Editor’s note: This is the second post in an occasional series entitled “Canopy,” in which leading environmental historians and historical geographers in and of Canada reflect on the field’s past, present, and future, as well as their journeys into and through it. In this interview, series editor Tina Adcock speaks with Laura Jean Cameron, a professor in the Department of Geography and Planning at Queen’s University at Kingston.
Tell us about how you became interested in studying historical interactions between humans and the non-human world. What key choices, encounters, or moments led you to become a historical geographer of Canada?
To get at the roots of it, we’d need to acknowledge “my family and other animals.” My mother was something of an environmental activist, the big fight in her day being saving farmland from suburban development. My father had a phenomenal memory for history and his own struggles in school made him an empathetic teacher. I had three siblings but much of my time was spent with my friend Marla, a female Gerald Durrell who befriended strays of any species. She had brown skin and got teased for looking “Indian.”
These close relations were formative. However, my serious interest in histories of nature and place began with a series of inner and outer “shocks” in the early 1990s when I was working on a master’s degree in history at UBC. I learned of a large lake that had existed near my hometown of Chilliwack until it was drained in the 1920s. I was astonished at not knowing anything about it though I had lived there my whole life. The flood of questions that followed, not least “cui bono?”, never receded.
The next shock was perhaps most akin to a gestalt switch. Walking with Naxaxalhts’i, Albert (Sonny) McHalsie of the Stó:lō Nation, listening to histories I had never learned before, anchored by placenames in the Halq’emeylem language I had never heard, my home landscapes were radically defamiliarized. Downriver in Vancouver, Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en elders had recently testified before BC’s Supreme Court about their land using their oral histories, placenames and songs—and the judge ruled against their claim and against their submission, citing his “tin ear.” We children of the xwelitem (settlers, literally “hungry ones”) hadn’t known it playing basketball with the Chilliwack “Frontiersmen” and “Tillicums” at school as we grew up, but settler colonial privilege and power was maintained through our very bodies, our trained deafness and our selective blindness.
The third shock was an intense bout of intellectual questioning, initially experienced as dissonance. I worked in a junior capacity for the Western Canada Wilderness Committee in the years leading up to the summer of ’93 in Clayoquot Sound and what became the largest act of civil disobedience in the history of Canada. I recall some heavy discussions with “the public” as well as my brother, who had gone to cut trees for a logging company right after high school. But it was Bill Cronon’s insights on the “troubles with wilderness,”  especially as a “flight from history,” that really compelled me to sharpen my arguments for caring about wild places. It is the kinship I feel with wildness, not any pure category like wilderness, that remains a prime mover in much of what I do.
How has your training as a historical geographer with environmental interests influenced the way your career has unfolded, as a researcher, teacher, and/or community member?
I wanted first to be a writer. My role model was my great aunt Margaret Lang Hastings. She never finished junior high but became a local historian of the BC Council of Women and her town of White Rock. At UBC, we didn’t have any courses in environmental history but we were blessed with several inspiring historians of Canada as professors. That said, Canadian history didn’t sit high in the prestige hierarchy and local history was a category of derision. When I began, there was only one woman faculty member in the Department, Dianne Newell. What should have been another of my “shocks” was just part of the very normalized male closed-door atmosphere at the top of Buchanan Tower.
Dianne was a tremendous mentor and a singular exemplar for young women scholars in the programme. Her multidisciplinary historical research on the law and the Aboriginal fisheries of the Pacific Coast (which became Tangled Webs of History) was rich context for budding historians of the environment in that period. Her historical geographer husband Arthur “Skip” Ray had quietly become an expert witness for the aforementioned Delgamuukw trial. It was seeing them and other UBC professors like Julie Cruikshank take action on the case on its way to the highest courts of Canada that made me want training in disciplines that can act. At one point Skip handed me the 1956 book Man’s Role in Changing the Face of the Earth and told me gently that geographers had been doing much in the area of environment for a very long time.
With the support of a Commonwealth scholarship and my husband, sound artist Matt Rogalsky, I went to check out the historical geography community in the UK, at Cambridge. My “local history” work, involving key sites of ecological fieldwork, also led me to connect with faculty and students in the history of science. My interest in this area had been fanned earlier by the late, great Stephen Straker. I’ve always been struck by how the “local”—that closest in—interconnects with things ostensibly much further afield. Connecting these things continues to animate what I do, whether it is uncovering links between histories of ecology and psychology, teaching about commodity chains, researching early field-recording practice, sitting/learning on the Belle Island Caretaker’s Council, or, every morning, being in my “sit spot” in the backyard.
How has the field of Canadian environmental history and historical geography changed over the course of your career? What have been some of the key developments, in your view?
I think the field has become more “participatory,” whether that involves decolonial and environmental activism, community outreach or, in various ways, interdisciplinary collaboration. I look to my students for ways forward there.
Indigenous scholars are reshaping academia. Of late there is more work that conceives Canadian history and environment in a transnational or translocal framework: I think that is positive because it involves us in crucial conversations about interconnectivity and the scales of environmental change. Methodological diversity and experimentation has made for new empirical and theoretical insights. The NiCHE network seems to have “worked” in many ways and become a model for others, especially for graduate student development.
As a member of the “canopy” generation, beginning to feel more responsible for the acronyms and words and textbooks that shape us, I thought it might interest NiCHE’s readership to know that we likely owe the term “niche” as much to Marie Stopes as Charles Elton. And, to know that JB Mitchell, the author of the first historical geography textbook in English, was a woman. She provides few clues for her gender but she gives us some good ideas, like: the more we know about place, the more we owe to its flourishing.  Things still circle round though learning never stops.
After my master’s degree I went to work for the Stó:lō Nation on the curriculum they were developing for the BC Ministry of Education.  One of the topics I was assigned focused on the legal system and Aboriginal fishing rights. My father had recently retired from his job teaching Canadian law at Chilliwack’s high school and I went to him for help. It was transforming for our own relationship as he shared with me his legal, pedagogical and historical knowledge but also began to confront its gaps and denials. Unlearning which involves the divestment of settler colonial power is tough, and the work is emotional too.
What is the greatest challenge that Canadian environmental history and historical geography faces today? What is the field’s greatest opportunity at this moment in time?
I’m writing this on the Ides of March. It also happens to be the day of the Global Climate Protest, inspired by the 16-year-old activist, Greta Thunberg. At Queen’s, where I work, the students came out in force this time and marched to City Hall to demand tangible action following Kingston’s declaration of a Climate Emergency. A young woman from my Geography 101 class last term came up to say hello. Her sign read: “I want to die of old age, not climate change.” I carried my desk globe to the protest as a “sign” of care because I didn’t know what words to write. And I’m still unsure.
I think the biggest challenge is the one we’re currently handing our children—and those seven generations down the line. Our biggest opportunity is to ensure they can write in their histories about how we acted in time.
Reflecting upon your experiences as a historical geographer of Canada, what further thoughts would you like to share about the field’s past, present, or future?
May I share a poem? This one is from Mary Oliver, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who died this past January at the age of 83.
Instructions for living a life:
Tell about it.
 William Cronon, “The Trouble With Wilderness,” in William Cronon, ed., Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1995), 69-90.
 J.B. Mitchell, Historical Geography, 3rd impression (London: The English Universities Press, 1963), 332.
 Keith Thor Carlson, ed., You Are Asked to Witness: The Stó:lō in Canada’s Pacific Coast History (Chilliwack: Stó:lō Heritage Trust, 1997).
Latest posts by Laura Jean Cameron (see all)
- Canopy: An Interview with Laura Jean Cameron - April 2, 2019
- Recollecting 1975: The British-Canadian Symposium on Historical Geography in Kingston, Ontario - February 18, 2013
- Techno-natures 2012: Geography & History Exchange - November 12, 2012
- A Weekend of Percussive Sounds Of & In The Environment - May 6, 2012
- Flying University of Transnational Humanities July 15-18, 2012 - February 17, 2012
- Kiitos and Mosquitoes: Cameron reports from the 6th ESEH Conference in Turku, Finland - July 3, 2011
- Fashioning Feathers: Dead Birds, Millinery Crafts and the Plumage Trade - May 10, 2011
- Radical History Review’s Special Issue on Transnational Environments - August 5, 2010
- Animals & Animality Across the Humanities and Social Sciences: An Interdisciplinary Coming-Together - July 8, 2010
- Winners Announced for Signs of the Season Photo Contest! - May 10, 2010