Monday, 20 October 2014

#EnvHist Worth Reading: September 2014

Originally posted to The Otter.

By Jessica DeWitt

Watch the accompanying video here.

Every month we carefully track the most popular and significant environmental history articles, videos, audio, and other items making their way through the online environmental history (#envhist) community. This month we have an accompanying video. Let us know what you think of the new video feature in the comments. Here are our choices for items most worth reading from September 2014.

1. Here’s Every Single Animal That Went Extinct In the Last 100 Years
Animal topics were quite prevalent in September. One of the most popular articles this month was a list of every animal that has become extinct in the past one hundred years. The list is simple, only providing a photograph or painting of the extinct animal, but still packs an emotional punch. There is something eerie about looking at a species that no longer exists and will never exist again. The list elicits many unanswered questions about how and why these species went extinct and thus is good fodder for future environmental history inquiries.

2. Where are the animals in the history of sexuality?
Rueck Quote
Another popular animal history post this past month comes from the history of sexuality blog, Notches, and was written by Gabriel Rosenberg, a professor at Duke University. In the blog post Rosenberg questions why animals are typically left out of the history of sexuality and challenges historians of sexuality to move beyond bestiality when considering animal/human sexual relations. Looking at the “Van Briggle Breeding Crate,” Rosenberg looks at the ways in which humans have manufactured animal sex for their own benefit, thus making them necessary components in animal sex and desire. This is one of those topics that beautifully pulls together various fields of history: environmental and agricultural history are melded with the history of science and sexuality. On Twitter Dan Rueck stated, “This is the best thing I’ve ever read on the history of pig sex,” and I would have to concur.

3. Untrammeled: Americans and the Wilderness
There were a lot of pieces written this month in relation to the 50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act in the U.S. One of the best commemoration efforts was produced by BackStory Radio. They recorded a podcast called “Untrammeled” which explores various aspects of the wilderness concept in American history. They discuss colonial New England and the non-pristine nature of the forests in the region with Charles Mann, the creation of wilderness conditions during the Civil War with Lisa Brady, the battle over Hetch Hetchy between Gifford Pinchot and John Muir, the eviction of people from the land that would become Shenandoah National Park, and Emma Marris and Paul Sutter discuss whether any land can still (or ever) accurately be called wilderness.

4. War Against Nature, the Backbone of the South
Lisa Brady makes another appearance in Jacob Darwin Hamblin’s latest environmental history roundtable pertaining to Brady’s book, War Upon the Land. Referring to Donald Worster’s call for agroecological perspectives, Hamblin asks, “…how conscious of these connections were the people living in the mid-nineteenth century? How did they imagine their own control over the landscape, and their own vulnerability?” Brady, Matthew Denis, Ann Norton Greene, and Megan Kate Nelson discuss these questions and Brady’s book in a roundtable that is free to access on H-Net Environment.

5. Suburbia and the Creation of Anti-Indigenous Space
Nathan Ince, a graduate student at York University, launched a new research blog this month. One of his first posts is a thought-provoking piece on the relation of suburban development, specifically in Waterdown, Ontario, to environmental history and the erasure of Indigeneity. Ince writes that “this process of suburbanization could almost be viewed as a ritual of purification, as a potentially contested landscape is transformed into a sort of anti-Indigenous space, where not even memory of First Nations occupation is able to survive. While the process might not be conscious, it serves an undeniable purpose in Canadian society. Through a comprehensive transformation of the landscape, we are absolved of the sins of the past.”

Remember to follow #envhist hashtag and NiCHE (@NiCHE_Canada) on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+ to keep up with the latest environmental history content.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Cartoon: Internal and External Perspectives on Chapter Completion

Another great cartoon from the HGSC's resident artist Frances Reilly

How you look to the outside world ...

... and how you feel on the inside!

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Post-CHESS 2014 Reflections: Park Déjà vu

Originally published in The Otter

By Jessica DeWitt

Location of Rouge Park; Source: Canadian Geographic/Chris Brackley
CHESS’s Saturday excursion into the suburban wilds originated at the Markham Museum, a Toronto suburb located north east of the city. Our visit began with a presentation by two Parks Canada employees on the new Rouge Urban National Park initiative, which will be the first Canadian national park located within an urban setting. Rouge Park was initially created in 1995 and is currently made of 47 square kilometres of provincial and municipal land. With the creation of Rouge Urban National Park, it is expected to expand to 58 square kilometres. (For more reading on Rouge Urban National Park see the July/August 2013 issue of Canadian Geographic, which contains an excellent article on the park). The Parks Canada staff emphasized a few main points. First, the new urban national park is being created by the Canadian government to meet rising demand for accessible outdoor recreation. Rouge would be the first national park reachable by public transit. Second, they emphasized the green belt function of the park, a mechanism by which to preserve and restore the last remaining sections of green-space in the Greater Toronto Area. Third, they discussed the park’s relationship to the farms located within the park boundaries–a relationship that is either idyllic or fractious, depending on who you are talking to.

Map of Bronte Creek
Location of Bronte Creek Provincial Park; Source:
What struck was that I had come across all of these arguments before. The rationale for park creation is nearly identical to that of Bronte Creek Provincial Park, in Oakville, Ontario, halfway between Toronto and Hamilton and just off of the Queen Elizabeth Way. The preeminent landscape feature is the Bronte Creek Ravine, which crosses the centre of the park and reaches a depth of 150 feet. Bronte Creek was created in 1971 from five separate family farms and it represented the first concrete manifestation of the Ontario government’s 1970s fascination with the near-urban park concept. It acted as a catalyst for other near-urban park initiatives in Ontario, including London’s Komoka Provincial Park and St. Catherine’s Short Hills Provincial Park. Other provinces had their own near-urban park projects, such as Alberta’s Fish Creek Provincial Park in Calgary.

The objectives of Ontario’s near-urban park enterprise can be broken down into two categories: environmental considerations and the further democratization of recreation. On the one hand it was hoped that parks like Bronte Creek would siphon off some of the visitors from more primitive parks, like Algonquin and Quetico, thus protecting them from the threat of over-use. Near-urban parks were also meant to save the last remaining remnants of green-space from urban sprawl, functioning as part of a city’s greenbelt and acting to drive further conscientious land use planning. On the other hand, near-urban parks were meant to make outdoor recreation more accessible to urban populations. Provincial park accessibility hinges on the availability of automobile transport and cheap fuel, both of which were increasingly elusive for most of Toronto’s citizens during the 1970s.
Bronte Creek Ravine
Bronte Creek Ravine

Henry C. Breckon Farm
Henry C. Breckon Demonstration Farm
In 1971, Premier William Davis commented that Bronte Creek represented a “dramatic departure from the established concept of provincial parks [that] promises to bring the pleasures and beauties of our natural environment closer to a large number of city people.” (Marsh 4) It was to provide day-use opportunities to the 1.5 million people who lived within a 40 kilometre radius of the park. 6,000 parking spaces were provided and the park was designed to handle 30,000 visitors a day, 15% of whom were expected to arrive by public transit. It was the first provincial park to design facilities specifically for disabled people. Original plans created separate recreational zones designed to protect more fragile areas of the park. Efforts were made to restore the creek valley, including reforestation and wetland restoration. These restorative efforts occurred alongside efforts to replant orchards, fields, and other plants that had been present during the land’s agricultural heyday. Two of the farms were restored and used as a children’s farm and a demonstration farm, which was to represent  turn-of-the-century mixed farming in Ontario.
Cows at Bronte
Two Handsome Cows -Residents of Bronte Creek Provincial Park
Bronte Creek and other near-urban provincial parks represent a takeover by the provincial government of what was traditionally a municipal responsibility: providing recreational opportunities for urban residents. What occurred in Ontario and North America more broadly that made this shift occur? Does the contemporary takeover of this responsibility by Parks Canada with the Rouge Park initiative represent another notable shift?  It should be noted that in some ways the near-urban provincial parks were a failure: they never reached the level of popularity that was initially expected. Much of the elaborate original planning for Bronte Creek, which included a tram system, was never realized. The entire near-urban park initiative was basically canned by the late 1970s, when a conservative government came into power in Ontario and deemed the concept not worth pursuing further. Does the creation of Rouge Urban National Park illustrate the failure of Ontario Parks to meet urban outdoor recreation demand? Or does it represent a resurgence of the same societal pressures that led to Bronte Creek Provincial Park in the early 1970s? Comparison of the two parks raises such questions as these. The parallel origin stories of Bronte Creek and Rouge Park further illustrate the importance of looking to the past to more fully understand the implications of our current actions.


Walter H. Kehm, “Near-Urban Parks: What Are They?” Park News 13 (1977): 8-16.
Gerald Killan, Protected Places: A History of Ontario’s Provincial Park System (Toronto: Dundern Press Limited, 1993): 213.
Ellen Langlands, Bronte Creek Provincial Park Historical Report, December 1972.
John Marsh, “Near-Urban Parks,” Park News 13 (1977): 2-7.
Project Planning Association Limited, Bronte Creek Provincial Park Demonstration Farm Report, Bronte Creek Provincial Park, 1973.

Monday, 7 July 2014

Archive Profile: UK National Archives

Originally published at the Military Nursing Project.

By Erin Spinney

Reposted as part of our Summer travel feature here at "Thoughts Across Time" a profile of my the UK National Archives and my work there.

Why am I Here?

AO 1/1524/285 Roll detailing hospital expenses in Minora 1799-1800

The United Kingdom National Archives is a central depository for Government records.  I am primarily interested in naval pay lists for hospitals and hospital ships featuring nurses by name along with other information from ADM 102.  I am collecting data from these records to create a database of nurses for prosopographical analysis.  I can also track the amount of money paid to nurses in army hospitals on a campaign basis, through auditors rolls.  Unfortunately these do not list individual nurses by name.

I also use various sets of letter books including letters to and from the Navy’s Sick and Hurt Board in ADM 97 and ADM 98.  As well as letters received from various hospital inspectors and other medical practitioners in ADM 105.  Regulations and other instructions to hospital administrators, often including stipulations on the employment of nurses are also found in these letter books, as well as, printed regulations issued in 1808 for hospitals at home and abroad (ADM 106/3091 and ADM 106/3092).

The National Archives also hold hospital plans that are particularly informative detailing ward organization, building layouts, and locations of apartments for nurses and other staff members.

Where am I?

The National Archives are located at Kew in the London Borough of Richmond and is a ten minute walk from Kew Gardens Station accessible by District and Overground lines.


So what’s it like to do research here? In short it is rather wonderful.

Flowers from the grounds
The document room on the first floor is the primary reading room and is surprisingly bright making picture-taking easy.  The large windows offer a good view of trees and passing trains.  Each seat number has a large cubby for document storage.  Readers can remove and re-deposit documents in their cubby themselves.  Copying services, camera stands, computer terminals and reference help is available outside of the reading room.

The second floor is home to the map and large document reading room.  Seats in this room are not assigned though your documents are organized by your seat number from the first floor.  There are several large tables which can be raised and lowered by staff to facilitate the reading of your documents.  The staff is helpful and patient, and I’m grateful for their assistance in helping me tackle the daunting task using rolls!

The ground floor has locker storage (where you don’t need a £1 coin deposit!), a cafe, restaurant, Keeper’s Gallery with various exhibits, and a bookshop.


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe grounds are lovely – a perfect place for lunch and a coffee!
There are two ponds, home to ducks and swans, with the walkway to the national archives between them.  One pond is bordered with a small alcove of trees, flowers, and a large lawn.



Friday, 27 June 2014

2014 NiCHE Prairie Environmental Network Workshop

Originally published in The Otter June 23, 2014.

By Laura Larsen

On the last weekend in April 2014 NiCHE Prairie Environmental Network (PEN) workshop convened to share research and network with other scholars working on environmental history. While PEN is primarily focused on prairie topics it also welcomed environmental scholars living in the prairies but working on topics outside of the region.

The workshop opened with a round of lightning presentations from several graduate students. These three-minute presentations allowed PEN participants to hear about these projects in their initial stages. The topics ranged from First Nations land use to how environmental conditions affected British army nursing practices.

Alwynne Beaudoin of the Royal Alberta Museum (RAM) then spoke on bison movement patterns. The presentation focused on discerning a bison landscape in the paleoecological record where bison did not migrate but moved through their world in search of their own ideal environments. Beaudoin also showed photos of a recently discovered bison skull from Cold Lake, Alberta, which is the largest skull in the RAM’s collection.

George Colpitts from the University of Calgary showcased a project on a rabies outbreak in Alberta that occurred in the 1950s in which he discussed how the idea of rabies as being spread by wild / untamed nature played into the response to the outbreak. Colpitts noted that medical and veterinary science was used extensively in official communications about the outbreak. One consequence of the rabies outbreak was the introduction of leashing laws for domestic dogs in Banff and Jasper which changed the towns’ ecologies.

The following presentation, which hit on a lighter note, came from University of Saskatchewan PhD candidate Matt Todd, who showed how Star Trek explored typical progressive and declensionist narratives in frontier settings including the conflict between resource extraction and the original inhabitants where frontiers needed to be “civilized” but were also seen as pristine.

A short coffee break allowed participants the chance to continue their questions from the previous sessions before Geoff Cunfer, Alec Aitken, and Jessica DeWitt from the University of Saskatchewan showcased their own projects.

Cunfer, from the University of Saskatchewan’s Department of History, presented an overview of the Sustainable Farm Systems project which is an international collaboration between groups in Europe, North America, Cuba, and South America with future hopes to bring the project to other regions. The project examines past agricultural practices using a variety of methods that rest on a socioecological metabolism framework. These methods are used to understand energy and nutrient inputs and exports in an agro-ecological system at a local and regional level. Understanding these transitions and how energy balances change with the move to fossil fuels provides new perspectives on present agriculture activities.

Shifting from the near past to the distant past Alec Aitken from the University of Saskatchewan’s Department of Geography and Planning provided the workshop with an overview of the archeological work he is involved in around Saskatoon with particular emphasis on investigating early human habitation. He pointed out the challenges of doing archeological explorations in areas close to the river and how past changes in the climate are reflected in the landscape. One problem created by changing environments are losses when lakes dry up and erase the “archive” of the archeological record.

History Department PhD candidate Jessica DeWitt returned the group to the present as she explored how understandings of what is natural shaped the creation and development of two parks. Both Ontario’s Bronte Creek Provincial Park and Pennsylvania’s Point State Park are in urbanized areas but DeWitt argues they were created to showcase a particular understanding of what a “natural” park should be.

Marley Waiser, a retired Environment Canada scientist, closed the afternoon with a presentation about her past research on the ecosystem of Wascana Creek, SK which is located by Regina. The waste treatment facilities of the city empty into the creek which Waiser and her team found created significant changes in the creek’s conditions including increases in the levels of chemicals associated with pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs) which in turn affected the composition of flora and fauna in the creek. Throughout the presentation she explained the scientific methods behind collecting the data including one instance where her team had to improvise equipment to study a particular aspect of water quality. Waiser also noted that downstream from the waste treatment facilities there was an increase in nitrogen and phosphorous.

The final day of the workshop was a field trip to the Wanuskewin Heritage Park located just outside of Saskatoon. As they approached, participants had an unobstructed view of the Wanuskewin building which stands at the top of a high bank so that visitors to the site can look across to see the drop-off that was used as a buffalo jump.

Ernie Walker, from the University of Saskatchewan, gave a tour of the facility and explained the long process of turning the land, which had been owned by a rancher who wanted to see it cared for after his passing, into the present day park and the plans for how the park will continue to be used in the future. He noted that from the beginning there had been a particular emphasis on partnership with local First Nations, whose history is intertwined with the site, to make sure that Wanuskewin respects their traditions and reflects their needs.

Wanuskewin Heritage Park. Photo by Rae McLeod.
Photo by Rae McLeod
After two days of the NiCHE Prairie Environmental Network workshop it was clear that although the participants had very diverse interests there was a common thread around the interaction between people and their environments. Additionally the workshop provided a forum for cross-fertilization based on participants seeing other methodological approaches to environmental topics which they could find useful for their own work. Participants were interested not just in examining the environment of the past, but in how their research could be used to examine lessons for human-environment interactions which resonate in the present and future.

Monday, 23 June 2014

Laurier Archives: Destination for Environmental Historians

Originally posted in The Otter NiCHE June 18, 2014

By Jessica DeWitt

In early May 2014, I traveled to Waterloo, Ontario to conduct research at the Laurier Archives on the campus of Wilfrid Laurier University.  Earlier this year, I was awarded the inaugural Joan Mitchell Travel Award. The award, designed to assist with travel and accommodation costs, provides $1,000 to an established scholar or graduate student wishing to conduct research at the Laurier Archive. I had an exceedingly positive experience at the archive and found it to be a friendly and comfortable place in which to conduct research. All materials are housed on site, ensuring that wait time for material is little to none. The Laurier Archives employees, Julia Hendry, Andre Furlong, and Cindy Preece, provided knowledgeable, cheery, and prompt assistance.
Laurier Archives

Laurier Action ShotThe Laurier Archives has three main research collections, the most important of which for Canadian environmental historians is the Environmental Conservation Movement in Canada collection (the finding aids for which can be found here). The archive has amassed a vast assortment of material relating to the Canadian environment, including material related to the Canadian North, parks, and biosphere reserves. The collection is particularly rich for those dealing with the history of the Canadian environment after 1950. My dissertation is a comparative history of provincial and state parks in Canada and the United States. I am focusing specifically on the park systems of Ontario, Pennsylvania, Alberta, and Idaho. Before I arrived at the archive, I hoped that the environmental history sources at the archive would allow me to more fully understand the history of Ontario provincial parks and how Ontario’s parks fit into the broader history of conservation in Canada.

I focused on two collections while at the Laurier Archives. The first collection is the Canadian Environmental Law Association (CELA) Fonds, which contains briefs, publications, reports, and other items created by the organization since 1970. The most important document in the collection for my purposes is a copy of the Classification of Provincial Parks in Ontario 1967. I only scratched the surface of what the CELA Fonds has to offer. The collection is a substantial resource for any researcher focusing on the management of nature and natural resources in relation to Canadian law.

I focused most of my energy on the James Gordon Nelson Fonds. Nelson, a policy maker, planner, ecologist, geographer, and former University of Waterloo professor, played a major role in both national and provincial park policy development. I originally came into contact with Nelson’s work while completing comprehensive exams, during which I read Nelson’s The Last Refuge and his edited volume, The Canadian National Parks: Today and Tomorrow, among others.

Navigating the massive collection–the finding aid is nearly 300 pages alone–and deciding upon which parts to focus was a definite challenge. In addition to containing most of Nelson’s prolific publishing career, the collection also contains documents pertaining to the numerous boards and organizations on which Nelson served. Paperwork in the collection relating to Nelson’s activity in the National and Provincial Parks Association of Canada (NPPAC), now the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), is particularly valuable. The correspondence, minutes, and reports of NPPAC and CPAWS provide a rich source from which to analyze the relationship between national and provincial parks and the evolving attitude towards preservation and conservation in Canada from the 1960s onward.

Canadian Parks Today and Tomorrow NelsonI was pleasantly surprised to find sources relating not only to Ontario provincial parks in the Nelson collection, but also relating to all provincial park systems in Canada. I was able to find several sources about my other Canadian provincial park system case-study, Alberta. The most exciting source that I found was the correspondence files relating to the mid-1970s Rondeau Provincial Park Advisory Committee. The files contain over 100 completed questionnaires  and letters written by Ontarian community members expressing their opinions about the future of cottage leases, hunting, and other issues in the park. Park-related sources, like this one, that supply the direct opinions of citizens, rather than government and park officials, are rather rare, making the representation of their voices in historical literature difficult.

Due to time restrictions, I was not able to look at other collections that interested me, including the Beaver Valley Heritage Society Fonds and the Canadian Biosphere Reserves Association Fonds. I encourage others to take a look at what the Laurier Archives’  Environmental Conservation Movement in Canada collection has to offer. The deadline for this year’s Joan Mitchell Travel Award application is November 28, 2014.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

The U of S goes to the AAHM

By Erin Spinney

Fedir, Erika, Leslie, Blaine, Amy, and Erin

On May 8-11, the American Association for the History of Medicine held their annual meeting in Chicago, Illinois.  PhD students Leslie Baker, Fedir Razumenko, Amy Samson, Erin Spinney, and Blaine Wickham, Post-doc Katherine Zwicker, and Professor Erika Dyck attended.  It was a fun weekend filled with great papers, interesting discussion, and sightseeing adventures.  

Katherine and Fedir at AMA Plaza
In the afternoon before the opening reception, attendees were given the rare opportunity to see the inner workings and archives of the American Medical Association (AMA).  The AMA, which relocated to the upper floors of the former IBM building at 330 North Wabash in Summer 2013, offered some fantastic views of downtown Chicago.  The AMA historical archives hold over fifty collections, yet only the Historical Health Fraud and Alternative Medicine Collection is open to the public.  

View from the 47th floor of AMA building

Blaine Wickham presenting

The next three days of the conference contained traditional consecutive paper sessions, as well as experimentations with new formats like roundtables and luncheon discussions. Highlights include the standing room only crowd at the "Without Men Would There Be No 'Other'?" roundtable on the use of masculinity in the history of medicine, and the interactive presentations at "Medical History in Other Venues: Theatre, Festivals, Blogs, Digital Games, and More.”  Blane Wickham, in a panel chaired by Dr. Dyck, presented an interesting look at patient labour and thoughts on its perceived therapeutic value, at the North Battleford Mental Hospital in the early 20th century.

Luncheon sessions provided much food for thought (pardon the pun).  Panellists at "Blogging the History of Medicine," discussed the increased importance of blogging and the use of social media among academics, and how blogging has become a necessity for libraries and archives.  "Silos or Synergies: Considering the History of Interprofessional Education and Practice in the United States," raised questions about how history can be used to understand and influence the current trends in medical and professional education. 

The city of Chicago was a prominent feature throughout the conference.  The downtown location of the conference hotel meant that many sightseeing opportunities were within walking distance.  Millennium Park and Lake Michigan were easy to get to on foot, while the historic Navy Pier was fifteen minutes away using the Divvy bike share.  Saturday night saw us at the Green Mill, a jazz club modelled on the appearance of Uptown House in Harlem in the 1940s, for performances by Karrin Allyson and Sabertooth. 

Sunset from Navy Pier

Chicago threatre outside our hotel
View from terrace reception

Chicago Harbor lighthouse built in 1893

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Travel Feature Call for Submissions

Photo: Wipedia Commons
If you are travelling this summer to conferences or to conduct research we want to hear from you!  Please send us your pictures and stories so that they may be posted on "Thoughts Across Time."

Words: 200-300
Details: What, when, where, why

Submit to Erin (erin.spinney@usask) or Frances (  We look forward to your submissions!

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Thinking "Political History"

By Dustin McNichol

The standard narrative of political history's "decline" in the western world and Canada reads something like this: in the 1960s and 1970s, a new generation of scholars, buoyed by major intellectual trends such in annales history, poststructural relativism, postcolonialism, and relativism, built the New Social History. Social historians explored new topics and used new methods to unearth histories across a dizzying array of topics, but especially around traditionally neglected themes of race, class, and gender. New Social History's explicit attempt to undermine the meta-narratives and macro-political answers to complex historical questions was, we are to believe, the beginning of the end of political history.

Even political historians lamented a decline of their discipline, and by the 1990s they launched a spirited attack on social history in Canada. Probably the most famous example of the "history wars" of the 1990s is J.L. Granatstein's Who Killed Canadian History? (which reads today as little more than an angry rant), or Michael Bliss's "Privatizing the Mind: The Sundering of Canadian History, the Sundering of Canada".[1] Political historians singled out social history as the prime culprit in the decline in public history and the appalling lack of historical of knowledge shown by many Canadians. Political history, traditionalists held, is critical in understanding the fundamental trajectory of Canadian history, or, more importantly, the character and values of the Canadian nation. Social historians, on the other hand, defended their approach as holding far more potential and promise for a truer, inclusive, and accurate history which spoke not only of politics, but of the everyday lives of people.[2]    

There is little question that Canadian historians were divided with regards to political and social history during the 1990s. However, the more general narrative of decline (and even disappearance) of political history, and the political vs. social history dichotomy, need to be revised. A closer look at the political historiography today, in Canada and elsewhere, shows that it has not disappeared. On the contrary, political history has seen a major resurgence since the late 1990s. Moreover, contemporary political history, in Canada and elsewhere, is seeing a major resurgence, albeit in a form that would be almost completely unrecognizable to earlier, traditional historians of politics. 

The narrative of political history's decline presupposes that political historians were unaware of the changes occurring around them, and that they stubbornly refused to accept them or adapt their methods. The claim does not stand up to scrutiny. By the 1970s, political historians knew they had a choice: defend their craft, or reform it. Most of them chose the latter. For example, with political history supposedly in free fall, British historian G.R. Elton argued that political historians should be more open to the multi-faceted manifestations of power. Power, Elton explained, is at the very foundation of political history.[3] Taking stock of power means understanding social history and how differing elements of society move, interact, and come into conflict with one another. Political historians, Elton believed, were well placed to do so since they already had knowledge of the administrative and constitutional mechanisms in societies; what they needed to do now was pay attention to changes happening on the social level as well.

The first major attempt to revive and reform political history came in the form of the "New Political History" in the United States during the 1970s. These historians borrowed heavily from new methods of behaviouralism and quantitative analysis prominent in political science, focusing specifically on electoral behaviour and cliometrics.[4] But the New Political History was mainly an abortive attempt, and did not stand up to criticisms that its models were overly theoretical, relied too heavily on quantitative analysis, and misrepresented history.

Yet this move towards interdisciplinary study, and the borrowing of methods from political science, anthropology, and sociology, is telling, and it is here that we may find the answer to where political history may have "disappeared" to. Despite the initial failure of New Political History, by the 1980s political historians were again trying new approaches and methods such as the New Institutionalism, pioneered by public policy analysts and sociologists.[5] New institutionalism rejected grand narratives centred on presidential mandates and favoured long-term analyses of state-building and institution-building processes, in addition to long-term economic/social structures which shaped the conditions of political action.[6]

In the same decade, political historians also began to take up ideas advanced by Eric Hobsbawm and Benedict Anderson, namely, that tradition is invented and nations are imagined.[7] Nations were no longer seen as immutable entities with stable, definable characteristics. Rather, the nation, in addition to its politics and identity, were constructed and continually reconstructed. Most important, however, was Anderson's assertion that nationalism is "...capable of being transplanted, with varying degrees of self-consciousness, to a great variety of social terrains, to merge and be merged with a correspondingly wide variety of political and ideological constellations".[8]

The ideas expounded upon by Hobsbawm and Anderson made major inroads in the American academy by the 1990s and would continue on through the early twenty-first century. American historians of Latin America, for example, borrowed widely from these two authors, in addition to Gramscian and Foucauldian theory, in order to explain the formation of Latin American states during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Greg Grandin's The Blood of Guatemala: A History of Race and Nation[9] and Brooke Larsen's The Trials of Nation Making[10] are excellent examples of this trend. Both works offered wide-ranging analyses of political, economic, cultural, and social factors which explain the emergence and troubles of a number of Latin American states. Struggles over land, community, identity, and economic well-being were inherently political, and they informed and were informed by the political trajectories of their respective countries.

Canadian political histories in the 1990s also took up new subjects which were informed by advances in theory. For example, F. Murray Greenwood's Legacies of Fear[11] analysed the effects that the French Revolution and revolutionary thought had on the political actions of English elites in Lower Canada, but also on social relations between English and French Canadians throughout most of the nineteen century. Donald Avery's Reluctant Host[12] analysed the way in which a wide array of actors -- business, organized labour, politicians, and social groups -- influenced immigration and immigration policy in Canada. Cecilia Morgan's Public Men and Virtuous Women[13] showed how political insults and discourse created clear distinctions for the gendered public sphere. Morgan's study especially is an excellent example of how gender history can be informed by politics and vice versa.

The implications of the shift away from positivistic and purely institutional analyses towards cultural, ideological, and social factors is of major importance for two reasons. First, it means that political history did not disappear, but rather has been increasingly content to appropriate various tools and methods from a  number of disciplines, including social history. In my opinion, we can no longer really talk about exclusive or separate spheres of "political history" and "social history"; both borrow from one another, and both recognize, at least implicitly, the need and value of understanding the interrelation between politics (defined broadly) and society. Secondly, and in the same vein, this shift means that political history's narrow focus has moved from politics as an activity performed within the nation-state by a small minority of individuals ("high politics", as traditional political historians called it) towards the political[14]; namely, the complex interrelation between states, institutions, individuals and social groups.[15] Tony Judt's incredibly wide-ranging and in-depth history of Europe after 1945 is an excellent example of such a work.[16]

A quick look at the Canadian Historical Association's 2013 Clio Prizes also illustrates the point. The 2013 award winners are accounts of: the "politics of memory", the "regulation of drinking", criminal law and Aboriginal peoples, and the politics of schools in Quebec. Dan Malleck's Try to Control Yourself: The Regulation of Public Drinking in Post-Prohibition Ontario, 1927-44, for example, uses legislation, administrative documents, and social theory in order to approach its topic.

While one may object that none of these works falls under the strict definition of "political history", there is little doubt that all of them, in one way or another, draw extensively from "the political" in order to understand social questions. We should, therefore, start to define political history more broadly. It is no longer a narrow, parochial, and dated branch of history. Rather, it has taken major advances in social history and theory, showing how the political may be observed in the social, and vice-versa.    

In the same vein, it should be kept in mind that the political today is defined rather broadly, with the resulting methodological challenge of showing how it is separate from or connected to the social sphere. What makes something, or someone, political? Communication and action become political when they imply an impact on all or some parts of a given community, or when they refer to the obligatory rules of social life, power, and limits on action, or when they reference imagined or collective identities.[17] This is not to say that all that is social is political; there are cases where the two spheres may be relatively separate. Yet they also inform and influence each other in important ways.   

Understandings of the political can, and must, go beyond high politics and government (re)actions to social questions. The political is precisely where political historians now focus their work. When does something in government or society which was previously not a political question, become politicised, and why? How can we show change over time from a political point of view? Asking these questions should allow political historians to provide rich answers to more classic topics of political history. We still do not agree on, for example, what really caused the Manitoba Schools Question in 1890. Was it D'Alton McCarthy's speech at Portage La Prairie? Was the social context ripe for a wholesale overhauling of Catholic education rights in Manitoba? Or were Greenway's Liberals looking for a political distraction to their railway policy woes?   

Today, political history shares little with its traditional predecessor aside from the fact that both view power and politics as critical driving forces in societies. Now, political historians should continue to use new methods and perspectives forwarded by social history in order to inform their own topics. By taking stock of the political, we may also achieve a greater understanding of the social. Simply put, one cannot be understood without the other. 

[1] Who Killed Canadian History? (Toronto, HarperCollins, 1998); the book was reprinted in 2007. For the Bliss article, see Journal of Canadian Studies 26, no. 4 (1991).
[2] See for example Joy Parr, "Gender History and Historical Practice", Canadian Historical Review (September 1995), 354-376. Parr argued that social history is not overly particularistic or solipsistic, but rather an inductive historical method which allows historians to extrapolate onto broader topics of historical, or even political, concern.
[3] G.R. Elton, Political History: Principles and Practice (London, Basic Books, 1970).
[4] See for example the collection of articles published in the Journal of Interdisciplinary History during the 1970s edited by Robert I. Rotberg, Politics and Political Change: A Journal of Interdisciplinary History Reader (Cambridge, Mass.,  MIT Press, 2001).
[5] Willibald Steinmetz, Ingrid Gilcher-Holtey, and Heinz-Gerhard Haupt (eds.), Writing Political History Today (Frankfurt/New York, Campus Verlag, 2013).
[6] Meg Jacobs, William J. Novak, and Julian E. Zelizer (eds.), The Democratic Experiment: New Directions in American Political History (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2003).
[7] Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (eds.), The Invention of Tradition; see also Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London, Verso, 1983).
[8] Anderson, Imagined Communities, 48.
[9] Durham, Duke University Press, 2000.
[10] Liberalism, Race, and Ethnicity in the Andes, 1810-1910 (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2004).
[11] Law and Politics in Quebec in the Era of the French Revolution (Toronto, University of Toronto Press and the Osgoode Society, 1993).
[12] Canada's Response to Immigrant Workers, 1896-1994 (Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1995).
[13] The Gendered Languages of Religion and Politics in Upper Canada, 1791-1850 (Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1996).
[14] Steinmetz, Gilcher-Holtey, and Haupt, Writing Political History Today,
[15] Charles Maier's edited collection of essays on "the political" was one of the first works that pursued this avenue of research. See Changing Boundaries of the Political: Essays on the Evolving Balance Between State and Society, Public and Private in Europe (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1987).  
[16] Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (New York, Penguin, 2006).
[17] Writing Political History Today, 28.

Old Conflicts in a New Century: The Problems of Prairie Grain Transportation

Originally published at on April 15, 2014.

By Laura Larsen

From Wikipedia
Few Canadians missed the news stories of grain piling up on the prairies and denunciations of the system’s failures. The Federal government’s recent announcement of financial penalties for the railways is the latest act in a long running problem facing western Canadian grain farmers: how to economically get their grain to market when long stretches of prairie and three mountain ranges stand between them and the ocean ports that export about seventy per cent of western Canada’s grain.

Economically exporting prairie grain is a complicated relationship between farmers, elevator companies, railways, and port terminals all of whom have conflicting interests which have been a wellspring of conflict since Confederation.  Canada consistently produces around twenty per cent of the world’s tradable grain. While many other countries grow grain, only Argentina, Australia, the United States, and Ukraine regularly produce domestic surpluses which can be exported.  Competition among these nations for their place in the international grain market is fierce. Like all bulk commodities, grain’s cost rises with transportation distance.  All of western Canada’s competitors are much closer to deep water ports for their grain exports.  When grain is not moving off the prairies it means unhappy customers, lost sales, and Canadian farmers who are not getting paid.

Since transporting grain by truck is considerably more expensive than by rail farmers favour the shortest distance possible between their bins and the elevator point. The railways also need to generate profits as much as farmers need to send their grain to port via rail.  In 1902 Saskatchewan farmers formed the Territorial Grain Growers Association and sued a CPR agent for failing to deliver producers cars so they could load their own grain and bypass the private elevator companies. Their success in this case created the precedent that allowed for the growth of farmer-owned producer car loading facilities across the prairies in the 1990s and 2000s. These were created in response to the abandonment of rural branch lines and the closing of local elevators in favour of high-through-put terminals that accommodated the railways  compelling elevator companies to build new centralized facilities while requiring farmers to truck grain over greater distances.

Overseeing this system of elevators, railways, and farmers was the single-desk Canadian Wheat Board.  Through the permit book system the Wheat Board knew the grade, type, and quantity of grain grown throughout the prairies and could allocate railcars to specific elevator points to pick up the grade of grain needed at port to fulfill the sales contracts it made as the collective bargaining agent of prairie wheat and barley farmers.  It provided the logistical oversight necessary to organize the grain handling system to run continuously so the grain crop could move off the prairies to buyers in an orderly fashion.  With the removal of the Wheat Board in 2012 there is no organization to handle the logistics of grain movement on the same prairie-wide scale.  The grain marketing and handling system was effectively broken into several competing pieces.

Grain handling companies, which now take ownership of the farmers’ grain at the elevator, each have to place orders for railcars and organize for a grain terminal to handle the grain on its arrival at port while also arranging sales to foreign customers and ships to deliver the grain.  The ships then load at the terminal the grain handling company either owns or uses.  If the  terminal is emptied of the specified grade of grain the ship is sent back to anchor to wait for another train to arrive at port so it can finish loading.  This delay in loading ships caused the reports of long-standing Canadian customers complaining about long wait times and quality assurance problems.

Having ships waiting for more grain to arrive also causes penalty (demurrage) charges that the seller of the grain pays when the ship does not get loaded in an agreed amount of time. By offering farmers lower prices the companies can recoup these penalties. Under the single-desk Wheat Board the logistics of quickly loading a ship were easier since the Wheat Board arranged for the ship’s arrival to coincide with the arrival of the required grain at a terminal. If one terminal was empty of a particular grade of grain the ship could move to another terminal since the wheat and barley in all the terminals at a deep-water port were under Wheat Board sales contracts.

With the loss of the logistical oversight done by the Wheat Board the new question facing farmers, grain companies, railways, and other players in the Canadian agricultural community is how to solve these problems.  At the recent Grain Matters Summit in Saskatoon, economists, farmers, and industry representatives agreed that logistical problems exist but achieving a consensus among groups with conflicting interests remains elusive just as it has for over one hundred years.

Laura Larsen is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at the University of Saskatchewan. Her dissertation explores rail rationalization and agricultural policy under the Trudeau government. It focuses on the tensions between government, farmers, grain companies, and railways created by attempts to modernize the grain handling and transportation system as well as the substantial changes to the underlying structure of prairie agriculture caused by these changes.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

On Question Periods and State Park Closures

By Jessica DeWitt

I find the most difficult part of presenting at conferences to be the question section. There is something about being put on-the-spot that causes one to completely forget the entirety of one’s knowledge base. One frantically searches the suddenly blank depths of one’s mind for a semi-intelligent response. The ability to gracefully answer on-the-spot questions must be an acquired skill, one that is honed over time. Of course, most of the question-period agony is purely psychological; (unless you’re epically bombing) the struggle to recall is likely unnoticeable to the audience. I had one of these experiences this past Friday when I presented at the University of Saskatchewan Graduate Student Association’s 2014 Conference, “Curiosity.” My two of my colleagues, Glenn Iceton and Laura Larsen, and I spoke about our respective dissertation topics, why they interest us, and how these topics connect to contemporary society. I focused largely on the growing trend in the United States for state governments to propose state park closures as means by which to deal with growing budgetary restraints. I juxtaposed this trend with the rhetoric of the early twentieth-century, when state parks were referred to as “necessities,” access to which was considered a basic human right. 

            The question that spawned this post was asked by fellow history graduate student, Fedir Razumenko. Informed by some recent comps reading he has been doing in his environmental history field, Fedir asked me something to the effect of how parks, which have been central to preservation, could now be deemed disposable by government when preservation is such a focal point of today’s society, he followed up by asking whether parks are indeed economically defunct, as state government actions would suggest. As I remember it, I sputtered, though fairly smoothly I think, something about conservative governments and general cuts, and the disconnect between bureaucracy and rural communities. Although it was a decent, passable answer, it was certainly not the well-informed, expert commentary I would have liked to have sprung forth from my mouth. And being the neurotic individual that I am, I obsessed all weekend about what I should have said. Thus, I decided to write this post in order to talk a bit more about the trend of state park closures and facilities cuts. 

            In all actuality, the topic is immensely complex and I do not have a concrete answer for Fedir—the ability to answer this question is, after all, partially why I am pursuing my dissertation topic. However, there are a few ideas that I would like to muse over. Firstly, most of the state park closures, both enacted and proposed, such as California and New York, are in those states where the state park systems are rather large, 100+ parks, and expanded rapidly in the early-to-mid-twentieth-century. There was such enthusiasm for state park system expansion that people thought little of the future effects of adding dozens, even hundreds of parks. Parks were beneficial, plain and simple. Yet, there were those that recognized the folly early on. For instance, I found in my research a letter[1] from Herbert Evison, Executive Secretary for the National Conference on State Parks, to W.F. Aiken, Secretary of the Alberta Provincial Parks Board, in 1932, warning Aiken to not let Alberta make the same mistake as many states and load up on many small parks, but rather to focus on establishing several large parks.

And indeed, many states are now finding these parks to be an expensive luxury. Perhaps Evison was ultimately correct. Perhaps state park systems as they exist now are not sustainable. Though much more analysis needs to be done on how and when this shift from describing state parks as necessity to expendable occurred. The main problem is that communities and individuals have become dependent on the existence of many of these parks. Very few of us want to see them go or even evolve into something new. 

            Secondly, I wanted to address state parks as important instruments of preservation and how their closure will effect preservation efforts. I would contend that state parks, for the most part, are not primarily in the business of preservation. Recreation and accessibility have always been the primary concern for state parks with preservation being a positive parallel effect. When a state park is closed the state still owns the land, what changes is that there is no longer a dedicated staff and the facilities, from restrooms to trails, are no longer maintained. People can still access the park land at their own risk. Since over-visitation is likely the greatest threat to the ecological integrity of our parklands, would the land now held in state parks not benefit from park closure? In a sense, the land would just become conservation land. So, perhaps, the negative effect of state park closures is only social and economic, not environmental. Of course this is assuming that the states do not start finding means by which to divest themselves of the former park land and that rates of illegal poaching, logging, littering, etc. do not rise on the newly unsupervised land. If states like Ohio and Pennsylvania are trying to find means by which to frack in and extract other natural resources in their state parks right now, getting rid of the lands park status would also likely make the land even more vulnerable to resource extraction schemes. Just something to ponder.

[1] Herbert Evison to W.F. Aiken, December 3, 1932, Box 9, Folder 51, Accession Number 1983-0092, Provincial Archive of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta
[2] Photo Source: Tom Mangan, “State Park Closures Grab Headlines,” Trailspace: Outdoor Gear Reviews. Accessed March 10, 2014.