The OHS remembers Dr. Jean Robertson Burnet, June 10, 1920 – September 14, 2009.
Canada has lost a distinguished scholar and teacher who made a very significant contribution to the study of our Canadian society. The OHS has lost an historian, author, editor, lecturer, volunteer, donor and one of its greatest friends.
We must also remember first and foremost Jean’s love and devotion to her dogs and cats.
Born in 1920, Jean grew up in Owen Sound where she developed a keen interest in the politics and natural heritage of Grey County. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Chicago and Jean, as a young woman pursuing a scholarly career, was indeed a pioneer. Jean became a sociologist and her teaching career began at the University of Toronto (1945-1967). She went on to become the founding chair (1967-1972 & 1974-76) of the Department of Sociology, Glendon College, York University.
In 1951 Jean published Next Year Country, which examined the social dynamics of a small prairie town during the Great Depression. Many of our members will be familiar with Jean’s classic “Coming Canadians” An Introduction to a History of Canada’s Peoples, written with Harold Palmer and published in 1988. Her many books and countless articles clearly established the groundwork for the field of ethnic studies in Canada.
In memory of Jean, Dr. Tamara Palmer Seiler, University of Calgary, in a letter to me accurately summarized her impact. “In short, Jean was a role model for young scholars, perhaps particularly for those who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s and who found in her work a point of departure for their own, and in her determination and courage, they found great inspiration.”
For over 65 years Jean had a variety of relationships with the OHS. As a young student, Jean used the Papers and Records of the Ontario Historical Society (the name was changed to Ontario History in 1947) in preparing two theses. Jean wrote, “I remember with special pleasure the ‘Proudfoot Papers’ which appeared in the 1930s, the diary of the Reverend William Proudfoot, a Presbyterian clergyman with strong opinions and many children. There was also narrative history, some of it high quality, by both amateur and professional historians, but many of the documents had an appealing immediacy.”
Jean was the author of the first publication in the OHS Research Series, launched in 1972. Ethnic Groups in Upper Canada was to set a high standard for the series, and Jean continued to set an incredibly high standard in everything that she did for the Society.
In 1988, the OHS and the Multicultural History Society of Ontario established The History of Ontario’s Peoples Grant Programme, with support from the former Ontario Ministry of Culture and Communications. I was hired by the co-chairs, Jean Burnet and Dorothy Duncan to develop and administer a new grant programme for not-for-profit organizations and First Nations Band Councils. The application form stated that “a project had to promote a greater understanding and appreciation of the history of one or more of the many peoples of Ontario. A project had to concentrate on raising the public awareness of the history of Ontario of a particular culture or cultures.” We were swamped with applications each year and in five years we funded over 200 projects.
It is very hard to believe now that the OHS actually gave out grants from 1988-1993 but Jean cherished this programme. She was one of those unique scholars, modest, humble and unpretentious, who could relate to the diverse cultures of Ontario and work effectively at the grassroots level. She also believed in the importance of local and oral history.
From 1990-1995, Jean was the editor of our scholarly journal, Ontario History. Her first edition was appropriately a special issue devoted to women’s history. Jean never looked back and over the next five years she broke new ground and pioneered many themes and fields. There were other special issues on the First Nations, on early education and on museums. In September 1993, there were two articles written by members of the First Nations. The March 1994 edition, Nineteenth Century Wikwemikong: The Foundation of a Community and an Exploration of its Peoples completely sold out in a few weeks. The OHS reprinted another 1,000 copies and they in turn were quickly sold: this remains today a record for Ontario History.
Jean did not expect that “looking after Ontario History would be so rewarding.” Her editorship had the enduring characteristics of inclusiveness and the goals of high standards of research and writing. Because of these achievements, Jean contributed immeasurably not only to the history of Ontario but also to the development of the discipline of history.
From 1992-95, Jean helped the OHS to stop the demolition of the John McKenzie House and then supported and donated generously to the restoration of the Society’s new headquarters. In the next few years, Jean picked up the pace, speaking on our behalf at conferences, seminars and workshops across Ontario. She assumed the editorship of our popular Hometown History, with a chapter that she authored titled “Including Ethnic and Cultural Groups in Your Local History”. For the OHS publication, My Cultural Handbook, Jean wrote an article “Festivals of the Newcomers in 20th Century Ontario”.
Through this engagement Jean developed as an activist for the Society. She joined us at demonstrations at Queen’s Park to protest the relocation of the Ministry of Culture and the destruction of archival documents. She listened carefully to our member organizations that were very concerned about the fate of Grosse Île. She then researched, wrote and gave presentations on “the Irish Quarantine Tragedy”. The Government of Canada ultimately appointed Jean to a special “Advisory Panel on Grosse Île.” Jean was very engaged with this file and helped influence recommendations for greater preservation of this important national historic site.
From 1995-2003, the OHS appealed various Provincial Orders to relocate pioneer cemeteries in the public interest for real estate development. Jean attended every single public hearing, often helping us late at night to review testimony and prepare questions for the next day. Jean realized that if you believed the OHS represented all the cultures of Ontario and its mandate was to preserve and protect the history of all the peoples of this province, then it was your fundamental duty to defend everyone’s burial place. In other words, she exemplified the notion of the public interest.
On a cold, damp November afternoon in 2001, Jean supported the OHS vigil in front of St. James Cathedral, protesting the Cathedral’s application to relocate, in the public interest, the northern half of the burying ground for luxury condominiums.
Jean was awarded the Cruikshank Gold Medal “for outstanding contributions to the OHS…for all that you have done, and continue to do for the Society.”
We miss you Jean – your splendid humour, your careful editorial pencil, your warmth, your dignity, and your wisdom. You made our country more decent, tolerant and civilized. In 1989 Jean was recognized by the Government of Canada when she received the Order of Canada.
We were both humbled and thrilled to be informed that IN THE LAST WILL AND TESTAMENT of JEAN ROBERSTON BURNET, of the City of Toronto, in the Province of Ontario, her ESTATE is instructed “to deliver the sum of TWENTY-FIVE THOUSAND ($25,000.00) DOLLARS to the Cemetery Defence Fund of The Ontario Historical Society.”
On behalf of the membership of the OHS – Thank you again Jean! Your incredible generosity inspires us with new confidence and will sustain us for future challenges.
The Ontario Historical Society