways that it doesn’t at home. As a result, there is a great deal of scholarship in early American history that requires some additional attention in lectures. Oddly, Indigenous peoples fit awkwardly into both race and religion, in part because there is not the same contemporary saliency as in Canada.

Students here, even those who follow the racial tensions at Yale, Missouri (and even Wesleyan) are clueless to Idle No More. Were I to teach more contemporary Canadian history (the latest I go is 1890s), I think I would use these movements to demonstrate some of the similarities between marginalized groups on both sides of the border.


Borealia: Two of you teach environmental history (& Claire insists that much of Jeffers’ work fits there, too!). What are the particular challenges & benefits of transnational scholarship in that field?

Claire Campbell: Benefits: Dare I say: it seems to suit the spirit of the colonial period, when so much circled around the question of land (or sea, or shore): ambition for it, occupation of it, a search for home, a defense of home, remaking of nature for ideal and profit, scientific inquiry, or the exploitation of resources. At the same time, the origins of so many of our environmental issues are to be found here. Hubris, displacement, settlement and resettlement, private or collective property, consumption: we can track all of these from the colonial period directly to debates today about environmental degradation and restoration.

For example, when we talked about the seasonality of the fur trade—the relatively short ice-free window for paddling thousands of kilometres—we also veered into questions of energy (i.e. what propels an industry) and climate change (i.e. a melting north).

It’s also a good way of getting at the transnational/prenational component of this period: river valleys and water routes and watersheds; imperial collections and taxonomies; contests—in maps, treaties, histories—over where borders should go and what they meant.

As a Canadian, I’d say it suits because it’s both the most exciting subfield in Canada right now, and certainly one of the best networked. But it’s great to be able to share these ideas with others (Americans, Scandinavians…), and to draw attention to just how much the Canadian experience can teach us.

Challenges: Environmental history is still relatively new as an undergraduate offering in many places, so students (and colleagues) don’t know what it is or have much experience with its approaches and questions. Students think “environment” means reusable coffee mugs and hybrid cars: contemporary solutions, that don’t really challenge long-standing practices and ideologies.

There’s some fascinating work on the environmental history of the early modern period (especially as it transects with the history of science and climate history), but, like the larger fields in Canada & the U.S., more environmental historians have focused on the modern period. At the same time, there are scholars working in the earlier period who don’t consider themselves environmental historians (cough* Jeffers *cough) and yet their work does deal directly with the relationship between people and nature in the past (Carolyn Podruchny, Maya Jasanoff, Stephen Hornsby…)

Jeffers Lennox: Because environmental history is so capacious, it does demonstrate the imaginary quality of borders. Sea levels don’t care about the 49th parallel, and the beaver or bison certainly didn’t think twice about crossing from one place to another. If anything, I think environmental history gives weight to the regional arguments that have so long dominated Canadian scholarship. And those regions cross borders, even if mountain ranges have different names on either sides.

I truly don’t consider myself an environmental historian, but that’s only because my focus isn’t intentionally on the environment. I’m happy if my work contributes to the field in some way, and I do try to address certain themes that have been dominated by environmental historians. I suppose it’s just a matter of what elements of the scholarship one hopes to emphasize. I do think that environmental history is perhaps the best suited sub-field to break down nationalist narratives.

Christopher Parsons: I’ve only come to the field of environmental history recently, and still feel more comfortable identifying myself as a historian of science, but I actually think that environmental history presents important opportunities for early Americanists / Canadianists to speak to each other and a broader public.

I have returned to Joyce Chaplin’s “The Other Revolution” time and time again as I think about environmental history in this period. When she writes that, “the general public may be ahead of us academics in considering the material circumstances of preindustrial society to be of central significance,” I think that she’s absolutely right. I’ve found many of my students ready for an environmental historical approach to this period and these spaces—even if, as Claire suggests, they aren’t entirely sure (in advance)—what environmental history means. I think highlighting those material factors of colonial lives – foods, climates, housing, clothing, etc.—that are environmental history’s bread and butter have real purchase for our students and have an intrinsic interest for the sorts of peoples who, around here at least, go to Plimoth Plantation on their weekends.

It also just makes so much sense in terms of research. I always return to Pierre Boucher’s imagination of the northeast as a single country divided by the St. Lawrence to counter my own tendencies to think of the northeast in American / Canadian contexts. The reality is that environmental history encourages us to problematize those regions because it asks us to think in terms of species ranges, isotherms, soil maps and in terms of millions of year of evolutionary and geological history.


Borealia: How is your own transnational situation shaping your ongoing research agenda? Would you say something about projects that you have in the works?

Christopher Parsons: This is related to the sources question, but I’ve been more aware than ever of the need for high quality translations and editions of French-language sources for American scholars and students. I haven’t really told anybody about this yet, but I and a few collaborators have a grant in with the NEH to do a new digital edition of the Jesuit Relations for this reason. We’re partnering with the Society of Jesus and the John Carter Brown Library and, once we’ve received some funding, will start towards a new French and English edition of the forty original volumes of the Relations. It’s fantastic that there is more interest than ever in those “other” Americas (that spoke Dutch, Spanish, French, Swedish or any of the hundreds of indigenous languages that were spoken in North America) but they often rely on English translations that are, to be generous, problematic. There have been numerous critiques of the Thwaites edition of the Relations, for example, but they remain widely used (by me too!) and, for many unilingual American scholars they are the Relations.

Jeffers Lennox: I’d say my position at an American school teaching early North American history has had a huge impact on my research agenda. I never thought I’d be writing a book about the “revolutionary era,” but here I am. However, I think as a Canadian transplant who understands the history of both sides of the border, I’ve taken an approach that reflects my own transnational movements. So, I’m writing about what early Americans thought of Canada and how it influenced the revolution and its aftermath. I came to this topic in no small part because I am myself trying to get Americans to think about Canada.

I second Chris’s argument that we need better translations. In fact, we need better surveys of non-English North American history. Brett Rushforth and Chris Hodson’s forthcoming book will be instrumental to teaching French North American history, which is a crucial element of tying early Canada to early America.

Claire Campbell: I think I’m turning seaward; it’s partly because I miss Halifax, but I really want to “return” to colonial Nova Scotia in my next project. I’m daunted, because historians of the colonial eras always seemed like the cool kids at the lunch table over who knew something, but after teaching a new seminar on the environmental history of the north Atlantic, and with the really supportive NorthEast Atlantic Region Environmental History group, I’m convinced that this coastline has a lot of stories about environmental adaptations that we haven’t recovered.


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: “Partie Orientale de la Nouvelle France ou du Canada,” Par Mr. Bellin Ingenieur du Roy et de la Marine. Pour Servir à l’Intelligence des affaires et de l’état present en Amerique communiqueé au Public par les Keritiers de Homan en l’an 1755. Nova Scotia Archives, Map Collection: 200-1755: loc.3.5.2

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