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.