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lac la biche fire.our roots history bookLac La Biche Fire

Nordegg region.fire.1919

Fire at Nordegg, Alberta, May 1919

With forest fires crackling and snapping from British Columbia to Nova Scotia, Canadian news headlines for this year’s May fire season forecast disaster: “alarming”, “out of control”, and “highest number of forest fires in a decade.” Pointing fingers at human causes, banning fires and issuing evacuation orders, communities from coast to coast are on high alert.

There’s something eerily familiar about a May firestorm.

During the winter of 1918-1919, with the Spanish Influenza epidemic touching fingers of death into every community in Canada, few noticed the low snowfall. April grew warm, then hot. By May, the forest was tinder dry and drought stalked the plains. Textbooks recall the social firestorm in Winnipeg, as thousands walked off the job in the massive Winnipeg General Strike. But across northern Alberta and Saskatchewan, a different kind of firestorm lay in wait.

It began with pockets of local trouble: a wildfire here, a wildfire there. Most were beat back, put out. But on May 19th, 96 years ago, a conflagration burst across the northern parts of western Canada. Fueled by incredible high winds that blew widdershins – first one direction, then another, unpredictable and at gale force – the tinder-dry boreal forest blew up.

At Lac la Biche in Alberta, the town was surrounded, with almost no warning. Dark as night, with embers raining down, multiple buildings caught fire, and the railroad corridor was burning. With no possible evacuation, residents headed for the only place of safety: the lake. Swimming out, dunking under frequently to keep wet, residents watched a fire of such intensity that the very reeds on the lakeshore above the waterline burned. When it was over, 300 people were homeless. Few buildings remained.

East from Lac la Biche, in not just one fire but a complex of fires burning on the same day, other towns faced a dire situation. Bonnyville. Green Lake. Big River. Smaller villages, such as Goodridge and Debden, and trading posts like Montreal Lake looked disaster and ruin in the eye. Every able bodied man was called out to help. In Big River, a major hub of the western Canadian lumber industry, piles of cut wood worth hundreds of thousands of dollars were in the path of the flames. In an instant, 1000 lumber workers became fire fighters, and the flames were stopped 200 yards from the complex.

A boreal forest fire is deadly, a conflagration along the ground. Crowning, climbing up the trees to burn the tops like matches, a crowned forest fire is even more deadly. When whipped by vicious gale force winds, such a forest fire runs along the top of the trees, faster than either humans or animals can move. The Prince Albert newspaper simply said: “Hades is loose.”

There was tragedy, too. At Lac des Iles, east of Cold Lake on the Saskatchewan side, just north of what is now Meadow Lake Provincial Park, Chief Joseph Big Head and his closely-knit clan had signed an adhesion to Treaty Six in 1913 and by 1919 were settling on their chosen reserve. Then the fire rained down. Four people – three women and one child – died immediately, but more than two dozen more people were so badly burned that some were not expected to survive. At least eight people in total, and possibly as high as fourteen, died. It is the tragedy of the Great Fire.

In places, it raged for days. At one point, the city of Prince Albert was surrounded by wildfires in every direction. Day turned to night as smoke filled the sky and embers rained down. As far south as Regina and Moose Jaw, smoke from the northern fire complex swirled and flooded. The smell of burning pine was everywhere.

In the end, 2.8 million hectares of forest burned. The Great Fire enters the annals of Canadian history as one of the largest fire complexes ever to burn the boreal forest, and is listed alongside other Canadian tragedies such as the Miramichi fire of 1825, the Saguenay/Lac Saint Jean fires of 1870, Black Tuesday in the Porcupine region of Ontario in 1911, Matheson in 1916 and Haileybury fires of 1923. No doubt the residents of Slave Lake, burned to the ground in the 2011 wildfire, keep a close watch when the wind is high and the tinder dry. In Canada, fire is burned into our history.

It’s May. Fire season is upon us.

 

Wow! I have wonderful news to share…

Forest Prairie Edge: Place History in Saskatchewan has been awarded a Saskatchewan Book Award 2015 for Scholarly Writing!

The review of my book (presumably by the judges!) said this:

“In this fascinating, well-researched, and innovative book, historian Merle Massie tells a Saskatchewan story quite different from the more well known narratives of the plains Cree, settler societies, and political and economic developments in the southern half of the province. Instead, she embarks on a ‘deep time history’ of a single region in the rural parkland belt around Prince Albert, the ecotone where the boreal forest and the prairies meet. An excellent book with an epic sweep.”

Lovely praise. My thanks.

This post was originally published May 14, 2013 at ActiveHistory.ca. See the original here.

Between 2011 and 2013, I lurked in the halls and wandered wide-eyed through the conferences of my social and natural science colleagues. An interdisciplinary institutional postdoctoral fellowship, funded by MISTRA (The Swedish Foundation for Strategic Environmental Research) and routed through the University of Saskatchewan, ensured my place at the lunch table and at the front of the classroom.

So, I spent two years trying to explain how I, as a humanist, conduct my research. More importantly, I’ve noticed, the question is not so much how, but where does that research take place?

Since most of my professional work has focused on the 20th and 21st century, I do (on occasion) conduct interviews and focus groups with living people. I even have a working knowledge of qualitative methods, rigour, and the point of statistical analysis. I parlayed this penchant into the postdoc, with good results. But I remain, at heart, a document hunter/gatherer.

Working with social and natural scientists, I soon learned that research is about data generation. Set up the research parameters/test/study/measurement/focus group/survey/experiment, in order to generate data. Few, if any, ever work with someone else’s data set. The core concern is to generate something new.

That was my first hurdle: what I always thought of as ‘sources,’ now had to become ‘data.’ It’s a bump in the sidewalk that I trip over, every time.

No matter. I forge ahead, explaining gently that although I do sometimes generate new data (using oral interview techniques, statistical analysis, or focus groups), I usually work with sources that already exist. It becomes my job to find those sources, hunt and gather, thinking laterally and strategically, sometimes hitting brick walls or large empty chasms where my ‘data’ (sources) should be but are not. Or I am showered in luck, serendipity, and happenstance and find a treasure trove, an untapped new source waiting for me to harvest, like a new bed of sweet grass, or a docile pod of mule deer.

But, but, where do these sources exist? Are you talking about libraries? Confusion reigns, for libraries, of course, contain outdated data. If it’s in a book, it’s too old. Anything more than five years old is virtually unusable. (Of course, we all recognize the deliberately obtuse generalization here – many social scientists regularly work with similar sources and data sets. Natural scientists, though, perhaps not so much).

No. My data/sources are to be found in archives. Archives? What, exactly, are archives and what kinds of information do you find there?

And that’s how I twigged onto a new way of explaining where I conduct research.

An archive, I now explain, is much like a lab: laboratory space along the lines of the Canadian Light Source Synchrotron at Saskatoon or one of the Toxicology labs or a soil science lab or….  A lab has certain physical requirements that are conducive to research: it requires physical space with heating, light, and custodial services; equipment (shelves, tables, chairs, finding aids and guides, archival quality storage boxes and containers, microfilm readers, lightboxes, cotton gloves, and pencils instead of thermal analyzers or microcalorimeters or…); it needs trained staff (archivists); and it houses raw materials (archival documents, which range from photographs to text to sound recordings, collected over time).

The questions that I, as a researcher, bring to the archive are what guide me through my research process, in the same way that another researcher might ask questions and conduct experiments using the materials/equipment found in a lab. Different researchers posing different questions use different equipment and materials. Each archive is slightly different in its materials and equipment, just like no two labs are exactly the same.

Presto pow! Lights on, understanding, and we’re back on equal footing. (There remain big questions surrounding how I do research and if it is objective, verifiable, and replicate-able, but those are larger questions that might never be solved, as they stand at the dividing line between humanities and natural science research).

Why is this important? I call on all of my fellow humanists and social science researchers who use archives to co-opt this terminology switch, and broadcast it freely. Because I believe that this terminology switch might help save our archives from folding under the collective weight of government and institutional non-support. At a time when investment in science-based laboratory and experimental research is growing (witness the Global Institute for Water Security, and the new Global Institute for Food Security at the U of S), archives funding is cut. We can stop this.

Archives (which collects a record of anthro-centric activity reaching back through time) is the laboratory with which to build research that changes the way our world works and thinks about itself. In fact, I charge you to find another lab that has supported an equal range of research depth and breadth and temporal scope. Where would we be in our knowledge about residential schools, lesbian and gay rights, health geography and poverty, First Nations land claims, war activities, medicare, social protest, and climate change without archives? Accessed by researchers not only in history but in archaeology and anthropology, art, literature, science, technology, sociology, linguistics, education, law, commerce and business, industrial development, mining, resource management, First Nations and Metis studies, institutional foundations, governance and government, medicine and nursing, engineering and agriculture, archives reflect how we as humans make decisions, and what the consequences of those decisions have been.

So let’s make one easy switch: the next time you visit an archive, think of it – and talk about it to interdisciplinary colleagues, institutional leadership, and your MLA and MP – as a laboratory. Co-opt the language that is already implicitly understood – and funded.

Living on the Edge

This blog post was originally published in the Network in Canadian History of the Environment group blog, The Otter in April of 2010. Find the original here

I grew up on the edge, the fringe. That isn’t a political statement, nor does it reference a social comment – my Mom was a teacher, my Dad a farmer. It is a reference to a place: the forest fringe, the edge ecotone between the prairies and the northern provincial boreal forest, north of the city of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan.
It was a place where, as my Dad once said, you could make hay one day and go blueberry picking the next, clean the barn then drop the pitchfork and grab your fishing rod. “Going to the lake” was as easy as going to visit a neighbor, and happened almost as frequently. At the transition zone between farming and forest, living on the edge meant pulling aspects from both into the local economy, society, and culture.

My attachment to this edge place means that although I am Saskatchewan born, I am not from the prairies. My grandparents fled the prairie dust bowl and Depression in 1934, moving their animals, implements, and household goods from Weyburn north to the forest fringe along with an estimated 45,000 other people during what was known as The Great Trek.

They abandoned the plains wheat monoculture to embrace a mixed farming lifestyle in a place where they had hope, as well as trees, shelter, fuel, and water. I don’t mean to romanticize that move – there were plenty of hardships at the forest edge – but the rejection of the prairie shaped the identity of my family and our community. Most Canadians fail to recognize Saskatchewan as anything but flat and treeless, blue skies framing golden fields of wheat. That stereotype drives regional conceptualizations of Canada – the prairies are flat, the Maritimes are wet, the North is cold. My work, which is a place history of the north Prince Albert area, suggests that historians must critically engage with the idea of regionalism to uncover and examine underlying stereotypes or assumptions.

One casualty of the power of regional stereotypes is the concept of an ideal farm. A prairie wheat farm, specifically engaged in international market trade for profit has been presented as the apex of the farm endeavor. As a result, few historians have understood or analyzed the critical cultural and social differences between prairie wheat farms and mixed farms common to parkland/forest fringe environments. The Great Trek and similar migrations show that cereal monoculture was quickly abandoned in times of environmental or economic stress, when the edge environment of the forest fringe became a refuge.

Edge farms – with their shorter growing seasons, frost hazards, and soil conditions – grew less wheat, less successfully, less often. However other crops, such as barley, oats, and alfalfa, thrived, as did most livestock. Farmers combined mixed farming with occupational pluralism, particularly non-farm economic activity from the forest (cordwood cutting, fishing, hunting, commercial freighting) as a way of life.

Yet the wheat ideal remained, and farms that required off-farm income were classified as marginal. Recently, powerful arguments from the forest sector demand the return of marginal edge farmland to forest, citing carbon sequestration, forest regeneration, renewable energy resources and green capital. This has led to a re-evaluation of the edge, shifting the ideal away from agriculture. Local tourism promotion as the ‘Lakeland’ region further cements the cultural role of trees. But a concurrent growth in alternative bioenergy research and ethanol production has made farmland an even more critical part of our future. The debate seems to be: which do we need more? Forests, or farmland? The Great Trek migrants would say: some of both, please.

Fantastic news!

My book, Forest Prairie Edge: Place History in Saskatchewan has been nominated for a Saskatchewan Book Award!

Nominated in the Scholarly category, I’m very excited to see this alternative view of Saskatchewan history recognized for its contribution.

It’s a great honour. I look forward to the awards ceremony on April 25th in Regina.

Reviews

Reviews are starting to come out, though academic channels, of my latest book, Forest Prairie Edge. But with permission, I present what is, so far, my favourite review. It came from world-renowned historian John Gillis, who sent me a private email. He said that I could share it. It reads:

I have just finished your exceptional book. It not only introduced me to a region I had known only by the lines that are drawn on maps but give me a way of seeing it in a very appealing way. Your mastery of local detail is no less impressive than your handling of environmenal concepts, particularly that of the ecotone. The span of the study is stunning, bringing in First Nations, white settlers, hunters, farmers, foresters, tourists into a coherent narrative. It makes me want to see your part of the world, for I now feel I know it reasonably well, even from a distance.

You will probably be not surprised to know that more and more people are picking up on the concept of ecotone, on and offshore. Still, when I ask audiences, even audiences of environmental historians, whether they have ever heard of the term only a minority say they have. I also take it be a bad sign that my spell checker does not reference the term. But surely that is coming.

But more and more people are playing with the concept, including landscape architects. I have just be reading proofs of a brilliant book called Walls by Thomas Oles. He asks, as you do, why we insist on drawing lines where none exist in nature. Plans are just as fictive as maps. In his hands, walls cease to be barriers and become sites of interaction, just as do the edges of your boreal forests. The world has never had as many lines, or as many walls, as it does today, and Oles asks why. What are they really doing at a symbolic as well as material level?

Richad T.T. Forman, in his book Land Mosaics: The Ecology of Landscape and Regions (Cambridge,1995) asks the provocative question: “What is lost when civilization converts the soft curves of nature into
hard lines of geometry.?” I know the answer when it comes to shores. Drawing hard lines there has been ecologically disastrous. Now I want to explore on a broader scale the effect lines when it comes to land —
property lines, rail lines, streets, playing fields. Such lines as so ubiquitous that we forget to question where they came from, what they serve, and whether they should exist.

We now live in a world of lines, and not just of space. We draw lines in time, dividing it into ever smaller parts, until we seem to have no time left. In the twentieth century we invented the dead line. It once meant the distance a prisoner could stray without being shot. Then it became something in the world of newspapers; now it regulates all our lives.

Time has long been a preoccupation of mine. I wrote about the clock to dominate our lives, how the weekend was born, how age relations are shaped. And now I want to look further into how this is connected with
spacial divisions.

The notion of the ecotone is so important in breaking out of rigid divisions, of finding those times and places in between where so much happens unnoticed. I found so much in your book that illuminates this. I think you would find Forman’s work reinforces your own.

In any case, pleased keep me informed about what you are doing. Keep opening up the world.

all the best John (Gillis)

merlemassie:

A fascinating initiative, As a long-standing co-operative member, from a long line of Saskatchewan co-operative supporters, this has great potential.

Originally posted on The Co-operative Innovation Project:

In November 2013, the Centre for the Study of Co-operatives at the University of Saskatchewan entered into a first-of-its-kind partnership with Federated Co-operatives Limited to explore co-operative development in rural and Aboriginal communities in western Canada.

Co-operatives are an important contributor to a community’s quality of life, offering opportunities for economic and community development in areas citizens feel are important, such as housing, social services, retail, energy, recreation, and the sustainable management of natural resources and traditional economies.

The goal of the CIP is to create a model of co-operative development that will work in rural and Aboriginal communities across western Canada and to select communities suitable for such development.

Our approach follows the UK-based Plunkett Foundation’s model of co-operative development, although we anticipate that the model will need to be adapted to the unique features of rural and Aboriginal communities in western Canada. A key part of the project…

View original 102 more words

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