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Ian McKay


The CHA Best Scholarly Book in Canadian History Prize


Ian McKay. Reasoning Otherwise. Leftists and the People’s Enlightenment in Canada, 1890-1920. Toronto: Between The Lines, 2008.
Rather than examine the history of the groups, parties and organizations of the “first formation” of socialists, as other historians before him have done, Ian McKay, examines the social, economic, cultural and intellectual context of their emergence. It is in this approach that the power and originality of the work lies. Using the strategy he labels as a reconnaissance, first elaborated in his Rebels, Reds, Radicals: Rethinking Canada’s Left History, he offers a new vision of the left and of the heritage it has bequeathed to its successors.  With a sympathetic, but always critical eye, he examines the biographical and political trajectories of many of its prominent figures, focusing above all on the intellectual influences (especially of Spencer, Darwin and Marx), and on the evolution of their ways of thinking, insisting on Canadian socialism and left ideas as forged in the transnational context of the North Atlantic triangle. Thus he reveals the debates and contrasting positions taken by many of these activists on issues of class, religion, women, race and democracy in a new light.  Far from appearing as a monolithic or dogmatic group, McKay depicts a left that is diverse, in constant evolution and engaged in reflections that have a major influence on its actions and the struggles it undertakes. Always nuanced and erudite, McKay analyses foundational texts of this first formation to better understand the strategies of their actions. He shows us what men and women on the left read, and what they said on soapboxes, in pamphlets and in publications. The result is a book that is solid and fascinating that gives a depth to left thinking and action that it sadly lacked in existing literature on the period.

Honourable Mentions
Peter BaskervilleA Silent Revolution? Gender and Wealth in English Canada, 1860-1930. Montreal, MQUP.
Baskerville draws on censuses, assessment roles, probate records, wills, listings of holdings in bank stock, insurance company stock to compare women’s wealth in Victoria and Hamilton. He skilfully manipulates this data to argue that a profound social transformation occurred in the distribution of wealth and economic participation of men and women from the late nineteenth through the early twentieth century in English Canada.  Enabled largely by the various Married Women’s Property Acts, and changing social practices, wives, widows and single women came to control a growing share of urban based  wealth and to participate in a wide range of activities as property owners, entrepreneurs, and investors. While these changes demonstrated the exercise of a market orientation associated with liberal citizenship, the author reminds us that inequalities remained. This portrait of urban women’s wealth breaks new ground in Canadian history.  The book also reveals much that has hardly been touched by Canadian historians about urban inheritance and a range of practices that allowed both men and women to report that they lived upon their own means to census enumerators.

Louise DechêneLe Peuple, l’État et la Guerre au Canada sous le Régime français. Montréal: Boréal.
Le peuple, l’État et la guerre offers a reinterpretation of the history of New France by placing military conflict  at the heart of the lives of the peoples and society of New France, as well as at the heart of state strategies, and by placing that society at the center of her description of fighting, the military and war.  Considering  military requirements leads  Dechêne to argue that the state played a larger role in colonists’ lives than most historians have acknowledged because of the  demands placed on them not just for taxes but for their labour and the products of their labour in wartime.  Contrary to dominant stereotypes at the time and since, she suggests, Canadiens were not ferocious fighters as a group. Rather men were frequently reluctant to join militias or armies, because their absence would deprive farms of labour power and families of protection.  She reveals local militias that varied between cities and the countryside, but were mostly poorly armed and poorly trained, yet usually fought when required to protect their families and land, as well as out of loyalty to the King.  Nor, she argues, did the residents of New France develop an identity of themselves as different from the French soldiers or recent immigrants that constantly swelled their ranks.   Most importantly, Dechêne insists that the numerical and strategic importance of France’s Aboriginal allies in the skirmishes, raids and battles of New France made them the principal military force in the colony.   Extensively researched and intelligently argued, Dechene leaves few historiographical claims about New France unexamined in this magisterial reinterpretation of the French Regime in Canada.  The book which was not quite finished at the time of her death in 2000 has been carefully edited and completed by Hélène Paré, Sylvie Dépatie, Catherine Desbarats and Thomas Wein. The committee lauds them for the dedicated work that has made this remarkable book available to scholars.