CHA Reads 2017

Welcome to the first annual CHA Reads! Inspired by the CBC’s Canada Reads competition this is a new way to feature and reflect on the five books shortlisted for the Canadian Historian Association’s (CHA) Sir John A. Macdonald Prize for the best book in Canadian history published in the last year.

Over the course of this week, five scholars will argue why their book should win the coveted award.

Based on the format of CBC’s Canada Reads, five different scholars have agreed to champion these five books. They are:

  • Mary-Ellen Kelm (Simon Fraser University)
  • Sean Carleton (Mount Royal University)
  • Samuel McLean (King’s College London)
  • Joanna Pearce (York University)
  • Stephanie Pettigrew (University of New Brunswick)

And I will be acting as the moderator.

Each scholar selected a book that was outside their particular field of expertise, so that the books could be judged on their merits alone. Because we are Canadians and academics, we have decided that this will be a friendly discussion, rather than a competition. To that end, each scholar has written a short piece explaining the merits of their chosen book and why they think it should win the Sir John A. Macdonald Prize.


The Contenders

Here is this year’s shortlist for the Sir John A. Macdonald Prize, in alphabetical order, as determined by jury members, Donica Belisle, Gregory M. W. Kennedy, Dominique Marquis, Daniel Samson, William Wicken, and Catherine Gidney (non-voting).

Note: Images and blurbs below are taken from the publishers’ websites.


Carter, Sarah.  Imperial Plots: Women, Land, and the Spadework of British Colonialism on the Canadian Prairies.  Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2016.

Imperial Plots

Sarah Carter’s Imperial Plots: Women, Land, and the Spadework of British Colonialism on the Canadian Prairies examines the goals, aspirations, and challenges met by women who sought land of their own.

Supporters of British women homesteaders argued they would contribute to the “spade-work” of the Empire through their imperial plots, replacing foreign settlers and relieving Britain of its “surplus” women. Yet far into the twentieth century there was persistent opposition to the idea that women could or should farm: British women were to be exemplars of an idealized white femininity, not toiling in the fields. In Canada, heated debates about women farmers touched on issues of ethnicity, race, gender, class, and nation.

Despite legal and cultural obstacles and discrimination, British women did acquire land as homesteaders, farmers, ranchers, and speculators on the Canadian prairies. They participated in the project of dispossessing Indigenous people. Their complicity was, however, ambiguous and restricted because they were excluded from the power and privileges of their male counterparts.

Imperial Plots depicts the female farmers and ranchers of the prairies, from the Indigenous women agriculturalists of the Plains to the array of women who resolved to work on the land in the first decades of the twentieth century.


McKay, Ian and Jamie Swift.  The Vimy Trap, or, How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Great War.  Toronto: Between the Lines, 2016.

CHA Reads Vimy Trap

The story of the bloody 1917 Battle of Vimy Ridge is, according to many of today’s tellings, a heroic founding moment for Canada. This noble, birth-of-a-nation narrative is regularly applied to the Great War in general. Yet this mythical tale is rather new. “Vimyism”— today’s official story of glorious, martial patriotism—contrasts sharply with the complex ways in which veterans, artists, clerics, and even politicians who had supported the war interpreted its meaning over the decades.

Was the Great War a futile imperial debacle? A proud, nation-building milestone? Contending Great War memories have helped to shape how later wars were imagined. The Vimy Trap provides a powerful probe of commemoration cultures. This subtle, fast-paced work of public history—combining scholarly insight with sharp-eyed journalism, and based on primary sources and school textbooks, battlefield visits and war art—explains both how and why peace and war remain contested terrain in ever-changing landscapes of Canadian memory.


Mills, Sean.  A Place in the Sun: Haiti, Haitians, and the Remaking of Québec.  Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2016.

CHA A Place in the Sun

What is the relationship between migration and politics in Quebec? How did French Canadians’ activities in the global south influence future debates about migration and Quebec society? How did migrants, in turn, shape debates about language, class, nationalism and sexuality? A Place in the Sun explores these questions through overlapping histories of Quebec and Haiti.

From the 1930s to the 1950s, French-Canadian and Haitian cultural and political elites developed close intellectual bonds and large numbers of French-Canadian missionaries began working in the country. Through these encounters, French-Canadian intellectual and religious figures developed an image of Haiti that would circulate widely throughout Quebec and have ongoing cultural ramifications. After first exploring French-Canadian views of Haiti, Sean Mills reverses the perspective by looking at the many ways that Haitian migrants intervened in and shaped Quebec society. As the most significant group seen to integrate into francophone Quebec, Haitian migrants introduced new perspectives into a changing public sphere during decades of political turbulence. By turning his attention to the ideas and activities of Haitian taxi drivers, exiled priests, aspiring authors, dissident intellectuals, and feminist activists, Mills reconsiders the historical actors of Quebec intellectual and political life, and challenges the traditional tendency to view migrants as peripheral to Quebec history.

Ranging from political economy to discussions about sexuality, A Place in the Sun demonstrates the ways in which Haitian migrants opened new debates, exposed new tensions, and forever altered Quebec society.


Perry, Adele.  Colonial Relations: The Douglas-Connolly Family and the Nineteenth-Century Imperial World.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

CHA Reads Colonial Relations

A study of the lived history of nineteenth-century British imperialism through the lives of one extended family in North America, the Caribbean and the United Kingdom. The prominent colonial governor James Douglas was born in 1803 in what is now Guyana, probably to a free woman of colour and an itinerant Scottish father. In the North American fur-trade, he married Amelia Connolly, the daughter of a Cree mother and an Irish-Canadian father. Adele Perry traces their family and friends over the course of the ‘long’ nineteenth-century, using careful archival research to offer an analysis of the imperial world that is at once intimate and critical, wide-ranging and sharply focused. Perry engages feminist scholarship on gender and intimacy, critical analyses about colonial archives, transnational and postcolonial history and the ‘new imperial history’ to suggest how this period might be rethought through one powerful family located at the British Empire’s margins.


Rudin, Ronald.  Kouchibouguac: Removal, Resistance, and Remembrance at a Canadian National Park.  Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016.

CHA Reads Kouchibouguac:

In 1969, the federal and New Brunswick governments created Kouchibouguac National Park on the province’s east coast. The park’s creation required the relocation of more than 1200 people who lived within its boundaries. Government officials claimed the mass eviction was necessary both to allow visitors to view “nature” without the intrusion of a human presence and to improve the lives of the former inhabitants. But unprecedented resistance by the mostly Acadian residents, many of whom described their expulsion from the park as a “second deportation,” led Parks Canada to end its practice of forcible removal. One resister, Jackie Vautour, remains a squatter on his land to this day.

In Kouchibouguac, Ronald Rudin draws on extensive archival research, interviews with more than thirty of the displaced families, and a wide range of Acadian cultural creations to tell the story of the park’s establishment, the resistance of its residents, and the memory of that experience.


While we will all have to hold our breath in anticipation of the CHA Annual Prize Ceremony where, on May 29th, the official winner or winners will be announced, the CHA Reads is a great way for all of us to catch up on the best books published over the last year and also start building some excitement for the upcoming CHA!


The Breakdown

So here is how CHA Reads is going to work:

Today, we kick off this mini-series of sorts with an introduction to the series, followed by Mary-Ellen Kelm defending The Vimy Trap, or, How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Great War.

On Wednesday, Sean Carleton will defend Imperial Plots: Women, Land, and the Spadework of British Colonialism on the Canadian Prairies. Next, Samuel McLean will defend Colonial Relations: The Douglas-Connolly Family and the Nineteenth-Century Imperial World.

On Thursday, Joanna Pearce will defend A Place in the Sun: Haiti, Haitians, and the Remaking of Québec. Then, Stephanie Pettigrew will defend Kouchibouguac: Removal, Resistance, and Remembrance at a Canadian National Park.

Fun day Friday will feature a blog post containing a discussion between all five scholars and yours truly on these books. Here, we will explore some of the questions and themes that emerged over the course of the week .

Since we’re doing two posts per day, the first one will go out at 1 pm EST/10 am PST and the second one will go out at 3 pm EST/12 pm PST.


Social Media

We would love to continue this conversation throughout the week on social media! Use the hashtag #chareads2017 to follow along with the discussion and participate on Twitter. You can also follow all of us individually at the following accounts:

Be sure to join us Friday on Twitter all day when all CHA Reads contributors will be available for questions and answers, and further discussion! Who says Canadian historians don’t know how to have some interactive fun?


Coming up next, our first post!


Special thanks to Catherine Ulmer for the idea of CHA Reads and Melissa Shaw for her help editing this blog post!

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