041: Canada 150: Reflect and Reimagine
November 30, 2017
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As Canada marks its 150th year as a nation, we look back on our past with immense pride, but also with a critical eye. In this episode we teamed up with the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) to talk about the future of Canada and look at the ways in which examining our history can help to inform decisions about the future.
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Canada 150: Reflect and Reimagine
Geneviève Morin (GM): Welcome to “Discover Library and Archives Canada: Your History, Your Documentary Heritage.” I’m your host, Geneviève Morin. Join us as we showcase treasures from our vaults; guide you through our many services; and introduce you to the people who acquire, safeguard and make known Canada’s documentary heritage.
As Canada marks its 150th year as a nation, we look back on our past with immense pride, but also with a critical eye to mistakes made and injustices unreconciled. In this episode we teamed up with the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, also known as SSHRC, to talk about the future of Canada, and look at the ways in which examining our history can help to inform decisions about the future.
We speak with Dr. Chad Gaffield, renowned historian and former president of SSHRC, who was recently appointed to the Order of Canada for his pioneering work in the digital humanities. We also connected with a number of SSHRC-funded scholars and researchers from across the country to discuss their research. We asked them a seemingly simple question: “In your vision of the future, how will your research enrich the lives of Canadians and future generations?” To our surprise, many common themes emerged from this diverse group of scholars regarding positive ways forward.
Our visit with Dr. Gaffield started off with a sneak peak at some of the rare original documents and artifacts featured in LAC’s ongoing exhibition
Who Do We Think We Are?. This exhibition—on display in Ottawa until March 2018—explores past ideas of what Canada is and what being Canadian means, all through the lens of LAC’s vast collection. You can hear some of that conversation later in the episode. But first we wanted to get a sense of what SSHRC is.
Hi Dr. Gaffield. Thanks for joining us today.
Chad Gaffield (CG): My pleasure.
GM: Can you tell us about SSHRC’s mandate?
CG: SSHRC is the federal funding agency that supports the study of people. And today, as we all know, people are at the heart of successful businesses, communities, societies, but the fact of the matter is we have a lot to learn. So SSHRC provides funding for graduate students and then for research projects to really advance our knowledge and understanding of all aspects of the past.
GM: In a world that’s so preoccupied with the bottom line, how do we make a case for research in the humanities and social sciences?
CG: One of the most interesting things I think of recent thinking is the extent to which we’ve learned that the bottom line, in fact, has many components to it. What we’re increasingly learning is that the accounting has to take social, cultural, political, economic, demographic, all kinds of components together at the same time, simply because they’re interrelated.
And the social sciences and humanities, I think, are so important because they study people. And at the end of the day, all societies everywhere—it’s built about people. And technology is important to the extent to which it’s connected to people. Our health is as much related to specific kinds of chemicals as it is to our social interactions and so on. So I think one of the things we’re understanding now is that the different ways of knowing—whether it’s understanding how particles interact, understanding how people interact—all of this at the end of the day is part of a wholeness, part of a oneness. And I think it’s by combining, by bringing together insights from these different perspectives, different kinds of methodologies, then I think we can get a better sense of that complexity and also the extent to which we have so much learning to do.
GM: Here’s our first SSHRC-funded scholar, Elissa Gurman, who holds a PhD in English Literature from the University of Toronto.
Elissa Gurman (EG): My research is about 19th-century novels and, specifically, I look at representations of women falling in love in these novels. So often, as soon as I tell people that my PhD is in English Literature and that I study the 19th-century, I get this sort of blank face, this idea that there’s no way that my work could be relevant, but I think that’s really far from the truth. I really believe that the work I’m doing—and lots of researchers who look into places that your average Canadian might think are obscure are doing—[is] work that’s really important and really relevant to today.
So, specifically, when I’m looking at these love stories, I’m looking at questions of consent. I’m arguing that in the 19th century, this way of thinking about love—this modern way of thinking about love—was born. And that that love story has sort of been retold and retold in a variety of ways over the past hundreds of years and become almost this modern myth, this defining story that has a lot of power in determining the ways in which people imagine their lives to be, and specifically women-identifying people. This has become almost the central myth for the feminine figure in the modern world.
So in my dissertation, I’m looking [at] sort of a really important stage in the genesis of this myth, and I’m asking the question, “What does love look like for these female characters and how does that representation of love effect ideas of consent and choice?” And what I found is that this idealized vision of love and passion almost always comes with this strange, intense feeling that makes rational choice and consent impossible.
So how do I see this kind of work affecting people in the future? Well, two ways. I think one of the biggest takeaways from my project is a big takeaway from literary studies in general. It’s the idea that stories matter. The ways in which we talk about ourselves, the ways we talk about characters in stories, they have an effect on the way we think about the world and the way we act in the world. So one way I would hope that my research would effect people is that it would bring people into a more critical space when they’re watching a movie or a television show or reading a book, when they’re seeing a narrative on trial falling into a familiar pattern and asking questions about, well why do we find these stories compelling over and over again? What kind of stories are there? Can different stories emerge? Can I change this narrative? Can I be critical of this narrative? So one way that I hope my research will effect people is by making people ask questions and be critical of the stories that structure their lives.
I would love to have this vision of the future in terms of research where decisions and policies are made with the help of interdisciplinary research teams. So I’ve done all of this work on historical, legal consent, on representations of women in sexual moments and whether or not they consent. I would love to be on some kind of team, collaborating with educators, with policy-makers, with psychologists, with different people who study consent from across the spectrum and thinking of different ways in order to educate young people on how to give and ask for consent, thinking about different ways for us to consider how to define consent because I think our current definition is not exactly working for us.
So I think there’s lots of ways that I hope my research will effect people in the future. And I hope I get a chance to keep doing the research that I’m doing because I think these questions—even after my dissertation is now over—these questions continue to interest me and continue to feel dynamic and important.
GM: Ian Mauro is an internationally renowned filmmaker and associate professor in the Department of Geography at the University of Winnipeg.
Ian Mauro (IM): You know, when I think about my research, you know I have to be careful. I think that research is such an important tool to understanding current trends, past trends and future trends, all simultaneously, and hopefully that helps to kind of move us in a good direction, but I don’t want to be arrogant. I don’t want to say my research is going to change the future or lead us in a good direction because I don’t think we can know that.
I think that research spots a light on certain kinds of activities and certain opportunities, and the opportunity to kind of have a network of ideas working together I think is really, really important. And so the kind of interconnections amongst many academics and how that links with policy and how that enriches our ability to think and vision forward [in] a good way, and walk gently on the earth and interact respectfully with humans and create opportunities where our kids will have better lives. I think it is possible and research is only a part of that so I want to be careful not to say that my research is going to change the world.
But in terms of the kind of work that I do, I’m very interested in the human experience. I’m interested in what the lives of people tell us about where we’re at, and broadly speaking I work in the area of environmental change. I’ve looked at changes in agriculture, changes in technology and agriculture, changes in food security and food systems for people, and more recently and for a number of years now, climate change. And so talking to people about what’s going on on the landscape and what their lived experience is right now because it’s so important to talk to people, to understand what is going on in the context of a human life, and to listen to those voices because they have so much to impart, so much information, so much knowledge.
And so again back to that idea of arrogance, of experts and researchers—yeah, we have a lot of insight. But I think that insight grounded in the experience of people who are living different types of experiences is a powerful combination.
GM: Robin MacEwan has a master’s degree in social work from Carleton University and is currently working as a guardianship social worker. Inspired by her time working in the foster care system, Robin did her master’s thesis on the limitations of the social support network of children in foster care and the experience of teens who lose this support network when they age out of the system. Like Ian, she also feels it’s important to be able to link academic research with real-life issues.
Robin MacEwan (RM): You know, it’s very easy to be critical of a system when you operate outside of it. And even though in my job when I worked in BC, like in group homes and then as case managing trying to find kids, I didn’t work right in it like I do now. And I felt like when I came into it and after my research I had all these ideas for solutions, you know? I was very excited. And I feel like they’re there and there’s people—I have likeminded people who are very happy and willing to unpack these problems and find creative solutions.
But at the same time, I feel like I fight within my own system more than anything. So much of my advocacy is within the child protection system and is with other professionals. And I realize that it was naïve of me to think that I could just come in as a fresh set of eyes. People have been doing this for a long time and have tried a lot of creative things. But in terms of service delivery and the services there are for youth in care and kids in care, it’s such a slow process. So I have likeminded people with me onside, but what I’m realizing is it’s really fighting within the system that’s the hardest part, that I’m constantly advocating with executives upstairs and executives at the ministry and people in the community to try to get these kids connected and surrounded in a way that will give them the best chance at success.
So, yeah. I feel like I have a good footing. I’m pretty much best positioned in terms of what I wanted my research to do, but I have a lot more to learn about service delivery and about the politics around this. There’s very little political will to change the system for kids in care. And I guess that’s what I’m kind of focused on is how do I garner support and create that political will for these kids? How do you make people care about these kids, you know? I don’t know.
So I’m starting there and I’m trying. I’m well-positioned to do that but I’m realizing that it’s intensely more complex than I expected.
GM: Zoe Todd is an assistant professor of Anthropology at Carleton University. Much of her work focuses on the intersection of traditional indigenous knowledge and science. She also speaks to the value of collaboration and interdisciplinary research.
Zoe Todd (ZT): You know, I really do believe that indigenous epistemologies and ontologies and indigenous praxis have a lot of important things to say about Euro-western scientific paradigms, and that there are really rich conversations happening right now. And people like Kim TallBear and other indigenous scholars that work at this interface between science and indigenous knowledge—Leroy Little Bear—so many amazing people. I think that it’s really important for us to take the time to have those conversations. And my Auntie Loretta Todd has just launched a children’s science show for APTN where she explicitly is celebrating this relationship between indigenous knowledge and science. So yeah, I do think that it’s important for us to find ways to have conversations across disciplines, across the institutions where this different knowledge might be housed or archived.
And I get really excited about our current project, which is a SSHRC-funded project. We received a Knowledge Synthesis Grant. You know, we are looking at how scientists have or have not understood indigenous perceptions of extinction. And so that means that actually a lot of what we’re doing is going through and reading scientific papers about population decline, about different environmental sort of issues across Canada. So even though we are explicitly housed in social science disciplines, we have to have a literacy of science in order to do this project well. And so I think those kind of moments where we bring multiple knowledge systems and experiences together are really important. It’s important for us to have, I think, a variety of skill sets that we bring to the table.
So, I love science. I wasn’t a particularly good scientist, but I love reading science papers and I love being around scientists and sort of paying attention to how they look at the world. Because I think it’s really So, I love science. I wasn’t a particularly good scientist, but I love reading science papers and I love being around scientists and sort of paying attention to how they look at the world. Because I think it’s really important to sort of, to acknowledge that they’re bringing a particular world view and way of approaching the world to the table and it has value, just as social sciences and humanities and law and medicine—all those other disciplines—have value as well.
GM: Audrey-Kristel Barbeau is a professor in the Department of Music at the Université du Québec à Montréal. Her research explores how learning a musical instrument can have physical, psychological and social benefits for people over the age of 60. In her work she has seen the benefits of intergenerational learning.
Audrey-Kristel Barbeau (A-KB): For my part, I find it unfortunate that we do not take good care of our seniors. They are somewhat on the margins of society, ignored, put in old-age homes and left there, even though they have a lot of experience and many skills to offer. And even worse, they are not listened to; the older they get, it seems, the more they lose the important role they should still play in society.
So for me, what is important is not only to provide them with opportunities to feel that they have goals in life, that they can contribute to society, but also to break the unfortunate stereotype at times of seniors as being slightly senile, when that is really not true. And to break that stereotype, and break the—how can I put it?—to bridge the gap between different generations, my goal is really to try to have different generations work together.
So this is what I have started with my Montreal New Horizons Band project. The way the project works is that older people sign up to learn music in the band. But we also have undergraduate students in music education who are learning to teach; they bring their skills as future teachers to the band. And thanks to this project, two generations who can support each other are brought together: the young people, who are learning to teach, and the older people, who are being taught by them but can also give them feedback to improve their teaching skills.
So in my view, this is a good way to keep seniors engaged in society, and to show young people not only that they have something to offer seniors, but also that they can learn a lot from them.
In fact, I have a whole chapter in the book about the benefits of community involvement, also referred to as service learning. When we interviewed the students, they reported that they had found a real feeling of mutual respect and support from people who were really dedicated to professional development and who even sought to go beyond that. They were helping them to improve even more. Thus, there were very positive reactions on both sides, from both generations.
The seniors told us that the younger generation brought back a dynamism and energy that they might not have recaptured on their own. And the young people told us that this was a really good way to get into the teaching environment before facing real-world classroom situations, with the discipline, class management and everything else that those would entail. Therefore, the exchanges were really a win-win for both groups, and some students—thanks to references or this multigenerational experience—managed to find excellent teaching positions later on. All from this one sharing activity.
GM: Ian Mauro echoes this perspective on the vast knowledge available to us through our elders.
IM: One of the interesting things about archives in the work that I do is that I’m interested in the living archive. I’m interested in human beings as an intergenerational repository of information. And when I work with indigenous communities—which I often do all over Canada, in fact—when we talk to some of these elders in these communities and we build relationships with them, and trust and respect and reciprocity, and people understand that we’re there with good intentions, and people open up and they decide to share with us, it is amazing the depth of information. And people talk about traditional knowledge, they talk about it, you know, they placate it. They pacify it to a certain extent and say that it’s important. But many people don’t often get into the spaces where you really start to see how significant it is.
And I think my work has started to gain access in a credible and respectful way to what that actually means. And as a settler, as a white person, as a man, as somebody who’s in the dominant culture in many ways and privileged by it, I take that very seriously. I feel like there’s a huge responsibility for a person like myself when people open up to us. And it’s not me who’s creating that information, but we are conduits for it. When we have cameras out and people start to share with us, we become a vehicle by which information flows through. And through the generosity of some of these community members in these different places that we work, we start to realize that living archive, that living information inside some of these human beings, and how profound it truly is.
And the power of that idea of the living archive—I have a huge amount of respect for archives in their traditional sense, but we also have to challenge them in the sense that they often lock these things away. And yes, you can go back and understand the past by going into them, but we also forget that the past is in the present and is in the human form in these people today. And it’s the importance of recognizing that history is embodied in people’s lives. And it’s at a cellular level, it’s in a kind of psychological level, and it’s in that experiential level.
And so I really enjoy the opportunity to understand and talk to people and relate to them and learn from them. And the tricky part here is that there is such a profound responsibility when people give you access to their lives in that context because—in the Arctic for example, I’ve worked with Zacharias Kunuk who is the esteemed indigenous filmmaker who made
Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner. Zach and I made a film called
Inuit Knowledge and Climate Change, where he went out and interviewed his elders in the northern context in Nunavut across many different communities. And him and I worked on this project collaboratively. We worked in Inuktitut. I speak basic Inuktitut. I edited with him. We worked in Inuktitut in our kind of nine-to-five workday.
We developed a film that’s the world’s first Inuktitut-language climate change film. And it taps into this living archive of humans on the landscape. And if you think about Inuit in the modern context, many people say that Inuit were literally one of the last people to be colonized. They literally went from the land in igloos, in qammaqs, to the modern world in a human generation, and Zacharias Kunuk is an example of that. He was born in a sod hut in northern Canada just outside of Igloolik and now the guy works with digital technology. He talks about how he’s gone from the Stone Age to the Digital Age in a human lifetime.
And we interviewed people who have that experience and that is an unbelievable experience in the context of Canada—in the context of the world. And we’re talking with these elders who had never met a white person until they were 30 years old. And they’d lived on the land a traditional life. And they told us what they knew. And it was a substantially different worldview than anything I had ever heard.
And many of these elders who we interacted with, who we documented and they shared their stories with us, have since passed away. And so the living archive is now a real archive—it’s on film, it’s in cinema, it’s on hard drives. And the responsibility to do something with that, to honour it, to make sure it’s shared, to make sure it’s accessible to the families of these people, but also to make sure that it lives on in this kind of digital space.
And that’s where this all gets very, very weird. Where you’ve got these living archives but then they move into, you know, that more traditional archive. And how you kind of continue that cycle of ensuring that the knowledge of the past is put forward to the future generations because these young people in many of these communities, they want to hear from their elders. And their elders are there but their elders pass. And how do we create a cycle of knowledge that ensures that this knowledge that has been collected in real life is not lost and locked away, but actually mobilized in a way that young people gain access to it. And so working with a guy like Zach, you know he, in many ways, is a language warrior. He’s a cultural warrior. He is somebody who’s used digital technology to empower his community so that that cycle of knowledge is not locked away in the past or forgotten, but moved forward through the power of digital media to the generation of the present so that they can learn from the past to have a good future.
GM: Ian Werely is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at Carleton University. He explains how historical lessons can help us prepare for future challenges.
Ian Werely (IW): My name is Ian Werely. I am a history PhD student at Carleton University. Originally from Brockville, Ontario, but currently I live in Aylmer, Quebec. And my research focuses on the history of energy; specifically the history of energy transitions and the different processes that come about when new energy regimes arise and when they leave. So, a lot of my research focuses on things like cultural and social responses to energy transitions and energy shifts and the different ways that people on an everyday basis interpret and interact with oil, coal, solar, wind—different types of energy sources.
So currently, my PhD dissertation explores Britain as a case study in the early 20th century. And so I explore the ways that coal came to define British society at the end of the 19th century and the ways that oil, when it arrived at the same time, began to change British ways of thinking about the world, British identities and the ways in which Britons interacted with each other and with different countries around the world.
And so I’m really looking at how energy shifts come about, but also more the societal reactions to energy shifts. So how do people kind of wrap their minds around new energy sources and all the various changes that get brought about when a new energy source arrives? So oil, for example, brought about a whole host of new technologies—airplanes, cars, submarines, battleships. And a lot of people had to kind of think about what this meant in their world and what this meant for their kind of wider interactions with society and with other countries around the world.
And so, this is really important, not only to just understand the early history of oil, but it also provides a lot of lessons for future energy transitions, which is kind of a secondary aspect of my research. So my primary goal is to understand the past, but my secondary goal is to adapt the lessons that could be drawn from the past and apply them to either our current energy transitions or hopefully even our future energy transitions away from oil. So my premise is that by better understanding the transition towards oil, we can get a much better understanding of how we’re going to deal with an inevitable transition away from oil. So they’re two sides to the same coin.
So in my view of the future, we’re obviously going to be faced with a lot of contradictions. We’re a country with massive amounts of oil buried in places all over the country, but primarily in Alberta. But we’re also facing a world in which oil and hydrocarbons are becoming almost a thing of the past. There’s a clear direction away from oil. Oil will always be needed in society in different aspects, but overall I think the world is moving away from a world structured around oil. So for Canadians, like it was for British citizens, this is going to raise a whole bunch of challenges. Obviously, the economic and employment possibilities that oil brings about will be lost. But also the interactions with other countries, with the United States and with other major oil consuming countries.
So again, by looking at the past, I think it offers us a toolbox for looking forward into the future for how energy is going to really shape our world. And in Canada in particular over the next 150 years, there will be changes that we really can’t even imagine—the scale and magnitude of the shift away from fossil fuels, particularly hydrocarbons, is really going to effect Canada in a way that I really don’t think we’re able to understand at this point in time.
So you see a lot of commercials—I saw a commercial the other day, for example, that if you liked hockey, you better like oil because without oil there would be no Stanley Cup. So on the one hand we have these narratives that life as we know it demands oil, and without oil, we’re nothing, which you could actually make an argument for that: oil is everywhere and around us and omnipresent and omnipotent. But at the same time, it kind of also exposes that wow, we can’t even play sports without oil these days. And so what will that mean when eventually we do need to move away from oil? Will we have sports? Well, of course we will. But how will these sports stadiums be powered? Will there be a new solar-powered stadium that will get people excited? Will there be a new wind-generated stadium that will get people excited?
So these are the types of things we’re going to have to deal with and it’s better to think about them in advance than to react to them when they happen. And this is one thing that I noticed in Britain was people didn’t really take oil seriously at the beginning. It was seen as kind of a decadent toy of the rich, something that was for rich people that had a lot of money for luxury goods like flying and driving. And so the average person in society kind of dismissed oil. And to a large extent so did a lot of the politicians. But then all of a sudden after the First World War, oil became kind of the dominant fuel in a lot of different realms. And Britons kind of had to wake up to the reality that their pre-eminence in coal had been lost. And they had actually helped to bring about this new transition to oil.
And I think that the real lesson that I drew off from the past is that energy transitions can happen extremely rapidly, within a generation. And the societies that do best are those that are at the forefront of the transition, that are leading the transition instead of reacting and responding. So I see potential opportunities for Canada in the future, but also some pretty daunting challenges. And this is why I think research into the history of oil and the history of energy more generally can really be useful for helping Canadians on that day-to-day, everyday basis move past a world almost completely defined by oil and get excited about whatever the future may be.
GM: Ian tells us about the role of libraries and archives in his research.
IW: A lot of my research was conducted at archives both in Canada and the United Kingdom. And while certainly there’s a growing amount of research that can be done online through digitized archives and access to online newspapers and whatnot, one thing I realized right off the bat was that I would need to do the spade work in archives. That’s where the kind of local voice is held. That’s where the everyday, almost banal experience of the individual can be found. So some of the larger, broader themes and topics can be explored through online databases and repositories. But really to get down into that nitty-gritty experience of the individual with oil, you have to go to the archives.
So in the last few years, I’ve been on two archival trips. One to Britain for about five weeks where I visited some public libraries, one in Cardiff, for example. Also some local, publically funded archives in Glamorganshire, for example. Some university archives in Birmingham. And my favourite archive was the British Petroleum corporate archives, which is in the University of Warwick. And these archives are all different. Certainly, the materials they hold are different and also the rules of getting in and out are very different, especially at the corporate archives. But they all showed a different angle on the everyday experience with oil.
So you had students writing in their diaries that I found. You had boardroom meetings of executives at BP [British Petrol]. I found personal papers and photographs. I also was able to find a lot of newspapers and kind of private correspondence. So you can really see the full spectrum of sources at an archive. And the great thing about it is you don’t have to go anywhere to get all these things. So a lot of people think, oh going to the archives is such a time-consuming and boring thing. But I would spend days at the archive, where in one day I was reading diaries, letters, looking at paintings, reading boardroom minutes, looking at videos and film.
So there’s a lot in an archive that isn’t just dusty old papers. And I quickly discovered that to get the real story of the past, you pretty much have to start at the archives and start with the kind of spade work of pulling out sources and reading through them, drawing out the kind of threads and themes that are present in these types of sources.
So most of my time was spent at archives in England and Wales, but I was able to spend quite a bit of time actually at Library and Archives Canada [LAC]. There’s quite a large collection of oil history and oil memorabilia at LAC. Lots of letters related to the Royal Navy’s use of oil and coal in the wars. So there’s quite a bit of war oil history at LAC. But overall, I think anybody studying the past needs to have this multi-archival approach at the centre of their research and my hope is that that will continue to be something that people use as this kind of grain or seed in their research.
Who Do We Think We Are? exhibition showcases the breadth of material found in libraries and archives. In our sneak peak of the exhibition, Dr. Gaffield offered some insights into the art of archival research.
CG: The fact that you have here Paul Kane’s paintbrushes is really important because it reminds us that archives are certainly the home of documents about Canadian history, but in fact the collection is much more diverse than that in a wild range of evidence, whether it’s various kinds of material pieces, whether it’s oral testimony and so on about Canada’s past. And I think that’s one of the things that we often have not appreciated. And I know as historians we’ve tended to emphasize in the past the word, documents, what was written. And now we’re attempting to do a much more sophisticated understanding that, in order to think about the past, we need to think about not just what was written but also the kinds of objects that surrounded people’s lives and how they changed over time and how they may have influenced human expression.
So in terms of paintbrushes, for example, as that technology has been changed and improved and so on, it changes what we see. And that’s certainly obvious today in the digital age where art now is being created on screens as much as with actual brushes and other sorts of tools. So I think reminding us of that is one of the great strengths of Library and Archives Canada, and it shows to us the extent to which to study the past you really need a wide array of skills in terms of understanding evidence about the past.
The Notman collection, which is certainly one of the great photographic collections in the world, and the Notman studios were so famous in Montreal, and really documented so much, and not simply about elites but all aspects of Canadian life. What’s really interesting in my mind is the extent to which the idea was to take a pretty aggressive and controlling attitude toward what was being depicted. So you didn’t worry too much about capturing, quote “reality”, but instead you happily introduced an environment within which you put your figures for photographing that suited you. So all the Notman pictures—or many of them—were basically artificially created according to the desires of the person or the group being photographed, in terms of Notman himself and his team of photographers.
So here’s an attempt to capture a reality that is, in fact, really constructed, artificially in many cases by the people involved. And this is really important in terms of using historical evidence because, as we know, we can’t take traces of the past literally. We can’t take them at face value. We have to be very careful, critical and insightful about what we’re looking at, how it was created, why it was created, the audience for whom it was created as really key questions to always pose. And I think these Notman photographs certainly illustrate the kind of sophistication that’s needed in our attempts to better understand the past.
GM: That wolverine does look a little stiff.
GM: You can tell he’s stuffed.
CG: [Laughter] I mean they were amazing. They had these settings and they could just—like this is all in a studio, right?
CG: They’d just bring in the trees and bring in all sorts of objects in a theatrical way that is important in terms of understanding how they were attempting to portray how people wanted to be portrayed, how they wanted to see themselves.
And I think that’s a really interesting aspect of history, is what we see here is in many ways what people have decided to let us see. So, we’re being provided windows on the past but we have to always remember that those windows are ones that got chosen, sometimes inadvertently, sometimes unconsciously. But they’re not necessarily the ones that we might have chosen ourselves. And all historians say, oh how come someone didn’t leave this kind of evidence and how come we don’t see it from this angle? But that’s the nature of doing historical research.
GM: Here’s Zoe Todd again, speaking about some of the future challenges facing archival institutions.
ZT: When I read my great-great-great-great-grandfather’s journal from the Hudson Bay’s archives in Winnipeg in the summer of 2010, you know it was so amazing to hold something that my ancestor had written and to sit in this room in Winnipeg in the middle of the summer in the quiet space of the Hudson Bay’s archives, and to be transported back to 1837 when he was trying to figure out what to do with what he suspected was a smallpox outbreak at Fort Pelly.
And, you know, that was a really meaningful relationship that I was able to form but I was only able to do it because I happened to be in Winnipeg at the time and I also had people like Frank Tough sort of mention to me, oh you might want to just stop by and see what they have. And not every one of my family members has had that opportunity. And I would really love for—if I ever have children or grandchildren—for them to have that same opportunity.
So I’m not sure how we do that because we also need to preserve material. So these are these kind of broader questions that I know that archivists and also people working in sort of material culture and museum fields are thinking about. How do we—I keep wanting to say democratize; I’m not sure that’s quite the right word. But how do we work with archivists who do this very careful and important work tending to these materials and records? How do we work collaboratively to find ways to keep those stories going?
The future that I envision—and one that I hope my work contributes to—is one where we’re really tending to one another and we’re tending to our stories. We’re thinking about what our responsibilities are to the world—both locally and globally. And we’re thinking about what kind of ethics it requires of us to do that well.
GM: Many of our guests emphasized the need for conducting research that gives back to the greater public. Here’s Ian Mauro.
IM: You know when we talk about all of these things, when we talk about information, when we talk about research, when we talk about the power of knowledge to make a better future, we have to do that in the context of respect. We have to do that in the context of reciprocity. If we do research without a focus on giving back to people, then I submit we’re not doing good research. We can’t just have these intellectual landscapes designed and built to kind of satisfy our curiosities. They have to have a purpose in my mind. They have to have an audience that is actually effected by something and we have to be building in the opportunity to make a better world and create more meaningful experiences for people that uplift lives and are learned from people that have real experience.
You know, I think universities too often get caught up in their own machinations and we need to make sure that whenever we’re working in that research environment—and this is my personal view—it’s done in a way that has communities built in at the onset, is designed for them and flows through them so that the outputs of whatever we’re trying to do actually create real change.
GM: Here’s Elissa Gurman.
EG: What I think we need to do in humanities research, and I think in research more broadly, is work on actually some of the things that SSHRC is pushing, which is dissemination for the public. And I know this is something that makes a lot of academics feel uncomfortable and feel like they’re being pushed into a square where they don’t belong or feel confident, this idea that you have to think about how you’re going to disseminate your work to a space beyond the academic community. But I think that that’s critical if we’re going to maintain our relevance. And I think it’s something that we should be excited about as an opportunity.
I can sit in my office and write my book about consent and the love plot, and write it in a way that is just for academics, and it will get read by maybe a couple hundred people, if I’m lucky. But what I really would like to do, and what I would really appreciate funding to do—and which I find is kind of a challenge—is to write a book for the general public that talks about this topic and stretches my timeline beyond the parameters of what would be academically permitted, stretches my content beyond the parameters of canonical literature, and could really reach out to the public and actually have an impact and get people talking.
GM: Once more, Ian Werely.
IW: So in my view, the future of the humanities is bright and, in fact, should be bright. Because although there’s a lot of talk these days about the humanities’ funding being cut, because it’s not seen as being necessary or as practical as some of the other disciplines, I’ve always thought that the humanities provide this sort of lens that we can understand our entire world.
So a metaphor that I like to use a lot is that the hard sciences—the math, the science technology, the stem fields—provide the kind of rough outline of our world, kind of a two-dimensional view of the world. And the humanities and social science research provide the colour and the shading and the texture and the depth to this kind of two-dimensional line drawing. So they’re both necessary and they’re both needed and, in fact, they compliment each other. But you can’t pull away from one for the benefit of the other.
So although there’s kind of a push for stem training and stem technology and coding, I fear that that equals a retreat from humanities studies and social sciences, which, like I said, really provide the kind of texture and colour to our everyday life.
GM: If you'd like to learn more about SSHRC’s various initiatives, please visit the episode page for this podcast at
bac-lac.gc.ca/podcasts. Here you will find a number of links related to SSHRC and the scholars you heard in this episode.
If you’re in Ottawa, don’t forget to visit LAC’s free exhibition
Who Do We Think We Are?, on display until March 1st, 2018. It features many treasures from the LAC collection, some of which have rarely been exhibited.
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Thank you for joining us. I'm your host Genevieve Morin. You’ve been listening to “Discover Library and Archives Canada—where Canadian history, literature and culture await you.” A special thanks to our contributors, Audrey-Kristel Barbeau, Chad Gaffield, Elissa Gurman, Robin MacEwan, Ian Mauro, Zoe Todd and Ian Wereley.
This episode was produced and engineered by Tom Thompson with assistance from Paula Kielstra.
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