I contributed a post to Borealia: A Group Blog on Early Canadian History, offering some thoughts on how we frame the early Canadian survey course. Denis Kim of Borealia asked me to contribute something on teaching, prompted by a brief Twitter conversation I had had with Tom Peace of Huron University College this past spring. Tom, at the meeting of the Canadian Historical Association in Regina in June 2018, presented a piece discussing Huron’s decision to shift their Canadian survey to a broader transnational focussed course. That work is outlined in a post for ActiveHistory.ca.
Comparing the two, it’s clear that Tom and I are very much concerned with similar issues, and equally to break with a traditional nationalist view of colonial Canadian history. We differ on where our basic framing begins: on the nation-state that defines us today or in a blurrier transnational context. Blurry, I think we agree, is good, but some of its assumptions demand different expression.
In teaching about Canada, I want my students to see something that is both familiar and strange – something they recognise as their country, but often in ways that they had not previously imagined. In the colonial survey, I often begin with the map on our header, Nicolas Bellin’s 1744 map of Isle Royale (Cape Breton/U’nama’kik). It looks like Cape Breton, but it also introduces us to this strange island off the coast of Acadie/Mi’kmaki/Nova Scotia (in 1744, it was very much all three of these!). In this one image, we see the familiar (the simple outline of what is normally today called Cape Breton), places we’re coming to know (like that fortress along the coast named for the French king), and places we can’t see any more like Port Toulouse/Quescouminigan, Moulagash, and le grand lac Bideauboch “rectifee … sur l’orginal des sauvages”.
This past September, for the first time in several years, I was able to spend an extended period of time in Nova Scotia doing some research. Most of that time I was working on the Colonial Library project that Keith Grant and I are working on. I tweeted a fair bit about that at the time, but I’ll note very briefly that I visited the rare books library at Acadia University, the Public Archives of Nova Scotia, and examined collections at Nova Scotia Museum sites: Haliburton House in Windsor, Prescott house near Port Williams, and the Museum of Industry in Stellarton. I also had a great afternoon playing miller at the Nova Scotia Museum’s Balmoral Grist Mill, a mill quite a bit larger than James Barry’s mill, but using similar technologies and built about the same time.
It was a great trip. Just from the standpoint of what I was hoping to achieve in terms of research I was very happy. Between what Keith was doing on his own, what we had done together earlier in the summer, and these visits, we now have a really solid foundation established upon which to start building our Colonial Library [a preliminary sandbox version can be seen here].
I met a lot of wonderful people. Pat Townsend, the archivist at the Vaughan Library at Acadia, was an informative guide to the rare book collection. Martin Hubley at the Nova Scotia Museum, Karen Smith at the Dalhousie Special Collections, and others at Museums sites across the province were all really helpful, clearly going beyond normal front-desk efforts.
But I also found myself talking to a range of really interesting community people who shared some of my local passions. I spent an evening at the provincial archives talking with the incredibly knowledgeable David States about African-Nova Scotian history in Kings and Pictou Counties. I met with Debra McNabb, the curator of the Museum of Industry, who then invited me to a community archaeology dig at the foundry of the General Mining Association (the GMA, the company that initiated capital-intensive industrial development in Nova Scotia in the 1820s and which plays a central role in my 2008 book Industry and Improvement). I’ve known Debra for many years and she’s done significant work on Nova Scotia industrial history. But there I also met provincial archaeologists (where I learned more about the precarious existence of academic archaeology in Nova Scotia) and several local historians. John Ashton, for example, is a local graphic designer, but active in local historical societies and publishes industrial history the New Glasgow News (in fact he’s presenting at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, this coming Monday November the 5th). Hearing about my work on James Barry, he very generously took me to Springville (about 10 km up the East River) to show me the remains of the Grant mills which date from the 1790s.
I also met David Rollinson, the chair of the Nova Scotia Industrial Heritage Society. David and I had a long chat about lots of things, but my favourite detail was our convergence on a skilled worker from Staffordshire, Thomas Neville, who worked in the GMA foundry from 1827 to about 1842. David mentioned that he knew where Neville was buried. At first, I wasn’t especially intrigued until he said in that the grave was in Middleton Corner, Colchester County – an agricultural area about 60 km away. I found the gravestone the next day (and that of many other later Nevilles born in Middleton Corner). And now I was able to identify him in the census of 1871. I’d looked for him before in the census (he has papers in the Public Archives of Nova Scotia), but had lost track of the foundryman; I hadn’t known I was looking for a farmer in the next county! But there he was, not an Old World skilled worker, but a relatively prosperous New World farmer. A man who had passed through my research orbit some years ago was given much fuller expression.
None of these discoveries will change my work. But a few days of simply talking to local historians had taught me a great deal. More significant, however, was the energising effect of simply being part of these conversations. I’ve always been an archive-based researcher. I say that with pride, of course, but there’s also a limitation. There’s so many people out there who know so much, and whose enthusiasm is so contagious. Talking to archaeologists, walking 200-year old spillways, touching the handiwork of skilled workers, seeing their paths extended beyond the archival trail: all of this reminded me of the tremendous value of being more fully a part of these communities. I don’t need to be in the communities I study; most of my historian friends live far from the places they study. But it was this kind of connectedness that first drew me to study Nova Scotia, to understand my own place, my own community. It was good to find that again.