Before Canada/Avant le Canada: a conference recap

Michael J. LaMonica

McGill University had the privilege of hosting the conference Before Canada: Northern North America in a Connected World, ca. 1000-1800 AD, this past weekend from October 25-27 in Montréal, Québec. Here, scholars from throughout North America and Europe came together to discuss, share, and collaborate on their research concerning early Canada. As a conference organizer and attendee, I could not help but be struck by just how much this field has grown in recent years. Although convened primarily as a history conference – with generous support provided by the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, McMaster University Wilson Institute for Canadian History, and the McGill-Queens University Press, amongst others – archeologists, anthropologists, and linguists, as well as historians, presented their research, greatly enriching the academic environment. Topics also ranged well beyond the traditional spatial, temporal, and even identitarian borders of contemporary Canada. Presenters took us from the frigid glaciers of northern Greenland to the balmy bayous of New Orleans, from the turn of the first millennium AD to the eve of confederation, and included along with English and French narratives those of the Mi’kmaq, Abenaki, Innuit, Beothuk, Basque, Norwegian, Métis, Haudenousaunee, Portuguese, Apache, and Siouxan peoples. These three themes: interdisciplinarity, space, and identity, provide the best framework for a discussing the conference’s lessons and insights.

A common (and justified) complaint in academia is that there is often not enough discourse between disciplines. Professional and structural pressures sometimes result in artificially rigid barriers, hermetically sealing off one area of study from another. Conferences such as Before Canada are one way in which we, as academics, can shift the professional culture away from narrow exclusivity towards one that is more expansive and inclusive. The benefits of such an approach were apparent to all in attendance.

Brad Loewen (Anthropologie, Université de Montréal) provided some excellent insights into how anthropologists and archaeologists can learn from historians and vice-versa. His advice is worth repeating here: Anthropologists and archaeologists should learn historiography, become more adept at mastering other languages, look more closely for women in their work, and treat written sources with respect. Historians, for their part, need to expose students to raw data earlier in their careers, treat archeological sources with respect, and take materiality seriously by embracing a willingness to make reasonable deductions based on physical evidence.

The experts in anthropology and archaeology certainly taught the historians how to take materiality seriously. Adrian L. Burke (Anthropologie, Université de Montréal) and Jack Ives (Anthropology, University of Alberta) expertly incorporated displays of physical evidence into their presentations while Patrick Jolicoeur (Archaeology, University of Glasgow) and Lisa Rankin (Archeology, Memorial University of Newfoundland) demonstrated to non-experts how one can draw reasonable conclusions based on material findings.

I also couldn’t help but notice that my colleagues in anthropology and archeology seemed far more adept than historians at utilizing the tools of the digital humanities. Patrick Jolicoeur’s presentation entitled, “Connecting their World: Wide-Spread Metal Exchange in the Canadian Arctic and Greenland at the Start of the Second Millennium AD” provides an excellent example of this. Jolicoeur used statistical analysis tools to map where Inuit harpoon finds are located geographically, what sized iron heads were used in those harpoons, and where the major sources of iron ore were in northern Canada and Greenland. He was able to represent this data visually in a way that made it both understandable to an audience and bolstered his argument that most Inuit iron likely came from meteoric or in-situ deposits rather than from trade with the Norse. There is much for an historian to learn here.

The Before Canada conference broke down not only the disciplinary barriers that divide scholars, but the linguistic ones as well. Both Anglophone and Francophone institutions were well represented and panelists were free to present in either English or French. The move towards creating a bilingual academic space has been a promising trend in the field of early Canadian history. Face-to-face interaction at conferences such as Before Canada allows for the exchange of knowledge amongst scholars across the linguistic divide and introduces us to new sources and methodologies of which we might have otherwise been unaware. For example, Renée Girard (Histoire, Université McGill) in her paper “Épices et tabac en Nouvelle-France: une question d’humeurs,” explained how the word “épices” meant more than just cooking spices in the seventeenth century, having both strong religious and pharmacological connotations. Tobacco, with its own role in indigenous spirituality and medicine, was quickly coopted by Europeans as an “épice” to be used in regulating body humours. This close attention to language is something that a scholar working in his or her second language could easily miss. As organizers of the Before Canada conference, we worked hard to create a welcoming environment that encouraged conversations to continue beyond the panel presentations, allowing for scholars to share (and practice!) with colleagues in their second language. [For an excellent discussion of the value of bilingual conferences, see Samuel Derksen’s post on Borealia regarding the 2019 French Colonial Historical Society’s annual meeting.]

One of the ways in which early Canadian history has shifted in recent years is toward a renewed focus on space and connections. Catherine Desbarats (History, McGill University) in her presentation, “Spaces of Money in New France,” describes how New France as a conceptual space has gotten simultaneously smaller and bigger since the turn of the twenty-first century. The “Wikipedia” version of New France as a wide crescent of royal blue territory cutting across northern and central North America, a veritable empire in the making, has fallen out of favor. Historians now portray New France a composite entity consisting of small patches of settler territory around the Saint Lawrence and a network of forts and trading posts strung out along the interior waterways of the continent. The rest of ‘New France’ was really unceded indigenous space supported by alliances with the First Nations and often based on ambiguous French claims to sovereignty. Allan Greer (History, McGill University) in his presentation, “Claiming the West for France,” highlights this ambiguity by showing how Saint-Lusson’s 1671 ceremonial “prise de possession de l’ouest” was not understood at the time as a singular transfer of sovereignty of interior North American by the First Nations to France, but rather how this event has been amplified in importance by the writings of later historians.

While New France may no longer occupy the role of continent-spanning territorial empire it once held in the historiography, it has expanded in other areas. The Atlantic turn has taken New France beyond merely the colonial progenitor of the modern Canadian or Québécois nations to incorporate it into a wider, hemisphere-spanning web of interconnections. Helen Dewar (Histoire, Université de Montréal) in her paper, “Corridors of Sovereignty: Waterways, Mobility, and Territorial Control in the St. Lawrence Valley, 1600s-1620s,” stressed that in order to understand New France, we must first conceptualize it being as much a maritime as a territorial space. The ability to grant or restrict access to oceanic and riverine waterways was of primary importance to colonizers, which often resulted in legal disputes between rival claimants back in France. Robert Englebert (History, University of Saskatchewan) incorporates this maritime outlook into a continental approach to show how a French “culture of mobility” created a borderless “river world” running through the interior of North America. French and Métis coureurs de bois plied both the Mississippi River and Northwest Territories, retaining their distinct culture in the Illinois country well into the nineteenth century. Michael J. Davis (History, McGill University) in his paper, “The ‘Canadianization’ of the Lower Mississippi Valley, 1699-1743,” continues this trend by incorporating Louisiana into early Canadian history. Davis argues that early Louisiana was a much a colony of Canada (or at least of the Iberville family) as it was a colony of France, and utilized Canadian political practices, such as the use of the calumet ceremony, to form alliances with indigenous peoples.

This spatial and temporal expansion of early Canadian history has also raised the question of whose history gets to be included in this analysis. Indigenous history has taken its rightful place as an indispensable part of the historiography and had a strong presence in the presentations. Incorporating indigenous perspectives helps to shift the scope of early Canadian history away from purely settler narratives and a teleological focus on the territory that would become the modern state of Canada. Many presenters also problematized and historicized the overly broad categories of “English” and “French,” replacing them with Normans, Bretons, Irish, Americans, Canadiens, and Basques. To paraphrase from one conference attendee: “Thirty years ago, we never heard about Basques in early Canada. Now there are Basques everywhere!”

The concluding panel discussion brought everyone together to discuss what worked in the conference and what work there is still left to do. Most attendees appreciated the interdisciplinary nature of the conference and would like to see future conferences expand this even further to include geographers and political scientists. The wide temporal and spatial scope of the conference was also popular. However, this also raised the issue of what we mean exactly when we talk about “Canadian” history prior to confederation. To echo a question raised by Joshua Piker (William and Mary Quarterly), is it possible to use this term without falling prey to a nationalist and presentist framing? Brad Loewen (Anthropologie, Université de Montréal) suggested that we approach early Canada more as an idea than as a defined space or a primordial nation waiting to be born. Carolyn Podruchny (History, York University), while praising the interdisciplinary approach of the conference and how it got people talking about “big time and big scales,” also suggested there that there was room for improvement by including more indigenous and African voices in future gatherings.

I left the conference with the distinct impression that Before Canada marks a beginning rather than an endpoint. The diverse array of topics provided us all with new insights and perspectives into our own research while also suggesting areas of further inquiry. As someone whose research concerns legal history across the French Atlantic, I would love to see future conferences include a panel on legal history that includes a discussion of the West Indies as well as North America. Including workshops or round tables would be another excellent way to encourage discussion and collaboration across disciplines. The Before Canada conference demonstrated that the field of early Canadian history has expanded well beyond its traditional confines and that there exists an eager academic community ready to continue the work of situating Canada in a connected world.  

Michael J. LaMonica is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History and Classical Studies at McGill University. His research centers on the French colonial admiralty courts of North America and the West Indies with a particular focus on their role in regulating smuggling, slavery, and creating differentiated legal spaces across the eighteenth-century French Atlantic.

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