Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail, Writer, Researcher, Historian
Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail is a writer and historian who was raised in Ottawa but is now based out of Edmonton. She is currently writing a history of aviation in Canada's North (forthcoming from Frontenac House, 2013), which led to a three-month stint as writer-in-residence at Berton House in Dawson City, Yukon. She was also the Canadian Aviation Historical Society's first female president. All this involvement in aviation history led to Danielle being named Chatelaine Magazine's Maverick of the Year in 2011.
MAB: You're very passionate about Canadian history and aviation. Can you share with us how you started your journey wanting to learn about Canadian history and aviation?
Danielle: I've always loved great stories – both real and made up -- and so a passion for history evolved through high school and then really took off while I was doing my undergraduate degree at McGill University. Canadian stories attracted me the most because I wanted to understand the country I lived in, in all its complexities. I remember being transfixed by the media coverage of the Oka Crisis, the referendum over Quebec separation and other news stories from the early 1990s that had deep roots in Canada's past. Those made a big impression on me.
I mostly studied contact relations between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples, immigration and women during my history degrees (I also did an M.A. at the University of British Columbia), so it was a bit of a shock to family and friends when I started writing about aviation. But in some ways it was inevitable: my grandfather, father, father-in-law and many of the other people in my life are airplane nuts!
MAB: As a historian what do you think Canadian women have to offer to other women that is unique culturally?
Danielle: If there's anything I've learned studying the histories of Canadian women, it's that we are, and always have been, a tremendously varied lot. There's no generalizing the experiences of a Haida woman, a Ukrainian immigrant on the prairies, a refugee from a war-torn nation or a Québécoise. I'd like to think we could act as a model for living with diversity and working toward a constructive resolution to the legacies of colonialism, cultural conflict, etc. Sometimes I think we do this very well, but there is still a lot of work to be done.
MAB: Can you share what your books are about.
Danielle: For the Love of Flying, my first book, tells the story of Laurentian Air Services, a pioneering bush flying company that was based out of Ottawa and Schefferville, Quebec. I did a lot of interviews with everyone from past presidents to pilots to ground crew, so it really looks at the people side of this kind of business. But I also got to learn a lot about the Second World War, air tourism and flying in the sub-arctic. Now I'm working on two other books. The first is a history of aviation in Canada's North that goes from the first hot air balloon in Dawson City, Yukon in 1899 to airlines like First Air of the 1990s. I've gotten to travel around the Yukon and Northwest Territories quite a bit doing research and interviews, which has been amazing, and you can see why aviation is still so vital to these far-flung communities. This book will be published by Frontenac House in 2013. The other book -- a historical novel – is tentatively titled Chasing Skies. It's about a Canadian female bush pilot who goes to the UK to ferry airplanes during the Second World War. The research has been fascinating and the main character's journey is based on the stories of the handful of Canadian women who went overseas to fly for the Air Transport Auxiliary.
MAB: What inspires you?
Danielle: Seeing people pursue their dreams while still making valuable contributions to society as a whole. I'm always inspired by people who can balance self-fulfillment (what Oprah might call 'living your authentic life') with improving community life, addressing social justice issues and generally living a life of compassion.
MAB: What would you like to share with women today?
The importance of their stories! So often history has overlooked women, except for the select few who entered the formerly 'male' realms of politics, military conquest and so on. Luckily since the 1960s and 1970s, women's studies courses and classes in gender history have begun to reflect the experiences of half the country's population. Every woman I have ever met has wonderful and useful stories that can help us understand our past and present better. So please keep your (or your relatives') stacks of letters, diaries, recipes, quilts and so on as important parts of the historical record, or donate them to the various libraries and archives around the country who can store and protect them.