Envirotech: At the Intersection of Technology and Nature in Canadian History

On Friday, July 17, 2020, at 11am (Eastern), Network in Canadian History & Environment (NiCHE) will be broadcasting a live stream video session called “Envirotech: At the Intersection of Technology and Nature in Canadian History.” This session was originally scheduled to take place at the 2020 annual meeting of the Canadian Historical Association. It will consist of three presentations on the history of technologies and environments in Canadian history, followed by a question-and-answer period and will feature the following participants and presentations:

  • M. Blake Butler, University of Western Ontario: “‘Go… consult the snow-making machines:’ Winter and Snow-making at Whistler-Blackcomb”
  • Kenneth Reilly, University of Western Ontario: “Disability, Technology, and ‘Seeing’ the Braille Trail”
  • Blair Stein, Clarkson University: “An Envirotechnical History of Canada’s First Flight”


Envirotech, as a branch of the history of technology and environmental history, focuses on the intersections between technologies and environments in a way that goes beyond the binary. Technologies, envirotechnical scholars argue, are not just tools that humans use to bend their surroundings to their will. They are also lenses through which we make sense of the environments around us and place them inside our culture, politics, and understandings of place and space. Just as environments shape the form and function of the technologies used to access and mediate them, so too do technologies change what we make of the environments around us, both literally and figuratively.

In particular, the three papers in this session all suggest in one way or another that perceptions of environments change when mediated by certain technologies. Blair Stein will explore the ways that early aviation in Canada was deliberately constructed as a wintertime event. Flight in the early 20th century appeared to many to bend the laws of nature, and making airplanes seem as Canadian as ice hockey helped Canadians get comfortable with flight while at the same time making airplanes appear to be a “natural” fit for Canadian environments. M. Blake Butler will also engage with winter discourse, examining how snow-making technology at the Whistler-Blackcomb resort in British Columbia divorced ski conditions from “natural” processes. Artificial snow-making allowed resort operators to create uniform conditions across elevations, encouraging new perceptions of winter environments in the process. Kenneth Reilly will address a different sort of environment and a different sort of technological intervention: accessibility infrastructure in parks. “Braille trails,” or nature walks designed for the blind, emphasized senses besides sight, and Reilly will explore their effectiveness in creating “natural” outdoor experiences for disabled visitors. All of these presentations explore the boundaries between “natural” and technological environmental experiences, and ask: how have technological interventions changed the way Canadians have made sense of the world around them?

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