1999 Winner - Dr. Alexander T. Davidson
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