Exchanging Empire

Exchanging Empire: Canada, Britishness, and the Rise of the Commonwealth, 1919-1939

In the interwar period, amid changing constitutional relations between Canada and Britain, many intense and recurring encounters brought Canadians into a global dialogue. The residents of Hamilton, Ontario, for example, hosted the inaugural British Empire Games in 1930. Canadian teachers took advantage of a new government exchange program and worked temporarily in England, Scotland, South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia. Women across the country raised money and offered scholarships to students to enrol in universities in several dominions and the United Kingdom. Statisticians, university administrators, and even grammarians from many dominions and crown colonies met in London to coordinate censuses, discuss education, and impose a series of spelling reforms, all with the goal of harmonizing these matters across the emergent Commonwealth. These new interactions sought to strengthen the bonds of empire, but they also revealed the eclecticism of the supposedly “British” world they were constructing. In a time when the constitutional relationship of the empire began to destabilize, elites in Commonwealth countries such as Canada embarked on a number of imperial projects that in fact continued to decentre the empire. They began new dialogues with people in dominions such as Australia and South Africa and in crown colonies such as Bermuda, Jamaica, and British Honduras.

In this new research project, I examine how new forms of global interaction redefined ideas of empire and nation in Canada. I analyze a number of “imperial projects” in Canada in the 1920s and 1930s that were oriented around the goal of strengthening the unity of empire. Focused on the British Empire Games, various educational projects, and imperial conferences hosted in London, I am interested in how local projects with global proportions redefined Anglophones’ non-inclusive constructions of nation. I  explore the ways in which people involved in imperial projects reconciled ideas of empire with French Canada, aboriginal peoples, and the cultural pluralism brought by decades of mass immigration. At the same time, I  investigate how other groups participated in, appropriated, and rejected the ideas that emerged from global encounters. I seek to look critically at a complex exchange at the international, national, regional, and local level and recast our understanding of the Britishness of Anglophones in English Canada and in Quebec.

My article based on this new project – entitled “Citizens of Empire: Education and Teacher Exchanges in Canada and the Commonwealth, 1910-1940” – will appear in 2017 in the Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History.