Laurier Archives: Destination for Environmental Historians

Wilfrid Laurier University. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

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In early May 2014, I traveled to Waterloo, Ontario to conduct research at the Laurier Archives on the campus of Wilfrid Laurier University.  Earlier this year, I was awarded the inaugural Joan Mitchell Travel Award. The award, designed to assist with travel and accommodation costs, provides $1,000 to an established scholar or graduate student wishing to conduct research at the Laurier Archive. I had an exceedingly positive experience at the archive and found it to be a friendly and comfortable place in which to conduct research. All materials are housed on site, ensuring that wait time for material is little to none. The Laurier Archives employees, Julia Hendry, Andre Furlong, and Cindy Preece, provided knowledgeable, cheery, and prompt assistance.

Laurier Action Shot
Laurier Archives

The Laurier Archives has three main research collections, the most important of which for Canadian environmental historians is the Environmental Conservation Movement in Canada collection (the finding aids for which can be found here). The archive has amassed a vast assortment of material relating to the Canadian environment, including material related to the Canadian North, parks, and biosphere reserves. The collection is particularly rich for those dealing with the history of the Canadian environment after 1950. My dissertation is a comparative history of provincial and state parks in Canada and the United States. I am focusing specifically on the park systems of Ontario, Pennsylvania, Alberta, and Idaho. Before I arrived at the archive, I hoped that the environmental history sources at the archive would allow me to more fully understand the history of Ontario provincial parks and how Ontario’s parks fit into the broader history of conservation in Canada.

I focused on two collections while at the Laurier Archives. The first collection is the Canadian Environmental Law Association (CELA) Fonds, which contains briefs, publications, reports, and other items created by the organization since 1970. The most important document in the collection for my purposes is a copy of the Classification of Provincial Parks in Ontario 1967. I only scratched the surface of what the CELA Fonds has to offer. The collection is a substantial resource for any researcher focusing on the management of nature and natural resources in relation to Canadian law.

I focused most of my energy on the James Gordon Nelson Fonds. Nelson, a policy maker, planner, ecologist, geographer, and former University of Waterloo professor, played a major role in both national and provincial park policy development. I originally came into contact with Nelson’s work while completing comprehensive exams, during which I read Nelson’s The Last Refuge and his edited volume, The Canadian National Parks: Today and Tomorrow, among others.

Canadian Parks Today and Tomorrow NelsonNavigating the massive collection–the finding aid is nearly 300 pages alone–and deciding upon which parts to focus was a definite challenge. In addition to containing most of Nelson’s prolific publishing career, the collection also contains documents pertaining to the numerous boards and organizations on which Nelson served. Paperwork in the collection relating to Nelson’s activity in the National and Provincial Parks Association of Canada (NPPAC), now the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), is particularly valuable. The correspondence, minutes, and reports of NPPAC and CPAWS provide a rich source from which to analyze the relationship between national and provincial parks and the evolving attitude towards preservation and conservation in Canada from the 1960s onward.

I was pleasantly surprised to find sources relating not only to Ontario provincial parks in the Nelson collection, but also relating to all provincial park systems in Canada. I was able to find several sources about my other Canadian provincial park system case-study, Alberta. The most exciting source that I found was the correspondence files relating to the mid-1970s Rondeau Provincial Park Advisory Committee. The files contain over 100 completed questionnaires  and letters written by Ontarian community members expressing their opinions about the future of cottage leases, hunting, and other issues in the park. Park-related sources, like this one, that supply the direct opinions of citizens, rather than government and park officials, are rather rare, making the representation of their voices in historical literature difficult.

Due to time restrictions, I was not able to look at other collections that interested me, including the Beaver Valley Heritage Society Fonds and the Canadian Biosphere Reserves Association Fonds. I encourage others to take a look at what the Laurier Archives’  Environmental Conservation Movement in Canada collection has to offer. The deadline for this year’s Joan Mitchell Travel Award application is November 28, 2014.

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is an environmental historian of Canada and the United States, editor, and digital communications strategist. She earned her PhD in History from the University of Saskatchewan in 2019. She is an executive member, editor, and social media editor for the Network in Canadian History and Environment (NiCHE). She is also a working board member of the Saskatchewan History and Folklore Society and Girls Rock Saskatoon. A passionate social justice advocate, she focuses on developing digital techniques and communications that bridge the divide between academia and the general public in order to democratize knowledge access. You can find out more about her and her freelance services at jessicamdewitt.com.

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