Archive for the ‘Canada’ Category

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.


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


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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:


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!


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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

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One of the most fascinating archival finds of my PhD research was a wonderful letter (in four parts) written in Cree syllabic. I came across it while researching the Adhesion to Treaty Six, which was signed by the people of the Montreal Lake and Lac La Ronge regions of Saskatchewan on a brutally cold February day in 1889.

Such files are usually read by Canadian researchers on microfilm, under the short name of ‘RG 10.’ RG stands for Record Group, and RG 10 files are primarily from Indian Affairs. These are critical files for researchers, from a time when correspondence was letters (not email or social media). While the files are mostly written by, for, and back and forth between those employed by Indian Affairs, there is the occasional fascinating jewel of a letter written by a local person. Even more rarely, there is a wonderful letter written, in Cree syllabic, by local First Nations leaders.

I took scans of these letters immediately, although I can read neither syllabic nor Cree. They languished in my digital files while I worked my way through other research, which eventually became my book, Forest Prairie EdgeThe following is an excerpt that explains the Treaty Six Adhesion:

“After years of agitation and repeated requests from the boreal bands in the north Prince Albert region, the Crown finally agreed to offer treaty. The difference between an internal adhesion and an external adhesion was crucial: an internal adhesion added people to existing treaty stipulations; an external adhesion added both new people and new lands to an existing treaty. In the latter, treaty terms were at least somewhat negotiable.

“The external adhesion attempted to sort out a dual problem. On the one hand, there were bands with homes in the north Prince Albert region, within the boundaries of Treaty 6, that had not been offered treaty. Securing an external adhesion, which acted essentially as a new treaty, clarified the uncertainty of who was, and who was not, in treaty relationship with the Crown. Although there is nothing in the official records to act as confirmation, an external adhesion could negate continuing calls for arrears in treaty annuity payments.” 

“The second problem came from the commercial interests of investors in Prince Albert. Surveyors, scouting and marking out timber berths, realized that the boundaries of Treaty 6 did not entirely cover the potential area of forest resources that the Prince Albert community believed was within their economic sphere. In short, the land ceded by Treaty 6 did not correspond to the boundaries of the Saskatchewan District of the North-West Territories[i] or Prince Albert’s intended commercial empire of northern boreal resources. Officials at Indian Affairs explained: “The object in getting the surrender just now is in order that the Govt might legally dispose of the lumber in that Section permits to cut which have in some cases already been issued.”[ii] It was a somewhat frantic and belated effort to legally rectify a serious error—the government was issuing timber permits on land that had possibly not yet been ceded by treaty.”

During the treaty negotiations, the Cree leaders from Montreal Lake had a somewhat different view than their Lac La Ronge counterparts in what should be included in the articles and terms of the treaty, and what should be included in the initial and subsequent treaty payments. The syllabic letters that I found were sent to Ottawa after the treaty negotiations were complete and the treaty signed, but before the first payment came in the fall of 1889. The letters came from the Montreal Lake leadership, outlining in further detail their thoughts on the treaty, and what would be most useful to them as part of their treaty payment. They had clearly had some time to think, and wanted to send a message on their expectations and needs. However, it is not known if anyone working for Indian Affairs at the time was able to translate these requests.

The letters are a mix of Cree syllabic and English handwriting, and are written by three different people: Chief William Charles, councilor Benjamin Bird (who wrote 2 of the four pages), and councilor Isaac Bird. In 2016, I met Dion Tootoosis at an event in support of Prince Albert National Park. I told him about the texts, and he Angela Custer at the Saskatchewan Indigenous Cultural Centre took the project in hand. With the help and advice of Arok Wolvengrey and Solomon Ratt, the Centre was able to translate the syllabic into today’s written Cree, and for my benefit, to English.

Cree Syllabic one_001

Page one, from Chief William Charles, who also requested (in English) matches, and a copy of the treaty document.

Cree Syllabic One (from Chief William Charles)


  1. nimithwîthihtîn, ninanâskomâw kihci-okimâskwîw
    I am happy, I give thanks to the Queen
  2. mîna otatoskîthâkana ôta ê-nakaskamâhk
    and also her workers, here where we meet
  3. mâka nipakosîthimonân kita-kitimâkihtahk nipîkiskwîninân
    but I hope she listens with compassion for our talk
  4. ôma kâ-wî-isi-kâkîsimototawâyahkik nîci-tipahamâtwânânak
    this where we are going to pray for our fellow treaty people
  5. nistam kâ-tipahamâtohk pîhonânihk sônîyâwak nîstanân
    the first treaty payment here at (Ft. Carlton or F. La Corne) for us
  6. kâ-ati-otayâniyâhk êkosi nitisi-kâkîsimonân
    to have clothing, this is what we pray for

It seems clear that the translation of Fort Carlton or Fort La Corne is a bit incorrect, as this document references the treaty terms signed at Molanosa. The expected fall treaty payment for the Montreal Lake band would take place at the south end of the lake, in what would become their home reserve. But otherwise, the Chief greets the Queen and asks for compassion for his people.

cree syllabic two_001

Page two, from Benjamin Bird.

The second page is from Benjamin Bird, who was an outspoken councilor both at the negotiations and as shown by his two syllabic pages.

Cree Syllabic Two (Benjamin Bird)


  1. hâw êkwa nîsta nititwân ninanâskomânân

    me too I say we give thanks to

  2. kihci-okimâskwîw êkwa ê-wâpahtamâhk okitimâkîyihcikêwin

    the Queen and we see her compassion

  3. okiskinwahamâkîw (syllabic too faded to read) isinamâkîw??

    teacher __________the one who hands out

  4. sôniyâwa kitakî-wî-mîthikoyâhk

    money, to give us back (Give us back the money)

  5. mostoswak ê-ohci-pî-mîkicik mistikonâpêw

    cattle, we were supposed to be given, by James Smtih

  6. amêwistoyân mâka itwêw ka-ohci-pamihikawîyâhk

    the bearded one said, this is where we will be well taken care of

  7. êkotê kihci-ohci-pamihihcik, tâskipocikan

    from there we were supposed to be taken care of; rip saw

  8. cîkahikana, pakwâyinîkana

    axes, canvas

  9. mônahihcikêkâkana athapiy-asapâp

    hoes, twines for nets

  10. pîminahkwâna, pâskisikana, akahamâtowin.

    ropes, gun, ration

  11. ninohtêpathihikonân kâ-pî-pipohk mîna tânithikohk

    we are short this winter and how much

  12. kâ-pî-asamikawîyâhk

    we were given to be fed

cree syllabic three_001

Page three, from Isaac Bird. Note: in English, Isaac added: requested also for cooking stoves and trowels

Cree Syllabic Three (Isaac Bird)


  1. nimithwîthihtînân kâ-isi-pihtamâhk
    we are happy that we hear
  2. î-kî-kitimâkîthimikoyâhk kihci-okimâskwîw
    that the Queen shows us compassion
  3. ______ ikosi nîsta î-isi-tipâhtamân
    this is what I hear also
  4. anihi nitâsotamâkowininâna
    those things we were promised
  5. mîna kitakî-wî-tipahamâkawiyâhk
    we were supposed to be paid out
  6. sôniyâwak
  7. ikwa mîna kotaka nipakosîthimonân
    and also we are hoping
  8. î-wî-natotamâhk
    to ask for other things
cree syllabic four_001

Page four, from Benjamin Bird.

Cree Syllabic Four


  • âhaw êkwa nîstanân niwî-nanâskomânân

yes, and we give thanks

  • kihci-okimâskwîw mîna otatoskîthâkana êkwa

to the Queen and workers and

  • kâ-sâsakwîthimot ayi-misiwî-askîhk ê-pê-tamâkoyâhk

Where her roles all over the land, she brings us

  • otinamâtowina ninanâskomânân mîna

her care (responsibility), we give thanks and

  • nimithwîthihtînân ê-pî-tipahamâkoyâhk

we are happy she came to pay us

  • nitaskînâhk êyak-ohci okitimâkîthimowinihk

our land, we are calling on her

  • kâ-wî-natomâyâhk mistiko-nâpêw ninatotamânân

compassion for us. James Smith we ask

  • okanawînamâkîw kistêkiwiyiniw, tâskipocikan,

the Indian Agent for: rip saw,

  • kâ-wâskâwîpiniht, kinipocikanisina,

wheels (Wagon), files for saw,

  • kîskimana, napaki-cîkahikana, athahikîhikana,

files, flat axes, rakes,

  • nanâtohk kiscikânisa, maskihkiya,

seeds, medicine,

  • ayawinisa, pîkopicikânisa, ê-kâsisiki

clothing, ploughs, sharp (nails)

  • sakahikana, wâpamoni-pîskowâsînamâna

nails, window panes

I was absolutely delighted to receive these wonderful translations. They speak to me in a clear voice, across the years, of local leadership working hard to put their people to the best advantage in the negotiations of the treaty. The requests show a wonderful mix of boreal forest tools, such as rip saws for forestry and net twine for fishing, with local agricultural needs such as rakes, hoes and seeds. Window panes and nails for building strong homes fitted well with calls for medicine and clothes. Isaac Bird spoke loudest about money payments, which should have (but did not) include back payment for all the years between the original signing of Treaty Six in 1876, and the new signing in 1889.

With the help and support of the Saskatchewan Indigenous Cultural Centre, these detailed syllabics and their modern translations can now be shared with you.

[i] Ray, Miller, and Tough, Bounty and Benevolence, 144.

[ii] LAC, RG 10 Vol. 3601, File 1754, Superintendent General of Indian Affairs, Edgar Dewdney to Indian Commissioner Hayter Reed, 6 December 1888.

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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.


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


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.

photo 4

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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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