5 Things I’ve Learned As Edmonton’s Historian Laureate

This week marks one year since Chris Chang-Yen Phillips took over the position of Edmonton’s Historian Laureate. After a busy year of connecting with Edmontonians and the city’s stories, Chris shared some insight into what the gig has taught him at the halfway point.

Edmonton is currently the only city in Canada that appoints a historian laureate, and it’s been an enormous privilege so far to serve as the fourth. The first year of my term has really been dominated by work to start community discussions about our history. The main venue for that has been through my new history podcast, Let’s Find Out.

Here are 5 things I’ve learned in that time:

Many Edmontonians aren’t afraid to acknowledge ugly truths.

In one episode of Let’s Find Out, I helped local history researcher Rebecca Jade find out how it might be possible to get a plaque put up where the Ku Klux Klan used to publish a newspaper called The Liberator. The Liberator’s offices were located on the current site of the World Trade Centre downtown.

She ultimately decided not to pursue her idea, but it attracted a lot of heated debate online. Some people worried it would give the Klan undeserved attention. Many others said it was important to have public acknowledgements of all strands of our city’s history, even the ugly ones. I was impressed by how many Edmontonians engaged in that conversation.

Searching through microfilm is agonizingly slow.

In another episode of Let’s Find Out, I helped Pamela Learmond figure out whether her grandpa really had an entire apartment building picked up and moved down the street. On our research journey, we tried to find a newspaper article about the move in old newspapers at the Alberta Legislature Library. They have decades of old papers captured on microfilm.

I’d looked up articles on little microfiche cards before, but his was my first time whizzing through rolls of microfilm. I have so much respect for everybody who still uses this medium regularly. It is an agonizing, painfully slow way to look up information. Watching the articles swirl by also made me dizzy.

We should give kids more credit.

I guess this is a lesson I re-learned. Why do so many adults think kids don’t care about the past? I served as one of the judges at the Edmonton Regional Heritage Fair last year, and some of the kids there blew me away with the depth and quality of their research into Canada’s history.

Then in November, local author Laurel Deedrick-Mayne invited me to help her guide a creative writing group at Victoria School for the Arts through an exercise writing about war. They plunged head-first into learning about the artifacts and stories at the Loyal Edmonton Regiment Museum, and wrote really moving poetry, short stories, and fictional letters inspired by the visit.

Pubs and research methods are a good mix.

This March, I wanted to take Let’s Find Out into a more social venue, where audience members could ask a live panel of guests about how to do good research. We held it at the Needle Vinyl Tavern, and I wasn’t sure how many people would be up for spending a Saturday afternoon learning about archaeology and newspaper archives. To my delight, we had a great crowd that asked excellent questions about colonialism, oral histories, bias, and cats.

We have an embarrassment of riches in Edmonton, historically speaking.

Part of the reason I took this job was to connect Edmontonians to the resources I knew about in the community – the libraries, archives, and wise neighbours on their street. But I feel like every month I’m blown away learning about a new historical society in Edmonton, or a new collection that the City of Edmonton Archives has. I encourage every Edmontonian to take a wander through their photo archives, or ask for help digging up files about your neighbourhood. You’ll be amazed at how many helpful, knowledgeable people are ready to help you out.

Find out more about Edmonton’s Historian Laureate program here and feel free to get in touch with Chris through the Historian Laureate Facebook page!