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Massey Medal

2003 Winner - Dr. Richard Colebrook Harris

The People’s Geographer

Cole Harris edited the first volume of the Historical Atlas of Canada, which covers topics such as the evolution of housing in 18th-century Quebec (below)
(Photo: Marina Dodis)
Since boyhood, Cole Harris has been fascinated by history’s imprint on the landscape. It started on his grandfather’s farm in British Columbia’s Kootenay region, a "node of European settlement" in a vast land. His interest in the relationship between people and place was rekindled during a sojourn at the Université de Montpellier in southern France in 1959, where he spent his spare hours cycling through the countryside. "The medieval past was everywhere. There were traces of the Roman world and a few traces of the Greeks and the Moors," says the 67-year-old professor emeritus of geography at the University of British Columbia. "All of this was written on the landscape, and it was just enticing for a young man from Western Canada."

Today, Harris is one of Canada’s leading historical geographers. His contributions to the field have been honoured with the 2003 Massey Medal for outstanding achievement in Canadian geography. Established by Governor General Vincent Massey in 1959, the award is administered by The Royal Canadian Geographical Society.

Harris has published seminal works on the seigneurial system in New France, Canada before Confederation and relations between First Nations and European immigrants. His role as editor of the first volume of the Historical Atlas of Canada earned him recognition beyond academic circles. The innovative atlas, published in 1987 after eight years of consuming work, deals with the lives and economies of ordinary folk, from prehistoric times to 1800.

"Among geographers, he is one of our leading academics," says Brian Osborne, a geography professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., who has known Harris since 1967. "But he also deals in thoughts and issues that make him a public intellectual, with ideas that transcend the ivory tower and relate to society at large."

While geography opens a window on the past, it also helps to shed light on the present. Harris’ studies have touched on crucial Canadian issues, such as the evolution of our national identity and the rights of First Nations. "I have spent most of my life exploring the past geographies of Canada with a view to understanding some of our current conundrums," says Harris. "In some ways, this country is not comprehensible other than through a geographical perspective."

—Monique Roy-Sole

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