Giv­ing up the past

Au­thor in­ves­ti­gates the roots of so­cial change in nine­teenth-cen­tury Mon­treal

Canada's History - - BOOKS -

Robert Sweeny, pro­fes­sor of his­tory at Me­mo­rial Univer­sity in St. John’s, New­found­land and Labrador, re­ceived the pres­ti­gious Sir John A. Mac­don­ald Prize for his book Why Did We Choose to In­dus­tri­al­ize? Mon­treal 1819–1849. Sweeny, who is orig­i­nally from Mon­treal, was named the win­ner of the five- thou­sand- dol­lar prize last May from the Cana­dian His­tor­i­cal Association, which awards the prize an­nu­ally to the book judged to have made the most sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tion to an un­der­stand­ing of Canada’s past. The win­ner also re­ceives the Gover­nor Gen­eral’s His­tory Award for Schol­arly Re­search, which Sweeny ac­cepted in Novem­ber. He spoke re­cently with Canada’s His­tory se­nior editor Nelle Oos­terom.

What is your book about?

It’s about changes in the way we think about the world, the way we think about na­ture, about how re­la­tions be­tween men and women should be, and how we re­late to things. All those changes in the way we thought about things re­sulted in changes in ac­tion and how we treated peo­ple and treated na­ture. And those changes, I ar­gue, are nec­es­sary in or­der for in­dus­tri­al­iza­tion to take place. We dis­cussed these changes and we chose — and the “we” is every­one. My ar­gu­ment is that in­dus­tri­al­iza­tion flowed from wide­spread so­cial change in at­ti­tudes and ideas and re­la­tion­ships.

How did you re­search this book?

The book chron­i­cles about thirty- six years of work­ing in the ar­chives, on and off, and work­ing on dif­fer­ent pro­jects of my own. In fact, the book is or­ga­nized as a jour­ney of dis­cov­ery. It starts with me as a grad stu­dent at McGill Univer­sity in 1976, and you fol­low my re­search tra­jec­tory. I did end up work­ing on the 1840s af­ter I’d worked on the 1820s; and at the very end of the book there is a chap­ter that ex­plores what in­dus­tri­al­ized Mon­treal looked like, so it fo­cuses in on 1880. And that’s part of a much larger pro­ject I’ve been in­volved in since the year 2000, called Mon­tréal, l’avenir du passé, which means the fu­ture of the past. It’s a his­tor­i­cal GIS [ ge­o­graph­i­cal in­for­ma­tion sys­tem] pro­ject that I codi­rect with Sherry Ol­son, and which is still on­go­ing.

Tell us about one spe­cific area of re­search that you touch on in your book.

One of the things that is cen­tral to the book is ex­plor­ing how we think about prop­erty, and the way in which prop­erty used to be some­thing that many fam­i­lies would have had ac­cess to af­ter mar­riage, and how prop­erty be­came some­thing that only a rel­a­tively lim­ited num­ber of peo­ple had ac­cess to, and most peo­ple ended up be­ing ten­ants, and how that fac­tors into the re­la­tion­ships be­tween men and women — be­cause, of course, prop­erty [land, build­ings, nat­u­ral re­sources] has his­tor­i­cally been gen­dered male, and mov­ables [per­sonal prop­erty] have been gen­dered fe­male.

Those chang­ing re­la­tion­ships about prop­erty within the fam­ily are cen­tral to what I’m do­ing, and in or­der to look at that it re­quired try­ing to es­tab­lish who owned each piece of land in the city from 1825 to 1846 and 1880 and then link­ing that to cen­sus ma­te­ri­als, to maps that we cre­ated — a pretty com­plex process of link­ing source ma­te­rial to vis­ual rep­re­sen­ta­tions and then try­ing to un­der­stand how the prox­im­ity, or not, of peo­ple to par­tic­u­lar sites mat­tered in the way in which the qual­ity of life changed over time as the city be­came more and more ready for in­dus­tri­al­iza­tion.

What I would like to stress is that the book stops in 1849, which is the year of the open­ing of the first of the fac­to­ries. I’m not in­ter­ested in fac­tory life in the book. I’m in­ter­ested in what changes com­mit­ted us to in­dus­tri­al­ize, and that was the ques­tion I started with ini­tially — what per­mit­ted us [to in­dus­tri­al­ize] — and then over time I re­al­ized that I was ask­ing the wrong ques­tion. The ques­tion was, why did we choose? What was the at­trac­tion to it? What were we giv­ing up? Why did we give up what we gave up — the way so­ci­ety ex­isted be­fore — and what do we think we are go­ing to get by mov­ing into this new type of re­la­tion­ship be­tween peo­ple, and be­tween peo­ple and na­ture?

This wa­ter­colour at­trib­uted to James Dun­can shows the La­chine Canal circa 1850 with the port of Mon­treal in the back­ground. First com­pleted in 1825, the canal was en­larged in the 1840s.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.