Interview with Jarrett Rudy

The members of the Centre d’histoire des régulations sociales were deeply saddened by the news of the death of our friend and colleague Jarrett Rudy. As an initial tribute, while we await a more propitious time to fully express our gratitude, we are republishing an interview that he gave to Cory Verbauwhede for the CHRS blog. In it, Jarrett discusses his intellectual path and goes over the main milestones of his training and career. He exposes his theoretical influences and discusses the approach that led him to develop original research projects on tobacco and alcohol consumption and on the regulation of time.

His major contribution to the history of alcohol and tobacco is of course well known to historians throughout Quebec and Canada. The same can probably not be said for his more recent and very stimulating reflections on the standardization of “time across space,” and its links to the transformation of power relations and to the processes of state formation. This interview allows one to learn more about that research project, which was one of the most important and original ones to have been conducted in the field of Quebec history in the last few years.

Those of us who had the immense pleasure of knowing Jarrett will hear his warm voice and see his radiant face shine through the interview. They will also recognize his great generosity, which gave him the ability to self-efface and to thereby see the world through the eyes of others, and notably through those of marginalized people. They will remember the extent to which his personality was closely linked to his cultural history project, which aimed to bear witness to forms of oppression based on class, gender or race, from the point of view of those who were their targets and of those who fought against them.

Jarrett, both as a person and as a historian, is irreplaceable. We will miss him terribly.

Adieu cher ami,

Martin Petitclerc
For all of us at the Centre d’histoire de régulations sociales


Interview with Jarrett Rudy
5 July 2018

Jarrett Rudy, professor of Quebec and Canadian history at McGill University, is the author of The Freedom to Smoke: Tobacco Consumption and Identity (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005). He was a co-editor of Quebec Questions: Quebec Studies for the Twentieth Century (Oxford University Press, 2011 and 2016) and of the Studies on the History of Quebec series at McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Cory Verbauwhede: Tell us a little about your academic background.

Jarrett Rudy: In a nutshell, I would describe my work as analyzing how large structures influence daily life and how people interact with them. As a doctoral student, I was immersed in the new cultural history of the 1990s. The approach favoured by new cultural historians is to pay attention to the meanings people in the past gave to their own worlds. Because many of us wanted to go beyond studying rich people who left many sources, we chose to try to better understand the objects, rituals, and cultural practices of the less affluent. When I started my Ph.D. in 1994, it was a hot new sub-discipline. 

I had done my master’s research on the Guelph, Ontario-based Sleeman Breweries and had been fascinated by the cultural debates over prohibition in Sleeman’s hometown. Descendants of German immigrants saw beer as what they drank with dinner, whereas those who voted for prohibition defined it as “vice.” Newly based at McGill, I was ready to see smoking as a cultural ritual in Montreal. I was interested in how the advent of the mass-produced cigarette changed the cultural meaning of smoking. It took me a while to get to my final approach, however. Initially, I thought that I would do a business history of the tobacco industry, but that was naïve, since there was absolutely no access to their archives!

Since I wasn’t finding the heart of my subject, I thought that I’d perhaps change my angle and look at it from a labour perspective. That’s how I stumbled upon the Cigar Makers’ Official Journal published by the Cigar Makers’ International Union of America.There was a lot about strikes and lockouts, but again, I couldn’t seem to find the spark I was looking for. Then, one day, I happened upon statements from the local union chapter in Montreal denouncing the use of Canadian tobacco. To them it was a “weed”; it was “vile” and “awful” and had to be “stamped out.” Interestingly, this echoed complaints I had found in the trade journals of the tobacco industry also saying that Canadian tobacco was “vile” and should be made illegal. In that moment I knew I had found my subject. Something fundamental escaped me and I wondered what I was not understanding. As they say, “the past is a foreign country”…

As I dug deeper, I discovered that Canadian tobacco was actually French-Canadian tobacco and  that there were dramatically different views about whether or not this tobacco was “good” and how it reflected on its smokers. French-Canadian tobacco gained its distinct smell because French-Canadian farmers grew it as a second or third crop. It was harvested and dried irregularly and different strains of tobacco were mixed together. During this period, tobacco growth was industrializing and, as a result, its taste and smell was standardizing. Such was not the case for le tabac canadien. French Canadian tobacco stood out. For some, it was a taste and smell that evoked la patrie. Notable politicians like Henri Bourassa smoked it, making non-verbal statements about their identities through their taste in tobacco. As more and more French Canadians moved to Montreal, some found that their tobacco was no longer viewed as patriotic and was henceforth associated with being “backwards” or “uncivilized.”

These discoveries led me to the debate about the meaning of a commodity’s value: to The Social Life of Things by Arjun Appadurai; to Nature’s Metropolis by William Cronon (an environmental history of Chicago); and to Civic Wars by Mary Ryan (about Republican parades and early debates about values, architecture, and city spaces). All these works had in common a study of the value that was instilled in things and rituals. It also brought me to thinking about the meaning of liberalism and the role of things in its construction and conservation. Both Jean-Marie Fecteau and Ian McKay were writing about liberalism at the same time and I was certainly influenced by both of them. Historian Matthew Hilton had shown, in Smoking in British Popular Culture, how the ritual of smoking was linked to nineteenth century liberalism, in that the hierarchies, inclusions and exclusions it helped to normalize through social markers were those of liberalism itself. It was thus no accident that the ideal smoker was an upper-middle-class adult male. Another example: remember that the Suffragettes demanded the right to smoke!

CV: After the period covered in your book, how has the relationship between smoking and liberalism evolved?

JR: Well, two forces undermined the belief that there ever had been the “freedom” to smoke. The first blow came in the early 1980s when serious studies on the effect of second-hand smoke began to be published. In a liberal society, one person’s liberty ends where another one’s begins, and harming other people was certainly going beyond the limit of such liberty. The right to smoke became less and less tenable in a liberal society. 

Then came the US Surgeon-General’s announcement that cigarettes are addictive, in 1988-89. The addiction issue made assertions of the freedom to smoke a difficult fiction to maintain. In the context of countries in which there was some kind of national health plan, the health effects of smoking are a public expense, though the first response to that argument from Imperial Tobacco was brutal: it claimed that if people smoked more, more people would die. Long-term care wouldn’t be necessary and therefore the effects on the public purse would be positive!

CV: Do the smoking habits of Quebeckers stand out in your research?

JR: It is true that Quebec had one of the highest rates of smoking of any province in Canada. This can partly be explained by the fact that North American anti-smoking movements grew out of a specific kind of Protestantism that was particularly weak in Quebec. Yet Quebec’s high smoking rates were also linked to the socio-economic place of Quebec francophones and the fact that cigarettes were a cheap pleasure. A third reason smoking may have been particularly popular in Quebec is that the Canadian tobacco industry was largely based here and provided many with jobs.

Regardless of what reason was most significant, the tobacco industry certainly thought that Quebeckers were friendlier towards tobacco than people in other provinces. In Canada, Big Tobacco wanted all court cases to be in Quebec. To give one example, the Tobacco Products Control Act (TPCA), a federal law from 1988, was challenged in Quebec, and ultimately the Supreme Court struck it down. Important Quebec union leaders and politicians certainly defended the tobacco industry. It is worth mentioning that Quebec now is closer to the Canadian average in terms of smoking rates.

CV: You have also worked on the concepts of time and modernity and the link between them.

JR: Yes, I’m working on a history of time-telling in Canada East and Quebec, from the 1840s to the 1970s. I’m particularly interested in large-scale efforts to institutionalize systems of time-telling and how these mediated social relations. I was inspired by three different theoretical bodies of work. First, like many left-leaning academics, I was fascinated by E.P. Thompson’s work on “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism.” His work has inspired generations of labour historians to think about clocks as efforts to socially control workers. In a different register, sociologists like Anthony Giddens and Zygmunt Bauman have asserted the importance of the standardization of time to understanding the all-encompassing nature of the experience of modernity. Theoretically, standard time represented a dramatic transformation in authority: time was no longer given by God and expressed through nature. It was a marker established through the railway and expressed publicly through human-made technology (clocks). Finally, I was inspired by postcolonial writers and historians who were thinking about how ideas spread through colonial spaces. I took on this project at the start of my mandate as Director of McGill’s Quebec Studies Program and I was serious about extending my research interests outside of Montreal to the province of Quebec, as a whole.

CV: How did you go about doing that?

JR: I began by asking some fundamental “Quebec questions”: How did most Quebeckers come to understand one notion of time, based on a clock? How did the transmission of “time over space” work in the enormous space of what is now Quebec? What temporal systems existed in Quebec before standard time? What bodies institutionalized the new time? How did the Catholic Church and other churches react? What was the role of the State? Was the Quebec history of the standardization of time unique?

Standard time actually has a long history in Canadian nationalist historiography. The story revolves around railway engineer Sandford Fleming who, it is said, invented standard time in the 1870s when each city had its own time (just like in the US). On November 18th, 1883 (the “day of the two noons”) North American railways adopted standard time. According to this nationalist tale, after the railways acted, governments officialized the measure at an 1884 international conference in Washington. The 1884 agreement was largely a result of Fleming’s diplomacy – in other words, Canada was on the map!

Skeptical of this nation-building story, I looked for a law that would have implemented standardized time in Canada, but found none. Providing the legal foundations for standard time was actually a protracted process, and until the First World War, every federal effort failed. Lower-level governments adopted an official time for their own activities and clocks and local federal government offices followed these norms. Yet these were not legal times that people in these jurisdictions were required to follow. For the most part, this liberal understanding of time (small government) put debates about time into the sphere of everyday power relations. Judges looked at their watch and decreed “their” time was the official time of their courts; schools started daily when teachers said it was time and factories ran on their own time established by managers and owners. This was not a one-way phenomenon: in the early twentieth century employers were accused of “playing with the clock” and students and parents complained that teachers’ clocks were wrong and some teachers even lost their jobs on this account.

When groups wanted to change their time, however, the liberal system created complicated situations. In 1923, for example, the city of Montreal didn’t adopt Daylight Saving Time (DST) but many businesses did. Verdun followed Montreal and didn’t adopt DST but Outremont and Westmount followed the time of businesses (DST). The Catholic Church followed the Montreal municipal government and kept standard time. The island of Montreal became a patchwork of time zones that changed depending on the municipality and the institution! Local power was complicated and, as a result, standardizing time was clearly more than the nationalist story of Fleming’s diplomacy, sociological theory or Thompson’s time and work discipline.

Like in my history of smoking, I’ve attempted to follow meanings in circulation. This meant exploring the ways in which the State, the Catholic Church, factories and schools looked to assert notions of time. This exploration led me to think about the technologies (in a large sense) that have told or institutionalized time and their efficiency in communicating temporal messages. How were regular daily messages of time expressed across space? Indeed, Catholic Church bells, telegraph/railways, the law, radio and television structured debates over time in ways that are not always clear in historical and sociological writings. How did Indigenous people view the time expressed through the church bells of missionaries and the new parishes being established in Quebec during the second half of the nineteenth century? Why were a massive number of public clocks established on buildings across Quebec in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries? What was the importance of the advent of the television in the 1950s and 1960s when Eastern Quebec went back-and-forth between Eastern and Atlantic time?

CV: Could you say a bit more about your connection to the Centre d’histoire des régulations sociales and perhaps other centres you are involved with?

JR: My connection to the CHRS goes back a long way. When I arrived at McGill, I became a member of the Montreal History Group (MHG), and every year or two the two centres would organize May Day conferences on questions like culture and legal history, for example. There was a lot of overlap. On those occasions we would pool our resources to think critically about the past and the social history of Quebec. That is not to say that we were always aligned in our perspectives: Jean-Marie was more top-down; foucauldian. He was interested in the analysis of power relationships. Our group, on the other hand, was very much influenced by different strands of social history that took bottom-up approaches. For some it was more thompsonian, in that it looked at how people build their own worlds. These distinctions between the two groups have blurred over the years. For example, Jean-Marie redefined his conception of “social regulation” in La Liberté du pauvre, his 2004 book. It was an extremely intricate analysis of how rules and regulations shape our everyday lives. The CHRS has always had an amazing energy, which comes in part from the fact that it attracts people who think social change and history necessarily go together.

Groups like the CHRS and the MHG create an intellectual life for historians. They are crucial in the renewal of the discipline. It is also important that there be multiple approaches. One of the CHRS’s blind spots under Jean-Marie was gender analysis. More broadly, cultural diversity in the historical profession is a problem in Montreal and Quebec, and even in Canada. It is dramatic at the Institut d’histoire de l’Amérique française (IHAF): there are perhaps one or two people of colour. There are some signs of improvement, though. Steven High and the Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling at Concordia has successfully engaged with Montreal’s diversity and pluralism. It has set up working groups of communities who fled and/or survived genocides (Haitians, Cambodians, Vietnamese, Jews). These working groups were trained in oral history techniques and conduct interviews building their own histories. Another inspiring Concordia example was a Pointe-Saint-Charles event in April of last year: the class was organized at the Concordia archives, with holdings that were left by the Negro Community Centre; photos and other primary sources, alongside students’ posters and papers, were displayed in Little Burgundy, at the Universal Negro Improvement Association’s Liberty Hall. It was packed with people from the community who talked about the pictures and documents and gave contextual pointers. It was an enormous success, built upon a solid archival base, and created an even richer community archive.

Further reading:

  • The Freedom to Smoke: Tobacco Consumption and Identity McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005.
  • “Maternalisme, conflit de classe et les débuts de l’heure avancée à Trois-Rivières, de 1918 à 1937,” Revue d’histoire de l’Amérique française, Vol. 66, No 3-4 (hiver-printemps 2013): 395-417.
  • “Do You Have the Time? Modernity, Democracy, and the Beginnings of Daylight Saving Time in Montreal, 1907–1928,” Canadian Historical Review, Vol. 93, No 4 (Déc. 2012): 531-554.

Pour lire la version française.