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Massey Medal

2001 Winner - Dr. Lawrence McCann

Dr. Lawrence McCann (Photo: Chris Cheadle)

Suburban Lessons
LARRY MCCANN has a special stop when escorting his University of Victoria students on field trips. At a big wood-frame house in Oak Bay, McCann points out his childhood home.

He is an avuncular teacher with a soft-spoken manner that belies a fierce intellect. He believes in showing and telling. "To teach geography," he says, "you have to make it visual."

So McCann drags his classes to the house his father built.

The students know Oak Bay as an upscale suburb said to exist behind a "Tweed Curtain". But back when McCann’s father, a carpenter, built the family house, Oak Bay was home to proles as well as bourgeois. Today, even a professor’s salary is not enough to buy the house he once lived in. There’s a lesson in that.

How suburbs such as Oak Bay change is a subject that fascinates McCann, who describes himself as an urban historical geographer.

McCann mapped the evolution of Halifax in the Historical Atlas of Canada.
(Map: Historical Atlas of Canada, vol. III, University of Toronto Press, 1990)
He is perhaps best known as the author of the popular textbook Heartland and Hinterland: A Geography of Canada, first published in 1982. It is now in its third edition and has sold a whopping 50,000 copies, making McCann the John Grisham of Canadian geographers.

McCann’s scholarly research into Canadian social landscapes, urban geography and Canadian studies, along with his imaginative approach to teaching, earned him the 2001 Massey Medal for outstanding achievement in the field of Canadian geography. The award, established by Governor General Vincent Massey in 1959, is sponsored by the Massey Foundation and administered by The Royal Canadian Geographical Society.

After a long stint at Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B, McCann returned
to his home university nine years ago. His office on the bucolic campus is a book-lined warren. A century-old atlas of Canada rests atop a filing cabinet. A framed sheet of eight-cent commemorative stamps portraying the intersection of Portage and Main in Winnipeg hangs on a wall. Rows of black binders neatly labelled with the names of cities across Canada and beyond fill two long bookshelves. The binders are packed with McCann’s 20,000 slides.

He has captured images of buildings and landscapes on his travels around the world. When he can, McCann avoids sterile convention hotels in favour of mom-and-pop motels in the burbs — "closer to my material," he says.

These days, he can occasionally be found in a vault at the Oak Bay city hall, searching for archival treasures among forgotten papers. He has been studying the work of land architect John Charles Olmsted, stepson of the designer of Manhattan’s Central Park. The firm run by the younger Olmsted was responsible for planning such Canadian neighbourhoods as Mount Royal in Calgary, British Properties in West Vancouver and tony Uplands in Oak Bay. McCann’s latest project looks at how such private firms have helped shape public policy.

"It’s the best stuff of my career and it lies ahead," he says. "I just have to write it up."

— Tom Hawthorn

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