Board Member Françoise Barnes Bonnell Reflects on Her Family’s 40-Year History with Canadian Studies
On the Canadian Studies Advisory Board, few have as deep ties to the program as Dr. Françoise Barnes Bonnell. The daughter of its late co-founder, Professor Thomas Garden Barnes, and his wife Jeanne-Marie Barnes, Françoise was born in England during one of her father’s sabbaticals and grew up in Berkeley but spent many summers at her family’s ancestral home in Nova Scotia. Together with her mother and family, Françoise continues to support Professor Barnes’ legacy while expanding the program’s scope and relevance. We asked her about what drives her engagement with the program, and how her experiences have convinced her of the importance of not just sustaining, but advancing her late father’s work.
Excerpts from the interview are below: read the full piece on our website
What is your family’s connection to Canada?
Our connection is through my father, Thomas Garden Barnes, who was a professor of law and history at Berkeley. His ancestors emigrated to Nova Scotia from Massachusetts in the 18th century. They built a house in Plympton, which was passed down through the generations to my father. We’d drive across country from California every year to spend the summer in Nova Scotia. I was amazed by how many family members we had up there – my father was an only child, but we had so many second and third cousins!
What inspired your father to create the Canadian Studies Program?
Because of his family connections my father always had an interest in Canada. But the real motivation came in 1979, during the Iranian Hostage Crisis. A handful of US diplomats were taken in by the Canadian embassy in Tehran. My father wrote a letter to the Canadian consul in San Francisco thanking Canada for its assistance, which started a relationship between the two of them. He had a desire to make people aware of just how close Canada has always been as an ally of the United States, not just then but going back years and years.
It was a little difficult to convince people that this program was worth it, but he was always very determined; he wouldn’t give up. And I can’t dismiss my mother’s part either. She was a huge supporter of everything my father did and continues to maintain his legacy today.
Why do you think it’s important for Americans to learn about Canada?
Personally, I feel that if we as Americans understood how much we have in common, especially from a historical perspective, we could learn so much from Canada: in our understanding of politics, how Canadians have interacted with Native people, and how they’ve learned to live in a society that’s strongly impacted by two very distinct cultures.
Many Americans don’t ever think about Canada, or consider how much it’s influenced us as a nation. A few years ago I visited the Historic Acadian Village in West Pubnico with my family. An American visitor told the cashier that he thought the music they were playing was really great, and she told him it was traditional Acadian music. He said, “Nah, that’s from the Bayou, that’s Cajun music from Louisiana.” He didn’t realize that the music he grew up with was directly influenced by the Acadians who had been expelled from Canada. In recent years I’ve come to realize we can’t take the US relationship with Canada for granted; we’ve got to work hard to forge better bonds across the border.
What do you think the program does well, and what are your goals as a board member?
The program is very strong with the comparative cultural and political aspects, and of course immigration, which is very topical. I think overall Irene has been very successful in expanding interest into so many different fields. I’m very interested in expanding the academic research aspects of the program, and encouraging a historical perspective. I think a lot about how we can attract more students to the program, and I’d like to see if we can encourage more historical research. But in the end, I think everyone on the board really wants Irene to continue doing what she’s been doing, because she’s been so successful at it. My father would be very proud of her hard work and dedication to the program’s success.
What was your favorite experience as an American in Canada?
It struck me that at the end of every summer, when we were preparing to go back to California, our friends in Plympton would say, “hopefully the year will go by quickly and you’ll be home soon.” It was surprising because as a teenager, I thought of Nova Scotia as a place where we spent the summer. And what I realized was that people there looked at our roots in Nova Scotia and thought of us as people that had to go away for the winter, but then always came back. That sense of community is incredible, and I hope to be able to go back soon.