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Archive for the ‘Canada’ Category

Actually, that’s an arbitrary number. I’m pretty sure that I made more mistakes than that — and I have no doubt that the people who interviewed me saw more than I remember.

But my goal is to help others who might be chasing the academic dream to…reveal…to you what I know for sure that I did wrong during my short-lived time attempting to land an elusive position as a tenure-track faculty member somewhere in Canadian academia.

(more…)

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Nordegg region.fire.1919 Fire at Nordegg, Alberta, May 1919

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Fire at Weyakwin Lake, Saskatchewan, June 2015

Back in May of 2015, 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 were on high alert.

Then came June. And in Saskatchewan, the north has blown up. Wildfires are raging nearly everywhere, threatening communities and sending people and animals running. Ash rains down, smoke is blanketing the province and trailing as far south as Kansas, and across the agricultural south, drought stalks farms, withering crops.

There’s something eerily familiar about all of this.

During the winter of 1918-1919, with the Spanish Influenza epidemic touching fingers of death into every community in Canada, few except lumbermen and farmers noticed the low snowfall. April grew warm, then hot. Logs, with little to no spring runoff, were jammed. 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. lac la biche fire.our roots history book

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 Montreal Lake looked disaster and ruin in the eye. 

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. Nearby, hundreds of Aboriginal men, settlers, forest rangers and all able-bodied help formed crews to beat back fires wherever and however they could.

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, or across a boreal landscape dried to tinder, such a forest fire moves faster than either humans or animals. 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, near 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. A large family group was out on the land when the fire rained down. Four people – three women and one child – died immediately, but more than two dozen more were so badly burned that some were not expected to survive. By the time they managed to walk out, 11 had died and all carried scars. It is the tragedy of the Great Fire.

In places, the fires 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.

There is no telling what the end result will be this year, as fire roars through northern Saskatchewan. Water bombers and sophisticated communication add to our modern ammunition against the flames, but sometimes, it’s still not enough. 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. And as I look out through the smoke and haze, hundreds of miles from the firestorm, I think of everyone working night and day, to protect and preserve what we can.

In Canada, fire is burned into our history. Pray for rain. Fire season is upon us.

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I’ve been asked by the digital content editor at Environmental History, Finn Arne Jorgensen, to be one of the commentators for a new online forum. I will be commenting over the next few weeks on the essays, along with several others, and encourage you to do so as well.

The forum is based on three papers by Emily Wakild, Libby Robin, and Donald Worster. Each consider the role and purpose of the Wilderness Act (which is 50 years old this year) and comment more broadly on the state of ‘wilderness’ and the act of setting aside protected spaces. Wakild’s essay focuses on Latin America, Robin on Australia, and Worster on America.

The forum can be found here. There is an introduction by Lisa Brady, and a visual essay on the signing of the Wilderness Act by Sara Dant.

I recommend that you take a few minutes to read through the three forum essays, all from noted environmental historians, and add your thoughts to the comments section.

My opening comment is as follows:

My thanks to the writers of all of these essays — there is much on which to ponder.
Let me first state my prejudices: I believe people are a part of nature, that no area on earth is without the imprint, interpretation, and use of humans, and that there is no way to establish a ‘baseline’ wilderness. I nonetheless support setting aside tracts of land.
But that leads to my problem: setting aside tracts of land for what purposes? What will we, as humans, be allowed to do there? Nothing? Something? Anything? What?
It seems to me that the debates over the Wilderness Act, within the larger context of park-making (which pulls in debates over class, ethnicity, land rights and usage) is essentially about purpose. Is the act of setting aside wilderness areas, as Donald Worster suggests, a higher altruism worthy in its own right, but something to be defined and defended through an international court? (In an earlier essay, ‘The Wilderness of History’ in Wild Earth fall 1997, Worster suggests that we should set aside wilderness land as a tithe, a certain amount of the total land holdings of a nation state, returned to nature.) Both Libby Robin and Emily Wakild see that same nation-state as the key stewards of conservation and best situated to define and manage wilderness.
Whether at the international or national level, whether you believe in wilderness for its own sake or as part of a land-management scheme, my question remains: what is wilderness for? And conversely, what activities are NOT conducive to wilderness areas? As Wakild and Robin note, this answer might very well be quite different in different countries and contexts. Can we then, following Worster, have any kind of international tribunal judging wilderness?
Drawing those lines between what is acceptable use, and what is not, is the slippery slope on which we slide and struggle. And it is where the most intense debate is found.

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The following was originally published (in slightly edited form) for ActiveHistory.ca 23 January 201. We’re a group of historians interested in thinking about history and its current and future applications.

So, I’m writing a book.

What follows, for your January darn-it’s-cold-and-I’m-ready-for-something-kind-of-fun reading pleasure, is a primer (briefing notes) about the book. Given the growing recognition that Mother Nature remains strong and rather angry about human-induced climate change – kudos to everyone who spent Christmas with no power – I’m writing about human migration.

Drawing lessons from families who pulled up stakes and moved during the Great Trek from one biome (prairie south) to another (boreal north) due to drastic climate and economic problems during the Great Depression and Dirty Thirties, this book is based on history but with an eye to practical suggestions for the future. Imagine me having a conversation with my Grandpa and Grandma: what should I do to be prepared? Some of the following five lessons may or may not apply to your situation. It depends if you have a horse. Lessons may be tongue-in-cheek or serious. I’ll leave it to you to figure out which is which.

The underlying premise of the book is that climate change is happening and is worsening, and that Canada (in particular, Canada’s middle north and north) has been pinpointed as a place to which climate migrants from around the world may flee.

So, let’s get started, shall we?

Lesson one:

Leave sooner rather than later. Leave at the first sign of things going drastically wrong. Use this opportunity to go directly to a place where you think you might like to be. North Bay, Ontario? The Pas, Manitoba? Prince George, BC? Excellent choices – fresh water, some farmland, some trees, but with access to hospitals and schools. Edge places, with a lot of variety. You will be much more successful if you move sooner and get established, while you still have some capital and some energy. Waiting, hanging on where you are until the last moment, will cause you trouble in the long run. Takeaway: pull out your map of Canada and pinpoint possibilities. Then do your homework.

Lesson two:

Take family with you. And friends. And choose a place where you know a few people already. This is called social capital and you will need it. If things go to ‘hell in a handbasket’, as the old saying goes, you may need to rely on each other, pool resources, work together. This is no time to stand on your own, be stand-offish or independent. Social capital can save you or pull you through when things are tough. This will also help when you get lonesome and homesick for the place that you had to leave. Having your family and friends with you, instead of leaving them behind, will take the edge off your move. Takeaway: start making a plan, involve your friends and family, and make your social capital work for you.

Lesson three:

You will probably have to take lots of small jobs that rotate seasonally rather than one job. Yes, you’re right, you will be poorer. But you shouldn’t starve. Losing the single employment that brings in cash can put you in the poorhouse faster than you can say ‘mortgage payment.’ Having lots of small jobs usually means that you have a lot of skills that are portable and have value. You will need to be flexible if you are forced to move because of climate change. You may not find a job in your area of expertise, or you may find one but it may not be full-time. As the economy shifts beneath our feet, you may need to branch out. If you’re already on this path, good for you: you’re one step ahead. Takeaway: the future economy is perilous. The one-job, one-wage norm is changing. Change first, on your own terms. Be ahead of the curve.

Lesson four:

Physical labour will probably be required. Some of it will be hard, some of it will be icky. Learn to chop wood, use a chainsaw, haul water, build a fire, cook with wood, grow a garden, pick berries, shoot a gun, catch and gut a fish, learn your plants in the real world instead of the supermarket, and in general get closer to the land. Buy workgloves and work boots and work clothes. Expect your work days to last longer than 7.5 hours. Expect to work outside in all weather, in all seasons. Can you fix things yourself? Brush up on that. If storms and floods and fires and other major catastrophes are increasing, you need to be ready. Takeaway: join Scouts, make friends with an active grandparent who cooks, sews, cans, and has a garden, volunteer at a summer camp, take classes in plumbing, electricity, carpentry, and mechanics, and get fit. Be brave.

Lesson five:

Your horse might die of swamp fever. Otherwise known as ‘migration surprise,’ there may be material things (wifi gadgets, electrical gadgets, cars) or animals in your life who will either miss the old landscape so much that they won’t work in the new one (if, by chance, you end up in an off-the-grid cabin in the woods) or they find something in the new one that may kill them. Horses, for example, seem very good at contracting infectious anemia (swamp fever). Transmitted by mosquito bite, and mosquitos are common to nice wet areas, the best line of defense is to learn to make a smudge. Build a fire, then partially smother it with wet straw. Smokes like the dickens. Mosquitos hate it. Word of warning: cars don’t like northern roads, which are notorious when they exist and worse when they don’t. Buy a truck. With a winch. If you can’t afford a truck, and only have a car and a horse, take your chances on the horse. As for your internet fix, that’s harder. See lesson one about choosing your destination. Takeaway: cars vs. horses: horse wins. Cars vs. trucks: take the truck. And address your wifi habit before you go.

Recap: move first, move with friends and family, be flexible, be prepared, and be ready for surprises.

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This article was originally written for The Otter, the blog of the Network in Canadian History & Environment (NiCHE) and of which I am a member. It was posted Jan 20, 2014.

In January, I attended the annual Crop Production Show in Saskatoon. If you love climbing on tractors and combines, swathers and sprayers, and seeing the new (and increasingly large) agricultural technology, this is the event for you. The organizers also have excellent break-out sessions that cover everything from new crop ideas (camelina, anyone? Anyone? How about quinoa?) to market trends to future ag innovation.

As an active farmer in west-central Saskatchewan, #CPS14 is a must-see. But a couple of points caught my attention – and gave me that feeling of contentment, like a cat being stroked while laying in a warm patch of sun. I was content because I saw the future.

First, the backstory: in October 2013, I participated in a University of Saskatchewan Learning Communities public forum called The Future of Farming. (I wish I could post a link to the forum, which was recorded, but it’s still not on the website. I’ll keep you informed). Along with my co-presenter, Terry Tollefson from the Department of Soil Science, we had a lot of fun, casting our minds forward to consider: what will farming look like in western Canada in the future?

As a historian, trained to research and create stories built on the past, thinking about the future is a fantastic exercise. Even if you’re not inclined to science fiction, dystopic, or otherwise futuristic imaginings, I do recommend it. It’s a bit like math plotting on a graph: if this, and this, and this are the trends, where might the next point on the graph be?

I decided to focus my talk on three points. One, the future of farming is an increase in the farm-to-fork movement. That means a closer connection between consumers and producers, whether that is through farmers’ markets, on-farm visits, organics, or food baskets delivered directly to consumers. Locally-sourced and fresh are buzzwords with impact.

I have personal concerns with this movement (which I support in both principle and practise) but those can be held for another day.

The second point I made during that public forum is, our farm future of western Canada is increasingly twinned with the future of bearded, plain-clad men (and kerchief-covered, dress-wearing women) sporting rather German accents. If you don’t live in western Canada, the answer is: Hutterites. Hutterite colonies (Hutterian brethren) offer socially integrated, religious-based, well-funded and well-resourced entities that are at the forefront of farming. They have an immense manpower base – kids often leave school at 14 to enter adult, full-time productive farm life, with specific roles and training. Hutterite farms are massive mixed farms that straddle both commercial productive agriculture (from grains to pork to dairy) and subsistence-based, farm-raised produce for sale at farmers’ markets or direct to consumers. I get my chickens and eggs from one of five local Hutterite colonies near Biggar, and buy plenty of produce in the summer.

Hutterite men were everywhere at the Crop Production Show. And the agricultural retailers, wholesalers, buyers, and manufacturers gave them full attention. With their increasing land base, connections to both commercial and local-style agriculture, and solid financial backing, the Hutterite farms are major players in our agricultural future and a model and lesson in how to balance the competing demands of commercial agriculture to feed a growing world population (hear Bill Gates get excited about fertilizer and feeding the world) with the need to provide consumers with confidence in our clean, healthy food (see the A & W campaign for better beef).

Clearing the land north of Prince Albert, c. 1920s. Source: Saskatchewan Settlement Experience R-A32676

Clearing the land north of Prince Albert, c. 1920s. Source: Saskatchewan Settlement Experience R-A32676

My third point was, the future of farming has a specific direction: north. I’ve been researching the future of western Canada through the prognoses of climate scientists. Climate change predictions, in a wild case of positive spin, are pointing to Canada as a potentialsuperpower, a net winner andenvy of the world in global warming. As the Globe and Mail publishes in January 2014, the ‘magnetic’ north is Canada’s ‘last frontier’. These predictions offer a sense of historical whiplash, particularly for me. Unlocking frozen northern soil opens up a scenario of northern migration, of farmers, crops, animals, and whole societies moving north – a repeat of the Great Trek migrations I document in the last chapter of Forest Prairie Edge: Place History in Saskatchewan (April 2014).

During extensive droughts in western Canada between 1914 and 1938, the prairies dessicated, cracked and bled people in torrents. Thousands of those migrants – an estimated 45,000 in Saskatchewan alone between 1930 and 1938 – moved north. They hacked and grubbed farms out of the bush in the Peace River country of Alberta, across the forest fringe of Saskatchewan, and in the interlake region of Manitoba as the last generation of ‘pioneers’ moving into Grey Owl’s famous ‘last frontier.’ They fled a capitalistic, wheat-mining landscape that could not grow gardens, feed for livestock, or crops. Environmental refugees, they abandoned the desert and turned to subsistence, following the north star toward green, wet, trees, fuel, berries, fish, game, hay, warmth: hope.

Back to the present. While an agricultural show is not a noted bastion for climate change advocates, I saw plenty of evidence of climate considerations, from cold-weather and wet-adapted crops to insurance changes to an increase in back-to-the-land, alternative fuel, organic and clean food, and new transportation businesses. With the real threat of wild weather and electrical mayhem upon us, as Dagomar Degroot noted, climate change is bearing down.

It was fun, as a historian and active farmer, to let my thoughts fly forward instead of backward, projecting toward the future of western Canadian agriculture. What I see is a similar whiplash, a growing movement to reconnect to landscape, rebuild the ties that bind each of us to the earth. My advice? Make those connections in a place that has the basics of life: water, trees for shelter and fuel, and earth to grow a garden. Or at least, connect to a farmer who is already making that move.

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Canada lost a legendary Canadian recording artist, Stompin’ Tom Connors, in 2013. I know all the words to The Hockey Song. Bud the Spud takes me to Prince Edward Island’s potato farms and red mud. Sudbury Saturday Night taught me about bingo, bars, and letting loose with friends. And I know that the Man in the Moon is a Newfie. From Newfoundland, of course.

Actually, at one point in my life, I thought all these songs were written by Elmer Lammadee, a folk singer and local musician in the village where I grew up. Elmer’s stock in trade was singing Stompin’ Tom songs, complete with cowboy hat, boots, and board to stomp on. Every year at the Paddockwood Queen Carnival in March, Elmer would command the stage (a beautifully sectioned-off end of one of the school rooms, complete with rich purple drapes) to guide us through our favourites. When Connors passed, the local media spoke with Elmer about his tribute legacy: http://panow.com/node/310664.

The death of Stompin’ Tom reinvigorated some interesting conversations on the role of music in shaping Canadian identity, the Canadian content laws for radio and television, and the uniqueness of the Canadian story.

As a Canadian historian, and one with a particular interest in place, I use music and lyrics extensively in both my personal writing and in my courses. Students love the perspective brought forward by Canadian musicians, from Stompin Tom to Gordon Lightfoot, James Keelaghan, Great Big Sea and The Tragically Hip. I jig to old Rankin Family tunes and I think the live version of Mull River Shuffle is one of the best get-your-heart-rate-up songs ever performed. The Arrogant Worms gave us The Last Saskatchewan Pirate, which has no historical basis but it’s become the provincial anthem. I play it loud the first day of my classes and the students ‘get’ where I’m coming from immediately.

The list of Canadian music icons and their music about Canada is endless, and growing every day. I sat in delight last year when David Myles came through Biggar, and sang (among other great songs) Inner Ninja. It was the ‘original’ song without the vocal talents of Classified, but I may have loved it even more in the raw.  Although it’s not specifically ‘Canadian’ — no references to hockey, the Maritimes, or Tim Horton’s — the song describes an understated determination that seems, well, Canadian.

I do think that I would be the poorer if there were no Canadian content laws governing the airwaves. There is a recognition, a connection, to songs that speak about Canada that resonates with me. Do they make me more ‘Canadian’? Hard to say — I’m not sure that’s possible. I’m so Canadian I bleed red, of course (except when I bleed green, since I live in the green-and-white zone of Riderville, the land of the Saskatchewan Roughrider football team…). But the music gives voice and song and spirit to my Canadian-ness.

Funny how that can drive through your soul at the oddest of times.

Picture this: It’s August 2013 in Munich, Germany. The main hall of a beergarden, and it’s Saturday night. You’ve just finished four back-breaking days of labour, but the conference is finally ended. You’re sitting around a table with friends and colleagues, under the dim light of the dance hall lanterns. Everyone’s laughing and joking and telling stories about their neighbors. You’re halfway through a bottle of… weisbier… and you’re getting all fired up. For the dance… Ladies and Gentlemen, I give to you, the Bavarian Biergarten Shuffle…

And onto the stage comes a classic Bavarian biergarten band, decked out in lederhosen and dirndls. And when the evening blows open, after the ‘oom pah pah’ polkas that all sound like ‘Roll out the Barrel’ and ‘She’s Too Fat’, the band busts out their best Bavarian Biergarten version of Bryan Adams’ Summer of ’69.

That, my friends, is when you feel truly Canadian.

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Please note: this blog first appeared on ActiveHistory.ca 20 June 2013. See http://activehistory.ca/2013/06/tap-dancing-and-murder-in-a-grade-seven-classroom/

“My tap dancing just isn’t good enough,” she wrote. She: my daughter’s high school English teacher. Tap dancing: teaching (to pubescent, smartmouth, intelligent, tired kids at the end of June in rural Saskatchewan). “I remember a staff meeting conversation from some point where you were willing to come in and talk with students.” What’s the topic, Mrs. J? Reconstructing Past Lives.

Excellent. That is EXACTLY what historians do, right? So I set off to find out if I could tap dance for teenagers. Just for a couple of hours. After all, I tap dance for University students on a regular basis. How hard can it be?

Amid recent media controversy about the conservative federal government looking to choreograph the tap dancing of Canadian history (see here and here), I was curious to find out just what a typical Canadian grade seven student already knew.

We decided to focus on source hunting for the first hour. Here’s the question: if you’re writing a movie, let’s say, set in 1931, what do you already know? Great Depression! And we’re off and running. Where do you look for more information? Google (of course. Duh.). Grandparents. Books. My daughter said ‘archives’ but then had to explain what they were, and what kind of stuff is kept in there.  She sounded bored and resigned, smart and engaged, all at the same time.

Then it was time to get personal. What was going on in our town, Biggar, in 1931? How do you find that out? Was there a newspaper, Mrs. Massie? Yes. Same newspaper we have today, the Biggar Independent. I had borrowed a microfilm copy from the local museum, and brought it in, along with a microfiche reader (which are small, light, and more portable than a microfilm reader, even if you can’t see as much). Is that a television, Mrs. Massie? A really old computer? So I took it apart, and let them look inside. COOL! It’s nothing but a mirror and a light!

Really, I felt like a magician. Ta DAH!! Old newspaper, on the wall of the darkened classroom for all to see. I had scanned and digitized it properly, so we put that on the smartboard. And I’d made paper copies. Triple the technology – but the students liked the micro just as well.

Front page news: MURDER near Biggar. Really, I hadn’t planned that part. I chose 1931 at random. I chose a date as close to my classroom visit as possible – June 11, 1931. Serendipity pulled us along.

Not only was it a murder (manslaughter, actually), but the murderer was none other than Louis Forchetner. He’s not famous. You’ve never heard of him. But I had – because my husband’s grandfather was there when the murder happened, and bought our farm from the murderer. Family lore knew the story, albeit slightly corrupted by the years. At a Farmer’s Unity League meeting (we thought it was a dance), a fight broke out. Forchetner stabbed Reid Hayes, who died in hospital after giving a deathbed statement. The enraged stabber went to jail for five years, in the depth of the Great Depression.

COOL! Murders (think CSI Biggar – you think we can franchise that?) pop kids eyes open. But there were other neat stories and advertisements in the paper. “What are piles, Mrs. Massie? Where’s your dictionary? [three minute wait…] OH GROSS!!!!” Did you know that Ogopogo was dead? And that some scientists added green and purple serum to fertilized eggs and came up with green and purple chickens? Grey Owl had moved to Manitoba, and Queen Mary was in her 60s. There were no speed limits on cars in Saskatchewan, but you had to slow down when passing horses, and pull off to the side of the road for hearses.Glaciers were melting. Attendance was down severely at the year-end fairs and picnics. A sense of despair exuded from the paper, but a Mickey Mouse cartoon was at the theatre.

“Mrs. Massie, why were newspapers so much more interesting back then?”

Well, why do you think? (Imagine the 13 year old collective BORG scrunching their eyebrows in thought). Answer: there was no TV or internet back then. I nodded my head proudly.

Mr. Harper, they’re doing fine.

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