Lecture looks at what it took to be a real man in the 18th and 19th centuries

What made a man in the 18th and 19th century? That’s what York Professor Carolyn Podruchny, graduate director of the Department of History, will reveal at her public lecture tomorrow as part of the Canada: Like You've Never Heard It Before Speakers' Series.

Podruchny’s talk, “Tough Bodies, Fast Dogs, Well-Dressed Wives: Measures of Manhood Among French-Canadian Voyageurs in the North American Fur Trade”, will take place tomorrow, from 2:30 to 4pm, at 010 Vanier College, Vanier Senior Common Room, Keele campus.

She will discuss French Canadian and Métis voyageurs working in the fur trade. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the voyageurs developed a range of masculine ideals that worked together to promote a particular trope of manhood among this workforce. Men were expected to perform near miraculous feats of labour by paddling continuously for weeks on end, barely stopping to sleep and eat, carrying impossibly heavy packs across slippery and steep portages, and shooting through dangerous rapids, says Podruchny.

They challenged each other to develop bodies that were as tough as possible through games of speed, endurance and strength. They distinguished categories within the workforce. Pork eaters were denigrated as lesser men; North men were considered to be tougher; Athabasca men the toughest, she says.

Tough man ideals included taking risks, being jovial and stoic in the face of hardship, and standing up to the dangers of the wild. Voyageurs also idealized largess, spending money on luxury goods, such as decorating their possessions, feasting and drinking, and wooing women with extravagant gifts. The range of these ideals created distinct values in fur trade and Métis communities that stood out sharply from their bosses, missionaries, and later white settlers who began to intrude in the northwest starting in the 1870s.

Left: Carolyn Podruchny

Podruchny work focuses on the history of French and indigenous contact in early Canada. She is the author of Making the Voyageur World: Travelers and Traders in the North American Fur Trade (University of Toronto Press, 2006) and co-editor of Gathering Places: Aboriginal and Fur Trade Histories (University of British Columbia Press, 2010).

The 2010-2011 Canada: Like You’ve Never Heard It Before Speakers' Series features public lectures by prominent York Canadianists. Co-sponsored by the Canadian Studies Program and the Canadian Studies club, this interdisciplinary series demonstrates the breadth and depth of both Canadianist research at York and the work of outside authors.  

This series is co-sponsored by Vanier College, Winters College, New College, Stong College, Calumet College and Founders College, as well as the Office of the Dean of the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies.