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Historic win

Dr. Robert Sweeny receives national book prize


By Janet Harron

Dr. Robert Sweeny is the first Memorial University faculty member to receive the Sir John A. Macdonald Prize.

He was awarded the prestigious $5,000 award in May by the Canadian Historical Association (CHA) for his book Why Did We Choose to Industrialize? Montreal, 1819-1849 (McGill-Queen’s, 2015).

Understanding the past

The association awards the prize annually to the work judged to have made the most significant contribution to an understanding of the Canadian past.

“Dr. Sweeny’s work is fundamental to understanding the accelerated evolution of Canada’s industrial capacity since the beginning of the 19th century,” said Dr. Richard Marceau, vice-president (research), at Memorial. “By demonstrating how past decisions powerfully impact society’s future choices, Dr. Sweeny is helping 21st-century Canadians rethink how they can shape the future of our country.

“As can be seen yet again in Dr. Sweeny’s work, Memorial’s reputation for transformational research is well earned,” Dr. Marceau continued. “On behalf of Memorial, I congratulate Dr. Sweeny on this tremendous achievement.”

‘Politically committed’

In its citation, the CHA describes Dr. Sweeny’s work as a “model of intellectual engagement, one that offers valuable reflections on the meaning of Canadian history and how it should be pursued from this point forward.”

The book is characterized as a “work of a politically committed historian who recognizes the political and ethical nature of historical debates” and belongs to “economic history, historical geography, and historiography.”

For his part, Dr. Sweeny plans to teach a seminar based on the book in the winter 2017 semester. It will be one of his last teaching assignments at Memorial as he plans to retire next year.

Present reflects the past

In Why Did We Choose to Industrialize?, Dr. Sweeny ties our present global conflict around resources and climate change to fundamental decisions of the past and how these can determine widespread social change. According to the author, the choice to industrialize has changed the world more than any other decision in human history.

“The choices that led to increasingly limited options for the people of Montreal in the years between 1819 and 1849 are now those that face the majority of humanity.” –Dr. Robert Sweeny

With a rise in a waged workforce, the political economy of the family shifted to an emphasis on the husband’s role as breadwinner. Options for employment of young people became limited and highly gendered as the number of skilled tradespeople declined. Hierarchical family structures were therefore created and the family became the only environment that mattered.

“We choose to industrialize because of the way that new forms of inequality undermined longstanding forms of equality and thereby created new forms of inequality. This highly divisive and destructive process changed how people thought of themselves and of their world. It changed how people interacted in their households, on the street, where they worked, and in public life. It changed how people thought of the things around them and it changed how they understood nature,” writes Dr. Sweeny in the book’s conclusion.

“The choices that led to increasingly limited options for the people of Montreal in the years between 1819 and 1849 are now those that face the majority of humanity. I hope we show greater wisdom, for our time is running out.”

The book is available locally at Broken Books, 183A Duckworth St., St. John’s.

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