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Massey Medal

2006 Winner - Serge Courville

Photo: Martin Beaulieu

History sleuth
Serge Courville likens much of his academic work to solving a puzzle. The professor emeritus of geography at Université Laval spent years charting the development of the 19th-century rural landscape in his native Quebec to understand how its society evolved. He mapped census divisions and subdivisions, retracing the boundaries of seigneuries, parishes and municipalities. In the end, his sleuthing shook up long-held assumptions about historical rural Quebec.

For instance, Courville’s findings suggest that it was not an isolated, non-entrepreneurial backwater. Historians had long attributed an "agricultural crisis" in the St. Lawrence Lowland in the early 1800s — a decline in wheat production and exports — to outdated farming practices. By mapping reams of data, Courville discovered that farmers in Lower Canada (now Quebec) diversified their crops and began supplying local markets because towns and rural industries were rapidly growing and because the farmers could no longer compete with cheaper wheat in Upper Canada. Far from facing a crisis, farmers were adapting to socio-economic changes also affecting North America and Europe.

Through such meticulous empirical research and sharp analysis, Courville has made his mark as one of Canada’s leading historical geographers. He is being honoured with the 2006 Massey Medal for outstanding achievement in Canadian geography. Established by Governor General Vincent Massey in 1959, the award is administered by The Royal Canadian Geographical Society.

During his 22 years at Laval, Courville authored or co-authored some 17 books, including an ambitious comparative study of colonization and immigration in Canada. He also oversaw the publication of several collections, such as the seven-volume Atlas historique du Québec. "A geographer always dreams of producing a map or atlas," says Courville. "It’s a trademark!"

An advocate of hands-on teaching, Courville invited his graduate students to contribute to the historical atlases. He is a "strong pedagogue," says Brian Osborne, professor emeritus of geography at Queen’s University who has known Courville for 30 years. "He’s been a leading figure as a professor, and he produced quite a group of welltrained historical geographers."

Courville is not yet done with the puzzle of changing boundaries. He is currently serving on the Commission de la représentation électorale, which is redrawing the electoral map of Quebec.

— Monique Roy-Sole

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