Chris Chang-Yen Phillips reflects on role as Edmonton's historian laureate

Chang-Yen Phillips is wrapping up his two-year term as Edmonton’s fourth historian laureate.

He used podcasting as his medium of choice, and plans to continue after his term ends this month

Chris Chang-Yen Phillips is finishing up his term as historian laureate on March 31. (Finn Phillips/Supplied)

When he first applied to be Edmonton's fourth historian laureate, Chris Chang-Yen Phillips pitched an Edmonton history podcast as his main project.

But between his application and his interview, he found out the Edmonton City as Museum project was creating one of its own.

"I thought, 'Uh oh, pivot, pivot, pivot, what can I do that's new?' " Chang-Yen Phillips told CBC's Radio Active Monday. "I couldn't pitch that and simultaneously say I was doing something novel."

That re-think forced him to be creative with his pitch, which ended up being the podcast series Let's Find Out.

Chang-Yen Phillips, 31, is wrapping up his two-year term as the city's official ambassador on historical matters.

The three previous historians laureate all wrote books or articles for websites during their terms.

Chang-Yen Phillips dabbled in that as well — including contributing a series of stories for CBC's Canada 150 project —  but knew that he wanted to tell stories in a different way.

The premise of his podcast started with a question about Edmonton's history. Edmontonians would submit questions and Chang-Yen Phillips would do his best to find answers.

He ended up producing 20 episodes and a live panel discussion. Subjects ranged from green onion cakes all the way to Alberta's Ku Klux Klan history.

One of Chang-Yen Phillips's favourite episodes was on the history of the Mill Creek Ravine. He lives nearby, which made all the history of the meat-packing plant and shanty towns even more interesting to him.

"I knew that [the ravine] used to have a train running through it, but I didn't realize that it used to be an industrial landscape less than 100 years ago," he said. "It's pretty cool to get to tap into that [history] and share it."

'A Lesson in Protocol'

Chang-Yen Phillips said his work was most rewarding when he heard people use the knowledge shared in the podcast in their personal or work lives.

He remembered talking to a group of archeologists about a Let's Find Out episode called "A Lesson in Protocol," which set out to explore how to ask to share knowledge across cultures, particularly Indigenous culture.

"They listened to it as they were preparing to talk to elders and offer protocol," Chang-Yen Phillips said.

Chris Chang-Yen Phillips (left) with Oumar Salifou, assistant producer of Let's Find Out. (Finn Phillips/Supplied)

When he went to speak with elder Jimmy O'Chiese about traditional medicine in Indigenous culture, he knew he had to provide an offering of tobacco to open the conversation.

But after the two met, they immediately began talking, getting to the question of the episode. Afterward, Chang-Yen Phillips noticed the pack of tobacco he'd purchased sitting beside him.

He was supposed to have offered the tobacco before the conversation, to open up the knowledge sharing.

"Everything just happened so fast," he said. But after O'Chiese explained the correct order in which the tobacco offering is supposed to happen, Chang-Yen Phillips felt a bit more at ease.

"He was very generous and forgiving about that," he said of O'Chiese.

Chang-Yen Phillips debated whether to keep that mix-up in the episode. He opted to leave it in, for listeners to learn about Indigenous knowledge sharing.

Leaving the mistake in the episode resonated with those archaeologists. "To hear that people who actually work in a field that I respect are using the work that we did on the podcast to improve their own work was very gratifying," he said.

"It was really cool to hear the fact that we made a mistake was what made it memorable to them."

Podcast will go on

Chang-Yen Phillips is sad he's finished his term as historian laureate as of March 31. "I wish I could keep doing it," he said.

Chris Chang-Yen Phillips, Edmonton's fourth historian laureate, stands with his predecessor, Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail. (Chris Chang-Yen Phillips/Facebook)

He's also leaving his job as news co-ordinator of CJSR-FM at the end of April.

"Basically, I'm just going off to work on my own stuff for a while," he said.

However, he plans to produce more episodes of Let's Find Out.

"My life is changing a lot over the next two months," he said. "[But the podcast will] be a good way for me to scratch my own creative itches and stay out there in the community and keep learning."