Mountain Names

As a public historian working outside of academia I often get contracts that are vaguely in my area general area of expertise — western Canada — but not the odd corners of history that are where I like to spend my time — mountains, visuality, and environmentalism.  This is great because I am constantly learning about things I previously had nothing more than a cursory knowledge of and occasionally I pick up interesting tidbits about topics I though I knew very, very well.

Last week I came across a piece of information while reading up on the history of the Chinese in Alberta that went counter to the everything I knew about a peak in Canmore.   The peak is called “Ha Ling Peak”, it is located to the southeast of Whiteman’s Pass on the edge of the Grassi Massive, and until 1997 it was called “Chinaman’s Peak”.

The racist original name of this mountain comes from a story about a Chinese resident of Canmore winning a bet with some of the miners that he could climb the peak in under 6 hours.  There are variations on the story but the basics are as follows: the man was a cook at the Oskaloosa Hotel and made a $25 bet with a group of miners that he could make it to the top of the peak on Whiteman’s Pass and back to the hotel in 6 hours.  He returned to the hotel within the allotted time but the miners did not believe he reached the summit so after doubling the bet he made the trek again with a big white flag so the miners could look up at the peak with binoculars and see it at the summit.  Once again he was back to the hotel in 6 hours and after the peak was viewed through binoculars he received the $50 on the table.  This great feat led the community to christen the mountain “Chinaman’s Peak” in commemoration of the accomplishment.  The urban legend when I was growing up was that the flag was still at the summit of the mountain but no one whose made it to the top, including myself, has reported any proof of this.

In the mid-1990s the Calgary Chinese community began a petition to rid the peak of its offensive name.  The reason for the push was two-fold; “Chinaman” carried too many negative racists connotations, and the name of the Chinese man was not a mystery so the peak should bear the proper name of the man it was called after.  People of Canmore are not always welcoming of change so there was some backlash from long-term locals about changing the name but most accepted the group had a point:  Why were we using an offensive name for a mountain when we could use something else?  So “Chinaman’s Peak” became  “Ha Ling Peak”.  Certain locals and wannabe locals take pride is using the old name as proof of their deep knowledge of the town and its surroundings — honestly, the locals only use the old name around other locals and when habit causes the old name to come out instead of the new one.

Since the renaming of the mountain it was not questioned that the man’s name was Ha Ling.  The guide books recount his story along with the directions for getting to the jump-off parking lot and how many switch backs to expect.  Never had I heard another name associated with this peak until last week while reading the only comprehensive history of Chinese in Alberta.  In Mooncakes over Gold Mountain, the name of the Chinese man is given as Lee Poon not Ha Ling.  I was confused and surprised.  The story of Ha Ling Peak is well known in Canmore so how could someone get the man’s name wrong in a book based on a master’s thesis!

The most obvious explanation is in the endnotes of Mooncakes over Gold Mountain.  The story is taken from a local history of the Crowsnest Pass not the local history of Canmore.  Both are coal mining areas and miners often moved between them as work demanded so it is likely names in stories were changed as the story travelled south along the Rockies.

Why the name of the Chinese man who climbed the mountain is different in two parts of Alberta is, however, unimportant.  The important part of the story of the name change is that it returns a name to its rightful place and erases a racial slur from the landscape of the Bow Valley.  It shows a willingness to change and correct past insensitivities, to embrace the multicultural past of a town that is still overwhelmingly white.

I have written about Ha Ling Peak before in the context of when it is appropriate to rename a landmark or place for the purpose of being politically correct.  Today, I want to highlight that renaming it is not always about political correctness or even getting the name right.  It is about honouring the ordinary people whose stories we tell decades later.  Ha Ling, or Lee Poon, probably did not stay in Canmore very long but in the time he was there he made a mark on the local memory.  He climbed a steep mountain that is essentially a scramble once you are above the tree line.  His name needed to be returned to the peak to remedy the racism of the early 20th century that lingered on the Bow Valley in the name of a mountain.

Near the summit.

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YEG…I think I heart you…

Edmonton there is something I have to say, I don’t want to love you but I kind of, sort of think that I do.  I feel no pride when the Oilers or the Eskimos win a game.  If something notable happens in the city I have no urge to brag to my out-of-town friend and family; but I will brag when you are the coldest place in Canada, occasionally the coldest place on earth.

The best words to describe you are ‘meh’ and ‘grey’.  Sure the River Valley is nice in the summer and a veritable symphony of colour in the autumn and festival season has something to do every week for 3 straight months.  But from mid-October to mid-April the sky and the city are the same shade as the flannel suits loved and loathed by depressed businessmen the world over.  Your roads are weird, your potholes could swallow a Smart Car, traffic circles seem to appear out of nowhere, road work seems to never end and when it finally does you seem to have some sort of mental block when it come to clearing the snow.  Your international claim to fame is an enormous shopping mall; a mecca of conspicuous consumption and late-twentieth century suburban sprawl.  The sum of these parts inspires one to take advantage of every opportunity to leave, even if the destination is somewhere as small as the hamlet of Radway.

But here is the thing Edmonton, the thing that is so tough to admit that even after 4 years residing within your municipal limits I can only say it after recounting a sampling of your shortcomings.  Edmonton, I think I love you.

            Somehow, and against my better judgment and staunch attempts to prevent it, you got under my skin Edmonton.  You softened my defenses with perfect Indian Summers that made me sad to leave for the frost and flurries of my hometown in the mountains at Thanksgiving.  Slowly, you showed me that when the sky and the city are the desolate grey of the long, cold, winter there is still colour hiding in the corners and under the covers.  The creativity of your inhabitants in the face of your shortcomings seduced me.  Their music made your bleak streets sing.  Their art made your grey a rainbow and your dingiest bits shine.  They embraced all the culture you had to offer and their curiosity and love of discovering something new could not be quashed by weeks of -30C or record snowfall.  They created new communities through food one would be hard pressed to find done as well in this countries other major cities – where else do you get traditional Mexican with a touch of Alberta duck, burgers inspired by the theatre, poutine influenced by the humble perogie, cinnamon buns that know no equal, a latte topped with maple bacon, and great steak tartar (made better when it is 1/2 price).

There are still things about you, Edmonton, I cannot say I love.  When it snows for 30 days straight and blue sky becomes a distant memory, I long for the Chinooks of my childhood – would even welcome the migraines they bring.  Your municipal politics are often farcical with a billionaire bully regularly trying to push dorky council in the mud to take its lunch money.  Your leading university has a building that looks like a giant stick of butter!  Yet, when I walk down Jasper Ave and see the “I (hear) YEG” stencils on the sidewalk it makes me smile.  The strangely apocalyptic orange-pink glow cast by the fluorescent accents on the Whyte Ave streetlights in the winter is unique to your never-ending winter.

You see Edmonton, you are kind of like the annoying little brother of everyone’s best friend.  At first you are such a pain in the rear end that one cannot get away from you fast enough, then after a while you stop throwing rocks at your sibling and their friends and show that you are actually kind of cool.

Edmonton, I love you.  There I said it without any qualifications or hesitations or attempts to avoid the inevitable.  Are you happy now?

(PS. Still can’t bring myself to cheer for your sports teams to win but have been known to wear their colours – borrowed from someone else.)

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Reviving a Canadian Hero

*This was written for Active History and can also be found on the Sam Steele Collection site.

Portrait, Samuel Benfield Steele, 1891. Bruce Peel Special Collections Library, University of Alberta (2008.

Sam Steele was the Forrest Gump of Canadian History. He was involved in some way with the Fenian Raids, the Long March West, the 1870 Riel Uprising, the establishment of the North-West Mounted Police, the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, the 1885 Northwest Uprising, the Klondike Gold Rush, the Second Boer War, the First World War, the Spanish Flu epidemic, and the Winnipeg General Strike. None of the first five Prime Ministers could make claims to have experienced that many of the key events of the country’s first fifty years! Today Steele is a relatively unknown figure of Canadian history. Aficionados of RCMP history know of him and there are corners of the country where his life is celebrated – like Fort Steele, BC, Fort Macleod, Alberta, and Dawson City, Yukon. If you walked up to the average person on the street and asked “Who was Sam Steele?” they would probably give you a blank look and respond “Sam who?”

For those who remember the Heritage Minutes of the mid-1990s, Sam Steele is the stern-faced Mountie who responds to an American prospector, pointing a pair of pistols at him, with “In that case I’ll be lenient, we’ll keep this gambling gear and you’ll be back in the United States by sundown.” At the end of the Heritage Minute, the prospector, with two Mounties escorting him back to the US, states “I coulda shot that guy right there. Who was he anyway?” The response: “Superintendent Sam Steele, North-West Mounted Police.”

Steele was a quintessential hero and the embodiment of Victorian masculinity at a time when Canada was striving to create a country from sea-to-sea and trying to emerge from the shadow of Great Britain. His life parallels the major events of opening and settlement of the West, and his distinguished career with the NWMP and the military ensure his reputation was well known. It is this reputation that led men from all corners of the country, and the US, to apply to serve in South Africa under Steele as the first contingent of the Lord Strathcona’s Horse. Of the 2,000 men who applied in 1900, only 500 were accepted for service. Nineteen years later when Steele’s funeral procession wove through the streets of Winnipeg, it brought the Winnipeg General Strike to a halt as workers paused in silent respect of his life and legacy. There are few people whose passing could produce the a similar effect today.

Lord and Lady Strathcona group portrait with Steele (centre) and Officers of Lord Strathcona’s Horse

What is striking about the story of Sam Steele is that he went from national hero to relative obscurity in less than a century. This decline presents an interesting opportunity to revive Steele’s legacy, not as a hero but as a means of conveying the first fifty years of Canadian history to the public. The potential of the repatriated Steele collection to teach Canadian history through an individual is clear in how the University of Alberta Libraries have designed their digital and physical exhibitions of the collection.

Small sample of the Sir Sam Steele Collection

The website for the Sam Steele collection breaks Steele’s life and the collection into six sections: the Red River Expedition (1867), the Northwest Mounted Police and the March West (1873), Sam and Marie (1890), the Yukon and the Klondike Gold Rush (1898), the Boer War and the South Africa Constabulary (1899), and World War I (1914). Each section corresponds with a notable period in Steele’s professional and private life and, as the titles indicate, each is a significant event in Canadian history. The correlations are reiterated in the 100-foot long timeline that is a central feature of the Sam Steele: Journey of a Canadian Hero exhibit currently on display at the Enterprise Square Gallery in downtown Edmonton, Alberta. The top of the timeline gives the key events of Steele’s life and the bottom give major events in Canadian history to clearly show when, and how often, these two lines intersect. The rich collection of documents and photographs that is the Sam Steele Collection provides the evidence necessary to connect these two timelines and create a narrative of the past.

Through these parallel timelines, Steele becomes a tool for telling the story of Canada’s first fifty years in a way that gives it a human face. Because Steele is no longer a well-known figure, means when people encounter his life as a means of conveying Canada’s history it is without many of the preconceptions that come with historical figures like Louis Riel or Sir John A Macdonald. This does not remove all political bias from the events – Steele’s advancement in the NWMP was often blocked by virtue of his Conservative political affiliations at times when the Liberals were in power – but it avoids the overt politicization of Canadian history that comes with many of the better-known individuals. I would also challenge Canadian historians to find another person who was involved in as many significant events and has a rich archival collection comparative to Sam Steele.

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Pollution and the Tar Sands: The Same Old Story.

All weekend in Alberta the news covered the provincial and federal Environment Ministers toured new pollution monitoring stations in the Oil/Tar Sands.  It reminded me of the consistent sense of deja vu that comes with studying the early environmental movement in Alberta and of a recent presentation I gave at the Directions West conference at the University of Alberta.  Below is a portion of that presentation about pollution monitoring, court cases, and environmentalism in Alberta in the 1970s.


November 1, 1976 STOP announced charges had been laid against Great Canadian Oil Sands Ltd in Fort McMurray for violating the emissions regulations of the provincial Clean Air Act.  For months, researchers with the Environmental Counsel worked on the legal aspects of the challenge and harnessed the experience and expertise of the Toronto based group CELA (Canadian Environmental Law Association).  Lucien Royer, chief researcher for STOP, and other group members spent the time working with university scientists to collect and analyze air samples from GCOS and compare it with projections for SO2 emissions of expanded tar sands development and literature on the damage done to humans and the environment by air pollution.  The sample, taken on May 26, 1977, and analysis became the central evidence for the civil action while the legal research and consultation ensured the correct portions of the Clean Air Act and appropriate precedent were cited.  The specific charge against GCOS was for  “permitting without lawful excuse the emission into the ambient air contaminants of greater density than that permitted by the regulations enacted under The Clean Air Act, S.A, 1971, C. 16.”[1]  This part of the Clean Air Act was targeted because after careful review, STOP determined it to be one of the weakest points in the legislation and intended to use the case to highlight this.

On September 28, 1977 Justice McClung dismissed the Crown’s appeal of the original decision on their challenge to the Clean Air Act.[2]   The judge accepted evidence of emissions exceeding the permissible levels emitted from the main process flare stack, but also accepted GCOS evidence the emission was deliberate and done as an emergency measure after a steam leak in one of the pressure vessels used in the extraction process.  This counter evidence sunk STOP’s case because GCOS was able to argue, and twice convince a judge, the day STOP collected their evidence the steam leak threatened the safety of employees and the excess levels of hydrocarbons their analysis showed was an exception rather than a rule.  In the appeal, an attempt was made to overturn the original decision by citing the lack of a smokeless flare tip – which would eliminate excess smoke emission during a flare – which was necessary under the version of the Clean Air Act in effect in 1976.  However, the court found the detail extraneous to a consideration of legal liability because the environmental safe guards GCOS required to meet were those of the Clean Air Act when their license was issued, not the updated version.

Most would see this verdict as a failure on the part of STOP to achieve political change regarding air pollution at the tar sands.  It is difficult to see the dismissal of charges followed by the dismissal of the appeal any other way.  However, STOP undertook the cases knowing they would lose; in fact, losing was their aim.  The sideways logic of success through failure is well explained in a March 1977 article from the Prairie Star.  The article gave the history of the case as it connected to research STOP conducted to preempt avoidable environmental damage from pollution they foresaw accompanying the 1978 the opening of Syncrude’s first plant.  STOP wished to “test Alberta’s virgin environmental laws in an actual trial situation” so that “the statutes would have to be ‘tightened up’ before Syncrude could be forced to reduce its sulphur dioxide emissions.”[3]  Obviously to do this STOP needed to use evidence from an existing operation and selected GCOS to serve this purpose.  For months STOP lobbied and wrote letter to the government to convince them action was necessary.  Eventually the province agreed and this led to the court case of November 1, 1976 – based largely on the work done by STOP.

STOP’s public interpretation of the case was as a success because it helped them prove a point about the Clean Air Act and other environmental legislation.  The court case, constant lobbying, endless letter writing campaigns, working with Notley and the NDP, was all to prove “the environmental laws of Alberta, as presently drafted, are like Swiss cheese.”[4]  Once the dismissal of charges against GCOS came in, STOP believed it would finally lead to action from the government to create tougher pollution regulation and force companies to adhere to the most recent version of environmental legislation.

The hope STOP had for changes to the environmental legislation quickly turned to frustration as a second court case they were involved with led to more dismissed charges.  This case was again against GCOS but focused on the Clean Water Act and pollution to the Athabasca River from tailings ponds.  The evidence for this case were samples take from a drainage dyke, the interface pipe that discharged liquid into the river, and downstream and upstream of the dyked area.  In a laboratory, fish were introduced to the four samples and their health carefully observed to show no mortality in the upstream and downstream samples but some in the dyke and interface samples.  The judge, McClung who also proceeded over the Clean Air Act challenge, followed a precedent set in British Columbia and dismissed the charges because he could not find proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the GCOS pollution caused the fish to die.  This was based on the assertion “there was no evidence that any species the ‘frequented’ the river was deleteriously affected.”  The species used in the laboratory, Brook Stickleback or Rainbow Trout, do not frequent the river so could not be accepted as bioassays.  This judgment was a blow to any attempt to show holes in the Clean Water Act similar to those proven to be in the Clean Air Act and there is little in the STOP records about the issues of water pollution in the tar sands after the decision on January 10, 1978.

Immediately following the first court challenge, STOP was hopeful the Alberta government would finally take suggested changes to environmental legislation seriously and create stricter limits and better enforcement.  It appeared their years of work had finally made tangible political change as the government set about reviewing existing legislation.  In the summer of 1978 a report release jointly by the Alberta Government and Environment Canada concluded there was technology available two years earlier, when Syncrude applied for their license, that if the Clean Air Act had made mandatory would have reduced the company’s SO2 emissions by 58 to 78 long tons a day.  STOP’s newsletter hailed this as validation of the work they did and vindication for attempts by Syncrude and the government to dismiss their reports: “We were told we didn’t know what we were talking about. Syncrude said we were ‘Crazies’ and the provincial government called us ‘Headline Grabbers’.  Well…now its out!!! History has vindicated us again.”[5]  The clincher for STOP was the finding Syncrude could install the necessary technology without a drastic redesign of the plant – which they and the government had used as a reason not to force the use of the technology.  The write-up in the group’s newsletter attracted the attention of Environment Minister David Russell, who wrote to STOP to say “that if Syncrude violates Alberta SO2 standards that he will require the company to take ‘appropriate action to comply with the regulations’.”[6]  However, STOP was not gullible enough to accept the line and reminded members of previous statements from the Minister to the same effect and that GCOS was in the news again for violating SO2 emissions regulations.  STOP, at this point, had nearly a decade of experience working with the government and knew, as numerous articles and presentations attest, when it came to the environment immediate economic gain always won out.  Louise Swift, former president summed up the need for skepticism in light of the continued violations from GCOS thus; “Should we really expect the public to believe that the treatment will be any different for Syncrude?”[7]  By November 1978, STOP had set up a tar sands taskforce to review Syncrude’s SO2 emissions and was looking for volunteer help as Syncrude and government arguments against the implication of emissions reducing technologies became less and less convincing.[8]

[1] J. McClung, R v. Great Canadian Oil Sands Ltd.  [1977] A.J. No 700, 9 A.R. 86, Alberta District Court Judicial District of Edmonton, September 28, 1977, paragraph 1.

[2] STOP did not initiate the appeal of the original decision.  As Royer noted in the April 7, 1977 (page 5) issue of The Gateway “It is not STOP that is initiating the ‘appeal’.  The Crown is doing this.  It is one thing to say STOP pressed to have the law suits launched in the first place, but it is quiet another thing to give us credit for the appeals.”

[3] –, “A Victory for STOP,” Prairie Star, March 23, 1977.

[4] Idib.

[5] STOP Newsletter, July 1978, 1.

[6] STOP Newletter, September 1978, 2

[7] Ibid.

[8] STOP newsletter, November 1978, 3.

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Oil and Environment in Alberta – Or When a Spill Hits Close to Home

Last night (June 8) a pipeline running along a tributary of the Red Deer River spilt crude oil contaminating the surrounding environment.  As Sean Kheraj noted earlier this week, this is not the first spill in recent memory and it will not be the last.  Alberta is also not the only place with oil pipelines that leak — though it might get the most publicity for various political/social reasons.  Residents of Sundre and the surrounding area are angry the spill happened and many are also shocked something like this could happen to them.  They and all other Albertans should be angry over the spill, but they should not be shocked.  In the race to make as much money as possible off the oil deposits in the province, government after government has disregarded the environment in favour of development, industry, and economic growth.  This latest spill is a reminder of the skewed approach to resource development that dominates the Alberta economy.  It is also a reminder of how sad the state of environmental protection is in the province in spite of decades of citizens pushing for better protection of the environment.  

As news of the spill spreads and news outlets decide how best to spin the story, I am working on a short paper/presentation about a pair of court cases from the late 1970s that attempted to bring about changes to the provincial Clean Air and Clean Water acts by illustrating how many loop-holes there were for industry to pollute without suffering repercussions.  I don’t want to give away the whole story since in a couple weeks this will be presented at a conference, but the people behind the case (STOP and friends) knew a win was unlikely.  They continued to pursue the case because it was through the failure of the courts to penalize industry for excessive pollution that they would succeed in showing some of the massive failings of the anti-pollution legislation.  

Leaving aside the idea of success through failure, the cases are an interesting reminder of what citizens of Alberta have fought against for decades in the quest to ensure they had a healthy environment to live in and the fallacy that underlies a great deal of anti-pollution and environmental protection legislation.  These pieces of legislation are too often handicapped by the demands of industry, but are presented to the public in a way that hides how these considerations will negatively impact their lives.  In the case of the pipelines spills that keep happening residents are ensured they are protected but often the continued monitoring of the pipelines an independent body is overlooked or abandoned in the name of efficiency and economics.  As a result the pipelines deteriorate and eventually there is a spill that contaminates and environment; threatening the livelihoods of the people living on the land and the health of humans and non-humans in the environment.  Pipelines spills should never be a surprise.  But they should make everyone angry that the governments that we elect to act in our best interest disregard this trust often enough that our lives and health are put at risk.


This most recent spill also hit very close to home.  When my great grandfather came to Canada from Scotland, he settled in Sundre.  He owned the general store and lumber yard — John Macleod and Co.  His wife, Ethel, was a nurse and made amazing donuts that got people out of their house on the coldest of winter days.  My Poppy grew up fishing on the Red Deer River as did his sister and their cousins.  The family even did a pack-trip to the origins of the Red Deer River when my Poppy was a teenager (the photographs are fantastic).  My mum and her brothers grew-up down stream from Sundre but did their fair share of fishing around Sundre and every fish I’ve ever caught came from the Red Deer River.  My much younger cousins play in that river every Canada Day during the Macleod Family Reunion.  It saddens me to think this year they might not be able to play or fish in that river because of the neglect of the infrastructure keeping pollutants out of the environment.  

It saddens me that when these spills happen the journalists decry the oil based Alberta economy or our societies addiction to oil (the thing that drive the oil economy) until another story happens.  Then they forget.  The people living along the Red Deer River will spend years, decades even, watching the water and waiting for all the oil to finally be cleaned from the environment.  All that time their children will not be able to play and fish in the waters they once did, their livestock will not be able to drink as freely as they once did, and they will be on the look out for the various poisonings that come from a crude oil spill (even a small and quickly contained one).  And while the people along the Red Deer River — and in all the other parts of Alberta effected by pipeline spills in the past decade — wait for the environment to recover, the journalists will forget and the rest of the world will forget.  When it happens to those who forgot, they will be just as surprised as the people in the Sundre area are today.  They will ask “how could this happen”.  And the answer will remain the same.


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Of Monsters and Men.

Digression Alert!   This post is only tangentially about environmental history, or Canadian history.  It is, however, all about MUSIC THAT ROCKS.

On Thursday May 24th “Of Monsters and Men” finally made it to Vancouver to play a show originally scheduled for March 25th.   Seeing the show required two road trips from Edmonton to Vancouver — approximately 5000km in total.  The show was worth everyone of those kilometres.  

For those who have not heard about “Of Monsters and Men” here is the basic information you need: 

1) They are Icelandic.  5 guys and 1 girl.

2) Their music is infectious.

3) The lyrics are about monsters, often in forests.  This is interesting since Iceland does not have “forests” like in Canada. Icelandic forests are odd squares of trees on the sides of mountains because the natural forests were cut down centuries ago (totally managed to get a little #envhist in there!).

4) Of Monsters and Men are AWESOME.  If you are having a bad day turn on any one of their songs and you will be smiling and dancing in no time.

Now, on to the concert.  The opener was underwhelming.  The sound was turned up way to high and the lead singer didn’t have a particularly good voice.  Unfortunate since the original opener was an Icelandic singer called Lay Low and she has a very nice voice.  

Due to the previously cancelled concert, there was some trepidation until the band took the stage.  They proceeded to play nearly every song off their album and had the packed house at The Venue clapping, singing, and dancing along from the first bars onwards.  The big single, Little Talks, was hidden in the middle of the set — after Dirty Paws, King and Lionheart, Mountain Sounds, and Slow and Steady (not in that order) — and got the loudest applause from the crowd.  The latter half of the set included Love, Love, Love and Six Weeks.  The two song encore finished with Yellow Light and provided one of the most comical moments of the night as Ragnar “Raggi” Þórhallsson asked for yellow lights to go with the song only to have the sound guy turn on blue lights.  It took a while, and a restart of the song, to get the yellow lights up and running.    The only negative part of the show came from the audience not the band, as during their quietest song, Slow and Steady, those in the audience without concert etiquette carried on conversations loud enough for more than one peeved fan to tell the nearest group to kindly shut-up.

I really could go on at length about the show and this band.  I picked up their album in Iceland last fall and listened to many, many times while driving around the country and since returning to Canada.  My expectations were very high going into the show and those were more than exceeded.  Of Monsters and Men have the kind of energy that is just as infectious recorded as it is live.  Their comfort on stage and with the audience, during and after the show, is a testament to the vibrant Icelandic music scene that is so much deeper than Sigur Ros and Bjork.  

So I leave you with Little Talks (the song quoted next to this post) and hope it brightens your day.


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Public History Gets an App!

A great group of graduate students and staff at my alma mater, Carleton University, made an app for the entire length of the Rideau Canal.  

It is called “The Rideau Canal App” and it is free at the iTunes store.  If you live in Ottawa and walk along the Canal, like I did every day going to campus, or like to boat on the Canal in the summer, or just think history is cool and want a fancy FREE app to show that off to other people then download it ASAP.

Still not sold?  Check out Jim Opp promoting the app for the CTV Ottawa morning show.  

PS.  There is going to be an increase in the public history content on the blog for the duration of the summer since I am a public historian again (more on that later).

PPS.  Most of that public history stuff will be about Sam Steele.  He is on twitter now and you should follow him @SirSamSteele.  

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Titanic EnvHist?

For the past week news sources have promoted the 100th anniversary of the Titanic’s sinking. The commemoration focused on the people and the events of the night; the tales of survival and the grief of the loss of life. There is some reflection on the fallacy of the belief any ship could be unsinkable but there is a huge opportunity presented by this anniversary for historians to rethink the place of the Titanic and the factors that led to its demise.
Let’s first go over the basics of the story of the Titanic’s rise and fall to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Built in a Belfast shipyard, even before completion it was touted as unsinkable, a great feat of engineering and the triumph of human ingenuity over nature. Then nature took it down in the form of an iceberg in the night.
Much of the popular and public history interpretations fixate on whether or not the ship could have avoided collision if the iceberg was noticed earlier. The heavy death toll was a combination of reluctance to admit mistake by the captain, an insufficient number of lifeboats, and the speed and way the ship went down. This places the demise of the ship solidly in the hands of humans and overlooks the non-human factors that were central to the ships sinking — the nature of the North Atlantic in mid-April, the meteorological conditions at play, the dominant understandings of the world based on the science available in 1912, and the belief that humans could bend nature to their will (one egotistical belief we are still working against).
Think of what an environmental history could tell us about the sinking of the Titanic and the ocean transportation in general at the beginning of the twentieth century. Instead of the story perpetuated by James Cameron, we could have a story of nature at a time when society was undergoing a huge transformation that situated it in a longue durée understanding of transportation and ocean conditions in the North Atlantic. Taking it further, an investigation of the wreck could shed light on how human tragedy creates new ecosystems that rewrite human history as part of ocean life.
Now I’m not about to encourage people to go and watch Titanic 3-D and look for the environment in the movie — I wish I could say I’ve never seen that movie but I was 12 when it came out — but I would encourage people to think about the ship and its demise differently the next time they encounter a commemoration of it.

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ASEH 2012: Madison Wisconsin and Digital History

Early on Thursday morning environmental historians from across the United States, Canada, and Europe converged on Madison, Wisconsin for the annual ASEH meeting. Madison is not an easy, or cheap, place to get to and it seemed like everyone had a story about the round-about route they took to get to the conference. A quintet from Toronto spent 13 hours in a rented van; those from Vancouver routed through Minneapolis and Dallas; others flew into Chicago and bused it into Madison. It was worth the effort, Madison is one cool city with friendly people, heritage architecture, ongoing protests (Recall Walker), good food, and great beer. It is also full of Badgers. But enough about the city and on to the ASEH!

ASEH Phoenix was all about sustainability. From Cronon’s plenary address to the field trips and sessions and networking discussion, sustainability was the key term of the conference – fitting since a city in the middle of a desert should be thinking and acting in a sustainable way. At Madison the recurring topics were digital history and Rachel Carson.
As any environmental historian will happily tell you, the year 2012 marks the 50th anniversary of Silent Spring’s publication. The 2002 printing of Carson’s work features the by-line “The book that launched the environmental movement” so it should be no surprise that environmental historians are interested in tracing the impact of Carson and her book as a means of commemoration. At the Jenny Price’s plenary address “Stop Saving the Planet, Already!–and Other Tips from Rachel Carson for 21st-Century Environmentalists” offered an alternative reading and lessons from Carson’s work that was the topic of many conversations the following morning. There were also a number of panels focusing on Carson with her name popping up in a number of the papers about environmentalism in the 1960s and 1970s. Even the all Canadian panel on the environmental movement got in on the Silent Spring celebration with Mark McLaughlin of the University of New Brunswick presenting on the connections Carson made with New Brunswick scientists and foresters for the chapter titled “The River of Death.”
Rachel Carson is an interesting and popular subject for environmental historians.

Protesting at the State Building

What really stood out this year among the younger generations at ASEH was the perforated of social media into the proceedings. In most sessions you could find someone – usually a graduate student – with a smart phone or iPad out checking Twitter. We were not being rude I promise. We were sending out 140 character messages to all the people who couldn’t make it to the conference, or couldn’t be in two panels at once, so they could follow in real time what was happening. To filter our tweets from the herd, we used the established hashtag for environmental history, #envhist, in combination with #ASEH2012. There were about 5 people consistently tweeting with that number ballooning to double digits by the third day as word got around what was going on — which you can see in this post from Finn Arne Jorgensen.

3 Monkeys

The digital history went beyond live tweeting, with four panels devoted specifically to new forms of historical communication the electronic age has created. Sean Kheraj led a session for the graduate workshop about the value of twitter and blogging to promoting yourself and your work. The monster panel on DH brought together 8 scholars working with digital media to engage the public, communicate with collegues, promote their work, and even as the basis of their studies. The stand out projects from the panel were Jessica van Horssen’s graphic novel on Asbestos, Quebec, an excellent video portal about climate change at Climate Wisconsin, and the new site Ant, Spider, Bee for the exploring the digital environmental humanities.
One of the interesting ongoing discussions about digital history that came up is getting online contributions recognized by hiring and tenure committees. Consider the various digital media publications that NiCHE members are involved with: Jess van Horssen published a graphic novel online that is used across the country in high schools and university courses; Sean Kheraj maintains a monthly podcast called Nature’s Pasts; NiCHE produces a group blog called The Otter; the video podcast I do with Sean Kheraj called EHTV: Environmental History Television; and now an environmental history app that brings all he EH news directly to you. There are also numerous academic blogs kept by graduate students and established scholars, a number of which are linked to from the side bar of this site.
All of these projects increase the visibility of environmental history and of the scholars behind them but they are not recognized as contributions to knowledge in the same way peer-reviewed articles are. It is early in the incorporation of digital media into environmental history but this is an issue that needs to be addressed by institutions so the work of new scholars in non-traditional areas can be appreciated and its value to the individual, the institution they are affiliated with, and the field they work in can be fostered.
I am one of those new scholars who engages with the diverse outlets for knowledge networking offered by all things digital and have found it to be very rewarding. I recognize not everyone is comfortable with Twitter or willing to open themselves up to the criticisms that can come with keeping a blog or interested in doing more writing than they already do. It is the individuals prerogative to become an active contributor to the digital side of environmental history but everyone can follow it and engage with the discussions it facilitates. Download the EH app designed by Jim Clifford and Sean Kheraj if you have an iPhone, iTouch, or iPad. It brings all the #envhist news directly to you! I also encourage anyone who can’t make it to a conference or is in a place with a small environmental history population to at least follow the most active environmental historians on twitter, maybe even join yourself…

Posted in Environment, Grad School, Public History, Research | Tagged , , , , , , | 7 Comments

FOUND! The Gateway Sept 1970-March 1971

Found the missing year! The helpful people at the University of Alberta Archives and in the Bruce Peel Special Collections Library tracked down The Gateway run for the 1970/1971 academic year. The newspaper continued to publish and report on the activities of students, it just wasn’t digitized so the archives is sending the hard copies to me.
One of the odd things about the University of Alberta Library and Archives relationship is the student newspaper is not part of the Library collection (I discovered this when looking for the microfilm rolls in the stacks during the first attempt to find the missing year). The Gateway in both microfilm and hard copy are held by the Archives, but the university stopped microfilming the paper after the 1969/1970 academic year. As odd as this practice is – most other universities hold their student newspapers in microfilm form as part of their newspaper collection – it is not unheard of. When doing preliminary research at the University of Victoria I had to go to the archives to access any of The Martlet issues from the 1970s onwards.

It is a great relief to have found the missing issues and as soon as I return from a week in Madison Wisconsin for the annual ASEH conference reading through them will be the first thing I do.

Now to finish a presentation about air pollution and Edmonton and UAlberta and the tar sands…

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