From CHESS to CHA: looking back and looking forward

Photo: Daniel Macfarlane

Scroll this

After attending CHESS and CHA, I saw many signs that environmental history is the future – forgive the oxymoron.

From the range of great environmental research, to the musings about the past, present, and future of the Canadian historical discipline, the Canadian historical discipline is longing for the types of approaches that environmental historians can offer.

CHESS was another wonderful experience – it is probably my favorite event on my academic calendar, in large because of the people that make up the environmental history group. This was the fourth CHESS in a row that I’ve attended, and I likened it on several occasions to summer camp. CHESS 2012 took place at Guelph University, and the theme was Bees to Beef: Farmed(ed) Animals in Environmental History. If I’m not mistaken, there were 58 participants. There were a number of interesting talks and sessions, and field trips (often the best part!) to the Ontario Veterinary College and a working farm. Jenn Bonnell and Stuart McCook, as well as many others, deserve a warm round of applause for making it such a success, and NiCHE for backing and funding it.

The vitality and promise of environmental history was also apparent at the Canadian Historical Association conference. A number of papers and panels were by NiCHE members. A number of CHA awards were won by environmental historians: Jessica Van Horssen won the Forsey prize for best dissertation, and Shannon Stunden Bower won a Prairies Clio Prize for her “Wet Prairie.” Indeed, environmental historians have been dominating SSHRC doctoral and postdoctoral fellowships in past years, and have won many other awards.

The CHA included a roundtable on the macrotheories of Canadian history: the staples, Laurentian, and metropolitan-hinterland theses. It featured NiCHE’s Sean Kheraj and myself, as well as Doug Owram, Shirley Tillotson, and Christopher Dummitt. These theses are inherently environmental, and deal with big questions and theories in Canadian history. The historical profession’s concerns with these big questions were made apparent by the turnout: around 85 people. I’m pretty sure that is the most people I’ve seen at a CHA panel. By many accounts, this roundtable turned into the hit of the CHA. Perhaps it also appealed because it was a real roundtable, not just several prepared statements.

The last section of the roundtable was opened up to questions and comments from the audience, and based on what I heard, I think that environmental historians can provide a lot of the answers for the questions other historians are posing. I was also heartened to hear, due to my own particular scholarly interests, that others felt that the future of Canadian historical scholarship was in issues connected to environment, transnationalism, communication, transportation, and technology.

My own view is that environmental history can answer big questions about Canada (and the globe) and doesn’t need to fall into a subfield that only talks to itself. Alan McEachern’s recent work on the “bigness” of Canada is an obvious example, and I try to do it myself with my work on transnational Canadian-American water issues. There was some suggestion at the roundtable that we are in a “post-nation” or “post-Canada” age in which there are no more national narratives to tell. But some, during and after, didn’t totally buy that.

Environmental history as the future is particularly pertinent considering that NiCHE’s SSHRC funding will expire in a few years. We need to promote NiCHE and what we, and the environmental history field, have to offer – and we didn’t do a good enough job of that during the macrotheories roundtable. We should be promoting not only for the well-being of the field, but also because so many of us have benefitted so tremendously from NiCHE. With the ASEH 2013 in Toronto, it is a chance to really show off Canadian environmental history. One easy thing that springs to mind is NiCHE-sponsored panels for the CHA (and maybe ASEH). For example, I organized the macrotheories roundtable mentioned above as part my affiliation with the Political History Group, but this panel could have just as easily, if not more so, been sponsored by NiCHE.


The following two tabs change content below.
Daniel is an Associate Professor in the School of the Environment, Geography, and Sustainability at Western Michigan University. He is an editor for The Otter-La loutre and is part of the NiCHE executive. A transnational environmental historian who focuses on Canadian-American border waters and energy issues, particularly in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence basin, Daniel is the author or co-editor of six books on topics such as the St. Lawrence Seaway, border waters, IJC, and Niagara Falls. His book "Natural Allies: Environment, Energy, and the History of US-Canada Relations" was published in summer 2023. His newest book, an environmental history of Lake Ontario, will be published in September 2024. He is now working on a book about Lake Michigan and eventually hopes to eventually write a book on the environmental history of the Great Lakes. Website: Twitter: @Danny__Mac__

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.