Canadian History & Environment Summer School – Toronto 2014

Scroll this

NiCHE, the Network in Canadian History and the Environment, is pleased to announce that the eighth Canadian History and Environment Summer School will be held at York University in Toronto, Ontario from Friday May 23 to Sunday May 25, 2014. As in previous years, CHESS will take place prior to the Canadian Historical Association annual meeting, which is being held at Brock University in St. Catherines, Ontario.

The theme for CHESS 2014 is “Suburbia and Environmental History.” Although environmental historians have studied the urban environment for some time, the suburbs have attracted less attention. Inspired by the ideal of the countryside, the suburbs introduced a new set of social and economic relations to North American cities. Suburbs tended to be quite eclectic during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but after the Second World War standardization became their defining feature. In all cases, however, suburbanization involved a physical transformation of the environment from a variety of pre-existing land uses into low-density, single-family homes. At the same time, the suburbs were a product of new ideas about the city. Environmental histories of the suburbs, therefore, explore both the physical transformation of places and the cultural transformation of people.

York University is surrounded by Canada’s largest suburban landscape. Located within 30 minutes’ drive are Don Mills, Canada’s oldest planned corporate suburban development; Markham, one of the country’s largest and fastest growing suburban ‘cities’; and Rouge Park, Canada’s first national park within a suburban municipality. This year’s summer school will venture into the suburbs to explore the history of this amorphous Canadian environment.

CHESS provides a forum where graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, faculty members, and others who are interested in historical approaches to the environment can interact and exchange ideas. Introducing non-specialists to the field of environmental history is also an important goal.

Schedule of Activities:

Map of Activities

Readings Package Available Here [PDF]

Day 1: Friday, May 23

Day 2: Saturday, May 24

  • 7:30am – 8:30am: Coffee, tea, and breakfast snacks (TEL 1004)
  • 8:30am: Meet bus in front of Pond Road Residence
  • 9am – 11am: Markham Museum Tour and Talk
  • 11:30am – 1:30am: Lunch and Tour of Rouge Park (led by Cate Sandilands, York University)
  • 2pm – 4pm: Tour and Talk about Don Valley Parkway and Don Mills (led by Jennifer Bonnell, McMaster University and Richard White, University of Toronto)
  • 6:30pm – 8pm: Dinner at Schulich Dining Room
  • 8pm – 9pm: Keynote Address, Chris Sellers, “Placing the Suburbs in Environmental History”

Day 3: Sunday, May 25

  • 9am – 10am: Coffee, tea, and breakfast snacks
  • 10am – 12pm: Research presentations (TEL 1004)
    • Steve Penfold (University of Toronto), “Greyscapes and Greenscapes in Toronto’s Postwar Suburbs”
    • Amanda Robinson (York University), “The UAW Welcomes a “Spectacular Landmark of Progress”: Suburbs, Shopping Malls, and Automobility in “Canada’s Motor City””
  • 12pm – 1pm: Lunch (TEL 1004)
  • 1pm – 2:30pm: Walking Field Trip of York, Jane-Finch (led by Tom Peace, Huron College and Stacy Nation-Knapper, York University)
  • 2:30pm: CHESS concludes at Black Creek Pioneer Village Brewery (participants free to depart or to stay for a drink)

CHESS 2014 on The Otter:

Andrew Watson, “An Unpredictable Path to the Suburbs: A History of Toronto’s Leaside Neighbourhood”

Jennifer Bonnell, “Highway to Nowhere: The Don Valley Parkway and the Development of Toronto’s North-East”

Catriona Sandilands, “Dog Stranglers in the National Park? National and Vegetal Politics in Ontario’s Rouge Valley”

Sean Kheraj, “The Suburbs: A Rich Frontier for Environmental History Research”

Additional Info:

TTC Airport Info

Eduroam Wi-Fi Connection Info

York Parking

Suburb, London, Ontario, by Scott Conarroe
Suburb, London, ON. From Scott Conarroe “By Rail” McIntosh Gallery and Lightwork.

Opening Plenary: The Oak Ridges Moraine Battles


At the turn of the twenty-first century, the Oak Ridges Moraine was a front line battleground for debates over suburban sprawl, nature conservation, and environmental politics in the Greater Toronto Area. Environmental activists and suburban residents in Toronto’s outer suburbs fought to protect this unique regional landform. This ultimately led to new provincial legislation and the creation of Ontario’s Greenbelt. This is the subject of the recently published book, The Oak Ridges Moraine Battles: Development, Sprawl, and Nature Conservation in the Toronto Region by L. Anders Sandberg, Gerda R. Wekerle, and Liette Gilbert.

Professors Sandberg and Wekerle will lead a panel discussion of this important episode in Toronto’s suburban history.

Keynote Address: Chris Sellers (SUNY, Stony Brook), “Placing the Suburbs in Environmental History”


Suburbs have long posed an awkward dilemma for environmental historians.  Every once and a while, someone prominent among us has asserted the centrality of suburbanites to modern environmentalism, at least in the United States.   Yet so uninteresting or objectionable have we assumed these places to be—and so seduced have we been, I believe, by the place-stereotyping of “suburbia” after World War II—that environmental historians have long steered away from suburbs as a subject for historical study.   We need to get over this neglect.  With a majority of those in the United States and other nations now living in suburbs, with that old “suburbia” stereotype now cracked apart by metropolitan trends as well as urban historical scholarship, the time is ripe for us to take on the “role and place of nature” in suburban history.

Crabgrass Crucible cover

As a first step, we need to recover the inherently hybrid character of suburbs: how compared to classic downtowns, they combine the urban with the rural, if in varying measure.  A more even-handedly ecological lens on suburb-making reveals how, for instance, even in those mass suburbs spreading around New York and Los Angeles after World War II, the new built environments acquired their own characteristic ecology, both domesticated and wild.  Their development spurred new dilemmas of a metropolitan “commons” of regional resources: the dwindling accessibility of undeveloped (and more natural-looking) land, the growing contamination of reservoirs of air and water.   The differential distribution of such dilemmas by class and race opens doors to new integrations of social with environmental history.  Moreover, the full historical impact of these material transformations is also difficult to ascertain without other innovations which can, for instance, unpack the culture and politics post-WWII suburbanites forged to comprehend and address them.  Among these, fore-running suburbs around the largest US cities served as birthplaces for a new politics of nature’s defense, one that interwove threats to rural lands with those to human bodies.  Finally, I will suggest the suitability of these tools for comparable studies of suburban ecology and culture in many different metropolitan regions, across the US and Canada as well as other nations.

Professor Sellers is the author of Crabgrass Crucible: Suburban Nature and the Rise of Environmentalism in Twentieth-Century America and Hazards of the Job: From Industrial Disease to Environmental Health Science.

Research Presentation: Steve Penfold (University of Toronto), “Grayscapes and Greenscapes in Toronto’s Postwar Suburbs”

My paper will examine the relationship between grayscapes (concrete, paving, roads, infrastructure, systems, “machine space” etc.) and greenscapes (grass, trees, wooded lots, etc.) in the suburbs around Toronto after World War Two. Suburbs were supposed to be the ideal blend of city and country, but the blend was complex on the ground. I will examine the making of the grayscapes that made suburban growth possible before examining the conflicted relationship of suburbanites to the greenscapes they found, modified, and created on Toronto’s fringes.  At one level, these questions were general to North American cities, but I will also place them in the particular developments and institutional arrangements around Toronto in the few decades after World War Two.

Research Presentation: Amanda Robinson (York University), “The UAW Welcomes a “Spectacular Landmark of Progress”: Suburbs, Shopping Malls, and Automobility in “Canada’s Motor City””

This paper explores the ways in which the cultural landscape in Oshawa, Ontario adapted to fit to the automobile as the city came to be physically, economically, and ideologically influenced in a number of ways by automobility in the late 1950s. The character of working-class suburban development during this period was heavily influenced by the exigencies of the automobile, particularly as the city became progressively invested in automobile production over the course of the twentieth century. This study examines the important part that the cultural realm played in this transformation, as the city’s position as a place as “Canada’s Motor City” was packaged and sold as a collective identity by the interests of business and the government in a number of ways, including through popular culture and leisure. Methodologically, this paper weaves together a history of hegemonic ideas about class, gender, labour, and the family by looking at a variety of locally based, but nationally situated, print media and advertisements. In doing this it also touches on the dialectical relationship between discourses of progress and modernity on one hand, and tradition on the other. This facilitates an examination of the national trope of the benevolent Victorian businessman, which was widely celebrated by the Oshawa Shopping Centre press kit in 1956, when the mall first opened in this imaged Mecca of cars. This was done within the ideological framework of the male breadwinner model, which was simultaneously being challenged on the ground by marginalized women at General Motors in Oshawa. Ultimately, manifestations of time, space, and gender in Oshawa’s suburban shopping-scape were influenced by overlapping cultural scripts of suburbanization, the dependant housewife model, and automobility.

Feature Image: New Suburb in Bon Aire, GA, 2005. Photo: Mark Strozier

1 Comment

NiCHE encourages comments and constructive discussion of our articles. We reserve the right to delete comments that fail to meet our guidelines including comments under aliases, or that contain spam, harassment, or attacks on an individual.