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Finding a Way to the Heart: Feminist Writings on Aboriginal and Women’s History in Canada

By Valerie Korinek, editor

Review By Frieda Klippenstein

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 180 Winter 2013-2014  | p. 175-177

As recently as forty years ago, Sylvia Van Kirk sat in the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives in London and asked a completely new question of the business papers of this iconic and long-standing company: “Where are the women?” It is difficult to imagine how audacious a question that was, inundated as we are today with popular and scholarly works exploring virtually every aspect of the topic. At the time, however, for Van Kirk to examine the North American fur trade in terms of the roles of gender, race, identity, and colonization was revolutionary, and the influence of the work was pervasive. How pervasive? The editors of Finding a Way to the Heart effuse, “It is probably impossible to acquire an undergraduate history degree in this country without encountering some of [Van Kirk’s] writings”(8).

The twelve essays within this volume emerged from a forum in honour of Sylvia Van Kirk at the 2007 meeting of the Canadian Historical Association. With an eloquent introduction, editors Robin Jarvis Brownlie and Valerie J. Korinek provide historiographical context and introduce Van Kirk as advancing “the feminist project” (11). In an appropriate recognition, the volume’s single photo of Van Kirk has her posed with her friend and colleague, Jennifer S.H. Brown, at the Orkney Islands in 1990 (2). Brown also contributes the first paper, an engaging description of how her paths crossed and intersected with Van Kirk’s over a period of almost four decades. The serendipitous meeting in 1972, the collaboration, and the dialogue between these two path-breaking scholars gave them courage in their pursuit and helped shape their work. Van Kirk’s “Many Tender Ties”: Women in Fur-Trade Society in Western Canada, 1670-1870 (Winnipeg: Watson and Dwyer) appeared to wide acclaim in 1980, as did Brown’s Strangers in Blood: Fur Trade Company Families in Indian Country (Vancouver: UBC Press).

Finding a Way to the Heart is a pleasure to read and is remarkable for the consistently high quality of the contributions. The essays also have considerable range, most on work inspired by Van Kirk’s subjects and methodologies. For example, Kathryn McPherson explores colonial societies after 1860 in terms of race and gender; Katrina Srigley presents a Northern Ontario case study to illuminate contemporary definitions and expressions of Aboriginality; Patricia McCormack examines the persistent fur trade society of Fort Chipewyan; and Victoria Freeman and Angela Wanhalla extend the discussion of inter-racial intermarriage to the United States, New Zealand, and Australia.

This is, unabashedly, a tribute, and one that effectively portrays how Van Kirk’s career went beyond academic contributions to matters of the heart. The subject matter, for starters, involves the intimate relationships between Aboriginal women and Euro-Canadian traders, which are characterised largely as bonding sexual and social unions of permanence and economic import. The heart is also involved in Van Kirk’s working relationships with others within the University world, where, with her characteristically relational and non-competitive style, she won the respect of mentored grad students, academic colleagues, fellows on committees, and others. University of Toronto colleague Franca Iacovetta recounts lessons learned from Van Kirk, noting especially her patient, methodical work for change on committees and hiring boards. Speaking most directly on the theme of heart, Adele Perry speaks of the possibilities (and pitfalls) of a personal connection with research subjects and sources. She describes a “historiography that breaks your heart” and the possibility of scholars as vulnerable, empathetic observers within a “located, embodied, and empathetic scholarly practice” (81). Van Kirk demonstrated this in various ways, but especially in her passion for the “real people” of history, which recently includes various prominent, mixed-race families of colonial British Columbia, including the Connolly-Douglas family.

There is much here in these “feminist writings” to shake contemporary young women out of their complacency. Even that such a simple premise — that there were women in the fur trade and that they mattered — could possibly have been revolutionary, begs us to question what else our contemporary blinders stop us from seeing.

Finding a Way to the Heart: Feminist Writings on Aboriginal and Women’s History in Canada
Robin Jarvis Brownlie & Valerie J. Korinek, editors. 
Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2012, 273 pages, $27.95 paper