Entretien avec Dan Horner

Dan Horner is assistant professor at Ryerson University, Department of Criminology. He holds a PhD in History from York University. His research focuses on the notion of public order and crowd events in nineteenth-century urban contexts.

An interview by Martin Robert, in preparation of the communication to be given on August 31 at 10:30 a.m. entitled « Policing the Disorderly Migrant on Montreal’s Urban Fringe, 1840-1850. »

What was your original interrogation when you started to study crowd events in nineteenth-century Montreal for your doctoral dissertation?

When I first embarked on my doctoral project my plan was to write about protest and political violence on the streets of nineteenth-century Montreal. When I began combing through the newspapers in search of reports on this, however, I realized how collective violence was unfolding against the backdrop of a much wider array of crowd events—parades, religious processions, public celebrations and funeral processions—to give just a few examples. The riots that had originally pulled me towards this topic were, in other words, just one example of many of people using the streets of a tumultuous urban environment like mid-nineteenth-century Montreal to advance their political agenda; policing riots was just one way that civic elites were wrapping their heads around the project of making an orderly city—organizing parades and other crowd events were also an important tool at their disposal.

What is now leading you to focus on the history of migrants in an urban setting?

The relationship between migrants and the city is one that I am really trying to grapple with recently. One of the ways that the transition to a capitalist global economy manifested itself in Montreal, as was the case in other cities, was through a sharp increase in the scale and pace of mobility and displacement. The city became a hub of migration, with people from near and far passing through the city in unprecedented numbers. Some of the consequences of this are obvious. The population and footprint of the city grew significantly in the second two thirds of the nineteenth century. I am trying to tease out some of the other ways in which being a hub of migration impacted the city. Some of the questions I have been trying to work through relate to how migrants used the city as a resource, as part of their strategy for surviving the process of migration at a time when there was little in the way of formal assistance available to them. What sort of imprint did this process make on the urban landscape? I am thinking here in particular of the emergence in the public imagination of immigrant neighbourhoods, as well as the infrastructure developed by the state to specifically address the migration process, like the emigrant sheds built on the banks of the Lachine Canal. I am particularly interested in thinking through the tension between how migrants interacted with the urban environment and the vision the city’s civic elites had on how to go about making Montreal an orderly city. By looking at how Montreal’s police force—which was established at this very specific historical juncture—addressed the public’s concerns about supposedly unruly migrants on the city’s urban fringe is a way of getting at some of these larger questions in my research project. Finally, the way I approach my work as a historian has always been shaped by the world that I live in, so recent debates about migration and the place of migrants in our society have certainly shaped my research on the nineteenth century.

How critical was the issue of citizenship (with regards to travel papers, residency, work, migration of relatives, etc.) for migrants arriving in Montreal in the mid 19th-century?

The period that I am looking at in this paper and in my larger project—the middle decades of the nineteenth century—was a transformative moment in the history of migration. Much of the regulatory processes that we associate with immigration—travel papers, residency requirements, etc…- were in their infancy. Officials and politicians at the imperial, colonial and local level approached these sorts of governance issues from a staunchly liberal perspective. Much of the management of transatlantic migration was left to private interests—shipping interests, landlords, etc… As the scale of migration increased, however, calls for more regulation increased. This was driven by the public’s perception that migration was out of control—they were seeing destitute migrants huddled on the city’s waterfront, and these same migrants were closely associated with outbreaks of epidemic disease. This atmosphere of crisis opened up a space for the state to play a more active role in regulating the entire migration process. In other words, the experience of a migrant setting off from Europe to Montreal in 1890 would have been fundamentally different than it was in 1840.

You seem to focus on Irish migrants for your paper. Did the social reaction vary depending on the origin or on the religion of migrants in Montreal at the time?

Thinking through the public reaction to the sharp increase in the number of Irish migrants passing through and settling in mid-nineteenth-century Montreal is challenging. While other issues of public debate tended to fall along deeply sectarian and partisan lines, the question of Irish migration defied some of these categories. These migrants elicited sympathy from a number of places. Canadian commentators saw them as fellow Catholics. Supporters of democratic reform—even in the English-speaking community—saw them as allies in a broader conflict against imperial misrule. Some members of an earlier generation of Irish migrants had inserted themselves into the city’s English-speaking Tory establishment, and advocated for a compassionate approach to their predicament. On the other hand, there is also evidence of each of these segments of Montreal’s public sphere expressing concerns about the famine migrants, particularly with regards to concerns about public health and social disorder. Events like the influx of famine migrants during this period were creating a consensus that brought together competing factions of the Montreal elite around concerns about public order. While they might have been polarized with regards to religion and ideas about democratic reform, Montreal’s elites during this period shared a growing sense that more needed to be done to make migration an orderly process, and to insure that the broader community was being shielded as much as possible from the upheaval that mass migration was thought to bring. This was, I argue, a transformative moment in which migrants were being more explicitly understood as outsiders and subjects of governance. This shift in mentality would have a profound impact on the politics around migration well into the twentieth century.

How do you analyze the relationship between the general form of government of Montrealers at the time, and the specific type of regulation experienced by migrants?

I think what we see emerging in the middle decades of the nineteenth century is a project of urban governance that is preoccupied with creating an orderly urban society. This coincided, as I noted earlier, with a massive increase in the scale of migration into the city. In this context, concerns around public order became inextricably linked to migration and urbanization. So many of the ways that people experienced a changing relationship to governance and the state during this period can be traced back to concerns about the pace of growth being produced by migration. The sight of destitute migrants congregated on street corners near the waterfront, the unruly demonstrations of striking migrant labourers and concerns about the spread of epidemic diseases in the ramshackle suburban developments on the urban fringe—all reinforced the notion that the urban landscape was a knot of social problems in dire need of reform. In the second half of the nineteenth century, Montrealers—be they migrants or long-time residents of the city—would become much more accustomed to manifestations of a more interventionist approach to urban governance. They became more likely to encounter census takers, social reformers, public schools, and ordinances around sanitation, to give just a few examples. My paper for this conference looks at how policing fits into this discussion as an institution that was created to foster public order in this larger context.

How do you, as a historian, understand the concept of “order”?

It is crucial to understand order not as a rigid concept, but as a contentious process. Because there was such a broad consensus around the need for public order, it became something of a shorthand that people would use to assert the legitimacy of their particular cultural, ideological or political vision. There was not a single coherent vision of what that meant. For example, a devout Catholic’s vision of an orderly community would certainly differ from that of a prosperous Anglo merchant’s. It could also be an incredibly broad term, encompassing everything from private behaviour to how people engaged in public life. Assertions about how to foster public order were frequently grounded in the language of race, class and gender. In looking at the press and other printed sources from this period, it is clear that the concept of order animated the public sphere. Elite Montrealers exchanged ideas with their counterparts across North America, Europe and Great Britain, who shared their anxieties about the urban condition. Similarly, an emerging working-class shared longstanding customary practices of resistance to this project, and vigorously defended their own understanding of order—one that was increasingly at odds with the audacious reforms proposed by liberal capitalists. In other words, it’s a concept that provides us an opportunity to grapple with competing ideas about how society ought to work, and about how people exercised power and resistance.

Do you have other ongoing or planned research projects?

My paper is part of my ongoing project on debates and discussions about public order in nineteenth-century Montreal and Liverpool. This work looks at how urban residents from every walk of life engaged in this project of making an orderly urban society in the midst of a series of what I refer to as crises in urban governance—outbreaks of sectarian violence, the spread of epidemic diseases, concerns about mass migration and the environmental impact of urbanization and industrialization. The way that I am approaching this project is grounded in assertions about how people were navigating the shifting way in which political authority and legitimacy were being asserted during this period. In many ways, this project flows out of my doctoral research which, as you noted earlier, was on crowds and public life in Montreal during the 1840s—my monograph on this should be out (fingers crossed) in the not too distant future.