Canadian History and Environment Summer Symposium (CHESS) 2018: Prairie Landscapes and Environmental Change in the 20th Century

Prairie landscape, Saskatchewan credit: The Métis Francophone community of Saskatchewan

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The 2018 Canadian History and Environment Summer Symposium is a new take on a long-standing annual NiCHE event. Since 2006, CHESS has been the focal event of environmental history in Canada. And twelve years after Geoff Cunfer and Bill Waiser hosted participants at Wanuskewin Heritage Park, CHESS returns to Saskatoon to explore Prairie Landscapes and Environmental Change in the Twentieth Century. New this year, CHESS 2018 will feature both a field school (May 31-June 1) and a writing workshop (June 1-2).

Co-sponsored by the Network in Canadian History and Environment (NiCHE), and both the Department of History and the School of Environment and Sustainability at the University of Saskatchewan, CHESS 2018 brings together a diverse range of scholars at various stages of their career interested in the history of the relationship between people and the environment.

Prairie Landscape Road Trip
Photo by the author

Over three days, participants will explore the diverse histories of Canada’s grassland landscapes in the field, and workshop a series of articles for publication in the new, peer-reviewed, online journal, Papers in Canadian Environment and Society. Over the course of the day on May 31 and the morning of June 1, more than forty people will travel together to historic sites in central Saskatchewan to consider various human efforts to transform or conserve the Prairie landscape. In the afternoon of June 1 and throughout the day on June 2, a smaller group will provide feedback to nine invited authors on pre-circulated papers focused on Canadian environmental history.

The field school on the first day and a half of the symposium will include visits at the Blaine Lake Doukhobor Settlement Area, the Seager Wheeler Experimental Farm National Historic Site, Gabriel’s Crossing Métis Heritage Site near Batoche, the Saskatoon Forestry Farm, and the Federal Plant Gene Resources of Canada Genebank at the University of Saskatchewan.

After journeying north from Saskatoon, the CHESS group will tour Doukhobor cultural landscapes in the Riverlands Heritage Preservation Region outside Blaine Lake. Local historian John Kalmakoff and Doukhobor historian Dr. Ashleigh Androsoff will provide a bus tour with a few stops at key sites.

Doukhobor Prayer Home, Blaine Lake

At noon, at the Doukhobor Prayer Home in Blaine Lake, Drs. David Moon and. Geoff Cunfer will deliver a pair of public keynote talks on comparative environmental histories of grasslands agriculture on the Russian Steppe and the American Great Plains. Moon will explore the connections between the development of agriculture on the Canadian Prairies, Great Plains of the United States, and steppes of Russia and the Ukraine. Cunfer will explore the  complex ways that farmers in North America, Europe, and Latin America managed energy flows, maintained soil nutrients, and manipulated natural processes for human goals during the past two hundred years in an effort to answer a challenging question: “How sustainable were farm systems in Europe, in North America, and in Latin America?”

Seager Wheeler farm house and visitor centre.


From Blaine Lake, the group will travel to the Seager Wheeler National Historic Site where local historian Larry Epp and Dr. Peter Anderson will provide a brief tour and details about the development of Marquis Wheat and federal experimental farms across Canada.


Gabriel’s Crossing historic plaque


The remainder of the day will be spent at the site of Gabriel Dumont’s Ferry Crossing, near Batoche. Métis elder Maria Campbell and Métis historian Cheryl Troupe will give a second pair of talks at Gabriel’s Crossing near Batoche. Campbell will focus on the local history of the Métis Community and Gabriel’s Crossing, while Troupe will share her research examining the spatial relationships between Métis community formation, land use, and food history in the Qu’Appelle Valley, Saskatchewan, drawing parallels between the Qu’Appelle Valley and Batoche. Her presentation will situate these two communities in early twentieth-century prairie Métis history more generally. Both talks will endeavour to extend our knowledge of Métis history and the Batoche community beyond the 1885 conflict.

Sutherland Forest Nursery Station
credit: Friends of the Forestry Farm

On the morning of June 1, CHESS participants will travel to the Saskatoon Forest Farm, where Sue Barrett and members of the Friends of the Forestry Farm will provide a tour of the site where the Sutherland Forestry Nursery Station experimented with various species of trees for farm shelterbelts. Our last stop will be the Canadian Federal Genebank facility at the U of S, where curator Dr. Axel Diederichsen will provide a tour of the repository for plant genetic resources for food and agriculture in Canada.

The workshop will follow immediately after the end of the field school, and is intended to provide nine invited authors the opportunity to receive constructive comments and suggestions on pre-circulated papers. Each author will deliver a 10-minute presentation to introduce the discussion, followed by 50 minutes for feedback from participants. Authors will be given an additional two months to make any changes before submitting a manuscript to the editors of NiCHE’s Papers in Canadian History and Environment. Papers will then proceed through the peer-review process and the accepted papers will be published online and open-access on the NiCHE website. The first paper in this new scholarly journal by Matt Dyce and Jonathan Peyton, “Magical Regionalism: Canadian Geography on Screen in the 1950s,” was published in February 2018, and we expect that a number of additional papers resulting from the CHESS workshop will be published in 2019.

The CHESS 2018 would like to thank the Network in Canadian History and Environment, the School of Environment and Sustainability and the Department of History at the University of Saskatchewan, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada for their generous support.

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Andrew is Associate Professor in the Department of History at the University of Saskatchewan. His current research includes the history of sustainability and tourism on the Canadian Shield in Muskoka, Ontario; the environmental, social, and economic history of coal in Canada; and the role of energy in shaping agroecosystems on the Great Plains of the United States. His first book, Making Muskoka: Tourism, Rural Identity, and Sustainability, 1870-1920, was published in 2022 with UBC Press.


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