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.

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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.

Our Shareable Neighbourhood

We were looking for a horseshoe.
Some of the folks out at last weekend’s Backyard Gardens walk.

I’ve had some time on my hands this summer to brew a couple new projects, and I think one of them is ready to open up a bit to the world. It’s called Shareable Neighbourhood.

Well, it wasn’t always called Shareable Neighbourhood. Technically this is the first time that’s ever happened. Initially I just called it Neighbourhood Walk, and between the two names you kind of get the idea: monthly tours of our neighbourhood in Old Strathcona/Mill Creek, to let people share what they know about local history and nature.

It was an idea born out of Next Up, the leadership program I finished this year. I’d been trying to dream up ways to get people jazzed about the nitty-gritty of where we live. Partly because I’m intensely curious about how and why things got to be the way they are, and partly because I think when you know more about what’s in your soil and who’s lived on it, you’re more likely to stand up for it. And partly I hoped that if we were all learning and sharing this stuff together more often, we’d feel like we had a more natural community of people to turn to when we need help getting a group solar panel discount, or bringing people out to a city council meeting — you get the idea.

The twist is that while we’ve had three so far and it’s ready to be murmured about online, it’s also young and needs fresh minds. I’m really trying to encourage folks in the neighbourhood to feel confident leading their own walks, even if they don’t have a degree or letters behind their name to qualify them in the idea. That’s why last weekend’s theme was Backyard Gardens: six of us who aren’t professional horticulturalists got to show off what we know about making tomatoes and delphiniums look good. So I want to decentralize the planning behind this as soon as possible, and we also need theme ideas.

So if you’re reading this, and you live in and/or know a lot about Edmonton’s Old Strathcona and Mill Creekish areas, drop me a line. If you have a tour you’d like to lead, great! We’ve done Plants of the River Valley and History of Immigration to Edmonton so far, and I think this month we’re going to investigate the local railways. And if you’d like to get involved in organizing, I’d love to hear from you too. Shareable Neighbourhood also has a Facebook group if you want to join. It might need to become a likeable page at some point.

By the way, this project owes a lot to the Jane’s Walks. They’re these annual walks all around the world that work exactly this way. Locals lead walks around topics like how an industrial heart became an urban park. I didn’t even realize how inspired I was by Tim McCaskell’s tour of Toronto’s gay village until someone pointed it out to me.

Also the name change was inspired by the great podcast 99% Invisible, which has much the same mission to explore the unseen story behind everyday parts of our lives. They tell beauteous stories about everything from how a picture gets on a stamp, to why US currency is so ugly, to how a Walt Whitman poem became wrought in an iron fence in Brooklyn. Just listening to the host, Roman Mars, this week made me more pumped about getting people to show off these unseen stories right beneath the surface of where we live. I highly recommend you check it out.