Sarah Carter wins 2020 Killam Prize in the Humanities, first ever at the University of Alberta

Historian has reshaped our understanding of Western Canada

Donna McKinnon - 26 May 2020

When Sarah Carter was a university student in Saskatchewan in the 1970s, she, like others of her generation, wondered why western Canadian history texts were so often exclusionary, ignoring certain populations, particularly women and Indigenous peoples, while favouring conventional, male-dominated narratives.

Summer jobs at Fort Walsh and Fort Battleford made her even more determined to learn about the history of the prairies where she was born and raised,but Carter was advised that if she was intent on becoming a serious history student, she should forget about ‘local’ history, considered “parochial” at best, and look elsewhere for inspiration.

Advice, she says, that made her dig in her heels and persevere all the more.

Four decades later, the professor and Henry Marshall Tory Chair in the Department of History and Classics and the Faculty of Native Studies has transformed our knowledge of Western Canada’s past, placing Indigenous people and gender relations at the centre of this history, reshaping our understanding of Canada as a settler nation.

Today, the Canada Council for the Arts awarded Carter the 2020 Killam Prize in the Humanities, one of Canada’s most prestigious research awards. The Killam Prize is awarded annually to Canadian scholars who have made a substantial and distinguished contribution, over a significant period, to scholarly research in Canada.

“I am honoured, delighted and grateful,” says Carter of the Killam Prize, the first to be awarded in the Humanities at the University of Alberta.

“We are so fortunate to have the Killam Trusts’ support for the humanities,” she says. “Now more than ever, we need to teach people to be critical, independent thinkers.”

Carter joined the University of Alberta in 2006 following a 14 year teaching career at the University of Calgary. Prior to this, she taught at the University of Winnipeg and the University of Manitoba. She credits her early education in the public schools of Saskatoon and at the universities of Saskatchewan and Manitoba for teaching her how to think, to be curious about the world, and to write.

“Far from alone” in her academic journey, Carter has drawn inspiration throughout her career from a “community of supportive mentors colleagues, friends, family, creative thinkers in Canada and beyond”, as well as from trailblazers like Métis historian Olive Dickason who, among others, were at the forefront of what she calls the “new social history, or history from the bottom up.”

The core of her research, she says, interrogates the colonial roots of inequality and discrimination in Western Canada, namely, whose interests do these inequities serve, how and why did they become so deeply embedded and so durable in social, cultural and economic life, and how these colonial histories continue to shape the present.

This research has generated numerous books, journal articles and other publications, including her most recent book, Imperial Plots: Women, Land, and the Spadework of British Colonialism on the Canadian Prairies, which examines how women were deliberately excluded from acquiring homestead land during the development of the Canadian West. It won the Governor General’s History Award for Scholarly Research (the Sir John A Macdonald Award) in 2017, among many other accolades.

Earlier publications include Lost Harvests: Prairie Indian Reserve Farmers and Government Policies, which explores how government policies acted to undermine the success of Indigenous farming; and The Importance of Being Monogamous: Marriage and Nation-Building in Western Canada, which looks at how the monogamous model of marriage was imposed on the diverse peoples of the prairies.

Recently, her research figured prominently in the final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (Reclaiming Power and Place, v. 1a) in a chapter on colonization as gendered oppression.

Carter’s contributions to the creation of a richer and far more expansive settler-Indigenous history have been recognized with many honours and awards, including a Killam Research Fellowship, three Social Sciences and Humanities Council Fellowships, and three Canadian Historical Association’s Clio Prizes, beginning with Lost Harvests. In 2007, she was elected to the Division of the Academy of Arts and Humanities of the Royal Society of Canada.

In confronting Canada’s often troubling history and mythologies, Carter’s groundbreaking research offers a reconsideration of what it means to be “Canadian”, illuminating racial, class and gender divides that are far from resolved. As novelist William Faulkner noted, the past is never dead. It's not even past.

“So many legacies of the colonial past have proven tenacious, remaining active forces in shaping our lives, including those who have been privileged as well as those who continue to be marginalized,” says Carter. “We need an educated public to understand such critical foundations as the Indigenous treaties as agreements to share the land and resources, and we need to deeply engage with the past to understand the inequities of the present and the path forward.”