Mapping New Histories

Before Canada

A review of Before Canada by Allan Greer

Published on March 14, 2024

Reading a good piece of scholarship is a lot like cooking a challenging dish – while the process is viscerally active, demanding every ounce of one’s attention, the final result is immensely satisfying if not wholly enlightening. 

Before Canada
Northern North America in a Connected World

Allan Greer

McGill-Queen's University Press

Before Canada: Northern North America in a Connected World features eleven of the smartest minds in early Canadian history, archeology, geography, and literary studies. Editor and McGill history professor emeritus Allan Greer brings together this eclectically interdisciplinary bunch to present ten scholarly chapters; ten challenging dishes, if you will. Throughout the book, which is the eighth in McGill-Queen’s University Press’ series on “Studies in Early Canada,” Greer’s contemporaries define, demystify, and dismantle the imagined histories of the centuries preceding Canadian federation. As Greer states in the introduction, the book pushes back at our society’s generally racist tendency to disregard the pre-settler history of northern North America. 

From this savvy introduction, the chapters of Before Canada traverse academic disciplines as well as the various landscapes of what we now call “Canada.” One of the more engaging studies early on is Université de Montréal professor Brad Loewen’s retelling of Basque-Indigenous-French connections at the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. Loewen illustrates this network by way of the chaloupe, a long-boat common throughout New France whose origins lie in the Basque boat known as a txalupa. Introduced to First Nations groups around the gulf by Basque fishermen, the txalupa serves as a symbol of the international networks at play, with Loewen’s anthropological research illuminating how these same Indigenous communities moved by txalupa between the French hubs of Tadoussac, Gaspé, Percé, and Miscou. 

The next chapter departs from the realms of anthropology to a literary scholar intrigued by maps. MIT professor Mary C. Fuller shows how early globes were constructed by long-distance and cross-national exchanges of ideas, demonstrating the usefulness of a close reading beyond the realm of overtly “literary” texts. In doing so, Fuller helpfully demonstrates the transferability of literary training to other disciplines (in this case, geography).

But while some authors in Before Canada put their revelatory insights on clear display, others sadly shroud theirs behind flowery language and academic jargon. Jack Bouchard (Rutgers) also writes his chapter on European fishers around Newfoundland in the early sixteenth century, but hides his most interesting thoughts behind inaccessible language. When discussing the reason European fishers found themselves in around Newfoundland at the turn of the century, he brings up the Little Ice Age, a period of relatively cool temperatures across Western Europe, that negatively impacted agriculture efforts and pushed the search for sustenance to the seas. Instead of introducing the phenomenon in plain language, Bouchard refers to “the climate anomaly known as the Spörer Minimum,” which certainly made this reviewer’s eyes glaze over.

But while some early points in the book struggle to impress, perseverance is rewarded, and before you know it, Before Canada builds to a dramatic crescendo of decolonial research. Oxford French professor Katherine Ibbett offers an elegantly written reading of literary “drowning” narratives in New France, invoking Christina Sharpe’s notion of reading “in the wake.” And Christopher Parsons of Northeastern ends the book by calling for a decolonial turn in Early Canadian studies, revealing the malevolent roots of Canada’s mythmaking project by shining a scrutinous eye on our most prized national icons: the beaver and the maple tree. 

Taken together, the chapters of Before Canada represent a dynamic discipline in flux, with a healthy balance of new- and old-guard thinking. While every reader may not enjoy the whole pie, most would be remiss to not indulge in a slice.mRb

Jack McClelland is a writer and translator based in Montreal.



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