Giving up the past
Author investigates the roots of social change in nineteenth-century Montreal
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.