When Julia Hendry, Head of Archives and Special Collections at Wilfrid Laurier Archives, described the primary documents I had been perusing for the previous 5 days as “uncharted territory”, the burgeoning geographer inside me lit up with delight. I imagined myself returning from an arduous voyage of exploration, my notebook and camera filled with curious representations of hitherto unknown wonders from far afield. The reality of archival research can be slightly less intriguing, but my visit to the Laurier Archives was rather fruitful.
I was there to consult their collection of primary documents related to Canadian Biosphere Reserves and its parent organization: United Nations’ Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) Man and the Biosphere (MAB) program. As part of my doctoral research, I want to find out how the practice of “sustainable development” has been expressed differently over time and place within the MAB program. I concentrated my efforts on three sources; the files of the former Canadian Biosphere Reserves Association (CBRA), and the personal papers of Fred Roots and George Francis, two prominent Canada MAB scientists. These fonds provided me with insight into the development of the Biosphere Reserve concept and practice in Canada and internationally. The earliest documents date back to the 1968 and serve as a lens through which to view the Canadian environmental movement’s involvement with federal and provincial governments, economic development, and significant international agreements, such as the “Rio Declaration” of 1992.
The Canada MAB story is an inspiring tale about how a committed group of scientists, public servants, and private citizens work cooperatively to put the unique concept of Biosphere Reserves into practice. It is a story that holds great value for facing the environmental challenges of today because it contains lessons from decades of experience conducting collaborative social and ecological research through a place-based approach.
I started with Fred Roots’ papers, a fonds of manageable size, which contains information related to his involvement with the MAB program since its inception. Roots was very active in northern science, so these papers helped me to understand the international debates surrounding research ethics in the communities of the circumpolar north and the home grown efforts to have indigenous knowledges recognized on the international stage. The papers also offered insight into questions that had burned in my mind since I first heard of the MAB program: why on earth was MAB’s program name never changed to be gender inclusive? Was a name change ever on the table? Who argued for and against it? I don’t want to spoil the ending, so if you want to know the answer you’ll have to wait for my dissertation or sift through the files yourself.
From there, I dared to direct my gaze toward the tremendous amount of information amassed by George Francis. At the time of my last visit, these fonds inhabited an impressive 50 meters (and accruing!) of shelf space. They are accompanied by an 860-page finding aid, created by Francis himself, which unlike most finding aids I have seen, lists the title of each and every item. Francis has also included valuable written comments throughout the aid, which contextualize and explain each series. The series are arranged according to the numerous groups and projects Francis worked on throughout his career as a scholar of “ecosystem management”. Francis was involved in many environmental research initiatives of the United Nations and he has compiled complete sets of documents and publications for each of these, including, for example, the Stockholm Declaration of 1972. I would recommend that anyone with a research interest in international environmental governance or the history of ecosystem research in Canada make use of this immense resource.
I was most interested in series 9 of George Francis’ files, “UNESCO Man and Biosphere”, especially the two subseries on Canada MAB and on its Working Group on Biosphere Reserves. The latter is populated with a complete series of meeting minutes and briefing notes for the entire span of time when Francis was involved with the working group (c. 1980-1998). There is also a subseries on individual Canadian Biosphere Reserves, which offers a window into the practicalities of establishing and operating Biosphere Reserves in Canada and the unique issues associated with each one.
The CBRA fonds were helpful in understanding how MAB’s working group on Biosphere Reserves eventually evolved into the CBRA and the tireless work that went into attracting adequate support for Biosphere Reserves from the Government of Canada. Although the CBRA ceased to exist in 2002, Canada MAB continues its work at the Canadian Commission for UNESCO, and at Canada’s 18 Biosphere Reserves.
At the end of my week-long visit, there were still many boxes I had left untouched. Laurier’s Environmental Conservation Movement in Canada Collection is vast and it might be possible to spend a lifetime covering all that ground. I hope that more scholars interested in environmental research and organizing in Canada will choose to make use of this rich resource. How often these days do we have a chance to go where (almost) no one has gone before?
I would like to thank the Laurier Archives for financial support in the form of the Joan Mitchell Travel Award. I would also like to thank the knowledgeable archivists Andre Furlong, Julia Hendry, and Cindy Preece for their assistance and for making me feel welcome at Laurier.
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