Espace public, action collective et savoir social : Robert Gourlay et le Statistical Account of Upper Canada

  • Jean-Guy Prévost


Robert Gourlay’s A Statistical Account of Upper Canada differed radically from all the preceding emigrant guides, travelogues and other descriptive works published about Upper Canada. An overtly political dimension was evident especially in the general introduction, the full title revealing its author’s lofty ambition: resolution of the problem of poverty in Great Britain by massive emigration to under-populated Upper Canada. Developing an overall yet detailed description of conditions in the colony appeared an essential condition for the success of this enterprise. This article traces the origins of Gourlay’s account and shows to what extent its unique char- acter rests in the conjunction between the methods employed to achieve the task at hand, drawing a statistical picture of a given territory, and the grievances, until then unexpressed, of a considerable number of the inhabitants. Neither the political mobilization, nor the content, of Gourlay’s account can be separated from the cognitive forms he employed: first the survey itself, then the rhetorical forms used to give consistency and strength of conviction to the picture presented. It is this task of giving form, by constructing a pattern of material and conceptual facts intended to give territories and communities a basis for comparison, that created the concept of “the social” as knowledge.
Surveying the Social