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Afterword: historical geographies of colonialism: comments on the intergenerational bridge.

Bonheur de ces ouvrages de critique americaine qui ne denigrent pas, ne denoncent pas, mais plongent dans la problematique de l'oeuvre critiquee, cherchent a la rendre la plus consistante possible, a en degager toutes les possibilites pour que le travail effectue puisse s'inscrire dans une histoire cumulative. (Francois Ewald, << Foucault et la modernite >>, Magazine litteraire, no 219, 1984, p. 70).

When Caroline Desbiens invited me to participate as a discussant at a Canadian Association of Geographers session entitled 'Historical Geography: Emerging Themes and Continuities' (London, Ontario, June 2005), (1) my first reaction was to tell myself that I would be more inspired to listen than to comment. However, the invitation was so kind and wishful as to its benefits to the young Canadian generation of historical geographers that I finally accepted, in the hope that my contribution would serve the cause to which it was intended. And indeed, while the general purpose of the session was to explore how historical geography has been enriched through exchange with other disciplines, and how these exchanges have contributed to reinforcing historical geography as a body of know-how and knowledge, I was to pinpoint the orientations of the emerging historical geography, and to say in what ways it was similar or different to that of former generations. One way I had to answer these questions was to find common issues between the papers and to put them in a larger perspective in order to trace their more general trends.

One clear conclusion I reached while listening to the papers that were presented was that this new historical geography is greatly interested in people who have been forgotten by history (<<les Oublies de l'Histoire>>), that is to say, those who were marginalized by political, economical and social systems. For example, during the colonial period (the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries), and again during the colonization era (1815-1930) in Canada, most propagandists tried to reassure potential immigrants of the need not to fear the Native (and Metis) people, reminding them that they were Christianized and well cared for by the missionaries. At the same time, Natives were dispossessed of their land and put into reserves, where they would lose their way of life and even their memory of the land. And since the era was patriarchal, Native women were confined in domestic tasks in order to be fully brought into the Euro-colonial way of life.

How should one study these forgotten people? One such way is to reconstitute the processes that organized and structured the land, meaning how Native and Metis homelands were territorialized (how they were made a 'place of living'), how they were de-territorialized (how they were transformed and even deconstructed from the outside) and re-territorialized (how they were reshaped by the descendants of the Native and Metis people). Another approach is to analyze the interaction between local actors and deciders coming from the outside, in order to see how the local people resist or adapt to the various changes imposed upon them.

What this new generation of historical geographers suggests in fact is to reconstruct past and present geographies from a particular perspective (the geography of territorialities) and a particular preoccupation (the search for meanings). At the same time, they wish to assess the impact of urbanity (which is the superior manifestation of Western civilization in the fields of law, religion, art and science) on local territorialities.

These goals are to be achieved by looking at the four interconnected fields that define territoriality: the field of language (for example, place naming); the field of power (for example, the models imposed upon young Native children by Euro-colonial educators); the field of economy (for example, the impacts of new technologies on traditional ways of life); and the field of culture (for example, the ways Natives build, transform and adapt their habitat).

This approach is in direct continuity with the work of the preceding generation when it tried to define the concepts that would serve its theoretical efforts. This was done through empirical studies that would help to trace the contours of notions that would later be useful in the study of past geographies. Territoriality was such a notion, and so was urbanity. Moreover, it was a former goal to assess the relationships between urbanity and territoriality, in order to better understand responses to economic and cultural changes.

What I feel, however, is that despite these similarities, the new generation of historical geographers is still looking for new ways to do things. Therefore, we are now in a period of transition between what we might call geography of certainties (based on well-known approaches) and geography of uncertainty (based on various new experiments). Although this may be uncomfortable, one must remember that, in the past, this geography of uncertainty permitted the exploration of new currents of ideas (Foucault, Freud, etc.), and of new concepts (power, modernity, post-modernity, etc.) that were later used to study new realities. This will surely be the case again.

This worry shows the dynamism of the emerging historical geography. In my view, it is not only stimulating but also reassuring for the future of this 'inter' discipline. For historical geography, in my view, is more than a simple discipline: it is a way to see the world and a way to talk about it. It is an interdisciplinary reflex coupled with a unifying preoccupation. Presently, the young generation observes, analyzes and concludes. Tomorrow, it will try to integrate. That is why I am so optimistic regarding the future. This being said, let us now recall some of the issues that were raised by the different speakers, so that we may ask them more accurate questions about their contributions....

Speaking of the Metis, Etienne Rivard reminds us that, although much was written about the Metis, little was known about Metis territoriality, as seen from their own voice and point of view. To deal with this issue, Rivard suggests studying oral geographies (mainly stories and place names) in order to assess more precisely the experience of time and place, and material and community life. In doing so, he uncovers some of the fundamental aspects of the Metis culture: their subtle relationships with, and knowledge of, Nature (forests, prairies), their spatial mobility, the role of their collective and individual memory in story telling, place naming, and singing, their social andpolitical experience on the prairies, and, most of all, their ambivalence and 'in-betweenness' (culturally--neither Indian, nor white, but both; socially--prairies vs. woodlands; and in life--nomad vs. sedentary).

Studying the role of Indian residential schools in British Columbia, Sarah de Leeuw demonstrates how these schools were places of transformation, acculturation and assimilation, and part of the colonial projects to bring Indians to civilisation. Quoting Cole Harris, she stresses that these schools were places where children were never left alone and where tradition and modernity met face to face. These were places where the goal was to transform the bodies, the minds and the self-representation of the person. This process was consistent with Euro-Colonial images of the proper place for Native peoples.

Finally, Caroline Desbiens discusses how gender complicates our perception of the traditional division of labour within aboriginal society. She stresses the fact that little is known about the place women occupy in Native cultures. This suggests three fields of inquiry: how tradition copes with the market economy, and what is the place of women in the current social and economic changes of the North; what will happen to women's knowledge of the environment; and, lastly, how will gender interact within these new contexts? Will it be, as in the past, through different forms of metissage, for example? Such questioning may help us understand if and how traditional modes of production will penetrate modernity, and what role women will play in this transformation.

These contributions offer some examples of the current trends in the new generation of Canadian historical geography. In this sense, it is too early to predict how similar or different it will be from the preceding generation. However, what strikes me is that it shares a similar language and a similar way of approaching its object of study. This leads me to believe that it will grow in harmony with what was done before. The issues will be different, but the way to address problems and to solve difficulties will be similar. Will this young Canadian historical geography be more interdisciplinary? That remains an open question. However, if one is to judge by all the changes research and universities are going through, it is more than probable that this will be the case. Human systems and inter-systems are becoming more complex, and one might suggest that only teams of researchers coming from different disciplines will be able to study them. But this is another debate!

(1) The session described here was the second of three sessions organized around the theme 'Historical Geography: Emerging Themes and Continuities' and included presentations by Caroline Desbiens, Anne Godlewska, Sarah de Leeuw and Etienne Rivard. As Jason Grek Martin was in the first session, Serge Courville did not have an opportunity to comment on his paper specifically. The first session brought together Laura Cameron, Matthew Evenden, Jason Grek Martin and Matthew Hatvany, with Brian Osborne acting as a discussant. Presenters for the roundtable discussion were Laura Cameron, Caroline Desbiens, Peter Goheen, William Jenkins and Arn Keeling.


Department of Geography, Universite Laval, Sainte-Foy, QC, Canada G1W 3W4

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Author:Courville, Serge
Publication:The Canadian Geographer
Date:Sep 22, 2007
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