Tuesday, July 06, 2021

Fernand Ouellet 1926-2021 RIP UPDATED

Fernand Ouellet, one of the most respected and most controversial of twentieth-century Canadian historians, died the other day. His books included the Histoire économique et sociale du Québec, 1760-1850 and his honours the Order of Canada, the presidency of the Canadian Historical Society, and the Governor General's Literary Award.

Ouellet was respected for having led the introduction of quantititative histoire economique et sociale, on the model of the French Ecole des Annales, into Canadian history and particularly the history of Quebec's late eighteenth and nineteenth century. An enormously hard worker and productive writer, he dug out masses of archival data on any subject he touched, and filled his books with quantitative evidence.

He was controversial because his analyses dismissed traditional clerical versions of Quebec history that essentially blamed everything on the Conquest and the English -- and because he also rejected all the new nationalist interpretations that arose in and helped to shape the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s. "The social, not the national," drove history in Ouellet's world. The social explanations he found for Quebec's nineteenth century difficulties in modernizing its economy and its society squarely placed the causes in francophone society, not conquest. Not, shall we say, a popular position in the new Quebec.

Le Devoir's obituary article, by Jean-Louis Bordeleau, cites the work of Ouellet and his critics and offers memories and reflections from several historians of 19th century Quebec. It notes he was one of the scholars who moved to Ontario universities to escape pressures on their scholarship from the academic establishment of the time. He died in Toronto, having concluded his career at York University. 

A long time ago in Ottawa, Fernand Ouellet supervised my master's thesis, which was indeed quantatitive and economique et sociale. He was a supportive supervisor, though very preoccupied with his own work and therefore inclined to advise by example. He actually found the thesis worth publishing, but we were both stymied by the traditional establishment at Les Presses de l'Universite d'Ottawa, where even Fernand Ouellet's support could not overcome the refusal to even consider a master's thesis for publication. Eh bien.

I found him a private man, perhaps shy (though not in historical controversies), and more easily animated by his own researches than almost any other topic. We did not remain in touch after I graduated, and I rarely saw him at historical events in Toronto. Sad to say, I was not even sure he was still alive until I saw an obituary in a Toronto paper

I have often found useful an interpretation of Quebec politics I once heard from Ouellet. In Quebec, he suggested, the really interesting struggles are usually not between English and French but between Montreal and the rest of the province. And in the long run, whatever the argument, Montreal's view generally prevails. On that line, I would guess that Montreal will not long support the anti-hijab and anti-human-rights movement that is trending currently, and that eventually the province will follow Montreal.

Update, July 12, 2021

Le Devoir follows up its obit for Fernand Ouellet with a long appreciation by his colleagues Yves Frenette and Martin Paquet. It's hard to imagine any English-Canadian publication being interested in providing this kind of consideration of the ideas of any Canadian historian.

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