Canada’s history is deeply linked to how and where we live in its vast landscapes. That was the premise of Cole Harris’s work as a historical geographer. He brought his ideas to the public through his books, particularly the Historical Atlas of Canada, Volume 1, which combines gorgeous photos and originally created maps with articles about Canada’s history up to 1800.
“He was always interested in the spaces where he was living,” says Douglas Harris, his son. “He was intensely interested in B.C. and in Canada. He was interested in how people inhabited spaces.”
Prof. Harris wrote books that appealed to a wide audience and he had considerable influence on the academic discipline of historical geography through his 50-year tenure at the University of British Columbia.
“He was a towering influence in historical geography, right from the beginning,” says Trevor Barnes, who worked with Prof. Harris at UBC. “He was known for meticulous scholarship and connecting the historical record with the land. He was really a moral and intellectual anchor for the geography department.”
Prof. Harris began his career by exploring how land – and wealth – was organized under the seigneurial system in Lower Canada, spent eight years putting together the atlas, which came out in 1987, and then tried to understand how the relationship between settlers and Indigenous peoples shaped Canada.
“He talked to Indigenous leaders and elders to get a sense of what happened. I don’t know anyone had a good sense at that time – no one laid it out – how the reserve system had been carried out and all the larger intellectual and legal frameworks that made it possible,” Prof. Barnes says.
He published extensively on the topic, including Making Native Space: Colonialism, Resistance, and Reserves in British Columbia in 2003 and took a national view in 2008 in The Reluctant Land: Society, Space, and Environment in Canada. That book, which outlines how European settlers reorganized land in what became Canada, won UBC Press’s Srivastava Prize for Excellence in Scholarly Publishing.
Prof. Harris also wrote about a more personal piece of historical geography and the farm his grandfather bought in 1888 in the book Ranch in the Slocan: A Biography of a Kootenay Farm, 1896 – 2017. The farm was expropriated as a Japanese internment camp during the Second World War and remains in the family to this day.
Prof. Harris, who died at age 86 on Sept. 26 from complications related to cancer, was inducted as an officer of the Order of Canada in 2004, was named a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 1982, earned the Canadian Historical Association’s MacDonald Prize in 1988 for the atlas and was given the Royal Canadian Geographical Society’s Gold and Massey medals.
Richard Colebrook Harris, who went by Cole, was born on July 4, 1936, in Vancouver. His father, Dick, worked as a teacher and his mother, Ellen (née Code) hosted a regional CBC Radio arts show for many years. He had a younger sister, Susan.
“There were always a lot of books in the Harris home,” childhood friend Justice Cunliffe Barnett recalls.
Cole had rheumatic fever as a child, and missed a lot of school. When the illness was over, it was over. “He wasn’t just recovered, but he was running and competing and winning. This was someone who had been confined to his bed and at home for quite a long period of time,” Mr. Barnett says.
After completing a degree in geography and history at UBC, he began graduate studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison under influential Canadian historical geographer Andrew Clark.
In 1961, his sister introduced him to Muriel Watney, whom she knew from a choir at UBC, and the two married in 1964.
After finishing a PhD in 1964, Prof. Harris joined the geography department at the University of Toronto, and became immersed in a heated debate over the future of historical geography. While Prof. Harris wanted the field to focus on the humanistic side, others argued for a more scientific approach. That argument was bolstered by a proclamation, recalls Graeme Wynn – who was a graduate student at the time and later moved to UBC, and is now a professor emeritus – that the subfield of historical geography “has all the expectations of continuation [that] a mule might have of generating progeny.”
Prof. Harris replied to this accusation with a 1970 discussion paper called “Reflections on the Fertility of the Historical Geographical Mule.”
Prof. Wynn says that paper endeared a lot of people of Prof. Harris’s way of thinking. “He really helped to breathe continuing life into historical geography.”
In 1971, he took a post at UBC. His wife, meanwhile, who is also an academic, took a job at the university as a medical geneticist. In those years, their three children were born.
While he published prolifically in his time at UBC, he was also a dedicated teacher and generous mentor. When Graeme Wynn was doing research in Ottawa as a new grad student, he had yet to meet Prof. Harris when the elder academic, who was on sabbatical in Ottawa, offered Mr. Wynn a ride from Toronto to Ottawa and a place to stay.
“It’s a sign of his mentorship and his and his family’s generosity towards a young scholar. That continued over the next five decades or more,” Prof. Wynn says.
Prof. Harris often took students on field trips, as he believed geography had to be experienced on the land.
“While other families would be going off to Disneyland or somewhere south for their holidays, we would go up into the Fraser Canyon and he’d test a field trip on us,” Douglas Harris recalls.
He was also an effective teacher in the classroom. “He was a great communicator, both on his feet in a lecture hall and through his written work,” Douglas Harris says. “He could speak and write in a way that connected with a great many audiences.”
Prof. Barnes says Prof. Harris always wrote in short, clear sentences and modelled his writing on that of Ernest Hemingway. The one time Prof. Barnes tried to edit his colleague’s work, “He was not impressed.”
After his retirement from UBC in 2001, at which time he became professor emeritus, Prof. Harris continued to write, publishing his final book in 2020. “He stayed as engaged as a scholar in those years as he did as a faculty member,” Douglas Harris says.
Friends and family remember Prof. Harris as always eager to talk about ideas, and passionate about land and history.
But he wasn’t much on technology, Prof. Barnes recalls. “He was the typical absent-minded professor. He really struggled to understand the computer.” Colleagues were always being called into Prof. Harris’s office to help with a computer problem. “It was always something that was very easy to fix.”
Along with gardening and woodworking, Prof. Harris was devoted to his family – always making time to attend, say, his daughter’s dance performances when she was young – and to this country.
“I don’t know another person who has more passion for Canada. He always wanted to talk about what was happening now and trying to understand it in historical context,” Prof. Barnes says. “He wasn’t a nationalist, but was fundamentally interested in how this country worked and how it came to be.”
Prof. Harris leaves his wife; his children, Douglas, Colin and Rachel; their partners; and eight grandchildren.