Entre Nous with Prof. Suzanne Morton, Acting Director, The McGill Institute for the Study of Canada

Posted on Monday, January 20, 2014
Coming from the Department of History and Classical Studies, Suzanne Morton will assume the role of Acting Director of MISC for the next six months while Will Straw is on sabbatical. / Photo courtesy of Suzanne Morton.

Coming from the Department of History and Classical Studies, Suzanne Morton will assume the role of Acting Director of MISC for the next six months while Will Straw is on sabbatical. / Photo courtesy of Suzanne Morton.

The McGill Institute for the Study of Canada (MISC) welcomes Professor Suzanne Morton, from the Department of History and Classical Studies, to the position of Acting Director. Prof. Morton has taught in the area of 20th-century Canadian social and gender history at the university since 1992. Her research areas include the intersection of values and society with individuals, the state, and place. Prof. Morton will be at the helm of MISC for the next six months, replacing current Director, Will Straw, while he is on Sabbatical leave. She joins MISC just in time for the annual conference, “Petrocultures: Oil, Energy and Canada’s Future,” taking place Feb. 6 and 7. For more information on the conference and to register, go here.

You’re coming from the Department of History and Classical Studies. With your background, what’s your take on the study of Canada?

I’m trained as a Canadian Historian. Probably more than most disciplines, history is closely tied to the nation state. In fact, its very academic origins were connected to nationalism and nation-building in the 19th century. My background is in the broad area of social history but I’ve always been particularity interested in how the experiences of people connect with the Canadian or various provincial states and how these various states shape relationships between people.

National history is debated in a different way than other areas of history. It touches upon people’s identities, nationalism and myths. Diverse popular understandings of the past (and in Canada, we hold many) are more powerful and tenacious than the insights generated by most academic historians. Canadian history is also public policy whether we are thinking about the Canadian Museum of Civilization’s transformation into the Canadian Museum of History, the celebration of the War of 1812 (and the disregard of the 1763 Royal Proclamation and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms) or even what is represented on our currency. Governments have always promoted particular versions of the past to advance present day goals. Globalization and internationalization have provided particular challenges to the study of Canada within universities. The upside is that researchers are more likely to understand the Canadian past in the wider context, the downside is that interest and resources are shrinking. If Canadians don’t study Canada, no one else will.

Part of your research focus is about Atlantic Canada and the history of lobster fisheries and regulation. Can you put in perspective what the current trend of low prices indicates for this industry and our country?

Lobster is the most valuable east coast fishery and this has been generally the case since the 1880s. Lobsters were overfished in the 1880s, and there was even talk of a complete moratorium (Newfoundland introduced one in the 1920s). The collapse of the stock led to better prices and intensification of fishing efforts but lobsters stocks did not recover to 1880s levels until the 1990s.

Abundant catches and a collapse in the “luxury” market after 9/11, compounded by the recession in the late 2010s meant that this “luxury” good had less of a market and prices fell. We have some idea about why prices have fallen – the catch has multiplied three fold since the 1980s and recent poor economic conditions but there is less agreement about why there have been so many lobsters to catch. Certainly the decimation of the cod and halibut fishery has increased the survival of lobster larvae and warmer waters may have moved their ecosystem farther north.

Low prices have a serious impact for coastal rural communities in Atlantic Canada, the Gaspé, and Îles de la Madeleine. At this moment the Atlantic inshore fishery, except for aboriginal exceptions, is legally to be owner operated – there isn’t supposed to be a corporate presence which means that this fishery is decentralized and the economic mainstay of fishing communities in at least the Maritime region. At the same time, regulatory decisions dating back to the 1870s meant that this fishery developed as a part-time fishery with fishing restricted to particular open seasons. Low prices and part-time employment places great pressure on owner-operators and there is concern about a movement to corporate ownership.

The challenge of creating economically, socially and environmentally sustainable fisheries and communities connects the lobster fishery with similar problems facing almost all rural-based resource commodities in Canada today.

What’s the best thing about being the Acting Director at the MISC?

It’s the people. I’m enjoying the opportunity to work with the outstanding staff and dedicated trustees of the Institute and faculty, visitors and students from a number of disciplines. I’m also appreciating the public outreach focus and the broad perspective this requires. It’s hard not to be excited about events like our annual conference happening on February 6 and 7, and the opportunity to host Elizabeth May in March when she comes to deliver the annual Mallory Lecture on March 24.

You’re taking the helm at MISC right before their annual conference, this year on the topic of “Petrocultures: Oil, Energy, and Canada’s Future.” That’s certainly a topic that’s in the news a lot lately. What can people expect?

Conference attendees can expect to hear provocative and informed debate. It’s an opportunity to hear leading experts share, from a variety of different perspectives, their views on one of the most important issues facing Canada today and one that is shaping our future. The team putting together the conference has worked very hard to incorporate participants who hold diverse views and interest and provide them with the opportunity to exchange perspectives in a civil and respectful forum. There are stakeholders coming together from industry, aboriginal communities, the environmental movement, public policy, media, and universities. The emphasis is on how oil and our policy toward it shape our social, cultural and political life. One of the highlights is a cultural evening with film, a play reading, and poetry. The MISC does not shy away from controversy, and we expect no shortage of spirited debate.\

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