Claire Elizabeth Campbell, Nature, Place and Story: Rethinking Historic Sites in Canada. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017. 214 pgs, ISBN 9780773551251.
Reviewed by Karen Routledge and Meg Stanley
Compared to national parks, national historic sites have been understudied in Canada. As historians for Parks Canada—the federal agency responsible for national historic and world heritage designations in Canada—we are pleased to review Claire Campbell’s new book, the first major Canadian monograph on national historic sites since C.J. Taylor’s Negotiating the Past (1990). Campbell’s book is a call to arms, urging public historians to link the past more clearly to current environmental issues at historic sites. She argues that national and environmental history narratives have remained largely separate, with the environment too often portrayed as a “backdrop to heroic human endeavour” (8).
Campbell has chosen to focus on five national historic sites: L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland; Grand Pré, Nova Scotia; Fort William, Ontario; Forks of the Red River, Manitoba; and the Bar U Ranch, Alberta. In a series of five chapters, she provides ideas for how each of these sites could more deeply explore the human relationship with nature. L’Anse aux Meadows, Campbell suggests, could draw on its connections to climate change, as well as the history of resource extraction on the Atlantic seaboard. Grand Pré should better illuminate the region’s ties to global industrial agriculture. Fort William, reconstructed in the woods fifteen kilometers from its original site, could explore the fact that it was a “proto-industrial enterprise” (90) long since overlaid by rail yards and other, newer forms of industry. In downtown Winnipeg, the Forks could be “the ideal spot to foreground the environmental history of western Canada” (105), particularly urban rivers. And finally, the Bar U Ranch could better explore industrial modernity and the violent supplanting of Indigenous ecologies.
The chapters provide insightful suggestions of what might be done with environmental history at national historic sites. Each chapter also provides a discussion of a site’s history, but most rely on secondary and grey literature. The main exception is the chapter on Fort William, which is based largely on archival sources and recollections of former staff. Here we found Campbell’s retelling of its reconstruction fascinating.
Some of the sources Campbell treats as contemporary should be analyzed in historical context. For example, she repeatedly cites the National Historic Sites of Canada System Plan (2000), which was based on workshops done in the early and mid 1990s, when few Canadians called themselves environmental historians. Change comes slowly at national historic sites, through extensive discussion and planning. “Current” interpretive panels or policy documents have a long life and should be considered as products of their time—just as an academic article from 1995 would not be cited as evidence of the state of the field today. And, a minor point: the footnotes take up over a third of the book and some provide conflicting or speculative information. We would have preferred Campbell to integrate these discussions into the text and excise unnecessary material from the notes.
Canada’s national historic sites are themselves historiography: by their dates of designation, you can trace what historians and advocates considered important to preserve about the past, and which groups of people were making nominations. For example, Bar U Ranch is an industrial site, like many other historic sites that were designated during the 1970s and 1980s at the height of social and labour history research. Much of our own work as Parks Canada historians consists of redoing old exhibits, selectively adding and removing perspectives and information. Since the system’s sites were designated according to past priorities, we are obliged to consider what remains relevant and important about those ways of thinking.
Unlike academic historians who are trained to present strong, new, unambiguous theses, it is not our place to dictate how the public will see a site, but rather to open up possibilities for how it can be seen. Had Campbell chosen to research Chilkoot Trail National Historic Site (designated in 1987), we think she would have seen how Parks Canada has retained the site’s designation as a gold rush trail and its research on newcomer social history, while also integrating environmental history and First Nations perspectives to situate the gold rush story in a much longer, broader, and more contentious history. This is in large part due to the determination of former Parks Canada historian David Neufeld. Doing this type of “updating” work respectfully in collaboration with other experts is an issue that greatly concerns us, but it is not one we feel is addressed by Campbell’s book.
In other words, if we made environmental history as prominent as Campbell desires, what would we lose? Exhibits have limited real estate. Would we be respecting the reasons the place was designated by the Minister on the advice of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada? What about the communities invested in that designation – their time, effort, and goodwill? Interpretations can and have changed, but these factors need to be thoughtfully considered in decisions regarding national historic sites. All sorts of factors, some mundane, shape what visitors see – and don’t see. We would have liked this book, focused as it is on critique more than historical exposition, to be more grounded in the realities of being a government public historian.
Overall, we find Campbell’s visions for reworking national historic sites intriguing, and she offers some ideas and themes that we will likely return to in our work. While Campbell says that Canadians are “not accustomed to seeing our historic sites as places to question ourselves and our ideas about Canada” (53), this is how we see them as Parks Canada historians. We are always eager to see and read academic scholarship on the parks and sites that we work with. We value research and insights by other historians and incorporate them into our planning and exhibit work. We strongly welcome more environmental histories of Parks Canada places by NiCHE members.
Karen Routledge and Meg Stanley are historians in the Indigenous Affairs and Cultural Heritage Directorate of Parks Canada. Karen works mostly with national parks and historic sites in Nunavut and the Yukon. Outside of Parks Canada projects, she has examined the history of mountaineering in the Coast Mountains, and her forthcoming book Do You See Ice? Inuit and Americans at Home and Away (University of Chicago Press) is about Americans and Inuit in each other’s homelands during the 19th century. Meg has worked as a public historian in western Canada since 1989 and been with Parks Canada since 2009, working with parks and historic sites in BC and Alberta. She has written extensively on major infrastructure works, from highways to hydroelectric dams, including her most recent book Voices from Two Rivers: Harnessing the Power of the Peace and Columbia Rivers (Douglas & McIntyre, 2010).