Unearthed: Catherine Paulin

Image courtesy of Thermo Fisher Scientific.

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Editor’s note: This post is part of an occasional series entitled “Unearthed.” Launched by Heather Green in 2019 and currently edited by Justin Fisher, Unearthed features emerging environmental historians in Canada discussing what brought them to the field, why they value environmental history, and how it connects with life outside of academia. Find all the interviews from this series here.


At Lachine Canal in Montreal. Photo credit: Catherine Paulin

Tell us a bit about yourself. What is your background (academic, life experience, hobbies, etc.)?

I’ve always been proud of my roots! My father grew up on a farm in Ontario and enrolled in the army at 17 in the 1950s to finally join the Royal Canadian Air Force as a jet pilot. My mom, a French Quebecer, lovingly cared for me at home. My grandma, from my mother’s side, worked in “les manufactures” in Hochelaga, Montreal, and my grandfather was a janitor for the Montreal school board. It was fascinating growing up with two cultures/languages constantly in Quebec. I went to school in English because of my dad’s education, but my mom’s side of the family only speaks French. While having a caring and hard-working family, higher ed was not something that ran in the family. It meant I felt lost navigating any post-secondary educational options. When I was 15, I spoke to a career advisor at my high school and said history was my favourite school topic and wanted to become a historian. I’ll always remember how she looked at me quizzically and told me that wasn’t a “real” job and that I had to find a different career.

Undecided at first, I earned a diploma in interior decorating and worked for several years. My love of anthropology eventually brought me to CEGEP, where I slowly rediscovered my passion for history. I then went to McGill University and now have a double major in History and Anthropology with a minor in Sociology (why not).

After my bachelor’s degree, I started my M.A. in history with Michèle Dagenais at Université de Montréal (UdeM). At the time, my dad was in his late 70s, and we learned he had idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (an incurable disease of unknown cause). I took care of him as much as I could until his death in 2015. I then finished my M.A. with and thanks to Michèle’s support and decided to keep going from there; L’UdeM feels like a second home by now.

What brought you to the field of environmental history?

At McGill, the anthropology courses I followed focused in the field of archaeology mostly. I learned about spatial analysis, materiality, and discovered my curiosity for maps. I especially liked historical archaeology (theoretical and practical; I went to Louisbourg from Parcs Canada for some excavations in 2012). But, it was in medical anthropology that I first read Donna Haraway (A Cyborg Manifesto), which led me to read When Species Meet. That’s when I started to feel compelled about human/animal relations. When I think about it, those papers paired with my love of animals and the outdoors (I started downhill and cross-country skiing when I was 4, and horseback riding when I was 12) and my interest in human behaviour somehow led me to environmental history. Discussions I had with Professor Dagenais before starting my M.A.  helped me focus my interests, and it’s really thanks to her that I now know what environmental history is and just how vast and interesting it can be.

What did you want to be when you grew up? Does that overlap with your decision to study environmental history?

When I was young, I wanted to be a marine biologist for the longest time! I think when I eventually figured out that I could study history and still have an interest in the outdoors, the environment and animals, that kind of settled it for me!

In three sentences or fewer, tell us the focus of your current research.

In a nutshell, I’ve been studying the exportation of cattle from Montreal and Quebec City towards Great Britain between 1830-1914. I’m interested in the human animal as well as spatial relations that develop with this type of trade.

Meat trolley for Mr. Scanlon, Montreal, QC, 1895. Wm. Notman & Son. McCord Museum Archives.

What part of studying environmental history most excites you? What is most daunting?

I’m fascinated with how everything connects spatially and relationally, and going out in the field and actually seeing the vestiges of what I study feels special… Understanding the relations humans and nonhumans entertain now and from where it grows/changes as well as where these dynamics developed.

The most daunting is reading about the difficult exchanges between humans and animals throughout my time period, such as the mistreatment of animals, sickness, disease and the pain and suffering of nonhuman beings.

Has the ongoing pandemic affected the way you think about your research or the field more broadly?

I guess you could say I see why it’s important for humans to rethink their place/role in the environment, and our relation to nonhuman animals and productivity in general. It also really shone a light on some of my archival research about risks of zoonotic diseases and pleuropneumonia in exported cattle.

Other than your current focus, what is another area of environmental history that interests you?

I’m interested in understanding how nonhumans and things interact with and affect the environment more broadly, and I would include in that animals (of course) but also plants, water, natural resources and features. I like witnessing how everything ties together. This is a broad generalization, but as humans, there’s this tendency we have to think that we are central to so much, and that we affect everything without being affected. I feel we do have a great impact (and definitely not always positive) but we overemphasize our role and de-emphasize everything else. I like understanding how new perspectives can just maybe make us, as a species, a bit humbler, and help us rethink our relationship to the environment and other beings.

Where is your favourite place to be?

This is a hard question! But I have to go with, more broadly, anywhere by a body of water! I love islands in general, which partly explains why one of my favourite places to be is at home in Montreal.

Ever since I’ve been 8 years old and discovered L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, I’ve wanted to visit Prince Edward Island. I eventually went on a summer vacation with my parents when I was younger (10 or so?) and since then, I think I’ve spent at least 4 summer vacations there. I wish I could go back every year.

There’s also something magical about camping near a lake or the ocean, waking up in the morning and drinking a freshly poured cup of coffee while seeing the sun come up.

Montreal. Photo credit: Catherine Paulin

Finally, do you have a favourite book, podcast, film, work of art, or other medium related to the natural world that you would recommend others check out?

I’ve already mentioned Donna Haraway’s work, but I also really enjoyed and felt inspired by Animal Metropolis: Histories of Human-Animal Relations in Urban Canada edited by Joanna Dean, Darcy Ingram, and Christabelle Sethna.

It might sound tacky, but I think the most beautiful work of art is what’s out there to explore. I’m thankful for all of the beautiful spaces and landscapes we can discover in urban, rural and natural Canada. If I need time away from the city, I enjoy going to a SEPAQ for a hike.

Parc National de la Jacques-Cartier. Photo credit: Catherine Paulin

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Catherine Paulin

Catherine is a PhD student at l’Université de Montréal. She studies environmental history and human/animal relations in the 19th-20th centuries in Montreal. Catherine est doctorante à l’Université de Montréal. Elle étudie l’histoire environnementale et les relations humains/animaux aux 19e-20e siècles à Montréal.

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