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.

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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.

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.

Radio Geeks Wanted

A group of radio hoodlums hug around a sign with the fundraising total from their FunDrive show. No windows are present, because CJSR is forever cursed to live in the basement.
The Terra Informa team from our CJSR FunDrive show in 2013.

I’m about to take a big move. After two years working at the Alberta Council for Global Cooperation, I’ve decided to take a leap into a job in radio. This month I will become the News Coordinator at CJSR 88.5 FM, the Edmonton community radio station where I’ve been working on Terra Informa.

I love my team at Terra Informa. It embodies many of the best things I like about storytelling and volunteering. Our team is willing to take risks, like traipsing around in the snow and rattling the fence outside a planetarium after dark to narrate a whole episode about night. Everybody genuinely cares about each other, and recording together always feels like friends sitting down to have a good conversation. Now I’m going to be managing the current and new rosters of volunteer contributors for all of CJSR’s Spoken Word shows, from our queer community anchor GayWire to University of Alberta partnerships like The Gateway Presents.

I’m really excited to have the opportunity to work with CJSR’s impressive base of volunteers and community supporters and build on our legacy of independent, award-winning spoken word programming that challenges the status quo. My predecessor Matt Hirji has a gigantic mural of Ira Glass on his wall, good-naturedly watching out, eyes clearly curious and hungry as all get out. Ira will be hovering over me too on my new journey. Wish me luck.

Red Mountain Fragments strewn across Whyte Ave

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Finn Sound’s paintings are riddles in geometry, abstract symbol, and colour. They’re like individual cells of an unseen body, each one containing the DNA of the larger coded and playful landscape.

Finn Sound is my boyfriend. And this weekend, that landscape is on display at Art Walk on Edmonton’s Whyte Ave.

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When I first met him, he told me he was working on about 20 different canvases, piece by piece, all at the same time. It makes sense when you see the twisted arms, peaks, and scraps of memories that keep making appearances.

I love his stuff because it’s usually both tense and whimsical. Mad god-like creatures, ceolocanths, squid, his family, churches… they all intrude, and he doesn’t seem to be able to predict when they do.

I’m helping him show off his work this Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from 10-5. We’re on the south side of Whyte Ave, between 105 and 106 Street. Come by and see the body of work he’s calling “Red Mountain Fragments.” It’s a world worth swimming in.

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Win the Argument

We’re at an interesting moment of history in North America. Many people are convinced that the women’s rights and queer movements have done their job, and can basically pack up and go home now. We keep forgetting that there are huge battles still to be won: sexual violence is extremely pervasive (even moreso in Edmonton than other cities), and trans folks still have no legal protection from being fired for how they express their gender. A fascinating article in the Atlantic this month argues that as our ability to communicate with each other through digital media has increased, unpopular and poorly informed opinions about these issues have become more visible. Our reaction to this, says author Jon Lovett, has mostly been to tell people with those unpopular opinions to shut up. Think rape is mostly an issue invented by women who regret sex the morning after? Shut up. Think protecting trans people from discrimination means that men will sneak into women’s washrooms for fun? Shut up. These are both ridiculous ideas, of course. But I agree with Jon Lovett that there is more to be gained in the long-run from winning the argument, rather than saying the argument is too offensive to be had. yegsecret hard talk To that end, twice this month I’ve dived into the discussion on how to solve gender-based discrimination and violence. Last night, I moderated a panel for the Sexual Exploitation Working Group at Edmonton’s Santa Maria Goretti Centre. #YEGsecret Exposed- A Hard Talk Panel on Rape Culture was a chance to negotiate strategies on ending a culture where rape is normalized. Our speakers had amazing things to share from the perspective of the police, sexual violence education, surviving a sexual assault, working in broadcast media, and more. You can view the panel on YouTube here (start around 5:43):

As well, I had a chance to zip to Montreal last month for ACGC to go to a conference that our sister council was hosting on the accomplishments of its committee working on gender and international development issues. Afterwards, I reflected on some fascinating strategies I learned about how to start a conversation about gender. You can read my post on the Canadian Council for International Cooperation’s blog here.

A Family and a Wild Sage-grouse

On the advice of my mentor, I am sharing more small updates about what I’m working on. In the past couple of weeks, my thoughts and stories have been with a remarkably caring family on the streets, and with a bird desperately in need of friends in Alberta.

My story for the CJSR Homelessness Marathon was quite a challenge to put together. I can’t remember ever before spending a whole afternoon recording hours of tape, then whittling it down to a 20-minute mini-doc for radio. In this case, we had many months of time to prepare for the national marathon of community radio programming about homelessness in Canada. I used some of that time to get to know the people on the Boyle Street Community Services winter outreach van, which roams all over the city offering people a chance to warm up, get some hot food and supplies, and share the company of people who care about them. I discovered that it isn’t just people on the streets who benefit from this van’s work, though. Together with the staff, they make a caring family that feels it deeply when one of their own is lost:

This week on Terra Informa, my friend Danielle Dolgoy and I chased down a story about one of Alberta’s most threatened species. University of Alberta researcher Mark Boyce estimates that over the past few decades, the number of greater sage-grouse in the province has dipped from the thousands to a few dozen. There are so many reasons this is happening – oil and gas development, farming pressures, hawk predation… millions of reasons why the federal government sat on the sidelines for so long before issuing a special protection order under the Species At Risk Act to dramatically protect the bird. We were curious to know what finally motivated some of the parties involved to see what’s in it for them to protect the greater sage-grouse:

I’m headed to Iceland soon, and will be back near the end of March with some good stories about the archetypal land of Ice and Fire.