As a country, Canada is known worldwide for its bountiful lakes, friendly citizens and generally frigid climes. It is perhaps less known, however, for its fascinating and compelling history, which often only interests its own citizens.
But thanks to Professor Allan Greer, a Canada Research Chair in Colonial North America from the Department of History, this attitude is changing. His work in this area is one reason why he has been awarded the 2020 J. B. Tyrrell Historical Medal from the Royal Society of Canada. Established in 1927, the J.B. Tyrrell Medal is awarded every two years.
“Being recognized by the Royal Society is as good as it gets and I’m deeply grateful for this honour,” said Greer. “Plus, it gives me the opportunity to tell everyone that, contrary to what you may have heard, the history of this country is really interesting, especially the centuries before it was reorganized into the nation-state of Canada. It’s a story that is mostly Indigenous, partly colonial and entirely fascinating.”
“I commend Professor Greer for this award” said Martha Crago, Vice-Principal, Research and Innovation. “His career has helped bridge the gap between Canada’s two famous solitudes, and in these uncertain times, this ability is more precious than ever. His scholarship is setting an example for other historians to follow and is one that we all benefit from.”
Since the beginning of his career, Canada’s colonial roots have fascinated Greer, in particular the history of New France. In 1985, he published Peasant, Lord and Merchant: Rural society in three Quebec parishes, 1740-1840, a work that explored the contours of a colonial peasant community. This prize-winning work – still in print – changed the field, refuting entrenched stereotypes about the supposedly backward habitants of “traditional” Quebec.
Greer has also done extensive research on Indigenous history. His 2005 monograph Mohawk Saint: Catherine Tekakwitha and the Jesuits recounted the life and legend of a mystic figure who was eventually recognized as the first Indigenous woman saint. Mohawk Saint drew favourable attention from historians of the United States, Latin America and Europe. The book garnered three awards and coincided with Greer’s increasing presence in international historical circles, as signalled by a Guggenheim Fellowship and an appointment at the Institute for Advanced Study in Paris.
His latest book, Property and Dispossession: Natives, Empires and Land in Early Modern North America, looks at how colonialism transformed Indigenous lands into property for colonists. Here Professor Greer looks at the seigneuries of New France, as well as the townships of New England and the haciendas of Mexico, all of them in relation to the property regimes of the Indigenous peoples these colonies confronted. “In this astonishing book,” Princeton historian Jeremy Adelman wrote, “Greer has set an agenda for global debates about the history of colonialism.”
Greer has bridged divides and shattered barriers, including that of language. His works have been translated into French, and have become staples of history teaching in French-language universities. His book Habitants et Patriotes (1997) examines the roots of the Rebellion of 1837 and has been described as incontournable (or ‘essential’ for the non-francophone reader).
Bringing scholarship to new audiences and breaking down barriers to understanding are clearly award-winning accomplishments, and Professor Greer’s career is highlighted with many other citations. This last accolade from the Royal Society of Canada, however, places him among an illustrious group of previous winners, and ensures that his vision of Canada will endure for generations to come.