2006 Winner - Serge Courville
|Photo: Martin Beaulieu|
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outdated farming practices.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
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
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