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.