History student Grace Wilson researches food and power histories of the Dorchester Penitentiary
Fourth-year history and women’s & gender studies student Grace Wilson was always interested in studying history, but found a passion for the discipline at Mount Allison.
“History became a lot more interesting to me at Mount Allison because I discovered it was more than just memorizing, it was about interpreting and discussing,” she says.
After seeing a friend enjoy his summer research experience, Wilson decided to pursue the opportunity this summer. Traditionally her interests have been in women’s history and darker areas of history. Her dad encouraged her to pursue something lighter — food and farming. Wilson agreed, but added a local and “darker” element to the topic. Her research is on food and power histories of the Dorchester Penitentiary.
“I wanted to focus on something local as there is so much history here that I don’t know about,” she says. “The Dorchester Penitentiary has been around since 1880 and I knew there would be a wealth of information there.”
She is looking at records from the Penitentiary from 1880-1900 — the first 20 years — and researching how prisoners were used to establish a farm that sold to the community without any of the regular benefits or protections for workers.
“Food, which is a basic need, is one of the most basic ways you can police or oppress someone, such as the common punishment at the time of withholding food.”
Wilson began looking at this area through her history seminar last year and plans to develop the work into an honours thesis during her fourth year. She has accessed the provincial archives database for her research to date and plans to work with local archivists and historians to develop her work. She is looking at the hidden experiences people had at that time with food, such as women being given more food so they could continue their chores and the malnourishment of youth prisoners and the lasting effects.
“This is a part of food history people haven’t been talking about,” she says.
Wilson is being supervised by Director of Canadian Studies Dr. Andrew Nurse and Dr. Krista Johnston from Canadian studies and women’s & gender studies.
“Grace ’s research is ambitious and innovative,” says Johnston. “She has already found some promising material and I am looking forward to seeing what else she finds in her archival visits. This research will contribute to local food histories and provide a solid foundation for her honours thesis.”
Her early work has uncovered interesting areas such as the contentious dynamic between prisons who use convict labour and those who work in similar areas in the community. She has also found regular reporting from the warden, chaplains, surgeon, the matron, and the schoolmaster, where they are continuously making the same requests.
“It offers insight into working in a prison, asking for things to improve the quality of life of the prisoners, and not being answered by the larger system,” she says.
Wilson says this experience has given her insight into life as a historian and has given her confidence in her passion and ability to become an academic. She plans to continue her work in prison abolitionism after Mount Allison in a master’s program and eventually a PhD.
“I love working with people’s stories and especially those who are not often heard,” she says. “Working with people, learning about people, and helping people.”