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French Canadians, Furs, and Indigenous Women in the Making of the Pacific Northwest

By Jean Barman

Review By Heather Devine

February 4, 2015

BC Studies no. 188 Winter 2015-2016  | p. 114-16

Since the sixteenth century, intrepid French Canadians have traversed the North American landscape to the very edges of the continent, and established families and communities in virtually every region north of Mexico. Given this legacy of exploration and settlement, it is disconcerting to find that the imprint of the French is comparatively faint in the historical consciousness of Canadians. Unfortunately, two parallel streams of Francophone and Anglophone historical scholarship emerged in Canada and have persisted to the present day. These two historiographical “solitudes” have been aggravated by the apparent disinterest of modern Quebec historians in the lives of French Canadians resident outside of Quebec. The result has been an incomplete understanding of how French Canadians, and their indigenous wives and descendants, facilitated Canada’s transition from a fur-trade hinterland into a modern agricultural and industrial democracy.

Jean Barman’s latest book serves as a partial corrective to this gap in historical understanding. Like most of her previous offerings, French Canadians, Furs, and Indigenous Women focuses on resurrecting the forgotten histories of British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest. The introductory chapter provides a clear political and economic rationale for writing a volume devoted to French Canadians and indigenous women, followed by a detailed summary of how this magisterial social history is organized. The book consists of twelve chapters divided into three parts. Part I introduces the reader to the involvement of French Canadians in the fur trade after the British Conquest, by focusing on the values, attitudes, behaviours and skills they inherited from the French régime and brought with them into the Pacific Northwest, as part of their involvement in the earliest overland expeditions to the Pacific Coast in the service of their British and American masters. Part II focuses on the personal relationships that Canadien engagés initiated and maintained with Indigenous women in the region, and how these unions à la façon du pays evolved into relatively stable families despite the peripatetic nature of the fur economy. Part III is devoted to the period after the establishment of national boundaries in the Pacific Northwest. The creation of discrete American, British (and later Canadian) territories sometimes established legal and cultural barriers to full citizenship for the mixed-race descendants of the French pioneers in the region. Their relative successes and failures in establishing a secure place for themselves in reserve or reservation communities, or as part of the emerging agricultural and commercial milieu of the settlements, is documented in these chapters.

This is a massive narrative undertaking by a historian at the height of her powers. Barman has availed herself of an eclectic assemblage of sources: biographies, fur trade journals and exploration narratives, church records, and recent Canadian and American historiography on the fur trade, among others. She has seamlessly integrated this material to tell the stories of individuals and families, while at the same time providing a contextual framework for understanding the social, economic, and political trajectories of these people.  Noteworthy in this regard is Barman’s use of statistics to provide a quantitative perspective on the impact of French Canadians in the fur economy. The graphs scattered through the text provide a diagrammatic underpinning for considering the Quebec origins of various French Canadians, the nature and extent of their labour in the Pacific Northwest fur trade, and the multi-generational record of unions between French Canadians and various groups of indigenous women.

The conclusion of this book focuses, fittingly enough, on “reclaiming the past.”  For many mixed-race descendants of fur trade unions, documenting their shared French and indigenous family origins has been an essential part of establishing a contemporary tribal identity and acquiring the benefits and responsibilities that accompany such a designation. It has also been instrumental in educating the dominant society to recognize these families for their seminal role in laying the foundations for the larger Pacific Northwest as we know it today. Jean Barman has always sought to document and celebrate the role that ordinary people — workers, women, and racial and ethnic minorities — have played in the establishment of British Columbia. French Canadians, Furs, and the Making of the Pacific Northwest is yet another fine contribution to British Columbia history by one of its leading practitioners.

French Canadians, Furs, and Indigenous Women in the Making of the Pacific Northwest
Jean Barman
Vancouver:  UBC Press, 2014. 472 pp. Illus.  $39.95 paper