Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘local history’ 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…)

Read Full Post »

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

IMG_0592

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

Read Full Post »

From the Prince Albert Advocate:

June 29th, 1897 Town and Country

Early last week a dispatch was received in town to prepare for a flood which is stated was surely coming down upon us, saying the water had risen twenty-seven feet at Edmonton in a few hours, and was carrying everything before it. The news did not create much alarm here, however, as the citizens felt it was next to impossible for the Saskatchewan to overflow its banks to the extent of doing any considerable damage. A few days later the water commenced to rise, and was soon a turbulent stream, some nine or ten feet above the usual level, flowing at the rate of seven or eight miles an hour, and carrying enormous quantities of mud and sand in solution, and bearing along on its bosom numbers of logs, besides driftwood and debris. After about three days, however, the water began to subside, and is now about stationary, although quite high yet, and the water is quite thick and milky looking. The water was not within twelve to fifteen feet from the level of the banks, and no other inconvenience was occasioned that the temporary suspension of traffic on the ferry, which was tied up to the shore for a couple of days as a matter of precaution.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

Recently, I was invited to attend the annual meeting of the Yellowhead Flyway Birding Trail Association annual meeting. It will be held April 13 at the Churchbridge Town Hall in Churchbridge, Saskatchewan, from 11 am to 7 pm. Registration is open, and more information can be found at:

http://www.yfbta.com/activities/symposiums/2013/symposium2013.htm

As you can see from the list of presentations below, it promises to be a fantastic day.

Lorne Scott Transfer control of Community Pastures and the environmental impact; closure of the Indian Head Tree Nursery
Alan Smith Birding by Ear
Merle Massey The Great Trek North: Depression Resettlement to the forest fringe in the 1930’s.
Anna Leighton  (Author / Ethno-botanist) What the Cree taught John Richardson in the 1800’s

Read Full Post »

Bonfire pit on the shore

[Note: this blog post was published as an opinion piece in the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix Friday 23 November 2012. See http://www.thestarphoenix.com/late+save+Kenderdine/7598518/story.html]

I am sad, angry, and confused that the University of Saskatchewan released news Thursday November 15th 2012 that it is suspending operations at Emma Lake Kenderdine Campus, the U of S-owned campus on the shores of Emma Lake, in Saskatchewan’s northern boreal forest. It is shocking news. The timing is particularly strange: just one day after the U of S hosted a major expo to flaunt its support for experiential learning opportunities for students, it moves to close the one campus that offers exactly that.

Such a move, of course, is a sign of the fiscal restraint facing the University. As a campus community member, U of S grad, and a Canadian environmental historian whose research encompassed the beginnings of the Kenderdine campus, I pause to reflect on the irony of this announcement.

Augustus Kenderdine was a painter, trained in Britain, who taught art from his top-floor studio in what is now the Thorvaldsen building – home of chemists, pharmacists, and old memories of turpentine. By the 1920s, as cars brought mobility and better roads led north of Prince Albert, Kenderdine discovered Saskatchewan’s north, and set out to paint its beauty. He took yearly sojourns at Emma Lake.

When southern Saskatchewan fell to its knees amid the dual prongs of drought and economic devastation, Saskatchewan’s mid-north, all along the forest edge, boomed. It is a little-known story. Thousands of prairie refugees fled north to carve a living off a bush homestead. It was a tough life, but it worked. Northern residents required less than one tenth of the aid of their southern kin – in a time when relief money was a loan for which the government expected payment, a place with fuel, game, fish, berries, and a chance to grow a garden and raise a hay crop seemed a Saskatchewan mecca.

Kenderdine convinced President Walter Murray to purchase land at Emma Lake, and build an art school. It was an art school with a purpose: bring teachers from across the southern wasteland north, to the beauty of the boreal forest. Through art, the teachers would know that not all of Saskatchewan was barren and broken. There, they soaked in a landscape of trees, water, and green and took those visions home with them, to bring a sense of hope and renewal to their students and communities squeezed by drought. It was an extraordinary vision of what Emma Lake meant to the U of S – a critical foothold in a Saskatchewan landscape that was decidedly not the prairie.

It was a stretch for the University. In the province that was hardest-hit by the depression, in the middle of endless years of short budgets and constricting choices, Kenderdine convinced the president that this was a worthwhile endeavor. He won, and Saskatchewan artists, biologists, students, writers, ecologists, and many others have been the thankful beneficiaries.

Fast forward to now. This past September, my colleague and I from the School of Environment and Sustainability took 30 graduate students on a field trip to Emma Lake, the Lakeland, the boreal forest, and Prince Albert National Park. Our students come from all over the world. We had two perfect days and nights at Emma Lake Kenderdine Campus, basking in starlit nights, excellent food, a sense of history, all within an ecological experiential learning laboratory of the highest order. We wished, several times, that we had brought our new U of S president, Ilene Busch-Vishniac, along with us. What a jewel in the campus crown – we wanted to show it off.

Fox walk: knowing the ground beneath your feet

Kenderdine campus has an Achilles heel: it is not operational in the winter. So, the peak time is May to September. When are students most active on campus? September to April. That leaves a scant one month crossover. How much money would it take to winterize it? What could that do to create better connections between the facility and the main campus student body? Solutions, I’m sure, abound.

Yes, I understand fiscal constraint. Yes, I believe you when you say it was a difficult decision. But if Kenderdine and Murray could create it during a time when the province of Saskatchewan, and the U of S, were going through their most difficult fiscal times, could we not do the same now? Please, for the sake of student experiential learning, let’s reconsider.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »