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magazine / ja06

July/August 2006 issue

History sleuth

Serge Courville likens much of his academic work to solving a puzzle. The professor emeritus of geography at Université Laval spent years charting the development of the 19th-century rural landscape in his native Quebec to understand how its society evolved. He mapped census divisions and subdivisions, retracing the boundaries of seigneuries, parishes and municipalities. In the end, his sleuthing shook up long-held assumptions about historical rural Quebec.

For instance, Courville’s findings suggest that it was not an isolated, non-entrepreneurial backwater. Historians had long attributed an "agricultural crisis" in the St. Lawrence Lowland in the early 1800s — a decline in wheat production and exports — to outdated farming practices. By mapping reams of data, Courville discovered that farmers in Lower Canada (now Quebec) diversified their crops and began supplying local markets because towns and rural industries were rapidly growing and because the farmers could no longer compete with cheaper wheat in Upper Canada. Far from facing a crisis, farmers were adapting to socio-economic changes also affecting North America and Europe.

Through such meticulous empirical research and sharp analysis, Courville has made his mark as one of Canada’s leading historical geographers. He is being honoured with the 2006 Massey Medal for outstanding achievement in Canadian geography. Established by Governor General Vincent Massey in 1959, the award is administered by The Royal Canadian Geographical Society.

During his 22 years at Laval, Courville authored or co-authored some 17 books, including an ambitious comparative study of colonization and immigration in Canada. He also oversaw the publication of several collections, such as the seven-volume Atlas historique du Québec. "A geographer always dreams of producing a map or atlas," says Courville. "It’s a trademark!"

An advocate of hands-on teaching, Courville invited his graduate students to contribute to the historical atlases. He is a "strong pedagogue," says Brian Osborne, professor emeritus of geography at Queen’s University who has known Courville for 30 years. "He’s been a leading figure as a professor, and he produced quite a group of welltrained historical geographers."

Courville is not yet done with the puzzle of changing boundaries. He is currently serving on the Commission de la représentation électorale, which is redrawing the electoral map of Quebec.

— Monique Roy-Sole


Plant trap

Sarah Bogart foresees a day when simply planting cotton grass on contaminated mine sites could replace the messy work of moving masses of soil for remediation.

Bogart, a graduate of Nipissing University in North Bay, Ont., spent last summer investigating how cotton grass, a type of sedge common to wetland areas, traps metals, including nickel, copper and iron in its cells and prevents them from being released into the environment.

"This species will, over time, be able to clean up any site that humans have polluted with metals," says Bogart. "That’s just amazing."

Her research, partly funded by The Royal Canadian Geographical Society, involved collecting plants from a bog near Inco Limited’s former Coniston Smelter in Sudbury. For more than 60 years, ore was piled waist-high in the area and burned over coal and logs in preparation for smelting.

Researchers have previously observed the bioremediation potential of cotton grass, but Bogart’s study concentrated on the plant’s metal-storing cells, called sclereids.

The findings, she says, could eventually be used by gold or nickel mines across Canada and will be especially beneficial in difficult environments such as bogs and permafrost.

Bogart says she has been interested in biology since she was a child growing up in the Northern Ontario town of Coleman. "It would be wise," she says, "to learn how to clean up my backyard."

— Angela Johnston

The book of answers

Crazy About Canada!
Canadian kids are curious about their country, so when Canadian Geographic Online asked what they wondered about most, they replied with a flood of questions. In response, CG and Maple Tree Press have launched a quirky quest for answers with Crazy About Canada!

Cleverly written by Nelson, B.C.-based author Vivien Bowers, the book answers real questions in easily digestible chunks. "Often geography is taught as a list of countries and capital cities," says Bowers.

"When it can be done in a relevant, engaging way, it sticks."

Accompanied by her fictional companion Morton, Bowers’ character sets out to answer questions such as, "Do polar bears freeze?" and "Why are beaver teeth orange?"

Crazy About Canada! marks the start of a series of CG Kids books. The next instalment, due in July, is Small Wonders, about baby animals.

— Melanie Bidiuk

U.K. students see stars

What do Monty Python star Michael Palin and United Kingdom Schools Minister Andrew Adonis have in common? Both worry that geography is losing ground in the classroom. The U.K. faces a predicament much like Canada’s, with dwindling geography enrolment in high schools, where it is an elective subject. But educators and celebrities have teamed up in a £2 million ($4 million) campaign to help schools put the subject back on the map.

The U.K. Department for Education and Skills has worked with the Royal Geographical Society, the British equivalent to The Royal Canadian Geographical Society, to develop an action plan, which includes creating an online bank of teaching materials. "Geography ambassadors" such as Palin, who has produced a series of travel documentaries, will visit schools and shed some insight on the practical uses of geography.

Triple threat

Crazy About Canada!
For the third year in a row, John Yao, 14, of Toronto has won the Great Canadian Geography Challenge. In 2004, he became the Challenge’s youngest winner. This year’s national final, held in May, was the last round for Yao, who will be ineligible for next year’s event.

Jonathan Whyte of Toronto placed second and will join next year’s top two students to compete against teams from about 20 countries at the World Championship in July 2007.


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