Note from Andrea: Today we have a very special guest post from Laura Larsen on the adventure that is oral history! As a fellow oral historian, this is right up my alley. Enjoy!
Laura Larsen is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at the University of Saskatchewan. Her dissertation explores rail rationalization and agricultural policy under the Pierre Trudeau government. It focuses on the tensions between government, farmers, grain companies, and railways created by attempts to modernize the grain handling and transportation system as well as the substantial changes to the underlying structure of prairie agriculture caused by these changes.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that oral history changed my life. If I had not conducted oral histories I probably would be doing a different dissertation project than I am.
On paper, doing oral history sounds relatively straight forward. Do some background research. Come up with a list of questions. Find a person. Ask them your questions. However, in reality, oral history is a messy and complicated process that, while at times extraordinarily difficult, is immensely rewarding on both a professional and personal level. In this blog post, I’m going to talk about my personal experiences doing oral history, how the interviews I conducted for my master’s thesis shaped my doctoral dissertation, and, hopefully, convince you to integrate some into your future research.
A Little Bit of Background
My research examines how and why the federal government ultimately removed the Crowsnest Pass Freight Rate in the early 1980s. The Crow Rate, as it was popularly known, dated back to 1897 when the dominion government signed an agreement with the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). In brief, the agreement was that the government provided funding for the construction of the CPR’s rail line over the Crowsnest Pass into the mineral-rich Kootenay region of southern British Columbia, and in return the CPR agreed to lower freight rates on goods shipped into the prairies from central Canada as well as on grain shipped out. The statutory grain rates were not the most important part of the agreement but by 1983, when farmers protested in Regina carrying signs reading “Death of the Crow means Death for the West,” it was the only part that most people remembered. Doing oral history for my master’s thesis ultimately led me to studying the end of the Crow Rate.
The Best Laid Plans
The aim of my master’s thesis was to examine the perpetuation of the idea of a Canadian “great grain robbery ” (where the Soviet Union purchased under-priced grain from the US – “beating the capitalists” – but the Canadians had the insight to hold their 1972 sales until prices rose) during the 1980s and 1990s. Given that this history was one which was still relatively recent, incorporating oral history was important to me as a way to access memories of these events beyond the standard archival sources. I was fortunate to have a supervisor who was supportive of my idea and was willing to guide me through it. You cannot, however, always exactly foresee the challenges that will come up, and my experience with oral history research really brought this home to me.
Prior to beginning my interviews, I made sure I had a solid background in the subject. My archival research focused on government documents, newspapers and magazines from the time period. They gave me a window into what was considered important or news-worthy at the time and where my own topic fit. I also found all the secondary research I could related to the topic. Not only did doing so make it easier to ask effective questions but it demonstrated to my interview subjects that I was serious and knowledgeable about the context of my topic, which lent me credibility in their eyes. It also gave me time to build my understanding of the wider context of my research which I ultimately needed to write my thesis. However, while my supervisor had done his best to help me prepare for taking my research into the field I found there was still a difference between knowing that something might happen and actually experiencing it.
I quickly realized that no matter how well you plan, the art of the interview is something of a trial by fire. I think the art of interviewing can, to an extent, be taught, but a lot of it has to be learned through experience. My first interview was not as good as my last, but my last is by no means perfect either. Human beings do not follow a script, and, when interviewing a person, it is much harder to move neatly between prepared question 1 and prepared question 2 than it is to write a list of questions.
One part of my interviewing experience that still stands out to me is the way that my interviewees set tests for me so they could get a feel for who I was. People do not just open up because you want them to – trust is something that you have to earn. These tests were an important way in which my interviewees could get an impression of me. While this was something that I expected, the form of the tests, however, was not always what I anticipated. One interviewee asked me to drive their work truck along steep and muddy trails in the Rocky Mountain foothills to help them check their cattle while another gave me a meal that included, what I found out later, was a family favourite dish of beet greens that their grandchildren disliked. Far more common than physical tests, however, were the questions to see how familiar I was with the broader history I saw as surrounding my particular area of interest. Those questions convinced me that oral history cannot be the first part of a research project but instead works better after a significant amount of archival research.
Based on my own experiences and talking with other oral historians, I think it is a good practice to try to make a connection with a community before starting an oral history project. For my first interview, I was very lucky to have met a person, prior to starting my project, whose background made them a potential interview subject. When they agreed to an interview it made my first interview a little more relaxed since I was not talking to complete a stranger. The pre-existing relationship was also a benefit as they were willing to trust me with more candid statements, although sometimes that candidness came with an off-the-record requirement which it is always critical to respect. That said, in retrospect, interviewing people whom you have met before in another context brings a different sort of difficulty with it as they tend to make assumptions about what you want to hear, so always use caution.
Going Off Track
One of the main benefits to doing oral history is that interviews can often reshape or reframe the nature of your research. That’s because people don’t necessarily talk about what you want, but what they think is important. Moreover, in order to be successful, interviewers always need to let themselves be led by the interviewees. When an interviewee agrees to sit down with a scholar, they may have different priorities. Regardless of what you feel, interviewees are going to tell their stories. While at times this can be frustrating, it is also important. That’s because no matter how well you prepare, you do not necessarily have the same insights as your interviewees. Paying close attention to their stories can open up new research questions and pathways that will ultimately enhance your project.
During my first interview, as I was sitting in my interviewee’s living room, my interviewee leaned forward and asked, with the air of somebody who already knew the answer, if I was going to write about the “more important part of the story.” Given this was my first interview it was a little unnerving to hear that there was a more important story. The story that my interviewee wanted to discuss was the Crow Rate. At the time I explained that a master’s thesis was relatively short and I could not expand to something that sounded like it would be a very big topic to do properly. Nevertheless, that did not deter my source from explaining their concerns about the history of the Crow to me and exactly why I should be writing about it too.
As I moved forward with my interviews, the question from my first interview stayed with me: What about the Crow? In part it stayed with me because almost inevitably when I asked a person if they would be willing to participate in my project they would ask “what about ___?” as they wanted to know if I was also going to be writing about subjects which they saw as related; much like my first interviewee had viewed the Crow as being related to my project. I found that many people I contacted were initially hesitant or even puzzled by my request to interview them, so I had to do my best to explain why I valued their experiential knowledge and was asking for both their knowledge and their time. Those who did agree tended to use their interview not just to answer my questions but also to make a point, during the recording, to highlight pieces of related history that they viewed as more important.
I found it interesting to note which topics people connected to my research on the grain robbery. It was not surprising that they connected other agricultural topics, but the scope of these topics did surprise me as they ranged from how organizing community banquets (like those famous Saskatchewan fowl suppers that Albertans call turkey suppers) changed over the decades to the difficulties of preserving wetlands while still being an active farmer. Getting to hear first-hand how people connected pieces of history together was one of the best parts about doing oral histories. I had planned to approach my topic from a macro-level but listening to people who had experienced it first-hand connect it into a wider narrative of prairie-history provided me with suggestions for ways to modify my original approach. Although my research topic remained the same, hearing the ways in which people viewed it did lead me to modify the framing of my paper so that I could reflect the way that my interviews placed my topic within a wider context of prairie agricultural politics.
Understanding how people combined events and issues into their view of prairie agricultural history was something which I could not have accessed in the same way through purely documentary sources. As I continued to do interviews, I found that discussing the Crow was a common theme. For my interviewees, the loss of the Crow Rate was critical to understanding what had changed in prairie agriculture. Some viewed it as a necessary positive change, while others considered it extremely negative; but all the people who talked about the Crow saw it as a milestone event. Doing interviews taught me how important it is to let the interview subject move the conversation in the way that is most natural for them; that is the way they reveal unexpected information. Yet, at the same time, you have to gently guide the interview so it focuses on the topic under discussion. Too much guiding, however, would have led to my interviews being much less vibrant. The balance between too much or too little guiding is hard to achieve. It takes practice and as an interviewer you have to adjust to the individual interviewee.
When I began considering doing a PhD in history I knew that I wanted to research a topic related to the prairies, but once I had narrowed the possibilities making the final decision was difficult. Thinking about how insistent my interviewees had been to place their histories of the Crow Rate into their interview recordings, I wondered if perhaps there was more to that history than I had originally thought. Initial research showed me the issue was politically contentious. I learned there were two Royal Commissions in the 1970s focused on the Crow, another inquiry in the early 1980s, and it was one of the major campaign issues in the 1982 Saskatchewan provincial election won by the Progressive Conservatives under Grant Devine, not to mention the many clippings of angry protests over proposed changes to it including a petition signed on huge white-painted plywood Crows that protesters brought to Ottawa. Thinking about the ways my interviewees had remembered the Crow, I knew that this was a history I wanted to examine further. While there were many factors that ultimately led me to the topic for my dissertation, it was the personal histories of my interviewees that helped to tip the balance of my decision. My first interviewee was pleased when I told them that I was going to examine the Crow Rate for my dissertation. It has been years since that formal interview but every time I see them they ask “have you written the Crow history yet?” Now I can finally say “yes, I’m almost done.”
 Quoted from protest sign in a photo reprinted in Randy Boswell, Province with a Heart: Celebrating 100 Years in Saskatchewan, (Toronto: CanWest Books, 2005), 170.
Special thanks to Laura Larsen for writing this fantastic blog post! I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. If you did, please consider sharing it on the social media platform of your choice! And don’t forget to check back on Sunday for a brand new Canadian history roundup! And next week, I promise we’ll have our regular Best New Articles! See you then!