Unearthed: Hereward Longley

Image courtesy of Thermo Fisher Scientific.

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Editor’s note: This post is part of an occasional series entitled “Unearthed,” edited by Heather Green and co-sponsored by Unwritten Histories, in which emerging environmental historians in Canada discuss what brought them to the field, why they value environmental history, and how it connects with life outside of academia. Find all the interviews from this series here.


Hereward Longley at the abandoned Bitumount site, July 2019.

Tell us a bit about yourself. What is your background (academic, life experience, etc)?

I grew up in Toronto and my parents are from Italy and England. I did my BA in history and international relations at the University of British Columbia, then switched coasts to do an MA in history at Memorial University of Newfoundland, before moving back to western Canada to do a PhD in history at the University of Alberta. Alongside my academic research, I work in Indigenous land use impact assessment and historical research consulting. Before starting graduate school I spent my summers guiding canoe trips in northern Ontario and Quebec. This experience took me to Indigenous communities including Attawapiskat and Waskaganish and exposed me to some of the issues faced by Indigenous peoples in northern Canada. I still do some guiding on the Athabasca River, working with the McMurray Métis and the other Indigenous communities in the region on cultural heritage and environmental monitoring trips.

What brought you the field of environmental history?

In my undergraduate program I took a very broad range of history courses that were all super interesting but not always closely connected. I have to thank several professors and former postdocs at UBC for introducing me to environmental and Indigenous history: Sean Kheraj, Coll Thrush, Neil Safier, and Jeffers Lennox. Environmental history gave me a framework that connected all my interests in Indigenous history, resource extraction, and environmental change. I met John Sandlos at a conference and he invited me to apply for an MA with the Abandoned Mines in Northern Canada project, and that led into a PhD program with Liza Piper.

In three sentences or less, tell us the focus of your current research.

My doctoral research is about bitumen extraction in the Athabasca region in the 20th century and the complex ways that the development of the oil sands industry has affected Indigenous communities, and how communities have responded and worked to carve out cultural and economic spaces and political power in the industrializing economy.

Other than your current focus, what is another area of environmental history that interests you?

I find work that has responded to Ecological Imperialism fascinating. I have always been amazed at the intentional and unintentional consequences of the exchange of plants, animals, and disease.

What did you want to be when you grew up? Does that overlap with your decision to study environmental history?

For a long time, I wanted to be a river and mountain guide, but eventually decided to let that be more of a hobby. Then I got quite interested in photography and wanted to be a photojournalist but decided to let that be a hobby as well. After spending time in northern Canada, studying Indigenous history, and learning about resource extraction, I have focused on projects that contribute to reconciling issues faced by communities dealing with resource extraction. Studying environmental history has allowed me to keep pursuing all of these interests and challenged me to think more deeply about environmental change.

What is your favorite part of doing environment-focused historical research?

The best part of my research has been learning from Elders in oral history interviews, and the time I have spent on the Athabasca River and visiting traplines.

What part of studying environmental history most excites you? What is most daunting?

The most exciting part for me has been having the opportunity to work collaboratively with the Fort McMurray Métis community and anthropologist Tara Joly with Willow Springs Strategic Solutions on a report on the Moccasin Flats evictions, an episode in the 1970s where the town of Fort McMurray bulldozed the homes of 14 families to make way for housing for the oil company Syncrude. Elders had frequently raised this issue and suggested it as a research question when I was planning my thesis research. The report blended oral history, archival research, and mapping. The topic created an opportunity to align academic research with community interests and led to a report that received a lot of media coverage. I find the most daunting parts of historical research are trying to weave together a coherent narrative from a wide range issues and sources, while making a unique historiographical contribution.

Where is your favorite place to be?

The Coast Range.

Do you have a favorite book, podcast, film, work of art related to the natural world that you would recommend others check out?

I love science fiction films and really liked Annihilation (2018) based on the first book of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy. VanderMeer did a great interview on the Cultures of Energy podcast.

Why do you think environmental history is an important field of study?

Many environmental problems have deep and poorly understood historical roots. Environmental history provides historians with the tools to examine environmental issues with complex, interdisciplinary perspectives that can produce insights that encourage better policy making and help to reconcile the injustices of industrial development and environmental change.

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Hereward Longley is a PhD candidate in environmental history at the University of Alberta. Hereward's research examines the political, economic, and environmental dynamics that have shaped the history of the Athabasca oil sands region, the consequences of development for nature and Indigenous peoples, and how these impacts and conflicts have influenced subsequent development.

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