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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The following is a blog post I wrote for ActiveHistory.ca. It was cross-posted to The Otter, a blog for NiCHE (Network in Canadian History of the Environment).  Links to those posts: http://activehistory.ca/2013/01/water-stories/ and http://niche-canada.org/node/10556.

Spring 2011 010

Water wells up and flows across the landscape of my memory as a cataclysmic force, ebbing and flowing through my earliest life story. Those encounters shift the flotsam of my perceptions as an environmental historian, shaping the way I think about water. And, these stories require sharing, as they differ radically from that of colleagues raised in urban environments where drinkable water flows under, around, into, and out of every home.

My family’s first farm house, purchased in the early 1970s, did not have a bathroom. Our toilets were the classic outhouse, and a metal five gallon pail with a toilet seat lid tucked strategically behind the furnace in the basement, next to a holder for the toilet paper. It was Dad’s job to haul the honey pail up the stairs every day and dump it in the bush. There was a base efficiency to that daily routine, though, that belies its yuckiness. Humans use bathrooms. Every day. What innovations –– in fertilizer, in composting, in sanitation –– would we create if each household was responsible for managing their own eliminations?

The bathtub was a huge galvanized steel contraption placed under the stairs in the hallway when it came time to scrub up four kids and two adults. Bucketed full of water, Dad plugged in a special water heater that looked to me like a metal foot. My job was to move this contraption every few minutes to different spots in the tub, to ensure even heating. As the youngest kid, I often had the privilege of first scrub in the warmest and cleanest water. But with all the work that went into hauling and warming the water, you can be sure that it cleaned more than one body. Efficiency, thy name is sharing.

When I was five or six, we moved in a much larger farm house, one with a bathroom. This necessitated massive renovations, including digging a cistern –– a huge holding tank for water, dug under the new verandah. While water could now gush, flush, and rush out of taps, we still had daily water concerns. Cisterns do not fill themselves. Our water came in summer from the Garden River (which conveniently flowed through our farm land), pumped by Dad via a snake of black pipe. Tadpoles and the odd frog came too, but they never survived the bleach bath: gallons of bleach poured into the water to stabilize it and kill some of the germs. In winter, water became an expensive commodity, brought to our farm and pumped into the cistern by a water hauling truck.

Living off a cistern creates an instant water shortage. Each drop translated into either time or money. Wasting water was not an option. Mom invested in a SudSaver washing machine and a laundry tub, saving wash or rinse water to use over again. We continued to share bath water –– Who’s next? Who wants my water? was the holler from the tub. And there is an old saying enshrined on the walls of many a bathroom in rural Canada: “if it’s yellow, let it mellow; if it’s brown, flush it down.’  On a farm, you knew the provenance of every drop, and you knew where it was all going. Grey and black water mixed in the sewer holding tank, which was pumped out regularly to some far corner of the yard.

Cistern water was for baths and flushes, dishes and clothes –– but not for drinking. As in our pre–bathroom days, drinking water did not come out of the tap. There was a pail of fresh soft clean drinking water, with a dipper, in the kitchen for general use: teapots and coffee pots, thirsty kids, boiling potatoes, and making juice. We hauled that water from generous neighbors lucky enough to own ‘good’ wells, or from the nearest village where water was treated.

On our current farm, the worth of water remains, and responsibility rests squarely on us. The well and its pump are monitored and maintained, the sewer lines checked, the reverse osmosis system (which purifies the well water for drinking) flushed and cleaned and kept in working order. There is always a back up of drinking water stashed away. If something goes wrong, it is our job to fix it, or find a way to live with or without it.

My water stories feed my imagination of our collective Canadian future: a cistern in every house; tap water clean enough for flushing and washing, but a separate system for drinking; innovation in black water reuse; and finally, a new universal maxim: running water, and (even more so), drinkable running water in everyone’s home is not a ‘right,’ or even a given. Access to clean water, yes. But modern city standards of drinking water flowing from every tap have skewed our perception of how water ‘should’ be delivered to all Canadians, and of what quality, no matter where they live. It is an unsustainable, and untrue, perception. If water was part of our everyday chores, responsibility, and routine (instead of an unthinking part of our day managed by someone else, delivered to our taps and whisked away when we’re done with it), water would once again be worth its weight. And its value would be true.


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Recently, NiCHE (Network in Canadian History and Environment) has created a new initiative: Environmental History Television! (Well, that’s the basic idea, anyway…).

With 25 Flip HD video cameras distributed to Environmental Historians across the country, 3 to 5 minute movie clips will soon be pouring in to EHTV on YouTube. The inaugural video, posted May 27th by Sean Kheraj, features an overview of the recent EH+ conference in Hamilton, Ontario. (And yes, I’m in it, too…). There is some lovely footage of the Burlington waterscape on Lake Ontario, the Botanical Gardens, and some thoughts from conference attendees. I second Claire Campbell’s view that we should get together like that once a year… Click here to see the video: http://youtu.be/AUDzDzLsoHk.

As the summer progresses, those of us who received Flips will be charging around, collecting and editing video clips reporting various aspects of Canadian and international environmental history. I’ve promised a tour of our farm, and last week I captured a major bicycle race that had been moved to Biggar for environmental reasons. A trip to Niagara Falls is also in the bag, and may be uploaded fairly soon. Stay tuned!

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The endless plains, the iconic Saskatchewan identity, once thrummed to the pulsing tempo of millions of bison hooves drumming the skin of the prairie landscape.

Environmental historians Dan Flores, a renowned researcher (really, almost a philosopher) on the Great Plains, has pondered the fate of the bison and the classic story of white destruction of this once seemingly-inexhaustible resource and staple for so many Plains First Nations people.

Flores’ original essay, “Bison Ecology and Bison Diplomacy: The Southern Plains from 1800 to 1850”, while first published in 1991 in The Journal of American History, continues to influence consideration of the role of bison on the Great Plains. Flores followed this article with a chapter in his 2001 book, The Natural West, which he termed “Bison Ecology and Bison Diplomacy Redux.”

He returns to the topic again this Thursday, May 12 2011 in Saskatoon, where he will offer a public presentation. If you’re near Saskatoon, it will undoubtedly be an entertaining and informative evening.

 Dan Flores Public Lecture May 12 2011

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This coming weekend — April 29th to May 1st — is EH+, the conference for Canadian environmental historians. Co-sponsored by NiCHE (Network in Canadian History of the Environment) and the Wilson Institute for Canadian History, it will be held at Hamilton.  It promises to be an interesting event. With a keynote speech from Andrew Nikiforuk (Dirty Oil: Tarsands in Alberta fame…), the weekend offers a chance to get together, discuss, and reflect on the current state of this particular genre of history. As well, there will be some great new ideas for projects, proposals, and possibilities moving forward.

In reading the statements of the participants — which, if you are so inclined, can be found online at http://niche-canada.org/, then click on EH+ and Participant Statements — two distinct themes come to the forefront. One, most of the members of NiCHE and attending this conference feel that it is time for environmental historians to step it up in terms of their public participation. Environmental historians have real perspective and wisdom to offer to policy developers at municipal, provincial, national, and (even?) international levels. We study how humans interact with their landscape, and that means physically, economically, and culturally. And, as we move through issues of climate change, environmental degradation, floods and droughts, pollution, and toxicity, that knowledge becomes the keystone to future planning.

The second theme that rises out of the participant statements is: scale. No, not the numbers that pulsed back at me this morning as I stepped on the metal monster in the bathroom. By ‘SCALE,’ geographers are essentially talking about size. In most cases, scale refers to space, as in the following: I could map where I am right now as 1) my basement office, in a diagram that shows my house layout; 2) in my house, on a map of the town of Biggar, SK; 3) in Biggar, on a map of Saskatchewan; 4) in Saskatchewan, on a map of Canada or North America; 5) on Earth, as opposed to other planets in our solar system.

You get the idea. Scale is a key concept when defining space and place, but it can also apply to time or theme, as necessary. All that is needed is a very clear indication of scale — what scale are you using in this study, and why.

Geographers define their scale, and away they go with their research, conclusions and publications. Historians, however, must spend an inordinate amount of time defending their choice of scale, especially if that scale is anything less than national in scope.

And that’s exactly the point. Canadian environmental historians, as opposed to geographers, have inherited a burden of guilt from Canadian historians in general. Canadian historians have spent decades turning themselves inside out trying to argue which is the best scale to study Canadian history — local, regional, or national. In far too many cases, practitioners have argued that the best or only scale at which to write ‘good’ history is national in scope. Somehow, the impression is that only national history has the capacity to truly affect Canadians.  By extension, those that study regional or local history — read between the lines, me! — have an uphill battle to defend their choices. Dismissed as parochial, the local in particular has all-too-often been denigrated by academic historians, and not practised.

The cloud over local studies causes particular angst for environmental historians, whose research can and does quite often turn on the local. Engagement with the environment, and environmental history, is often most in tune with the physical presence of the land, and human influence/built environment/cultural perception/degradation of the landscape. Yet, many of the participant statements for EH+ push for, even demand, a much larger scale — national, transnational, or international in scope. It is only on this scale, some declare, that we as environmental historians can have an impact on national policies relating to the environment.

But I question this attitude, while supporting it in theory. I would love to see environmental historians regularly consulted on national environmental issues. I think the world will become a better, cleaner, safer place for all (humans and non-humans alike) when these sorts of consultations take place now and into the future. I think, however, that environmental historians can make as much of a difference, collectively, while giving significance to the local. For example, someone who has done extensive research on chemical, endocrine, and other pollutants within a watershed would be an excellent member of that watershed’s technical advisory committee. Or, a local environmental historian might be a superb fit on a city’s payroll, not as an archivist or storyteller to children (those are perks of the position…), but as a policy advisor: in 1952, the flood crest hit two meters above where you are proposing to site that construction. You should move it to higher ground.

Environmental historians may, in fact, find that their key center of influence — the place where they can do the most good — is the local and the regional. And really, what can possibly be wrong with that?

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As an environmental historian, I’m pleased to learn that I will be attending the upcoming EH+ conference in Hamilton, Ontario at the end of April. Sponsored by NiCHE (Network in Canadian History and Environment) and the Wilson Institute for Canadian History, this conference aims to bring together Canadian environmental historians for a weekend of discussion. The purpose is to assess the state of Canadian environmental history and brainstorm some new ideas for upcoming events and possible collaborative projects.

I will also be a participant in a special workshop on writing for a public audience. Geared to new scholars and graduate students, this workshop is designed to generate enthusiasm and technical writing skills. NiCHE has worked hard to erase the artificial boundary between academic publications and those geared for a more general audience. Preparation for the workshop includes writing a potential piece for a magazine or newspaper, and working with senior writers to bring the article to publication. The senior writers include the guest speakers for the weekend: Andrew Nikiforuk (Tar Sands) and Alanna Mitchell (Sea Sick).

From a very cold Saskatchewan winter day, this conference brings a breath of fresh spring air. I’m looking forward to it.

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Earth Day

In honour of Earth Day, I was asked by NiCHE (Network in Canadian History and Environment) to write a short piece about my research.

Keyed toward a public audience, the piece reflects the thematic structure of my research. In blithely dividing Canada into regions, major regional stereotypes have developed. Those stereotypes have actually obscured and skewed not only our perception of places within those regions, but the stories that are told. Historians have repeated and analyzed the story of flat, treeless prairies with endless fields of wheat. But where are the mixed farmers? What about those who chose to leave the open plains and settle at the forest edge? Forestry, fishing, freighting, fur trapping, hunting — these were part of the way of life for people who didn’t live on the prairies. Where are those stories? How will an understanding of those non-prairie spaces change the way historians portray the West? And finally, how can someone be from Saskatchewan, but NOT from the prairie? Stereotypes, begone.

See http://niche-canada.org/node/8963 to read the article.

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