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HISTORY

What the Gateway commission could learn from an oil sands pioneer Add to ...

I spent a morning this week reading about the Northern Gateway pipeline, which, if it is approved by the National Energy Board, will carry oil-sands bitumen from Alberta to Kitimat on the coast of British Columbia and thence via supertanker to the ever-open crankcase of China.

Afterward, I stopped by the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto, as I do from time to time, though I admit a rare-book library may seem like an old-fashioned place to hang out, obsessed as the world is these days with technology and response rates and “going forward,” as managers like to say.

The funny thing was this: When I told Anne Dondertman, the acting director of the Fisher library, that I had been reading about the new proposed pipeline, she immediately started talking about a set of maps that were made 130 years ago by Joseph Burr Tyrrell, a Canadian geologist/paleontologist/explorer/

historian/apple farmer/mining executive who was one of the first scientists to describe what we now call the Alberta tar sands.

“They're very evocative things,” Ms. Dondertman said. “They're not really what you'd think of as maps.”

Tyrrell was the first to survey the territory north of the 60th parallel that stretches from Hudson Bay to what is now Fort McMurray, Alta. Because no maps existed, he often had to consult the local Dene and Inuit he met as to where he was, and how he could get to where he was supposed to be.

“They just sort of drew these maps together on pieces of brown paper,” said Ms. Dondertman, a tall woman with white hair. “And I've always wondered, how did they make them? How did they find the scale, and get it down on paper?”

Later, she took me down into the bowels of the library where, in addition to the building's 700,000 volumes, there is two miles of “stuff” (Ms. Dondertman's word) that is yet to be catalogued. There – amid such treasures as an entire wall of Alice in Wonderland editions and the world's most thorough collection of Canadian beer labels and stacks of Victorian mass-market yellowbacks, a complete run of Canadian Grocer magazine (1889 to date) and a clay cuneiform bill of sale from 1789 BC (the oldest artifact in the Fisher collection: “I like it because it's the same shape as a BlackBerry,” the director said) – she opened a wide metal drawer and pulled out Tyrrell's map.

Right away, I could see it showed what kind of a country we once were, back when we were still modest enough to assume there was always more than one answer to a question.

‘The whole country was a vast solitude'

Joseph Tyrrell had a lot in common with the three-person commission that will spend the next two years listening to testimony for and against the Gateway pipeline. (Hearings began this week in Kitamaat Village, where most of the submissions were from local residents.)

Tyrrell was keen to open Canada up to development, and keen to know how that would affect local people's lives. But he was aware that every patch of territory served an array of interests.

Born in 1858 in what were then the wilds of Weston on the northwest edge of Toronto, Tyrrell was an amateur botanist who studied Latin at university and intended to become a lawyer, as his father wished. But a bout of tuberculosis forced Tyrrell's doctors to recommend an outdoor life, whereupon his father's friendship with John A. Macdonald landed the lad a job as a third-class clerk with the Geological Survey of Canada. Salary: $500 a year.

He started as a pace surveyor, counting off distances step by step across vast swatches of terrain: the Crowsnest, Kicking Horse, Bow, and North and South Kootenay passes were all surveyed by Tyrrell. Along the route, he made big mining finds: coal in Fernie, B.C.; more coal and the remains of what came to be known as the Albertosaurus at Drumheller in Alberta (the nearby Royal Tyrrell Museum is named for him); phosphates and other minerals in Saskatchewan; and gypsum, limestone and amber in Manitoba.

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