Post-CHESS 2014 Reflections: A Rural Historian in the Suburbs

Apple trees blooming in late May at the Markham Museum. Photo: Sara Spike

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By Sara Spike

The suburbs are often characterized as a liminal space—part city, part country. One of the key lessons of this year’s Canadian History and Environment Summer School (CHESS) was that such a characterization obscures the social, political, and ecological complexity and diversity of suburbs. As a cultural historian of rural Canada, I would add that this reductive interpretation of the suburbs as a buffer also emphasizes the differences between cities and rural places, downplaying the many continuities and similarities between them. This environmental essentialism then feeds a kind of moral mapping, perpetuating a dichotomous stereotyping of urban and rural (liberal vs. conservative, modern vs. traditional) which includes framing cities as environments of concrete, industrial pollutants, and smog in opposition to the green grass, clean air, and pure water of the countryside. For their part in this equation, suburbs are typically derided as the worst of both worlds.

While there are of course many substantive differences across the varied cultural and ecological landscapes of Canada, there are also significant continuities. This is not a new observation. Environmental historians in particular have long troubled the alleged boundaries between the city and the country, revealing, for example, the role of technologies and infrastructures of industrialization in the countryside, or practices such as farming, animal husbandry, and wild harvesting in places defined as urban.

Despite my insistence on the blurriness of boundaries between city, suburb, and country, I was very surprised by the regularity with which agriculture appeared throughout the weekend’s activities. The summer school offered numerous perspectives on both the cultural and environmental vestiges of historical agriculture in suburban landscapes—it is worth noting that we began and ended the weekend at rural heritage villages—as well as the complicated and contested presence of agriculture there today.

Stacy Nation-Knapper and Tom Peace introduce the Iroquoian village that was located on the site of this hydro corridor along Black Creek. Photo: Sara Spike
Fig. 1) Stacy Nation-Knapper and Tom Peace introduce the Iroquoian village that was located on the site of this hydro corridor along Black Creek. Photo: Sara Spike

In his opening lecture, Anders Sandberg observed that the Oak Ridges Moraine exists in its relatively undeveloped condition in part because it was once considered to be a marginal and unprofitable landscape; colonial agriculture on the moraine was largely a failure. On their walking tour of the Black Creek trail, Stacy Nation-Knapper and Tom Peace revealed that a grassy hydro corridor (fig. 1) had previously been the site of a fifteenth-century Iroquoian longhouse village, which archaeological investigation has shown included the cultivation of the three sisters: beans, squash, and corn. The many fruit and nut trees, including blooming apple trees, in the adjacent woods are also reminders of the indigenous and settler communities that lived there. As we walked the trail we passed people harvesting garlic mustard along the bank of the creek (fig. 2).

We also heard about agriculture in the more recent past. In his keynote lecture on environmental activism in American suburbs, Chris Sellers described Levittowners in the 1950s who celebrated adjacent farms as one benefit of their “real suburb,” but he also noted that suburban agriculture was not simply an attractive backdrop to housing developments. He mentioned disputes over migrant labour (such as those documented in the 1960 film Harvest of Shame) as one example of the complex politics of suburban agriculture. We also heard about the farmlands expropriated for the never-built Pickering airport, and more generally about farmland being sold and remade into subdivisions.

Fig. 2) Garlic mustard in Rouge Park. Photo: Sara Spike
Fig. 2) Garlic mustard in Rouge Park. Photo: Sara Spike

We tend to hear less about the farming that continues alongside those developments, so the extent of this was perhaps the biggest surprise for me. This suburban agriculture was always slightly out of sight so I don’t have photographs to share: at one point on our walk through Rouge Park, Cate Sandilands gestured to a corn field on the other side of a thicket of trees; we passed others while on our shuttle bus. Nevertheless, we heard stories that revealed the contested place of agriculture in Rouge Park. Officials from Parks Canada maintain that private farming is an essential part of the mandate of the new “national urban park,” but they did not mention, as Cate did, that currently this agriculture is mostly industrial, chemically-intensive monocropping. Many people now involved with Rouge Park are pressing for the discontinuation of this practice through the eventual revocation of leases and purchase of lands. In the meantime, the presence of profitable agriculture in the area is recognized by many, at the very least, to curtail further housing development. We did not hear from farm owners or labourers about what it means to them to cultivate and work agricultural land in the suburbs of Canada’s largest city.

Much of the story of agriculture in the suburbs was encapsulated at the first stop on our tour, the Markham Museum. This museum, with many nods to (and heritage buildings from) its rural past, has made a creditable transition in its mandate to represent the story of “settlement” in Markham up to the present, incorporating the experiences of the most recent immigrant communities. Their current exhibition, “Farm to Table” (fig. 3), presents agricultural practices from the early years of settler colonization to the farming taking place in the city today, reflecting also the ethnic diversity of the populations involved in these industries. Wall panels display recent and historical photographs interspersed with text celebrating the continuation of Markham’s “healthy and abundant food supply,” while also warning that “between 2001 and 2006 the amount of farmland in Markham decreased by 43%.” It remains to be seen what the future holds for Markham or for agriculture in the suburbs.

Fig 3.) "Farm to Table" exhibition at the Markham Museum. Photo: Sara Spike
Fig 3.) “Farm to Table” exhibition at the Markham Museum. Photo: Sara Spike

I certainly did not think that I would be writing an agricultural roundup following a weekend in the suburbs of Toronto. But it seems to me that this is one meaningful way to challenge myths about the uniformity of landscape and population in this supposedly most homogenous of places. It also underscores for me that our more general interpretations of Canadian history must continue to move away from easy distinctions and definitions of place, to embrace and reflect the ambiguities, overlap, and continuities in landscape, ecology, and culture across human settlements throughout the country.

Sara Spike is a PhD Candidate in History at Carleton University where her research focuses on histories of visual culture and rural places in Canada. Her dissertation in progress is titled “Local Seers and Modern Sights: Cultural Histories of Vision in Rural Nova Scotia, 1880-1910.”

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