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Looking at history through a fresh lens

As a 17-year-old high school student in Manitoba, writing an essay on the 1837-38 rebellions in colonial Quebec, Jarett Henderson knew he enjoyed Canadian history.

Jarret Henderson, PhD
Prof. Jarett Henderson's dissertation won a prestigious award for giving a fresh perspective on a "done topic."

He couldn’t have known that one day he’d write a PhD thesis on the same topic, and he couldn’t have known that one day he’d teach that very topic at a new university in Calgary.

And he certainly couldn’t have known that the country’s most prominent French historical organization (Institut d’histoire de l’Amérique française) would appreciate his dissertation so much it would award him with the first ever Louise Dechêne Prize.

“I have put so much time into researching this topic,” says Henderson, a first-year history professor.

“I had forgotten that I wrote about this in high school, but during my recent move, I discovered the Grade 11 essay I wrote on the rebellions. It seems I’ve been interested in the topic longer than I even realized.”

The award is for his dissertation that examines the controversial administration of British governor general, Lord Durham, who was appointed to lower Canada in 1838.

The Institute’s website describes the award as a “prize that recognizes the originality, the quality of research, the methodology and the intellectual rigour of the doctoral dissertation … for the best dissertation in the history of French America.”

“I was thrilled,” says Henderson of finding out his dissertation had won the Award.

“It’s a great honour. Going into the project, I knew there could be some sensitivity in Quebec and amongst colonial historians. I think that makes this award, from the Francophone community an even greater honour. Particularly since it was the first time they gave out this award and I’ve always admired Louise Dechêne’s work.”

Governor General Lord Durham

Lord Durham was sent to Lower Canada/Quebec in 1838 following an 1837 rebellion by political reformers – Patriotes – to determine the cause of their frustration.

Durham arrived in May and resigned five months later in November. As he departed the colony, a second rebellion occurred.

Henderson says Durham is seen a hugely polarizing figure, and notes that as recently as 2007, Durham’s likeness caused controversy across the country when Impératif français (a French-language lobby group) demanded that it be removed from an historical exhibit in Ottawa.

The interesting and original aspect of Henderson’s research is that he delved into the details of Durham’s life and administration in 1838 about which little has been written.
“It was definitely a challenge,” explains Henderson.

“Historians typically believe it’s a topic that’s been done, so I really wanted to bring a new lens to the story of Durham’s tenure in Quebec and his contribution to Quebec history.

“To do that, I chose to focus on Durham, his family, his time as a governor, and him as a gendered individual. So, I paid a lot of attention to Durham’s character and contributions as a whole, not just as a governor.”

Henderson admits the choice was a bit odd for someone from the prairies. Growing up in Manitoba, he says most of his history lessons surrounded Louis Riel and the rebellions connected with his life.

Stumbling upon a thesis

“I came upon this thesis idea during my first eighteen months of my PhD at York University when we had to do course work. I was working in three areas of study: Canada, colonialism and historical methods.

“While I was doing my reading in those three fields I discovered a ‘gap’ in the literature.”
The decision to study Durham didn’t disappoint. Henderson’s research took him to Bermuda in search of archival materials.

A lot of time poring over old texts and dusty tomes isn’t everyone’s idea of a good time, but Henderson loved it.

“You never know what you’re going to find. The excitement and nervousness that comes with that type of adventure is always fun.”

What he found was that Durham wasn’t your typical politician.

He was a coal baron from northern England who championed radical reform in favour of the masses. Henderson says he also had novel ideas about sexuality, race, gender and status and challenged the politics of mainstream society in many ways.

“Sometimes people are too quick to put historical figures into a box, but Durham was interesting in that he doesn’t really fit in a box. There are times when you don’t like what he did and there are times when you do, but as a historian you have to be careful to let the primary sources speak for themselves instead of presenting a picture of the man based on my opinion.”

Henderson is currently revising his thesis to be published as a book by the University of Toronto Press. He is also working on organizing a conference in May of 2012 bringing together junior scholars researching and writing about the global age of British North America.

He and Dan Horner, a colleague from the Wilson Institute at McMaster University, then hope to include these papers in a book they are co-editing.

“There’s a lot going on for me this year,” says Henderson smiling.

“I’m really glad to be here at Mount Royal. The students have been great, the faculty have been great and now I’m just working on ways to integrate this research into the classroom.”

Steven Noble, Dec. 15, 2011