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.

Enough Already

One of my favourite pictures from the whole Shareables enterprise, from last summer's walk on Plants in the River Valley.
One of my favourite pictures from the whole Shareables enterprise, from last summer’s walk on Plants in the River Valley.

Last summer, when I went door to door looking for people who wanted to show off their backyard garden for Shareable Neighbourhood, and everything they knew about growing plants, one person whose door I knocked left a thought with me in return. She was asking about the motivations and mission behind Shareable Neighbourhood, and with her I played up how much I wanted to give neighbours an opportunity to get to know each other better, and feel a little more tightly woven — like they had people around them they could rely on.

She seemed dismissive of the idea. Old Strathcona and Mill Creek already have lots of community groups, she said. Don’t you think there are enough already?

Since then, I’ve kept worrying that maybe she’s right. Especially on days like the Urban Birds walk or the Death in the River Valley walk, when only a handful of us showed up. But thinking about how Punctuate! player Adam Cope recently took his own life, and a classmate named Alex before that, and Ross Moroz before that, have convinced me that she’s wrong.

I feel like Holden Caulfield at the end of Catcher in the Rye. How he sees himself in that field, watching all those kids falling, and can’t help but feel like he’s got to catch them all. I knew Adam. I knew Ross. I didn’t know how to save them — didn’t even know they needed saving — but I feel like I understand their despair. Like life is too painful, too unbearable, and it’s relentless. It never stops. And it can feel like you don’t have any options, any ways to make it better, or make the pain go away. I’ve felt that pain before, and it’s only because I felt how strong the web of care was around me that I clambered out.

How could anyone look at despair like that and think, “You know what? We’ve got enough circles of care in our community.”

A terrestrial and aquatic food web
I’m really curious about the relationship between the raccoon and the snake. Like, really? (Photo: LadyofHats)

In ecology, we recognize that systems are more resilient when they’re more complex, with greater interconnections. Simplified ecosystems, with only one genetic variety of a plant or too few pollinators, are more vulnerable. If anything happens to one component, the whole thing could collapse.

In human communities, the same thing is true. Organizations are susceptible to collapse if too few people are doing all the work. If one gets sick, it can throw the whole organization into crisis, or more often, people will make themselves sick by taking on more than they can really handle.

Shareable Neighbourhood is partly an attempt to make our neighbourhood more resilient by showing people that they have something to offer, and others appreciate and recognize it. Recognizing that worth in one another can light up both individuals, and nurture their care and compassion for one another. Maybe, one day, when one needs help, they’ll think of the other and be less shy to ask.

With this latest walk happening tonight, we really wanted to get some of the kids at the Old Strathcona Youth Society involved, because the theme is public art, and they are a perfect model of people who have expertise that’s not accessed or recognized enough. They make street art! And when they think about the controversies around it, they have a perspective that middle class people down the street don’t. I told Jaya, one of the staff there, that I was really excited that they were participating. Here’s what she wrote back:

Doing small things with great love and compassion to create compassionate communities goes a long way!

I sure hope so.

Test your webs

Last weekend was kind of like Christmas and my birthday all rolled into one, but with more pink glitter. Some friends I hadn’t seen for years came to town just in time for the Pride parade, and taught me about a fascinating idea: the need to test the invisible webs around you. This week, I needed to test one of mine, and it was harrowing but marvelous. Before I get to my little web though, let me explain what happened.

Dear friends Kathleen and Daltry smiling at the tiny concert

As the Edmonton Journal noted, there was plenty to celebrate at Pride this year, and I was happy to march with friends in Camp fYrefly, a leadership retreat for queer and allied youth. The creamy pink frosting on top of this cupcake, though, was finding out that my friends Kathleen and Daltry were both in town. We went to a tiny, intimate concert together at CKUA, and sat cross-legged on the floor together surrounded my sweet music.

Of course, what brought them back to Edmonton was not so sweet. A friend took his own life recently, and they’d come for his service.

Daltry’s mom was there too, and we were exchanging stories and proverbs by the punchbowl when the conversation turned to this friend, and what had led to his suicide. If only, she said, he could have seen the massive web of love that coalesced around him for that funeral, seen it while he was still alive. If only, she said, we had more chances to test those webs and see what they look like.

It was funny because someone else at the concert had just told me about another kind of important test. She was about to travel to Montreal, and I asked her if she planned on joining the protests there. She sighed, and said probably, but she was pretty anxious about getting arrested. A fine would basically ruin her finances at school for the next year, but she said the Quebec government’s new laws to restrain the movement made it hard for her to shut up.

It frustrated her because it seemed to confirm a theory of Nietzsche’s: that in Western democracies, we never really exercise our liberty because we trust that it’ll be there when we need it. That in a moment of crisis, the state would give us space to claim it. To her, the laws banning masked protests, unannounced gatherings of 50+ people, and fines in the tens of thousands of dollars for students group illegally organizing, smacked of a promise that was shown as false the moment it was tested.

What occurred to me was that the Pride parade is just such an event: an opportunity to test the webs of liberty and love that we hope are there. Twenty years ago, marching down the street declaring this kind of love here meant getting chased down the street and called faggots, and risking beatings from homophobic crowds. In most places in the world, it still does. This year, that test was honoured in Edmonton by the appearance of our province’s premier, and hours of rainbow flags and heavy mascara and dance music downtown.

Which brings me to my own harrowing test this week. After the glitter settled, I realized I had mixed up a deadline and had less than 24 hours to make a gigantic job application, with three sealed references, physically manifest itself across the country to be hand-delivered. It happened.

I’d like to say it was incredible, but it was really just implausible. So many brains working so hard to get these documents together, and printed out in another city? I felt like I was facing sub-District 12 odds of making it. But friends and old bosses pulled through in a way I was honestly astonished by. It was humbling.

It’s not often we get a chance to test those invisible webs. I am truly blessed to say that when I needed mine, it was there. To every one of you out there who’s part of it, thank you.