Monthly Archives: December 2013

Outside the Box: Crossing Disciplines and Borders in the Study of Northern Environments

by Isabel Lemus-Lauzon (Laval University, Quebec City)

Where does the North begin? Does history solely concern human history? Who is indigenous? These are just a few of the questions and thoughts that came up at the Northern Nations Northern Natures workshop held in Stockholm November 9-11th.

With my natural science background, I was out of my comfort zone at times during the workshop, learning about border poetics, boxes as transformative objects and bottled icebergs. But isn’t that after all the best place to be? As unsettling at it can get, isn’t this discomfort necessary in order to gain perspective, to trigger new thoughts, to start thinking outside the (muskox) box and cross the borders of our own discipline?

Throughout my doctoral research, I have often found myself outside of my comfort zone. My research looks at the interactions between Inuit and their forested environment in Nunatsiavut (northern Labrador). Through the lens of historical ecology, I attempted  to  obtain  and  work  with  diverse methodologies and sets of data [1] in order to  link  forest  ecology  to  historical  patterns  of  forest  use  and  current  Inuit ecological  knowledge. Interdisciplinary research approaches are challenging as they require a great amount of work and time to become familiar with diverse disciplines, their theories, specific languages and methodologies. It is easy to make mistakes when employing the diversity of methodological approaches required to explore topics from working with environmental proxies to Inuit ontologies. Also, there is a danger of remaining too superficial in the analysis, or worse, denaturing different types of knowledge to fit them in a research paradigm. However, the demanding (and sometimes frustrating) interdisciplinary research framework offers great opportunities in the study of landscapes, as they are products and archives of both environmental conditions and human activities.

Through my research and travels, I have started to understand that similar landscapes and environments can be lived and interpreted in diverse ways by different peoples. Forested landscapes, which I examine in my doctoral research, invoke very different feelings and ideas for Inuit than for southern Canadians (and more southerly indigenous peoples). If many southerners consider the forest as a place of relaxation, healing and leisure, Inuit have a much more ambivalent relation with forested landscapes. Trees, although considered as useful resources, make transport difficult, block the horizon and landmarks and hide potentially dangerous creatures (see Kaplan 2012). In my presentation, I discussed how Labrador Inuit adapted to this “southern” [2] landscape by integrating forest resources into their land use, which in turn had considerable impacts on the local forest stands.

Snowmobile hauling wood to camp, 1924-1937, Labrador. Photographer: Donald Baxter Macmillan. Photo reproduced with the permission of Peary-Macmillan Arctic Museum (Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine, USA).

Snowmobile hauling wood to camp, 1924-1937, Labrador. Photographer: Donald Baxter Macmillan. Photo reproduced with the permission of Peary-Macmillan Arctic Museum (Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine, USA).

Cold and snow, prominent features of northern landscapes, are also perceived and lived very differently in different places. In Nain, the northernmost community of Nunatsiavut, the first snowfall is a blessing. For Nainimiut (residents of Nain), the whirring of a snowmobile engine is the sweet sound of freedom. Then, in March-April, people cross their fingers and hope for the snow and ice to stay as long as possible: “Hope the weather stays cold!” is among the things you can hear at the co-op, while shopping for tea, canned milk and other goodies to take along on a trip to the cabin. I grew up in Montreal, a relatively northern city with a cold winter climate and good amount of snow and I swear I have never heard such statement there. The first snowfall brings sighs rather than joy, as it announces never-ending traffic jams, dangerously icy spiral staircases and more importantly, the end of the terrace season. Except for kids, of course, who see in the white powder a myriad of opportunities.

This brings me back to the question where does the North begin? This recurrent question, brought up during the workshop by historical geographer Graeme Wynn, had me thinking for a while. Is it a matter of latitude, weather, climate? Is it more related to adaptations, narratives, identities? Can the degree of “nordicity” be calculated by polar values (valeurs polaires) as argued by geographer Louis-Edmond Hamelin, who coined the term nordicité? [3]

I was reflecting on those thoughts while in Stockholm, trying to perceive differences and similarities between the ways residents of a large Scandinavian city embraced their northern identity, in comparison to those of a large Canadian city. I was impressed and touched by the beauty of tea lights in the streets that are said to be associated to the tradition of All Hallow’s Eve and persisted through time. I liked to think that this was some kind of northern adaptation, to enliven the 3pm darkness on one side, but maybe also to celebrate the arrival of winter, season during which “nordicity” culminates.

Man lighting tea lights, “bringing light to darkness”, downtown Stockholm. Photo credits: Jonathan Luedee.

Man lighting tea lights, “bringing light to darkness”, downtown Stockholm. Photo credits: Jonathan Luedee.

I don’t know if the question “where does the North begin” can or should be answered. Maybe the North is just not something that can be put into a box. But, as Tina Loo pointed out, perhaps we could reflect further on northern environments not as distant, foreign and harsh places, but more as our homelands. Looking at how we, northern peoples, have shaped, interacted with and adapted to our landscapes, how we connect and relate to our own nordicité, could provide interesting avenues for transnational and interdisciplinary studies of northern environments.

The Northern Nations, Northern Natures workshop certainly allowed good exchanges of perspectives across borders and disciplines. I want to sincerely thank Tina Adcock and Peder Roberts for organising it and NiCHE for their support. I returned to Québec City with new questions and ideas in mind, along with major jetlag and a persistent mental soundtrack of ABBA greatest hits.


Hamelin, L.-H. (1975). Nordicité canadienne. Vol. 55. LaSalle, Québec: Hurtubise HMH, 1980.

Kaplan, S. (2012).  Labrador  Inuit  Ingenuity  and  Resourcefulness:  Adapting  to  a  Complex Environmental,  Social  and  Spiritual  Environment,  in  David  Natcher,  Lawrence Felt and Andrea Procter (eds), Settlement, subsistence and change among the Labrador Inuit, Winnipeg, University of Manitoba Press: 15-42.


[1] I don’t consider Inuit knowledge as  “data.”

[2] Labrador Inuit are amongst the few Inuit groups living south of the tree line.

[3] Hamelin perhaps thought words would help to define and relate to our nordicité, as he also invented 600 neologisms to describe northern environments in other words than those of the South.

This post was originally published on The Otter/La Loutre.

Northern Media Environments

by Rafico Ruiz (McGill University, Montreal)

Just a few weeks ago, an outstanding group of graduate students as well as junior and senior scholars from across Scandinavia, Russia, the United States and Canada convened to think through questions of Arctic concern at the “Northern Nations, Northern Natures” workshop, hosted by the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, and sponsored in part by the Network in Canadian History & Environment. The participants were brought together by Tina Adcock (University of Maine) and Peder Roberts (KTH Royal Institute of Technology) to collectively devise new historiographical boundaries that could work through expansive and emergent strategies to foster transnational and comparative approaches to Arctic environments.

Over two and a half days of intense and enlightening discussion, which ranged across the possible post-disciplinary turn in northern studies to reconceptualizations of indigeneity in a modernizing and urbanizing Greenland to the new valences of an increasingly manufactured technical, social, and economic “nordicity,” the multiple dimensions and implications of the formation of a collaborative northern environmental history began to emerge.

From my own perspective, as a sixth year PhD candidate in Communication Studies and the History & Theory of Architecture at McGill University working across northern environmental and historical registers, it was a welcome glimpse into a truly open field of inquiry that could let the important questions at hand take precedence over the policing of disciplinary boundaries.

At the workshop I examined the relationship between media historical and theoretical scholarship and environmental history. This examination, of course, partly relies on the consensus that we can essentialize such diverse forms of inquiry for the purposes of comparison and mutual engagement. When two disciplines “meet,” are brought together to address un- or under-acknowledged issues in one or the other, the question that is often raised is that of “why?” What can media studies contribute to and learn from environmental history, and vice versa? It is these sorts of questions that allow interdisciplinary scholarship to emerge. Both fields, a term I prefer to “disciplines,” are relatively young in the academic landscape, having taken institutional shape in the 1960s and 70s, and both within broader and more established disciplinary fields. Yet, arguably, they share many commonalities: expanded understandings of agency that don’t necessarily privilege human actors; taking “ecologies” as both modes of analysis and subjects of study; a gradual acknowledgment of the importance of “relations” over “objects”; and, finally, though there is plenty more common ground, the study of interactions between human made technical systems and their broad environmental (political, cultural, and economic) contexts of reception and production.

St. Anthony, Newfoundland, November, 2011, Source: Photograph by R. Ruiz.

St. Anthony, Newfoundland, November, 2011, Source: Photograph by R. Ruiz.

The short paper I delivered touched on a recent project of mine that seeks to gain a more precise understanding of the history of the encounter between icebergs and human actors in the geographical region known as “Iceberg Alley”—an area that extends from the glaciers of the western coast of Greenland to Baffin Island and south past the Grand Banks of Newfoundland—from roughly the middle of the nineteenth century to today. The project will raise questions related to the changing human and natural ecologies of climate change, the evolution of so-called “ice technologies” and their links to communication technologies such as radar, and the future characterizations and challenges of Arctic and Subarctic mobility in North Atlantic waters. My goal is to critically examine the manner in which icebergs have been a central node in an historical assemblage of knowledge, science, technology, ecology, economy, and culture.

The project continues an approach that I developed in my dissertation in order to examine the history behind a Subarctic industry that is taking shape in the town of St. Anthony on the Great Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland. Today, St. Anthony stands as a monument to what could be thought of as a processual materialism. The town lies at one of the northernmost dead ends of a very long road that runs the length of Newfoundland. Located on the island’s eastern coast, beyond the turnoff for the St. Barbe to Blanc Sablon ferry, it has a deep harbour with a long relationship to the Atlantic at its mouth. It has a fifty thousand square foot cold storage facility, factory-freezer trawlers that sit at its edge, and an impressive communications antenna atop the rise that marks its North Atlantic entrance. It has a shrimp processing facility, jointly owned with Clearwater Seafoods, that processes roughly five and a half million pounds of cold-water shrimp per year. It has a tourist trade built up around the Grenfell Interpretation Centre and the whales, icebergs and majestic scenery that are a short boat ride away. It has the Charles S. Curtis Memorial Hospital, an institution that serves the Northern Peninsula and southern Labrador for a range of specialized medical services. It has the Viking Mall, St. Anthony Elementary School, Harriot Curtis Collegiate, and the soon to be completed Polar Centre, with hockey arena, conference centre and indoor walking track. It has roads, street lamps, a traffic light, a basic sewer system. Within the province’s history of “remote” outport communities, St. Anthony would seem to have it all. Yet, what it lacks is an open-ended and secure sense of a future. As with many industries in the province, St. Anthony’s future is seasonal. A looming threat is the onset of a prolonged economic “winter.”

Harbour sign, St. Anthony, Newfoundland, November, 2011, Source: Photograph by R. Ruiz.

Harbour sign, St. Anthony, Newfoundland, November, 2011, Source: Photograph by R. Ruiz.

At present, there are two iceberg bottling companies that harvest icebergs off the coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador for sale in the premium water market. GLACE, based in Saint-Hubert, Quebec, and Berg, based in Mount-Pearl, Newfoundland. Up until January of 2012, there were three bottling companies in the province. In that month, Canada Ice Enterprises, also known as 80 Degrees North Iceberg Water, based in St. Anthony, declared bankruptcy. Canada Ice Enterprises operated from 2005 to 2012 and was a major distributor of iceberg water across Canada’s Atlantic provinces. All three companies share many commonalities: they vaunt the scientifically tested purity of the water, emphasize its rarity, and this largely through the dangerous labour involved in harvesting, also referred to as “wrangling,” the icebergs, and write a creation myth of sorts for the origins of a water that can be traced to an age before the dawn of impure human time.

This phenomenon presents a few questions for consideration. These revolve around the ownership of circulating natural resources, the commodification of a product that is a tangential result of global warming, and the ways in which a staple such as water can begin to influence the formation of a changing social infrastructure in a very particular time and space—in this case, St. Anthony, Newfoundland, in the year 2013. The legacy of the political economist and communication theorist Harold Innis has shown how worthwhile it is to think at length on what can constitute an unconventional medium, especially in increasingly and supposedly “marginal” rural settings that support larger systems of economic power, resource exploitation and monopolies of centralized information. Icebergs, as experiments in form, tourist commodities, circulating natural resources, and the harbingers of a potential local economic sustainability, are precisely a contemporary instance of a “new media.” They constitute a contested relational object as they are at once a process that draws attention to the temporal, spatial and relational mediations that the fight over natural resources can reveal. Taken in a broader lens, icebergs are also, and perhaps also more profitably, tourist commodities, objects to be tracked and avoided through government sponsored agencies, and threats to offshore oil and gas installations, as well as the international shipping industry.

The “Northern Nations, Northern Natures” workshop was an ideal setting within which to collectively think through and question the premise that icebergs can be taken as relational objects of inquiry—open both to media theorists and environmental historians. “It is worth considering how our stories might be different if human beings appeared not as the motor of history,” as Linda Nash writes, “but as partners in a conversation with a larger world, both animate and inanimate, about the possibilities of existence.” [1] The workshop helped me arrive at two assertions. Firstly, that icebergs are both natural resources and communicative media that are constituted through contested processes of both material and immaterial meaning-making throughout the ways in which they are extracted, transported, transformed, circulated, and communicated in various localizable sites of resource engagement. Secondly, that northern media environments can allow us to rethink what techniques, technologies and natural phenomena constitute “media of communication” and for whom they matter in the pursuit of more equitable relationships of information exchange, commercial trade, and transportation and communications infrastructures. As the workshop’s transnational, post-disciplinary framework made clear, emergent Arctic environmental histories need both new agencies and new media through which to be told and questioned.

[1] Linda Nash, “The Agency of Nature or the Nature of Agency?” in Environmental History, vol. 10, No. 1 (January 2005): 69.

This post was originally published on The Otter/La Loutre.