09.30 The Limits of the Frontier: Historic Sites and Sustainability in Western Canada
Can historic sites serve as places to discuss the roots of contemporary environmental issues?
Since the 1970s, we have acknowledged the human imprint in national parks as “cultural landscapes” rather than wilderness. But historic sites have rarely been rewritten through an environmental lens. They remain tied to a story of nation-building and an older idea of heroic human enterprise. For Parks Canada, the agency responsible for Canada’s national historic sites, the land is generally backdrop or raw material to “human creativity.”
But whether people saw it as territory, resources, or viewscape, nature has been a central force in shaping the Canadian nation-state. Despite this, there is very little scholarship on historic sites as landscapes or environmental artefacts. Scholars have focused on the politics of memory and commemoration; little work considers environmental history at historic places, or how they might inform discussions of sustainability. In 2009, Graeme Wynn and Matthew Evenden wrote that, “there have been few efforts to situate canonical events and problems in Canadian history within an environmental context. What do environmental historians have to say about the building of the railroad, the growth of the welfare state or Quebec nationalism?”Can we rewrite a national narrative—a story physically manifest at historic sites—to acknowledge the environmental context and environmental effects of human action?
This paper will imagine how such a revision might look at the Bar U Ranch in southern Alberta, Canada. In 1882, the federal government granted large leases in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains to investors from eastern Canada. Like other elements of national policy, these leases were designed to make the distant northwest profitable, and assert Canadian sovereignty against American interests. The microclimate and fescue grassland here was ideally suited to herd grazing, and the picturesque landscape attracted numerous Anglo-Canadian “gentleman ranchers.” Although many ranches were broken up as agricultural settlement extended westward, the Bar U remained an influential working ranch until the 1950s. It was thus an ideal choice for heritage designation in the 1980s, at a time when Parks Canada wanted to diversify western historic sites beyond fur trade and Mounted Police posts. But even as a twentieth-century site, the Bar U conveys an older view of the frontier: as both a wilderness (expansive, with inexhaustible potential) and a garden (productive, habitable, well-governed). This is both convenient and highly problematic in terms of how we approach our natural resources.
What can the Bar U teach us about the ecological costs of a frontier mythology? This paper will suggest three possible answers. The ranch was very much an emerging transcontinental network of industrial food production, which has had an enormous cost to regional ecologies and practices. While ranchers are concerned about exploratory gas drilling, there has been oil and gas production in the area for almost as long as there have been ranches; Turner Valley Gas Plant National Historic Site (1914) is only thirty kilometres from the Bar U. This history of competing resource interests is profoundly important to understanding the state of affairs in Western Canada today. Finally, ranches like the Bar U were symptomatic of national policies that framed the west as a hinterland for Eastern markets and control—exactly what Western Provinces have challenged so aggressively in recent decades. As Canada approaches its 150th anniversary, the ranch marks an early gauge of the mechanisms and tensions of Confederation. A new reading of historic site literature, Parks Canada operations, and western myth, is informed by environmental history and the debate about the role of “active history.”