The French Colonial Historical Society, Longueuil, 2019: A Template for Early Canadian History?

Samuel Derksen

The 45th Annual Meeting of the French Colonial Historical Society (FCHS) was held from June 13-15 at the Université de Sherbrooke campus in Longueuil, Quebec. In many ways, Longueuil was a perfect setting for reflection about French colonial history, particularly in the Americas. No, I’m not referring to the charming new Université de Sherbrooke campus that provided an ideal venue for the conference, but the historical connection of Longueuil to the Le Moyne family. Charles Le Moyne was granted title to the seigneury of Longueuil (South Shore of Montreal) in 1672. Over the following decades, his sons played a key role in the expansion of French colonial projects and commerce in the Atlantic. Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville was an early commandant of Louisiana and oversaw the foundation of New Orleans, while conducting extensive sanctioned and illicit trade in the Atlantic World [See Michael J. Davis’ post on Borealia for more information]. In this location that reminds us of the breadth, connections, and history of the French colonial world, a diverse set of scholars studying all corners of France’s empire gathered to share their research and knowledge. I wanted to take this opportunity in the conference’s aftermath to reflect upon the lessons and insights that the FCHS can provide for the study of early Canada.

Having attended the last two meetings of the FCHS (Seattle 2018 and Longueuil 2019), the conference’s welcoming and inclusive bilingual nature stands out as one of the society’s great strengths. As a native English speaker, I felt encouraged to attend French language panels and emboldened to speak my second language, which admittedly has lots of room to improve. [For a discussion of the challenges and limitations bilingual scholars face conducting and sharing research in predominantly Anglophone environments see Joseph Gagné’s post on Borealia]. Beyond the creation of a welcoming, collegial atmosphere for French colonial studies, the bilingual character of the FCHS provided a space for French and English language scholars to share information and collaborate.

A panel examining the contraband exchange in the Montreal-Albany corridor during the eighteenth century exemplified the benefits of sharing research in a bilingual setting. This inter-disciplinary panel began with an interesting French-language talk by Alain Gelly and David Ledoyen from Parks Canada who presented research they conducted for a new exhibit regarding smuggling and contraband trade at Fort Chambly National Historic Site. Gelly and Ledoyen sketched how kinship and commercial connections, the aid of Haudenosaunee intermediaries, and strategic use of alternative navigation routes between the St. Lawrence and Albany facilitated an illicit commerce (commerce étranger) between Montreal and Albany. Next, Andrew Beaupre (Siena College), provided a historical archaeological perspective of this Montreal-Albany trade. Complicating archaeological wisdom that “pots equal people” (the idea that if you find artifacts produced by a cultural group that means they lived where these artifacts were found) Beaupre used the presence of British ceramics at French forts on Lake Champlain as evidence of an extra-legal exchange between British and French colonists. Lastly, Sarah Templier’s (Johns Hopkins University) presentation explored the movement of textiles, specifically calicos, through this Montreal-Albany corridor. Templier showed that French laws restricting the trade of calicos in New France created an illicit calico market between Montreal and Albany. As a result, calicos were a staple of private society in eighteenth century Montreal. These engaging and informative presentations were followed by a lively question period mediated by Jean-François Lozier (Université d’Ottawa), where the speakers fielded queries in both French and English. This panel struck me as a great success. Presenters and spectators were exposed to the recent research being conducted by French and English language scholars in similar fields. This experience was commonplace at the FCHS. Of the conference’s 51 panels (excluding the plenary sessions and roundtables), 23 were bilingual.

The bilingual character of the conference also led to fruitful historiographical discussions. In an interesting panel titled “Desires and Dangers in Eighteenth Century Global Commerce,” Jennifer Davis (University of Oklahoma) presented a paper that examined the meaning and treatment of libertines in Louisiana between 1719 and 1763. Davis argued that the definitions and categorization of libertines differed in Louisiana, Canada, and France, demonstrating that in Louisiana the term libertines was connected to sexual behavior, specifically interracial liaisons. Colonial officials in Louisiana criminalized interracial unions; however, control over these sexual relationships provided difficult to enforce because Louisiana’s populace challenged these regulations. The value of presenting in this bilingual space became evident during the panel’s question period, when Davis was asked where her research fit in relation to Gilles Havard’s treatment of libertines in his opus about French fur traders in North America titled Histoires des Coureurs de Bois.

Dominique Deslandres’ presentation examining the position and participation of Indigenous slaves in the Montreal judicial system was another moment when French and English scholarship entered into conversation. Deslandres showed that Indigenous slaves in Montreal utilized French courts to assert and defend their rights as they navigated the complex system of overlapping affiliations and identities in Montreal. Once again, the question period brought forth a historiographic conversation. Deslandres was asked about the statistics she cited for the number of Indigenous slaves in Montreal, as they were higher than the numbers used by Marcel Trudel in his seminal French language work on New France slavery L’esclavage au Canada Français (1960). Deslandres’ clarified that her statistics were taken from Brett Rushforth’s study of Indigenous slavery in New France (Bonds of Alliance, 2012) and supplemented with her own research that uncovered additional slaves in Montreal.

These historiographic discussions highlight the value of bilingual conferences. By creating an environment for Francophone, Anglophone, and bilingual scholars to meet and interact the FCHS exposed participants to the work going on in fields that cross linguistic boundaries and stimulated productive discussions and debates.

My reflections about the bilingual nature of the FCHS led me to question whether early Canadian history or Canadian history more broadly has cultivated a comparable bilingual space. A quick perusal of the program from the 2019 meeting of the Canadian Historical Association (CHA) suggests that Canada’s largest historical society is predominantly an Anglophone environment. I noted one entirely French panel, and four bilingual panels out of 143 conference sessions. Perhaps the lack of panels related to pre-Confederation history can account for the CHA’s predominantly English character. In a series of articles on Active History Thomas Peace and Robert Englebert have illustrated a consistent deficiency of panels and presentations related to early Canadian history at the CHA.[1] In light of the FCHS, it is worth considering the value of attempting to more thoroughly integrate Francophone and Anglophone scholarly communities. As much significant work regarding early Canada is being produced in both languages the creation of an inviting bilingual or multi-lingual space for the study of early Canada would enable further interaction between scholars with differing linguistic backgrounds, which has the potential to profitably move early Canadian scholarship forward.

Within the bilingual space cultivated at the FCHS, methodological discussions occurred that acted as a useful reminder of how considering early Canada’s broad linkages and connections can lead to new understandings of this history. Various presentations situated the history of New France within Atlantic and continental frameworks. This theme was present from the conference’s first session. In a panel titled “New France after the Atlantic Turn” panellists explored how an Atlantic perspective can bolster our understanding of New France’s history. First, Helen Dewar (Université de Montréal) used an Atlantic framework to challenge standard narratives regarding New France’s transition to royal governance after 1663. Dewar argued that rather than a seamless shift, the establishment of royal government in New France was a decades long process that was shaped by the overlapping jurisdiction of French colonial officials and the Compagnie des Indes Occidentales in the French Atlantic World. Next, Catherine Desbarats (McGill University) examined the role of “stuff and money” in New France from an Atlantic perspective, arguing that comparing commercial systems, politics and laws of other colonial regions has the potential to bring New France’s socio-economic history into clearer focus.[2] Similarly, Alexandre Dubé (Washington University, St. Louis) explored the development of political thought in the French Atlantic between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, suggesting that an Atlantic comparative framework could provide new insight into the administrative and political culture that developed in the French Atlantic. Lastly, Gregory Kennedy (Université de Moncton) advocated for a multi-directional colonial Atlantic military history that poses new questions regarding New France’s martial history. For example, Kennedy questioned how analyzing discussions of guerilla tactics in France may shape our perception of the French army in North America.

Additional presentations situated New France’s history within wider continental and Atlantic frameworks. In his presentation, “Les institutions militaires, éléments important de l’ordre judiciaire colonial en Nouvelle France,” Éric Wenzel compared the role that the military played in maintaining order in Canada and Louisiana. Wenzel argued that due to the small police force in Canada and the absence of police in Louisiana, the military played a key role in the enforcement of colonial laws in these regions. As a result, regular and military justice were intertwined in these colonial spaces, which led to challenges enforcing laws, most notably when soldiers refused to arrest their brothers in arms. In a session titled “Power Games in the King’s Court: The Case of Montreal in the 17th and 18th Centuries,” Marie Houllemare (Université d’Amiens) examined cases of banishment in Montreal to judicial practices in France. Notably, Houllemare identified that banishment was used extensively as punishment for the sexual promiscuity of women in New France, but that the punishments in these colonial cases were generally less severe than in the metropole. Additionally, Houllemare noted that banishment was more of a public phenomenon in New France than in France, as banishment was used to maintain public order and undermine anti-colonial dissent. Collectively, these presentations act as a useful reminder of the new questions, perspectives, and revelations that can arrive from exploring the broad connections and linkages of early Canada.

The scholarly community and environment cultivated at the French Colonial Historical Society is something early Canadian history can and should aspire to replicate. Although many early Canadian historians are already engaging with French and English scholarship and pushing the geographic and conceptual boundaries of their work, Canada is lacking a society or institute devoted to early Canadian studies. Comprised of a passionate membership and defined by a collegial bilingual environment, the FCHS provides a template for the construction of an interdisciplinary, bilingual society for the study of early Canada.

 

Samuel Derksen is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History and Classical Studies at McGill University. His doctoral research examines how interconnected fur trade networks that stretched from the North American interior, to Montreal, and across the Atlantic World operated on the ground before, during, and after the British Conquest of New France. You can find him on Twitter at@sam_derksen.


[1] See Thomas Peace, “What Does Canadian History Look Like? A Peek into University Classrooms before CHA 2018,” May 22, 2018, Active History, http://activehistory.ca/2018/05/what-does-canadian-history-look-like-a-peak-into-university-classrooms-before-cha-2018. This growing predominance of twentieth century topics has been a recurring trend at the CHA that Peace has traced back to 2004. Thomas Peace, “A Peek Inside the Canadian Historical Association,” June 3, 2013, Active History, http://activehistory.ca/2013/06/what-does-canadian-history-look-like-a-peek-inside-the-canadian-historical-association/. Tom Peace, “What does Canadian History Look Like? The CHA in 2015,” Active History, http://activehistory.ca/2015/06/what-does-canadian-history-look-like-the-cha-in-2015; Robert Englebert, “Where has pre-Confederation history gone? The CHA and the changing contours of a discipline,” Active History, http://activehistory.ca/2015/06/where-has-pre-confederation-history-gone-the-cha-and-the-changing-contours-of-a-discipline/

[2] Desbarats uses the term “stuff” to refer to goods used to facilitate exchanges. In New France these include beaver furs, alcohol, and various other products.

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