I almost forgot we won

The other day a friend asked me (delicately), “What’s it like having a government that hates you?”

I laughed, partly because he assumed I agreed with the premise of his question, and partly because I do.

It’s crushing. It’s been hard since Alberta’s provincial election this year, I won’t lie. Your friends and family and neighbours and fellow shoppers elect a new government, and one of its first priorities is outing queer kids to homophobic parents. Next on the list is setting up a snitch line for reporting un-Albertan activities. And of course, cutting the only actual mechanism everyday Albertans have ever had to see a fraction of the true cost of burning carbon.

What does a queer journalist who loves the planet do?

You think about moving. You think about where you could even move in 2019 that’s more sane than this place. You think about all the people you know who want to give up. And you think of the people you depend on you, and your light.

You watch the new Dark Crystal series, and try to remember why people fight in the darkest night. You remember how much people need stories that show them how to hope.

It’s reminded me why we’ve been making a season of Let’s Find Out all about the ways humans and nature have shaped each other in our city. Trying to show that our relationships with the land are complicated, that we don’t have to be antagonists. We are creatures who have built massive hydro dams to dilute our pollution downstream, who have turned grizzly bear country into canola and wheat and buried the memories. But we are also experimenters bringing apricots to our city streets all the way from Harbin, and we are creatures who feel kinship with a new country because we find the same high bush cranberries we had back home.

Last weekend my friends and I went tree planting in Fulton Ravine. I got there a bit late and I wasn’t super speedy with my shovel, so I think I only planted four of our little white spruce saplings. But it felt good, and right. It felt like refusing to let the void win.

Today I got on my bike to head home, and I remembered that my husband had texted to encourage me to breathe in some of this nice fall air while it’s here. So I took the long way home. I went a few blocks out of my way and started down the 83 Ave bike lane. And when I stopped at a red light, I looked back and saw a friendly neighbour behind me, Conrad Nobert.

We talked about our travels, and about Greta Thunberg. And then Conrad said hey, we’re biking down the bike lane you wrote about. You helped make this happen.

And I’d almost forgotten. Back in 2012, when Isaak Kornelsen was biking down Whyte Ave, and was killed by a truck driver. It hit so many of us around here hard. I never even met him. But he was young and mattered and it was so unnecessary. The cruelest part of it all was overhearing a bus driver talking about it right afterward with a passenger. He said, “Why didn’t he just ride down 83rd Ave? I feel bad for the driver.”

I was furious when I heard that. I went home and wrote a blog post about all the reasons Whyte Ave was the best of some terrible choices. Every other street north and south for six or seven blocks was full of one-ways, or dead-ends, or even more dangerous traffic. The part I almost forgot was that we won.

Conrad and others pushed hard to make our roads safer. After that, we started to get real protected bike lanes in this city. Conrad said it felt great being able to take his teenage kids down this one, and see little kids using it all the time too.

What does it feel like to live in Alberta these days? It feels dark a lot, it’s true. But sometimes it also feels like maybe, just maybe, we’re lighting it up again too.

Is Edmonton a prairie city?

One of my favourite parts of making Let’s Find Out is taking on questions that have never even occurred to me. The latest episode is a great example of that.

Dustin Bajer (a friend of mine from back in the Shareable Neighbourhood days who I love chatting with about nature) was the curious Edmontonian for this episode. He asked how Edmonton came to be known as a prairie city.

Dustin holds up a leaf, with many trees behind him
Dustin at the Coates Conservation Area, not far outside Edmonton city limits. We headed there to get a picture of what an undisturbed or old growth area here might look like.
A guide entitled "Western Canada" produced by Canadian Pacific Railways
We went to the Bruce Peel Special Collections at the University of Alberta to examine old pamphlets and magazines produced by railways and the Canadian government, enticing settlers out West.

When I first read his question, it made my brain spin. In school we were taught that this region is part of the Aspen parkland biome – a mix of grasslands and deciduous forests. But you do see Edmonton businesses and artists taking on the “prairie” label all the time. So how far back does that reputation go?

Figuring out the answer was incredibly complicated. We found seemingly contradictory answers from old newspaper editorials, advertising materials aimed at prospective settlers, a local land conservation organization, and traditional Indigenous knowledge keepers. To parse it all, we ended up paying close attention to how far out we were zooming with our historical lens. What matters most? The last 50 years? 200? 10 000?

I’m proud of the nuance and struggle in this episode. It feels authentic to the process of answering any good historical question. There tend to be a lot of caveats and assumptions we need to examine.

Also any episode where I get to go hiking and learn some new words is a treat.

Thanks for letting me be your historian laureate, Edmonton

Today is my last real day as Edmonton’s 4th Historian Laureate. It’s been an honour, and it’s been a blast. So many amazing Edmontonians have made my work possible. I just want to shine a little light on some of them.

I am eternally grateful to City Council, the Edmonton Historical Board, and the Edmonton Heritage Council for believing in me. Support from the EHB and the EHC allowed me to dedicate the necessary time crafting each episode, and also allowed me to work with Doug Hoyer on the music, Andrea Hirji on the logo, and Samantha Power and Oumar Salifou on production. It’s been such a fun podcast to develop, and I can’t wait to get to work on the many cases ahead.

We’ve had so many brave question-askers on Let’s Find Out. I would never have learned the story of Frank Beevers and his missing gravestone if Sheila Thomas hadn’t asked about it. I wouldn’t have met Elder Jimmy O’Chiese and learned about offering protocol if Nathan Smith hadn’t been curious about relationships with plants in this area.

And of course, each story only sings if someone is willing to share what they know. Folks like Kisha Supernant, Siu To, and Carmen-Lida Ordoñez have been so generous with sharing their stories and their work.

Behind the scenes, a whole raft of archivists helped me brainstorm directions for research. I am especially grateful to Kathryn Ivany, Melissa McCarthy, Elizabeth Walker, and Tim O’Grady for that.

I also appreciate other media folks helping spread the word about Let’s Find Out stories, like Dave Cournoyer at Daveberta, Karen Unland with Seen and Heard in Edmonton, Alex Boyd at Metro, Kyle Muzyka and Ariel Fournier at CBC, and Shallima Maharaj at Global.

The podcast was my main project as historian laureate, but I was able to take on some very cool other projects as well. Fabiola Carletti roped me into a fascinating series of history stories for CBC. CJSR and the team there made it possible for me to help lead a climate change radio camp, and supervise a group of University of Alberta students making radio stories about Edmonton’s Chinatown for a project called Figure 一,二,三,六,八. And that project owes a lot to the hard work of Shawn Tse, Jinzhe Cui, and Lan Chan-Marples.

All three previous historians laureate were very helpful with advice when I needed it, so thanks to Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail, Shirley Lowe, and Ken Tingley for that.

Behind almost every episode of Let’s Find Out is a connection or two from Kyla Tichkowsky, and a lot of painting and shopping and soundproofing and listening from my very patient husband Finn.

And I owe a big thank you to Ian Moore and Kathryn Lennon, who encouraged me to apply in the first place.

This list is of course not even close to complete, but I hope it helps me make the point that nobody does this work alone.

I wish all the best to the next historian laureate. I can’t wait to see what they come up with in animating Edmonton’s stories.

We Go Farther Together

I have neglected to write about the projects I’ve been doing since I was appointed Historian Laureate for the City of Edmonton (including my new history podcast, Let’s Find Out), mostly because I’ve been too busy actually working on them! There’s one I’d like to share with you here though.

For the past couple months, I’ve been writing articles for CBC’s Canada 2017 project. They’re connected to a Murdoch Mysteries web series called Beyond Time, where viewers have to guess the identity of famous Canadians that a Time Bandit has stolen from time. After the Murdoch Mysteries team reveal the correct answer, they link to articles about what history would have been like without that person. So I’m the one writing those articles.

One of the stories I wrote in February was about Viola Desmond.

Viola Desmond smiles at the camera

It was a fascinating article to write and research. By now most of us have heard about her courageous stand against racial segregation at New Glasgow’s Roseland Theatre in 1946. Viola Desmond was a smart, brave, and dignified woman. The risks she took, the lengths she went, to make a successful life in 1940s Nova Scotia are impressive even today.

Before I read Graham Reynolds’ book Viola Desmond’s Canada, I had no idea she actually started out as a teacher before that. And that she was only allowed to teach in segregated black schools.

When she went into the beauty business, Viola personally drove up and down the province to sell her beauty products in a time when it was almost unheard of for a black woman to drive alone. She was inspired by Sarah Breedlove (aka Madam C.J. Walker), the first self-made millionaire in the United States, and Viola pursued an education in New York, as well as in Montreal and Atlantic City.

She was breaking barriers long before she accidentally crossed that colour line in a theatre in an unfamiliar town.

We all owe a debt to Viola Desmond for her bravery fighting her unjust treatment at the theatre (and in court the next day, where they fined her) all the way to Nova Scotia’s Supreme Court. What also struck me researching this piece though, was how she herself had many other people’s hard work behind her.

There was Carrie Best, the publisher of the African-Canadian focused newspaper The Clarion, which covered Viola’s story, and spelled out the injustice for the public. There was Pearleen Oliver, co-founder of the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Colored People, whose association paid the lawyer who appealed her fine at the province’s Supreme Court.

And thanks to Bashir Mohamed, I know about Charles Daniels, who fought a very similar case of discrimination at the Sherman Grand Theatre back in 1914, the year Viola Desmond was born. Donald B. Smith’s book Calgary’s Grand Story has a great retelling of the whole case. The short version? Charles was refused entry after buying a ticket to King Lear, on account of his being black. He sued them for discrimination, and the kicker is he actually won. He won $1000. In 1914.

I saw Hidden Figures recently, and it made me pump my fist in the air and cry and cry and cry, thinking of all the brave people who’ve fought against the barriers our society has put up against their full participation in our society. There were those woman at NASA who fought for a place in the room making groundbreaking calculations that got astronauts into space and back. There was Viola Desmond. There are kids in high schools right now fighting for the very basic right to go to the bathroom and change before gym class somewhere they feel safe and comfortable.

We go farther when we all have a chance to contribute.

We all stand on the shoulders of these giants.

One last thought I couldn’t squish into this short CBC article: It’s great that Viola Desmond is going to be on our money, but she should really be on the $20 bill. That’s how much she was fined for allegedly cheating the province out of a penny’s tax, because the theatre wouldn’t take the extra money she tried to pay to sit in the ground floor seats. The court also forced her to pay $6 in expenses to the theatre manager, but we don’t have a $26 bill yet.

Many Thanks

There are so many things I have not had the time to mention here (hello Historian Laureate adventures!), but I am too blissed out not to share this news:

My latest show at CJSR – All That Matters – just won a national award and a listener-voted award back in Edmonton!

Corine Demas, Marie Fontaine and I accepting CJSR's Best News Show award for 2016.
Corine Demas, Marie Fontaine and I from the All That Matters team accepting CJSR’s Best News Show award for 2016.

It’s been a really fun and creatively challenging show to make since it launched in January 2015. It’s an Alberta-focused arts and culture show. The idea is that with each episode, we try to take small bites out of a big question. We’ve put together stories about big ideas like whether anything we make is permanent, what “good behaviour” means, what the Art Gallery of Alberta could do to turn its attendance around, and what makes a diva (one of my favourite episodes).

ncra award
Our NCRA award for Special Programming.

In June, we won a Special Programming award from the National Campus and Community Radio Association (NCRA) for a 2-part documentary we made called Boot Camp Poets. It was really exciting to get to be in Ottawa to receive it in person. And a big surprise!

In Boot Camp Poets, we told the stories of 8 men who were part of a group sharing their poetry and rap with each other while serving as inmates at the Edmonton Remand Centre. We used the two parts of the documentary to share their songs, stories, and poems, and offer context for the issues they faced. We interviewed someone from the John Howard Society who helps men transition back into regular life after jail, and we spoke to The Inside Circle author Patti Laboucane-Benson about why Indigenous people are so over-represented in Canada’s prison system.

This was one of the most challenging radio projects I’ve worked on so far. It was definitely nerve-wracking getting up the courage to go into the Remand Centre for the first time with my two collaborators on the doc, Sara Khembo Alfazema and Joe Hartfeil. It took a lot of guts for those men to share their stories with us too.

Here are the two parts, in case you want to have a listen:

And we were very touched to win the CJSR award for Best News Show this year at the annual CJSR volunteer awards. This is a listener-voted award, so it means a huge amount to know people out there have been loving the show as much as we’ve loved making it.

Community radio is such an important platform to share under-represented stories, and nurture talent. Hanging out with radio folks from across Canada (like these lovely dweebs below from CJSR, CJSW in Calgary and CKXU in Lethbridge) reminded me how innovative and talented this sector is. These awards are a nice bonus for the privilege of being in that world.

alberta radio peeps

Real experts for real life

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Not long ago, I wandered into a deep debate with myself after listening to Gimlet’s excellent podcast Startup. As usual, they were offering a peek into how they make their own sausage as a podcasting company. They’d been approached about the idea of doing branded podcasts for outside companies. I found myself as puzzled as them about how to tell a story responsibly when you’re being contracted to do it, and how to do as much as you can to prevent it from interfering with your journalism.

The two big fish making a splash in this very new pond are The Message, a sci-fi serial sponsored by GE, and the whole series of work/lifestyle podcasts that Slack has funded called The Slack Variety Pack. Both projects are pretty fun to listen to from the little bit I’ve heard. And crucially, as revenue sources are declining for old media, companies are willing to pay to create engaging podcasts that have their name attached. It gets people thinking positively about them.

Well, last month I got to dip my own toe into that world.

The Coles Notes version is that the Alberta College of Social Workers (which accredits all the social workers in the province) puts on events every year to celebrate Social Work Week at the beginning of March. They’ve done in-person events and print ads in the past. This year, they wanted to try reaching a new audience, and tell more in-depth stories about what social workers do. So they asked me to create a short podcast series for them. We called it Real Experts for Real Life.

I was very fortunate to have the help of my radio/podcast friends/colleagues Trevor Chow-Fraser and Marcelle Kosman in creating it. The timeline was short but I think we put together three pretty engaging stories to listen to. One focused on an Indigenous social worker named Brianna Olson who sees love as an essential tool in serving inner city kids. One asked how playing around with Lego and puppets can help kids in counseling. And one looked at how a social worker originally from China uses her own experience to serve new immigrants.

This is Brianna’s story:

So how do you balance the need to make the client happy, and portray their “brand” well (in this case, the whole field of social work) with a general journalistic commitment to the truth, and the need to maintain trust with people who listen to your journalistic work?

Well, for one thing, I’ve put my name on the project, so I’m not hiding anything from people who follow me as a journalist. Hopefully disclosure helps with that trust bit. I imagine I’ll be veering away from social work-related reporting for the time being. It wasn’t really an area of focus for me anyway. If I’m doing a story that features somebody with a connection to the Alberta College of Social Workers specifically, I’ll need to mention that or hand the story over to someone else.

As far as balancing my desire to tell the truth but also stay on message, this was a really pleasant experience though. My main contact with the ACSW was helpful and responsive the whole way through, and followed my lead when I thought we needed to shift focus to reflect the tape we really gathered, and when I pitched a new story at the last minute. If I’d been approaching this as a reporter, I might have dug into different issues, but I think listeners will understand that this isn’t investigative reporting, it’s a series of portraits of the field.

The hardest part was trying to portray the lives of the social workers and their clients accurately, but also protect the clients’ confidentiality. But that’s something that comes up in my journalism work too.
Surprisingly, the biggest difference between this and the work I do for radio is that I got to be way more finicky with the editing! I usually don’t have the luxury of getting to do a third or fourth draft before getting something out for broadcast.

So in summary I’d say my first foray into “branded” podcast work was rewarding. I hope any future projects I pursue are this ethically straightforward, and about subject matter as meaningful as this was.

You can listen to the whole Real Experts for Real Life series here.

Onward

So it’ll be easier to type this online than it was to say it all teary-eyed on Friday night.

When I started Shareable Neighbourhood in 2012, it was literally just me and a clipboard and a dream to encourage the folks in my community to feel like they could make it a better place. It has been so, so humbling to watch it grow over the last three years. And now it feels like it’s culminated, and it’s bittersweet, but mostly I just feel proud of what we’ve done.
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There were always two objectives, running on parallel tracks. One got to ride above ground, and that was the mission to get people to share something they knew about Old Strathcona and Mill Creek through walks and workshops. The one that rode mostly silently underneath was to build up people’s confidence that they actually did know enough to have a voice in its direction, and build up the network and infrastructure so that they felt confident seizing opportunities to do something about all these issues they were passionate about, like urban agriculture and climate change.

That manifested first in walks about backyard gardens and foraging in Mill Creek and the history of streetcars in the area. And eventually it felt like we had the volunteer strength, experience, and passion to pursue a project together. That led us to create the Old Strathcona Greening Project, getting composters and rain barrels out and giving people the tools to make them work in their own home, and building a living wall together at Roots on Whyte. It was a really long process, but it was so gratifying to see the relationships people built, and to hear about the first time they got to water their gardens from a rain barrel, and to see kids and seniors getting dirt on their hands and building that wall of plants together.

So now that we’ve completed that project together, it feels like the right time to move on. We’ve decided that Shareable Neighbourhood is, at least officially, wrapped up. But there have been so many volunteers working together behind the scenes over the last few years, hand-drawing our plants of the river valley guide, trucking rain barrels all over the neighbourhood, and poring over tree guides together. Those connections feel like a solid legacy to leave behind. And I’m sure they will manifest in new projects together down the road.

The other thing I’m proud of is that by sticking to a grassroots model of basically being a group of friends who care about the neighbourhood, we proved that you don’t need permission to make something happen. You don’t need a degree or a politician or even a grant to get started. When you see a need, you can look to the people around you and do something about it.

I love Old Strathcona. I love the artists and writers who make this place so rich to be in. I love walking through Mill Creek Ravine and looking for the overwintering birds and edible burdock plants we learned about. I love the spirit of the people who ask about each other’s gardens, swap zucchinis, and take care of each other. I am so proud to have been a part of an organization that has made it a little greener and a little more tightly woven together.

The Facebook group will stay up as a place to gather online.

I look forward to seeing everybody around the neighbourhood.

Shareables levels up

So it’s been a long time since I’ve written about Shareable Neighbourhood, and it’s grown a lot over the last year. As you might know, it’s the little volunteer-run community group I started back in 2012 to get people sharing knowledge about local history, nature, and culture in Edmonton’s Old Strathcona/Mill Creek area. When it started, we were leading backyard garden tours, foraging walks through Mill Creek Ravine, hosting local filmmaker showcases, that kind of thing. But the plan has always been to “level up” everyone participating, by taking on projects together.

I’d say we’ve definitely achieved that this summer.

Some of the hard-working Shareable Neighbourhood volunteers
Some of the hard-working Shareable Neighbourhood volunteers working on our summer greening project

With the support of the City of Edmonton and the Rotary Club of Edmonton Whyte Avenue, we came up with a Greening Project to get rain barrels and composters out to more people in the neighbourhood, for very cheap ($20). We created workshops on composting and rain barrel basics for the participants since most of them were newbies, and got tools they could borrow to install everything themselves. In exchange, they’ll be sharing what they learned on one of our public tours, and putting up signs announcing that they’ve become a Mulch Master or a Water Warrior.

It’s been tremendous fun so far. Putting together a grant proposal, making distribution maps, finding suppliers, and getting reimbursement cheques hasn’t exactly been riveting. But seeing the look on people’s faces when they finally get their big honking new composter is so satisfying. Today Finn and I led the first rain barrel workshop, and it felt so good to live the Shareable Neighbourhood spirit of being a proud non-expert, and still sharing what we know and helping other people feel more confident installing one themselves.

Next month, we’ll be doing the public tours, and then at the end of the summer we’ll host the last part of our project: building a living wall together in the Roots on Whyte community building together with Axis Mundi. We’d love for you to take part. It’s such an honour to be in the company of a group of volunteers and community members who care so passionately about this place, and want to make it better.