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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.

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[Note: this post is a reprint from a blog I wrote for The Otter, the blogpost for NiCHE, Network in Canadian History of the Environment. Find the original post here: http://niche-canada.org/node/10456]

I remember my first sight of the old Albert Kessel farm. Nestled on the number Four Saskatchewan highway halfway between Biggar and Rosetown, I loved it from the moment I laid eyes on it — through the window of the truck on my way for my first visit to my then-boyfriend’s parents’ farm. “Wow!” I remember saying. “Look at all those great trees!” A northern Saskatchewan bush girl, I hadn’t yet become attuned to the distinctive and iconic prairie landscape. The spruce and jackpine seemed a dollop of ‘home-as-trees’, stretching to brush the clouds of the prairie sky.

I couldn’t predict, then, that one day I would own that piece of land.

When luck looped through our world and the land came into our ownership and stewardship, I found numerous treasures embedded in the landscape. Stone fences, crumbling. An old road, now leading nowhere. An orchard, the last few hardy trees still birthing fruit. A well, which, when primed, still spills forth fresh water. Another wellhead, furtively tucked under trees and surrounded by growth, littered with empty whiskey jugs – the remains of a still? A steel-wheeled wagon, abandoned so long that its front right wheel is encased by the tree that quietly grew from sapling to spire, anchoring the wagon to the earth, ending its rolling days. A swatch of the Bear Hills, never tilled, native prairie warming the soil like a thick kokum’s quilt.

Wagon at the Kessel farm. Merle Massie collection.

One hill in particular rises to attention, flowing above the farm and the circle of pine and spruce. At its top, a cairn of stones cradles an old, rusted, flagpole.

Flagpole at the Kessel farm, 2006. Merle Massie collection.

Since our purchase, I’ve been trolling the memories of neighbors, local museums, and community history books, gleaning accounts of the farm’s original owner: Albert Kessel, a garlic-chewing, eccentric, WWI bugler, journalist, Czechoslovakian master prize-winning bachelor farmer crossed in love. Fascinating.

Albert Kessel, 1958. “Yielded 45 bushels to acre.” Hills in background. Courtesy Biggar Museum.

I wrote about Albert Kessel and my search for knowledge about him in 2008, published in the June/July issue of The Beaver, now Canada’s History Magazine. I knew that Kessel operated a demonstration farm, which was widely-known and visited every year on field day by as many as 400 researchers from the University of Saskatchewan, federal experimental farms, the Searle Grain Company, neighbors, and busloads of schoolchildren. He called it Vimy Ridge Farm.

Kessel was a bugler during WWI, shot through the thigh at Vimy Ridge. In my article for The Beaver, I wrote: did this hill remind Albert of Vimy Ridge? Is that why he called his farm Vimy Ridge Farm? Did he ever blow his bugle up here? I thought it most likely that the hill, or the series of hills, reminded Albert of his harrowing French experience. In salute, Kessel erected a flagpole and every day, he would stump up the hill and fly a British flag.

At the time, I had never visited the real Vimy Ridge. All I knew of the site was confined to history books and photographs, a landscape of the imagination but never of experience. I thought that Vimy Ridge was like Hill 70 or another strategic marker on a theatre of war where every height of land meant a mile more of sovereignty. That changed in 2009, when I visited Vimy Ridge during a conference tour of Belgium and France.

The experience was overwhelming. The imprint of war on the landscape is still tangible. I visited the tunnels, shuddered at being underground, and felt my jaw drop as my eyes skidded over the craters and hummocks that pock the grass – debris from bombs that exploded on the landscape nearly a century ago. Whether or not you believe that Canada was forged at Vimy Ridge – and I’m not a pinpointer of history – knowing that you stand on Canadian soil in the middle of France redefines your perception of what it means to be Canadian.

But it was at the monument that I had my epiphany. And I wasn’t looking at the monument when it happened. I was looking out, at a flat French landscape that was both foreign and intimately familiar. I was reminded of my own words in that article I wrote for The Beaver: To the north of the yard is a commanding hill, hosting a phenomenal panoramic view of the prairies in a fifty-mile swing from east to southwest.

France, from Vimy Ridge. Merle Massie collection.

I knew, in that instant, why Albert Kessel named our farm Vimy Ridge Farm. It wasn’t about the hill – it was the view. From both Vimy Ridge in France, and Vimy Ridge Farm in Saskatchewan, the two landscapes provide a near mirror-image of space, sky, and panoramic earth. Of course, France is covered in towns, villages, trees, and industry: the pyramids are piles of coal, and that is what both armies wanted. Saskatchewan provides a relatively empty prairie view, studded with a few isolated farmsteads and an expansive agricultural skin regularly grown and shaved by generations of farmers.

When Alan MacEachern issued his lovely summer call for photographs of historical landscapes (http://niche-canada.org/node/10423) I considered where I might go, what I would like to see. But my heart knew that I had already made this trip, even if it did not conform exactly to specs. My story draws together two landscapes separated by an ocean and half a continent, and almost a century of time. The story of Vimy Ridge, and the cascading memories of place, connected a little farm in Saskatchewan with an iconic Canadian symbol.

One day, we’ll raise the flag again. We’ll do it for tenacious Saskatchewan homesteaders; for unlucky romances; for Great War and Vimy Ridge veterans; for excellence in prairie agriculture; and, for garlic-chewing bachelor farmers.

And that’s my story.

Vimy Ridge Farm Flagpole, 2012.

 

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Recent cuts to Library and Archives Canada have understandably elicited a fulsome, loud, and sound negative response from Canadian historians. See http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/story/2012/05/02/ottawa-libraries-archives-closing-budget-cuts.html for a CBC version of the story; The Dominion’s response is here: http://www.dominionpaper.ca/articles/4470.

As historians, how do we respond in the digital age? By launching websites such as: http://www.savelibraryarchives.ca/ and writing vehement, articulate, and passionate blogs with open letters such as http://yufalib.wordpress.com/2012/05/16/moore-lac-cuts/ and Ian Milligan’s http://activehistory.ca/2012/05/the-smokescreen-of-modernization-at-library-and-archives-canada/.

Amid the national response — which has been, and will continue to be, emphatic in its derision of this decision — we have a similar problem in Saskatchewan.

As of our most recent provincial budget, we are enduring public cutbacks at our provincial archive. Hours of operation in the reading room have been reduced to three days per week: Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, 10 am to 4 pm.

I was actually in the archive on the day this announcement came through. Then, following my visit, I had a call from the archives on the following Monday, letting me know that my photocopying request was finished, and I could come pick it up.

This was followed five minutes later by a frantic follow-up call, with an embarrassed archivist on the other end telling me that I could pick up my stuff on Tuesday — even though they were there, and I was nearby, and it was more convenient for everyone if I had just dropped in at that moment.

So, I wrote my first-ever letter of protest. I sent it via email to Lynda McIntyre, Provincial Archivist. After a headline of ‘archives hours’, it read:

Hi Linda

While I appreciate budget issues, I am seriously concerned about the reduction in public hours at the archives. This is a major deterrent for out-of-province researchers coming here to do research on Saskatchewan. If the archives staff will be on hand anyway, does it really add that much to their daily workload to open the reading rooms?

As a compromise in the short term, I propose that SAB consider increasing the hours on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday to at least reflect real working hours. Opening no later than 9 am is a must; 8 or 8:30 am is better. Also, ending the day at 5 seems reasonable.

Thank you for your consideration. I would appreciate you sending this letter to the SAB board and senior staff.

Merle Massie, PhD. Postdoctoral Fellow, School of Environment and Sustainability University of Saskatchewan Box 352 Biggar, SK S0K 0M0 306-948-3660 https://merlemassie.wordpress.com/

The reply came thus:

Good afternoon, Merle:  Thank you for your email of March 27th regarding the reduction in public hours of Reference Service at the Saskatchewan Archives’ offices.  The Saskatchewan Archives is currently faced with balancing reduced resources with backlogs in all aspects of service delivery.  In particular, there is a growing backlog in public email and telephone enquiries in relation to reference services.  In order for staff to respond to these enquiries in a timely manner we need to reduce the hours that we are open to the public over the short term.  We are working with our Board to restore full public service hours as soon as possible.

Should you have any further comments or concerns, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Sincerely,

Linda

Linda B. McIntyre Provincial Archivist Saskatchewan Archives Board 306.798.4018 (ph.) 306.787.1975 (fax) Email: lmcintyre@archives.gov.sk.ca

About one week later, I received the following official letter from Bill Hutchinson, Saskatchewan’s Minister of Tourism, Parks, Culture and Sport, also head of the Office of the Provincial Capital Commission. (Note the gender mistake in the letter…)

Massie

So, where do we go from here? It sounds positive: they are exploring all resources to restore staffing, etc. etc. But we all know that once those cuts are made, they are difficult — if not downright impossible — to reverse.

All I know is, if you’re planning to do research at the Saskatchewan Archives Board, expect a colder shoulder and shorter welcome than there used to be — although admittedly, not quite on the scale of disdain for the public shown by the federal government in the cuts at LAC. It makes me wonder, who are our archives meant to serve?

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I find myself caught quite often in a war of words between my academic colleagues and all my friends/neighbors/family who live and work in the ‘real world’ far outside the university walls. What university colleagues consider ‘well-written and accessible for a broad audience’ my Mom will put down in frustration as academic gobbledegook, not worth her time.

Sometimes, in the silences of the night when I’m trying to bridge this gap with my own work, I have a vision of the ‘ivory tower’ of the university campus complete with moat, drawbridge, and scary crocodiles in the water, waiting to rip my flesh from my bones, should I decide to take a swim on a hot summer’s day. The walls are high, and I cannot climb over the top. I must pass over the drawbridge and through the door to enter.

There are passwords to get into this ivory tower. And they are complicated, scary, and change every few hours, depending on who might be the gatekeeper.

The other day, it was a doctor, and the password was ‘myocardial infarction.’

You don’t want to know what I said. But I’ll bet you can guess. It didn’t work, so I tried again. ‘HEART ATTACK’ I cried, my eyes on the eyes in the water, slipping closer to the edge.

Well, it worked, but the welcome was grudging, at best. He saw my desperation, but clearly my translation left much to be desired.

Another day, there was an English professor at the door. She was reading a book in one hand, and working on her laptop on the other. Aha, I thought. I am in luck. In the dusty bottom of a drawer, I have a certified English degree. This will be easy! I tried: ‘Jane Austen!’ No luck. Well, I’m Canadian. So I’ll try: ‘Lucy Maud Montgomery!’ Nothing. She looked up and said, “It is ‘Constructive post-postmodern psychocritical phenomenological narratology,'” you dunce!

First, my apologies to anyone who studies what I just wrote. I honestly thought I was making it up. I took out an old copy of Modern Criticism and Theory from my said university English days, and looked up random words.

Second, I’m sure there are readers who will say, ‘Merle, are you the pot, or the kettle? Because the last time I checked, you are an academic. Black, I tell you. Black!’

True enough. I am. I hold a nice, fresh PhD that my History supervisor assured me did not get handed to me wrapped with bubble gum. I worked for it. That’s true. But I am unwilling to shake years of writing for public audiences — newspaper articles, newsletters, corporate books,  magazine stories. It is a different dynamic, and a powerful one.

I’m married to a smart, successful, well-educated scientific farmer. But if it starts with the word ‘post’, and I can’t pound it into the ground, it just isn’t useful.

So, I was grateful and happy to see the Dean of Arts and Science at the University of Saskatchewan recently declare that he would ideally like to see U of S faculty “consider communicating their research to the public.” Superb! I agree! (For his post, see http://artsandscience.usask.ca/blog/archives/148).

With those thoughts in mind, I was pleased to attend a recent workshop on Communications with Meagan Hinther, word scribe of the School of Environment and Sustainability. My own workshop, Hooked: Writing for a Public Audience stands firm within a movement, almost an insistence, that as prestigious as peer-reviewed academic publications are, there is another audience out there who deserves attention. I was delighted with the uptake for the workshop. We discussed audience, active voice, opening lines, planning with vision, and working with media relations. I have a number of ideas of things we can do better and differently when I offer the workshops again — practical, hands-on writing work. A messy, ugly, trial-by-fire approach. I’ll be the first to get burned, I’m sure. I need several drafts of each email and I still end up with typos and wordy paragraphs. Like this one.

The thrust to work toward greater public communication is, I believe, soaking the ground underneath the battlements of the ‘ivory tower.’ The walls shouldn’t crumble, and I really don’t want them to. But I would like to see the doors at least open to the courtyard. Smiles of welcome and recognizable passwords (heart attack, thank you) will be a part of the process. Invite people in, by being inviting. As I said to those who attended the writing workshop, what is more important: sounding smart, or having people understand what you say?

Am I knocking academic scholarship? No. There are amazing people and intricate, excellent, technical, and immensely important research problems being studied at every university. Some of that research is complicated, difficult, and best discussed among an intimate group of people who communicate using acutely sensitive and particular words that carry specific and crafted meaning. If it’s necessary to solve world peace or find a cure for cancer or develop policies around safe drinking water, then we need it. And I support it.

But I think that it is time for the university community at large to recognize its place as a public institution, serving the public. I’m not asking anyone to ride two horses with one ass, as the old Southern saying goes. I would just like to see more space and support, and recognition, for writers and academics who would like to write for a public audience. Recognition during tenure review or hiring processes, for example. I find it incredibly disheartening when I hear about graduate students and young faculty, excited to write for a public audience, being sternly warned: ‘you’re wasting your time. It won’t help your tenure review. It’s not peer-reviewed.’

True. But then again, it is peer-reviewed. If it gets read — and that is easily tracked — it is reviewed by your public peers. Comments, questions, concerns, re-tweets, links… connectivity and sharing are the new way to pass notes down the aisle.

That public audience carries enormous power, both in what it can do and what it can say. Endowments, trusts, chairs. Research funding. Partnerships. Community engagement. These are actions, not words, and they are words that every university sits up and pays attention to. I think that in our new era of blogs, Twitter, and ever-increasing connection (Open Source!), it is critical that academics are encouraged, supported, and promoted in their public writing.

Because otherwise, like I saw in a post on Twitter this morning, it is a ‘nerd loop’ where we academics only speak to each other.

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As a member of NiCHE (Network in Canadian History of the Environment), I occasionally contribute blog posts to The Otter, our public blog. Over the past couple of months, fellow environmental historians Sean Kheraj, Shannon Stunden Bower and myself collaborated on a three part blog regarding the demise of the Canadian Wheat Board. Sean and Shannon contributed intriguing views that look at the CWB through the lens of history; I chose to focus on the loss of the Wheat Board and what it means to our farm. Find the blog here: http://niche-canada.org/node/10317

Events and perspectives continue to unfold regarding the end of the Wheat Board monopsony buying/monopoly selling power. (Aside: I tend to use ‘single desk’ and leave it at that, with apologies to all economists and V. Fowke, Canadian agricultural economist and historian). As a regular subscriber to The Western Producer, one of the pre-eminent farm papers, I enjoy reading the letters to the editor. Each week, over the past several years, heated exchanges and debates have brought forth many lesser-known sides to the issue, including past Wheat Board successes and failures, rants, interjections and declarations from politicians and other key players, and a healthy dose of western Canadian agricultural history. Based on truth, lies, fact and fiction (and no one is really sure which is which), the letters are entertaining, informative, and in many cases, attempt to predict the future.

So I thought I might try that, too. What I expect to see in the next few years, as a result of dismantling the CWB (sincerely hoping, for some of these, that I am wrong!):

1. Lower grain prices for wheat and barley. Huge grain companies make their money by buying low, selling high. That is called capitalism.

2. Lower grain quality regulation. Already, we see new innovations in malt barley marketing that allows for a grain grade somewhere between excellent malt barley and feed. Can you keep track of the taste of your favourite brew over the next few years?

3. A new rise in co-operative pool marketing. Viterra, once the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool, turned public several years ago. The time will come when new pools will take its place.

4. Serious instability in rural train branch lines, owned and operated by small private shareholders. Much of their profit stemmed from moving CWB grain. With grain no longer under CWB transportation policies, the grain companies and the rail lines are expected to take a much larger cut in the profit, and the rural branch lines could fail. This will put increased strain on an already overloaded truck transportation system, with huge costs for municipalities, as well as farm profits.

5. Legal backlash and lawsuits against the Canadian government for compensation. If the CWB operated with a cash flow in part from grain profits, those profits should be returned to farmers. Of course, the federal government will charge that it has supported the CWB financially — which is also true. The resultant battle will drag on for years.

6. Possibly the rise of the Winnipeg Grain Exchange. Once the bane of the organized farm lobby and the subject of intense scrutiny and hatred, its new form (ICE Futures Canada) is attempting to re-establish a Canadian foothold in the grain market, particularly in the wake of the end of the CWB.

7. Farmers learning to buy and sell futures contracts. Hedging will be a key part of farm economics.

8. Farmers having to purchase Technology Use Agreements and buy new seed every year, similar to what is already done in the canola industry. Carrying your own wheat and barley over and cleaning it for seed will become obsolete. The offshoot will be the gradual demise of small, mobile grain cleaning companies and labs that test grain for germination.

9. Less wheat grown. Without the cushion provided by the CWB, farmers will not be able to ‘shop’ their grain to various elevator companies, trying to get the best grade possible. Wheat contracts will force farmers to sell only to the grain company with whom they made a contract. Then again, on the upside, less wheat grown generally leads to better prices, forcing the grain companies to compete for our wheat and durum crops.

10. More ‘information sessions’ and other local and regional conferences, attempting to sort out the biggest farm question: WHAT HAPPENS NOW? I’ll be attending a few over the next couple of months…!

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My recent research into flooding in boreal communities across northeastern Saskatchewan and northwestern Manitoba has drawn the interest of a local newspaper: the Nipawin Journal. I sent a press release, then stopped in to visit the newspaper and share some of our initial research findings on my return from my fabulous first research trip to Cumberland House. See the article here: http://www.nipawinjournal.com/ArticleDisplay.aspx?e=3463461

My thanks to Melissa, editor at the Journal, for her professional interest in the project!

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Blog posts not only get read, they get shared. Or so I’ve learned this week!

I received a lovely phone call from the producers of CBC Saskatchewan’s The Afternoon Edition with Craig Lederhouse. I will be interviewed tomorrow re: my piece on Saskatchewan Ghost Towns, and I’ve promised both SaskTel on Demand, as well as ActiveHistory.ca, that I will be sure to mention them both. Once the interview is finished, I’ll try to download the podcast here.

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