Welcome back to one of my favourite series, Historian’s Histories, where we learn about the historiography of historians! This week, we have a very special guest, Maxime Dagenais! As you all know, Maxime is the research coordinator for the Wilson Institute, and manages their social media accounts as well as their blog, Beyond Borders: The New Canadian History. But what you may not know is that in addition to being a fellow Montrealer, Maxime also did his Master’s degree with my husband! That pretty much makes us family in my book, so I’m super excited to feature his work this week!
Maxime Dagenais is the Research Coordinator at the Wilson Institute and was, until recently (2014-2016), a SSHRC post-doctoral fellow at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He received a PhD in French and British North American history from the University of Ottawa in 2011 and was a L.R. Wilson post-doctoral fellow at the Wilson Institute for Canadian History (2012‒14). He has published in several academic journals, including Canadian Military History, Bulletin d’histoire politique, Quebec Studies, and American Review of Canadian Studies, and co-authored a book entitled The Land in Between: The Upper St. John Valley, Prehistory to World War One. He has also written over a dozen articles for The Canadian Encyclopedia. Max is also presently editing a volume on the Canadian Rebellion and the United States – Revolutions Across Borders: Jacksonian America and The Canadian Rebellion – currently under consideration for publication with the Rethinking Canada in the World Series published by McGill-Queen’s University Press.
What is your background (education, life experience, etc..)?
I have a pretty bland background. Born in Montréal, raised by middle class parents, summers in a time share (ha!) in Florida, private school, cage-diving. The most memorable moment of my young life was when the Habs won the cup in 1986 and 1993. Then 1995 happened. Without revealing my own politics, my family was divided. My dad was a child of the Quiet Revolution and a separatist, my mom was a federalist. They argued. We all argued. It was an intense period, but it was one of the most important moments of my life. I became more interested in Quebec history afterwards. This interest was put on hold at the undergraduate level. At Concordia, I specialized in early modern French and interwar German history. Canadian/Quebec history was not as sexy to a young undergrad. I went to graduate school at the University of Ottawa, where I finally started to seriously study Canadian/Quebec history. First, I worked with Serge Durflinger on the Van Doos and then on the Special Council of Lower Canada with Peter Bischoff. Having fallen out of love with the Special Council, I started working on a new project as a SSHRC postdoc at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania with Dan Richter: Jacksonian America and the Canadian Rebellion. More specifically, I look at how the debates over slavery in the United States impacted the Rebellion and its success in the United States.
What drew you to history in the first place?
Without a doubt, Asterix comic books. I was obsessed with them growing up. I wanted to know more about the Romans, Julius Caesar, Gaul, etc. I was not a “good” student in elementary school, but somehow history just grabbed my attention. It was the only subject I could coast through with gym and lunch time.
Why did you decide to become a historian?
It wasn’t an obvious decision. By the end of my BA in 2003, I considered other options; I started to realize that a degree in history was perhaps not the most marketable. I considered doing a MA in journalism at Concordia, starting a law degree at McGill, and even enrolling in Criminology. But I really wasn’t into any of those options. So I took a year off. It was during my year off that I realized how much I liked history and decided to just go with it. I ignored the signs that the academic job market was bad — though, in fairness, they weren’t that obvious in 2004 — and did what I wanted. I’m glad I did.
Why did you decide to focus on your particular area of study?
I’ve been interested in the Canadian Rebellion for a long time. In secondaire quatre (grade 10), we read Jules Vernes’ Famille-Sans-Nom for Quebec history. Essentially, this is the story of a French Canadian family during the Rebellion. This was my first exposure to the Canadian Rebellion and it stuck with me. I became obsessed with everything patriotes. Even when I was studying German/French history and the Van Doos, I was still very interested in the Rebellion. I’ve only been star struck by one academic: Allan Greer. It was an unforgettable moment for me, but totally forgettable for him.
If you didn’t go study your chosen area, what kind of history do you think you would want to do?
The French Revolution, no doubt. I started a MA with Sylvie Perrier with the goal of writing a thesis on the French Revolution. I took an independent study with her and even had a topic lined up. However, doing French history on a limited MA student budget from Ottawa was difficult, so I switched to a Canadian topic: the Van Doos. I loved working with Serge Durflinger (and Tim Cook and Jeff Keshen) on the First World War, but the French Revolution still feels like “the one that got away.” I like the topic of the French Revolution so much that I finished and legitimately enjoyed the horribly reviewed and coded Assassin’s Creed Unity.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
My mom keeps telling me that when I was young, I really wanted to be a hot dog vendor at Valentine. I scratched that itch in high school when I worked at Wendy’s. Growing up in Montréal, I also wanted to be a hockey player, a baseball player, and for a brief moment in 1996 a roller hockey player. When I discovered how much (or little) money roller hockey players made, I changed career paths. I then wanted to be a journalist, a lawyer, and by the end of high school, revealed to all that would listen that I would be a PhD in French Literature, not fully understanding what that meant.
What kind of work do you do as a historian?
I’m the research coordinator at the Wilson Institute for Canadian History at McMaster. Ian once officially introduced me as the co-leader of the Wilson Institute, so needless to say, that’s on my CV. Essentially, I manage the institute. I organize our speaker series, brown bags, and workshops, apply for external funding, edit the blog, manage our social media presence, liaise with other academic departments and the public, represent the institute at various events, promote it and our events, and even help Ian teach HIS2V03, an experimental, debate-based Canadian history class. Though I now work in university administration, I am encouraged to continue my academic work. As such, I’m still publishing and presenting work. I’m currently co-editing a collection called Revolutions across Borders: Jacksonian America and the Canadian Rebellion with my good friend Julien Mauduit. We will submit it to MQUP later this fall.
What is the coolest and/or strangest thing you’ve ever found or learned while doing research?
A lot of the strangest things I’ve found while doing research are NSFW. Let’s just say, I could write an interesting piece on infidelity and First World War soldiers. Having worked with American and Canadian period newspapers (19th and early 20th century), I’m always amazed when I see ads for cure all concoctions. I’ve seen ads promoting the health benefits of snake oil, radium, cocaine, tobacco, arsenic, and various other elixirs.
What is your favourite part about being a historian? And what is your least favourite part?
My favourite part about being a historian is travelling and meeting people. I’ve made some great friends. Many have become an important part of my support group when navigating the frustrations of academia. My least favourite part — other than the microfilm machines at LAC — is the fact that history killed my desire to read for fun. Since I read a lot for work, the last thing I want to do is read some more when I get home. The last book I read for “fun” — minus the odd graphic novel — is Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch. It’s an autobiography about his life as an Arsenal Football Club fan. The book was great, the process not so great.
What is the most surprising thing you’ve ever learned about history?
A knowledge of late 18th and early 19th century Canadian history doesn’t increase your skills at Trivial Pursuit and/or pub quizzes. Every single time there’s a history-based question at Trivial Pursuit and/or pub quizzes, I will 99% of the time get it wrong. It’s almost as if the people coming up with these questions are not interested in colonial Canada.
Why do you think we, as a society, should study history?
I don’t have a big revolutionary statement about why we should study history. I just think it’s important to know where we come from and to learn from our past, good and bad. It’ll make us better and more understanding people.
If you could go back in time, whether to live or just visit, which time and place would you pick and why?
I wouldn’t go very far back. As someone that cannot handle camping, the great outdoors, or life without a working bathroom, I’d stay close to home. Though I was born in 1979, I wouldn’t mind going back and reliving the 70s and 80s as a young adult. I’d witness the birth of the New York punk scene and then travel to Manchester to see Joy Division. Then, in the 80s, I’d tour the United States and check out all of the amazing indie, DIY bands like Big Black, Mission of Burma, Hüsker Dü, Beat Happening, and some vintage Sonic Youth.
What is your favourite historical book/film/museum/etc, and why?
Without a doubt, Black Adder. More specifically, Black Adder Goes Forth, though every series is a masterpiece. Everything about Black Adder Goes Forth is perfect: the comedy, the history, the social commentary, Baldrick’s cunning plans. I still use the show to introduce students to the First World War. I mean, who needs James Joll when you have Rowan Atkinson, Hugh Laurie, Tony Robinson, and Stephen Fry? Recently, I really got into The Man in the High Castle. I know, I know, it’s not history, it’s alternate history. If you ignore the more supernatural element (spoiler), I like how the show approaches the subject of “what would happen if Germany and Japan won the Second World War?” I’m easy to please when it comes to history on screens (television, film, video games) and rarely complain about the “facts,” unless it’s a CBC series.
In your opinion, what is the most important event or person in Canadian history that everyone should know about?
This is like choosing your favourite record, it changes constantly. Sticking to what I know best, the Rebellion, I wish people knew more about it and that French and English-speakers, in my province, would stop misrepresenting it.
Special thanks to Maxime Dagenais for agreeing to be interviewed! It’s always a pleasure to speak with him! If you’d like to learn more about him and his work, you can check out his website here, and follow the Wilson Institute on Twitter and Facebook! I hope you enjoyed this post! If you did, please consider sharing it on the social media platform of your choice. If you are interested in participating in this series, please get in touch by emailing me at unwritten histories [at] gmail [dot] com or by sending me a message on Facebook or Twitter. And don’t forget to check back on Sunday for our regular Canadian history roundup! See you then!