Proceedings of the 1975 British-Canadian Symposium on Historical Geography

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Credit: T.F. McIlwraith
Group Photograph, 1975 British-Canadian Symposium on Historical Geography, Kingston ON. Photographer: Thomas F. McIlwraith. Click to see individual names.

In July 2015, the 16th International Conference of Historical Geographers in London will celebrate the first 40 years of both the Journal of Historical Geography and the series of conferences which began with the British-Canadian Symposium on Historical Geography held at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario in 1975, and continues with the ICHG. The theme of the three-day 1975 Kingston Symposium was ‘The Settlement of Canada: Origins and Transfer’ and though it was aimed at fostering connections between Canadian and British geographers, a number of American geographers participated as well. To mark the 40th Anniversary of the ICHG and acknowledge the pivotal role of Canadian scholars in the fostering of international conversations amongst historical geographers, we have digitized the Proceedings of the 1975 British-Canadian Symposium on Historical Geography [link to pdf]. Brian Osborne, the organizer of the Symposium and editor of the Proceedings, was recently awarded the Massey medal from the Royal Canadian Geographical Society in honour of his outstanding career exploring Canadian identity. In a new introduction prepared for the 40th Anniversary, he recalls this first gathering:

Reflecting on the 1975 Kingston Symposium

By Professor Emeritus Brian Osborne, 21 June 2015

When I look at the group image on p. xii of The Proceedings of the 1975 British-Canadian Symposium on Historical Geography, Robert Browning’s words come to mind: “Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be…”

Yes, some of the colleagues of 1975 have passed away: Denis Cosgrove, Hugh Prince, and Wreford Watson were such vital contributors to the dynamic of the Symposium and, while now gone, are remembered for it. And deserving of special mention was a significant absence at the Symposium: Andrew H. Clark. His death cast a shadow over the gathering as he had been central to the planning and imagining of this intellectual project. Such had been his influence on the careers of so many present directly through his personal contacts and indirectly to the discipline through his scholarship that the Symposium was dedicated to him in tribute.

Of course, looking back, others of us have aged and entered our anecdotage, while so many of our then-young colleagues are now the doyens of current historical geography. But if the “best is yet to be” proved to be so true for so many of them, so it was for our field as a whole.

The 1975 meeting at Kingston had been suggested to me by Robin Butlin at the 1973 meeting of the Institute of British Geographers. Recognizing the emergence of nascent groups of scholars of historical geography in the U.K. and Canada, his idea was for a joint meeting of the IBG’s Historical Geography Research Group with the Ontario Group of Historical Geographers to pursue mutual interests. When I presented the concept to my Canadian colleagues at the next meeting of the OGHG, it was welcomed as an initiative that would strengthen both groups and passed the ball back to me to plan the meeting at Queen’s and Kingston. That’s when I started to grow old!

But what should the topic be? Given the pragmatics of financing the gathering, we chose the theme of “Canadian Identity” and its trans-Atlantic connections. We thought this topic would appeal to potential funding agencies at that time and would also relate to the scholarly interests of several of our targeted participants. It worked. The concept was welcomed by the Canada Council, External Affairs, and the British Council, as well as academic supporters.

Accordingly, the conference took place with four components. Formal papers were limited to two in each of four, two-and-a half-hour sessions focussing on the topics of migration, rural settlement, urban studies, and methodology. The planned emphasis was on the encouragement of group-interaction in the formal sessions with appointed discussants and participation by the group at large. Then, each evening, three after-dinner presentations were made by Cole Harris, John Warkentin, and Wreford Watson respectively, treating the conference themes from their perspectives. The fourth, and probably the most valuable component, was the dispersion of the British delegates to departments across Canada to reinforce the mission of the trans-Atlantic exchange. Perhaps a better published proceedings of the 1975 Symposium would have included the three proactive post-prandial presentations and, also, reports on the destinations and reflections of the trans-Canada visitations.

From that 1975 gathering of 56 Canadian and 16 British historical geographers developed a conference organization that in 2015 can now boast over 600 participants from some two score nationalities. The acronyms tell the story: from the original limited national foci of CANUK to CUKANZAS into the international participation in the ICHG.

Ironically perhaps, this trend was initiated in 1975 by a protest against the putatively bi-national initiative of CANUK. The host city, Kingston, features an elaborate defence system intended to protect British North America from the United States to the south. While these still stand, they were breached in 1975! That year witnessed the penetration of the disciplinary empire by three Americans: Michael Conzen, then of Boston University, Ralph Vicero of California State, and David Ward of Wisconsin University, Madison. Thank you, Michael, Ralph, and David for demonstrating the need to broaden our horizons!

The 1975 photograph of the Symposium demonstrates how something else has changed: the massive gender imbalance of the day. But there, standing in splendid isolation in the front row is Heather Fuller of Guelph University, the sole woman presenter in the conference, and, slightly over and to her right, Patricia Thornton of McGill. Thank you, Heather and Pat, true pioneers! Carrying on my Browning principle, things are getting better with gender participation in, and leadership of, the current ICHG.

I close on this celebratory note by dedicating this digitized reprise of the 1975 Symposium at Kingston to two foundational architects of the ICHG: Robin Butlin and Alan Baker. Their initial ideas and continued contributions have ensured that the “best is yet to be” for the ICHG and the discipline at large. Memories of their early efforts and imagination have been very much with me as I have reminisced over what happened forty years ago.

The scanned and ocr-ed Proceedings can be accessed here (note: large PDF file).

Settlement of CanadaRelated Link:  Recollecting 1975: The British-Canadian Symposium on Historical Geography in Kingston, Ontario.

Thank you to Oscar Kuffour, Pete Anderson and Mitch Patterson for scanning and OCR digitization.

Laura Cameron is Associate Professor of Geography at Queen’s University. Kirsten Greer is Assistant Professor of Geography and History at Nipissing University. Peter Anderson is a PhD Candidate at Queen’s University and Coordinator of the Transnational Ecologies Project.

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Pete Anderson

Public History Consultant at History Applied
I am an Ottawa-based historical research consultant. My personal research examines the confluence of science, settler colonialism, and landscape change in Canada and my doctoral thesis explored the early history of Ottawa's Central Experimental Farm.


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