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.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Thoughts on Nature's Metropolis


Bill Cronon's Nature's Metropolis is a long, layered book. Just shy of 400 pages (plus numerous insets that are interesting though would be more so if they were incorporated into the work), Cronon provides a detailed environmental history and historical geography not just of the city of Chicago but of the vast regions of the American west that became its hinterland during the latter two thirds of the nineteenth century. I've heard numerous scholars and graduate students cite this work as their gateway into environmental history and after reading it I'm left feeling that if I wasn't already part of the choir, I'd also be one of its converts.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Town and City, Fairs and Exhibitions

Continuing from my thoughts about agricultural landscapes, I've been thinking about the places where agriculture intrudes directly into the city. From the point of view of Ottawa, and with the obvious exception of the Farm, the various branches of the Ottawa Farmers' Market are perhaps among the places where city dwellers contact farmers most directly.

Historically, while acknowledging the importance of the various traditional markets in Ottawa (the Byward and Parkdale being the two currently extant, though the Byward doesn't have a requirement for local produce) and the newer trend of Farmers' Markets, there's another site in the city that has hosted agricultural events: Lansdowne Park. In particular, Lansdowne Park used to be the site of the Central Canada Exhibition and the Ottawa Winter Fair, among other events.

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Thinking about Landscapes at the Central Experimental Farm


Central Experimental Farm 2013-08-03: Desire lines across a hay field.

In less than a month I'll be moving to Kingston to start a PhD at Queen's University. I'll be exploring the ways that the Central Experimental Farm in Ottawa acts as an urban park and how urban residents experience and understand agricultural and rural places in the context of both the Farm and the Canadian Museum of Agriculture and Food--a topic inspired by my own experiences of the Farm in the decade since I moved to Ottawa. In preparation I've been thinking more and more about what these kinds of places and landscapes mean, and how to encounter them.

Friday, 5 July 2013

Repost: The Public Historian in the History Wars: A Report from NCPH 2013

Note: This is a repost from Active History. Please leave any comments at the original.

Arthur Doughty, the first Dominion Archivist of Canada, believed that ‘of all national assets archives are the most precious; they are the gift of one generation to another and the extent of our care of them marks the extent of our civilization’

Monday, 20 May 2013

Compare and Contrast: Lowertown East 1968 and 2013

In the 1960s the city of Ottawa, like many municipalities across the continent, engaged in a series of urban renewal projects to heal "blighted" urban spaces through expropriation and reconstruction. Three targeted neighbourhoods immediately come to mind: Little Italy, Lebreton Flats, and Lowertown East.

City planners performed a neighbourhood level survey of the city and identified approximately one dozen neighbourhoods requiring attention order to save them from the social ills of high rates of tenancy, mixed land uses, and 'obsolete' community buildings. Little Italy and Lowertown East were also targeted as potential locations of new high schools by the local collegiate board.


The following images (I apologise for the low resolutions) chart the progression of 'renewal' in Lowertown East, first from the contemporary (in 1968) landuses which follows the traditional urban grid, through to the proposed plan filled with curving roads and cul-de-sacs (not to mention a terrifyingly wide King Edward Avenue) to the hybrid that exists today.

"Current Land Use," Ottawa City Council Minutes, March 18, 1968 page 928. Held by City of Ottawa Archives

--> "Lower Town East" in Lower Town East Neighbourhood Study, inside cover. Published by the City of Ottawa in 1966. Held by City of Ottawa Archives.
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"Proposed Land Use, 1968" Ottawa City Council Minutes, March 18, 1968 page 927. Held by City of Ottawa Archives.

Lowertown East today from Google Maps.

Monday, 22 April 2013

Resources for the Consulting Historian

I've been working as a consulting historian in one capacity or another for three years, and as a public history professional for the last five. In this time I've come across a number of podcasts and posts that I've found especially useful in answering the questions that any humanities and/or social science graduate would reasonably have when striking out into the business world.

After discussions at the 2013 National Council on Public History conference, held from April 17-20 here in Ottawa, I've decided to aggregate those resources into a list so that others with similar questions have a 'jumping off' point as they start explore the private sector for themselves. If you have other resources that may be of use, please leave a note in the comments!

Monday, 8 April 2013

Crosspost: The Politics of Place: Local history and the Megaproject




Note: This review was written for and originally posted at Active History on March 14, 2013. I encourage anyone interested in commenting to leave a note on the original paper.

Sensing Changes: Technologies, Environment, and the Everyday, 1953-2003
Joy Parr
University of British Columbia Press
Paperback, 304 pages, $32.95

Sensing_Changes_300Just as all politics can be viewed as local, so, too, can history. Joy Parr’s Sensing Changes: Technologies, Environments, and the Everyday, 1953–2003 (UBC Press, 2010) explores local reactions to a series of “megaprojects,” with a focus on how the residents and workers involved adapted to changing environments, technologies, and everyday experiences often outside of their control. Through seven diverse episodes—ranging from the creation of CFB Gagetown in New Brunswick, the building of the Saint Lawrence Seaway in eastern Ontario, the flooding of the Arrow Lakes in British Columbia, three aspects of Canada’s nuclear program, and the local and provincial response to the e.coli outbreak in Walkerton, Ontario in 2001—Parr seeks to reclaim the vital importance of local, embodied experience in historical research and writing, and, by extension, in political and policy decision-making processes.


Sunday, 24 March 2013

What is the role of public historians in the "history wars?"

The Canadian history community is currently in the midst of a 'history war,' pitting various research interests and narratives against one another. As with most other 'history wars' throughout the English-speaking world ( see Enola Gay or The Valour and the Horror, for example), one aspect of the current situation involves competing narratives embodied in the federal government's promotion of a certain memory of the War of 1812, the rebranding of the Canadian Museum of Civilization, and a re-emphasis on the role of the monarchy in Canadian society.

While this side--the battle between different interpretations of our shared past--is familiar to many working public and academic historians, there is another trend also at work in the wider Canadian community: a perceived epistemological shift away from governance based on facts and reasoned argument to governance based on belief. John Ibbitson of the Globe and Mail discusses this towards the end of his lecture regarding the collapse of the 'Laurentian Consensus' (do a find for "belief" and go to the third hit for this section).

This can be seen in a number of areas: the removal of the CAIRS database that tracked all Access to Information requests received by the federal government from the internet; the cancellation of the long form census; the challenge faced by arms length watch dogs and regulators such as the Parliamentary Budget Officer or the former head of Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, among others; the closure of the Experimental Lakes Area; the silencing of federal scientists; and, most recently and most worrisomely for public historians, the new Code of Conduct at Library and Archives Canada which limits the ability of employees of LAC to volunteer or speak on topics related to LAC (broadly defined) on their own time.

These two fronts, the interpretation of Canadian history and the shift to governance based on belief, are at the same time separate and innately related. For example, the arguably most important threshold concept of all history professions is that the narrative of past events is up for debate, that different sources tell different stories about the same event and that everyone experiences life differently. The debates regarding the use of nuclear bombs or the aerial bombardment of cities during the Second World War are perfect examples of the kind of tension produced by the existence of conflicting narratives of the past. 

By taking the role as mediators between past events and present publics, public history professionals have to navigate a minefield full of hard political and ethical questions in order to present an accurate picture of what happened within the confines of their institution's mandate and position, which may be defined based on a pre-existing belief in what happened that is not based on a critical reading of all the sources.

What, then, is the public historian's role in the history wars? In particular, what is the role of public historians as employees, contractors, and consultants at government funded institutions and also as private citizens who are deeply interested in the past? Where is the line between professional institutional behaviour and free speech? What are the risks involved in presenting critical histories to the broader public or speaking out on topics about which one is passionate? Do government funding priorities and codes of conducts create 'chilling effects' that limit critical interpretations or even professional outreach and personal volunteerism?

I am not going to propose any answers to these questions, but I do invite comments. Also, during the Nation Council on Public History's upcoming conference in Ottawa, I'll be facilitating a "Dine Around" session on precisely these questions. I'm also working on a list of links related to Canada's current history war that should be interesting for those who care about public history.

Canadian History Wars: Some Links

Please note that this is a work in progress. While it is impossible to present a comprehensive listing, I do hope that it will (eventually) be representative. Also, to try and avoid any undue bias (beyond that embodied in my browsing habits), I've put the links in chronological order as opposed to try to tease out individual themes.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Quick Thoughts on History Slam #14

I listened to the most recent Active History Slam podcast on my way to work this morning. This month's episode contained an interview with Dr Timothy Stanley of the University of Ottawa. In particular, Sean Graham and Dr Stanley discussed ideas of race and racialization in Canadian history in the context of the Chinese school strike in Victoria, British Columbia in the 1920s.

Racialization is defined by Dr Stanley as: "the social process of inventing race, of marking race...it is fundamentally a process of cultural representation." (c. 8:45) As an example of this, he points out the ways that a racialized category of "black" was defined differently in the United Kingdom (i.e. in the early 19th century, the Irish were considered 'black' and until the 1970s someone from Hong Kong was considered 'black') in comparison to the ways the same term is used in a North American context. (c. 8:20)

This definition of race resonated particularly with me in light of some research I've been doing recently on the "Menno-Cannuck Conflict" that took place in southwestern Manitoba in the late 1870s around the ownership of certain lots near and within the boundaries of the Mennonite Reserve created to promote the immigration of Mennonites from the Russian Empire.

While today we wouldn't use racialized language to categorize the groups, the Dominion Land Agents and other Department of the Interior officials sent to mediate the conflict characterized the two groups in very interesting ways. On the one hand were a number of English speaking settlers from Ontario who were variously categorized as "English-speaking," "Canadian," and "White" settlers. On the other hand were the "German-speaking," "Russian," and "Mennonite" settlers.

(See Library and Archives Canada RG15 Volume 232 File 3129)

 As Dr Stanley argued in his interview, creating categories of the 'other' requires the creation "equally racialized category called 'Canadian.'" (c. 16:05) In this case, the creation of racialized categories of different types of settlers played out on the land in a compromise, the so-called "Menno-Canuck line" that was drawn in red onto the Department of the Interior's maps and translated into lived experience through the relocation of "Canadian" settlers to one side of the line and the concentration of "Mennonite" settlers to the other.

Far from only distinguishing between the Canadians and the Mennonites through their religion or territories of origin, discussions of different ideas of settlement and "improvement" shed light on the ways that the government agents came to know the parties. For example the line drawn on the map acted to separate the more individualistic Canadian homesteads from the more communal Mennonite villages.

(Absent from the records is any discussion of First Nations peoples in this territory, though they briefly note that there wasn't a M├ętis present prior to the creation of the Mennonite Reserve. Instead, the Department's maps portray the territory as a series of quarter sections either already claimed by one group or the other, or else open for "improvement" by Canadians or Mennonites, depending on which side of the line one looks at.)