September 5, 2008
September 5, 2008
Photo by Mark Ferguson
By Brette Ehalt
Merle Massie believes that "history is about creating and shaping identity" and currently, the Saskatchewan-born PhD student in history is interested in the identity of her home province—and how she might, in fact, change it.
Massie explains that the majority of written histories dating back to the early 1900s portray Saskatchewan with a "southern" bent, characterizing the province as a place of wheat, sod shacks, and grain elevators on flat and treeless plains.
"Maps even stopped at the treeline," she adds, pointing to the Saskatchewan page in a 1979 Atlas of Canada and the World.
"My intention," says Massie, "is to break the so-called 'classic' image of Saskatchewan which, sadly, still dominates today." At a recent conference, Massie watched an eastern Canadian colleague select a photograph of a wheat field with a dirt road and a blue sky overhead as a representative image of Saskatchewan. She wants to recreate the Saskatchewan image to include the north, starting with one area that she holds dear—the forest fringe near her hometown of Paddockwood, about 50 km north of Prince Albert.
Growing up in what Massie calls the "transition zone" between the boreal north and the prairie south was, she says, "my family's idea of heaven. As kids, we went haying one day and blueberry picking the next. We knew what to do with a trap, gun, and fishhook, and when we said we were 'going to the lake,' that meant we were driving ten minutes away."
Massie is primarily interested in the rich history of this transition zone, and has begun her research by delving into its local history books and archival sources, and by conducting oral interviews with local residents.
One example of what she has found is the contentious debate over trees in the area. The rise of tourism and the Emma Lake Artists Camp (now Kenderdine Campus) in the 1930s began to turn trees from commodities into objects of beauty. "There was an environm"ental shift, if you will, that pitted those whose livelihoods depended on resource extraction against those who promoted the natural beauty of the wilderness."
This winter, Massie will be teaching a senior-level class on her research. The class, entitled Wheat and Wilderness: Canadian Regions, Boundaries, and the Places in Between, will inform students that the "regional concepts" which divide Canada into easily described units like the prairies or the north actually over-simplify Canadian history.
"Perception," she adds, "is the key. When we identify regions, we impose boundaries and create static geographies, lifecycles, and economics that really have no bearing on reality. When we define Saskatchewan as a 'prairie' province only, we allow one landscape to dominate our history, politics, and culture. I'm working to change this."
Brette Ehalt writes profiles of grad students for the College of Graduate Studies and Research.