Research Profile: Tina Adcock, History
“People are my jam.” This might not be the answer people expect from a historian who's been asked to explain her abiding interest in Canada’s past. But Tina Adcock, an assistant professor in the Department of History, loves a good story.
“Like most historians,” she says, “I love the thrill of the archival hunt. I uncover more fascinating, forgotten stories in dusty boxes than I could ever possibly publish...I especially love training my analytical lens upon individuals, and exploring the nuance and complexity of historical contingency and agency at a microhistorical scale.” Or, as she puts it, “in other words, people are my jam.”
It seems appropriate, then, that Adcock, who regularly blogs and tweets about issues related to her research on the Canadian North, references an iconic Canadian song, Stan Rogers’ “Northwest Passage” when discussing ideas about adventure, exploration, and national identity. In Rogers’ song, the narrator imagines himself to be following in the footsteps of men like Alexander Mackenzie and David Thompson as he drives west across Canada. As Adcock explains, he “engages imaginatively with the history of exploration as he does so.”
“Earlier in the song,” Adcock points out, “the narrator calls himself ‘the tardiest explorer.’” This is a key phrase for Adcock, who argues that it “reflects many Canadians’ physical and mental interactions with non-urban landscapes in this country...Canadians today often ‘think like explorers,’ especially when they look north. Coming to terms with the fact that we do so is a necessary prelude to decolonization in this country.”
It is within this context, the reimagining of narratives of Canada’s past through contemporary approaches to studying history, that Adcock pursues her research on the modern North, particularly the period after the First World War. "[N]early all the most vibrant historical research on the North today deals with the twentieth century," she notes, "and it often studies the social, political, and environmental effects of colonialism upon the residents of that region.”
Adcock’s open-access article “The Maximum of Mishap: Adventurous Tourists and the State in the Northwest Territories, 1926-1948” was recently published in the peer-reviewed journal Histoire sociale/Social History. In this piece, Adcock details the history of tourism in the Northwest Territories during this era, with a particular focus on how northern administrators responded to an influx of ill-equipped and seemingly ill-informed “adventurous tourists” whose presence taxed government resources (as in search-and-rescue efforts and monitoring for poaching).
Recent events such as the decrease in levels of sea ice and the tour of the luxury cruise ship Crystal Serenity through the Northwest Passage have raised similar concerns regarding resources and the potential for tourists to have negative impacts on northern communities. According to Adcock, “tourists were difficult for northern communities and governments to manage 80 years ago, and that basic fact hasn’t changed, although the details have.”
“One difference between then and now," she continues, "is in the scale of potentially problematic tourism. In the 1920s and 1930s, it was often the lone adventurous tourist who wanted to venture off the beaten track, but was ill-equipped to do so, that caused problems for Mounties and civil servants. Those concerns still exist with respect to adventurers in the Arctic today. But the greater fear is that a cruise ship with hundreds of people aboard might hit a rock while traversing the Northwest Passage and tear a hole in its hull, and that search-and-rescue forces deployed from southern Canada might not reach the ship before it capsizes and sinks. There could be a catastrophic loss of life in such an instance. That’s why, in part, the Crystal Serenity’s voyage through the Passage last summer had Arctic residents and watchers a bit antsy.”
Another detail that’s changed is the way southern Canadians, or “qallunaat (non-Inuit or white people),” conceive of their relationship to the North in terms of environmental impact. As Adcock has tweeted, “To traditional southern understandings of the Arctic as ‘threatening,’ we’ve added in the last 50 years the notion of Arctic as ‘threatened’.”
Indeed, some researchers credit climate change and the hurry to see the North before it's "gone" with driving present-day interest in the region. And whether these "tardiest explorers" arrive in the comfort of a cruise ship or via an armchair and Google, their impact is felt nonetheless.
“With respect to the environment,” Adcock says, “the concerns about tourism’s potential impacts have changed over time. In the interwar era, administrators were most worried about conserving game populations. Big-game hunters sometimes masqueraded as explorers so that they could bag some trophies. The government, however, wanted to protect herds of caribou and muskox for the use of Indigenous peoples and for posterity. Today, there are different environmental concerns associated with cruise ships in the Northwest Passage: the possibility of oil or toxic chemicals leaking into Arctic waters, the illicit dumping of wastewater from cruise ships, and the potential for southern ships to bring exotic microbes, fungi, and flora north and discharge them through the release of ballast water, an act that would have uncertain effects upon northern ecosystems.”
Adcock says that while her article sheds light on related issues of colonialism, sovereignty, and the environment in northern travel today, it does so “indirectly ... but the connections are still there if you look for them.” For example, “southerners living in the Arctic still run many of the tourism companies there, as far as I’m aware. Inuit do serve as expert speakers aboard cruise ships, and prepare and host community cultural activities when tourists come ashore. But Arctic tourism is still very much a settler colonial enterprise, at core, although this is beginning to change.”
Finding new ways to tell different stories about the past is an important part of Adcock’s approach to history. As she once blogged regarding Google Street View’s mapping of Iqaluit, “Even as climate change punctuates our entrance into a new century, the language and imagery of past centuries of exploration still shapes southern perceptions of northern environments. Familiar exploratory gestures and desires can reveal both continuities and discontinuities with the past, which historians are well placed to tease out.”
Reflecting on her work, Adcock adds that “one thing I try to communicate through my writing and my teaching is that, contrary to popular belief, Canadian history isn’t boring! It’s endlessly fascinating, if you can only convey stories in ways that set students’ and readers’ imaginations alight. I spend a lot of time choosing good stories and thinking about the best ways to present them…Explorers, like ghosts, pirates, and cowboys, are a topic of perennial fascination for many. The challenge here is to use this pre-existing interest to introduce readers to stories arising from contemporary academic research into exploration, which often interprets cross-cultural encounters and the contributions of Indigenous actors rather differently from older, better-known histories.”