Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Cole Harris on Canadian liberalism

Sometimes teaching a graduate class can be fun. This is especially so in making you (ok, me) reread books from long ago. In the case I'm thinking about here, though, it's about making me read more carefully an article I'd read only a couple of years ago.

If there is an award (posthumous) for the best issue of the Canadian Historical Review, then a good case could be made that it ought to go for the December 2010 issue. It's unlikely that many Canadians will be sitting over the dinner table, years from now and saying things like 'Do you remember that great December 2010 issue of the CHR? What a doozy!' Yes, very unlikely indeed. But they should.

I'm thinking particularly (though not only) of Cole Harris's article 'The Spaces of Early Canada.' What an innocuous, modest title. The article is actually a wildly ambitious attempt to explain how the land base of early Canada has shaped Canadian history, culture and politics, on a wide scale. You should read the article (and the issue).

I'll only say here that the most impressive part of the article is how Harris refigures a key issue of debate in Canadian history circles - how or whether or when Canada became a small 'l' liberal nation in which individualism (in many guises) reigned supreme. Normally folks will talk about Ian McKay's influential work (including his own CHR article back in 2000). But Harris offers a much more compelling explanation and a much more generous appreciation for what this liberalism comprised. He links it to the particular way in which the frontier worked in Canada - this small band of land pushed up against the wilderness, that part of land that couldn't be used for agriculture. Here's Harris:

'While the shift away from tradition and custom and toward individual rights was undoubtedly transformative, MacKay, I think, has misjudged its motor and timing. To the extent that the case can be made for a liberal order in early Canada, the explanation has far less to do with political and intellectual elites than with the circumstances surrounding the colonization and settlement of land. In early Canada, as in other settler colonies, a process of settlement that detached people from former contexts, then sent them (usually as individuals or as members of a family) across an ocean, and eventually deposited them on a farm lot with others of somewhat different backgrounds on similar lots nearby, tended to emphasize the nuclear family and to weaken bonds of custom and community. the relentless work of pioneering and, for those families that survived it, the farm that was its eventual result, tended to reinforce a sense of individual achievement. People had tangibly improved their circumstances by, so it seemed, the sweat of their own brows.'  p746-747

There is more, of course. I've been lecturing about this for a few years now, trying to explain how the temperance movement and other movements of 19th century 'improvement' need to be seen in a wider context - how they can't be understood solely in the language of class (ie as bourgeois impositions or even as extensions of bourgeois culture taken up by others). That is, I've been trying to talk about how this 'liberal' language of improvement was much more widespread, and not connected to industrial capitalism alone. Harris's work, I think we have a much more solid account than I was, reflexively, without enough basis, giving my students.

At any rate, read the great old December 2010 issue. The whole thing is fantastic, with great articles by Helen Dewar, Allen Greer and Mary Corley Dunn.

It makes me wish, yet again, that I was a historian of early Canada....

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