Twenty years ago this month I stumbled back to Saskatchewan from a dreary and depressing year in Toronto and set forth hopefully on a path that would lead to an academic, research or analytical life.
I entered the Master of Arts in History program at the University of Saskatchewan, three and a half years after graduating with an MA in Journalism from the University of Western Ontario and finding myself getting poorer and poorer with each year that passed as a struggling journo. I was fascinated by many elements of both Prairie and British history and there were lots of possible topics for me to dig into and make a career out of researching and writing about. But I very quickly realized that I didn’t have the right stuff to become an academic or hardcore researcher. It just didn’t seem to be a natural fit for me, I discovered as I went through the first semester of my course work.
To excel in that world, I realized, required a relentless, ruthless dedication to winkling out the smallest details and staying atop and unbewildered by mountains of documents and information about finely refined and focused topics. I was, it became clear to me, much better suited for the hurly-burly of the news world, where one needs to leap from one complex and challenging issue to the next at a moment’s notice, but doesn’t need to stay focused, committed and dedicated to single large projects that are many years in length.
I realized this partly through just feeling it inside – and partly by studying beside a handful of people who absolutely seemed designed for the academic life. They were naturals, with the sort of focus, vision and confidence that I could tell would lead them onwards through an extremely competitive, demanding and often-exhausting journey towards eventual academic success. I had no doubt these people could drive themselves along a path that many, many of their fellow grad students would fail to keep on, either by crashing out of or just giving up on.
Fortunately for me, I was offered a good journalism job near the end of my first semester in the History MA program (this one here at the Western Producer that I still have) and I was able to chuck the academy for the newspaper and get back to what I was best at. But I’ve never forgotten those people who seemed like natural academics.
And right now two of the three or four of them that I remember envying 20 years ago are in the news – in good ways. Gordon Barnhart, who began working on his Ph.D. when I began my MA, has just been appointed the acting president of the University of Saskatchewan there, deputed to deal with the administrative chaos and confusion going on there as it restructures. He has done both teaching and administrative work at the U of S before this, was Saskatchewan’s Lieutenant Governor, was the Clerk of the Senate in Ottawa, and Clerk of the Saskatchewan legislature. Most impressively (to me, anyway) is that he published a biography of Saskatchewan’s first premier, Thomas Walter Scott, called Peace, Progress and Prosperity, in 2001. I’ll bet that book is one of the achievements he’s most proud of.
The fellow student whose dedication and focus I remember most clearly and that I was most intimidated by was Merle Massie. She came from a farming town north of Prince Albert and was determined to do historical research on the hybrid farming-forest communities that existed along the edge of the great boreal forest of Western Canada. And she didn’t want to do vague, general research on a vast region, but zero-in on the relatively tiny area around her home town of Paddockwood. (I recall thinking she was saying something like “Padaquat” when she spoke about it. I had never heard of the place.) It seemed an odd thing to focus on, and some of her academic advisors told her so. But she never gave up on her interest or belief that a locally-focused history could be a legitimate form of academic research. She got her MA, went away to Calgary for a few years, then returned to Saskatchewan to live in Biggar, where her husband farms. She went back to the U of S in 2006, got her Ph.D. in 2011 studying exactly what she’d always wanted to, and has just had her book based on this published.
It’s called Forest Prairie Edge, and it’s a multi-decade examination of the forest fringe area north of Prince Albert, where the local people have homesteaded, logged, farmed, done any of the many things that happen in transitional areas between two ecosystems. It’s a fascinating look at a form of farm life that has often been neglected or almost sneered-at by flatland farmers and regular academics, who consider it to be just the part of the Prairies where farming runs out of soil. Massie shows that it’s a dynamic, unique economic situation that’s no less legitimate than other farming areas, and sometimes more economically resilient because of its mixed base. I wrote a story about it in this week’s paper if you want more details on what she wrote. (It’s on page 64 of the May 29 edition. You can also see the main article here). If you’re interested in Prairie farming history, this is a must-read. Ditto if you like Saskatchewan history. Merle writes with a lyrical flair that makes this epic work of historical research readable and often poetic. So go buy the book and support the work of historians who work away for years and years to bring forgotten and neglected stories to life.
For me, seeing the book has been a revelation. It allows me to realize I was right about people like Merle being naturals for this kind of work. And allows me to realize I really was right 20 years ago that I wasn’t cut out to do that kind of work. What she’s produced here goes far beyond anything I could have done, so I’m glad she stuck with it and glad I got out.