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One of the most interesting projects to ever land in my lap is the new Women For Saskatchewan site.

Back in August, I was contacted by the one and only Winter Fedyk . She said, I have this idea. I want to build a website and invite Saskatchewan women to write posts. The posts can be about anything they want, but with a view to giving policy suggestions for Saskatchewan. What do you think?

Well, when an opportunity like that drops into your lap, you say yes, and fast!

I was smack dab in the middle of the release and online launch of my most recent book A Radiant Life (I have a blog post or two about that story…) so I was a bit busy to start with. Then, things really got rolling and the site launched on October 1st.

What a whirlwind! I had a post on the site right off the bat, from the launch. It’s my challenge for Saskatchewan’s new Chief Firearms Officer, and it’s not what you might think. People see the word ‘firearms’ and they think ‘gun control.’ But that’s not what I call for. It’s a really personal story. I talk about my family’s walk through gun suicide, and what I think we, as a gun community, can do to help address that issue. The post started as a Twitter thread; the blog version is tighter, tougher, and direct.

The blog post led to a call from CBC Saskatchewan — would you please talk about this idea on the radio? So there I was with Stefani Langenegger, chatting on CBC Morning.

A week or so after the first post, I had another post drop into the site. This one also has a story, and argues that Saskatchewan has a map problem. It’s a piece that I had in my mind from the minute that Winter contacted me: Merle, what policy issues would you bring up? I thought: Saskatchewan has a map problem. And that became the title, and the argument.

Then, things somehow started to snowball. First, Loleen Berdahl, the new Executive Director of the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy, asked me to join a lunchtime political panel hosted by the Department of Political Studies at USask. I stepped in at the last minute as one of the panelists came down with an illness, but it was nonetheless an illuminating and really fun event.

My task was to bring in a farm and rural perspective to the debate, so I did — pointing out that a few things look quite different from the farmgate versus the city. The points caused a lot of head-nodding, and a few ‘I never thought of that’ comments. The “I never thought of those points” responses were reiterated a couple of days later during a Women for Saskatchewan editorial meeting. I thought … hmmm… I seem to be onto something. So another tweet string erupted!

The tweet string brought lots of comments, retweets and likes, which always indicates when I’ve hit a bit of touchstone. So the Women For Saskatchewan Editorial committee decided, hey, let’s make this into a podcast!

So we did…

It’s been an absolute joy to be a part of this amazing initiative — and I’m excited to see where it’s going to go. Please, please, take your time and go through the Women for Saskatchewan site. There are so many excellent, visceral, deeply intriguing or painful or sharp or insightful articles. I promise, they are well worth your time.

Live book launch link

The University of Saskatchewan hosted an online book for A Radiant Life on September 15th 2020.

A Radiant Life Launchhttps://youtu.be/qyylYhMvFF4

It’s here! It’s here! It’s here!

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The University of Regina Press has released my new book, A Radiant Life: The Honourable Sylvia Fedoruk Scientist, Sports Icon and Stateswoman. 

Isn’t that the most spectacular cover you’re ever seen? At first I was, hey, it should be green! She was Saskatchewan’s best and loudest cheerleader and that’s our provincial colour. But my son said, Mom, she was the lieutenant governor. The Queen’s colour is purple. And I thought — that’s right.

It’s been such a journey. I began thinking about the book along with Dr. Stuart Houston in about 2013, and began writing in 2015, off the side of my desk in the bits and drabs of time I could give. In 2018, I was awarded a Saskatchewan Arts Board Independent Artist grant, which gave me four months of concerted time. A full manuscript in January 2019 (much too long) got edited (40,000 words cut) at a writers’ retreat at St. Peter’s Abbey in Muenster in early May 2019. A lot of polishing, editing and copyediting, choosing photographs, typesetting and printing and ta-dah — it’s here!

The team at University of Regina Press has been absolutely stellar. From Karen Clark who gave me encouragement to keep going, to Kelly Laycock the managing editor, Sean Prpick who was my original editor (I could tell when he got to certain chapters — he got really excited!), Duncan Campbell the artistic director, and ZG Stories who has taken on the marketing and publicity for the book, I just couldn’t be better served by a Saskatchewan-based publisher — and I know that’s what Sylvia Fedoruk would have wanted.

I have an invitation for you: The University of Saskatchewan (which is both my and Sylvia’s alma mater) is hosting an online book launch on September 15th at 7pm. You can register for the event here, and an email link to the online launch will be sent to you in about a week. Please join us!

Timeline of Sylvia Olga Fedoruk: 

Born: May 5, 1927 at Canora, Saskatchewan

4. Sylvia and Annie 1927

Annie Fedoruk and Syl, 1927

Schooling: Chaucer and Scotland Schools, near Wroxton Saskatchewan. Then move to Walkerville, Ontario during WWII.

3. Sylvia in 1945 riding a bike

Syl Fedoruk, Walkerville Ontario 1945

Sylvia Fedoruk returned to Saskatchewan with her family in 1946 and entered the University of Saskatchewan. She took medals on 12 intervarsity sports teams, and won the Spirit of Youth Award at Convocation.

In 1951, Syl would make a Canadian scientific splash as the female Saskatoon team member of the cobalt-60 therapy breakthrough for cancer treatment. Dubbed the ‘cobalt bomb,’ it would become Syl’s best-known scientific accomplishment.

14. Sylvia showing the cobalt bomb treatment head, 1951

By 1960, Syl was making waves in the Canadian curling scene, playing third for Joyce McKee. Their team won the first Canadian ladies curling championship.

Once her sports career finished, Syl turned her attention to building the game and was instrumental in bringing Canadian ladies’ curling on par with men’s curling in the 1970s. By then, she was both a professor at the University of Saskatchewan in the college of medicine, and Director of Physics Services for the Saskatchewan Cancer Association. Elected as the first woman to the Atomic Energy Control Board of Canada, she retired from all of her positions in 1986 — but didn’t stay retired. She was elected as the first woman chancellor of the University of Saskatchewan in 1986, followed by her appointment, in 1988, as the first woman Lieutenant Governor for Saskatchewan.

Syl was also awarded the Saskatchewan Order of Merit, the Order of Canada, and became a Dame of the Order of St. John. She served twice on the board of Governors for the University of Saskatchewan, and was awarded five honorary degrees — the last, in 2006, from her own University of Saskatchewan.

In her spare time and for fun, Syl could be found with her dog (in her lifetime, she owned three: Tinker, Charli, and MaxC), gardening and canning, playing poker, fishing up north, collecting curling pins, cheering at Huskie games while screaming at the refs, taking photographs and videos, or cooking — though she would send all the leftovers home with you.

Everyone in Saskatchewan who had the honour and joy to meet her, found an impressive mind, a warm spirit, an earthy humour, a no-nonsense viewpoint, and a new friend.

Syl Fedoruk passed away at age 85 in 2012, and was given a state funeral in Saskatoon.

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It has been both an honour and a pleasure to be the first to delve into Sylvia Fedoruk’s files in the archives of the University of Saskatchewan, and to bring you this amazing story of a truly unique, truly Saskatchewan woman.

Listen to Merle Massie discuss A Radiant Life via these media stories: 

With Peter Mills on CBC August 29th 2020

With John Gormley: John Gormley – Merle Massie August 28th 2020

1918 Flu in Biggar

This is not the first time that Saskatchewan has been ravaged by a major pandemic.

The so-called Spanish Flu, now thought to be a derivative of H1N1, set the entire world on fire in 1918-1919. It was a killer, with a virus that linked to a bacteria, leading to influenza infection then bacterial pneumonia, then death.

The death rates were high: in Canada, about 55,000 Canadians died. In Saskatchewan, its grim death toll by the end of 1918 was nearly 4000 people, and it continued to stalk rural, remote and northern regions until about 1922. The death toll likely reached well over over 5000 people, but records are patchy and we’ll never know for sure. What is known is that the impact on Saskatchewan’s First Nations population was worse, and the disease and Saskatchewan’s efforts to combat it took over everyone’s life in the fall of 1918.

The flu came to Canada with the soldiers, those returning home from the WWI war front, but in reality, it raced ahead of them. The first recorded death from the Spanish Flu was Robert Callander, a drayman in Regina who was sick for a week before succumbing.

What made the Spanish Flu so frightening was its rapid transmission, and its targets. It killed the healthiest working people — soldiers, farmers, teachers — in the prime of their working lives. Its death rate were described as a ‘W’: those aged 0-5 were highly susceptible, ages 5-20 less so, ages 20-50 were very susceptible, then 50-65 less so and another surge in deaths for the elderly population.

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Calgary Daily Herald October 7, 1918

It also came in three waves. The first wave came in the spring of 1918 and was dubbed the ‘three day fever,’ since people were very sick for just a few days, then mostly recovered. This wave was less noticeable in Canada when compared to other regular grippes, flu bugs and the regular items of a Canadian winter. It was the fall 1918 surge that was the killer, while spring 1919 saw another resurgence, but less severe.

In Biggar, Saskatchewan, we have a more limited view of the fall of 1918. While our local newspaper, the Biggar Independent was then (and remains now) in operation, we have few copies of newspapers from that killer fall — likely because people destroyed newspapers rather than risk them being contaminated with the killer virus. We have a newspaper from September 5, 1918, then nothing until November 21st 1918 (side note: they were five cents per copy!)

September 5th saw no mention of the virus or the disruption to come. A circus was coming to town on September 11th, promising local kids and adults alike some smiles and delights.

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Biggar Independent, September 5, 1918

But what happened after, throughout the rest of September and October, is unclear. What we do know is that we had local disruption, much the same as we are having now in 2020 with Covid-19. Schools, the pool halls and bars, the Biggar Majestic Theatre, and all churches were closed. And, people died.

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Biggar Independent November 21, 1918

The article actually lists seven deaths, including an infant and Percy Talbot from Oban region, who died in Calgary — and that’s just from the past week. In all, it could be estimated that as many as fifty people from Biggar and surrounding regions died throughout October and November of the scourge year.

One of the things that the Town of Biggar had to fund was an ’emergency hospital’. In the November 21st copy of the Biggar Independent, the town’s financial report listed over $60 put toward the emergency hospital.

Ernie Hoppe of Biggar said that his mother told him stories of the 1918 epidemic. Their home, 14 miles north and west of town, was “where the sick came for help,” and it’s probable that it became a rural triage and emergency space for those stricken with the awful virus. “Many people died in their home,” he added. I have yet to discover where the town emergency hospital was located, but if you know, reach out.

But by November 21st, things were starting to ease back. The ‘ban’ on gathering had been lifted, and the Biggar Majestic Theatre, along with churches and the pool room, could once more reopen.

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“Theatre Thoroughly Disinfected” Biggar Independent November 21, 1918

By November 28th, there was a town annual meeting. One of the things discussed: “Those who were present however helped along the urgent need for a hospital one step by appointing S. H. Curran J. T. James and S. E. Shaw as a committee from the town to interview the Council of the Rural Municipality of Biggar with a view to building a Union Hospi­tal in Biggar next year and of continuing the operation of the present emergency hospital until a more permanent building can be arranged for.” [Biggar Independent, “Citizens Show Lack of Interest”, November 28, 1918].

The churches came back: the Methodist church resumed services on November 24th, with St. Paul’s Anglican — the same building we see today — resuming morning and evening services, choir practice, and Sunday School on December 1st.

It took longer to reopen the schools. School terms were more fluid at the time, and could shift according to local need, particularly those in rural areas. It was a disconcerting prospect for many, to consider not only the schools not reopening, but the absence of Christmas concerts and other timely entertainment.

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Biggar Independent November 28, 1918

But even as life started to return to normal and people moved more freely in the town, the flu and its aftereffects were still to be seen.

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Biggar Independent November 28, 1918

With only patchy newspaper records — we have no extant papers from December of 1918 from the Biggar Independent — the record ends there. But those interested in reading for themselves, and following the stories told through newspapers should find their way to the Saskatchewan Historical Newspapers Online and the Google Newspaper Archive.

Whether you’ll be relieved, or horrified to know that we’ve been here before, is entirely up to you.

In August of 2017, I was contacted via email by a researcher from the United States, Hilary Ament. She was on contract with the producers and production crew of the movie First Mana biopic of Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon. Based on a biography written by James R. Hansen, the movie focuses less on the moon landing and more on Armstrong’s life and relationships and family. Armstrong is portrayed by Hollywood megastar Ryan Gosling, and his wife Janet by the cool beautiful Claire Foy.

One of the storylines, a moment which created a particular sad trajectory in the Armstrong family, was learning that their young daughter Karen had brain cancer. Ever the scientist, Armstrong worked feverishly to find a cure. The movie was set to include a scene where Karen would undergo treatment using the cobalt-60 machine, known as the cobalt ‘bomb.’ Originally developed and designed in Canada, the cobalt machine was the first deep-seated cancer radiation technology designed specifically for clinical application.

Hilary Ament’s email said: “the set designers are building a machine similar to this model, but are having a little bit of trouble understanding the order of the procedure itself, showing what should be on the control panel and dials, and maybe any notes doctors would take.”

Hilary found me via the University of Saskatchewan and the Western Development Museum, where the original Saskatchewan-built cobalt-60 machine is on display. Searching desperately for technical insight, she came to me.

I had been working intermittently on a biography of Saskatchewan physicist Sylvia Fedoruk (of ball, curling, and Lieutenant Governor fame) who had been a graduate student working on the original cobalt bomb project. Syl’s files, along with those of Harold Johns at the University of Saskatchewan Archives and Special Collections, were a treasure trove of information.

I sent a short description, taken from my in-progress manuscript on Sylvia Fedoruk, about cobalt-60 and how radiation works to fight cancer. I also sent along a description of the treatment room constructed at the University of Saskatchewan which housed the original cobalt-60 unit, along with schematics. The original room featured a ten inch thick glass window, where technicians would monitor the patient during radiation.

As well, I passed along descriptions of the way treatment technicians would design special padding or apparatus to hold a patient in place. For a young child like Karen, holding still was paramount, and the technicians would have worked with both Karen and her parents to make the little girl comfortable and at ease.

Of course, Karen would have been given multiple radiation doses, not just one, but a major Hollywood movie has time constraints. All of this work would go into just one scene.

Hilary Ament replied, “This is beyond what we had hoped for. The set designers are very happy with the research that we’ve collected, and are on a solid track now. Between reading the articles you sent, diagrams, and video we’ve been able to get a pretty good idea of how these operated! The scene is fairly short, so they’re thinking they have enough to go on…”

I was thrilled to help, even in this small way for a tiny scene. So of course when First Man hit our little Majestic Theatre in Biggar in the fall of 2018, I was in the audience, bright eyed and ready to see what it all looked like.

There’s nothing like watching a movie in a small, community-owned theatre in rural Saskatchewan. The Majestic is our local site for all things arts. Built in 1909 and rescued from oblivion, it hosts music festivals, live concerts, plays, dance festivals, and musicals, as well as movies on Friday and Saturday night, along with the popular Sunday afternoon matinee. Run by volunteers, it’s one of the focal points and gathering spaces for our community.

In the audience, scattered alongside and all around me, munching popcorn and slurping drinks, were friends, neighbors, and relatives. In the city, a movie experience is rather impersonal. Sure, the audience laughs together in all the right places, but we don’t necessarily know our neighbors or the ones who sold us the ticket or handed us the popcorn or took a quick bathroom break in the stall beside me before the opening credits.

In a small community theatre, the vibe is completely different. We don’t need a lot of previews or games on the screen. We’re busy chatting: do you have enough stuff for the raffle table at the hockey game? Are you hauling wheat this week? Can you curl for me next Wednesday night? Once a movie starts, you recognize the different audience laughs — brother in law Ryan, good friend Tina. We count how many people are there and celebrate a movie that’s going to make a profit. And lots of us have learned to clean up behind ourselves, taking garbage out on our way back through the lobby.

The night I went to see First Man, there were plenty of friends and relatives in the audience, many of whom knew about my encounter with Hollywood, and had almost as much anticipation shivering through them as I did. We could experience it together.

The cobalt-60 scene comes early in the movie, and I sat forward to watch every detail as it shimmered on screen. With Karen’s neck supported, her head exposed and her body gently strapped in place, she looked just as I had imagined. The Eldorado-style machine looked like a miniature version of the space-age rockets Armstrong was working on. The treatment room had no windows, with thick concrete walls lined with lead. Neil and his wife Janet watch from behind the thick glass window helplessly, overcome with hope that the treatment would succeed.

It was an amazing moment as a researcher. I had helped to shape the way a movie looked, the way the actors moved, the set design, and the whole feel of the scene. I was jubilant.

But Hollywood has a way of surprising you. My work, offered to Hilary Ament and to Universal Studios, had not just shaped the visuals. It had actually changed the script in the movie. My mouth dropped in shock at the next scene. In it, Neil Armstrong is on the telephone to the doctors at the hospital. He asks [and this is my memory, not a direct quote], Did you call Dr. Johns? Dr. Harold Johns? The doctor in Saskatchewan who invented the treatment? 

I couldn’t help it. Even though this is a scene of great pathos and sadness, learning that the much-hoped-for treatment didn’t work on his daughter, I was lifted right out of my seat, cheering. My poor husband was hushing and pulling me down, but others were just as jubilant: hey, they said Saskatchewan! Tears leaked out, both for the memory of a little girl full of sunshine whose life was cut short by cancer, and by my own personal victory: I had had an influence on a Hollywood movie script. A whole scene, then another, shaped by my research and insight. And Saskatchewan got a mention.

First Man is up for four Oscars at the 2019 Academy Awards, one of which is production design. I’ll be watching with delight, hoping for a win. After all, I do have a little bit of skin in this game.

I wish I could say that I found my name in the credits. Several of my friends and neighbors, and my brother and sister-in-law, went close to the screen (none of us are youthful) to try and find my name. Nothing. Nonetheless, I have the paper trail and the emails, and the movie scenes themselves to back up my story. Hollywood, if you’re listening, come again. Saskatchewan has a few more hidden stories for you. But next time, I’d like to be in the credits, please.

And yes, I’ll be watching it at The Majestic.

fedoruk.1

Green is the Colour

In the fall of 2016, I was approached by C.P. Champion, editor of The Dorchester Review, to join a chorus of other writers offering short commentary pieces in response to the question: “How can we strengthen our traditions?”

An innocuous question, and not particularly specific, but then again, that was the point. It’s the context where that question found its legs: throughout 2017, there was a Canadian — and worldwide — conversation around statues, building names, and colonialism that sent tempers soaring, municipalities running, and social media humming.

Campion’s original email set the tone: “Casting a wary eye over the current wave of iconoclasm, statue-toppling, quasi-forced resignations, and all-round history-purging…”. So, the point of view is ‘wary.’ Huh. So I had to really think: Is this the genre of scholarship where I fit, especially since I’m no longer a practicing scholar?

The Dorchester Review receives mixed accolades, and that’s just fine by me. I’ve never been comfortable with the scholar-as-activist model, I do believe that there are points to be made on many sides of a lot of issues, and by the way, they offered to pay me — which is something no ‘scholarly’ journal has ever offered for my work.

Published twice per year by the Foundation for Civic Literacy, The Dorchester Review is a literary and historical journal that deliberately challenges concepts of political correctness. There are a lot of older white men propounding in the pages, and at times I read little more than a more refined version of the same arguments that fill the air at the local John Deere dealership, but even so, gems can be found. If you’re an armchair military historian, there will be much to enjoy. A lot of it is an uncomfortable read for me — but, I’m OK with that. Discomfort is important. If we only read the stuff we already agree with, what exactly are we learning?

The forum is called Safe-Guarding Traditionswhich includes thoughts from twenty-three writers, including me. And — here was the publishing dream — my name is on the top-row, between two authors whose work I enjoy: David Frum and Noah Richler. How about that! I enjoyed Brigitte Pellerin‘s call to “Be the Change,” to strengthen our own ability ‘to converse with others in the political arena’ while listening to points with which we disagree. Noah Richler’s “The Healing Circle” wants Canadians to tear down our existing house of Parliament to construct a new one. That was a bit of a hard pill for me, a past member of the Saskatchewan Heritage Foundation. Yet the central point is exquisite: our leadership (MPs, elders and senators, and the Canadian people and press gallery) should sit in three concentric healing circles in a new space without colonial history. David Frum asks us to rename the August long weekend holiday to commemorate the battle of Amiens, a turning point in World War I. That, too, bears thought.

But I wrote something completely different. I started on the expected route, examining “How can we strengthen our traditions?” and how I might answer it. My preference has always been for buildings, bridges, and other social landmarks to be named for anyone or anything other than politicians (plants, animals, birds, heck, insects would be better in some cases); and I’m in favour of more statues, not less (supports the broader arts community, gives a focal point for public spaces, and a place for birds). But, were these points truly unique? No. So…delete delete delete.

Moments before the deadline, I had a bit of an epiphany. I didn’t have to write about statues, parliament, pieces of paper or names on buildings. What were some of our Saskatchewan traditions…and how could we in Saskatchewan make them stronger? Campion’s invitation arrived in fall, it was CFL season, and the Riders were top of mind. So, I thought, there is my hook. How can we in Saskatchewan make our Rider traditions even better?

I came up with a little piece I call Green is the Colour.

Green Is the Colour

For copyright reasons, I can’t reproduce the whole thing here. But here’s the final call (while crossing my fingers which I’m hoping will not be slapped too hard):

green-is-the-colour-2.jpg

So… Federated Co-operatives Limited, that’s your next project: create for us a potion. And sell it at the co-op. That is how we’ll strengthen a major Saskatchewan tradition.

 

I have long been a member of NiCHE: Network in Canadian History of the Environment. It is a cross-Canada (and international) network of environmental historians and historical geographers.

In response to the growing realization that only about 20% of PhDs land tenure track positions within leading universities, NiCHE editors have created Rhizomes, a blog series about alternative and post-academic career paths. 

This is my contribution: http://niche-canada.org/2017/12/06/rhizomes-an-interview-with-merle-massie/

Saskatchewan Heritage Foundation

The new homepage of the Saskatchewan Heritage Foundation https://www.saskheritagefoundation.com/ 

Well, it’s happened: I’m mentioned in the Hansard! (See page 32, under Bill 90, and keep reading).

If you’re not a historian, the Hansard is the record of what is said in the Saskatchewan legislature. It contains the debates, transcribed, as well as the record of visitors, bills being put forward, and shows the province’s political leaders going about the business of government. It’s a great resource to know what’s happening, and to track political debate over time.

So, how did I get there? I wrote an op-ed about the Saskatchewan Heritage Foundation that was published in the Star Phoenix. This op-ed is all about the disparity in support for heritage projects around the province, as well as criticism of the way the current bureaucracy in the Ministry of Parks, Culture and Sport (where the Saskatchewan Heritage Foundation is connected) has been running roughshod over the Foundation.

It’s a hard-hitting piece. I was on the Board of the SHF for three years, and I had a lot to say about heritage in Saskatchewan, and the way the SHF board has been working hard to protect, and fight for, the groups working on heritage projects across the province. In the end, I called for those currently running for the leadership of the Saskatchewan Party to look into the debacle, and get things straightened out.

I’ve since spoken about the issue to sitting MLAs and Saskatchewan Party leadership contenders, because this is an issue that transcends party politics. The SHF has been in existence, helping the people of Saskatchewan for more than 25 years. Heritage is not about politics. It’s about dedicated people fighting hard to save their heritage buildings and cultural landscapes, from north to south, and from east to west across Saskatchewan. Every political party and MLA has a heritage project in their backyard. And the current Ministry officials in the department of Heritage for the province of Saskatchewan are not doing a good job of supporting the SHF, its board, goals, and by extension the people of Saskatchewan.

I’m glad to see some traction on this issue. I understand that the pressure will continue, and I’m encouraged to know that it’s now in the Hansard as a permanent record — even if they accidentally thought that I’m a male, not a female historian.

To sitting and incoming MLAs: keep this on your radar. The people of Saskatchewan expect it: Do better.

Damming Saskatchewan

This is a story about aborted academic work. Years ago, I proposed and workshopped a paper. The original call came from fellow environmental history academics, building a curated book on the concept Landscape, Nature and Memory: Tourism History in Canada. We wrote the papers and sent them around for everyone to read before we got together. The workshop was held in Vancouver, and I remember my first introduction to Granville Island and Macleod’s Books. It was an invigorating workshop, with discussants and good conversation. I received good feedback (Ian MacKay liked my paper!) and thought that it would, in time, lead to publication. At the time, I was still occasionally aiming hopefully for an academic position.

 

But it was not to be. When the collection of papers from the workshop went around for external review, mine was deemed not a good fit for the overarching theme. It was too different. In some ways, I think the paper’s exclusion mimicked my own ‘differentness’ and ultimate exclusion from academia. But no matter. I worked on it a little more, and sent it out to Prairie Forum, a scholarly journal based out of Regina. I’d published with them before, and thought the little paper would have a chance to at least be read.

I didn’t hear back. At all. Strange, I thought. I forgot about it for a bit, then (remembering), dusted it off, and sent it to them again. It’s the internet, I decided. It does eat things, on occasion. It gets hungry. No worries. I’ll hear back this time.

Still nothing. No reply, no acknowledgement. So, I may be slow but eventually I get there. This poor little paper doesn’t have a home.

I could go back to it, work on it again, try to figure out where and how to make it academically publishable. Send it out again. And again. But that is no longer my life. Writing for an unpaid academic publication just isn’t an appropriate use of my time. So I won’t.

But it remains there, with many hours of research, and a lot of thought, hiding in a corner of my computer files. There is an old adage that says ‘unread books do no work.’ The same is true for articles. I didn’t manage to get it published (which would have meant external reviews, more work, and no doubt a much better article) but I can share it here, with you.

The article is about building the South Saskatchewan River Project, now known as the Gardiner Dam which created Diefenbaker Lake. It’s about the policy stories we tell, and how Saskatchewan desperately needed to create a story of water and beauty through tourism to counteract the post-Great Depression story of dust, aridity, and flatness.

dam

Gardiner Dam, South Saskatchewan River

Who might want to read it? Anyone who has visited the dam and wants to know a bit more of its history. Academics working on tourism, dam, or general prairie history might find it useful. But if you are not an academic, I warn you: this is filled with references, theory, and a bit of jargon. And a few stories. It might be worth your time.

Still, I’m ready for it to be in the world, with all of its flaws and problems. You can deal with it. I have confidence in you. Click on the PDF below and enjoy your read.

Damming Saskatchewan

Place History

Place: A Methodology for Research

By Merle Massie, PhD.

Conference paper presented at World Congress in Environmental History. Guimaraes, Portugal, 2014. Edited for blog post August 2017.

In June of 2014, I was in my hometown of Paddockwood, Saskatchewan, Canada – population less than two hundred in the village, less than a thousand in the rural area. I was there to give a talk and show a slideshow of pictures from my most recent book, Forest Prairie Edge: Place History in Saskatchewan. It’s a place history of the region, which I spent four years researching and writing. As the lights darkened, a hush fell – with obedient silence – over the crowd. Kids squirmed, adults settled in, and my Great Aunt Clara folded her arms and leaned back. She listened with one eye half-closed as I moved from picture to picture, from story to story. She likes to make sure that I tell the stories right, that what I say agrees with her memories.

Locals can be a tough audience when you write a local history, but the slideshow and stories were a big hit. Clara got a chance to add to one or two of the stories, providing a few details on the local cheese factory, but I scored a home run: I told her some stories that she’s never heard before. She was introduced in a new way, to the place that she knows best.

And there’s that word: place.

Place is ubiquitous; it is everywhere at once. From ecology to history, place is a word that is used often in the English language: someplace, no place, every place, any place. First place. Second place. Last place. Place that over here. You’re sitting in my place. Let’s go to my place for a drink.

Place is a popular focal point for study. Geographer Yi-Fu Tuan eloquently said that space plus culture equals place (1977). There are reams of literature studying sense of place, place attachment, place dependence, place remaking, non place (or, the internet, which is everywhere and nowhere). The omnipresence of the word ‘place’, has led to controversy and discussion, multiple theoretical threads and calls in both directions: use it more broadly; and don’t use it at all.

I do use place. I use it to describe what it is that I do, which I call ‘place history’. This blog post, which was first presented at the World Congress in Environmental History in Portugal in 2014, is a rough attempt to explain place not as theory, but as methodology. Warning: I’m rather allergic to theory, and decided this post is no place for a literature review, or even much in the way of references. If you’re looking for them, sorry. I’m posting this presentation because of these tweets:

2017-08-29

Place based inquiry tweets

So, with apologies to Kaitlin Stack-Whitney who might be looking for a lit review or recommendations, this isn’t that. I’m going to describe what I do, when I set about to do a place-based inquiry.

I use ‘place’ as a method of organizing my research, of building a different kind of story. How many of you have read Dan Flores’ suggestion that we use a bioregion as the focal point for environmental studies? (I love that article. Go read it). My work follows on Flores’ in that I’m interested in the environment as a central defining part of place history.  This post will explain three short-ish points about how I do it, and what kinds of information place history can show. The examples are drawn from two different research projects I’ve created in the last few years (with images from the powerpoint presentation).

So: what is place history? Place history is a research strategy. It is a way of organizing and focusing your research. At its core, it studies a particular place through the lens of time. You start, like we all do, with a research question. For my hometown place history, my research question was: what has my hometown region looked like in the past, and how has it changed over time? For the second research project, the question was, how has this landscape, and its people, responded to floods? As you can see, the first question was a bit larger, while the second focused specifically on a particular kind of event (flood). Both had advantages and drawbacks.

I start a place history by first defining a soft border around a research region. Sometimes, there is a natural boundary line that I can follow, but sometimes not. My hometown story is not a bioregion, in that it doesn’t have specific biophysical markers. It sits, in fact, at the transition zone between two bioregions, and that’s part of what made it interesting for me. It sits where the North American interior plains hit the northern boreal forest in my home province of Saskatchewan. Saskatchewan in known as the ‘land of living skies’, a prairie space, flat and treeless.  I once heard my research summed up in three words: Saskatchewan has trees. I thought, good enough!

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The second study involved a massive inland delta, a water landscape covering 10,000 square kilometers – about one-tenth the size of Portugal. The Saskatchewan River Delta is a primarily Indigenous landscape of enormous importance, ecologically, economically, and socially in the interior of Canada, straddling the border between Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Most of my work focused specifically on the upper delta, centering on the community of Cumberland House and the delta that surrounds it. The biophysical marker makes the research region easier to identify, but studying water means studying all the places the water was before it gets to the delta, so again, ‘soft’ boundaries are important.

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Slide11So, the first thing that I do is define the soft borders around my research region, as a way to contain and focus my research question. What this does: it helps me focus my archival and library and oral interview work. I specifically search for books, theses, articles, and archival documents written about my research region and seek out a variety of specialists and knowledge-holders to read, study, and interview. I also visit, usually many times. The search is a large and usually an on-going process. It’s never finished; you can never find everything, see everything, know everything. A place historian must embrace a little bit of ambiguity, of vagueness at the edge of the laser focus.

TWO: the second part of my place history research methodology involves time. Place is about landscape; history is about time. As I find information about the place I am studying, I create a landscape timeline. I won’t show you one, because they tend to be messy, but do it however you want: on a whiteboard, using post-it notes on a poster board, using Excel or another program, or in a memo book. The point is to remember and celebrate that the landscape is not just the ecological backdrop for the human story. The environment is neither static nor inert. When you write a place history, you are telling the story of the land; people’s activities are a response to that land, and the land responds back. When I work on place history, the landscape becomes a key and active player in the story, an actor whose decisions have implications across the landscape and across its human inhabitants.

Let me give you an example: in the 1870s, less than 150 years ago, the Saskatchewan River – the river which creates the Saskatchewan River Delta – experienced an avulsion. An avulsion means the river jumped its track, leaping out of its riverbed to blow out a whole new river pattern, completely changing the way the delta works and how and when and where people could move through it. Steamboat traffic changed. Trapping patterns and fishing patterns changed. Silt rose, to the point where dredging was necessary to keep the boats running and people were predicting that Cumberland Lake in the centre of the delta would, in time, silt right up and become farmland. The effects of that avulsion are still working through the delta. But the avulsion had little to no imprint on the memories of the local Indigenous population, at least until scientists recovered it and started talking about it in the community. The avulsion can be traced through the historical record and scientific investigation, but little in the local memory. The avulsion’s fingerprints remain on the land, and it became my job to find out why those fingerprints were largely missing from the oral story.

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The key part of writing a place history is to remember that neither the land nor the people are static. A landscape timeline gives me recreated snapshots or descriptions of what the landscape looked like at a particular time, and how humans used the landscape, and how and when and why things changed. With a landscape timeline, I can ‘layer’ both environmental change and human change to see what affected what, and with what consequences.

In the case of the delta, I soon found that the massive changes caused by the avulsion had disappeared from the local story because they’d been superceded by even more massive change in the twentieth century, much more recent in the memories of the local population. A dam, upstream from the delta, had dammed the water to create a large lake and hydropower supply. This dam, and the way it was run, disrupted natural rhythms to such an enormous extent that the local story started to sound black and white: before the dam, after the dam. The avulsion as an integral landscape story virtually disappeared. I only learned about it because, as a place historian, I was diligently collecting information across time, building my landscape timeline.

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What I’ve discovered is that, by shifting the focus from a human-centered to a place-centered timeline, I have a clear perspective on what activities are possible, probable, or practical in a certain place in a certain time. It also helps serve as a predictor: what can make this landscape seem more desirable, or less desirable, as a place of human habitation? In the work I did on my hometown region, it became clear to me that the local landscape became desirable, and as a consequence became a major destination for climate refugees, during the global environmental and economic disaster of the 1930s. Whereas the nearby landscape, the Great Plains of North America, suffered severe ecological drought, the forest edge still had water in wells and coming down from the sky, trees for shelter and fuel and building materials, hay for starving animals chewing dust, gardens where “even the turnips were edible,” wild game and berries and fish. In short, there was a comparative natural abundance to feed animals and humans. It became desirable because it didn’t have endless black blizzards. As a result, almost 50,000 people relocated from the dust bowl to the forest fringe of my home province, a massive internal migration that changed the face of land settlement, agriculture, and population.

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Slide19So, the second step in place history: create a landscape timeline. This timeline will help you draw clear connections between the landscape and the human activities you record as significant aspects of your research question. It can also help you choose more clearly which human decisions – politics, policy, or development – you need to understand in order to engage with your landscape. The answers to that can be unexpected.

The downside is that as your landscape changes over time, and as human activity changes over time, you as the researcher will need to become a jack of all trades. You’re not just an expert in one event or one theme or one theory; you’ve got to learn something about everything. This puts you at a disadvantage when speaking with an expert dedicated to one group, one policy, one moment, but remember that your perspective is built with light from many sources. And that can, and does, bring forth fresh new perspectives.

This multiplicity brings us to the third and last point: place history methodology draws knowledge from across a range of knowledge holders and creators. This range is substantive: science, social science, humanities, Indigenous knowledge, and the natural world. Data (I’m sorry – I hate the word ‘data’ but I use it because people understand it) data from natural and social science is deliberately blended with professional history, oral and community history, literature, and art to provide a broadly-based comparative framework. This is natural and physical science plus social science and humanities.

Slide20Why does a place historian need so many sources? Because each has a significant contribution, and each has the potential to carry a part of the story independent of other knowledge-holders. The story of the avulsion is a good example: its story is carried in the historical record and in the research projects of delta scientists. Yet it was virtually eclipsed from the Indigenous local memory. You cannot rely on one source to the exclusion of others. In a place history, you’re building a landscape timeline of a place, deliberately blending multiple viewpoints and information so that nothing is in isolation. A place history can show how a local lumber industry melded with local agriculture, First Nations, and the environment, with influence and impact in many directions.

Another example. The Saskatchewan River delta is historically a flood landscape, with thousands of years of flood adaptation and flood memory. Using place history methodology, I focused on my research region and looked for information across time, regarding flood events. In 1781, a major spring flood blew out the newcomer European traders, drenching their valued goods and creating a quagmire out of their fortified trading post. The Indigenous inhabitants simply moved to drier ground. The flood was a seasonal event; perhaps higher than other years, but not enough to shift anything in the Indigenous daily life, yet making a mockery of the newcomers.

Turn the clock forward to 1962, when the EB Campbell Dam was built, upriver from the delta. Floods changed. High water events came at different seasons. Rushing water came suddenly, at different times of the day, blowing out traplines and fishing nets, stranding people or leaving them high and dry, with useless boats far from home. Unpredictable. Human-made, not natural. The water would come or not come as a result of policy decisions regarding electrical requirements for people far away, not local needs. No one knew when or how to predict the water, and old knowledge was rendered almost useless. The dam was a disruption that caused untold ecological and cultural change.

One result of the ecological disruption was that the people changed. What had once been a water-adapted culture became increasingly land-adapted, tied to vehicles and roads, dependent on infrastructure such as roads and bridges. In 2005, the Saskatchewan River upstream was in flood, and the community of Cumberland House evacuated itself primarily because its road, winding through the delta, was compromised. There was fear of being cut off, of medical emergencies and isolation. The evacuation caused tremendous backlash in the community, particularly among the elders, who felt the evacuation was needless – and so it was. While it was a high water event, the community did not flood. After 2005 there was a resurgence in oral stories, a renaissance of flood memory from elders that drew from a time before the dam, when the water flow wasn’t restricted, when floods were a natural event and nothing to fear. In 2011, in part because of the elders’ clear response and oral stories, the community, when once again faced with historic high water, did not evacuate.[i]

Slide22In 2013, when flood once again threatened, the community was forcibly evacuated by the provincial government who clearly did not understand either the depth of flood memory, the elders’ knowledge, nor community resilience. It was, as in 2005 and 2011, a needless evacuation. The community did not flood. The provincial safety manager told me later, in confidence, that they would never again evacuate Cumberland House. Flood measures and protections, when used well, would be enough. Finally, the provincial emergency management leadership learned what local Indigenous elders drawing on a deep-time knowledge of water and the delta knew: the delta absorbs and spreads the water over a massive landscape; it floods, but it does not flood.

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So to sum up, place history, as a basic methodology, does three things: one, defines a geographical soft boundary of place as a way to focus your research question; two, builds a landscape timeline that creates snapshots of that place over time; and three; draws from across a broad range of knowledge holders, from arts to science to Indigenous knowledge to the natural world.

Slide27Why is place history important? It is a methodology that allows us to ‘see’ and compare issues across time, through the eyes of a particular place. Place methodology offers a deep time perspective that transcends dramatic events to consider the broader implications of the intimate connection between humans and the environment: the delta as a water landscape, and how we’ve moved with, against, challenged and changed that; the forest edge as a rich ecotone between the prairie and the forest, and how we’ve moved that edge back and forth through axe and fire, agriculture, and tourism. What I find doing place history is often unexpected, and sometimes challenging to the status quo, because I’m starting from a different vantage point: the landscape, rather than the people.

And that’s how I can, when I’m really lucky, surprise my Great Aunt Clara, and tell her a few stories that even she didn’t know.

[i] For a deeper investigation of flood memory, the Saskatchewan River Delta, and the flood events of 2005 and 2011, see Merle Massie and M.G. Reed, Chapter 6: “Cumberland House in the Saskatchewan River Delta: flood memory and the municipal response, 2005 and 2011” in Climate Change and Flood Risk Management: Adaptation and Extreme Events at the Local Level Edited by E. Carina H. Keskitalo. https://www.elgaronline.com/view/9781781006665.xml