Article body

I am very grateful to Carolyn Podruchny for organizing this roundtable and to Heather Devine, Yves Frenette, Stacy Nation-Knapper, and Bruce Watson for their trenchant remarks respecting French Canadians, Furs, and Indigenous Women in the Making of the Pacific Northwest. Ever since the book came out at the end of 2014, I have had the same two questions posed time and again. The first — Why did you write the book? The question sometimes embodies an implied sense of consternation as to why I would bother to do so. The book is too long, it’s too boring, the subject is too obscure, you are not French-Canadian, the list goes on. And the second question — Why did you write this book about us? It is most often asked with a sense of amazement that someone would pay attention to their family’s story and, more generally, to French Canadians and to the Indigenous women in their lives.

I want to respond to these two questions within the context of the four excellent and considered assessments of the book.

But first, in the interest of full disclosure, I am not from Québec and, while I have a reading knowledge of French, I no longer speak the language. It has long since been submerged into the Portuguese that underlies my husband’s career as a historian of Brazil, meaning considerable time spent in that country.

What I am is a historian of Canada and of British Columbia, which, as with every province, is both part of the larger entity and distinct from the nation as a whole. As someone who has written extensively on aspects of the province’s history, including its diverse peoples, I was long prodded as to why I ignored French Canadians. Three groups guilted me over many years. The first were descendants of early French Canadians and Indigenous women I encountered in teaching at the University of British Columbia who wondered why so much attention was given in histories of the fur trade to English speakers, but not otherwise. The second were British Columbia Francophones and others with much the same complaint. The third and most persistent was my son’s French father-in-law, who used every social gathering over many years to remind me of what he considered to be my obligation.

As to why I shied away, I realize in retrospect I long boxed British Columbia into its present day political boundaries. It was only in 1846, just two decades before Canada became a nation, that the Pacific Northwest extending west of the Rocky Mountains from then Russian America, today’s Alaska, south to Spanish and later Mexican California, and east across today’s Washington and Oregon into parts of Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana acquired non-Indigenous governance. Until then this huge chunk of territory, which Stacy graphically evokes, was, from a non-Indigenous perspective, useless apart from a maritime and then land-based fur trade operating under their own self-constructed rules of behaviour. I had in effect overlooked what came before white folk took political charge.

Such a perspective was reinforced by the kinds of historical sources so appealing to many of us. We, as historians, are fond of written records, and virtually none centre on French Canadians in the early Pacific Northwest. Some of us also search out living history through the voices of descendants, including for me the many who have over the years contacted me to share their stories. It is this latter gift that slowly broadened my perspective.

So it was one morning, in good part — I have to admit — to disprove my critics, I decided to find out more. Impelled by an upcoming Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council funding deadline and in collaboration with Bruce Watson, a good friend who had spent many years compiling a biographical dictionary of the Pacific Northwest fur trade that demanded publication, I constructed a last minute funding application.

The application’s success, which would very importantly encourage Bruce’s biographical dictionary into publication (Lives Lived West of the Divide: A Biographical Dictionary of Fur Traders Working West of the Rockies, 1793-1858. Kelowna BC: Centre for Social, Spatial, and Economic Justice; University of British Columbia, 2010), set me on an uncertain course not knowing where I would end up. I did have one admirable beginning point. Drawing with permission on Bruce’s capsule biographies of 1,240 French Canadians active in the Pacific Northwest fur trade, from the first land crossings west to the Pacific Ocean in the late eighteenth century to the last part of the Pacific Northwest — being the British Columbia mainland — acquiring a non-Indigenous political status in 1858, I was, so to speak, all dressed up, but did not know where to head.

Except for the web, I suspect I would still be between there and here. Whatever the subject focus, the web, as we are all aware, has transformed the research process in respect both to primary and to secondary sources. A book such as this one, which is based in fragments of information respecting French Canadians and Indigenous women, both almost wholly illiterate, could not otherwise have been published with the degree of certainty deemed to be scholarly. Many topics, as with those proposed by Bruce and tackled in the outstanding recent books noted by Heather and Yves, were long similarly difficult to follow up. My sense is that Americans do a much better job than Canadians in surfacing relevant materials on the web and that in Canada, Québec outperforms British Columbia and, I suspect, elsewhere across the country. There is much to be done.

The four comments and earlier the unexpected attention accorded the book have been welcome for turning attention to French Canadians and Indigenous women as mattering to the Pacific Northwest, which was my hope once I realized the multiple roles that they have played. In the book I explain how French Canadians, who comprised the largest non-Indigenous group across the Pacific Northwest during the first half century of Indigenous/non-Indigenous contact, made possible the earliest non-Indigenous westward crossings of the Rocky Mountains, sustained the resultant fur economy, eased relations with Indigenous peoples, and fourth and very importantly saved British Columbia for Canada by virtue of their presence ensuring that the United States would not as it dearly sought acquire the entirety of the Pacific Northwest, thereby depriving the future Canada of a Pacific shoreline. That the book has garnered diverse prizes (in order of receipt, the K.D. Srivastava Prize for best book published by the University of British Columbia Press, the Basil Stuart-Stubbs Prize for Outstanding Scholarly Book on British Columbia, the Canadian Historical Association’s Sir John A. Macdonald Prize for best English-language book of Canadian history, and the Governor General’s Gold Medal presented annually for Scholarly Research) attests to its appeal to multiple constituencies. The book’s doing so speaks to each of us taking chances to write as we would, as opposed to how we think we should.

In some ways more important, and certainly more heartwarming, has been the response to the second of the two questions I have been repeatedly asked. Why did you write this book about us? To have the question posed by readers, as it is so eloquently by Stacy, is to my mind highly significant to all of us who pretend to be historians. To have it asked means that what we write, and how we write, resonates beyond the academy and beyond our being talking heads — or rather writing heads — to each other. Whether or not we consider ourselves “vernacular historians,” as coined by former Canadian Historical Association president Lyle Dick and described by Heather in her comments, we have much to gain by extending our reach.

The first time this question was asked was after an invited keynote talk I gave, just as the book was published, to open the annual conference held on Oregon’s Grande Ronde Reservation. I remain grateful to the University of British Columbia Press for rushing two dozen copies there at the organizers’ request. As I describe in the book, once the fur trade fell into decline in the mid-nineteenth century, families originating with French-Canadian men and Indigenous women scrambled to make lives for themselves in a rapidly changing Pacific Northwest. In the United States, unlike Canada, Indigenous women who had partnered with outsider men could legally settle on reservations and perhaps acquire land there. Grande Ronde’s central location caused numerous Indigenous women to head there with their families by French Canadians. The general circumstance whereby daughters could merge into the edge of the dominant society through partnering with newcomer men, this at a time when few white women were present, with sons having little choice but to opt for Indigenous women like their mothers, has meant that French-Canadian surnames originating in the fur trade survive as Indigenous surnames on American reservations and, to a lesser extent, on Canadian reserves and across the Pacific Northwest into the present day.

At the close of my Grande Ronde talk, a young woman came up to me holding an open copy of the book she had just purchased. Pointing to the name of a long since relative, and by now joined by members of her extended family, she and the others expressed their amazement that someone considered their family, and families like theirs, important enough to be in a book, and in a big book at that. How was it that I had cared to do so?

As I realized through this exchange and those that have followed, most recently in the British Columbia interior beyond the internet and cell phones, French Canadians and Indigenous women matter not only because they, so I argue in the book, changed the course of Canadian history, but also because they were real people with real lives and with descendants wanting them to be remembered on their own terms. I would like to think that the obligations we incur as privileged academic historians extend for all of us beyond the walls of scholarly institutions.