Wilson Book Prize Nominees

Maxime Dagenais

On Sunday May 28, we will host an event in Toronto – in conjunction with our CHA event Decolonizing 1867: Stories from the People (watch for a blog post on this next week) – where we will announce the winner of the Wilson Book Prize. We’ve received well over 40 submissions from publishers – academic and popular, French and English – from all over the country. Thank you! After weeks of deliberating, the Wilson fellows, Ian, and I have come up with a shortlist of three books that we believe best fits the description of the Wilson Book Prize, that is they offer “the best exploration of Canadian history that […] succeeds in making Canadian historical scholarship accessible to a wide and transnational audience.”

Our three nominees are: 1. Sarah Carter’s Imperial Plots: Woman, Land, and the Spadework of British Colonialism on the Canadian Prairies, published by the University of Manitoba Press. 2. Joseph Gagné’s Inconquis: Deux retraites françaises vers la Louisiane après 1760, published by Les éditions du Septentrion. 3. The Graphic History Collective and Paul Buhle’s Drawn to Change: Graphic Histories of Working-Class Struggle, published by Between the Lines. This is a very diverse lineup, which will make for a very difficult final decision.

Sarah Carter’s Imperial Plots: Woman, Land, and the Spadework of British Colonialism on the Canadian Prairies is an in-depth analysis of women on the Canadian prairies at the turn of the 20th century. In a few words, Carter examines how British and British-Canadian women sought to play an active role in the Dominion’s westwards expansion, seeking their own lands – what Carter calls their own “imperial plots” – and to contribute “to the spadework of empire.”[1] However, unless widowed, women could not get 9780887558184homesteads of their own. They were expected to be wives and mothers. Nevertheless, this did not deter many from campaigning for the right to homesteads “for British and British-Canadian woman only.”[2] Though they faced constant opposition from British and Canadian men, Carter demonstrates how some women – first starting with Indigenous women – worked the land and eventually established farms of their own on the Canadian prairies. However, these British and British-Canadian women were also “complicit in the enterprise of dispossessing Indigenous people” as they too sought Indigenous lands.[3] Why we like it? Through a very engaging and accessible style, Sarah Carter, in the words of Adele Perry, “destabilizes longstanding images of a progressive, peaceful, and egalitarian Canadian West,” showing instead how race and gender determined one’s success on the Canadian prairies.

Joseph Gagné’s Inconquis: Deux retraites françaises vers la Louisiane après 1760 tells the captivating story of two French military officers – Pierre Passerat de La Chapelle and Louis Liénard de Beaujeu – that chose to march to Louisiana after the abdication of the French in Montreal in 1760 rather than suffer the embarrassment of surrendering to the British. These men, one leaving Fort Detroit, the other Fort Michillimakinac, eventually met, by chance, in Illinois country. Though this meeting appeared to be coincidental, Gagné suggests that it was perhaps not. In the event of a French defeat in Canada, the French chief of staff once discussed L97828944885391the possibility that French forces retreat from Canada and march down to Louisiana where they were to “save” Louisiana and ensure French presence in North America.[4] It was even suggested that every Canadian colonist do the same.[5] Their meeting in Illinois country was therefore no coincidence, nor was it pleasant. Both men came from very different backgrounds: Pierre Passerat de La Chapelle was a young French professional solider and a provincial nobleman, while Louis Liénard de Beaujeu was a Canadian military officer that benefitted from the fur trade. Upon meeting, Beaujeu, the more senior of the two, tried to submit La Chapelle to his leadership. La Chapelle, the noble born, refused, citing that Beaujeu – the Canadian that gained a title solely through the fur trade – was not his superior. This was the beginning of a quarrel that eventually led to La Chapelle’s imprisonment after Beaujeu accused him of deserting. Why we like it? Gagné offers a glimpse into the social and class politics of 18th century French military society during a time of extreme crisis. Along with showcasing the tense relationship between French and Canadian officers, it demonstrates that the chain of command disintegrated during this period. As is the norm with books produced by Les éditions du Septentrion, Inconquis is wonderfully presented, includes numerous (colored!) images and maps, and is written in a very engaging style, making it very accessible to non-academic audiences.

The Graphic History Collective and Paul Buhle’s Drawn to Change: Graphic Histories of Working-Class Struggle is, at first glance, the oddity on our shortlist. When we reveal to friends and colleagues that it has been nominated, the most common response is: “a comic book?” Yes, Drawn to Change is a graphic novel, but it is a graphic novel that will please the most discerning of academics. First, there are endnotes and bibliographies, the staples of any academic text. Each comic is also deeply rooted in Canadian and transnational history and is prefaced by some of the country’s most well-known labour 61Q2ypVBi5L._SX382_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgand leftist historians, such as Gregory Kealey, Andrée Lévesque, Bryan Palmer, and Joan Sangster. The wide range of subjects tackled in this anthology is equally impressive. In Working on the Water, Fighting for the Land: Indigenous Labour on Burrard Inlet, for example, Tania Willard, Robin Folvik, and Sean Carleton focus on the struggles of the Coast Salish First Nations people in territory that is now known as British Colombia. They illustrate how indigenous peoples used unionization to fight (and fund) their struggles to protect their land. In Bill Williamson, Kara Sievewright examines the life of a little known leftist figure – Bill Williamson – from his days as a hobo to a soldier in the “Mac-Paps” during the Spanish Civil War. And finally, in An “Entirely Different” Kind of Labour Union: The Service, Office, and Retail Workers’ Union of Canada, Julia Smith, Robin Folvik, and Sean Carleton examine the establishment and history of this feminist union. Why we like it? This graphic novel takes key moments in Canadian labour history – moments that do not have a significant place in our national collective memory – and makes them accessible to a very wide and non-traditional audience.

Along with the Wilson Book Prize, we will also announce the winner of the very first Viv Nelles Essay Prize awarded to the graduate student paper that best places Canada in a transnational framework. Our two nominees are: 1. Alexandra Montgomery, a PhD candidate at the University of Pennsylvania, for a paper titled “Philadelphia’s Plantations: The Great Nova Scotian Land Boom and Reimagining the British Empire Between the Wars, 1763-1775.” 2. Emily Rosebush, a MA student at McMaster University, for a paper titled “British Colonialism, Indigenous Peoples, and the Weight of Identity: The Dichotomous Identity of Emily Pauline Johnson.” Each paper is extremely well written – a fact that will please Viv Nelles – and each does a tremendous job of placing Canada in a transnational framework. By turning our attention to Nova Scotia in the years between the Seven Year’s War and the start of the American War of Independence, Alexandra’s paper forces us to rethink previous assumptions relating to British colonial and indigenous policies. Emily’s paper, on the other hand, places the experiences of renown Canadian author and poet, Emily Pauline Johnson, in a transnational context of “mixed-race individuals” with “multi-faceted identities.”

Please join us on May 28 at the Studio Bar in Toronto (see details below) where we will announce the winners of both prizes! Refreshments and snacks will be provided.

Where: Studio Bar, 824 Dundas St W, Toronto, ON
Day: Sunday, May 28, 2017
Time: 3-5:30pm


Maxime Dagenais is research coordinator at the Wilson Institute for Canadian History at McMaster University and was recently a SSHRC post-doctoral fellow at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania (2014-2016). He received a PhD from the University of Ottawa (2011). He has published in several academic journals, including Canadian Military History, Bulletin d’histoire politique, Quebec Studies, and American Review of Canadian Studies, and co-authored a book entitled The Land in Between: The Upper St. John Valley, Prehistory to World War One. He is currently co-editing a collection on the 1837‒38 Rebellions and Jacksonian democracy – Revolutions Across Borders: The Canadian Rebellion and Jacksonian America – which is currently under consideration with McGill-Queen’s University Press.

[1] Sarah Carter Imperial Plots: Woman, Land, and the Spadework of British Colonialism on the Canadian Prairies (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2016), p. 4.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., p. 3.

[4] Joseph Gagné, Inconquis: Deux retraites françaises vers la Louisiane après 1760 (Québec: Les éditions du Septentrion, 2016), p. 33.

[5] Ibid., p. 39.

Cover Image: Selma Lagerlöf, the first woman to have won the Nobel Prize, receives her award. Illustration by Svenska Dagbladet, 11 December 1909. Wikimedia Commons.

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