An Interview with Ruth Sandwell

A 1946 postage stamp, featuring hydroelectricity.

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JC: Where do you work? How does environmental history contribute to your job?

RS: I teach in the History and Philosophy of Education Program, Department of Theory and Policy Studies, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto. Environmental history does not play a major role in my teaching, which focuses on the history of education, and history teaching in Canada, though I do discuss with my students the importance of environmental history, and explain what it is. Environmental history does come into the research part of my work, in my work on the history of rural Canada, and of energy use in the home.

JC: What is your current research project?

RS: I am currently working on two major projects, writing a general history of rural Canada, 1870-1940 for the University of Toronto’s Issues in Canadian History Series, and I am conducting research into a SSHRC funded project “Heat, Light and Work in Canadian Homes: A Social History of Fossil Fuels and Hydro-electricity.”

JC: What got you interested in this topic?

RS: In connection with my earlier work in the history of the family and rural history in Canada (with a focus on British Columbia), I conducted a number of interviews with rural people. I was surprised at how late fossil fuels and hydro electricity were adopted in their homes. And I was impressed with how keen my interview subjects were to talk to me about the transformations that electricity finally brought to their lives – it was clearly a subject of great importance to them.

JC: Does this current project build on your earlier publications?

RS: My history of rural Canada builds on my dissertation research, published as R.W. Sandwell, Contesting Rural Space: Land Policy and the Practices of Settlement, Saltspring Island, British Columbia, 1859-91 (Kingston and Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005), and a collection of essays that I edited, R. W. Sandwell, ed. , Beyond the City Limits: Rural History in British Columbia, (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1999). It also builds on a couple of articles, “Missing Canadians: Reclaiming the A-Liberal Past” Jean-François Constant and Michel Ducharme, eds. Liberalism and Hegemony: Debating the Canadian Liberal Revolution (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009), 246-273, and “History as Experiment: Microhistory and Environmental History,” Alan McEachern and William Turkel, eds., Method and Meaning in Canadian Environmental History (Toronto: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2008) ), 122-36. My work on changing fuel use in the home draws from these works to the extent that my research into rural Canada has explored the continued importance of the family and household to the economic, cultural and political history of Canada well into the twentieth century.

JC: What contribution do you hope to make the wider field with this project?

RS: I hope that the rural history project will document and explore the extremely close ties between people and their local environments in Canada until the 1940s, and the key role that these varied relationships played in the “development” of local, regional, national and global economies and societies. I hope that “Heat, Light and Work in Canadian Homes” will expand our understanding of the ways that changing domestic fuel and energy use has transformed the relationship between people and their local environments, between the household and the larger Canadian society, and among people within the household. Women’s lives in particular have been transformed over the past century by changing fuel use in the home. Documenting the varieties of fuels and the technologies that they involved might also be useful as our society moves over the next half century to a world without cheap fuels.

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