Interview: A Junto Q & A Introducing Borealia

We’re pleased to kick off this week with an interview featuring Keith Grant and Denis McKim, the scholars behind the latest addition to the historical blogosphere, Borealia: A Group Blog on Early Canadian History. If you have not already done so, be sure and bookmark their blog immediately and add it to your regular reading list. You can also follow Borealia on twitter @earlycanada

JUNTO: Thanks, Keith and Denis, for answering some questions about your exciting new blog, Borealia. Why don’t we start with you each introducing yourselves, and telling us a bit more about your respective research, and how you envision your new blogging home as an extension of that research?

KEITH GRANT: I’m a PhD Candidate in History at the University of New Brunswick, working on religion in the Atlantic world. My dissertation is on the book cultures and religious communication networks in the Anglo-American world from the vantage point of one Nova Scotia community of readers, 1770-1850. Most of my readers and their books were crossing borders, so I’m trying to situate this locale in a wider, transnational frame. My teaching to this point has been in Colonial and Revolutionary America, but as a Canadian, I’ve been attempting to take a continental and Atlantic approach. One of my hopes for Borealia is that it will bring together historians who work primarily on Canada with those who include some part of “Canada” in their larger narratives.

DENIS MCKIM: I teach Canadian and American history at Douglas College in British Columbia; my research revolves around the intellectual, political, and religious history of British North America and wider Atlantic World. I conceive of the blog as, among other things, an informal means by which to explore areas of scholarly interest. On a semi-related note, I like the fact that it is (or, at least, can be) an easily digestible alternative to conventional academic publications (which can, of course, be immensely rewarding, but often require greater investment in terms of time and energy than a thousand-word piece that can be consumed alongside one’s morning coffee).

Screen Shot 2015-09-30 at 1.45.45 AMJUNTO: Can you tell us a little more about how the blog came to be? 

GRANT: Denis and I met at the University of New Brunswick, while he was a post-doctoral fellow, both of us working closely with Atlantic world historian, Elizabeth Mancke. About a year ago, we were sitting in the library café, reflecting on the number of strong early Canadian papers we had heard at that summer’s conferences. We were energized by the interesting research being done in our field. But we also had a sense that work on early Canada is usually dispersed among several specialized conferences or journals. What is needed, we felt, is a Canadian version of The Junto, some forum for bringing us together. After an initial flurry of brainstorming, some time preparing the behind-the-scenes technical furniture, and some advice from a few of the Junto masterminds (among others), we began to invite contributions. We’re starting with a modest once-weekly posting schedule (Monday mornings), but we’ll reevaluate in the months to come.

MCKIM: Early Canadianists have been known to lament the fact that their areas of interest seemingly receive short shrift at academic conferences, and in scholarly publications, that tend to focus on modern Canadian topics. But, as Keith points out, lots of stimulating work is being done on early Canada, it’s just that it’s often scattered across diverse venues and journals. To my mind, there’s nothing wrong with this. Indeed, it makes sense for someone working on, say, eighteenth-century Nova Scotia to engage with colleagues working on New England, given the extensive links – environmentally, economically, culturally – that existed between the two. The alternative – treating borders between colonies, states, and nations as totally impermeable – seems utterly unappealing, not to mention grossly ahistorical. So, instead of resisting the trend toward transnational and comparative history, Borealia has the opportunity to complement it by concentrating on early Canadian history, while being sensitive to the interconnected world in which it transpired.

JUNTO: For those of us whose research interests straddle the present-day borders of the United States and Canada, this seems like a potentially wonderful resource. What about those early Americanists who don’t focus on the Canadian or Maritime colonies — why should they read Borealia? And more broadly, why should they pay attention to what was going on in Halifax, Kingston, and/or Québec? 

GRANT: I think I’d start by saying there is no early “American” or “Canadian” history (at least before 1776). Rather there are histories of Indigenous peoples, environments, Imperial powers, and cultures that aren’t easily contained by later national borders. And including Halifax or Québec (or, say, the West Indies) in narratives of Colonial or Revolutionary America show how contingent, rather than inevitable, the American story was. We could also add that there are so many “American” stories that begin or continue across the border; think of the Iroquois Confederacy, Loyalist refugees, or the Acadian diaspora, for just a few examples. Historiographically, this transnationalism goes the other way, too: histories of early Canada benefit from considering comparative, continental, or Atlantic approaches.

MCKIM: It’s been said that, “when America sneezes, Canada catches a cold.” Needless to say, due to the dramatic asymmetries that exist between the two countries in terms of size and clout, the reverse simply isn’t true. Still, paying attention to Canada can be beneficial, especially for historians of early America. For instance, picking up on Keith’s point about the usefulness of comparative scholarship, examining early Canada can shed light on the question of whether aspects of colonial America and the early republic were unique or, rather, symptomatic of broader phenomena evident elsewhere in North America.

JUNTO: Now, for those early Americanists convinced that they need to start paying attention to Canada, what advice do you have? What books, articles, archival repositories, conferences, and/or digital resources would you recommend as good starting points for early Americanists looking to become familiar with early Canadian history?

GRANT: Probably the best clearinghouse for primary sources and teaching links for Canadian history is hosted by The History Education Network. Be sure to check out Electronic New France, too. Early Canadian Online (a subscription service) and the online Dictionary of Canadian Biography are also valuable. While not primarily focused on early Canada, readers should check out: NiCHE, a network of Canadian environmental historians; Active History, a site that specializes in historically-informed commentary on contemporary issues; and the blog for the journal of Atlantic Canada, Acadiensis.

Researchers interested in Canadian collections could start with Library and Archives Canada and the Archives Canada gateway.

There is not (yet) a conference dedicated to early Canadian history, though there would be sessions of interest at the annual Canadian Historical Association meetings, and at specialized events such as the upcoming Omohundro conference on Emerging Histories Of The Early Modern French Atlantic (we have plans to have a report from that one at Borealia!).

MCKIM: Keith’s compiled a thorough list of online resources, to which I have precious little to add! I might tack on a few lively blogs—specifically, Christopher Moore’sAndrew Smith’s, and Keith Mercer’s—that feature early Canadian content.

As for books and articles, illuminating works that situate early Canada in an expansive context that includes material familiar to early Americanists include: Elizabeth Mancke, “Another British America: A Canadian Model for the Early Modern British Empire,” Journal of Imperial & Commonwealth History 25, no. 1 (January 1997): pp. 1-36; Allan Greer, “National, Transnational, and Hypernational Historiographies: New France Meets Early American History,” Canadian Historical Review 91, no. 4 (December 2010): pp. 695-724; and Stephen J. Hornsby and John G. Reid, eds., New England and the Maritime Provinces: Connections and Comparisons (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005).

JUNTO: In May, you published a prospectus for the blog, in which you describe your vision for the project. I was especially intrigued (and pleased, although I possess little to no French-language abilities myself) to see that it “will strive to have content in both English and French.” My sense is that this is something scholars in Canada do on a much more regular basis that your counterparts in the United States — what suggestions or advice do you have for us Yankees who would like to increase scholarly interaction across not only national but linguistic lines? 

MCKIM: Though we aspire to include work written in both of Canada’s official languages, we recognize that bridging linguistic divides can be at least as difficult in an academic context as it is in others areas of Canadian society. They aren’t called the “two solitudes” for nothing!

GRANT: Yes, I agree. I think intentional effort is required to be fluent in both English and French, to include primary sources from both, and to tap into the sometimes very different historiographic conversations happening in each language. I’m learning that personal relationships, via conferences, social media, or collaboration, can go some distance to showing us our blind spots.

JUNTO: Last week, Patrick Lacroix authored the first post at Borealia on restructuring North American narratives toward a continental perspective for better understanding early American and early Canadian history (and the shared history of the two regions). What else do you have on tap in coming weeks and months? Anything you can tease to whet Junto readers’ appetites? 

GRANT: Today’s post by Tom Peace is about rethinking histories of Indigenous literacy. You can also look forward to pieces about loyalism, using diaries as primary sources, Quebec in the American Revolution, the material history of New France, Acadian and Mi’kmaq piracy and captivity, print culture, and controversial elections. Some of our posts are based on contributors’ research, others are historiographic pieces, and there will also be book reviews and author interviews.

MCKIM: We also hope to offer a series of pieces emerging from a workshop on “Unrest, Violence, and the Search for Social Order” being organized by Jerry Bannister, Elizabeth Mancke, Scott See, and myself that is taking place in two installments (the first was this past June in Fredericton, New Brunswick; the second is set for June of 2016 in Halifax, Nova Scotia). The workshop explores the ways in which social order was imagined, instituted, and contested in British North America/Canada between the founding of Halifax in 1749 and the issuing of the Indian Act in 1876. We envision the pieces essentially being distillations of larger papers given by workshop participants, who are affiliated with institutions across Canada and the United States.

JUNTO: One final question of real importance. In your prospectus, you use a culinary metaphor to describe the tone for Borealia: “If the blog were a restaurant, it would be ‘casual fine dining.’” What, in your opinion, in the single best Canadian culinary dish? Montreal style bagels? Poutine? Nova Scotian Donair? Butter tarts? Nanaimo Bars? Ketchup-flavored potato chips? Something else?

MCKIM: As a treat, and an artery clogger, Montreal smoked meat is hard to top!

GRANT: What an impossible choice! I’m going to say maple syrup, whether topping a bit of British Columbia salmon, flavouring bacon (we love our bacon!), or a few drops added to an Indian curry.

[Note: This interview first appeared at The Junto: A Group Blog on Early American History on September 14, 2015.]

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