We’re pleased to feature this interview with Dr. Ian McKay, the director of the Wilson Institute for Canadian History at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, and Dr. Maxime Dagenais, research coordinator at the Wilson Institute. Dr. McKay is a highly influential historian of Canada, whose books include The Quest of the Folk: Antimodernism and Cultural Selection in Twentieth-Century Nova Scotia (1994), Rebels, Reds, Radicals: Rethinking Canada’s Left History (2005), Reasoning Otherwise: Leftists and the People’s Enlightenment in Canada, 1890-1920 (2008), and [with Jamie Swift], Warrior Nation: Rebranding Canada in an Age of Anxiety (2012). He was named the Wilson Institute’s new director in 2015. Dr. Dagenais is a historian of Canada and the United States and holds a PhD in 19th Century British and French North American history from the University of Ottawa (October 2011). He was formerly a L.R. Wilson postdoctoral fellow at the Wilson Institute for Canadian History at McMaster University and a SSHRC postdoctoral fellow at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania (2014-2016), where he was affectionately known as “Canadian Max.” He is the co-author (with Beatrice Craig) of The Land in Between. The Upper St. John Valley, Prehistory to World War One (2009), and is currently working on a research project on the 1837-38 Canadian Rebellions and the American people.
JUNTO: What is the Wilson Institute for Canadian History, and why should historians of early America be aware of it?
IAN MCKAY: The Wilson Institute of Canadian History was begun at McMaster University in 2008, on the basis of the earlier Wilson Centre. It has become a major centre of historical research and writing in Canadian history, with four postdoctoral fellows pursuing research in any given year. Under the founding director, Dr. Viv Nelles, the Institute acquired a reputation for excellence in transnational environmental history, and a succession of path-breaking projects have explored humanity’s interactions with the natural world.
The mission of the institute is to rethink Canadian history in a transnational framework. Our postdoctoral fellows, selected from a large and highly competitive field, have pursued such specialities as environmental, diplomatic, indigenous and feminist history – but always with a border-crossing perspective. It is at the Wilson Institute that new ideas about Canadian history often see the light of day, in the intensive and energetic atmosphere of an Institute where the fundamentals of the history of northern North America are being rethought. Former fellows of the Institute can be found in campuses across North America. Historians of early America should be aware that the Wilson Institute is committed to the exploration of the continent’s past, and will welcome opportunities to further new approaches to it from scholars on either side of the present Canada/U.S. border.
In the near future, the new Wilson book series, Canada in the World, published in collaboration with McGill-Queen’s University Press, will feature new reconsiderations of the United Nations, the transformation of the field of diplomatic history, and ‘left transnationalism’—attempts by actors in civil society to change perceptions of the global order, with specific reference to the Communist International. Future possibilities for the series include volumes devoted to the history of Second Wave feminism as a transnational phenomenon and the global impact of radical liberal ideas and movements of the 1830s and 1840s. The Institute welcomes suggestions for future workshops—which we regard as seed-beds for books in our series—with special emphasis on those that reveal the possibilities of historical work going beyond the boundaries of the nation-state.
At the same time, the Institute sees itself as one way of bringing academic history to a wider non-academic audience. It aspires to expand the circle of those interested in history well beyond the academy. Already involved in the production of historically-themed re-enactments and an environmental history DVD, the Institute envisages many public events, contributions to social media, and interventions in contemporary political discussions in our future. In all these ways, the Institute plans to place historical knowledge at the service of a wider population—to make history an active presence in the shaping and re-shaping of civil society. It has also undertaken to organize a highly-participatory undergraduate history course, designed to enhance the status of history among a younger generation often lacking exposure to the discipline. Thus the Institute seeks to combine a global, transnational analytical framework with grounded, local, and accessible treatments of historical problems.
MAXIME DAGENAIS: For the past two years, I’ve referred to it as the McNeil Center for Early American Studies of Canada. Like the McNeil Center, we host postdoctoral fellows and visiting scholars, offer fellowships to graduate students, and organize a variety of talks, workshops, and conferences. We are, however, devoted to Canadian history. But not just any Canadian history, Canadian history within a transnational framework.
And this is where, I think, we can attract the attention of historians of early America. Early Canada, like early America, is not a well-defined geopolitical entity. Early Canada is American, British, French, and Atlantic, and North American. And just like early American historians, historians of early Canada are moving beyond traditional, established borders. Some of our fellows, including myself, are working on topics that push into American territory and are challenging the historiography of early America. Vice versa we are interested in early American historians that are engaging with Canada and challenging our own historiography. Early American scholars have a home at the Wilson Institute and we would love to share their work with our growing community.
JUNTO: You were appointed as the new director of the Wilson Institute last year, Dr. McKay. Can you tell readers a little more about your vision for the future of the Institute?
MCKAY: My vision of the Wilson Institute is that it become a force for critical inquiry in Canadian history. One of the great challenges confronting North Americans is that of coming to terms with the continent’s history of colonialism and exploitation. As early as 2008, the Wilson Centre declared its commitment to strengthening its relationship with indigenous peoples, a commitment that animated a succession of Wilson Fellows. Another significant challenge is thinking about the curious persistence of nations and nationalism under conditions of postcolonial modernity – the extent to which sovereign institutions of international governance, whose genealogy is traceable back to the 17th century, linger on in a 21st century whose environmental, demographic and economic patterns place all such traditional state-centred definitions of our shared reality at risk. This theme was eloquently explored in the Institute’s first published collection, Taking Liberties, focused on the emergence of human rights discourse in the twentieth century. Especially in recent years, Wilson Fellows have asked probing questions about the transnational turn as it applies to questions of peace, war, and diplomacy. Both historiographical thrusts are consistent with my overall vision of an Institute that unsettles conventional historical narratives and challenges unexamined assumptions. In my vision, the Institute will become a ‘go-to’ place for historians who, in challenging the traditions of their discipline, are also committed to changing the world.
JUNTO: Max, you were previously a fellow at the Wilson Institute. Can you tell us more about your experience and how you ended up back there?
DAGENAIS: I was a Wilson postdoctoral fellow from 2012 to 2014, which proved to be the most important step in my career. It not only gave me the time (and financial comfort) to make sense of my dissertation and start publishing it, but this is where my turn towards Canadian-American history took place. It was there, after many conversations with former fellow Alexandre Dubé, that I decided to drop the British Empire (which I really wasn’t into anymore) and start working on a topic I was truly interested in: the United States and the Canadian Rebellions. It was also there that I decided to look south for postdoctoral opportunities. I was able to turn this idea into a SSHRC (Canada’s NEH) postdoctoral fellowship that I held at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies.
I loved my time at the Wilson Institute and McMaster: I missed my friends and colleagues, the department’s collegiality, and campus. I even missed Hamilton. When I got word that the Institute’s new Director, Dr. Ian McKay, was looking for a Research Coordinator (with a PhD!), I applied. It definitely feels that I’m back where I belong.
JUNTO: How did your time as a fellow at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies shape your approach to Canadian history?
DAGENAIS: My time at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies was incredible: being surrounded by so many brilliant scholars helped me improve the focus and scope of my project. My time there also gave me a greater appreciation for Canadian history. I don’t think I’d be lying if I said that, in Canada, we tend to undersell our past, especially when compared to the United States. I hear it all the time from students: “Our history is so boring compared to American history.” I was, admittedly, guilty of this. When I first arrived in Philadelphia, I assumed that no one would be interested in my limited Canadian rebellions and naturally (and instinctively) undersold my project. However, I not only found that people were quite interested in and knowledgeable of Canada, but I met several American scholars that were working on “Canadian topics,” including the Rebellions. Many, including our interviewer, were integrating Canada into their own research. Canada matters!
JUNTO: What are your responsibilities as Research Coordinator at the Institute?
DAGENAIS: I do a little bit of everything. At the moment, I am mainly organizing our 2016-17 speaker series, which is devoted to Canada’s 150th anniversary. I am also preparing several grant applications, organizing workshops, rebranding the Wilson Institute (including the creation of our own logo), managing our online presence, meeting with potential benefactors, coordinating events with other departments, organizing book launches, promoting and representing the institute at various events in the community, and yes, constantly harassing our graduate students to participate in our Brown Bag series. As the only historian of colonial French and North America in the department, there will also be teaching opportunities.
JUNTO: How do you envision your background in academia (as a graduate student and then as a postdoctoral fellow) benefitting you in your responsibilities?
DAGENAIS: My academic background prepared me extremely well for this job. I’m basically doing the same stuff I did as a graduate student and postdoc, but on a fulltime basis. It’s funny, we are always told that degrees in history and the humanities are useless; that we have no tangible real world skills and don’t learn anything practical. But all of the skills I currently use – project managing, public relations, writing, editing, marketing, promotion, multitasking – skills that people complete specialized degrees in, I developed as a student of history. All the events we help organize, papers we write, grant proposals we prepare, and self-promotion that we all do at conferences, these are all skills that are transferrable to a “real world” setting.
JUNTO: Finally, what are you each currently working on, both with your own research and at the Wilson Institute?
DAGENAIS: I’m currently working on two projects. First, there’s my Canadian Rebellions, early America, and slavery project. Essentially, I am looking at the links between slavery and the Federal Government’s opposition to the Canadian Rebellions. My first article on the subject was recently accepted by American Review of Canadian Studies and should be out shortly. I am also coediting a special issue on the Rebellions and the United States with Early American Studies. I am also working on a follow up to my first book, The Land In Between. Tentatively titled The Land Divided, this book will bring our analysis of Madawaska – a borderland region straddling Maine and New Brunswick – into the 21st century. It will examine how border and regional relations have become increasingly difficult in the past century as a result of stiffening migration restrictions and international tensions.
MCKAY: I am working on three books, one of them scheduled to be released in October, 2016. This co-authored book is called The Vimy Trap: How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Great War (Toronto: Between the Lines). The core argument of the book is that the First World War, which has come to be seen as the ‘Birth of the Nation,’ and which is sometimes presented by professional historians as an event held sacred by most Canadians, was in fact strenuously debated both while it was being fought and in the decades that followed. By looking at photographic images, newspaper commentaries, and historical accounts, the book sets out to disrupt a narrative that has attained hegemonic status in Canada, one centred on the Battle of Vimy Ridge, and suggest a more complicated and satisfying way of thinking about the impact of the Great War. The second book, also co-authored, looks at the work of C.B. Macpherson, a political theorist sometimes categorized as a Marxist, sometimes as a liberal – and who, I argue, is best seen as a liminal figure, useful in the twenty-first century precisely because he challenges such conventional categories and asks unsettling questions about property and liberalism. Drawing upon all his writings, as well as his diaries and personal letters, the book will contribute to the transnational Macpherson Revival, which is drawing scholars from India to Italy to South America to investigate the ways in which, by making a seventeenth-century pact with property, liberals fundamentally qualified their commitment to liberty and equality. Finally, I am finishing up a book called Liberalism in the Archives, which examines the extent to which settler colonialism and liberal individualism were subtly interwoven in the practices and teachings of the first major provincial archives in Canada. Although seemingly disparate, all three projects stem from my underlying goal of creating a body of critical, realistic scholarship about power relations in the past.