Thursday, 14 August 2014

/Kitchen Literacy/ in "The Westward-Moving House": A Joint Review

  • Ann Vileisis, Kitchen Literacy: How we lost knowledge of where food comes from and why we need to get it back. (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2008.) Book Website. 
  •  John Brinckerhoff Jackson, “The Westward-Moving House: Three American Houses and the People Who Lived in Them.” Places Journal, July 2011: Online. [Originally printed in Landscapes (2.3), Spring 1953.]

Food is essential to life. These two works, Ann Vileisis’s Kitchen Literacy and John Brinckerhoff Jackson’s “The Westward-Moving House,” focus on the social histories and cultural geographies of people and places at seemingly opposite poles of eating: the cooks and the farmers. This observation obscures the deep similarities in the important stories Vileisis and Jackson tell about how we have come to rely on distributed supply chains for our daily sustenance.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Bureaucratic Ruins: Images from the Last Days of the Sir John Carling Building

I hope to flesh this post out with more images (and words) but for now here are a few shots of the late Sir John Carling Building. Named after the federal Minister of Agriculture who oversaw the establishment of the Central Experimental Farm in Ottawa and the wider Experimental Farm system across the country in 1886 (Carling was also one of those responsible for the founding of the Ontario Agricultural College in the 1870s), the Sir John Carling Building was one of the first attempts to consolidate a federal department in a single building.

Opened in 1967, the building was a testament to Canada's modernity. However, with a life expectancy of only 40 years, the Sir John Carling Building joins the ranks of brutalist buildings, such as the old Ottawa Convention Centre, whose time seems to have come to an end all to soon. While I never worked for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, as a historical researcher for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency most of my memories of the building are of the labyrinthine basement library with its seemingly endless caverns of sliding stacks.

First, from the day before looking south past the Dominion Observatory building towards the Sir John Carling Building:

Next, also from the day before, looking up the hill from Queen Juliana Park to the SJCB:

The demolition from Maple Road. Unfortunately I couldn't get to the spots I had scouted out the day before so my view was obstructed by trees:


And the aftermath from behind the Dominion Observatory, note that the haze isn't fog (though it was raining a little) but rather dirt from the demolition:

And, finally (for now), the empty crest at Queen Juliana Park:

Friday, 25 July 2014

Rambling at the Farm: Walking Tours, History, Digital Humanities

I recently took my friend Kendall, a PhD candidate in history at Queen's University, on a rambling tour through the Central Experimental Farm. Over the course of an hour and a half and covering 6.5km, we jumped through the Euro-Canadian history of the site. While I didn't have a firm plan about where we'd go and what stories I'd tell, the route wound through some of my favourite spots and included an interweaving of apocryphal local legends, histories of the Farm system and of the city, descriptions of archival collections I've already worked with, and a discussion of the various methodologies I hope to apply as I get into my dissertation research.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Crosspost: Review of Peter Russell's /How Agriculture Made Canada/

Note: This was originally posted at the Network in Canadian History and the Environment. Please leave comments on the original.

Reviewed By: Peter Anderson (Queen’s University)9780773540644

Published: The Otter-NiCHE (July 2014)

Peter A. Russell, How Agriculture Made Canada: Farming in the Nineteenth Century. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2012. 400 pp. ISBN 978-0-7735-4065-1. $34.95 (paper). Rural, Wildland and Resource Studies Series, Number 1.

Peter Russell argues that the settlement of the Prairies was shaped by the dynamics of two agricultural crises in nineteenth century Quebec and Ontario, which created a predominantly English Canadian context that later European immigrants assimilated to. As agricultural settlement reached the environmental and technological limits of the open land frontier in each province, farm communities and elites reacted in different ways. In Quebec the impulse was to turn inwards whereas in Ontario settlers looked west for a new frontier.

Rather than presenting new research, Russell provides a book length literature review of the major debates in agricultural history in these three regions. Indeed, it can be argued that this book is mistitled in that it nearly completely ignores British Columbia and the Maritimes. The focus is on whether there were a series of agricultural crises in Central Canada and how those crises influenced settlement on the Prairies in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Chapter 1, “Farm Families and Markets – Peasants, Pioneers, and Profit Maximizers,” lays the groundwork for Russell’s argument by reminding readers of the different agricultural economies that individual farmers and farm families have participated in throughout Canadian, and world, history. For example, peasants tend to be focused on subsistence, whereas pioneers seek to create new farms with a goal of becoming capitalist profit maximizers. While critiquing Fernand Ouellet’s view that habitants were held back by cultural factors, Russell generally portrays Quebec farmers as “peasants,” and portrays agriculture farmers in Ontario as pioneers and profit maximizers.

Following the introductory chapters (“Introduction” and Chapter 1), the book is divided into three broad sections. First, Russell returns to the debates surrounding Ouellet’s agricultural crises in early nineteenth century Quebec, which takes up close to a third of the book (1). Next, he examines the reception of David Gagan’s similar thesis regarding Ontario in the decades immediately preceding confederation (2). Theses first two sections, and particularly the retelling of the Ouellet debates, are exhaustively detailed. Russell traces individual battles and points of contention over the validity of various sources, such as the 1851 agricultural census or the use of wills and tithe records to determine economic status (i.e. peasant, pioneer, profit maximize).

Finally, the book ends with a discussion of the historiography of agricultural settlement on the western Prairies. In contrast to the vigorous back and forth between scholars from the sixties to the nineties, the debates portrayed in the latter sections on the Prairies seem tame and well behaved. Critiques and expansions of the staples thesis, particularly as it relates to wheat exports, are interwoven into these discussions.

Russell’s account of agricultural development in Ontario, Quebec and the Prairies sometimes gives the impression that settlers met an empty land as they pushed the boundaries of agricultural colonisation. Chapter 8, “Native Farming on the Prairies,” feels like a token acknowledgement of Aboriginal presence much in the same way textbooks are criticised for mentioning First Peoples in the first chapter. It also focuses more on the work of Indian agents to limit the agricultural settlement and assimilation of First Nation communities confined to reserves than on those communities themselves. Russell’s occasional use of “Indian” in the place of “First Nations” is jarring and his use of “native” to refer to both Canadian-born European settlers and Aboriginal communities at different points throughout the book can be confusing.

The focus of How Agriculture Made Canada is largely on how historians have selected, analysed, interpreted, and made arguments based on a growing collection of evidence. Russell relies heavily on economic historians and quantitative data analysis. His statement that “the limits of history” are “the survival of written documents” (p. 211) will disappoint many social, cultural, environmental and oral historians as well as those who work with material culture. Indeed, the bias towards portraying farmers as ahistorical rational “economic men” (and Russell, with a few exceptions, talks largely about men) is a weakness present throughout the book. The frequent refrain, especially regarding the Prairies, that economic rather than geographic (by which Russell means environmental) factors are the most important limits on agricultural settlement highlights this focus.

As my personal interest is on the role of federal scientists at the Central Experimental Farm in promoting agricultural settlement, I read the book with a keen eye for details about the role of federal agricultural science in this colonisation project. Perhaps reflecting wider trends in the historiography, Russell never directly mentions the Central Experimental Farm—though he mentions Marquis wheat, a hardy strain that thrived in the west and was developed under the guidance of Charles Saunders at the Farm in Ottawa, in passing twice (p. 233 and 242). Nonetheless, some of the few primary sources employed in this book are regarding research at the Brandon Experimental Farm (p. 234) and the Indian Head Experimental Farm (pp. 233, 268 and 272).

In How Agriculture Made Canada Russell provides an exhaustive review of some of the major debates in the academic, and especially economic, history of farming in Ontario, Quebec and the Prairies. As a result, it is an excellent primer for students of Canadian history interested in learning about the ways agriculture has been thought and written about between the Rockies and the Maritimes. Structurally, the book is poorly served by its endnotes, particularly for anyone who consults an electronic version of the book. Footnotes, in text citation or endnotes at the end of each chapter would have been more appropriate for a historiographical review. The bibliography, titled “Other Sources Used,” is inconsistent and sometimes excludes works directly cited in the text, limiting its usefulness. Despite its shortcomings, or perhaps precisely because of them, this book points to opportunities for environmental historians to expand our understanding of the environmental histories of agriculture in these three regions.

(1) Ouellet was quite prolific. A selection of the works most frequently cited by Russell include: Economic and Social History of Quebec, 1760-1850: Structures and Conjonctures, Gage Publishing, Toronto, 1980; Economy, Class and Nation in Quebec: Interpretive Essays, Toronto: Copp Clark Pitman, 1991; Lower Canada, 1791-1840: Social Change and Nationalism, McClelland and Stewart, Toronto, 1980; and “Le Mythe de ‘L’Habitant Sensible au Marché,’” Recherches sociographiques, vol. 17, no. 1, 1976.
(2) Gagan, while less prolific than Ouellet, has a large oeuvre. Key sources used by Russell include: “Geographical and Social Mobility in Nineteenth-Century Ontario: A Microstudy,” Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology, vol. 13, no. 2, 1976; (with Herbert Mays) “Historical Demography and Canadian Social History: Families and Land in Peel County, Ontario,” Canadian Historical Review, vol 54, no. 1, March 1973; Hopeful Travellers, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1981; and “Land, Population and Social Change: The ‘Critical Years’ in Rural Canada West,” Canadian Historical Review, vol. 13, no. 2, 1988.

Pete Anderson is a PhD student in Geography at Queen’s University. After completing an M.A. in Public History at Carleton, he worked in the federal civil service and as an independent public history consultant before returning to the academy. He is currently the NiCHE New Scholars’ Representative and sits on the National Council on Public History’s Consultants’ Committee.

Citation: Pete Anderson. “Review of Peter A. Russell’s How Agriculture Made Canada: Farming in the Nineteenth Century. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2012.” The Otter ~ La Loutre Reviews. (July, 2014).

URL: ‎ 

If you are interested in reviewing recent publications in Canadian environmental history please contact Denny Brett at:

Monday, 31 March 2014

Environmental History Panels at 2014 CHA

This is a rough list of environmental history panels at this year's CHA. Please let me know if I missed any! The schedule is available here as a PDF

2014-05-02: Now updated with relevant CAG panels! (Schedule as PDF)

Monday, May 26


Finding Nature, Hiding Culture and Forgetting Industry at Canadian and American Parks.

Panel: Lauren Wheeler, Jessica DeWitt, Peter Anderson (me!)
Chair: John Walsh


The Great Naked, Rowdy, Drunken Outdoors: Exploring Canada’s Vernacular Culture of Nature through ‘Bad’ Behaviour

Panel: Dale Barbour, Ben Bradley, Mary-Ann Shantz
Chair: Sean Kheraj

Tuesday, May 27


Thinking about Animals in Urban Canada

Panel: Joanna Dean, Christabelle Sethna, Darcy Ingram
Chair: Laura Cameron

Systems, Spaces, Objects, Identities: Cultural Histories of Technology in 20th Century Canada

Panel: Daniel Macfarlane, Bret Edwards, Jan Hadlaw, Anne F MacLennan
Chair: Steve Penfold


Sustainable Development, the Arctic, and “Counterweights”: Problems in the 1970s, Problems Now

Panel: P. Whitney Lackenbauer, Henry Trim, Frank Maas
Chair: Ian Muller


Forest Ecosystems, Economies and Places CAG

Panel: Sinead Earley; Brenda Murphy, Annette Chretien, Grant Morin; Anderson Assuah; and, Sara Teitelbaum and Ryan Bullock 

Wednesday, May 28


Blending Boundaries: Integrating Historical Approaches in Examining the Natural World in 20th Century Canada

Panel: Jonathan McQuerrie, Mike Commito, Mark Kuhlberg
Chair: TBA


Special Panel on a Proposal for a Canadian Historical GIS Network CAG

Panel: Byron Moldofsky, Leon Robichaud, Donald Lafreniere   

Critical Legal Geographies CAG

Panel: Valentia Capurri; Rebekah Ingram, Adrian John, Richard Quodomine and Jay Toth; and, Laura Schaefli  


The State, Conservation and Moral Economies

Panel: George Warecki, Steve Penfold, Denny DeSerres Brett
Chair: TBA


Interrogating Toronto's Past CAG

Panel: Richard Anderson, Harvey Rainbow, Phillip Gordon Mackintosh 

Monday, 25 November 2013

Key Points and Questions for NICHE New Scholars Discussion, Wednesday, November 27, 2013: Wilderness and Waterpower: How Banff National Park Became a Hydroelectric Storage Reservoir by Christopher Armstrong and H.V. Nelles

(Note: This is a guest post by Jessica DeWitt discussing Armstrong and Nelle's book Wilderness and Waterpower.) 

In preparation for Wednesday's discussion I have organized a list of the points and arguments that struck me as most important in relation to Armstrong and Nelles' new book. To facilitate discussion I have attached most of these points to a possible question. I look forward to hearing other peoples' takes on the book.

1. Armstrong and Nelles open the book with a claim that hydroelectric power had as much of a effect on the development of Banff National Park as the CPR. After reading the book, do you think that they illustrated this claim effectively or is it an overstatement?

2. Two main questions that Armstrong and Nelles are seeking to answer:

a. "Why did Banff National Park have to be significantly altered to accommodate hydroelectric storage?" (vii)

b. "More broadly, how did the production and consumption of electricity in sourthern Alberta shape Canada's premier national park?" (vii)

3. The story is one that is supposed to illustrate the battle between "path-dependent technology" and public policy.
-"The phrase path dependence," they write, "describes a familiar predicament: early choices in system design virtually determine downstream incremental change." (viii)
Can we think of other examples of path dependence in environmental history? Is this a useful analytical concept for other studies?

4. Armstrong and Nelles emphasize that this is not a story of pre-determinism and that the results were the outcome of various decisions made by different factions.

5. They state that "there is no necessary incompatibility between power generation and a national park." Our conception of what a park is has evolved over time, what is deemed unsavory development today was considered a legitimate development at the turn-of-the-century. Do Nelles and Armstrong effectively demonstrate this evolution? They use the term "Doctrine of Usefulness" to explain why Calgary Power was able to dig its claws into Banff. Does their use of the "Doctrine of Usefulness" agree with Robert Craig Brown's original definition or are they trying to apply it in a broader manner? Does the doctrine work in this instance?

6. Armstrong and Nelles state that a increased demand in power was a result of a kind of social gospel status surrounding electrification. Is this factor given enough attention in the book? Or does it get lost behind a story of decades of political manoeuvring? 

7. They mention that much of this situation can be attributed to Canadians ambivalence towards the natural world in which they live. Since I'm not Canadian, I would love to hear some Canadian opinions on this assertion, which I have run into in numerous Canadian environmental histories.

8. What do you think of the definition of wilderness that Armstrong and Nelles choose to work with?
"The problem of wilderness is that creating an imaginary separation between humanity and nature masks the essential humanness of its construction." (xiii) <-I like this quote.

9. They mention that waterpower exists in a cultural context. Not every waterfall, they say, is dammed. Society makes culturally informed decisions about what happens to each waterfall and how it will meet its energy requirements.

10. They emphasize that the reengineering of the Bow was necessary if it were to be used for waterpower because of the unreliability of its flow (heavy during Spring thaw, low at other times of year).

11. I saw a lot of parallels between their treatment of hydroelectric power development on the Bow and Nelles' The Politics of Development, particularly in regards to discussions of possible provincial and private cooperation. Have the rest of you read The Politics of Development and if so do did you notice the similarities? Also, perhaps we could discuss the connection of this book to their earlier work, The River Returns.

12. Nelles and Armstrong state that they are using the concept of second nature. How effectively did they apply this concept to their narrative? Could they have given this idea more attention? (I say, yes)

13. I found it interesting how the hydroelectric developments and other development were deemed acceptable if they were hidden. Although there is an assertion that resistance to such development in parks has developed since the mid-twentieth century. Is it true that the out of sight, out of mind attitude is still alive and well in our parks and protected areas?

14. I especially enjoyed the portion of the book that dealt with the Spray Lakes. Concluding this portion of the story, they write, "the argument that hydroelectric development should not take place within national parks, a point of view that seemed to gain wide public acceptance, when forced through the sausage machine of federal politics in the late 1920s, led to the remarkable conclusion that such places should not be within national parks in the first place." (115)

I looked at a current map of the region in order to gain a better understanding of where the Spray Lakes were and the positioning of the four national parks that were made out of Rocky Mountains National Park in order to cut out those pieces of land that were natural resource rich. What I found most interesting is that the Spray Lakes which were cut of Banff are now surrounded by 4-5 provincial parks. This relates directly to my research on provincial parks. What does this tell us about the values/expectations we place on national vs. provincial parks?

15. This book also fed my growing fascination with Canadian and American's acceptance of dams. So many parks, particularly at the provincial and state level are designed around an artificial lake, treating the lake as a natural landmark. What does this say about our understanding of nature and the relationship between recreation and the natural world?

16. In their conclusion, Armstrong and Nelles talk once again about the way in which people reconstructed their conception of nature in order to accept the presence of hydroelectric technology in their parks. They also reassert that humans are a part of nature and that the Bow was not "natural" before the hydroelectric development. This development, they state, was "relative rather than absolute change"

As I finished the book I found myself wishing they had put more emphasis on these two themes instead of going into the minutiae of the political and economic events surrounding the hydroelectric development.  Did anyone else come to the same or similar conclusion?

-Well, I could go on--and on--but I'll wait until Wednesday.

Friday, 8 November 2013

Thoughts on Absent Reading Companions

Reading is perhaps the dominant activity of grad school and especially the pre-exam period of a PhD. Books seem to breed on my shelves, both at the office and at home, and the "to read" folder on my hard drive is consistently larger than that containing articles I've already read.

Although our modern practice of reading is essentially a solitary pursuit, there's comfort in knowing I'm not alone. More than reading groups, seminars, and the awareness that the offices around me are full of other grad students diligently reading, sometimes books lent by professors or picked up from the library provide another kind of companion.