Moored in Space by Drifting through Time

Some Thoughts on Feeling Grounded by Local History

If you read the Alberta Museums Association’s “Sustainability Working Group Recommendations Report,” you’ll find descriptions of five kinds of museum sustainability, one of them perhaps somewhat surprising:

Health and Well-being sustainability: refers to “the condition or state of being well, contented and satisfied with life … Well-being (and so quality of life) has several components, including physical, mental, social, [intellectual,] and spiritual. Well-being and quality of life are also used in a collective sense to describe how well society satisfies people’s wants and needs.”iv; “a shared sense of meaning and purpose is the single attitude most strongly associated with community well-being. The process of arriving at collective meanings is central to the health of a community.”v [emphasis and superscript in original]

Lest you fear, as I do, that the emphasis on collective meaning will produce homogeneity by erasing disagreement, the document goes on to address cultural diversity:

Social sustainability: “deepening and diversifying relationships, aiming to reflect the diversity of society in all that they do”viii: engaged in socially responsible work that affects real social and environmental change with the potential to create public benefit on a larger scale.ix [emphasis and superscript in original]

Although I came across these passages in the course of grant writing at a local history museum which was, until recently, my place of employment, I found that in the last two years or so I have returned to this again and again outside of work.

Fort McMurray–my place of residence between April 2016 and last week–is a strange community, one with an identity very much up for debate. It is not clear what collective meanings its citizens might share, and if there are any, I’m not sure how much I like them. I have had trouble reckoning with it as something of an outsider. It is a city of outsiders in a way unlike most other communities of its size, of course, with a high turnover rate in its population, but I am also something of a political outsider, a leftist in this most (economically) right-wing of cities. It is a hard city to make friends in at the best of times and I found it harder to do so because I knew I would be leaving in just a few years. How could I find a place for myself in this city? How could I ground myself if I knew I would not be putting down roots?1

An aerial photograph of downtown Fort McMurray. Highway 63 frames the left side of the photograph, while the Athabasca flows just below the horizon at the top of the image.

Photo of Fort McMurray, 1991, by Gord McKenna at Flickr, with a Creative Commons License.

I came up with no solution until I had already accomplished it. The historical society operates two museum sites, a historical village and a historical shipyard. The shipyard is open seasonally, so in July and August of 2016 I supervised the summer students there and sometimes sat at point of sale. Many visitors were surprised to learn that mid-continental Fort McMurray has a history of shipping and would ask me to give a brief explanation of the content we present in the museum. Possessing a fairly comprehensive but at first incohesive knowledge of the river transportation history of northern Alberta, I began to develop a condensed narrative version of that understanding. River and rail transportation was once sufficiently central to Fort McMurray’s economy (between, roughly, the 1870s and the 1970s for river, the 1920s and the 1960s for rail) that the little narrative worked well as an overarching framework for the first half of the region’s history, as I would find out.

The following autumn, after the Labour Day weekend, I returned to my office in the village. At that time the village was not yet open to the public; it had been damaged in a natural disaster in 2013 and we were still repairing it. Repairing and upgrading, I should say instead, which involved historical research. We had specialist consultants developing new interpretation which we reviewed, edited, discussed, and ultimately approved. This of course involved processing large amounts of information about local history, organized around either families, buildings, or industries. Unlike previous years at the museum as a summer student or intern, I had an advantage when trying to assimilate all of these details. I was able to slot the anecdotes, the openings and closures, births and deaths and arrivals and departures, into the story I had formed at the Shipyard. Not only had the anecdotes become easier to remember, but they had also grown in significance. They began adding up to something. I started to see how a late 19th-century fur trading outpost became this strange thing it is today.

I do not use the word “see” lightly. I have a pedestrian’s-eye-view of any place I live, since I do not drive. (This choice bewilders many residents of the city.) I take busses of course, but I also walk a lot. For instance, when I lived downtown I would almost always walk home from work, about a forty minute trip, even when the temperature was thirty to forty below. I also walked to the library out on Macdonald Island or took a bus so I could walk in the woods nearby. That slower pace and more direct experience of the path makes it easier to notice the layout of a place; if you have some knowledge of the region’s past, it also helps you locate that history concretely. I had seen photographs of the buildings in their original locations, and in a fuzzy sort of way I could superimpose those pictures, and the accompanying stories, as I walked or bussed by their former homes. Here is where the US Army camped in the 40s while coordinating their work on the Norman Wells pipeline. It was in those woods on that slope that the oblates built a retreat for the Grey Nuns, who ran the first hospital and the Catholic schools in Fort McMurray. This river is where bush pilots like Punch Dickins (after whom the Dickinsfield neighbourhood is named) and Wop May landed their float planes after running medicine and mail farther north. That street, on which I once lived with my parents, was named for the woods which formerly stood here and which were in turn named for the Russian aristocrat who trapped in them after fleeing the Bolshevik revolution. Also, it was to build these apartments that the city council bulldozed the Metis settlement after tricking its residents in a council meeting. (I know less of this last sort of history than I’d like, but I do know some of it.)

It felt to me like this knowledge, this experience, grounded me somewhat when I might otherwise feel unmoored–or, maybe more accurately, ground me more so I felt less unmoored. I felt connected to the city somehow, felt like the place had a significance in which I could participate. I have trouble articulating what sort of benefit it did me to feel grounded in this way. Perhaps it didn’t have any benefit after all. But the AMA’s report on sustainability suggests it should have improved my well-being somewhat. Perhaps it did; if I was unwell for most of my time in Fort McMurray, I was at least as unwell before I arrived, and while I was living there many factors were arrayed against my mental and spiritual health. Or if it did not help very much, perhaps the problem is that the meaning was not sufficiently collective; this local historical knowledge is not very widespread in the city’s residents, though collective meaning has some support from the Municipality’s project (on which we partnered with them) putting historical plaques with photographs and explanations of locations of historical importance throughout the city.

Although I know a bit about the Athabasca region’s ecology (much of it thanks to Patricia McCormack’s Fort Chipewyan and the Shaping of Canadian History, 1788-1920s), and although I felt a great awe for and affinity with Fort McMurray’s ravens, which are large and intelligent and relatively tolerant of humans, I did not spend much time learning more than I already knew about the region’s wildlife. Some of my friends might observe that I already knew a lot, but your mileage may vary. At any rate, I also felt a certain affinity, perhaps unwarranted, for the boreal forests around the city, but because I knew less about it, I do not think it had quite the same grounding effect.

I wasn’t entirely alone in examining these sorts of ideas. Around the time I started connecting history and place (time and space?), a similar observation came to my attention. Alexi Sargeant wrote a piece for American Conservative about Pokemon Go’s re-enchanting urban spaces. American Conservative is, as you would expect, a culturally conservative American publication and Sargeant’s article seems of a piece with an emphasis in American conservatism on creating thick local communities. My understanding, limited by the fact that this is not my wheelhouse, is that Sargeant has plenty of company–Rod Dreher, the Front Porch Republic, possibly the Josias, are all talking about creating thick local communities–and that they are mostly conservatives. That company is also unpalatable to me. As I wrote above, I am no longer very conservative at all. However, on this issue I do share their concern: I feel that I benefited from being grounded by local history, I suspect that human well-being depends on building strong communities, and I think that anyone who seeks to encourage human well-being should work on building strong communities by fostering awareness of local history and ecology. In this respect I guess I might be quite conservative.

In this post I have been operating under the assumption that building strong local communities is a conservative project; however, I am unsure of that assumption. Certainly the only white, affluent people who I see explicitly working on that project are conservatives, but I can think of non-white or non-affluent people working on similar projects, though not as explicitly. I once attended a walking tour of the history of activism in the Downtown East Side of Vancouver which was led in part by Jean Swanson (I alas forget the names of the other guides and speakers), and I know that various indigenous North American groups are working on VR/smartphone projects that digitally overlay cities with indigenous knowledge.

Is there a way to marry these sorts of projects? On the one hand, I think it is necessary for us, if we wish to flourish individually, to build strong local communities (perhaps with online networks as important, even vital, supplements). On the other hand, I worry that fully achieving the shared meanings and narratives described in the AMA Sustainability Report will necessarily erase certain experiences, identities, and needs; what the projects I cited above have in common is that they offer alternatives (indigenous oral wisdom; history of activism) to predominant narratives. I worry a lot about this idea of a single, shared narrative; I also worry that fear of such an imperialism of the imagination will prevent us from making healthy communities. My suspicion is that some people must attend more to the problem of homogenization and erasure than they do, but that I perhaps must attend more to the problem of isolation.

In the meantime, what can I do? Should I dig out tree identification books and commit to learning the local plants? Make a point of not just visiting the local historical societies (I usually do that anyway) but finding a way to learn the past well enough to superimpose it on the present? Will this truly help? Or is it an illusion of connection that replaces the real thing, which requires engaging with the people around me?

Reader, I will let you know what I find out.


1. Those readers who are not Canadian might not fully appreciate the situation. Fort McMurray is an urban service area of about 70,000 people in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo in northern Alberta, and is also one of the most notorious places in the country, infamous for its dependence on oil extraction. In particular, the oil is locked in oil sands rather than in liquid deposits, requiring open-pit mining and other more invasive procedures than the regular derricks. Sometimes called Fort McMoney, the region’s local extractive industries pay you very well if you are willing to move to this remote region in order to work for them; as a consequence, the wages of all other industries rise by necessity if they wish to retain any sort of labour force. Cost of living is commensurate, but the surplus between wages and cost of living is larger in gross terms than elsewhere; if you work and save money in Fort McMurray for a while, you can often develop savings which may not mean much there but will mean something elsewhere in the country. These economic incentives, combined with the hard winters and remote location, mean many residents are there for only a short time. I have found it unusual to meet anyone who has lived there for more than ten years. Almost everyone arrived within the decade. Furthermore, the people who move out there tend to be industrial workers, political conservatives, and rural-born, leading to a local culture which is less inclined to artistic or intellectual pursuits than I became accustomed to in Kingston and Vancouver, though that has improved somewhat in the last five years. It was also notorious in Alberta for drug use, gambling, prostitution, and other markers of a rough frontier community, but if it was ever really exceptional in that regard, it hasn’t been in the last ten years. Finally, Fort McMurray is notable for having more Newfoundlanders than any city except St. John’s, the capital of Newfoundland; since the Atlantic provinces have distinct regional cultures compared to the rest of Canada, Fort McMurray also tends to have pockets of Atlantic feeling despite being located in the middle of the continent.

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