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Dr. Donald Fyson

Richard Koestner

Full Professor, Département des sciences historiques, Université Laval

March 2024

What is the focus of your research?

I specialize in Quebec and Canadian history, focusing on the period from 1760 to the turn of the 20th century. However, I do have projects extending into the 1960s. I explore the history of criminal justice, capital punishment, the state, and policing, along with urban history and social history more generally. While Quebec is my primary research terrain, the questions I investigate provide insights into broader trends within Western society and beyond.

Why the focus on the criminal justice system?

Oddly enough, this came from my initial interest in food history, the subject of my M.A. I collaborated on an undergraduate paper exploring how justices of the peace administered municipal affairs in Montreal during the early 19th century, including regulating public markets. I became aware of Montreal’s incredible wealth of largely untouched criminal justice archives. After completing my M.A., I eventually pursued a doctorate focusing on the history of the justices of the peace themselves, then gradually moved into the wider field of criminal justice history.

What is the current focus of your research?

The most extensive project that I’m working on right now is a history of capital punishment in Quebec since 1760. This stemmed from a question I received about wrongful convictions and executions. Upon looking into existing research on the history of capital punishment in Quebec, I discovered scant and often inaccurate information. I had to do the research myself and have been working on it ever since.

My focus has also been increasingly on projects centred on Quebec City. I live there, many of the archives there are largely unexplored, and many of my students work on topics related to the city. 

How does your research address or relate to English speakers in the province, particularly in Quebec City?

While I’m an Anglophone who studies Quebec history, not a historian of Quebec Anglophones, I do find myself increasingly working on Anglophone-related topics. Anglophones are crucial in Quebec history, especially during the period which particularly interests me, 1760 to 1867. They are very present in Quebec’s criminal justice history, as judges, lawyers, court officials, accusers, and accused. So, while my focus is generally on Quebecers as a whole, I’ve often also looked at the relationship between Francophones and Anglophones, notably in the period following the Conquest. 

I teach the course on Quebec City history at my university, and often discuss the city’s mid-19th-century diversity, with a 60% Francophone and 40% Anglophone population, comprising various groups such as Irish, English, Scots, Welsh, and Americans. It was very different from the increasingly homogeneous city we see from the late 19th century onwards. 

Please tell me a bit about your involvement with the Morrin Centre.

My involvement began through my late wife, Sovita Chander, who served on the board of the Literary and Historical Society of Quebec from 2007 and later became President from 2012 to 2016. The Society runs the Morrin Centre, which is housed in a fascinating historic building in Quebec City, a former prison, which was renovated and “relaunched” in the early 2000s as the English-language cultural centre and library we see today. I first contributed by helping with an exhibit on the history of the prison and co-authoring a book on the building’s history, my part being on the prison. Subsequently, I joined the board, and now serve as Honorary Librarian. I’ve been involved in various history-related activities, such as an exhibit and interactive tour on the history of capital punishment. I’m currently working on an entirely new version of the prison history exhibit, based on my research.

What have you found surprising in your research on Quebec history?

A big surprise was the extent to which Canadiens (Francophones) adapted to British institutions following the Conquest, such as English criminal law, the jury, local democracy, and parliamentary institutions. After a military conquest, there’s the question of how conquered people adapt: do they refuse to participate (a “boycott mentality”), or do they try to take advantage of the limited political spaces at their disposal? We saw the latter in the 1760-1840 period in Quebec.

Another thing was the overrepresentation of Anglophones among the convicted in the criminal justice system. Post-Conquest, Anglophones constituted the majority of those convicted in higher criminal courts, despite being a minority in the overall population. My current research on executions and prisons reveals a significant overrepresentation of Anglophones in both populations. This was also the case in the Quebec City prison. 

Overall, the criminal justice system does not seem to have been primarily used as a tool for political repression of the colonized population, as one might think typical in a conquered society. There were certainly moments of severe political repression, like after the Rebellions of 1837-1838, but the sustained focus of repression was more on other marginalized groups, such as the urban poor. Even then the justice system had a complicated role: the Quebec City prison often served as a makeshift social service, being the only recourse for destitute individuals, often women, refused access to other social welfare institutions.

What is the greatest value of historical research in the current social context?

Judicial archives are often the only place where you find the voices of marginalized people, such as the poor, popular-class women, racialized people, sexual minorities, and Indigenous peoples. Though their voices are mediated through intermediaries, such as court clerks, it’s a way of getting access to these people and their daily lives.

There is unfortunately a popular trope these days that marginalized communities have been largely ignored by historians, when academic historians have actually been looking at them for quite a long time. However, there is definitely more work to be done, to bring these communities’ histories more forcefully into the public eye, and involve the communities themselves in this process.

I am a historical empiricist in the sense that I believe that the historical record, whatever its nature, allows for access to what happened in the past, and that there are things that happened and things that didn’t happen. There is, if not truth, at least veracity in history. This is important to remember in an age when fake news and mistruth are being bandied about by many politicians and others. As such, I feel that continuing to rely on the historical record for evidence of the past is of great importance.

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