Editor’s note: This is the eighteenth post in an occasional series entitled “Rhizomes,” which highlights the experiences of environmental historians working beyond the professoriate. In this interview, series editor Tina Adcock speaks with Peter Fortna, the founder and co-owner of Willow Springs Strategic Solutions.
Tell us about your path from graduate school to your current career. What key choices, encounters, or moments brought you to where you are today?
As with many graduate students, my path was not planned. An undergraduate advisor at the University of Calgary recommended an opportunity to undertake my MA in history at Memorial University in Newfoundland. After completing my MA there, I applied and was accepted to the PhD program at the University of Alberta. Unfortunately, my second graduate degree didn’t quite go as I had hoped. My supervisor and I didn’t see eye-to-eye, and I was “orphaned” within a few weeks of starting the program.
This experience led me to re-evaluate my options and consider how I might redeploy my academic training into a career outside of the academy. My first step was to apply for a co-op position with the Alberta Museums Association, which I was lucky enough to be offered that summer. This position really opened my eyes to the wide range of employment opportunities available to historians. Since I still had funding, I chose to continue in the PhD program with a minimal goal of completing my comprehensive exams, if for no other reason than to have something to show for my time.
This experience was life-changing. It gave me the opportunity to learn important lessons from community Elders and record their stories for the first time.
Once I completed those exams, I decided that the academy was not for me. I began the long and arduous journey into the “real world.” It’s hard to remember exactly how many jobs I applied for, but it was probably in the range of 100. I had approximately 10 interviews, including one in my hometown of Airdrie to compile a local community history (a job I didn’t get). Shortly after this rejection, I applied for a position with the McMurray Métis to help them complete an oral history project. This experience was life-changing. It gave me the opportunity to learn important lessons from community Elders and record their stories for the first time.
A year later, once that work was nearly complete, I took an position with the Fort McKay Métis. After two years there, I found that I missed doing history and working with knowledge holders. I decided to start my own company, WSSS, which has been in operation since 2012. The name comes from my grandfather’s Willow Springs Ranch, which was located just west of Airdrie, Alberta. I currently work on a range of projects primarily for Indigenous communities that include community histories, impact assessments, and traditional land-use studies. You can find a selection of these at www.willowspringsss.com.
What do you like most about your current career? What things would you change about it, if you could?
In my current career, my colleagues and I get to work closely with a broad range of Indigenous communities on a variety of projects that require imagination and thoughtfulness. I also like the fact that we’re typically asked to answer questions that are important to communities, often supporting them as they attempt to rectify historical injustices. Most recently this has included work completed with Sabina Trimble on behalf of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation with regards to their expulsion from Wood Buffalo National Park. This project has allowed us to use skills honed as academic historians and anthropologists. We combine oral history with archival and archaeological research to help this community tell the story of their displacement.
I was also privileged to assist with the Conklin Housing and Homelessness project. Government policies over the long term have made land ownership nearly impossible for the majority of people living in Conklin, a hamlet in northeastern Alberta. Working together with community researchers, we were able to provide a community-based perspective on housing and homelessness there. Drawing on the project’s findings, the community convinced a major oil sands producer in the region to make a $50-million investment into the region’s housing, which will hopefully help address this long-standing problem. This was an exciting outcome.
Consulting work is often constrained by factors beyond our company’s control. Timelines, budgets, and changes in community leadership can all impact how projects are designed and ultimately carried out. Our work is often completed for a limited audience, and we can’t engage as fully with the broader public as we would sometimes like. This is what made both the ACFN and Conklin projects so exciting. In both these cases, the work became public and has been used (or is being used) by communities to negotiate redress with the government and surrounding industry players.
Another challenge is that many of the questions that we uncover often extend beyond the scope of study we’re given by our clients. We typically can’t follow those questions to their full conclusion. For example, when researching housing and homelessness in Conklin, it became clear that government policies around land tenure that were developed in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s institutionalized poverty in many of northern Alberta’s Indigenous communities. Thousands of pages of government correspondence exist, describing how this situation evolved and became entrenched. However, our project funding only allowed us to skim the surface of this important topic.
Which aspects of your graduate training in environmental history have helped you most in your current career?
One of the key things I’ve taken from this training is the importance of understanding and foregrounding places and voices in the research we do. Wherever possible, community voices are placed at the forefront and given agency. I view my role less as that of an expert historian than a knowledge facilitator, someone who creates space for community wisdom to be shared.
Community researchers and directors assist with all aspects of most of our projects. They do everything from developing key research questions to helping analyze results and interpretations. Their inclusion matters, because projects such as those completed on behalf of ACFN and Conklin are ultimately undertaken by the community and are used by the community to defend their rights.
What kinds of skills or training do you wish you could have acquired in graduate school, in light of your current work?
History departments and their graduate programs would be wise to emphasize the importance of community partnerships and the co-production of research. This would help reinvigorate the practice of academic history and demonstrate to a wider audience how academic research can serve the greater good. Many communities that I work for have numerous questions that would benefit from deeper engagements with the academy and partnerships that would benefit from the support of scholars. Unfortunately, this work takes time, and most faculty members are already stretched by teaching and administrative commitments. Academic researchers could benefit greatly from working in close collaboration with communities to answer questions important to them. In the long term, such a move would bring new purpose to history departments and demonstrate their value to the wider public.
Academic researchers could benefit greatly from working in close collaboration with communities to answer questions important to them. In the long term, such a move would bring new purpose to history departments and demonstrate their value to the wider public.
As someone who independently completes research on behalf of communities, I often can’t access scholarship that could enrich my work. It is frustrating that key articles are held behind university library and academic journal paywalls. The next generation of academic researchers should actively seek to make their research publicly available. In my mind there is no excuse for any academic to publish a book or article that is placed behind a paywall, particularly if their research is funded using Canadian tax dollars. The move toward open access should be accelerated, and people in all positions should push to ensure their research is made as accessible as possible.
What advice, thoughts, or reflections arising from your experiences would you offer to graduate students studying environmental history?
Work on questions that are important and serve the wider public. There have been so many injustices in this world that need the next generation of historians to explore with new and fresh eyes. I would also advise students to seek out opportunities to work with communities, particularly Indigenous communities, to co-produce research that brings their stories to light. As has been explained to me, it is impossible to come to a place of reconciliation without truth and it is vitally important for those with academic training to help communities to understand and share this truth. This said, such work needs to be completed in a good way. It should involve the communities as co-producers wherever possible, with researchers working with community members to answer questions important to them.
Finally, don’t be afraid to ask questions of those working in fields of interest to you. Professional historians like me are typically happy to talk about our craft and to help young professionals grow. It has been a great privilege to see former employees take on positions in the academy, governments, community organizations, and in other consultancies. I hope to continue this mentoring and help others continue to undertake community-engaged research.