Rohini Patel is a doctoral candidate at the University of Toronto’s Department of History and is the recipient of the 2020 Joan Mitchell Travel Award. Although Patel won the award in early 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic impacted her travel and access to the Laurier Archives. She completed her research during the summer of 2021.
Studying the history of chemical production in Elmira, Ontario during the mid to late 20th century, Patel identified the Laurier Archives as an important source for archival records as she completes her dissertation: “The Laurier Archives was not optional in my research. It was absolutely necessary because the archives hold some of the most foundational information, especially to the events in the 1960s and after.”
She describes her work as a “multi-scalar analysis of a small place”, specifically investigating how Elmira is connected to major transformations during the 20th century. Her research focuses on Uniroyal (and several other companies in the area), the history of the politics of industrial pollution, and the environmental history of the Grand River region and its surrounding communities.
Patel consulted many fonds and collections to fulfill her research agenda. She utilized the Assuring Protection for Tomorrow’s Environment collection to understand the activities of environmental activists in Elmira. These records gave her detailed information on how different groups of people viewed the environmental concerns unfolding in the area overtime.
She also consulted the Canadian Environmental Law Association fonds (CELA fonds), which proved to be a key resource in her in investigation of pesticides: “I found important information in the CELA fonds. That has excellent information particularly as things relate to the laws around pesticides and chemical pollutants, because there were not any laws for so long in these areas.” While looking through these legal files, she found that some chemicals associated with agricultural pesticides were known as Agent Orange in other contexts: “Pesticides were already widely used in agriculture but part of what I am studying is that one of the big chemicals produced in Elmira was Agent Orange, which was a really notorious and terrible munition used in the Vietnam War.” She is investigating the meaning of separating the different usage of these chemicals.
A serendipitous moment for Patel was working with the archives of individuals referenced in other archives and resources, such as historical newspapers. These included the Marie Sanderson fonds, the Henry Regier fonds, and the John Swaigen fonds. When asked about any surprises she found while researching at the Laurier Archives, Patel said: “I kind of anticipated, but I hoped that I would find a few links to the Six Nations of the Grand River. There was not a lot, but there were some critical pieces of information that has given me leads of where else to look.” She will continue her archival research as more archives open following pandemic-related closures. Subsequently, she will be busy writing her dissertation and sharing her research.
Conducting archival research during the COVID-19 pandemic has been a challenge for many researchers, including Patel. Although there was a delay in travelling to Waterloo, she was able to complete her research with the support of Laurier Archives’ staff: “I want to express my appreciation for how I was taken care of by the Laurier Archives.”
More information about the Joan Mitchell Travel Award is available.