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Professor fêted for career exploring Canadian identity

Historical geographer and Professor Emeritus Brian Osborne has spent his life studying “place” and the “layers” of human presence that tell the story of people. He is fascinated by what connects people to the land, particularly at the local level, and he has published extensively on Kingston’s history and explored in depth the question of Canadian national identity.

[Brian Osborne]
Brian Osborne, seen here with former RCGS president Gisèle Jacob after receiving the Camsell Medal for his volunteer work with the organization in 2007, was recently awarded the RCGS’ Massey Medal, which recognizes outstanding career accomplishments in the exploration, development or description of the geography of Canada. (Supplied Photo)

Dr. Osborne recently added a “layer” to his own history with a Massey Medal from the Royal Canadian Geographical Society (RCGS). The award recognizes outstanding career accomplishments in the exploration, development or description of the geography of Canada.

“The society is very much concerned with the question of ‘what is Canada’ and its national identity, and it operates at the cutting edge of my work,” says Dr. Osborne, who was has been a Fellow of the RCGS since 1988 and was vice-president between 1998 and 2004. “I’m really proud to be a member of the Society, and the award of the Massey Medal is quite an honour.”

Dr. Osborne, who grew up in Wales, began teaching at Queen’s in 1967, and has since inspired generations of students in the field of geography. He’s been awarded numerous scholarly and professional honours, including the 2007 RCGS Camsell Medal for volunteer work and Queen Elizabeth II Gold and Diamond Jubilee Medals in 2002 and 2012. He has been very active in provincial and community organizations, serving as president of both the Ontario Historical Society and the Kingston Historical Society. Dr. Osborne has also been a consultant for the National Capital Commission, Heritage Canada, Parks Canada, Canada Post and the National Film Board.

RCGS Awards Committee chair Helen Kerfoot highlighted Dr. Osborne’s scholarship in Aboriginal history, settlement history, cultural landscapes, and the development of a Canadian sense of place. She also noted that the Queen’s professor was involved with the inclusion of Fort Henry and the Martello tower fortifications in Kingston as part of the Rideau Canal’s 2007 designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

Dr. Osborne says the ongoing question of what it means to be Canadian has always captivated him, and he continues to explore the concept of how people identify with where they live at the local and national levels.

“I think of myself as a local scholar, and Kingston’s history has engaged me for some time. I’m currently working on the preface to a commemorative volume on Barriefield – the stories, memories and people and leading figures who have contributed to its becoming a distinctive “place” in history. I like to think of documenting and interpreting its historical geography as layers of the human record on the land. Through those layers run rich vertical themes – generational knowledge, traditions, experiences, storytelling, folklore – all communicated through time into the present. That is how I reconstruct the essence of places. ”