UBC historian wins top prize for academic writing

 

Jean Barman pays tribute to role of French Canadians in B.C. with book

 
 
 
 
Photo: Laura Sawchuk
 

Photo: Laura Sawchuk

Photograph by: Laura Sawchuk

French Canadians played a significant role in the history of the Pacific Northwest and were responsible for ensuring today’s British Columbia didn’t end up as part of the United States.

This was one of the surprising facts University of B.C. professor Jean Barman discovered while researching her book French Canadians, Furs and Indigenous Women in the Making of the Pacific Northwest, published by UBC Press.

Barman was named the winner of the 2015 Governor General’s History Award for Scholarly Research, Canada’s top prize for academic history writing.

The prolific history writer said she got the idea to do the book about six years ago and started to seriously research it three years ago.

“I realize I’ve written quite a lot about the history of B.C. and indigenous people and I realized I ignored French Canadians as if they didn’t exist in the early history,” said Barman.

“I concluded they actually did matter, and they made a big difference in the history of the Pacific Northwest.”

Barman said when the Hudson’s Bay Company took over the fur trade from the Northwest Company of Montreal in 1821, many of the French Canadian employees stayed on because of their relationships with indigenous women. She said at that time England no longer cared about the area and the United States was moving west at a hasty pace and wanted it for themselves.

“Although England was inclined to give up the area to the United States when a boundary was decided in 1846, the Hudson’s Bay Company convinced England to keep today’s British Columbia because there was money to be made there. Were it not for these French Canadian employees, Canada would have no Pacific shoreline today,” she said.

Barman said although the Hudson Bay Company was a London-based company its workforce was primarily French Canadians since the company found it difficult to get others to work “hard jobs in the middle of nowhere.” She said the French Canadians were usually young men, between the ages of 18 and 20, who were often the children of farmers living along the St. Lawrence. They came west looking for jobs and most got three year contracts, but stayed on after marrying indigenous women.

“When the first priest arrived in 1838 there was literally a lineup to get married,” she said.

Barman said since 95 per cent of the French Canadians working here were illiterate there were virtually no letters from them to provide a direct perspective of their lives, making her research into the topic even more difficult.

She found there were about 1,250 French Canadian early fur traders who came to the northwest. She said after the boundary between Canada and the United States was established in 1846 the fur trade went into decline, and by 1858 thousands of white men were coming to the area because of the gold rush.

Barman will be presented with her medal at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on October 16. The award has been presented since 1977 to a non-fiction work of Canadian history judged to have made the most significant contribution to an understanding of the Canadian past.

kpemberton@vancouversun.com

 
 
 
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Photo: Laura Sawchuk
 

Photo: Laura Sawchuk

Photograph by: Laura Sawchuk

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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