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.


Posted in Environment | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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.

Posted in Environment, Opinion, Public History | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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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Missing: The Gateway April 1970-September 1971

The Gateway is missing. From March 13, 1970 until September 9, 1971 it is nowhere to be found. Does anyone know where it could be? Since the dissertation is about the University and environmentalism and the student newspaper does a decent job of telling me what was happening on the University of Alberta campus. This makes the missing year kind of a big problem.
I noticed the missing year over the past weekend while working on a paper about what issues spurred Edmontonians to take-up the environmentalism cause. The issue that spurred action in Edmonton was air pollution — specifically that created by Refinery Row, the 105th Street power plant, and automobiles. Anti-pollution advocacy and activism initiative began in January 1970 and came from two University of Alberta based groups; STOP (Save Tomorrow, Oppose Pollution) and the Edmonton Anti-Pollution Group. The former focused on public awareness and changes to legislation through political action and the latter produced scholarly reports to show the problems of pollution with facts and figures. The date environmental activism in Edmonton took off make the missing Gateway issues significant. Between March 13, 1970 and September 9, 1971 a lot happened in the history of environmentalism and I have no idea how the University of Alberta students reacted to it.
The first significant event occurred on April 20, 1970: Earth Day. From looking at other universities in Western Canada, I know Canadian university students observed the inaugural event. Each school took a slightly different approach but I have yet to find reference to how the University of Alberta marked the occasion. Normally The Gateway would be my go to source, but there are no issues from April 1970. This is a problem, and it gets worse. In early 1971 Alberta did two things before the federal government; created a provincial Ministry of Environment, and created a Clean Air Act. Again, I have no idea how students responded to these events because The Gateway is MIA.
I have a hunch that the sudden disappearance of The Gateway is linked to a censorship dispute with University Print Services during the 1969/70 academic year. However, I have nothing to support that hypothesis because when the paper returns in September 1971 the editorial staff makes no mention of the long absence. This would not be the only student newspaper in Canada to get into a spat over censorship with university administration – the University of Victoria’s The Martlet changed its name to The Cougar City Gazette from January 16 to March 20, 1970. So, was it censorship issues that caused The Gateway to disappear? And if it was, did the students launch an alternative newspaper in protest? Were the issues simply lost, though it seems unlikely based on the excellent preservation of the paper through the Peel’s Prairie Provinces database?
I have no answers for these questions and would really like to know why this newspaper went missing at what happens to be a very important period for what I study. If you have answers or alternative hypothesizes please send them along. I am eager to find out what happened to The Gateway and what was happening on the campus of the University of Alberta during a very active year in the history of environmentalism.

Posted in Canada, Environmentalism, Grad School, Research | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments