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Joanna Pearce defending Sean Mills’ A Place In The Sun: Haiti, Haitians, and the Remaking of Quebec.
Or: Why you should move Sean Mills’ latest to the top of your TBR pile of great Canadian history books, even if you don’t see how it connects to your own research
If there’s one thing #CHAReads2017 is teaching me, it’s that we have an abundance of great books to choose from for this year’s Sir John A MacDonald Prize. If you’re anything like me, you go into the CHA every year with the best of intentions to read the short list, or at least the winner. If you’re also anything like me, your Canadian history reading is mostly limited to books related to your own research, whatever you’re teaching this year, and books by your friends and colleagues (and supervisors) because trying to pull together your own work is taking up all of your mental energy. #gradstudentproblems
I was reluctant to take on reading Mills’ book before the CHA, since it’s a work that is so far away from my own research that I couldn’t imagine what I would have to say about it that would convince you to find the time in your busy schedule to read it. You already know it must be a good book, since it was nominated for the major book prize of the CHA. People who actually know the history and historiography Mills is engaging with have written reviews of the book which are largely positive but suggest aspects of the Haitian/Quebec experience the work isn’t engaging with (see: Matthew A. W. Davidson’s review, Paul-Etienne Ranville’s review, and Darryl Leroux’s review. Mills is a known figure in the Canadian history scene. If you liked his previous book, The Empire Within, you’re probably going to like this one too.
So, here are five reasons why I think you should put this on top of your TBR pile, and maybe give up a bit of sleep to read it ASAP.
- Are you looking for an immigration history? Mills is very deliberately focusing on Haitian influence on Quebec’s political, social, and artistic movements in a way that puts Haitians at the center of the story. Mills make clear in his introduction that his work was influenced in part by the many hot takes (my words) on Haitian history and politics following the 2010 earthquake. These works focused on European and North American influences on Haiti. Mills wanted to tell how Haitians influenced North America, and he does a very engaging job of it. His discussion of Haitian political activism in Quebec, Haitian language politics, and particularly Haitian influence on immigration policy and international aid from Canada puts Canadian and Quebec political actions into a larger international perspective. This is not how I am used to reading Canadian history.
- Are you looking for a discussion on race and language politics? Mills addresses ideas of race, language, and assimilation that the different waves of Haitian immigrants needed to deal with. The earliest immigrants that fled Haiti for Quebec after the rise of the Duvalier dictatorship spoke French and were more easily integrated into discussions about French language and colonialism in Montreal. As more Haitians fled the increasingly brutal regime, immigrants (both documented & undocumented) were less likely to speak French fluently and were also less likely to be from an elite, well-educated minority. Mills walks the reader through how Haitians were affected by changing immigration policy, with many Haitians arriving in the 70s and 80s undocumented and thus easily subject to abuse by unscrupulous employers. Mills addresses the issues of a racialized linguistic minority (rural Haitians spoke Creole) living within a linguistic minority, and how language politics developed around these complicated issues. French was the language of the archival records Mills draws on, but Creole was often the language of the oral interviews he also draws on. There’s a lot going on here, and Mills tells this history in a way that makes the complicated nature of language politics, race, and class easy to follow without oversimplifying it.
- Are you wanting to read about race and racism in Canada? Mills talks about anti-Black racism specifically as anti-Black racism, rather than trying to soften this in any way. He expands on this to talk about how this affected Black women, the fears of Black male sexuality, how Black men were singled out for monitoring by police, and the very real fear that Haitian men and women had of being deported back to a country where they were likely to be tortured and killed. The activists that Mills is writing about argue that, had they been French-speaking white migrants rather than Black ones, they would not have faced such a push for deportation. In light of current events, Mills’ discussion of police going into homes and businesses searching for undocumented people to deport is particularly chilling. The Haitian community fought back against these deportations and eventually forced the government to regularize some (although not all) of the Haitian migrants’ statuses.
- Do you want to read more about Black labour & Black feminist movements in Canada? Mills dedicates a whole chapter (my favourite chapter, “The Location of Knowledge”) to discussing the interrelations between feminist movements and labour movements within and outside of the Haitian communities in Montreal. He writes about Black women’s struggles to find support within a labour movement that seemed oblivious to women’s multiple shifts (working, taking care of the household, and often going to school) which limited their abilities to advocate and write on their own behalf. He also talks about the ways that the Haitian labour movement engaged with feminism and the civil rights movements in the United States. I would happily read an entire book that was just this chapter expanded to book-length.
- Look, I’m a busy person. You’re a busy person. If comps taught me one thing, it was how to gut a book. I did not gut this book. I read every word. I checked through the footnotes. I took notes. I drew diagrams. Sean Mills is an engaging writer, and the book is only a fast read in the sense that his writing keeps drawing you along. It’s not a simple book – it’s a complicated intellectual history. But I came out of reading this book telling my friends about it. I read parts of it outloud to people. I bought myself an e-copy so I could re-read on the plane next week because I have to return my library copy. I’m not going to pretend this is a perfect book – the reviewers I link above do have critiques of it – but as a graduate student who is pulling together a dissertation, Mills is a great read because he makes his arguments so clearly, he draws on the oral interviews to personalize the story, and he gives you enough details to put things into context without bogging down the narrative. I can only hope to follow his example.
I don’t think this book will take you long to read. I believe it will give you a lot to think about. Find the time and put it on the top of your TBR pile. You won’t regret it.
Joanna L. Pearce is a Ph.D. candidate in history at York University in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Her dissertation, “Which naught but the light of knowledge can dispel”: Experiencing Blindness in Nineteenth-Century Ontario, examines the experiences of blind people who did not attend residential schools. Her research on the establishment of free education for blind children in Nova Scotia was published in the Journal of the Canadian Historical Association in 2012. She is a recipient of the 2015-2016 Avie Bennett Historica Chair scholarship for research in Canadian History. She received her Master’s degree in history from Dalhousie University. Her MA thesis has been cited twice on wikipedia. Sadly, both articles are stubs. Joanna tweets about #gradstudentproblems at @jlphistory.
Don’t forget to check out the other posts in our CHA Reads Series!!
- Series Introduction
- Mary-Ellen Kelm defending The Vimy Trap, or, How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Great War.
- Sean Carleton defending Imperial Plots: Women, Land, and the Spadework of British Colonialism on the Canadian Prairies.
- Samuel McLean defending Colonial Relations: The Douglas-Connolly Family and the Nineteenth-Century Imperial World.
- Joanna Pearce defending A Place in the Sun: Haiti, Haitians, and the Remaking of Québec.
- Stephanie Pettigrew defending Kouchibouguac: Removal, Resistance, and Remembrance at a Canadian National Park.
- Group Discussion on the Sir John. A Macdonald Prize shortlist.