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Massey Medal

1999 Winner - Dr. Alexander T. Davidson

Tony Fouhse
Al Davidson awarded the 1999 Massey Medal
AL DAVIDSON IS METHODICAL. Drinking green tea at his kitchen table in Nepean, Ont., the 73-year-old geographer works his way, job by job, down his resumé.

The exercise is like running several trips across Canada, with stops at the sites of many of the most contentious environmental issues the country has faced in the past few decades: development in Banff, low-level þying in Labrador, Great Lakes pollution, water diversion to the United States, northern mineral exploration, migratory bird populations. Davidson helped negotiate the Þrst international Great Lakes agreement; launched the Canada Land Inventory, a rating of land suitability for agriculture, forestry and recreation, and other uses; and helped develop plans for 12 new national parks. "All that took a geographical outlook," he says. "Not to look at them just from a biological, or physical, or chemical, or social point of view, but to bring them all together."

It is for this broad outlook, and for his ability to apply sound geographic principles to an array of Canadian land and water issues that Davidson has earned The Royal Canadian Geographical Society’s 1999 Massey Medal. During his 35-year career, Davidson held such positions as chief of resources for the federal Department of Northern Affairs, and assistant deputy minister in a succession of posts: provincially, of natural resources in Saskatchewan, and federally, of rural development; water; policy, planning and research for Environment Canada; and Parks Canada.

"Al has been a champion," says Fred Roots, a geologist and science adviser emeritus with Environment Canada. "He’s always promoted sensible priorities in terms of geographic studies." Roots says it was due to Davidson’s open mind and persistence that the federal government began studying glaciers in the 1960s — an enormous but previously overlooked part of Canada’s geography. "He’s the one who carried the battle."

Davidson embarked on his career expecting battles. The son of a prospector, he grew up in the wilds of north-western Ontario and developed an intense passion for the bush. In the late 1940s, while earning his B.A. at Queen’s University, he began reading articles that foretold the decline of Canada’s forests due to overlogging. He was troubled. Conservation work was calling. He earned a master’s degree in geography at the University of Toronto, and began his career under looming threats
of disappearing resources and endangered species.

At every turn since then, Davidson has juggled opposing interests: agriculture versus forestry, preservation of parkland versus tourism. He has also served, among other roles, as president of the RCGS and the Canadian Association of Geographers, as well as a member of the Canadian Committee on Ecological Areas and chair of the federal panel on low-level þying in Labrador. Geography, he says, is a tool well-suited to complex situations. "Geographers are not experts in any one thing. It sounds damning, but by their lack of focus, they’re useful." He smiles. There is another way to put it: "Their problem is they’re all over the place."

In Davidson’s case, being "all over the place" has not been a problem at all.

— Anita Lahey

2001 Massey Medal Winner »
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